The High Price of Female Friendship -

The High Price of Female Friendship -

The High Price of Female Friendship -

Posted: 11 Oct 2020 08:30 AM PDT

Even though Debbie Wosskow was an Oxford alumna, she wasn't allowed beyond the front stairs of the Oxford and Cambridge Club, a London club for graduates of both universities, until the late 1990s, when the club went coed. Two decades later, with an OBE and success as a tech entrepreneur under her belt, she decided to start her own answer to the proverbial boys' club: AllBright, which she co-founded with Anna Jones. The pair raised more than $40 million in capital and opened their flagship in London on International Women's Day in 2018. "Women needed a better network. That became the mantra for AllBright," she says.

the allbright west hollywood grand opening party
Debbie Wosskow (L) and Anna Jones attend the AllBright West Hollywood Grand Opening Party on September 25, 2019, in West Hollywood, California.

Tommaso BoddiGetty Images

They weren't alone. Besides AllBright (which now has locations in London and L.A.), myriad splashy women-only clubs have launched over the past five years: the Wing, the Riveter, and Chief, as well as clubs that are coed but founded by women, like the Swell, Ethel's Club, and CORE. Membership came with its share of privileges: CORE has a Manhattan clubhouse decked out with art by Damien Hirst and throws Hamptons parties with performances by the likes of Billy Joel; the Wing offers grain bowls and childcare and pulls in speakers including Reese Witherspoon and Hillary Clinton; Chief puts on salon-style talks and professional support sessions for its members, who must be C-suite executives or rising vice presidents of companies to join. It's not the Junior League.

women's club crest

But then 2020 happened. Since the arrival of the coronavirus pandemic, many of us have circled our social wagons, giving up on in-person social contact in favor of Zoomtinis or long FaceTime conversations with old friends. "Today I talk to my college roommate just as often as any of my friends from adult life," says one New York magazine editor. "We remember stories from our misspent youth and gossip about people from another era—there's a comfort and familiarity to it that I don't get from checking in with cocktail party acquaintances or professional contacts." Meanwhile, clubs have shut their physical locations during the era of social distancing and are swiftly moving programming online. In the case of the Wing, the club laid off much of its staff during lockdown. In June, the club had to very publicly reckon with the way racial bias, white privilege, and class issues were baked into the idea of a staffed women's club, which resulted in CEO and co-founder Audrey Gelman's resignation.

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Hillary Rodham Clinton at the Wing Soho, 2018

Angela PhamBFA

With clubhouses rendered moot, and some level of uncertainty about when members will feel comfortable congregating in them again, founders have had to contend with what they are selling with their exclusive memberships. At CORE, founder Jennie Enterprise interviewed Abigail Disney over Zoom about the potential for transformation during a crisis. Chief's online audience has more than tripled, according to co-founder Carolyn Childers. "In our digital community, members can crowdsource different needs, which, in a time like now, is pretty robust, from PPP loans to 'I need to figure out childcare' to 'Does anybody have a place to get out of the city and go rest for a while.' Our core service is the clubhouse itself, but this has made it clear that our product is the community."

the wing womens co working space
Audrey Gelman, the founder of the Wing, a women-only co-working space and organization, April 9, 2018. in Washington, DC.

The Washington PostGetty Images

The zeal for women's clubs, online or otherwise, is the strongest it has been since their heyday over 100 years ago. They're that ephemeral third space, the place everyone needs: somewhere to go besides home and the office (at least, pre-pandemic), and they combine networking, politics, social capital, and, for some, a serious price tag that can run in the five figures. They provide what Virginia Woolf called for in A Room of One's Own: "urbanity, the geniality, the dignity which are the offspring of luxury and privacy and space." Today it feels somehow necessary for a certain kind of ambitious woman to join a club, to pay $250 a month to be a member of the Wing, for example, not just for access to talks with Tina Brown and a clean place to shower between meetings, but as part of the cost of female friendship.

women's club crest

Not too long ago, a young career woman needed to create her own informal club, through taking friends to drinks, having dinners, building a network in an organic way. It was a more informal arrangement—even becoming a pop culture cliché—on view in everything from Mary McCarthy's The Group (in which the women were tied together by college) through Sex and the City (tied together by friendship) and Big Little Lies (tied together by a killing), and it likely cost as much as the couple hundred dollars a month many of the newer clubs like the Wing and the Riveter command. As a friend notes, "I have my own small group of five women, and we kick ass for each other."

"I have noticed that younger millennials have an obsession with convenience," says Karyn Starr, a fortysomething stylist and member of the Wing, which she uses less for networking opportunities than as an office. "It's a more optimistic and joiner and rule-follower generation. I wonder what the Wing would have been like in Williamsburg in 2003."

"You don't go to the Colony Club to get work done!"

Women's clubs come with their own storied history. Even though former president Grover Cleveland said in 1905 that the "best and safest club for a woman to patronize is her home," by 1906 there were more than 5,000 women's clubs in existence working toward social goals like women's suffrage, an end to child labor, and the passage of the Pure Food and Drug Act, according to historian Alexis Coe. "In general, a club woman tended to be married and a mother, and not employed outside the home," Coe says. "The clubs offered an outlet for personal growth at a time when women of the middle and upper classes were expected to find fulfillment through and their husbands and children."

new york, new york may 13 gabrielle union arrives at a screening of las finest at the wing in soho on may 13, 2019 in new york city photo by gothamgc images
The Wing's SoHo outpost has attracted stars like Gabrielle Union, seen here in 2019.

GothamGetty Images

mrs william g mcknight jr le brun cruger rhinelander and miss eleanor young, daughter of mr and mrs robert r young, are shown leaving the colony in nyc after lunch, 1939 photo by bert morgangetty images
The Colony Club has been a destination for society women since opening in 1903.

Bert MorganGetty Images

One uptown club that lives on from that era is the Colony Club, which was founded in 1903; the New York Times once called it "that Park Avenue monument to all things ladylike and proper." New members have to get a recommendation from an existing member, and it was even a plot point in Gossip Girl. Another is the Cosmopolitan Club, which occupies a townhouse on East 66th Street; its mission statement is "to provide fun for serious women, and to offer the widest of intellectual hospitality and congenial companionship in an attractive gathering place."

Both clubs are somewhat shrouded in mystery, but whispers persist. "You don't go to the Colony Club to get work done," one downtown dweller who has friends who are members says with a laugh. "Although I do get the impression they are trying to get younger people joining." "It's old-school WASPy, so unmodern," says one Upper East Sider who has gone to luncheons and birthday parties there (the food, she says, used to be terrible but has improved in recent years). "People get very in your business, in that clubhouse way." The food writer Helen Rosner, who is a member of the Wing, did a reading at the Cosmopolitan Club and likened it to "a country club without the golf course."

women's club crest

The very desire to belong is incredibly human. "In our evolutionary prehistory, being alone wasn't just social death, it was literal physical death. We didn't have fangs or claws, but we had each other," says the author and critic Wednesday Martin, who wrote Primates of Park Avenue. "Something like the CORE club is harking back to the idea of the classic New York social club—coming together with a group of like-minded people in a large, impersonal city." It can't hurt that there's nothing more enticing than something money can't buy, she adds. "You can have hundreds or millions, but you might still not be able to join one of Manhattan's elite clubs without someone there to vouch for you."

jennie and dangene enterprise at core club
Founders Jennie and Dangene Enterprise at CORE Club in 2018.


Not everyone can be a convert. "I have signed up for women's clubs. I never use them," says Lacey Tisch, who is starting a wellness space called Sage & Sound on the Upper East Side. Her co-founder, Lauren Zucker, adds that, "Women's clubs have curated great events, but so many of these exclusive clubs are just geared toward one certain area."

"You can have hundreds or millions, but you might still not be able to join one of Manhattan's elite clubs without someone there to vouch for you."

Clubs, like any space dominated by women, can have a utopian feel about them, all promises of sisterhood and mutual support, but they can foster cliques or make members feel like outsiders. "I love millennial pink as much as the next person, but the second wave feminist in me was like, 'The club has a makeup room,'" one writer says of her first impression of the Wing. A novelist notes that "Sadly, women's groups haven't changed much since the 1970s; they splinter and tend to eat their young."

jennifer lawrence at the wing soho
Jennifer Lawrence attends a promotional event at the Wing on February 23, 2018, in New York City.

Monica SchipperGetty Images

Worse yet, it is said that some hallowed clubs are overly exclusionary, or that they treat certain members like tokens. "Many clubs are still overtly racist or anti-Semitic," one uptown mom says. "Somebody called me about a club and said, 'We have our first black gay member, and everyone acts like we killed two birds with one stone.'"

Which is part of the reason why Naj Austin founded Ethel's Club as a place for people of color: "to really think about a community that was often overlooked," she says. Even though having a physical Brooklyn location ("curated with people-of-color everything," she says) was important to her, in March the club pivoted purely into a digital membership, with programming around mental health and wellness in the POC community done via Zoom.

Still, the idea of a status destination for women of a certain stripe doesn't look likely to go the way of the handshake. Despite their faults, the alluring combination of cultural cachet, networking, a place to meet, and a built-in sisterhood will persist. "I predict clubs will be more relevant than ever, a real flourishing once we get over our fears of infection," says Wednesday Martin. "Seeing people on a screen is not the same as seeing them in real life. People will want to go to their favorite restaurant, coffee shop, or the social club they belong to."

"Literally my five bridesmaids are still my five best friends. That's my version of a club."

Until that day comes, we have all reactivated parts of our personal networks with Zoom cocktail parties and FaceTime chats with old friends who are long-distance and picnics with ones who are nearby. When Jill Kargman isn't filming mask-wearing PSAs on Instagram, she's spending time with her immediate family and her chosen family: women she's known for years. "Literally my five bridesmaids are still my five best friends. That's my version of a club."

In these most uncertain of times, the consistency and reliability of close friends is some of the only reassurance we have. Perhaps it's the networks we've built, not the ones we've paid for, that have the most staying power.

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Fifth Third's Top Bankers Seek To Help Black Firms Manage Twin Pandemics Of COVID-19 And Race - Black Enterprise

Posted: 09 Oct 2020 08:30 AM PDT

African American entrepreneurs, for the most part, continue to face the stark realities of operating businesses while lacking access to capital and a team of strategic advisers. Today, these challenges have intensified in a business climate marked by "the COVID-19 economy."

When the novel coronavirus pandemic struck roughly six months ago, multitudes of companies—from corporate leviathans to mom-and-pop shops—took extreme measures such as setting up remote working arrangements to keep employees safe, furloughing workers due to cash flow crunches, or completely shutting down operations as business evaporated. The conference call was quickly replaced with the Zoom meeting.

As the nation grappled with the devastation wrought by this unprecedented health crisis, its citizens witnessed the insidious nature of the virulent strain of racism. The video of the tragic death of George Floyd in the custody of Minneapolis police officers sparked worldwide, multi-hued protests calling for an end to the cycle of police brutality that plagues communities of color. It also placed a broader, brighter spotlight on systemic discrimination that denied African Americans real equity and opportunity.

Against this backdrop, Fifth Third Bank, the Cincinnati, Ohio-based institution with $203 billion in assets, snapped into action. Among the vital leaders on the front lines: Kala Gibson, executive vice president & head of Business Banking, and Kevin Lavender, executive vice president & head of Commercial Banking. What makes Fifth Third unique is the fact that it represents the only major bank in the nation in which African Americans oversee all of its business lending operations—and you'll find out why Gibson and Lavender are the right divisional chiefs at the helm during these extraordinary times.

Fifth Third BankLending Business Support During The Crisis 

Since responding to the COVID-19 pandemic that linked an inexorable public health emergency with economic upheaval and uncertainty, Gibson, a decade-long Fifth Third veteran, has been clocking countless hours. He manages teams nationwide, contacts stakeholders, builds partnerships, and advises legions of clients. His division serves the needs of companies that generate $20 million in revenues or less—a segment that represents 30 million companies nationwide.

Kala Gibson Fifth Third
Kala Gibson, EVP, head of business banking, Fifth Third Bank (courtesy of Fifth Third Bank)

"There wasn't anything that could have prepared me or my team for this moment. Our main goal was just trying to make sure that we as a team stayed focused," he says. "We have been working 18-hour days. The curveball, obviously, is that we had to do this virtually, so in the midst of a pandemic and a huge economic crisis, everyone is working from home with kids screaming in the background and dogs barking. There was a significant amount of distractions and a significant amount of stress. The goal was to make sure we had a higher purpose and that higher purpose was making sure that we were able to keep as many small businesses in business as possible. It was that rallying cry, that defining moment for us as bankers to do our part and make sure that our customers and our country stayed afloat."

Gibson absorbed a great deal of that pressure as the company's executive sponsor of the Payment Protection Program, the Small Business Administration's $660 billion government-guaranteed loan program that forgave such financing for small businesses that could demonstrate using 75% of those funds for payroll. As a result of their efforts, the indefatigable banker and his team provided a lifeline to about 40,000 companies with roughly $5.4 billion in financing.

"It was critical to us that these funds were available for our customers, specifically our African American businesses, because we knew that this program was going to be short-lived," he asserts of the program that ended in August.

"There was a lot of anxiety and a lot of craziness in the beginning because you just didn't know if the government was going to add more money back to the program. I wanted to make sure that we took a very proactive approach to reach out to our customers to make sure that they understood the program and that they were walked through the process."

Through an endless series of Zoom meetings, Kevin Lavender, his counterpart in commercial finance, used his home as his outpost.

As such, he took a similar all-consuming approach to ensure the financial and strategic needs of clients had been taken care of by his phalanx of bankers. In driving this mission, he remained focused on Fifth Third's mantra: "Keep the customer at the center of everything we do." Having dealt with myriad crises during his career, the 15-year Fifth Third vet knew the stakes couldn't have been higher.

Kevin Lavender Black business
Kevin Lavender, EVP and head of commercial banking, Fifth Third Bank (courtesy of Fifth Third Bank)

"As an institution, we've become much more sophisticated in our approach. We use the term of being an adviser for our clients and to put ourselves in the position of having to advise exclusively by phone was very, very different," he says, maintaining that 95% of such interactions are typically conducted face-to-face. "To put ourselves in the position of having to determine, sometimes with the client and sometimes on our own, if we felt that they were permanently impaired or temporarily impaired by COVID, which has lots of implications.

"For example, with a $100 million loan, we have to decide quickly if we think we need to send it to our Special Assets Group to get it out of the bank, to liquidate it, or if we think we have enough time and ability to rehab it with the management team in order to remain a client. So my team's focus was largely centered around reviewing and analyzing the capitalization structure, the capital stack with our clients, giving them advice relative to covenant waivers, payment deferrals, going to the bond markets for recapitalization or doing what we call a short-term, emergency liquidity draw."

To handle such situations, Lavender's division must have intimate knowledge of every aspect of a given client's capital structure, including equity, debt, and other assets, in order to offer advice that will enable major companies to manage through the pandemic as well as position them for a post-COVID future. "We had to make immediate decisions in terms of what's best for them, and we did it all remotely," he adds.

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Kala Gibson and entrepreneur (file)

Positioning A Black Company to Thrive 

Throughout the first wave of the pandemic, both Gibson and Lavender were very much attuned to the unique challenges of Black businesses. Large numbers of them tend to be woefully undercapitalized and prone to being severely weakened during economic crises. What has further served as anathema is that more than 90% of the roughly 2.6 million Black-owned businesses are sole proprietorships and partnerships—the most vulnerable segment during catastrophic conditions. It has been already reported by the National Bureau of Economic Research that some 40% of Black-owned businesses have been shuttered since February.

That's why early on the two lending leaders placed a special emphasis on finding ways to bolster small Black firms, which Gibson estimates represent roughly 7% of his Business Banking clientele. Not only do the two want such companies to survive COVID-19 but to prove to be innovators that will thrive in a post-pandemic world.

Vickie Lewis VMX International
Vickie Lewis, president and CEO at VMX International (Photo credit: Environmental Management Association)


VMX International L.L.C., a Detroit-based environmental consulting firm, represents a client that Fifth Third has helped gain solid footing during the pandemic as it makes plans for future growth.

CEO Vickie Lewis has never seen a business environment quite like the current one. However, she has continually demonstrated resilience when confronting major obstacles. She launched her firm in 2001 to provide waste and recycling solutions for the automotive industry after being laid off and vowing never to be in a position where she depended on someone else for her livelihood and professional growth. Due to proficiency, industrywide connections, and loads of moxie, Lewis was able to grow her company from its origins as a three-person shop with a $500,000 contract with Waste Management.

During VMX's first several years, she expanded its portfolio of customers through subcontracting jobs with Tier 1 vendors such as Lear Corp., Dana Corp., and PPG Industries Inc. Just as VMX gained traction in the auto industry, General Motors was forced into bankruptcy in 2009 in the wake of the financial meltdown and Great Recession.

"Because we were Tier 2, we didn't have the direct hit when the automotive industry started laying off people and reducing some of its programs," she reflects. "Since we worked and supported Waste Management, we didn't get hit financially. They helped us pivot to new opportunities outside of automotive."

To further buoy her company, Lewis gained certification through the 8(a) Business Development Program giving VMX access to federal set-aside contracts designated for "socially and economically disadvantaged businesses." By 2019, VMX had produced revenues of about $9 million and employed roughly 60 workers.

Like many companies, VMX met its greatest challenge when COVID-19 struck. First, she had to establish how VMX would conduct business nationwide by ensuring the safety of her staff and following shelter-in-place laws through remote operations and then communicating regularly with her team via conference calls and Zoom to track projects and assess customer's needs. However, she lost some business and was forced to reduce headcount by 20 employees at the start of the pandemic.

A critical factor in stabilizing VMX during this period was her long-term relationship with Fifth Third relationship manager Juliana Perry. "VMX has been very, very blessed. We just had the right thinker that has supported us from the time she came to Fifth Third 14 years ago. She has always walked side by side with us," Lewis asserts. "When people were saying that PPP was coming down the pike and that small businesses would have to be ready to apply, we already knew about it because Juliana contacted us."

Lewis says Perry helped her through the application process while she "was sick and could hardly even talk. She told me, 'we're going to work on it. Fifth Third is working to make sure we have all the bases covered and then we're going to open the portal so you can apply.' That's exactly what happened. They opened the portal. Juliana had a team that worked with her after hours.

I applied for the loan in the evening, got into the system, and within two or three days, we were approved. It was less challenging for us because of our ongoing relationship with our banker."

Beyond receiving the six-figure PPP financing in early April, Lewis urges Black entrepreneurs to make connections like the one she has with Perry. "As a business, know your banker so that you are not afraid to talk to him or her if you're having challenges or anticipate something down the road. Fifth Third has several tools that may assist your business." For instance, Lewis has also been able to maintain liquidity and fortify operations through a line of credit and received help with fraud protection and payment and receivables system upgrades.

Lewis, who is also a graduate of the Goldman Sachs 10,000 Small Businesses program, says Perry has also been instrumental throughout the years in expanding her business network, which has been critical in finding resources and generating new ideas for VMX's next chapter.

Increasing Racial Equity for a Black Business Ecosystem

Gibson and Lavender believe that such intentional efforts directed at Black businesses will further position them for growth. In an era in which corporate America has made pledges to the advancement of racial equality—including substantive steps to bolster Black businesses—the timing is right for Fifth Third to expand its commitment in this area. For one, it is vital for the economic development of communities of color and African American wealth creation, which can also align with initiatives under the Community Reinvestment Act or CRA.

A key requirement for expression of Fifth Third's commitment, Lavender urges, is across-the-board diversity and inclusion. He asserts: "I think our country, our bank, will look different two years, five years from now on this specific point. At Fifth Third, with the pandemic as well as George Floyd's and related unjust murders of Black people, we made it very clear with communication from our CEO and our executive diversity leadership council that today Black lives do matter. Historically, banks like to say, 'We're Switzerland. Let all sides do what you need to. But we're here just to lend money.'

"Looking at our social obligations, particularly as it relates to the Black community, I absolutely believe that it has changed and will continue to change forever. Young people in the bank are very comfortable talking openly about this topic," adds Lavender. "I do think that we as the financial services industry have an opportunity because we are the lifeblood of communities in terms of spurring commerce. We in the Black community have been shut out from so many different opportunities and I see it as my obligation, Fifth Third's obligation, to make sure that we put the right people in the right place to give African American entrepreneurs an opportunity. That means making it a priority in the people that I hire, the people I promote, and the way that I pay them. We as an industry and Fifth Third have to get to a position of how we incent our bankers to do the right thing in all communities and, especially at this point, in the Black community. I think we have an opportunity for fundamental change not only at Fifth Third but throughout the country in the financial services business."

Says Gibson: "I agree with Kevin 100%. What we've seen over the last six months are things that we already knew, that there was inequality in our healthcare system and there's inequality in our financial system and it's systemic. We have to address it at its root cause and work with our government officials and other advocacy groups to reverse that. As Kevin mentioned, a lot of it is going to start with our hiring practices within our own organizations to make sure that our staff reflects the communities that we serve, that we have the right leadership at the top of these organizations, and at the board level. But it's also going to require us at the grassroots level too just to make sure that there's financing, government programs, all the things needed to get us to a place where there is equality when it comes to financial justice as well as health. I think again, we can use our platform in this moment to be able to deliver that."

Gibson also maintains that what will be required for firms to ultimately innovate and thrive in this construction of an expansive Black business ecosystem. It would not only consist of large banks like Fifth Third but also community banks, MDIs (minority depository institutions), CDFIs (community development financial institutions), and other non-deposit institutions that can provide capital. "Our role as a bank is to nurture that ecosystem with grants, commitments, and investments from our CDC [Community Development Company] as well as partnerships that you develop and start to share," Gibson says. "I think that on the lower end, a bank's not going to be able to fulfill all the capital needs of our community because we're still in a very highly regulated industry."

To buttress his point, Gibson cites such groups like Mortar, a Cincinnati-based nonprofit resource hub for urban entrepreneurs where he volunteers his time as a mentor and board member, to fulfill that role of ensuring that such businesses grow and advance. He maintains that Fifth Third's role would be to fund Mortar so that it can increase its capacity to provide capital and technical resources.

Another vital part of the ecosystem: The cadre of successful Black entrepreneurs like VMX's Vickie Lewis, who can serve as an invaluable source of information, mentorship, and contracts for a network of nascent Black firms.

For example, Lewis' most recent protégé has been April January, a young operator of a local recycling shredding company that serves as a VMX vendor. She has also helped January gain additional business through introductions to trade groups like the Environment Management Association.

April L. January (file)

Gibson has met highly influential entrepreneurs such as Albert and Liza Smitherman, who run Jostin Construction, one of the largest Black-owned specialty construction firms in the Southwest region of Ohio. Gibson and the Smitherman's agree with the philosophy and advocate for larger minority business enterprises aiding the growth and development of smaller MBEs. In fact, Albert says the engagement and support of partnerships with small contractors represents a key part of Jostin's mission statement.

The Smitherman's have put that core value into practice through the identification of five companies each year in which they actively mentor and provide contractual opportunities. Over the past decade, Albert says he has groomed some 50 minority and female business owners. "Liza and I decided that the why of our business was to provide a diversity of opportunities for all."

Jostin Construction
Jostin Construction (courtesy of Jostin Construction)

As Black entrepreneurs continue to navigate COVID-19 and review how corporate America will make good on its racial equity and inclusion pledges, Gibson stresses the need for a dynamic ecosystem: "There is a need for a new model going forward. In the past, we relied on the bank to solve this on their own. The new model must be inclusive and comprehensive of our partnerships with community-based organizations that know-how and where to deploy capital. It's much bigger than us."


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