Naj Austin

Photo: Demetrius Freeman

Photo: Demetrius Freeman

Age || 27

Company Name || Ethels Club

Job Title || Founder & CEO

Company Start Date || January 2019

Years Living In New York || 9

Social Handles || @ethelsclub (In/Tw), Ethels (FB)

Company Website: Ethels Club

What did you want to be as a child?

I wanted to be a lawyer. I’m the middle child of five and I spent most days arguing points and reasoning to my parents and siblings. As it turns out, being a Founder isn’t all that different. There’s a lot of pitching of your ideas and the need to back it up with something besides your (very emotional) feelings. It’s also a plus if you’re somewhat well-versed in legalese to navigate when starting out before you hire a legal firm. Thanks Law&Order!

What’s the best piece of advice you were given when you were starting Ethels Club?

Always do what you said you would. Everyone is busy and has a lot on their plate but if you can become dependable, (for yourself and others), it makes everything so much easier and people remember that. They’re much more likely to respond and do a favor.

How do you define success?

This is going to sound lame, but I think success is authentic happiness. I think if you’re truly content with something you’ve done, that deserves to be applauded.. I don’t think that accolades and awards need to always equate to having conquered something. Sometimes, just getting out of bed is difficult. That is its own success in a way, and that’s awesome.

What is the most important thing you’ve learned since starting out?

Partnerships are key! I think sometimes founders feel very proprietary and secretive with their new ideas and companies but I’ve always thought the opposite. We’ve had such a great amount of traction with Ethels Club because we shared it with the world, from day one. People are willing to help and leverage what they’ve built to help other companies that they believe in, grow and we should all take advantage of that.

What inspired you to start Ethels Club?

As a Black woman working in the real estate and tech space for the past four years, I often come face to face with the chronic lack of representation in the industry every day. This same deficit of genuine representation is very much reflected in many of the ‘third spaces’, including social clubs that many of us rely on for our social nucleus, professional network and cultural anchor.  There wasn’t a place for brown and black voices, which are so often marginalized, to be heard or a place where we could commune, comfortably, with one another.

Rendering of Ethels Club.

Rendering of Ethels Club.

Why is it so important that a space like this exists?

There are not many places created with people of color in mind. This is one of them. Our focus and intentions are PoC-centered and we want to make sure that that dynamic is always understood, validated and celebrated.

What is your go-to motivational quote?

“Beyonce wasn’t built in a day.”

Where did the idea of Ethels Club come from?

I spent 27 years looking for a place that centered PoC-identity, arts, culture and community and I couldn’t find it. With a background in hospitality startups and real estate fintech, I decided to create it.

Do you have a personal motto?

“I said what I said.”

Which women inspire you?

My mother, my grandmother (the original Ethel), Michelle Obama, Arlan Hamilton, and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.

How do you handle situations where you feel overwhelmed?

I think it’s important to have a support system for when you are feeling overwhelmed. A place where you can be honest and lay down your baggage and gather extra strength to keep going.

Rendering of Ethels Club.

Rendering of Ethels Club.

How do you overcome moments of self-doubt?

Support system! Sometimes you need people to remind you of who you are, what you’ve done and where you’re going.

What is the hardest part about being your own boss?

The pressure of having the success of the company and other people’s livelihood on your shoulders. It’s scary, but humbling.

What has been the most rewarding thing since starting Ethels Club?

The unbelievable response from strangers on the internet. We have received responses that have brought me to tears. We are building something that people have a deep emotional connection to, and it’s incredibly important as we build out the company to always honor that sentiment.

How do you hope to empower people of color through Ethels Club?

We hope to empower with our programming and activations within the space.  The cultural offerings at our space are meant to fortify, support and broaden the lives of our members’ experience.

How do you plan to engage with local community-based organizations?

We are currently putting together a board of (amazing) advisors to help direct our vision in terms of engaging with the community. It’s important for us to further underline the focus on engagement and positive impact on the places we call home and to make sure it never feels tacked on. We are dedicated to building a world that centers the entirety of our experience.

What do you hope members get out of joining Ethels Club?

I hope they get a sense of empowerment. A sense of community. A sense of being seen and supported for who they truly are.

What advice would you give to other women trying to help a community through entrepreneurship?

I think it’s important to assess all of the amazing things already happening within the community you are trying to serve. We did a lot of research and were so excited to partner with many of the organizations we found. There’s so much cool sh*t happening in Brooklyn already, we’re just proud to be a part of the conversation.

What are some of your goals moving forward for Ethels Club?

An important goal is clearly defining our programming parameters in terms of who we bring into the space and why. We are also focused on ensuring that the space is beautiful, but also moves people in a deeper way besides an Instagram moment (of which, there will be plenty!)

This interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity

Sarah Fielding