Since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, the number of people who work from home has skyrocketed. Though remote work has its benefits, entrepreneurs Christine Brouwer and Audra Bartlett have learned that the experience is just as isolating as it is freeing.
Brouwer and Bartlett both felt the effects of this isolation. As female entrepreneurs, the two missed having a sense of community with other women in business. So, in July 2022, the two opened Covenstead Workspaces — an office space specifically created to foster community among women who work remotely. Located on North Aurora Street, Covenstead offers resources like conference rooms, fast WiFi and a printer in addition to private offices, shared co-working spaces and common areas for women to work alongside and support each other. Women can rent office space at Covenstead, with rent varying depending on office size and type in addition to paying a monthly membership fee for access to the workspace’s shared materials.
Before opening Covenstead, both Bartlett and Brouwer have started several small businesses individually. Between the two of them, their entrepreneurial pursuits include bakeries, real estate and consulting — to name a few. Bartlett said the pair’s range of business experience has helped them create Covenstead with many different perspectives in mind.
Bartlett said both she and Brouwer have been interested in either being part of a shared women’s workspace or starting one themselves.
“I think women are craving community and connection with other women more than ever,” Bartlett said. “So, having a shared workspace where we can all vibe and share energy, share ideas, support each other, is great, especially post COVID… we all just need that more than ever.”
Bartlett emphasized the need that she feels women might have for community with other women. She said she hopes Covenstead can foster that by offering women a comfortable space to seek advice, support and friendship.
“If we're talking about women in the work world, there's so many different needs that they have,” Bartlett said. “One of the most basic ones is safety and security. So having a secure, but shared workspace with other women is something that a lot of women really want these days. … There's just so many levels to it and we just want people to feel supported, and we want them to feel like they're getting the energy they need from this space.”
Rents in Tompkins County are only increasing and office spaces in Ithaca are no exception, with rents generally ranging from $13 per square foot per year to $20 per square foot per year. Depending on the size of the office, the lower end of that price range can be over $2,500 a month. Bartlett said one of her and Brouwer’s priorities in creating Covenstead was to provide affordable workspaces to women. She added that Covenstead’s office spaces range from $550 to $1200 a month, but that the two plan to organize a scholarship program to help prospective members afford a space.
“This is an expensive town to rent, so part of our objective was to create affordable space for people,” Bartlett said. “If office space is prohibitively expensive, that doesn't build community. … So that's a big deal, just providing affordable office space in Ithaca to women. Because women starting new businesses and women who are stay-at-home moms or aren’t employed in the traditional sense usually struggle the most getting into a new situation and getting into a new space.”
Brouwer said that in addition to making Covenstead an affordable workspace, they wanted the environment of Covenstead to differ from traditional offices. She said she wants the space to energize people.
“Not everybody thrives in traditional office environments,” Brouwer said. “We tried to take something that was somewhat of a traditional office and make it more creative, make the space more inviting, make it more energetic than just a cubicle or gray space that kind of feels uninspired.”
Jennifer Reiss works at the education non-profit, Facing History and Ourselves and decided to become a member at Covenstead when the company went hybrid and virtual in July 2022. She said the community at the workspace both inspires and comforts her.
“[I feel] inspired, excited, creative,” Reiss said via email. “I also feel safe … to take risks, ask questions, and safe to work alone. I think part of that feeling of safety is the feminine energy that is generated when there are only women working here. And I think [Bartlett] and [Brouwer] were very purposeful about that. … This is a protected space. We are safe to be authentic.”