Redefining work for women: One Roof Women Melbourne
The most striking thing inside One Roof Women, a Melbourne office that bills itself as Australia’s leading coworking space for women-led businesses, is a pair of giant, graffiti-style paintings by a woman who goes by the name Emily Vandalism. The paintings are of the same woman (a friend of the artist): one with a purple and pink hue, the other blue and green. The lady has a fringe, impossibly full lips, and dramatic eyeshadow framed by a prominent brow—a hip Frida Kahlo. She looks both feminine and tough. The paintings cover the exposed brick walls, along which are five double-wide tables for One Roof members, a mix of women and a few men who run their own business, as well as some start-ups with small teams.
If the paintings are the first thing that catch the eye, the other details reveal something about the place: The dozens of polaroid pictures of members pasted in six neat lines on a wall in the dining room say this place is about people, community. The cheery message scrawled above the photos gently nudges even the most introverted entrepreneurs: “A simple hello could lead to a million things.” The free TOM Organic tampons and pads in the bathroom are a reminder that this place is for women. The bathroom also has a sign—posted at eye level across from the toilet—with the week’s activities, indicating that this place is not just about work: It’s about finding time for balance, through yoga, meditation, and wine. For the latter, the kitchen is stocked with real wine glasses, with appropriate options for different wine varieties. In the main room, a large chalkboard contains a calendar of events, nearly every day filled in with a different activity, written in a different color of chalk.
One Roof feels different than other coworking spaces: less corporate, modern but quirky, even a little shabby. A work-in-progress. It’s more down-to-earth than the stylized spaces of WeWork. And although it’s clear this place is all about women, there's a refreshing absence of the color pink and the cliched monikers that Australian women’s business groups seem to favor, like “Business Chicks” or “The Little Black Dress Group.”
The point, said founder Sheree Rubinstein, is not to provide a high-heeled version of everything business for women. It’s to provide “everything women need to succeed in business all under one roof.” In effect, One Roof is also making the opposite point: Most businesses aren’t providing everything women need. And since coworking spaces are growing—the number of coworking spaces in Australia has grown by 300 percent since 2013—One Roof is a powerful model for how workplaces could be transformed to better accommodate women’s needs.
Corporate law: the wrong career for a feminist?
Rubinstein, a small person with a wide smile, started One Roof after becoming disenchanted with corporate law. As she tells it, she went into law because she was a high achiever with a tough work ethic. Law school seemed like the obvious path to success for someone like her. But during her university studies, she began to feel out of place, anxious, and unconfident.
When she was hired at a big firm, she shared an office with a woman she described as a staunch feminist. The feminist told Rubinstein to make sure she became a feminist, too. She made Rubinstein her study, recommending books and engaging her in conversations about women in leadership and the challenges Julia Gillard was facing as Australia’s first prime minister. The two started leading conversations about gender across the firm, which Rubinstein enjoyed. But it struck her that despite these conversations, firm business was mostly led by men. “I had this feeling of constantly sitting in a room and realizing that, going around the table, it doesn’t matter how many men and how many women were there; it’s always the man speaking up,” she said. “Always. Every time.”
Rubinstein started to think law wasn’t for her and considered leaving the field. A trip to a legal conference in Boston, Massachusetts, clinched it. “It was massive,” she said. “Five-thousand lawyers from all around the world, and I was like, if this reinvigorates me, I’ll stay in law. I went over there, and it was basically a conference of men trying to pick up women. I thought, I just need to be in a different world. This doesn’t serve me.” It wasn’t just the gender issues. “I kept saying to myself: I don’t believe in the hierarchy and the rigid perfectionism way of working,” she recalled. “I don’t believe that we have to put on a façade in order to be successful. I believe there is a better way of empowering people.”
Testing the concept at an Airbnb
Back in Melbourne, Rubinstein and a few friends tested out the idea of creating a series of events, just for professional women, featuring speakers who could generate good conversations about everything from business to relationships and sex. “Just really honest things,” Rubinstein said. They called it Think Big.
The events gained some traction, so Rubinstein worked with a business partner to explore more specifically what women in business would want. They ran focus groups, asking women: What barriers are holding you back? What do you feel like you need to succeed in business? The women told them they often felt isolated, locked out of the men’s networks, and they wanted a place they could make professional connections and be supported by a like-minded community. They wanted an environment where they were welcome. Some wanted a place where their kids were welcome. Female entrepreneurs wanted funding and face time with potential investors. A number of women wanted nuts-and-bolts business resources like access to lawyers and accountants and social media strategists.
From this, One Roof was born.
The first incarnation of One Roof was a nicely appointed two-story Airbnb Rubinstein and her business partner rented in St. Kilda, a funky Melbourne neighborhood on the edge of the Southern Ocean. They transformed it into pop-up coworking space, with a meeting room in the bedroom, a workshop in the kitchen, and nightly events in the backyard. It attracted more than 400 people in one week.
With this proof of concept, Rubinstein opened One Roof in 2016 in Melbourne’s South Bank district. The squat building on City Road is dwarfed by nearby Eureka Tower, which dominates the Melbourne skyline and holds its own spot on the Melbourne edition of Monopoly. Four months after moving to Southbank, One Roof doubled its size to 1,000 square meters to accommodate 73 businesses. Today, One Roof houses nearly 100 small businesses.
A vision to make Australia the place for women in business
Although One Roof has only one location now, Rubinstein aims to open at least four others across Australia. She thinks more One Roofs—in capital cities like Sydney, Brisbane, and Adelaide, and maybe another in a regional destination like Byron Bay—could send the message that Australia is the place for women in business. She imagines spaces with enough room for a daycare, and perhaps an in-house business that runs summer camps during the school holidays. She pictures events like pitch nights and community markets where parents can bring their kids in prams, swapping stories about balancing start-ups and toddlers. She sees more dinners with investors and female founders, more coffee-on-us Mondays, more wine-down Fridays. In early 2019, One Roof secured $1 million in capital—primarily from female investors—to expand in Melbourne.
As the founder of a coworking space dedicated to women, Rubinstein thinks a lot about two big themes linked to the future of work: How to create more inclusive work spaces, and how to create work environments that give people more flexibility, community, agency, and purpose. She believes the traditional corporate model, based on hierarchy and face time, and underpinned by systemic discrimination, unconscious bias, and exclusive networks, will die. In its place, people will create portfolio careers, maybe working for a corporate for a couple of days a week as they build up their side business. More people will seek purpose-focused work. And workplaces that offer flexibility, community, support, collaboration, and gender equality will thrive.
Rubinstein said when she went into law, no one questioned it. And why would they? It’s a traditional career path that, for many, guarantees a stable job and a good income. But Rubinstein points out that people should ask whether an individual’s career choice will give them the life they want: Will this job make you happy? “The more we can give people flexibility, ownership, and purpose as it relates to them individually, and the more we can ask them, ‘What does success look like for you? What kind of life do you want to have? What is important to you?’ And then create jobs and positions around what the individuals need.” She paused. “That’s a game-changer.”