How One Startup Lawyer Launched a ‘Workplayce’ for Working Parents
At the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, its impact could be felt by all, but especially parents. The combined impacts of home-schooling, work, and new family dynamics were enough to test temperaments and bank accounts. Though lawyer-turned-CEO and co-founder Michelle Chan began developing Workplayce, a co-working space for parents, before 2020, the year certainly emphasized the need for it.
Set to open soon (join the waitlist here-no financial commitment required), Workplayce is poised to be a dream come true for parents who need a place outside of the home that will support their work and their duties as parents. We’re talking daycare, busy activities, private space, and more.
“The layout is based on a Venn diagram, where there is a parent/work area, a childcare area, and an overlap in the middle where we will have a “living area” with a kitchen, communal dining, etc,” says Chan. “Members will need to be tolerant of other members and their children, and work together with educators, so hopefully, these elements will create a safe space for parents to feel like their needs are met, and voice their concerns if otherwise.”
It’s been a huge undertaking for Chan and there is a lot to learn from her journey. Ahead, she shares more about the development of Workplayce, including the unique challenges it presented, such as fundraising and maintaining safe spaces for creators with children.
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A lot of aspiring entrepreneurs underestimate the amount of work that goes into establishing a business. Walk us through the development of Workplayce.
I like to make the analogy of being an aspiring entrepreneur to being a new parent – you start out with a dream, make a plan – or not, realize you have no idea what you are doing, but if you put in the work every day, you make progress. It helps if you are motivated by passion and love. That’s what keeps me going, because being a new parent can be extremely lonely, with lots of ups and downs, and so is starting a business.
Workplayce came from my experience being pregnant in San Francisco with my daughter, who is now 5 years old. I felt excluded from a lot of spaces as a pregnant woman – I could not sit on stools in hipster coffee shops – people treated me differently – for better or worse – my body image changed postpartum – and I was determined to find a way to address this. I spent so much time holding my baby daughter and daydreaming about a place I could go and find community, time for myself, a comfortable place to sit, etc. The more I grew as a millennial parent, the more I realized how lacking the support system is, and every parent I met was also struggling to make it all work. My kids are very outgoing so I talk to a lot of parents of kids they befriend! So understanding the problem and my target market was key to convincing myself to get it off the ground.
I work as a corporate startup lawyer, so I know the ins and outs of starting, running, and exiting companies, but it’s very different as a founder. The lifestyle as a founder is very different from any job – it’s all on you – at least in the beginning – I had my daughter to take care of as well – I was working part-time – it’s exhausting. My biggest challenge has been getting an initial investment. The investment world is statistically not helpful to founders like me, and before the pandemic, despite all the hype around co-working, it was difficult for investors to relate to my problems as a working mother – a lot of them wanted to start talking about dogs when I was talking about babies – I got offended and let down a lot.
Now, the pandemic has changed the world for good, and investors are more interested in models that support the changes we are seeing in the workforce. We are still in the middle of fundraising though, so this story isn’t over yet. A couple bigger tasks include finding the right space – our first location will be on the UWS (Upper West Side) – which we found by simply walking around the neighborhood and calling the numbers on empty storefronts – negotiating the lease – navigating the childcare licensing system. It’s a slow process, but in the end, we’ll have a fully serviceable space for working parents to get stuff done and concentrate on what matters to them.
We’ve seen other co-working spaces find themselves in hot water over internal discrimination and other harmful practices. How does Workplayce plan to hold itself accountable as a safe space for parents of all backgrounds?
The thing I discovered about becoming a parent is the experience – it is universal and predictable. That’s a great starting point for creating an inclusive community where you feel like you belong. Babies have five needs – to be held, fed, burped, changed, and to sleep – let’s focus on that. Research has found that changes occur in a caregiver’s brain in that the area for empathy grows – this helps too. I started out my career as a human rights lawyer, so discrimination is an important topic to me. Right now I’m reading up on caregiver discrimination in the workplace – yes it’s a thing – and part of the problems I observed amongst my peers as we started to have babies. We’ll use all our communication tools to share this information, including our parent handbook, and employee training materials.
Other organizations are doing a great job in educating employers, such as the Marshall Plan for Moms and we’ll amplify their work. Additionally, I have seen firsthand the impact affordability makes on accessibility of services. Our business model is designed to maximize affordability to the parent, and I think this makes the service open to more parents. Finally, the layout of the space is designed to integrate children and work, with the aim of encouraging togetherness, openness, and cooperation within and across families and our community. The layout is based on a Venn diagram, where there is a parent/work area, a childcare area, and an overlap in the middle where we will have a “living area” with a kitchen, communal dining, etc. Members will need to be tolerant of other members and their children, and work together with educators, so hopefully, these elements will create a safe space for parents to feel like their needs are met, and voice their concerns if otherwise.
How do you justify the monthly rates? Will there be opportunities for those who can’t afford the rate?
Compared to child care options, which per child is more than average rents and mortgages, the monthly rates are extremely affordable. Lots of parents make the decision to scale back or quit work because the equation doesn’t work. We saw almost 3 million women leave the workforce in the US during the pandemic for childcare reasons, and more than 1/5 of all parents have not been able to return to full-time work. The monthly rates are based on the club model/co-working model, and comparable to these businesses. The childcare packages are flexible, so parents can design their own schedule, which contrasts to traditional childcare models which are based on an annual tuition that you must commit to – it’s comparable to college tuition! Except you don’t have time to save for it!
Since I work with startup founders, and discovered becoming a parent is a transformative and extremely creative time in life, I will launch an incubator program for parent entrepreneurs, which among other support programs, will include free membership for the program period. We will continually look into opportunities to make affordability happen. Federal funding will make an impact, the child tax credit, subsidies, and NYC’s Childcare Innovation Lab is looking into solutions as well. My dream is that our revenues from corporate partnerships will scale to the point where we can provide childcare for free. But one step at a time.
What will a working parent see when they walk into WORKPLAYCE?
First, inside there is stroller parking. Strollers are like second homes/cars for city parents, so keeping them nearby is important. Parents can either enter the office/lounge area or check their child into the childcare area. The office/lounge area will have a number of private enclosed offices big enough for two adults and two children, or conference call, and open work space to do some laptop-ing, chat with a friend, do a quiet activity with your child, etc. We’ll have lots of activities stashed in coffee tables for restless hands – coloring, building blocks, card games, etc. Somewhat of a boutique hotel lobby/library vibe.
The daycare area will be typical and meet the Department of Health requirements. Part of this is a requisite number of child-sized toilets and sinks, appropriate changing table facilities, etc. Nursing in the space will be allowed, though private spaces are available for pumping for those who need it as per ACA requirements. The space we are working on has a private outdoor patio which you can enter from either the childcare or parent side, where kids can do some outdoor activities, basic gardening, and parents can sit/get fresh air. I’m working on partnerships with brands interested in getting their products in the space so we can have a lot of free supplies on hand. We’ll also partner with local businesses to cater meals, though parents can bring their own food for themselves and their kids if they choose to.
Explain the importance for outside supporters and how their partnership will enhance Workplayce?
Part of the aim of creating physical spaces for working parents to come and access in-person services is to create hubs for outside supporters to gather and examine/celebrate/support issues related to the challenges of being a working parent. This is part of community building, incubating innovation, and problem-solving to best create environments we want to spend time in (outside of our own homes). The kinds of outside supporters we will partner with include employers, who want to understand how to best accommodate their employees with children, brands – big and small, who share our values and want to get their products in front of our community, and other allies examining/celebrating/supporting working parents in whatever way they are doing it (non-profits, investors, artists, etc). NYC is full of vibrant industries, we want to bring them together through the shared experience of balancing career and family.
What can we expect to see from Workplayce after it’s officially open for business?
We are working on several spaces in the first couple of years, another one in West Harlem, and in Toronto. We have requests from parents all over the five boroughs and across the country, so we will fundraise to build spaces to meet this demand. Our spaces will be shoppable, so we are looking for partners that share our values, and hope to have lots of brand activations and events in the space that are relevant to working parents and their well-being.
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