January 7th is the birthday of author, anthropologist, and filmmaker Zora Neal Hurston. We want to take this opportunity to spotlight Lauren Coleman Johnson, changemaker, author, and founder of Zora's House.
Something magical happens when bold women gather in spaces created specifically with them in mind. Friendships are formed. Ideas are hatched. Careers are elevated. Foods are consumed.
Zora's House is precisely that place. Part social club, part co-working studio, part workshop and event space, this Ohio haven provides a rare space where women of color can curl up with a Toni Morrison book, attend a workshop on entrepreneurship, or end the week with a yoga class infused with jazz music and spoken word poetry. Zora’s House is a co-working space that provides a social and professional anchor for women of color.
Creating the Change
Lauren Coleman Johnson had just about given up on entrepreneurship when she founded Zora’s House. A native of New York City, she had made a name for herself as a writer and speaker on social justice issues. After several years, and tired of the entrepreneurial grind, she was ready to slip back into a 9 to 5 with a steady paycheck. “I told my husband, ‘I’m ready to get a job like a normal person. I’m so over entrepreneurship.”
Lauren got a job at the YWCA Columbus, but as she settled in, she faced an unexpected challenge: Where to establish a social circle? “I just started looking around, and I was like, ‘Um, so where do all the women of color go to hang out?’ There really wasn’t one business or organization that was meant to serve that purpose of convening women of color.”
She got the itch to create a place where women of color could congregate. Her plans were crystalized in a dream. “One day I went to bed and I had this dream that I was in this awesome space and there were all these dope women there. I woke up and I was like, ‘Oh my gosh. This space needs to exist.’ ”
Perhaps, Lauren thought, if she built it, they would come.
Seeding the Dream
Realizing that central Ohio was missing an organization to bring together women of color, Lauren dreamed up Zora’s House.
Its mission is to provide women of color the clarity, confidence, and connections they need to amplify their voices, develop their talents, and transform their lives and communities. They also serve as an inclusive learning space for the larger community on issues of race, politics, economics, arts, and culture, as they relate to the identities and experiences of women of color.
Prior to her move to Columbus, Lauren had teamed with a former professor to open a co-working space in Durham, North Carolina. “That was my entree into the world of entrepreneurship." At the heart of Zora’s House, Lauren envisioned a thriving community of women of color professionals, artists, activists, academics, and entrepreneurs. She not only wanted connect these women with information and resources, but to connect them with each other.
Zora's House had started after L.C. read the book “The Lean Startup,” which, she explained is one of her favorite books of all time, not only for entrepreneurs, but for anybody who’s trying to get something off the ground. It emphasizes the idea that you need to find a way to validate your idea before you go full throttle.
Opting to test the market before taking the leap, Lauren started a meet-up group, and started holding pop-up events and co-working sessions. She used the meet-up group to describe the type of community that she was hoping to create. The response was positive, but Zora’s House, as a physical place, did not come into view until she and her husband decided to purchase a home.
Breaking New Ground
In March 2018, Lauren founded Zora’s House, a residential-style space in which women of color are invited to cowork, participate in programming and simply socialize.
The couple initially planned to buy a duplex—“live on one side, rent on the other,” she says—but she had a moment of inspiration: What if part of the property was used for the co-working business?
And so they did. "We actually broke ground on the construction project the day my son was born,” she says.
The name of the space came to her almost as suddenly as the idea itself. "I had not thought of the name previously. But what I love about Zora Neale Hurston and her legacy is that she was a woman who wrote about the lives of black women."
Pivoting With Purpose
Early on, Lauren saw Zora’s House—which takes its name from African-American writer Zora Neale Hurston—exclusively as a co-working space that would generate income based on how often members worked there. “I had my whole business model planned out, all my projections, everything was great,” she says.
But one of the things Lauren found when she first opened was that she had created something that was really hard to describe. She initially described it as "a co-working space.” That was the tradition that she had came from. But there were two kinds of reactions: they were either unfamiliar with the concept, or uncomfortable with an environment that resembled an office.
Lauren recognized — on a deeper level and from her own journey — that the thought of "office space" was very incongruent for a lot of the women who were coming there to be themselves. Their offices and workspaces were not traditionally spaces where they had felt safe and authentic to be their full selves, and that association stifled the very purpose of Zora's House.
She then changed course. Zora’s House still offers co-working, but has evolved into a nimbler, more informal organization. The space is home to everything from art projects, candle-making workshops and book clubs. Acting on a suggestion, Zora's House held a screening of a Beyonce documentary, which was organized in a matter of days. “We had popcorn and floor pillows and we brought out some women who just came and watched it,” L.C. says.
Innovating a Community
The organization draws income from a two-tiered membership model, but as the needs of its members evolve, so does the house. The membership is based on how often, and in what ways, women want to make use of the space. Lauren continues to innovate fresh ways to generate income, including a recently launched residency program, offering extended stays in upstairs bedrooms. She calls it, “almost like a co-working hotel, where you can come and stay for a few nights.”
Writer and blogger Tiffany Williams of Columbus uses the space for meeting clients and for her own writing—and, from time to time, just to get away. “Honestly, sometimes I just come to the space to have the camaraderie with other women,” Tiffany says.
Whatever brings them through the iconic purpose door, members are always encouraged to come as they are. “You don’t need to come into Zora’s House and feel like you need to be polished, you need to be finished, or you need to be together,” Lauren says. A member should feel free, she adds, to be their “full authentic self—even the parts that are messy.”
Sources: Articles written by freelance writer Peter Tonguette www.columbusceo.com