I had the pleasure of interviewing Suzanne Willian along with co-founders Lynne Pagano, Lauren Decker, Suzanne Spero and Christine Gilfillan.
They opened the doors of The Co-Co in January of 2019. After graduating from Purdue University with a BS in Civil Engineering, her professional journey started at IBM. She spent 15 years in technology sales and marketing. In Suzanne’s next chapter, a 15-year career break, she raised three children, supported her partner’s career ambitions, and immersed herself in the local community as a friend and volunteer. Re-entering the workforce in 2014 as a consultant to nonprofits and small businesses, she became certified in change management and is pursuing certification as a coach. As an entrepreneur, she calls upon the skills and capacities earned and learned through the totality of her life experience, every day.
Thank you so much for your time! I know that you are a very busy person. Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you got started?
My professional journey started at IBM. After graduating from Purdue University with a BS in Civil Engineering, I spent 15 years in technology sales and marketing.
I took a multi-year career break to raise my children, support my partner’s career ambitions, and immerse in my local community as a friend and volunteer.
I re-entered the workforce 6 years ago as a consultant to non-profits and small businesses. Since my re-entry, I’ve become certified in change management and am pursuing certification as a coach.
Today, I am Co-Founder and CEO of a women-focused, collaborative co-working and co-learning community in Summit, NJ. Even in this time of social distancing, our community is flourishing. As an entrepreneur, I call upon the skills and capacities earned and learned through the totality of my life experience, every day.
Extensive research suggests that “purpose driven business” are more successful in many areas. When you started your company what was your vision, your purpose?
A little more than two years ago, in April of 2018, The Co-Co’s founding team gathered for a planning meeting. Listening sessions with close to 100 local women and countless calls and conversations had prepared us to name our purpose and mission. I have a fond memory of newsprint papering the conference room walls.
We started the session by naming our purpose. To do so, we asked ourselves: Why do we exist? What is our company’s purpose, our aspiration reason for being? The lead sentence on The Co-Co’s website landing page was created that day: “The Co-Co is here to inspire and support you, wherever you are on your journey of life and career.”
Alongside naming our purpose, we got clear on our mission: What are we building, developing, creating to “inspire and support you on your journey of life and career”? And who is the “you”? In other words, who is our customer?
More coffee, more discussion, and more newsprint on the walls resulted in consensus around building “a collaborative co-working and co-learning community where you can work, learn, and have fun.” This community would be built for and with women who are energized by learning and working in community and who intently support the learning and working of others. Importantly and uniquely, this community would inspire and support women wherever they are on the journey of life and career. This includes women who are full-time, part-time, paid, volunteer, community leaders, business owners, freelancers, household managers, caregivers; women who hold a number of these and other roles; women transitioning between roles.
Two years later, we remain committed to this purpose and mission. We have discovered that co-learning and co-working are building blocks for community and connection. While people come to The Co-Co for co-working and co-learning, they stay for the community and connection they experience.
I believe that staying true to our north star — to build community and connection through co-working and co-learning — has taken our business to a higher level over the past few months. While we could have never imagined that our community’s shared journey would include a global pandemic and world-wide response to police brutality and racial injustice, our actions through this part of our journey are dictated by our mission: Our community continues to connect and strengthen our bonds. Based on input and direction from our members, we gather to co-work and for thoughtful co-learning around today’s pressing priorities. True to our purpose, The Co-Co is inspiring and supporting our community where we are on our journey of life and career… at home.
Thank you for all that. The Covid-19 pandemic has affected nearly every aspect of our lives today. For the benefit of empowering our readers, can you share with our readers a few of the personal and family related challenges you faced during this crisis? Can you share what you’ve done to address those challenges?
My biggest challenge has been separation from two of my three 20-something children. I didn’t see my son Matt who lives and works in San Francisco from New Year’s until early June. My daughter Paige returned home as a new graduate from University of Michigan mid-May. Her essential work as a caregiver for a woman with a muscular degenerative condition kept her Ann Arbor for several months after classes went virtual. I had last been with her for her birthday in early February. The uncertainty around when I’d next see Paige and Matt was hard for me.
Through this time, I found great comfort in having my daughter Caroline at home. She spent the first five weeks of shutdown in NJ, and away from Tom (her boyfriend) and her New York City apartment. An elementary educator, she spends her days teaching online. I loved hearing the sweet young voices in the house through Zoom.
My husband John and I moved Caroline back to the city on a Saturday in late April. It was a gray, unseasonably cold, nasty day. Businesses were boarded up; the few people out were bundled and masked. Everything about leaving her there felt wrong and dangerous.
John and I got home, prepared dinner, and sat down to eat. One bite in, I broke down. “When will we see the kids again?” Not one to get weepy regularly, I had thrown my husband for a loop. He quickly texted the kids, “Mom needs an emergency zoom call NOW.”
All three jumped on a video call. In the company of wonderful significant others. Happy and smiling.
This and other regular family Zoom calls including a fun graduation party for Paige helped me with the uncertainty around being able to travel and see the kids.
Can you share a few of the biggest work related challenges you are facing during this pandemic? Can you share what you’ve done to address those challenges?
As a business built on in-person face-to-face interactions, we had to quickly adapt to co-working and co-learning online, to virtually recreate the experience our members expect from The Co-Co.
To address this challenge, we had to pivot our event process. Since our team had some familiarity with zoom, we chose it as our virtual platform. Our co-founding team met for early morning zoom calls in our pre-launch phase. We dug into features and functions and integrated zoom with our event registration and payment systems. Our first virtual event took place the day after announcing our temporary closure.
Dynamic virtual events require new and different event facilitation techniques. You can’t cut and paste from the physical world. Our team jumped in and played with new ways of “checking in” at the start of meetings, sharing screens, and using the chat function, polls, and breakouts to engage participants. We continue to experiment and explore best practices for connecting virtually.
We also experimented with different methods and schedules for virtual co-working, eventually settling on Tuesday and Thursday mornings with a kickoff check in, stretch break, and wrap-up conversation at the end. (It’s surprisingly productive!)
Our pivot to a virtual community experience was both challenging and familiar to The Co-Co leadership team. Initially building our business required us to determine our next best steps based on best available but limited information. Pivoting our business required the same approach. We have and continue to build The Co-Co by asking good questions, listening and observing, reflecting and learning, and boldly experimenting our way into new habits and practices. Leaning in to an adaptive approach has enabled us to continue to support our members and grow our business through this crisis.
Obviously we can’t know for certain what the Post-Covid economy will look like. But we can of course try our best to be prepared. We can reasonably assume that the Post-Covid economy will be a trying time for many people across the globe. Yet at the same time the Post-Covid growth can be a time of opportunity. Can you share a few of the opportunities that you anticipate in the Post-Covid economy?
IFundWomen CEO Karen Cahn recently facilitated a great conversation for The Co-Co community about funding businesses through the crisis. She asserted that companies servicing the bottom three sections of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs are best positioned for the new COVID economy. Businesses providing “must-haves” like food and safety will fare better than businesses offering “nice-to-haves” at the top of the triangle. I agree with Karen and believe there is real opportunity for businesses providing products/services and communicating with customers about the “must-haves.”
The “must-have” for safety influences my belief that remote work will be part of the new normal. Workers will be less eager to commute into cities post-pandemic, and companies reluctant to insist they do. There will be a sense of danger associated with commuting to urban centers on trains, busses, and subways.
Remote work is also here to stay, particularly for high income workers in high income geographies, because we’ve seen that it works. Smaller real estate footprints, lower overhead, and reduced equipment equate to real cost savings for companies. survey of CFOs From the perspective of employees, remote work is good for their work, life, and the world. Many are experiencing increased productivity away from the office chit chat. The hours previously spent commuting are spent with children and family, sleeping, and exercising. And eliminating the commute also benefits the environment.
This mass migration of work out of office buildings and city centers will have far reaching implications. I anticipate opportunities for the entire suburban economy — real estate, hospitality entertainment, health, education, etc. Conversely, the demand for urban office space will lessen and the urban ecosystem built around commuters including bodegas, restaurants, bars, and shops will suffer.
But the remote work story isn’t all rosy. Co-Co member Amy Radin, an innovation expert and author of The Change Maker’s Playbook, worries about the companies announcing they are getting rid of their workspace. “We need to be among other people.” Naysayers also say that problem solving and creativity suffer when teams are remote. Apple founder Steve Jobs was among those opposed to remote work, “Creativity comes from spontaneous meetings, from random discussions.” And IBM, an early adopter of telecommuting, brought workers back to the office for similar reasons..
Remote work, when it’s work from home, offers yet another set of challenges. The distractions are real and include the washing machine, fridge, doorbell, dog, kids, partner, vrbo, social media, bills. I also hear from Co-Co members and staff to go off the clock, when your home is also your office. Perhaps most importantly, working from home can be lonely. Former Surgeon General Vivek Murthy raised the loneliness epidemic as a health crisis in 2014, a situation only compounded by the coronavirus. (HBR article Dec. 2017 — https://hbr.org/2017/12/coworking-is-not-about-workspace-its-about-feeling-less-lonely).
Considering the potential challenges and opportunities in the Post-Covid economy, what do you personally plan to do to rebuild and grow your business or organization in the Post-Covid Economy?
Our business is uniquely positioned for growth and success in the post-COVID economy.
We offer safety. The Co-Co’s Reentry Readiness Task Force has followed guidelines and research from The CDC, the State of NJ and industry leaders around the world to create best practices for opening The Co-Co space. And you don’t have to take a train, bus, or subway.
We offer creativity, a place to focus, and community. Our members report joining The Co-Co to be inspired by the energy and ideas of other people, get away from the distractions of home, and experience community and connection, not loneliness.