How female-led coworking spaces are shaking up the beauty industry

The coworking trend is finally moving into the beauty world – and these women are putting female empowerment at the centre of their business models.

Looking back over the last few years, it’s hard to think of a workplace trend more striking than the rise of coworking. Stylish, welcoming spaces specifically designed for freelancers to work collaboratively alongside one another are now an integral part of most major cities’ economies – from independent spaces aimed at professionals from specific industries, like Glasgow’s tech-focused Rookie Oven, to international chains such as WeWork (soon to open its first self-contained venue in Manchester).

The slick interiors, high-tech coffee machines and leafy green houseplants ubiquitous to most coworking spaces might make it easy to dismiss them as another millennial fad, but they’re here to stay. Research suggests there will be over 3.8 million ‘coworkers’ worldwide by 2020, with more people turning to coworking in search of flexible hours, a greater sense of collaboration with others and – often – more financial independence. Female-only coworking spaces like The Wing and the AllBright Club have also proved empowering for many female freelancers and entrepreneurs, who’ve found them valuable sources of community and connection in a male-dominated world. 

But while coworking has been widely adopted by people working in fields such as technology and media, the beauty industry has largely been undisrupted by the shift. In recent months, however, several coworking spaces have opened in London for beauty and grooming professionals – from hairdressers and nail technicians to beauticians and barbers. Female beauty entrepreneurs are harnessing women’s spending power, in particular, to establish businesses that offer high-quality treatments while also providing the mostly-female workforce with greater independence, flexibility and financial security.

The success of these projects is proof that this new way of working is effective. It offers women, in particular, a sense of agency and control that many beauty practitioners lack when working in more traditional salons and spaces. In an industry where women are the biggest spenders – as well as the majority of the workers – it seems nonsensical that it’s only now things are really starting to improve.

So, what made these women gravitate towards coworking? And why is it having such a profound impact? Stylist speaks to three to find out.

Monique Tomlinson, director and general manager, The Palms Peckham 

Monique Tomlinson, director and general manager of afro hair and beauty centre The Palms Peckham, sees coworking as a tool for female empowerment. When Southwark Council and Network Rail announced plans to redevelop Peckham Rye station in 2014, it was the local hairdressers who were first targeted for relocation. Having become an institution in their own right, with a reputation for afro hair and beauty services that attracted women from all areas of the UK, Tomlinson knew she had to help.

With money and land provided by the council, she teamed up with art and design collective Something & Son to create a hub for the neighbourhood’s afro hairdressers, beauticians and barbers to grow their businesses. The Palms opened its doors in January to widespread acclaim. But despite rescuing some of Peckham’s most established black hair and beauty businesses, Tomlinson doesn’t see herself as a saviour.

“It’s saving [the businesses], yes, but also making them more sustainable,” she says. “Their old way of trading is becoming a thing of the past. Women want to sit in a gown in a beautiful salon and be offered a cup of tea. If we look at white salons, that’s the norm. So why is it not the norm in our salons?” 

Having created The Palms, Tomlinson is working tirelessly to raise investment and ensure that these female-led businesses are protected and nurtured. “One of the main challenges is that nobody wants to invest in [black-owned beauty businesses] – not time, not money. I feel, once again, that black women are being marginalised and disenfranchised by bodies that don’t take us seriously, don’t want us to succeed, and think we can just continue how we are and be fine,” she says.

“Well, actually, we’re not fine. So it’s a challenge to get them to change their narrative and look on each and every one of these women as a human being.”

Tomlinson says coworking has been key to providing a “support network” for the female beauty entrepreneurs now based in Peckham Palms. “When you do it by yourself, it’s harder and you feel like there’s more pressure,” she says. “You can feel alone and isolated.” Another key element of The Palms is that the stylists all work to encourage and inspire each other. If one can’t offer a specific service, they will recommend another woman who can. For Tomlinson, this feeling of healthy competition and mutual encouragement is crucial: “Let’s inspire and empower each other to build confidence.”

Women now travel miles to visit The Palms, but Tomlinson stresses that there is still a lack of awareness within the hair and beauty industry about the power of the black female consumer. “Black women spend the most on hair and beauty, yet a lot of the time, we’re leaving our hair and beauty regime to other people,” she says. “We’re letting them tell us what’s best for our skin, our hair. Let’s change that. Let’s take that power back.”

In the future, she hopes to expand The Palms into new locations in London and across the country. “I will work tirelessly to make sure that the place is constantly full and the women are always busy and can become financially independent.” 

Lacey Hunter-Felton, co-founder, Hunter Collective 

Lacey Hunter-Felton is an entrepreneur who’s spotted the potential of technology to bring coworking to the beauty industry. She co-founded Hunter Collective in Farringdon with her business partner Nico Bonfiglioli, establishing a space in which fashion and beauty experts can work to their own hours, building a lifestyle that works for them.

Flexibility is at the heart of HC, as Hunter-Felton affectionately refers to it. “I’m really excited by the number and diversity of members we have,” she says. “We have members based in London, other UK cities and across Europe. What I love is that we’re truly diverse because we really do cater for all hair types and textures; we have all sorts of experts working on the shop floor.”

Hunter-Felton was heavily pregnant around the time of the HC launch, so she knows all too well how important work-life balance is. She is passionate about providing this for all of her members, particularly the women. “Historically, it’s women who have taken a step back from their career when they choose to have a family,” she says. “So, I do think having the flexibility to work in the way that you want to is so empowering and important.” But HC’s ethos isn’t just about catering to working mothers, Hunter-Felton stresses: child-free women benefit from flexible working too. “The important thing is that the option is there.” 

While trying to raise investment for HC, Hunter-Felton felt that being a woman – and a pregnant one at that – meant she had more to prove. And she may be right: a 2018 report published in the journal Venture Capital suggests that businesses with all-male teams are four times more likely to receive funding than teams led by women. Unsurprisingly, however, the study found no significant differences in the performance of companies headed by women and those led by men. And Hunter-Felton’s unbridled enthusiasm for – and knowledge of – the beauty industry is more than enough to convince you that she knows exactly what she’s doing.

“It’s just insane that the beauty industry is such big money and is still relatively untapped in terms of the amount being invested in it,” she says. “It’s one of the highest employers in the UK for women. For anyone out there considering what to invest in, it’s a smart, proactive industry incorporating all sorts of compelling technology.”

While she still has respect for the traditional salon spaces where she started her career, Hunter-Felton is convinced that this is just the start of the coworking beauty revolution. “I’m really passionate about the fact that we’ve created an unlimited future for people,” she says. “I don’t see coworking stopping – I see it expanding.” 

Sharmadean Reid, founder, WAH Nails and Beautystack

Reid didn’t just establish a new business in WAH Nails – she transformed the industry. What started as a space in which she could meet friends while getting her nails done evolved into a business with a cult-like following, forcing nail art into the mainstream. WAH Nails was also an early iteration of a coworking space, where women could socialise, share ideas and form strong female networks they may not have found elsewhere. Ten years on, salons everywhere offer the treatments Reid introduced, and she has an MBE for her services to beauty.

But surprisingly, Reid didn’t particularly enjoy the experience of owning a salon. She worried that the traditional economic model for such businesses ensured that female beauticians and manicurists became just “another underpaid labour force”. As a result, she has now launched Beautystack, an app that allows you to use pictures to book treatments directly with the people who created them.

“With Beautystack, what I’m interested in is [supporting] the women I met during the time of owning WAH,” she says. “How can I make them more money?” 

Beautystack is the first example of a virtual coworking space in the UK beauty industry. Reid hopes it will empower women working in the beauty industry and help them become more financially independent, rather than being tied to a specific salon. Workers who use Beautystack keep 90% of the money they generate – a prospect that, as Reid says, is undeniably more appealing than an hourly rate or a commission. 

“At WAH, we’ve already had girls leave because they want to be on Beautystack,” she says. “I’m cannibalising my own business but at least I’m doing it to myself.”

Reid’s plans for Beautystack are big – really big. This is not just another start-up: it’s an entirely new way of working, one that promises to empower women by providing them with more choice and agency. “We used to hear a lot about that old stereotype of women stripping to pay their way through college,” she says. “Well, I won’t be happy until women are doing beauty to pay their way. Really, I won’t be satisfied until I go to India, say, and there’s girls using Beautystack to work and therefore to pay for their houses and their education. That’s my long-term goal.”

The collaborative spaces Reid has created for women – both with WAH and Beautystack – feel genuine, inclusive and clearly resonate with the people using them. “I think people are moving towards coworking because they’re looking to replicate the sort of networks they have in their personal lives,” she says. “I genuinely believe that is the future of beauty services on the high street.”

Images: Garry Carbon / Provided by interviewees