At first glance, you could mistake Sesh Coworking for a SoHo loft or one of those Instagram-worthy penthouses surreptitiously rented out to elite social media influencers.
The mid-century-modern furniture is wrapped in plush velvet, the houseplants tastefully appointed, the art eye-catching and modern. And on the morning I visit, the entire scene is bathed in a haze of natural light streaming in from the glass ceiling above—while Britney Spears’s “Baby One More Time” wafts across the room on the loudspeaker.
Despite the private shower, red wine facial masks near the front desk, and bottles of red wine in the fridge, founders Meredith Wheeler and Maggie Segrich are quick to point out this place is no spa. The members—who pay $25 for a daily pass and between $139 to $199 for a monthly membership—are here for the same reason.
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“The women who come here are here to work,” Wheeler said. “This is a relaxing environment, sure, but it’s also a very collaborative and productive one.”
Hoping to carve out a space designed to accommodate the reality of the changing workday, Wheeler has joined forces with Segrich, a freshly arrived New York transplant and small business owner, to create Houston’s first coworking space specifically aimed at female professionals.
Housed inside a two-thousand-square-foot Montrose loft, Sesh offers typical office accoutrements, with access to workstations, a conference room, lots of seating, and plenty of coffee. But there’s also a designated “wellness room” on site, a game area for children, prominently displayed Beyoncé idolatry, and a fifteen-foot indoor tree named after Ann Richards, a beloved Texas feminist and one time occupant of the Governor’s mansion. It all adds up, the women say, to a working space rooted in flexibility and support.
That support, the women argue, is what’s missing from the modern workplace. Despite notable gains in gender equality, they say, women—especially those toggling between kids and demanding careers—tend to exist in a perpetual state of juggling, with numerous open tabs inside their minds at once. That’s even more true, they maintain, for a growing number of entrepreneurs and employees engaged in remote, flexible work, where the line between personal and professional lives has never been blurrier. After starting families, both women said they could no longer tolerate working environments that didn’t allow them to prioritize motherhood with the same passion that they approached their careers. Out of this realization, they said, the idea for Sesh was born.
“I think women have a tendency to not just show up as a worker bee to do their job,” Wheeler said. “They show up with a list of things in the back of their mind that they also have to accomplish throughout the course of the day, whether that’s making their kids’ doctor’s appointment, checking in with the dog walker or remembering, okay, I need to extend the babysitter’s hours because we have an open house this Friday.”
“We have all these other roles in our lives in addition to running our careers, but too many offices don’t acknowledge that fact,” she added.
Sesh arrives at a unique moment in Houston’s work history. The city’s health is still deeply connected to fluctuating oil prices. But its economy has expanded to include one of the largest medical centers in the world, a massive manufacturing base, and a growing number of small manufacturers, technology companies, and start-ups—many of which rely on female employees and freelancers who work remotely.
And yet, despite a diversifying economy and a population with far more female professionals in its ranks than several decades ago, the city still has no shortage of testosterone-infused boardrooms and remains firmly rooted in energy, one of the least gender diverse sectors of the economy.
At the same time, the number of women-owned businesses has grown dramatically over much of the past decade. Sesh’s owners argue the combination of all these trends means there is an appetite for a coworking space that caters to women.
I sat down with both working mothers to discuss wellness rooms and beauty routines, Houston’s changing demographics, and what women are increasingly demanding from the workplace.
Texas Monthly: Since we’re in Houston, let’s start with Beyoncé. You named your conference room the Queen B conference room and her image and lyrics are on the wall. What does she represent for Houston’s working women?
Meredith Wheeler: We knew we wanted to honor Houston and strong women and it would be crazy if we didn’t give a nod to Beyoncé. I think she represents empowerment for women everywhere. But the fact that she’s from here and came from a normal, everyday life and now she’s on top of the world, that’s inspiring for women. She’s constantly preaching empowerment and taking your life into your own hands with hard work, and that’s part of our philosophy as well.
TM: Beyond empowerment, part of your pitch, it seems, is the idea that a workplace should be designed to make people’s lives easier, which sounds so reasonable, but is still not many professionals’ lived reality.
MW: We’ve found that a lot of women are finding ways to work remotely, freelance, or starting businesses because many jobs don’t provide the flexibility they’re seeking. They’re drawn to roles that acknowledge that they have more happening in their life than just work. The problem is, when women step into a more flexible role, some of the benefits of a traditional work environment are lost: they don’t automatically get to sit next to people, they may not have access to a good cup of coffee, they may not have a professional space for meetings, but they also may not feel comfortable inviting people into their home.
Maggie Segrich: And most women aren’t working for eight hours straight—they’re juggling, and we’re no different. I recently moved to Houston from New York and one of the biggest adjustments for me was how much time we spend traveling here. Women are in our car to go drop our kids off. We’re in our car to go to our workout or to run our errands or to go to an office or a meeting. So I find that you kind of have to be a little transient. You got to have your water bottle and your coffee and your laptop and your charger and headphones. And if you have little kids, you need to make sure you have all the plethora of things you need to carry for babies.
MW: This is a hub for women to use as a launchpad for work or between meetings in different parts of the city. In Houston, so many people commute from the suburbs into the city and don’t necessarily have a place to go between meetings.
We also wanted to provide support for working mothers, who still bear the brunt of most child care. So you’ll notice we have some kids’ goodies here, too [points to games and toys in one section of the room]. We have child-friendly hours Monday through Thursday from 2:30 p.m. to 4:30 p.m. We want our members to know that their kids are welcome.
TM: Across the hall from the Queen B conference room there’s a “wellness room.” That sounds like something you’d find in a spa. How do working professionals incorporate a wellness room into their daily activities?
MW: So with the wellness room, we wanted to create a space that took care of the mental side of life. So in this space, a woman can reserve it and she can come in and use it for whatever she needs—meditation, quiet breathing techniques, taking a nap. There’s even enough room for her to do some yoga stretches, private conversations, if she’s a new mom a place to pump. Somebody asked if they could come in to cry and get some of that energy out and we said, “Of course!”
TM: Customers can also purchase masks for facials, new thongs, razors, makeup remover, and access to a private shower. Why did you decide to offer those items?
MW: Some of these items just offer a little pampering that you can give yourself on a day when you’re stressed or need to prepare for a meeting. But you know, we’re women, so sometimes we have menstruation popping up when we least expect it and this space acknowledges that reality.
MS: Or like myself, I go running, I do Pilates, I do yoga, and it gets sweaty in Houston, so you have to bring an extra change of clothes and sometimes you forget your underwear. So, you know, this is just something extra that we’ve thought about to make women’s lives a little easier.
TM: Both of you have a diverse work history that has played out in conventional and unconventional work settings. Are there any particular jobs or incidents that influenced how you designed Sesh Coworking?
MS: When I first moved to New York, I worked in a small financial firm in the Chrysler Building, a department that was inside another department. So we had no windows and I had to walk past all these glass offices full of men, including one of the firm’s owners, to get to a window or to get coffee or water. You’d just walk really quickly and hope the owner didn’t call out your name and call you into his office.
Maybe it wasn’t an intentional thought, like we’re just gonna put glass on the front of every office so that when women walk to the bathroom they feel like they’re being watched, but that was the result.
MW: It’s not necessarily that work spaces are intentionally designed to hurt or discriminate against people. I remember working at a Starbucks a year or two ago and trying to sit in the chairs and running into a fairly common problem for women. We tend to sit forward when we work and men tend to lean back, and these chairs were designed for leaning back. Finally, I just said, “I just can’t do this!” I couldn’t sit in that chair longer than twenty minutes—forget about getting work done there. So, yeah, subtle differences in design can make a big impact.
TM: Your business arrives at a precarious moment in the coworking world, a time when investors have begun to question the wisdom of pouring money into an increasingly crowded industry that has yet to weather a recession. How do you plan to distinguish yourselves?
MW: In the last five years, it has seemed like some coworking companies were positioning themselves as tech companies, and I think that that skewed valuations and led to where we are now. But we’re not a tech company. We’re a flexible workspace and community focused company.
MS: Some companies, whether it’s through their website or their social media, or even just from the moment that you walk in the door, can seem a little exclusive and not necessarily welcoming to all. We do know of coworking spaces that have an application process where you have to be approved. So if you go to the space, you’re stopped at the front desk and that’s as far as you can get.
MW: We wanted to always remain approachable and authentic. That’s just, I think, our philosophies on life, too.
TM: You all are both mothers with three daughters between you. You’ve said you hope this space influences them as they get older. What did you mean by that?
MW: It’s been really cool seeing our three daughters get to know each other and become friends. But knowing we’ve created a space that is going to provide them with an alternative, another choice, has been amazing, too.
MS: It’s also providing them with an opportunity to show them that THIS is how you can work. I went to my daughter’s parent-teacher conference on Monday and at the end, the teacher said, “Oh, how is Sesh? How are you doing? How’s the space?”
I didn’t even know the teacher knew about it, but apparently my daughter talks about it all the time. Her teacher said, “She is so proud of you,” and later she said that to me in person. And I was like, wow. I think that’s the first time being a mom that I’ve heard my daughter say that. And I was just like, this is so cool!
MW: Me and my husband recently picked up my girls from my parent’s place, where they were staying for the weekend. So we went into the playroom upstairs and they had a dry-erase board and they had tried to draw our logo and wrote something like, “It’s girls Sesh time,” and they had all their stuffed animals set up and they were leading a coworking session! I think that says it all.