Columbus’ first coworking and community space catering specifically to women of color will celebrate its grand opening this Friday, April 13.
Through the ups and downs of making the vision of a physical space come to life, Founder LC Johnson developed a mantra that reflects the bigger picture of what Zora’s House represents.
“Zora’s House isn’t a house; it’s us,” Johnson says.
It’s about creating community and a space for women of color designed by and specifically for them – something Johnson felt was missing from Columbus when she moved to the city in 2015.
Johnson started her career in Durham, North Carolina. After graduating from Duke University with a degree in women’s studies, she spent time in the non-profit sector and found her passion for mission-driven work.
In 2011 she helped her mentor open a coworking space for social entrepreneurs – her introduction to both of the business concepts. Throughout the experience, Johnson struggled to find her place. She says her mentor, a white male, was very cognizant of his privilege, but even what they were working on had its roots in avenues of privilege.
The experience sparked Johnson to start her own website, Colored Girl Confidential, writing about her life and her experiences navigating race, gender, work, life and adulthood. The website took off. Building an online community of women of color centered around authenticity, leadership and entrepreneurship put Johnson on the career path of coaching, teaching and speaking.
Johnson says she would have happily stayed in North Carolina, but her husband wanted to move back to his hometown of Columbus as they discussed starting a family. With the move, she also realized that she’d become burnt out and was ready for a new experience.
“I still loved the work, but I think there was a part of me that was feeling very disconnected because I worked off of my laptop; I traveled all the time,” Johnson says. “I wasn’t really rooted where I lived. And I very much missed that place-based aspect of the work.”
She didn’t know what work would look like, but her goal was to get rooted in Columbus.
However, “I was really struggling to find where there were other women of color that I could connect with,” Johnson says.
Most of the experiences she did find for women of color were centered around professional development – great opportunities, but not where she was going to find the friend. She found herself wishing she could take the online community she built offline and in Columbus.
Then she started thinking, “Well what if I could do that? What would it look like to a have a space for women of color, created for us, by us, really centered around our identities, our experiences, our dreams, our sisterhood?”
She said the phrase Zora’s House for the first time.
After telling her husband she wanted to get a “normal job” when they moved to Columbus, to turn around and say let’s invest all our resources in a physical space, Johnson says to his credit, he didn’t run away screaming, but “Has just been such a supporter from the beginning.”
And so on a lot in Weinland Park, Zora’s House was built from the ground up.
“The mission of Zora’s House is to empower women of color to live their best lives and do their best work,” Johnson says.
She wanted to manifest that mission through a physical space because, “Being a black woman, I’m used to navigating spaces that were not created with me in mind,” Johnson says.
She recalls her college years and the alienating feeling of often being the only person of color in a class.
“There’s a part of your mind that’s always thinking about ‘How am I being perceived?'” Johnson says. “You have the burden to represent all people of color in that space and that becomes exhausting.”
She found other women of color that felt the same. Many women she spoke to expressed the only place they felt they could truly be themselves was at home.
Now, they will also have Zora’s House.
“Here you can breathe. Here you can take off the mask. Here you can relax. Here you can connect. This is for you and it’s very rare that we get spaces that are like that,” Johnson says.
A day in the life of Zora’s House will see eight to 10 women working, connecting and talking in the coworking space on the ground floor. Three private offices upstairs also accommodate members. There’s a conference room and an activity room where women can gather to eat lunch, work on projects, etc. Women might grab a book from the library featuring work exclusively from women of color.
“Part of our mission is also to elevate the work and the ideas of women of color,” Johnson notes. She sees the growing library as a community asset that could extend outside the walls of Zora’s House.
In the evening Zora’s House will turn over to host events. It could be a community dinner, or a social gathering, or something like a doula class which the space has already hosted to great response.
“We try to build in opportunities for people to connect in a real, genuine way,” Johnson says. That includes partnering with organizations already organizing trainings or events but looking to connect with more women of color.
The sum of the parts rings true to Johnson’s statement that it’s not just a house or a coworking space.
“We have a mission that’s very deeply rooted in supporting and celebrating the identities and the experiences of the people who are in this space, rooting women of color more deeply in the community,” she says.
She stresses the potential, the minds, the ideas that communities are missing out on when women of color don’t feel safe.
“Being a space that can kind of exemplify for Columbus, and other communities like Columbus, what it looks like to make women of color feel at home, feel like they belong to a city that is invested in them and invested in who they are, and therefore makes them want to reinvest back in that city,” Johnson says.
There is one question Johnson has been asked frequently in regards to Zora’s House. Are men or white women welcome? Johnson openly invites everyone to be a part of the space, even if it is not centered around their identity.
“I challenge people to step outside of their discomfort,” Johnson says.
She encourages everyone to step into someone else’s shoes, to support communities and issues that they might not know from personal experience, but recognize as real, valuable and important.
Zora’s House celebrates its grand opening tomorrow night and will also host a free coworking week April 16-20 to introduce women to the space. For more information, visit zorashouse.com.