Julia Westfall: Building a Community of Women

Julia_westfallJulia Westfall could easily have coasted to retirement. She was 59 years old and had a good job as director of finance and human resources for a marketing and communications company in Bethesda, Maryland. Her twin daughters had started college. She absolutely could have coasted.

But then Westfall read an article about something called Hera Hub and was intrigued. It sounded like the sort of thing she wanted to be involved in. “I wasn’t really interested in retiring; it wasn’t something my husband and I ever talked about, other than planning for it financially. I always saw retirement as something far off in the future, regardless of my age.”

So Westfall began doing some research early last year on Hera Hub – a work and meeting space where women could connect and collaborate – and then reached out to its owner, Felena Hanson, who is based in San Diego County. Many Hera Hub members are professionals who had previously worked from home but found it isolating, or wanted to continue working at home part-time but also needed a space to hold meetings or meet with clients one-on-one. Westfall learned Hera Hub has three established locations in California, but more importantly, Hanson was offering franchise opportunities.

Westfall continued to do her due diligence. She scrutinized her own finances, had a franchise attorney look at the contract, and even went to San Diego to meet Hanson and tour the Hera Hub locations. Impressed with what she found, she signed the franchise agreement after three short months.

“This struck me as an amazing opportunity to do something to help women in small business. I’ve worked with a lot of small businesses over the years and gotten a great education along the way. At this point in my career, Hera Hub seemed like a really exciting way to use that experience.”

Westfall admits there have been some who questioned her decision to buy a franchise rather than starting her own IMG_2811business. She responds, “I didn’t want to do all that branding work; reinventing the wheel. I found an existing opportunity that really suits me and my vision. I’m all about taking advantage of what someone else has done and using what they’ve learned. The franchise option was very attractive to me.”

But Westfall is still a trailblazer, as the Washington DC space is the first franchise for Hera Hub. “That intrigued me, too. I kind of like being first at things. It’s a challenge and I feel like I can make a difference for the people coming up behind me.”

Signing the franchise agreement was only the first step, after which the real work began. Westfall needed to find a location for the business and also to build brand awareness and educate people on the concept of shared workspace. When it became obvious that finding the right space wasn’t going to be easy, Westfall decided to open a temporary location so she could get started as soon as possible.

Westfall recently signed a lease for her permanent location in the Friendship Heights neighborhood of Washington, DC. Hera Hub refers to its décor as “spa-inspired,” but don’t show up expecting a pedicure. The space is serene, quiet, and conducive to working, and private offices and meeting rooms can be reserved as needed.

IMG_2858Hera Hub also hosts evening workshops, programs, and events, where members come together as a community to learn from and support each other to the extent that they choose to.

“It’s a great group of women,” Westfall says of her founding members. “One is an artist. Another woman has a proofreading and editing company. There’s a website designer, an art curator, a business coach, a woman starting her own private equity firm. That’s what’s so great about Hera Hub – it’s real mix. This gives us the opportunity to make connections, support each other, and pass along some individual perspective.”

Eventually, Westfall would like to have about 120-150 members of different membership levels. At that point, she

Julia with member and artist Diana Ludet
Julia with member and artist Diana Ludet

would consider opening other Hera Hub offices in the DC metro area.

Westfall reflects on her age and why she isn’t ready to retire. “The advantage of me being 60 is that I’ve already done so many things, and your experiences make you who you are. I don’t think I would be as successful if I had done this at 40. I would have missed 20 years of experience. This is the right time for me. Also, being older, my husband and I have had the chance to establish ourselves financially.

“I’ve also had people ask if I’m buying this business for my daughters. I’m not. Sure, if they get out of college and are interested and have something to offer I would welcome them, but this business is for me. Although I guess I do want them to know that they can do whatever they want to do, at whatever age they happen to be.”

And for Westfall, Hera Hub can open doors at any age. “You always know that these amazing women are out there – especially in an area like Washington DC – but now I get to actually build relationships with them. That’s where I’m getting the most benefit – getting to know these women who are at all stages in their businesses, all different backgrounds, different education levels. I probably never would have crossed paths with most of them without Hera Hub. I’m very grateful for that.”

Tips from Julia Westfall
  • Whatever your business, find a community of people who care about you and support you.
  • Figure out where your strengths are, and be honest about your weaknesses. Then find support in those areas where you’re not as strong.
  • The pressure to achieve work/life balance can be intense. It can be hard to see the big picture when you’re in the middle of it, but it helps to see work/life balance as something that’s spread over your entire life. Sometimes it’s more about work, and sometimes it’s more about family, and that’s okay.

Felena Hanson: From Hawking Peacock Feathers to Building Work Nests for Women

Hera Hub Felena Hanson SorrentoIf one of your early childhood memories is that of your mother bottle-feeding a baby tiger, the idea of starting your own business might not be that scary.  But for Felena Hanson, the native Californian whose bloodline is saturated with entrepreneurs, a formal education and job in corporate America seemed like a safe path for her…initially.

Hanson had an opportunity not many of us have been given – when she graduated from high school, her father offered, “I’ve saved up some money, and I can give it to you for college or to start a business. It’s your choice.”

Entrepreneurship probably seemed like a no-brainer to her father.  After all, he had dropped out of college his junior year, started a floor-covering business, and never worked for anyone else a day in his life. And her mother, also a college drop out, had done everything from managing an exotic animal zoo to designing jewelry, all on her own terms. “College wasn’t a priority for them,” says Hanson.

Hanson had felt the entrepreneurial tug at eight years old. Capitalizing on a resource in her own backyard – peacock feathers – she diligently collected them one fall and then sold them at the corner market for a quick $80 profit.

Despite the interesting offer from her father, she realized she didn’t have the acumen to start a “real business” so she took the money to enroll in a community college before transferring to University of San Diego, and ultimately graduating with honors. Four years later, she went back for an MBA from Cal State.

But despite the degrees and honors she earned, Hanson is hoping to one day lead a movement to ensure that the approachgoats  to entrepreneurial and business education is radically different than it is today.

“I wouldn’t change my education for anything, but to me, learning entrepreneurship from a textbook is not effective. There are so many ways you can learn.” Admittedly, it took a while for her to trust that instinct in herself.

After getting her MBA, Hanson sought to learn lessons from the start-up world thinking it would be a nice compromise between launching a business herself and working in a huge corporate environment.

“My career in high tech marketing was a bit bumpy. As many venture-backed companies experience, two sold and one ran out of money. I was attracted to nimble, innovative companies, but unfortunately that meant a lot of job insecurity.”

The constant ups and downs of the startup world, wore on Hanson. Like the peacocks that shed their feathers each year, Hanson felt all the layoffs were calling her to reinvention.

Another lesson in entrepreneurship came with a relatively early marriage (age 24)  In addition to being the primary bread winner, Hanson backed her husband as he set off to launch a  surf-apparel business and film and produce surf movies. It gave her first-hand access to entrepreneurial experience, but when she got divorced, she left the business – and all the money she had personally invested – with her husband.

Thirty, and determined to work for herself, Hanson launched a marketing business from her home that allowed her to use the best of what she had learned in the start-up world for the benefit of her clients. While she loved working for herself, she also found the experience isolating.

She looked around at potential office spaces where she might lease or share space.  There were plenty to choose from and they all had one thing in common – they were either way over the top or were geared towards young males – beer kegs and ping pong tables were in abundance. “Playing beer pong was not how I envisioned spending my free time or brainstorming my new business with my colleagues. And yet the panic of ‘will my new client be ok having a meeting at Starbucks or at my dining room table?’ was not working for me.”

Hanson envisioned a space where female entrepreneurs could have access to professional space and a collaborative community. She started speaking with local women’s groups about their needs and it became obvious that she wasn’t the only one looking for increased opportunities for collaboration.

Hera HubThe seed for HeraHub was planted and she started looking for space immediately.  Named for the Greek Goddess of women – Hera – and the need for women to have a community gathering place, or a Hub, to share ideas and lean on each other, Hera Hub officially launched in San Diego in August 2011.

The co-working space is spa-inspired, which means soft music, water features, great lighting, candles, and the aroma of fresh flowers – an open space with no cubicles but plenty of areas for quiet reflection or co-working.

And just as important, Hanson didn’t see Hera Hub as a space just for entrepreneurs to host a client or take a break from the dining room table. “We are very focused on education and community and connection. We collaborate with many professional women’s organization – to provide them with a physical platform to host workshops and meetings.

Since launching in San Diego and seeing the response – immediate and enthusiastic – Hanson quickly realized the opportunity in expanding. Putting in $60K of her own money and another $30K loan from her father, she opened a second and third location in San Diego County. When she was ready to expand outside San Diego she took on a female angel investor to support the company in franchise growth. This angel (Silvia Mah) has also spearheaded the educational arm of Hera Hub – www.Hera-LABS.com.

Hanson has successfully secured her first franchise location in Washington, DC, with long-time resident Julia Westfall – www.HeraHub.com/DC

“My BHAG (big, hairy audacious goal) is to support over 20,000 women in the US and abroad with 200 locations in the next five years.”

And with the watchful eye of Hera over her, she is confident she’ll be able to do that. “It wasn’t until after I chose the name Hera that I realized her symbol is the male peacock feather: the same product that launched me as an entrepreneur at age eight. When I found the reference, I knew I was on the right path.”

Tips from Felena Hanson

  • No one has it figured out. That’s what I learned working in corporate America. We’re always pivoting. I’ve made a million mistakes. There’s never a time when you get to lean back and say, ‘Oh, I figured it all out.’”
  • For people who have a desire to start their own business, but fear the loss of a safety net?  With multiple rounds of layoffs over the last decade, I’ve found working for yourself (taking charge of our career path) is less risky.  I’m proud to say I’m unemployable!