Why this former lawyer wants to transform workplaces 'built by and for men'

Amy Nelson, the CEO and founder of The Riveter
The Riveter

Two years and two months ago, Amy Nelson decided to just go for it.

After a decade of working in politics and as a litigator, she left her corporate job to launch The Riveter, a co-working and community space dedicated to bringing diversity and equity into the workplace. (And yes, it's named for cultural icon "Rosie the Riveter.")

Nelson's desire to launch her own company stems from the frustration she felt during her time a lawyer. Years working in a corporate environment opened her eyes to the discrimination women, and especially working mothers, face in a professional setting, Nelson says.

"I thought I would be a lawyer forever, but once I became pregnant for the first time, it felt like the world shifted underneath me," Nelson tells CNBC Make It. "I think that's a really common experience for women in the workplace."

Now a mother of four, Nelson, 39, recalls a situation that arose when she was eight months pregnant with her first daughter. She had been preparing a case for trial when a male colleague questioned whether she could still handle it in her physical condition.

"I was like, 'Of course, I still want to go to trial. I'm eight months pregnant. I'm having a baby. The world is not ending.'"

As head of The Riveter, Nelson says her experience as a working mother in corporate America inspires her daily to treat all of her employees equally. She's focused on creating a gender-inclusive workplace that especially caters to women with children.

"If you look at the workplace today, women are less likely to be promoted than men, and there's also an enormous pay gap," Nelson says. "We want to create a workforce with truly equitable opportunity. If you're not paid the same dollar, you don't have the same opportunity."

In an effort to change what Nelson refers to as a workplace "built by and for men," The Riveter's policy is to allow all of its employees to bring babies to work. The company has dedicated feeding rooms where women can nurse privately, and employees are allowed (and encouraged) to nurse their babies in meetings when necessary.

Just two women at The Riveter have given birth and brought their babies to work since the company's launch, but Nelson says the policy is working out well. And while some may view bringing babies to work as a hindrance to productivity, Nelson disagrees.

"Little babies aren't disruptive. And if it makes life easier to feed them right there, then why don't we try it? I took my baby to a board meeting last week and nursed her multiple times with other men in the room. I put a second cloth over me and it just makes life easier," she says.

At The Riveter, there is also a rule that says internal company meetings can only be scheduled between 10 a.m. and 3 p.m. That way, parents aren't stuck at work if they have an obligation to fulfill as a parent in the morning or late afternoon, Nelson says.

"I know that people have different responsibilities, and I know that they'll get their work done," Nelson says. "This allows them the flexibility to drop their kids off at school or leave early to attend a swim lesson, which I do a lot. It's about treating people like adults."

Nelson allows her employees 16 weeks of paid parental leave following the birth of an employee's child or the placement of a child with an employee in connection with adoption or foster care.

As a new start-up trying to still make great margins, Nelson says that's a big feat, especially given that currently, 40% of employers offer paid parental leave, and as recently as 2015, that number was only about 25% of companies. The Riveter has tripled its revenue since last fall, but Nelson declined to share whether the company is profitable yet.

Since launching in 2017, The Riveter has grown fast. In less than three years, Nelson's company raised $21.6 million in venture capital. Initially, Nelson thought The Riveter would just be a one-location business, but it now has co-working spaces in Los Angeles, Seattle, Austin, Dallas, Denver, Portland and other cities. 

"I called an attorney friend of mine, who was like 'Why build just one of these? Why not build a hundred?'" Nelson says. "At the time, I didn't think I was qualified, but you don't need a degree to start a great company. You just need a vision."

Co-working and member spaces have grown significantly in popularity in recent years, but Nelson emphasizes key differences between The Riveter and its competitors. Men are welcome to become members (though The Wing now allows men to join, that wasn't always the case), and unlike WeWork, The Riveter isn't offering work spaces to whole companies, but rather to individuals.

Nelson also says The Riveter's real aim is to change the future of the workplace by providing people with a place to talk about societal and work-related issues.

In fact, a big focus of the company is its special events, programming, workshops and networking events that are offered to members. On Aug. 19, the company announced its first-ever The Riveter Summit: Women Building the Future, which will be held in New York City on Nov. 6 and 7, 2019. Speakers at the summit will include New York Times editor Jessica Bennett, author Lindy West, and Cindy Robbins of Salesforce. Conference topics will include motherhood and career, entrepreneurship and fundraising, and diversity and inclusion. 

Memberships at The Riveter are chosen by tier. The most basic tier is free and offers users access to open-to-the-public content, such as online articles, e-books and newsletters. And the most advanced tier, The Resident Riveter, costs $99 per month and allows individuals access to flexible working spaces, plus all of The Riveter's sponsored events and programming.

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