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In a devastating year for people of color, founder Naj Austin built community across time and space

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Naj Austin is the founder of Ethel's Club and Somewhere Good.
Nicholas Peter Wilson

When Naj Austin opened the doors of Ethel's Club, a social and wellness space designed for people of color, in November 2019, she intended the Brooklyn, New York, clubhouse to be a physical gathering place for professionals and creatives to connect in person. After all, its name honors Austin's late grandmother, a community organizer who hosted energizing events of all sizes from her home.

Just a few months later, in March 2020, those in-person connections would no longer be possible, as state and city officials shut down businesses and limited gatherings in an effort to curb Covid-19's spread.

Within four days of physically closing, however, Austin and her team launched a digital membership model "to keep connection and community alive." The club, which had 300 members in Brooklyn, added another 400 creatives and professionals around the world to its base.

Throughout 2020, the community has provided virtual gathering sessions centered around wellness, healing and connection for Black, Latino and communities of color hit hardest by the health and economic impacts of the coronavirus. The clubhouse offered free grieving sessions after George Floyd's killing sparked a resurgence of Black Lives Matter protests; over 1,000 people signed up within a day. Having already banked $1 million in fundraising earlier in the year, by October, as Ethel's Club grew to 1,500 members, Austin debuted Somewhere Good, a social platform for people of color launching in January.

Growing two young businesses designed for marginalized individuals when they needed it most has kept Austin going this year; and in turn, the spaces she helped build have provided ways to cope with the devastation of 2020. "With this year — the pandemic, the election, the re-uprising of Black Lives Matter — we were fed very intense things through our digital devices," Austin tells CNBC Make It. "One thing I've taken away from our wellness practices in the digital clubhouse is the idea of creating rituals or practices that keep you joyful, empowered and away from negative activity."

Here, she reflects on a year that's presented immense opportunity amid turbulent times, and her hopes of how it will fuel her work into 2021.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Reaching accomplishments in a challenging year

"I don't now if survivor's guilt is the right term, but there's such a gravity of loss in the world. It's hard to feel proud and excited in what we've been able to accomplish in this time. My family has been healthy, I've been healthy, my team and their family have been healthy. It's a strange feeling to have, especially as an early-stage startup founder when others have had to shut down their business, lay off staff or can't raise capital. It sucks. That's definitely hard to reckon with and one of the biggest topics I talk about with my therapist — how to navigate these feelings as a founder, but also as a sister, daughter, girlfriend and just person who is alive right now."

What she's most proud of accomplishing in 2020

"I'm so proud to continue to create space where people can go to feel better, more connected, to find a job or even to find a friend. Every day we find something new someone has discovered through what we've built. That's kept me going in times of chaos. We're providing solace and good energy. I'm incredibly proud of that."

The hardest lesson she learned this year

"I'm a Type-A over-planner. I had everything built out until 2022, and obviously, 98% of that had to change. But the lesson I took from that is there's nothing wrong with planning and having a vision, but don't get so stuck down in the minutiae. I've learned to lean into spontaneity and have less strict boundaries around myself. But I've also had to learn the idea of protecting my energy and space."

Her morning routine

"This year I set a goal to journal more. It started as every morning and night, until I realized that was too much, so I decided to stick with once a day and go from there. Instead of picking up my phone first thing every morning, I'll journal whatever thoughts are in my head to set my intentions for the day. I started doing that a month ago and have done it maybe 12 times, so I'm working toward that habit. I know when I do it, I feel better instead of waking up to see whatever horrible news happened overnight. I get to infuse my take on the world first thing in the day."

Living and working from home

"I rearranged my entire house to make space for calmer moments. I made sure my bedroom was a dedicated sleep space. I created a reading space where the only thing I can do when I sit there is read or journal; I moved my chargers from that area and can't bring my phone, computer or iPad. There are only two spaces in my home where I can work, and if I'm not there, I can't be working.

"Not everyone needs those harsh lines, and obviously I wasn't perfect at the beginning. But after doing it for six months, you quickly learn how to embed and abide by those rituals."

Her 2021 career goals

"I want to spread the idea that marginalized people deserve space made for them. I'm always striving toward that goal. I think another professional goal is to always be a better manager and founder. I'm constantly reading and unlearning things I thought to be true but aren't. As we grow, I've been able to bring on new people who can bring out a better internal work structure.

"And personally, I want to make more time to be intentional.

"In 2020 we've all done a lot, and people haven't had a lot of grace for themselves and others navigating the strange world we live in now. So give yourself grace in terms of what your resolutions look and feel like. We're living through a pandemic. Waking up every day and doing what we planned on doing is already hard enough."

The best book she read this year

"All About Love: New Visions" by bell hooks

"It goes hand in hand with what I've mentioned: Being kind to yourself and making space for yourself is crucial to being alive."

What's on her 2021 reading list

"Black Futures" by Kimberly Drew and Jenna Wortham

"It's an homage to different works created by artists, writers and contributors to the future of Blackness and what that means, looks and feels like. Everything they put into the world has been so inspiring."

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