How a Car Accident Inspired an Entrepreneur to Think Big

Colleen DeBaise By Colleen DeBaise

Felena Hanson of San Diego vowed to make an impact after a near-fatal wreck. She’s opened Hera Hub, a coworking space that aims to push women-owned businesses to the next level.

It was 1996, and 22-year-old Felena Hanson was driving through an intersection in San Diego to meet friends when a fire truck smashed into her car. She broke 27 bones in her arms, legs and face.

“I was in a wheelchair for about three months. I was told I would never run again,” she says. “What a great wake-up call to really give you some perspective on life.”

As she began a long recovery, Hanson, like many who have experienced “life is short” moments, vowed to make an impact on the world. She got an MBA. She started her own marketing business. She took leadership position with Women’s Global Network and Ladies Who Launch, two groups that aid women business owners.

But that wasn’t enough. “I knew I wanted to build something bigger than myself,” says Hanson, now 40. About five years ago, as she looked around at her own home office, the proverbial lightbulb went off.

“Women especially crave community,” she says. “You stick a woman in her spare bedroom, looking at a blank wall, talking to her cat for eight years – that was me — it’s hard to innovate, it’s hard to think about new ideas, and it’s hard to be creative in that environment.”

Hanson came up with the idea for Hera Hub, a co-working space focused on women. She had seen shared workspaces, then just popping up in New York, Los Angeles and San Francisco, but found they targeted a demographic that was younger, high-tech and decidedly male. “To be frank, a lot of times it’s a bunch of dudes in skinny jeans with headphones…and rock music playing in the background,” she says. “It’s not quite – at this stage in my life – what I’m looking for in a workspace.”

“Plus I’m a blonde girl bouncing around in my ponytail,” she says. “I got patted on the head many, many times,” — Felena Hanson

Hanson’s concept: Apply a “spa-aesthetic” to a shared workspace, complete with candles, soft music and running water, that would resonate with women. Add a conference room, private meeting area, community gathering area, and workshops and networking sessions for professional development. She wrote up a business plan, naming her business after Hera, the Greek goddess of women.

After that, she just needed to find financing – never an easy task for any start-up entrepreneur — and get her hands on commercial space.

The money issue was solved by a rather unlikely event: The 2008 financial crisis. When Hanson saw her entire life savings, all invested in the market, drop by 40%, she thought: “I’m not putting my money in mutual funds and various vehicles [where] I have no control whatsoever.” She liquidated nearly all of her accounts and invested the cash in her idea. “At least I know where the money is,” she says, during a recent interview at her San Diego office. “I’m sitting on it, literally.” Together with a small loan from her father, she had $60,000 to invest in a commercial space.

But leasing her first space wasn’t so easy. “Especially coming out of 2008, the commercial real estate market was gun-shy,” she says. “Nobody wanted to take a risk.” Most owners of building didn’t know what a co-working space was, “plus I’m a blonde girl bouncing around in my ponytail,” she says. “I got patted on the head many, many times.”

Two deals fell through in the 11th hour, after months of negotiation. Finally, Hanson secured a 5,000 square-foot-space in the Sorrento Mesa area of San Diego, spending an additional $40,000 more than planned and personally guaranteeing the deal. “It was a huge, huge gamble,” she says.

By that time, it was August 2011. The one advantage of all the delays, Hanson says, is that she had hyped the plan her network of female entrepreneurs for what seemed like ages. She quickly signed up 80 members. Within three months, Hera Hub had broken even, and has been profitable since, she says.

Hanson has now opened two more Hera Hub locations in San Diego, and grown to 300 members, many of whom are accountants, lawyers and management consultants. She plans to franchise the concept, recently getting approval to franchise in 32 states. She estimates that there are about 1,500 co-working spaces in the U.S., and only one other, Serendipity Labs of Rye, N.Y., which doesn’t cater exclusively to women, is a franchise.

Hanson’s long-term goal is to open 200 Hera Hub locations, both in the U.S. and abroad, and help 20,000 women launch and grow their businesses.

“This really can tie back in to my car accident,” says Hanson, who still has titanium plates in her face. “I knew I was here to do something more than marketing.” Hera Hub, she says, is a way to “help and support other people in their journey as well.”

Read Full Transcript

Felena Hanson — Founder, Hera Hub

Felena Hanson (FH): When I say I want to build 20oo locations and help 20,000 women across the world launch and grow their business, people will like pull back and, like, oh my gosh, wow, that’s daunting, how are you going to do that?

I get the phrase ‘that’s aggressive,’ all the time. And I say ‘would you have said to me if I was a man?’

CARD: Felena Hanson — Founder – Hera Hub — San Diego, California — USA

SOT: Hello, ladies!

FH: Hera Hub is a shared work and meeting space. We focus on female entrepreneurs. My competition is someone’s spare bedroom and Starbucks.

SOT: Go big or go home (laughter).

FH: I was born in a fairly small town on the central coast of California and I grew up in an entrepreneurial family. My father had a floor covering business. Very exciting – carpet, tile, hardwood. My mother was an artist and a performer.

My parents were married young and probably not the best suited for each other. And so when they finally decided to divorce there was a fierce custody battle.

The impact this had on me was I’m fiercely independent. And I really decided at a young age that I would not be dependent on somebody else.

CARD: Felena graduated college with a business degree in 1995. She began a career in marketing.

CARD: When she was 22, she was in a life-threatening car accident.

FH: I broke about 27 bones in my arms, legs and face. I was in a wheelchair for about three months. And, boy, what a great wake-up call, to really give you some perspective. I really stepped back and said, ‘okay, what am I doing with my life?’

CARD: Felena decided to leave her corporate job and moved to San Diego. She started her own marketing firm – working from home.

FH: Working at home is, frankly, convenient and, obviously, cost-effective but it has its downsides. Distractions: I live with my long-time boyfriend and his son and sometimes it can be hard to focus.

And, also, isolating, frankly. You stick a woman in a room, staring at a blank wall, talking to her cat for 8 years…that was me. And it’s hard to innovate, it’s hard to think about new ideas.

CARD: Felena knew other business women facing similar challenges.

CARD: She began to explore the potential of a shared workspace business.

FH: What I found is, in many, many cases, these coworking spaces were targeted to a younger, high-tech demographic. So a lot of times it’s a bunch of dudes, in skinny jeans and headphones, with, and you know, rock music playing in the background. It’s not quite at the stage of my life what I’m looking for in a workspace.

So my concept was to take this coworking world that was very male-focused and apply a spa aesthetic to it. Nice lighting, soft music, running water.

CARD: But realtors were reluctant to rent to her.

FH: This is a new business and a new concept and I got a lot of people going ‘What, workspace for women? What is this? What, you want to rip the whole center of the place out and open it up? You don’t want cubicles? What are you talking about’

CARD: After three years, Felena finally secured a place.

CARD: Using her life savings and a loan from her father, she opened Hera Hub in August 2011.

FH: One of the common misconceptions about a female-focused workspace is that we’re all selling each other jewelry, and that’s not true. These are professional women who simply need a space to work, on a flexible basis, they need a place to meet clients outside the coffee shop and they need that sense of community.

CARD: Members include accountants, attorneys, management consultants, and educators.

SOT: Any thoughts about Friday? So far so good. Ok, awesome.

CARD: After just a year, Felena opened two more Hera Hub locations in San Diego.

FH: My goal over the next five years is to launch 200 Hera Hub locations internationally, so I’ve decided to franchise the business. I have confidence in it because I believe what I’m doing. And why not be confident? What’s the alternative? Being meek and scared? That’s no way to live life!

Credits:

Producers – Victoria Wang and Sue Williams
Director – Sue Williams
Editor – Merril Stern
Director of New Media and Outreach – Colleen DeBaise
Director of Photography – Sam Shinn
Associate Producer – Nusha Balyan
Assistant Editor – Matt Strickland
Social Media Coordinator – Heather Mangal
Music – Killer Tracks

Photos Courtesy of:
123rf

Posted: December 3, 2013

Colleen DeBaiseHow a Car Accident Inspired an Entrepreneur to Think Big