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.”

Posted: December 3, 2013

Colleen DeBaiseHow a Car Accident Inspired an Entrepreneur to Think Big