San Diego entrepreneur Felena Hanson launched Hera Hub, a co-working space company supporting women entrepreneurs, after a near-fatal car crash pushed her to add meaning to her life.
Felena Hanson: I broke about 27 bones in my arms, legs and face. And, boy, what a great wake-up call, to really give you some perspective on life.
Colleen DeBaise: Welcome to The Story Exchange, featuring the stories and strategies of entrepreneurial women around the world. I’m Colleen DeBaise, an editor at The Story Exchange, and we’ll be joined later by our co-founder, Sue Williams.
On today’s show, we are talking about a special topic: Turning setbacks into triumphs. Life can sometimes deal us a difficult hand -- and it’s up to us how we play it.
Case in point: Felena Hanson Hanson. She’s now a successful, dynamic, larger-than-life entrepreneur in San Diego. But nearly two decades ago, when she was just 22 years old, Felena was in a horrific car accident -- one that left her in a wheelchair for months, and with titanium plates in her face.
If you talk to Felena in person today -- she’s a beautiful woman, but if you look closely you can still spot scars from the accident. She’s had more than a dozen surgeries.
Felena is very open, however, about how much the accident was a defining moment in her life, especially her career. During her long recovery, she realized that corporate work, selling products she just wasn’t passionate about, was NOT for her. She wanted to do something more. She wanted to inspire other women. And more than anything she wanted to help and encourage other women -- like herself -- who wanted to be in business for themselves.
Felena Hanson: Women, especially, crave community. 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.
Colleen DeBaise: In the mid-2000s, Felena came up with an idea: Why not open up a place where women could run their startups, do some networking, and take their businesses to the next level? She launched her first 5,000-square foot office in 2011.
Felena Hanson: Hera Hub is a shared work and meeting space. We focus on female entrepreneurs. My competition is someone’s spare bedroom and Starbucks.
Colleen DeBaise: We wanted to find out more, so we headed to San Diego to talk to Felena Hanson at Hera Hub’s original location - she’s since opened more, of course. If you go to our website, TheStoryExchange.org, you can watch a video we produced, telling Felena’s complete story. Today, we are going to share snippets of that conversation. If you’ve ever wondered how to turn adversity or a stumbling block into success, this is a story for you.
Colleen DeBaise: It was 1996, and Felena had recently graduated with honors from the University of San Diego, where she majored in business administration, with an emphasis in marketing.
Felena Hanson: The reason why I love marketing is it’s a balance to me of the practical business side, but also the creative side as well.
Colleen DeBaise: Her first job was in Los Angeles, doing sales for an orthodontics company. She spent just a few months there…
Felena Hanson: ...then moved on to another position in, also inside sales for an ever exciting furniture company. So my career was off to, just a very exciting trajectory.
Colleen DeBaise: Well, first jobs...we’ve all been there. Felena Hanson hadn’t found her niche yet. But she was young, enjoying life and not particularly worried.
Felena Hanson: So, I came back to San Diego for a weekend. It was a Saturday night, a little later in the evening. I had my windows rolled up, and the radio on, and was really excited to reunite with some college friends. I remember thinking, oh I am so excited. I never hit this green light. And...there was a fire truck that was heading north through the same intersection. And I didn’t see or hear them. We collided in that intersection.
Once they were able to free me from the car, I was life-flighted to the local hospital, UCSD, and proceeded to have about two weeks of surgeries pretty much around the clock, and then was moved to a rehab facility in Los Angeles.
Colleen DeBaise: It was about six months before Felena Hanson could even move back to her apartment.
Felena Hanson: Believe me, I looked like a squashed blueberry. I mean I just, I was missing teeth. My left side of my face was pretty much crushed.
Colleen DeBaise: The experience, naturally, affected her deeply. Some people might have fallen into a depression...or just become very bitter about life. Felena Hanson chose not to do either.
Felena Hanson: I really stepped back and said, ‘Okay. What am I doing with my life? I need to really think about what my impact is here in the world and what was I meant to do.
Colleen DeBaise: Felena Hanson got busy. First, she decided to go back to school and get an MBA, at California State University. Then, she moved to San Diego and started a business out of her home, called Perspective Marketing, providing strategic advice to small businesses. She took leadership positions with two organizations that help female entrepreneurs -- Women’s Global Network and Ladies Who Launch. But she still wanted to do more. About seven years ago…the light bulb went off.
Felena Hanson: Working at home is frankly, convenient and obviously cost-effective. But it has its downsides -- distractions. I live with my boyfriend and his son and dogs and cats and crockpots and laundry and all types of things, sometimes it can be hard to focus, and also isolating, frankly.
Colleen DeBaise: Felena knew other business women facing similar challenges. So she came up with the idea for Hera Hub, a co-working space focused exclusively on women. At that time, shared work spaces were just popping up in New York and San Francisco…
Felena Hanson: 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 with headphones, and you know, rock music playing in the background. So my concept was to take this coworking world that was very male-focused and apply a spa aesthetic to it. Nice lighting, candles, soft music, running water.
Colleen DeBaise: So that’s the first part of Felena’s story -- and we’ll continue in just a bit with how she opened her first location and recently started franchising as well.
I’m being joined now by Sue Williams, co-founder of The Story Exchange, who spent a day with Felena in San Diego and produced our video profile of her. By the way, if you’ve never checked out our site, please do so - It’s TheStoryExchange.org. We’re a nonprofit media company and we produce articles and videos about women business owners. Hi, Sue.
Sue Williams: Hi, Colleen.
Colleen DeBaise: So, Sue, I am curious. What is Hera Hub’s space like?
Sue Williams: The main area is big and open. It has private meeting rooms off on one side. It’s quite minimal. The desks have very simple clean lines. The space has a bit of a Chinese fung shui feel with beautiful plants and mellow lighting. There are definitely no foosball or ping pong tables there. Um, there’s a really nice receptionist at the front desk so it feels very professional, which is what you want, of course, if you invite people for a meeting. And one final little tidbit, it’s named after Hera, the Greek goddess of women.
Colleen DeBaise: Awe, that’s nice. Well that all sounds rather...refreshing. So I understand, once Felena came up with this idea, it took her a little time to actually get it off the ground.
Sue Williams: Right - well, first of all, she needed to come up with financing…
Colleen DeBaise: Which, of course, is tough for any entrepreneur. And she was trying to do this around 2008, what is right when the financial crisis hit.
Sue Williams: Yes, but oddly, that actually helped her. Her life’s savings were all invested in the stock market. And when that took a hit -- she decided to liquidate….This is what she told me:
Felena Hanson: Like everyone, I lost about 40% of my portfolio, I thought “I have no control whatsoever of where I’m investing and what’s happening.” And so frankly, I pulled my money out of the market and thought, “I’m gonna put it into my business. At least I know where the money is. I’m sitting on it, literally.
Colleen DeBaise: Wow, bold move.
Sue Williams: Yes. But that’s not all. Like many entrepreneurs, she also borrowed money from her parents, taking a small loan from her father. She had about $60,000 dollars in all to invest in a commercial space.
Colleen DeBaise: But that wasn’t easy either -- again, ya know, coming out of this time, out of 2008, the real estate market was gun-shy.
Sue Williams: Yes, realtors were reluctant to rent to her. And it wasn’t just because of the economy.
Felena Hanson: The commercial real estate business is very male-dominated, and 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’
Sue Williams: Well, twice, she thought she had deals -- only to see them fall apart at the 11th hour after months and months of negotiations. So she started working with a commercial real estate broker, which helped. And finally -- maybe it was third time lucky -- she secured a 5,000-square-foot space….
Felena Hanson: So it was a huge, huge gamble and all in all, probably ended up spending close to $100,000 to really get signed, sealed, delivered, doors open and fully operational.
Colleen DeBaise: Wow, so that’s a lot more. Thats about $40,000 dollars more than she had planned originally.
Sue Williams: Yes. And she definitely didn’t expect the process to take so long -- she didn’t officially open her doors until August 2011. But she says the delays, in some ways, actually helped her. Her business grew really quickly…
Felena Hanson: Part of that was because my background in marketing, and I had built a significant community here in San Diego. And it, frankly, had taken me so darn long to find space that everybody was like, “When is this opening [chuckles] When is this opening?” So we had-- we had a pretty good runway, so to speak, right out of the gate.
Colleen DeBaise: Wow, well, good for her.
Sue Williams: Yes. She signed up 80 members right away -- and within three months, she had broken even. And she says it’s been profitable ever since.
Colleen DeBaise: Great. Well, Sue, any last thoughts about Felena Hanson?
Sue Williams: Yeah, she’s from a small town in central California, and she grew up in an entrepreneurial family. Her father had a floor covering business, and her mother was an artist and performer. But her parents divorced when she was young, and there was a very bitter custody battle -- and as a result, Felena is fiercely independent. She decided at a young age that she didn’t want to rely on anybody else. And I think that’s made her a strong businesswoman.
Colleen DeBaise: Yeah...I bet it has. Well, thanks for joining us, Sue.
Felena Hanson : One of the common misconceptions about a female-focused workspace is that we’re all selling each other jewelry, and that’s not true. [chuckles] These are professional women who simply need a space to work, on a flexible basis.
Colleen DeBaise: We’ve been sharing the story of Felena Hanson Hanson, who after a terrible car accident, wanted to make an impact on the world. Her focus has been on helping other female entrepreneurs. A year after opening her first Hera Hub location, Felena Hanson opened two more in San Diego. She now has hundreds of members, many of them accountants, lawyers and management consultants.
And, she is not stopping….
Felena Hanson: So my goal over the next five years is to support over 20,000 women in the launch and growth of their business through 200 Hera Hub locations internationally. And have confidence in it because, I’m so passionate about it and 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!
Colleen DeBaise: We caught up with Felena Hanson recently -- and she is right on schedule. In April, she opened her first East Coast Hera Hub, in Washington, D.C. It is her first franchise location. So four down…196 more to go.
Felena Hanson: And then our target outside of the United States -- and we know it’s gonna take us, you know, probably a couple years to get the system down officially -- we’re looking at about 22 countries throughout the world that are, again, pro-women and pro-entrepreneurship.
Colleen DeBaise: And to think, if something so disastrous hadn’t happened….it’s possible none of this fantastic stuff would have happened, either.
Colleen DeBaise: Join us next time to hear more stories about innovative and inspirational women doing the things you’d never dream of. Or….maybe you would. This has been The Story Exchange. If you like what you’ve heard, visit our website at TheStoryExchange.org, where you’ll find news, videos and tips for women entrepreneurs. I’m Colleen DeBaise. Editing helped provided by Nusha Balyan. Production coordinator is. Michelle Ciotta Interview recorded by Sam Shinn. Executive producers are Sue Williams and Victoria Wang.
This podcast was originally posted on Sept. 8, 2015.