There are some people who always know exactly what they want to do in life and dive right in, and then there are people who take the longer road, gathering life experience and trying new things before discovering what their purpose is.
Rachel Kelly is the latter of those two people, an entrepreneurial spirit who has always admired self-starters, but opted for a life of trial (and travel) first, before settling on a vision for her latest and biggest project to date – Make Lemonade, a co-working space in Toronto designed specifically for women to create, collaborate and inspire. I popped by when it first opened on September 18th to check it out and hear more about Rachel’s journey to becoming a renegade. The space itself is bright and airy and beautifully designed amidst a sea of corporate buildings in the city’s downtown core, with pops of yellow throughout each station, from hot desks to individual work stations. There’s an outdoor/indoor space next to a wall of windows, with faux grass and yellow patio chairs, a spot that encourages networking and meeting with fellow members. And although the space is members-only during regular hours, Rachel opens the doors to everyone for special events and workshops that are hosted regularly, with everything from tech panels to meditation classes to calligraphy.
Keep reading to find out how Rachel came up with the idea for her co-working space, who inspired her along the way, and how a bump in the road led her to chose Make Lemonade as the brand name.
So, you’re a total #girlboss now, but we all start somewhere – what did you take in school?
I went to Ryerson to study New Media, which was basically learning how to create art using technology. I learned from an early stage that I didn’t classify myself as an artist, but I definitely liked the curation side of things. I didn’t really know what I wanted to do with my life, and after being in the program for a bit realized it really wasn’t my thing, but I stayed with it because I really liked the community (which has really stuck with me until now, clearly).
So when you graduated, did you dive straight into work or take some time off rediscover?
I did both, actually, working on and off between travelling. I worked for TIFF in the summer in the box office and that was cool because I worked for the press and management office, but after that I took a bit of time and travelled through South America. I also worked for a conference-planning company, which was where I discovered that I loved event planning and creating experiences.
But it was just a maternity leave and when I finished, I had no plans, so I went travelling for a bit in Thailand and Australia. When I returned to Canada, I started working for a travel magazine called Verge, and it was the first remote job I ever had. During that time, I found myself either working from home or from a coffeeshop, where there might not be enough seats or the WiFi sucks. I loved the lifestyle, but it wasn’t sustainable, and that was when the idea of a co-working space first popped into my head.
But first, I decided to take another break and hike Mt. Kilimanjaro, something I wanted to do before I turned 25. I also volunteered in Zanzibar.
Gaddamn, girl – good for you! Did that adventure set you on the path for Make Lemonade?
Well, when I came back, I started volunteering at CSI (Centre for Social Innovation), so I was meeting lots of people, but was also freelancing doing social media for some small brands. I got an offer for a full-time job at an agency, and I thought I’d finally have a solid job and be making good money and everything was going to be great. Then, the day before I was about to start, they told me they couldn’t afford to pay me. I was devastated and bitter, but I thought, “Well, when life hands you a lemon, you’ve gotta make lemonade”, and that’s when I really started to think about my life, what I liked and didn’t like, and then I thought, “This is the time to do a co-working space.”
I knew it needed to be different and I thought about the other communities I was part of, and noticed they were mostly women. These women were having a lot of conversations online, but didn’t have a physical space, so I thought, let’s connect the two. And based on my own feminist values, it just made sense.
What was the first big step you took towards launching Make Lemonade?
On my birthday, I reached out to a family friend who works in real estate and was like, “Hey, how the hell do I even go about this??” It took 7 months to find the perfect space. I knew what I wanted to do, but trying to find the right space over that period of time was frustrating. But when we did find it, it felt great. And then going through construction is like something out of a horror movie – just horrible.
I can’t even imagine. What did you do in that 7 months to pay the bills?
My parents owned a business for 33 years, and when they retired and sold it last year, they told my brother and I that we had a trust and we could do what we want with the money – but we had to do something good with it. So I pitched them the idea of Make Lemonade and asked them to be my silent partners, and they’ve been guiding me the whole way. They’ve been business owners themselves, so they’ve helped both financially and constructively – they’ve been a really strong helping hand.
And then on September 18th, you launched – big sigh. How has it been?
I opened the doors of Make Lemonade and let people sign up once the space was revealed – I didn’t do pre-sign ups or anything. I wanted to curate a community of people who really jived with the space and reflected the Make Lemonade values. It’s not restricted to women, but I do ask that the team is 50% or more women. I’ve had to turn people away because of that, which was tough, but I really wanted to develop the space the way I originally envisioned it.
What avenues have you used to get the word out there in the Toronto community?
Mostly just social media, primarily Instagram. I don’t know what the magic touch is, but I did pretty well in attracting interest in the pre-launch. I just put out stuff that people might be looking for in a space, and really honed in on people I think would like the space and engaged with them in hopes they’d notice me. I’ve been really active in commenting as well. And then I hired Ashley of Ruby Social Co. to do some PR for me. I’ve also been going to a lot of local events and asking to say a few quick words about the space – so it’s really been a lot of word of mouth.
The power of social media is crazy. Have you had any mentors help out along the way?
I’ve always been inspired by entrepreneurial people, even before I started Make Lemonade, so I’ve read loads of books – I always wanted to know how they did it. I’m learning that it’s okay to ask for help, because I had tunnel vision for a long time and thought I needed to do it all myself. But the more I learn from others, the more I realize it’s okay to ask for help.
The thing I’m realizing now is that this is a new job that I’ve never done before. Past experience has prepared me, but nothing can fully prepare you for being your own boss and needing to be the one who makes every decision, big or small. There’s no real path. But the cool thing is that there are so many online resources, and there were tons for opening up a co-working space. I even have a friend who wrote her thesis on it.
So after two months, what’s been the toughest part so far?
Having to accept that I’m the leader, the leader that I’ve always known I was but never really had to be, has been a tougher adjustment than I anticipated. Talking to lawyers, negotiating the lease, communicating with contractors and the bank – this whole world has primarily been men, so I’ve needed to consciously stand my ground and realize I’m just as strong-willed as they are and that I’m the one running the show.
And it seems so ironic because I’m opening a space for women, but through this process, I needed to learn what it meant to be a feminist. I always knew I was one, but never had to speak up about it.
And the most rewarding part of it all?
The amount of people I’ve met has been insane, and it’s been incredible. I kinda forgot about that in the craziness of the planning phases – that I was going to really expand my network and engage with people in the city, women in the city, who were doing really cool things.
You’re a serious inspiration for those of us who are trying to figure life out, one day at a time. Any words of advice for aspiring renegades?
Having positive reminders in your life is a lot more helpful than you can ever imagine. Also, the process of reflection and writing things down in a journal is so important when it comes to focusing on the positives.
It’s really important to take care of yourself and your mental health, because being your own boss can be draining. And you won’t work at your best if YOU’RE not at your best.
The space looks great, I’m going to check it out! I could use a co-working space just like this, a place where I can get out of my own head and interact with other women who share a similar working lifestyle to mine. Rachel is so inspiring, thanks for sharing this renegade with us!