Portland entrepreneur Heather Ashby’s dream is to create a work environment for women that is free from male harassment, judgment and intimidation.

She plans to make that dream a reality by opening a shared workspace and social club for women called CoworkHERS on Congress Street in downtown Portland. Ashby and her husband own the office building at 411 and 415 Congress, which, ironically, was built and previously owned by the men-only Freemasons’ society.

Ashby is hard at work converting a portion of the building into a co-working space that will feature offices, lounge areas, meeting rooms, a library, lockers and a fitness room. There will even be a room where children can play while their mothers work nearby, she said. Ashby hopes to host a grand opening of the facility on Dec. 1.

“I wanted to, in the latter half of my life, do something that was meaningful to me,” she said. “I wanted to create a place where women could escape from their kitchen counters, if they’re working from home, and be around other women.”

CoworkHERS is coming to Congress Street in downtown Portland. Staff photo by Shawn Patrick Ouellette

Co-working spaces are growing in popularity because they solve a common problem for small startups and independent contractors: They offer all the basic amenities of a corporate office at a much lower cost.

Pricing and services vary, but in general, co-working spaces provide professional-looking offices where clients, often referred to as members, can stop in anytime to use a desk or a cubicle, wireless internet service, a printer, meeting space or other facilities.

Like other shared workspace facilities in Portland, CoworkHERS also will function as a gathering place for social and educational events in the community, Ashby said. Male attendees will be welcome at those events, she said, as will male clients, contractors and employees of CoworkHERS members on an everyday basis. However, only women will be allowed to purchase memberships, which will start at $100 a month, Ashby said. Monthly parking also will be available for $75 a month through an arrangement with a nearby parking garage, she said.

“It’s female-focused, but not gender-specific,” Ashby said. “Women have been discriminated against – I don’t want to turn the tables. I don’t want it to be a man-hater’s club.”

Recent news reports have been full of revelations about male harassment of women in the entertainment industry, media, the technology sector and politics. However, Ashby said she came up with the idea for a women-only co-working space months ago, before those stories became so prevalent.

Still, she said she can relate to the plight of women who are facing workplace harassment and the struggles they endure.

A sign announces CoworkHERS, coming Dec. 1. Only women will be allowed to buy memberships, which start at $100 a month. Parking in a nearby garage will be available for $75 a month. Staff photo by Shawn Patrick Ouellette

“As women, we worry about our bosses’ wives and families,” Ashby said. “You feel so uncomfortable. You don’t want to lose your job. You don’t want others to lose their job.”

Co-working spaces have become a hot commodity, in the Portland area and across the country. Most notably, New York-based co-working space operator WeWork has become a darling of the venture capital community, having received an investment of $1.7 billion in July from Japanese telecommunications firm SoftBank Group and purchased the famous Lord & Taylor Building on Fifth Avenue in Midtown Manhattan last month for $850 million. WeWork’s total valuation has risen to $20 billion in its seven years of operation.

Locally, co-working spaces such as Think Tank and PelotonLabs have been operating successfully for years, with others such as LocalHost Coworking and CloudPort joining the community more recently. But CoworkHERS would be the first co-working space in the Portland area to focus specifically on women.

Several companies already provide women-only co-working spaces in other parts of the U.S. and Canada, including The Wing, Hera Hub, Shecosystem, Paper Dolls and Rise Collaborative Workspace.

Portland-based entrepreneur Elizabeth Buckley said she believes there is room in the local market for a company like CoworkHERS. Other co-working spaces in and around Portland seem to be doing well, she said, and CoworkHERS is offering something unique to the area.

“I think that this gives a little more diversity to the market,” said Buckley, operations lead at health technology startup Janus Choice. “I think it has the potential to fill a niche … of women who were probably working from home.”

Ashby said she recently toured a WeWork co-working space in Boston and was struck by how male-dominant its membership was.

“Some co-working spaces are very dude-centric,” Ashby said. “I want to create a space where women can feel safe, be inspired and not feel intimidated.”

J. Craig Anderson can be contacted at 791-6390 or at:

[email protected]

Twitter: @jcraiganderson

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