“Imagine your favorite coffee shop and your homegirl's house had a baby, and that's Zora's House,” founder LC Johnson says.

By Peter Tonguette

After several years of writing and speaking about leadership issues for women of color, Johnson was ready to dive into a full-time job with a steady paycheck. “I told my husband, ‘I’m ready to just get a job like a normal person,’ ” says Johnson, who had recently relocated from North Carolina to Columbus. “I’m so over entrepreneurship.”

Johnson got a job at the YWCA Columbus, but as she settled in, she faced an unexpected challenge: Where to establish a social circle? “I just started looking around, and I was like, ‘Um, so where do all the women of color go to hang out?’ ” Johnson says. “There really wasn’t one business or organization that was meant to serve that purpose of convening women of color.”

Perhaps, Johnson reckoned, if she built it, they would come.

In March 2018, Johnson founded Zora’s House, a residential-style space in which women of color are invited to cowork, participate in programming and simply socialize. “Imagine your favorite coffee shop and your homegirl’s house had a baby, and that’s Zora’s House,” Johnson says.

Writer and blogger Tiffany Williams of Columbus uses the space for meeting clients and for her own writing—and, from time to time, just to get away. “Honestly, sometimes I just come to the space to have the camaraderie with other women,” Williams says.

A native of New York City, Johnson grew up in the Southeast. In 2010, she earned a degree in women’s studies from Duke University—which, she admits, she “had no idea” how she was going to use. After a spell in the nonprofit sector, Johnson teamed with a former professor to open a co-working space. “That was my entree into the world of entrepreneurship,” she says.

After moving to Columbus with her husband, Johnson got the itch to create a place where women of color could congregate. Her plans were crystalized in a dream. “One day I went to bed and I had this dream that I was in this awesome space and there were all these dope women there,” Johnson says. “I woke up and I was like, ‘Oh my gosh. This space needs to exist.’ ”

But having studied the book The Lean Startup, Johnson wanted to start small. Opting to test the market, she formed a meetup group in 2016. “We would do pop-up book clubs and co-working sessions,” she says. The response was favorable, but Zora’s House as a physical place did not come into view until Johnson and her husband decided to purchase a home.

The couple initially planned to buy a duplex—“live on one side, rent on the other,” she says—but Johnson had a moment of inspiration: What if part of the property was used for Johnson’s co-working business?

Ultimately, Johnson and her husband purchased a lot in Weinland Park on which two structures were constructed—a home for their family and Zora’s House. “We actually broke ground on the construction project the day my son was born,” she says. Early on, Johnson saw Zora’s House—which takes its name from African-American writer Zora Neale Hurston—exclusively as a co-working space that would generate income based on how often members worked there. “I had my whole business model planned out, all my projections, everything was great,” she says.

Yet when Johnson’s intended members were introduced to co-working, they were either unfamiliar with the concept or uncomfortable with an environment that resembled an office. “It was very discongruent for a lot of women who were coming through because their office and their workspaces were not traditionally spaces where they had felt safe and authentic to be their full selves,” she says.

Johnson then changed course. Zora’s House still offers co-working but has evolved into a nimbler, more informal organization. The space is home to everything from art projects, candle-making workshops and book clubs. Acting on a suggestion, a screening of a documentary on Beyonce was organized in a matter of days. “We had popcorn and floor pillows and we brought out some women who just came and watched it,” Johnson says.

A tiered membership is based on how often and in what ways women want to make use of the space. Johnson continues to seek fresh ways to generate income, including a recently launched residency program offering extended stays in upstairs bedrooms. She calls it “almost like a co-working hotel where you can come and stay for a few nights.”

Either way, members are encouraged to come as they are. “You don’t need to come into Zora’s House and feel like you need to be polished, you need to be finished or you need to be together,” Johnson says. A member should feel free, she adds, to be their “full authentic self—even the parts that are messy.”