Q&A with Amy Nelson of The Riveter

Amy Nelson is the founder and CEO of The Riveter, a network of community and work spaces built by women, for everyone. A graduate of Emory University and the NYU School of Law, Amy practiced corporate litigation with a focus on high-profile First Amendment matters for over a decade in New York City and Seattle. She also served on President Obama’s National Finance Committee where she co-chaired Gen44, the under 40 fundraising arm of the campaign. Amy previously worked with President Carter’s The Carter Center. Amy launched The Riveter in 2017 while pregnant with her third daughter in three years and will welcome daughter number four in June 2019. The Riveter’s growth has outpaced even WeWork’s first years and they recently closed a $15 million Series A led by Alpha Edison. Amy is a contributor for Forbes, and has been published broadly including in The Washington Post and The Seattle Times. She has spoken across the world on many stages, including Forbes Under 30, Cannes Lions and SXSW. 

We recently spoke with Amy to discuss her trajectory from lawyer to entrepreneur and what inspired her to develop women-first workspaces. This interview has been edited for publication.

Q. Reflecting on your career trajectory, can you tell us about the transition from working as an attorney—first in BigLaw and then in-house—to launching into entrepreneurship?   

I think about that transition a lot. I really enjoyed being a lawyer and went to law school thinking that would be my entire career. But throughout my time as an attorney, both when I was at a law firm and when I was in-house, I worked really closely with business. At Cahill, I represented one of the credit rating agencies during the financial crisis in their litigation related to the rating of subprime assets. I was embedded in the business unit for years and loved watching the business team’s thinking and decision-making, and seeing what risk profiles worked. I had a similar experience in-house. I really enjoyed putting the puzzle together in that way, and began to think that I would shift into business from law. I thought I’d start a small- or medium-size business and, at the very beginning, didn’t really have the intention of starting a venture-scaled business. But as with all things, you can let your vision get bigger and bigger to the point where if I was going to start a business, I wanted to do something big and make change. So that’s why I decided to start The Riveter.

Q. After you had the initial idea, what were the first steps to diving in and launching The Riveter?

One thing I did in the very beginning, which was tremendously helpful and I would recommend for anybody, was to enter a small business pitch competition. The pitch competition made me formulate my idea and put guardrails around the vision. I had to think through the financials, the market opportunity, and all the nuts and bolts that you really have to get down on paper before you begin. I did a lot of research on the market for co-working spaces and related ancillary businesses. The future of work is changing so quickly, and what I looked at was the opportunity within that arena to provide a space for women to work that matches the way women are starting businesses. Something like 85% of women who start a business are working alone but don’t want to get a private office and silo themselves off. Many of these women need a lot more flexibility because they are mothers and primary caretakers and so they are doing different things throughout the day. I envisioned what a world would look like where I created an offering for that group of people. When I analyzed the market opportunity in that space, it was a leap of faith because a market didn’t really exist for that demographic at the time.  

Q. It’s amazing how much progress you’ve made in the 18 months since launching The Riveter. What does a typical day or week look like for you?

I’m still very much at the point where I don’t have a typical day or week. I spend a lot of time working on strategies for growth, such as looking at real estate and speaking with community groups across the country. A large part of my job involves speaking with our incredible members about the businesses they are building and how The Riveter can help. I also spend a lot of time speaking with our corporate partners. My job involves raising money for The Riveter to grow, which is really time consuming and hard, as it should be. I also have three little girls, so I always balance finding ways to spend time with them as well.

Q. I can imagine that is quite the challenge. Is it similar to the kind of hurdles you faced as a lawyer?

Yes, absolutely. My experience lawyering really got me thinking about women and work. I worked for amazing people, but when you go to law school, you see a world where women have been over half of law school graduates for decades. Then you see that leadership looks different in the real world. I think there are a myriad of reasons why that is, and there will be a myriad of solutions needed to move forward. But 43% of highly trained women off-ramp after they have kids. That’s from all sorts of different careers, but it shocked me that almost half of women are leaving corporate America, many of whom likely had the intention to stay after they had children. There are always the questions of why and what you could do differently in order to prevent that drop off. But what I learned was that many of those women are starting their own businesses, and that’s part of where the idea for The Riveter came from.  

Q. Can you discuss some of the obstacles you faced as a lawyer and how those differ from what you experienced as the founder and CEO of The Riveter?  

Part of the challenge of being a lawyer is that law is a service industry, so work-life integration is particularly hard because it’s so difficult to control your schedule. I really don’t know how you change that. That was the hardest part for me as an attorney. I actually had a lot more flexibility at law firms than I did as an in-house lawyer, because at the law firms I never felt that I had to be at my desk at x, y or z hours. Rather, you had to do the work and do it well. Even so, I found it really challenging to find a work-life integration that worked for me.  

When I started The Riveter, I worked more hours than I did some of the years I was lawyering. But I control my schedule and am fortunate to have the kind of flexibility that allows to me schedule time with my kids. The challenges I face now are different. Working in law firms, I never felt the implicit bias or pattern recognition about gender. But I definitely feel it in entrepreneurship. We live in a world where women entrepreneurs receive 2.25% of venture capital dollars. It’s almost nothing. I feel that statistic in practice all the time because of the comments I hear or the scenarios I have faced, so I think entrepreneurship has a long way to go.

Q. Do you think that there is one obstacle for women in the workplace that is more prevalent than others?

Sexual harassment is incredibly pervasive in the American workplace and we have to figure out a way to get past it and keep women in leadership. But when I think about why women leave the workplace, I think of it as death by a thousand paper cuts—I don’t think you can pin it on just one thing.  

Q. It may be difficult to compare workplace cultures of, say, The Riveter and a law firm.  But do you think there are characteristics of an ideal workplace and culture that are generally better for women?

The people in charge of any workplace should talk to women and ask, what are we doing right and what are we doing wrong? They need to listen and make changes, because none of this is rocket science. One of the amazing things about The Riveter is that we have a majority women staff and women membership base, so women’s voices are really heard. That is very different than other work environments in corporate America. We need to think about whose voices are being heard at the table and make sure that women’s voices are among them.

Q. Do you think flextime policies and telecommuting arrangements are a critical component of promoting and retaining women in law firms and elsewhere in corporate America?

Yes, absolutely. Flextime policies and remote work let people find a way to put the puzzle pieces together and make it easier to achieve work-life integration. When I worked in-house, there were times that I’d be in the office and dialed into a call with others who were each in their own offices. So why couldn’t we work remotely? I think there is an old school perspective that people are not working when they are working remotely. But actually if you empower your people to work where they can and how they need to, then you’re giving them a lot of responsibility that they value.

Q. What advice would you give to attorneys who may want to transition from a career in law to entrepreneurship?

Being a lawyer has served me so well in starting a company and it’s incredible preparation for being an entrepreneur. I am comfortable with taking risk because I know how to analyze it. I know how to communicate in a way that’s really important, and I know how to hustle, to work really, really hard.  

Q. Do you have a personal motto or a favorite saying?

With great risk comes great reward.   

Corina McIntyre was a corporate associate in Debevoise’s New York office and is now an alumna of the firm.

Comments? Suggestions?  We’d love to hear from you.  Send us an email at women@debevoise.com