Walking through the front doors of ModernWell is like walking into an oasis. With bright walls, floor-to-ceiling windows, cushy couches and welcoming work desks, the space is designed for creativity. “It feels warm; it feels uplifting and inspired,” says Minnetonka resident Julie Burton, ModernWell’s founder and CEO.
Describing the business as a “female-centered co-working community,” Burton says, “Everything that is done here is [done] with a thoughtful consideration for the needs of women.” While a handful of men have joined ModernWell’s community since it opened in 2018, most of its almost 200 members are women, many of them are business owners, entrepreneurs and creatives, who rent private offices or use one of the building’s many common spaces to work.
Burton decided to open ModernWell when she recognized that many women—especially working mothers—need more collaboration than a typical workspace offers. Even the business’s name is inspired by women-centered communities. In Biblical times, Burton says, “Everything happened around the well,” from gathering water to swapping stories and advice. She fosters that same environment at ModernWell, where, “People are free and encouraged to connect and to share stories” as they work.
With a master’s degree in journalism and a background in public relations, Burton never imagined that she would open her own business. When she left her full-time job to start her family, however, she realized how much she missed the community that a career and workplace provide.
Even though Burton was freelance writing and teaching fitness classes around the Twin Cities, she couldn’t shake the feeling of being lost. “It’s a different kind of loneliness, and I don’t know that I really even understood it at the time,” Burton says. She loved having the choice to stay home with her kids, “But I also felt a certain amount of shame, like, ‘OK, you are supposed to be doing something. You should be doing something more,’” she says.
In 2015, Burton and her friend Nina Badzin of Minnetonka started the Twin Cities Writing Studio, a weekly class held at the Hopkins Center for the Arts. “We called it a Writing Studio, because […] we wanted it to be a playful space,” Badzin says. Although Badzin and Burton never advertised the Writing Studio as a women-centered group, its membership was exclusively female.
It was in one of the Writing Studio meetings that Burton identified the next stage of her life and the answer to her struggles working as a freelance writer and mother. In the meeting following the 2016 presidential election, Burton says, “… I looked around the table, and I just had this moment where I felt like, ‘OK, now it’s time. I’m going to create something, and it’s going to be around women, and it’s going to be around creativity, and it’s going to be a brick and mortar.’”
Within weeks, Burton had a vision for ModernWell and a driving goal for the community she hoped to build. “We need to continue to empower ourselves and each other,” she says. “We need to share space, and we need to share ideas, and I want to be part of that.” Less than a year later, Burton signed a lease on the building in Minneapolis that would become ModernWell. “It was so fast. I mean, I was almost possessed,” she says.
On January 2, 2018, many of the women from the Writing Studio became part of ModernWell as its founding members. When she unlocked the doors on opening day, Burton remembers feeling excited and aligned, as if, “This was the chapter that was supposed to be happening at the time,” she says.
Badzin and Burton continue Thursday Writing Studio meetings out of ModernWell, and Badzin has expanded it to include a second group on Tuesdays. “There’s something really magical about actually being connected to other people around work that you’re interested in,” Badzin says. Badzin, a freelance writer, hosts the friendship advice podcast Dear Nina, which she writes from a quiet corner of ModernWell.
Memberships range from $110 to $1,000, including access to the community space, conference room and consult rental time, discounts on workshops and events and access to the community member portal and Facebook group. At the center of the community is Burton, who drives to ModernWell every day to catch up on work and talk to members. “One of my favorite parts of my job is when I connect people with other members,” she says. “We’ve seen people sit here in this space, meet other people, talk to other people and figure out their next move.”
Looking around at the community she’s built and thinking back on her years of freelancing, Burton says, “I created a space that I would have wanted.”
In 2020, two years after being let go from her corporate job, life coach and Plymouth resident Dawn L. Johnson teamed up with Chaz Sandifer to create Let Go Let Flow, a platform via Zoom that facilitates conversations between Black and white women about racism and reconciliation. “We brought Black and white women together because there were a lot of white folks who came into this new awakening [after George Floyd’s death],” Johnson says. “[We’re] really breaking down what that looks like with love—not shame, not pointing fingers, not anger, not name-calling, but really from a heart-centered approach.”
Around the same time in 2020, Burton had begun to reflect on the lack of diversity in ModernWell’s membership. “When George Floyd was killed,
I felt like, ‘OK, we have a platform, we’re not doing enough for diversity, equity and inclusion, and my membership isn’t diverse enough,’” she says. Over the course of the year, Burton reached out to Black women leaders in the Twin Cities to learn how to make ModernWell a more inclusive space.
When Sandifer first suggested to Johnson that they join ModernWell, Johnson was skeptical. Two decades of working at her corporate job had left her wary of spaces that advertised themselves as inclusive to women of color. “The inclusive piece was never there,” Johnson says. “I never felt welcome.”
Before they decided to join ModernWell at the end of 2020, Johnson and Sandifer “sat with [Burton] for a long time and basically interviewed her,” Johnson says. “It was such a touching conversation, so [Burton] is the reason—[her] heart and [her] journey and [her] transparency and the love that [she] has shown, not just [to Sandifer] and I, but [to] many women of color.”
Since joining the community, Johnson and Sandifer have moved the conversations hosted by Let Go Let Flow to ModernWell. As Johnson expands her life coaching business, The Dawn Johnson Experience, she uses the space to meet with clients and connect with other ModernWell members. “[Burton has] truly cultivated a space of love, a space to show up and be your true self,” Johnson says.
Dawn L. Johnson
The first thing that photographer and Excelsior resident Belén Fleming noticed when she walked into ModernWell was the wall of north-facing windows along the front of the building. “Right away, I was like, ‘Oh, my gosh, these windows, this light, wow—all of the things I could do,’” she says.
Fleming, who photographs primarily in natural light, was two years into running her lifestyle, branding and portrait photography business, Belu Photography, when she joined ModernWell in 2018. Within a couple months, Burton started connecting Fleming with other ModernWell members, who needed professional headshots. Fleming found that the natural lighting in the building’s main conference room was perfect for her style of photography, and, by the end of the year, she was booking back-to-back appointments with customers from inside and outside of the ModernWell community. “When I started shooting headshots, I think that is really when my business started to take off because I was getting to know so many people,” Fleming says.
Now three years into her ModernWell membership, Fleming is collaborating with another woman in the community to refresh her website and company branding. After working in a large company office for most of her career, Fleming feels excited to be a part of ModernWell’s co-working environment. “You’re coming into work with other people, who are doing completely different things than you,” she says. “And I always found that to be extremely inspirational and a way to really be innovative.”
Before ModernWell opened in 2018, Edina resident Stephanie Pierce was considering leaving her human resources job at General Mills, where she had worked for 24 years. Although she loved her job, Pierce found that she needed more flexibility and time to pursue her own projects outside of work.
That same year, Pierce says, “I was starting to meet people like [Burton], who were stepping into their passion projects.” Pierce doesn’t consider herself to be a risk-taker, but watching Burton open ModernWell inspired her to start her own business.
In 2019, Pierce left her position at General Mills to start KJP Consulting, a human resources firm that coaches small and mid-sized businesses in talent development and diversity, equity and inclusion. Pierce also co-hosts the podcast Her Next Chapter with Burton.
Pierce joined Burton’s advisory board at ModernWell. For her, ModernWell is more than just a comfortable workspace. Having a women-centered community means that she can easily connect on a personal level with the other members, many of whom have worked in corporate spaces, own businesses or are also mothers. “You can truly bring your whole self to work,” she says. “It gives you a place to find people where you may have things in common or to find people whose stories might be a little bit more similar to your story.”
Podcast: Her Next Chapter