Ladies Who Launch, #9: Robin Sokoloff of Town Stages
Updated: May 15, 2020
Last year, my company was hired as the marketing team for an off-Broadway musical that was having a limited run at an arts space in Tribeca.
Eager to learn more about the show and the venue so we could start effectively planning our email and social media marketing campaigns, we headed to NYC to catch an early rehearsal.
The venue was a new space called Town Stages and as soon as I stepped inside, I couldn't WAIT to tell others about it.
The beautiful architecture and lighting struck me immediately, followed by a zillion thoughts of how many different ways organizations would use the space. Bar in the front, salons, galleries and performance spaces in the back, private bars and dressing rooms downstairs, stunning green subway tile in the CLEAN bathrooms, an accessible elevator, friendly staff, delicious cocktails, and so much more. I was very impressed.
Over the next few weeks, as we began marketing work on the show and spending more time at the venue, I got to learn a little bit about the female-led team and was so inspired by their passion, hard work, and complete support of our fun and gritty musical.
Need help? Have questions? No problem.
I wasn't used to that vibe.
Back in 2003, I lived in Brooklyn for a stint and rapidly gained grassroots experience in concert promotion and marketing (and eventually built a bunch of MySpace pages -- ha!) by helping out some actor friends with their gigs at tons of venues like The Living Room, The Bitter End, Acme Underground, The Cutting Room, Mercury Lounge, The Duplex, Crash Mansion, Bar B, The Knitting Factory, le poisson rouge, Ars Nova, 38-09 Studios, and many more. Whether I was running the merch table, handling the guest list, setting up amps, or helping blow dry someone's hair in the tiny bathroom, it was VERY clear that you almost always needed to do everything on your own... oh, and fill the space with drinkers, too.
If you even booked the gig without being harassed or propositioned, of course -- something that my female artist friends constantly had to put up with in particular (along with not being taken seriously as an artist, whatsoever).
So with those unpleasant memories in my head, it was incredibly refreshing to see how different things were in 2018 at this stunning female-led venue, just fifteen years later in the NYC arts scene.
Who was responsible for the vision behind this beautiful, welcoming, and carefully-curated space, that clearly operates with absolute intention?
Meet: Robin Sokoloff.
Robin is the Chairwoman and CEO of Town Stages, a women-led cultural arts space, event venue, and cocktail bar with a mission to advance equity in New York City by building accessible spaces for public assembly, creativity, and conversation.
I've built a women-led institution transforming the face of leadership through our stages and screens - one story, one song, and one endeavor at a time. I opened our intrepid Tribeca storefront on 221 West Broadway in early 2018, after 5 years building small scale loft spaces in Midtown, Manhattan.
Can you say, AMAZING?!
I'm so excited to publish Robin's Ladies Who Launch story this week so you can learn more about this ambitious, determined, passionate entrepreneur!
(ICYMI, this is a blog series where I chat with badass bossladies around the world who have taken the leap of faith into entrepreneurial life.)
BTW - If you know a bosslady who would be perfect for a future feature in this blog series, send her this link.
Let's talk with Robin about her experience starting her business, and the inspiration for how Town Stages came to be!
Author's note: Responses may be slightly edited/condensed.
Q: What made you decide to launch your business?
Rising residential and commercial rents, persistent gender and race based income inequality, devaluation of artists and their art through free or subscription based streaming platforms, a rise in white supremacist attitudes and legislative agendas, the coordinated overpolicing and closures of women, poc, queer, and immigrant owned spaces, the bankrupting of my generation and all those after through student debt and healthcare, and your run-of-the-mill greed of billionaires… ya know, small stuff. I didn’t get an “idea” to open a self sustaining cultural arts space, so much as I didn’t seem to have a choice when you consider that only 1.6% of charitable giving goes to women-led initiatives for women. I mean, how do you build a scalable space that can afford itself when you can’t even afford yourself? Against the backdrop of a market melt-down, record unemployment numbers, and a rather ironic over-valuation of commercial real estate, I had to look at the whole picture for myself and others and make a call. I also had to believe quite selfishly for my own sanity, that this isn’t it. I had to have the kind of unbridled faith in myself and the world that there had to be a way forward, and just because I hadn’t seen it done, doesn’t mean it can’t be done. I had to take every “well this is the way it’s done, and this is just the way it is” and say - maybe not. When I began this journey of building towards Town Stages in 2010, there wasn’t so much buzz in the air about entrepreneurship, women's empowerment, social impact, social justice, etc. Occupy Wall Street hit in 2011, starting the conversation for the masses, but was somewhat dismissed because the fallout of the melt-down was still sinking in. Many couldn’t bring themselves to acknowledge just yet that things were that bad and were going to get worse. Until Black Lives Matter took hold in 2013, there was still this laissez fair capitalist attitude in NYC that the market was the market and so long as you went to college, and paid your dues, you’d get that American Dream stuff. Back then, when I’d explain to folks that I was building a business to combat that falsehood, that I was building a much needed Public Assembly space where everyone was welcome, and where whiteness could be decentered, they’d look at my skin and ask me why I’d be troubling myself. I’d swallow the shock that they’d essentially come to New York City to consume black culture but didn’t care about making space for black people, and realize that even liberal white people don’t get it. That if we not only lose the right to gather in a space together, never mind afford the opportunity to be in a space together, then we simply have no voice and no future together period. And it’s not even remotely acceptable that the same frat bro who drives down 95 blasting Drake out of his car window, then drives up the insurance rates on my space because I play hip-hop. It’s enough already. It is the job of artists and entrepreneurs to drive innovation and culture forward, and if you dismantle our access to a platform to do so, for example, if the only way you can get up on stage anywhere is by being a white guy because you’ve got that generational wealth and those connections - facsism wins. A few untouchable and terrible gatekeepers decide everything, top down. It’s how you end up with multi-million dollar taxpayer funded boondoggles like the Hudson Yards, while neighborhood storefronts are left vacant and rotting. But soon enough, with the help of Twitter and Facebook, people began to see plainly just how deep racial injustice had plagued and continues to plague opportunity for poc and immigrants in NYC. Then gender based injustice could no longer be denied when #metoo hit in 2017. And while cultural and nightlife leaders had been crying foul for well over a decade - helpless to stop all our independently run rehearsal studios, theatres, galleries, lounges, and clubs from closure - no one could deny what was afoot by the 2016 election. One of the many white supremacist real estate developers who had a hand in gobbling up New York City’s cultural footprint laundering money by emptying out building after building, had systemtically fueled his way to the White House by weaponizing racism, misogyny, and xenophobia off our backs. Ask me why it took Town Stages seeing 298 different empty midtown properties, 29 different brokers, 3 teams of lawyers, a publicist, and a lobbyist over 3 years to finally open. We had the money all along. We just kept hearing NO. No to music. No to dancing. No to artists. No to culture. No to events. No to “that many people”. No to “people like us”. Flash forward to Town being open 2 years now; where countless government agencies, non-profits, corporations, tv and film productions seek us out. Most of those places who said no to me remain empty today, while Town Stages thrives. Most of those landlords who said no to me said yes to bro-founder fueled WeWorks in their buildings, which buy-and-large operate like Town Stages without the desks. We are talking about countless landlords who handed 2 - 8 floors at a time, if not whole buildings at a time for years at a time to WeWork - instead of renting a half a floor to a woman with a similar sharing economy model. It's stunning, really. How undervalued I was, and how overvalued we are now finding out WeWork was around the same time. We were both addressing the same market need. Co-working, events, and community.
Q: What is your earliest entrepreneurial memory, long before you decided to become a business owner?
The first entrepreneurial moment I can remember was from High School. When I was 16 years old, I was given a $1,000 stipend to choreograph the spring musical. Patricia Castimore, who was my high school dance teacher at the time, remains one of the most influential women in my life and so much of why I built Town Stages. Instead of going to gym, I was able to take her group dance class starting sophomore year, and then her dance club after school. She took an interest in me that rekindled my desire to dance professionally. Through her support, I went on to train night and day on scholarship at Coupe Dance Studio, New York State Summer School of The Arts, and Jacob’s Pillow. Beyond her tutelage. Ms. Castimore granted me independent study time in my senior year to double down and catch up to all the years in technique I’d missed. I not only caught up, I exceeded expectations. I would have never even thought to ask for pay to choreograph a show at 16 years old, but she knew the level of work I’d produce and countless hours I’d spend training and leading the cast was nothing short of a big job - and she taught me to value the job and myself in just that way. She set the tone that if I what I had to offer was indeed rare and excellent, and I could do it all on my own - damn straight, I should be compensated directly. I can own my work.
Q: What does your staff/team look like if you have one?
Town Stages was built by talented and brave women from different backgrounds and industry sectors. We went from one employee, to a 45+ person Staff, a Board of 15, and 50+ Fellowship Recipients in under 2 years flat. We grew from women-led to encompass the hard work of TGNCNB and male-identifying folks as well. I began this as what I hoped to be a safe space for women in leadership to finally find their voice, including my own. But building a place where equity can thrive fully requires everyone’s participation. All identities. I didn’t know that when I started, but I know it now.
Robin talking onstage at Town Stages for a Six Degrees Society panel discussion event
Q: Who is/are your personal support system?
My support system for this endeavor was built through building this endeavor. My first “I don’t really get it, but go for it” came from my husband Scott. Next came my boss, Dr. Lenny Rosenblum, who runs his own chiropractic business saying “I totally get it and keep going”. Next came my friend Javier who helped me renovate the first space daytime, while I worked construction elsewhere so I could pay him, and then come home and keep building the space nighttime. Then over the next 5 years one incredible woman after another would pop up at an event, tap me on the shoulder and say “Hey! What is this magic? Can I help? I think I can help.” One of the biggest personal supports through all this has been my incomparable Aunt Nancy Satin. She’s been a business owner in fashion, fine art, a teacher and an incredible wife and mother. When I’m having trouble seeing the forest from the trees, she’s got life lessons for me for days. Even knowing she did all that in a time that women were not exactly welcome to, makes me go "Robin, just shut up and make it work. You aren't juggling half the challenges she was." It has not been easy. I’ve had support, and I’ve had to slay lots of dragons to get here and stay here. Anytime some asks me if I'm loving life now that I have it all, I'm like "Whoa... what buzzy women's empowerment kool-aid have you been sipping. Make no mistake, this is hard as hell and I haven't paid myself in 4 years." Truth be told, I never wanted to be in charge of anything, certainly not a business. I wanted to build a harassment-free workplace that could redistribute access to wealth and resources, which ultimately means I am indeed, making a new kind of business. But also - this isn't just mine. I am part of movement whose hardworking participants are many, and who have made countless personal and professional sacrifices for centuries for me to break through to this moment. It's cost many their lives, and I venture to say the preponderance of those lives have been black and brown lives. They've been trans lives. They've been non-binary, they've been female. I wake up everyday thinking, "how can I best do them justice."
Q: What is something you wish you knew before starting your own business (the stuff nobody tells you about)?
I wish I knew more about self doubt. When you are doing something totally new, well meaning people can bog you down in conventional solutions that don’t quite apply. So you can end up spending hours defending yourself or even proving yourself to people who don’t understand what you are making the way you understand what you are making. It can make you doubt yourself if you don’t learn how to say quickly, “Thank you, and I’ll think about it.” I couldn’t bring myself to just say that and move on for years. I had to prove to them that their advice didn’t make sense instead, which was really and truly my ego talking. Some insecure part of me kept going, “How come you don’t understand me? Wasn’t I clear? I apparently can’t move on until I appear clear enough to you, so you can give me better advice.” Oh my god. Would you listen to how crazy I sound? That's the sound of self doubt. Self Doubt didn't hit me like this until 30. When you work for other people you often blame them, sadly. When you work for yourself, it's just you and you, and it's sobering. Some part of me was also scared that if I said “I’ll think about it” that meant I had to do it or they’d be mad at me. Typing it out now, I really don’t know what that was about. But I still struggle with it. I don’t want anyone to feel brushed off or undervalued, maybe because I often felt brushed off or undervalued slogging through the working world myself. Heck, it’s still happening, even though I'm in charge. But I do have to find a little more inner peace in disagreeing with someone. It’s funny how I had no problem taking all the tough and often cruel criticism in the studio my whole life; in fact I sought it. But giving it outside the studio feels gross. I also wish I knew more about the actual doubters. I used to get so hurt by the doubters. I used to be simply destroyed and downright paralyzed by the folks who’d come to squander our resources, or point fingers from the cheap seats. It may have taken me 8 years to understand that each person who doubts me or otherwise, gives me the opportunity to more deeply investigate, articulate, and communicate my values from a place of strength. I will say this though, it’s a very strange thing to build a company when you are not a particularly competitive person. It feels hard to protect something when you take no pleasure in out-witting the other guy coming to put you under, and its even harder when you are unwilling to take the low road they are. But I’m learning how to outsmart corruption without becoming corrupt. As I walk that finest of lines, I am also seeing how folks so easily end up part of the problem they fight. The more of yourself and the people you care about are on the line, the blurrier the lines can get. I see a fuller picture now, and I feel like I owe a lot of my old bosses an apology for not comprehending what they could possibly be juggling. And as I am confronted with challenges and divergent perspectives along the way, I become more wise and open in my thinking, and more rigid in my boundaries, where need be.
Q: What is something you're REALLY bad at?
I find making boundaries very, very hard. While creating a company hell bent on making space for people, caring for them the way they’d like to be cared for, it can feel cold and almost monstrous to make a rule. Any rule. But they don’t know what you know. They don’t know the dragons you’ve slayed. They don't know how many times you've succeeded and failed and the lessons you've learned. They can't know that the few rules you are making, have zero to do with them, and everything to do with keeping the doors open for them. I may not be great with self doubt, I may not be great with the doubters, I may struggle deeply with making boundaries - but I do combat all three with radical transparency in every aspect of my personal and professional life. So I will fully explain all my reasoning on all my decisions, I will fully explain where every dollar goes at anytime and why when literally anyone asks, because if you are truly running a clean operation with a mission for equity - there should be nothing to hide. I certainly don't have anything to hide, and I feel it very much my duty to share as much information as I can, so that more people can build spaces like Town Stages. I feel it very much my duty to share as much information as I can, so that someone can help me lead this better tomorrow than I am today.
A video tour of Town Stages, led by Vice President, Staci Jacobs:
Q: How do you de-compress -- such as binge tv, activities, food, hobbies, pop culture guilty
I used to decompress by dancing. At some point though, when doing what you love for work and then doing what you love to decompress are one and the same, both suffer. Shortly after building the first space, I took up figure skating. It gave me a chance to start over and learn a creative and highly athletic discipline that had nothing to do with my professional identity, a chance to get away from staring at myself in a mirror all day, a way to be alone now that I ran a place where hundreds of people are in and out in a day, but not all alone because I derive so much energy from being out and about around others. I fell completely in love with figure skating so quickly, and it became part of my daily routine. I’ve made incredible friends skating along the way, too. I don’t know how many people know this, but figure skating is hard as hell. Training to the point you even look like something worth watching out on that ice, can take a lifetime. Much respect to all the skaters out there. I binge eat. I binge eat meat. I binge eat ice cream. I binge eat pop-corn. I binge eat hard.
Q: Most-played track on Spotify?
“Going Once” by Ani Difranco. It’s on her To The Teeth album. To write music that socially charged like she did, that can stand the test of time… that ain’t easy. It's funny to worship someone whose words you hope stop being true one day.
Q: Favorite liquid refreshment?
My favorite drink is definitely iced tea with lemonade. I’m sure there’s some name for that. Whatever it is, I drink it by the gallon.
Q: Could you tell me about a woman who inspires you, or who you look up to?
Please don’t make me name just one woman who inspires me. I hate this question. I live and work in a glimmering sea of awe inspiring women, and they are all working hard to lift each other up all at once. I can't name just one, so I'm gonna shoot for one I'd definitely faint if I ever met her: Michelle Obama. How on earth did she rise above it all.
Q: Favorite inspirational quote?
I saw this meme on Facebook yesterday and my jaw dropped: “Keep every stone they throw at you. You’ve got castles to build.” I don’t know who said it, but it’s right up there with “sunlight is the best disinfectant”. The first reminds me that you can build an impactful company out of all the blows you were dealt, that you can turn poison into medicine. The second reminds me that karma’s a bitch that only needs some time to shine through.
Q: What's your best business tip?
Don’t start a business unless you are ready, willing, and able to personally do nearly every single aspect of your business or have already had those jobs before. Start-ups are not for dipping your toe in. Start-ups are not places for “someone else will do it”. You have minimal runway for the “gee I didn’t know that could happen” when you are getting off the ground, so the best way to mitigate the number of unknowns in advance is to actually explore them first. I held 50+ jobs overlapping hustle jobs between age 16 and 30, before I started my own company. I’m just saying, do your research. Start-ups are for the scrappy and resourceful.
Robin, getting shit DONE.
Q: Time to let it out... favorite curse word?!
Fuck. I say fuck all the time. I can't stop fucking saying it.
Q: What are your Top 5 tools of the trade that you couldn't live without?
1) Power drill. 2) A second power drill for the times I lose my power drill. 3) Mac computer. 4) Good lighting. Nothing is getting done under fluorescents. 5) Online software - including but not limited to Calendly, Trello, Copper, Square, Pandadocs, Gusto, and Dropbox.
Q: Last question: what about this job & lifestyle brings you the most joy and fulfillment?
What brings me the most joy and fulfillment is being in my purpose in my work. I feel 100% utilized at Town Stages, in that my potential is finally realized, and I am also tested daily to stretch my idea of myself beyond what I thought I could do. I like being the kind of woman who gets to rewire an outlet, host a Ted talk, mitigate a multi-million dollar mess, have a cocktail, fix a toilet, build a sound studio, help someone nail their interview, close a sale, build a website, and pass on that knowledge to as many who want it. I get to be this person and more along side such smart, hardworking, funny, brave, talented and imperfect people like me - empowering their ideas, their joy and their fulfillment as best I can. We don’t know what tomorrow holds. But we are holding out for it, together.
Thanks to Robin for being such a badass and for sharing your story with me. I've loved stepping into your world of space-holding, art, activism, and empowerment!
- - -
Are you (or someone you know) perfect for a future feature in this series? Click here!
Read our previous interview: Keisha Ehigie of Imagine Me Stories
Read our next interview: Nicole Salvatore, Copywriter
Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed within these interview answers are those of the interviewee and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of Alycia Yerves Creative. Any content provided by our interviewees are of their opinion and are not intended to malign any religion, ethnic group, club, organization, company, individual, or anyone or anything.