How Rachel Khong Built The Ruby, a Coworking Community for San Francisco Creatives
“How can we lessen everyone’s burden and give ourselves more time to work on what matters to us?”
Spaces like The Ruby have sprung up to serve as places where creative people can gather, cross-pollinate ideas, and work. Although Khong knew many people who were exclusively writers in the city, she hoped to foster a community that was creative in more ways than one. She believes that “when it comes to being your most creative self, mixing it up is ideal.” She wanted to recreate what she liked most about working at Lucky Peach, collaborating with fellow creatives, so she started hashing out ideas with her former coworker, Aralyn Beaumont. The two began looking for a coworking space in 2016, but Beaumont dropped out of the project in the fall of 2017, just before Khong found the space in the Mission that would become the Ruby.
The Ruby opened with about fifty-five founding members in January 2018. Initially, members mostly consisted of Khong’s friends—and friends of friends—from the magazine world. Khong calls The Ruby “collaborative from day one.” After the space was located, it needed work. The founding members painted the whole ceiling white with rollers. The Ruby was intended to be an ecosystem where the members could have a hand in it and help determine its shape.
Although Khong always had a vision of what The Ruby would be, she’s quick to point out that the varied events and classes evolved organically from members’ interests. Current programming includes Ashley Sarvar, who teaches vintage Latin jazz dance, and Laura Buback, who teaches yoga. Tina Taylor, who lives nearby, offers massage.
Exciting organic collaborations occur constantly within the building: Sana Javeri Kadri and Kelly McVicker started a conversation about pickles and spices at The Ruby, and wound up developing a new turmeric pickle together. Nighttime literary events are stellar and intimate, and include visiting author talks and unique book clubs. A few times a year, The Ruby hosts a weekend writing retreat.
“The Ruby is not just a place for collaborations to happen, but is itself a collaborative place—a place where people can bring their full selves,” Khong explains.
Khong always hoped the Ruby would foster cooperation among members as well as creative spirit. The programming today reflects its multifaceted community (this is also symbolized in The Ruby’s logo, an artistic rendering of the jewel it is named for). “Titles are easy for people, but every human is so much more complicated than that. The thing that was delightful was how the members filled [The Ruby] in with their own areas of expertise and talent,” Khong tells me. “Now it’s gone down paths I hadn’t envisioned.”
Khong’s own passion for food is evident in Goodbye, Vitamin, as well as her work at Lucky Peach, and food plays an important role at The Ruby as well. From the beginning, she knew she wanted to host community meals and happy hours featuring women chefs and winemakers. Women chefs cater lunches for The Ruby every Friday. Khong’s thinking was that this was one easy way for members to vote with their forks, and buy food and support local businesses they believe in.
In spite of all her work to build a warm and collaborative community at The Ruby, Khong wasn’t always someone who knew she needed people. She describes herself growing up as “the awkward kid and a loner.” She loved books. But her work as a writer and editor was what made her realize “that nobody does anything completely alone. Writing a novel is a pretty lonely thing, but it’s ultimately a collaboration, too.”
Rachel Khong grew up in the suburbs of Southern California and fell in love with San Francisco during a college internship. She notes that where she grew up was jock-oriented, and when she moved to San Francisco, she was delighted to find it was a place where people walked and people read.
Before The Ruby opened in 2018, Khong discussed its foundational values with some of the founding members who had marketing backgrounds. She wanted to make sure “the physical space and people using the space were central to it, and not just a brand identity.” But talking with other founding members helped her realize that they needed a mission statement to make sure the experience was clear to everyone who joined.
The mission statement was intended to help encourage the development of a space where members were all recognized as whole people. “Helping one another to be maximally productive and creative . . . that’s the interesting part to me. Of course, this is a feminist space. We are a place that prioritizes diversity and the mentality of ‘come as you are,’” Khong says. “Having those principles from the get-go was really important to attracting people who would feel at home in this space.”
Preserving what made San Francisco such a wonderful place for creative people involves following principles that contrast with the investment-based model of most Silicon Valley ventures. The Ruby is self-funded, built entirely on sweat equity. Khong didn’t even consider investors when starting The Ruby. She believes many places run on investment money can be exploitative, and she wasn’t interested in becoming lucrative by wringing people out for a bottom line.
“It’s good to be reminded that you need other people, and to think of ways you can help other people. How could anyone do all this alone?”
The Ruby’s daily operations run alongside its progressive tenets. These help make it an inclusive, diverse, and refreshing space. It is also a women-centric space, and there is a Rolodex that allows members to find local women-owned businesses to support, as well as a library with a particular focus on women authors.
Among the Ruby’s diverse membership is a strong contingent of Asian American writers, including R. O. Kwon, Esmé Weijun Wang, C. Pam Zhang, Mimi Lok, and Shruti Swamy. This reflects both the large Asian American population in the Bay Area, and The Ruby’s dedication to supporting local artists and creatives. As a full-time ghostwriter and critic with three small children, I’ve been grateful to work for long, quiet stretches on my forthcoming novel and my current novel-in-progress at The Ruby. At the same time, I’ve found generous moral support and inspiration in my conversations with The Ruby’s many other fiction authors, poets, nonfiction writers, and artists.
For her part, Rachel Khong sees community support as one potential counter to the impersonal approach sometimes fostered by technology. “We’re increasingly isolated . . . there are technologies aimed toward making your life easier in an impersonal way, [and] we’re getting farther away from that dependence on neighbors and friends,” she says. “It’s good to be reminded that you need other people, and to think of ways you can help other people. Especially for women: Women are expected to do so much. How could anyone do all this alone?”
Anita Felicelli is the author of a short story collection LOVE SONGS FOR A LOST CONTINENT (Stillhouse Press) and CHIMERICA: A NOVEL (forthcoming from WTAW Press, 2019). Her reviews and essays have appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle, Los Angeles Review of Books, Slate, the NYT (Modern Love), and elsewhere. Follow her on Twitter @anitafelicelli.