Tessa McLoughlin – KWENCH Founder:
“I can’t be the only person wanting this, so I started to build it myself in 2013”
KWENCH owner and founder, Tessa McLoughlin has become one of Victoria’s most high-profile business owners — she’s often quoted in the news, consulted for advice, and has graced the pages of multiple business magazines, winning several prominent awards. She was named one of the Top 10 to Watch by Douglas Magazine, Force to Be Reckoned With by The Forum, and was one of BC Business Magazine’s Woman of the Year finalists in 2019. Victoria’s Chamber of Commerce also named Tessa’s successful culture club and co-working space, the Best New Business in Victoria in 2020. These accolades don’t seem surprising when you meet self-assured, effusive McLoughlin who speaks confidently about KWENCH and her vision to create a business that would meet not only her own needs for connection, but also the needs of her community. Tessa’s presence matches her public profile – she exudes enthusiasm and creative energy and will animatedly tell you that she doesn’t drink coffee because she doesn’t need the extra energy. Today, there is much about Tessa and her trailblazing story of success that is awe-inspiring and admirable, but her life circumstances were not always so aspirational.
In 2013, McLoughlin was a newly single mom and had moved to Victoria after, in her words, “her life had recently imploded.” After living in Squamish for several years, she felt Vancouver Island’s seaside university town, with its entrepreneurial upstarts and artistic interests, would provide the right mix of opportunities, and allow her to find happiness and stability, especially for her two young children, then ages four and six.
Without a job, or a car, and renting a suite in a local home, Tessa set out to start a new life. Once she began working and her children were settled in school, she also began doing the things she thought would bring her fulfillment and happiness. She knew she wanted to build a community, stay active, engage creatively, and learn new and interesting things, so she began taking yoga classes at one location, fitness classes at another – she took various courses at Camosun College, and traveled to other venues where she attended seminars and social events to meet new people and build new networks of friends. All this running around in the pursuit of happiness left her more stressed out than her starting point and far from the Zen, connected state she craved. During this time, it was a “necessity-is-the-mother-of-invention” moment that had Tessa ask herself why there wasn’t a place that would offer all these opportunities in one location, under one roof.
“That was the lightbulb moment,” says McLoughlin. “I asked myself why we couldn’t have a space where fitness classes were included, where I could also work and meet incredible people — where I could do courses and classes and learn, and so I looked around and there wasn’t anything. I thought I can’t be that unique — I can’t be the only person wanting this, so I started to build it myself in 2013.”
Building a business without a network and a financial asset base would seem like an exercise in futility for many, a fleeting thought easily dismissed due to concern over the practicality of executing such a venture. When asked how she managed to believe in herself and keep moving forward towards her dream, Tessa credits the resilience she developed in her childhood.
An Australian expat, Tessa grew up as a hardworking child-performer, earning money as a dancer, singer and actor from a young age and even starred in a children’s television show. However, despite her early artistic talents and success, she mentions it was what some would define as a weakness that led to some of her greatest strengths — her diagnosis with dyslexia. At a young age, she knew she wasn’t a typical learner, and mentions that she was forced to adapt and find ways to learn differently. She credits her ability to resiliently drive forward and creatively approach problems from different angles to her early struggles with dyslexia. Watching Tessa easily read a room and navigate a crowd, as she both energizes and puts others at ease, her skill sets interacting with people stand out as exceptional.
Despite her resilience and natural people skills, Tessa admits that she had no idea how to build the business she dreamed of creating.
“I didn’t know how to do this or what it would look like, so I started researching workspaces and that was just the beginning of co-working — it was still very grassroots. I realized co-working could be the foundation of the business, but that there would be so much more.”
Tessa knew she needed investors to get her company off the ground and admits that initially there were naysayers, but there were also those who took a leap of faith and believed in her ability to bring her vision to fruition. Through this process, Tessa claims she found “her posse of people.”
“I ignored the Naysayers,” says McLoughlin. “I love what Elizabeth Gilbert says in “Big Magic” – If the idea is not going away, keep going.” And she kept going, kept knocking on doors and asking for support and financing.
As a new entrepreneur, Tessa was willing to listen and be flexible and she found a group of supportive women as well as some great male mentors. She also found the right banker and people who believed in her.
When Tessa describes KWENCH, it’s hard not to believe in her and her business. Far from just a coworking space, it sounds more like an ethos, a prescription for happiness, like she has unlocked something socially curative.
“The sole purpose of KWENCH is to increase individual happiness because I believe that the happier we are as individuals, the more connected we are as individuals, the safer, the happier, and the more innovative our societies are.” This mission statement was borne in 2013, but two years into COVID, and the resulting social distancing and restrictive mandates, increasing mental health crises and a worsening opioid crisis, the KWENCH prescription for happiness seems more of a necessity than an option.
The original KWENCH, a 5,000 square foot space with multiple offices, several desks, social areas, workout space, video, and podcast production space and even a hair salon opened in 2017 and attracted members from the outset. There was a vibe and a buzz and soon it was the “it” spot for up-and-comers looking to network and collaborate with their community, all while sipping Kombucha on tap and enjoying taco-nights, yoga classes, unique seminars, and guest speakers. She had struck a chord with her community and demand grew — soon she was looking for a larger space to execute a grander vision of what she knew KWENCH could eventually offer.
By 2019, Tessa had opened KWENCH 2.0, a stunning, 25,000 square-foot expansive, skylit space with unique architectural features and artistic design details. Local artisans collaborated on custom elements such as wall murals, hand painted tiles and metalwork stairs reminiscent of some of the most upscale Manhattan haunts. Talented people flocked to Tessa and worked alongside her in KWENCH’s creation and her posse, her community breathed life into Victoria’s innovative new culture club. The new KWENCH offered not only workspaces and offices, but also a kitchen, replete with an espresso bar and food services, a bar with kombucha and prosecco on tap, a library, fitness and meditation classes, bike storage, a general store, a small theater/viewing room, maker space, art studios, event spaces, meeting rooms, as well as cultural events, workshops, and classes. New clients signed on and KWENCH soon housed employees and offices for Shopify, Dropbox, Nike, Boeing, Workday, UVIC, Kasian Architecture, Fatso, Trapeze, The Narwhal, Capital Daily and many more.
With its comprehensive offering, KWENCH was on a roll by 2020 – waitlists were growing and so were revenue projections. And then the pandemic hit, and no amount of pivoting would soften the blow of the imposed social restrictions. However, despite the challenges of the past two years, Tessa has amassed a long list of loyal followers and the rebound effect when restrictions lift seems to be an increase in demand for KWENCH memberships, as if people are certain it is the antidote to the malaise of lockdown.
Her next phase is expanding to Vancouver, and she is currently researching commercial spaces between 25,000 and 40,000 square feet in a variety of lower mainland locations, certain that the right space at the right price will come available. In the meantime, she is working with investors, primarily women who will partner with her in the Vancouver expansion. At this point, Tessa owns a majority of KWENCH, with a minority owned by committed female investors, including local entrepreneurial phenom, and Flytographer founder, Nicole Smith, who has openly espoused the virtues of Tessa’s KWENCH.
While there are many coworking spaces out there — sleek, well-lit, well-designed spaces, there is nothing quite like KWENCH which offers the opportunity to be part of something, a movement of sorts. The idea that we can arrive early, do a yoga class, shower, and change, grab an oat milk latte and some communal breakfast, and then retreat to our private office space until we’re ready for an evening event, maybe a guest speaker or taco night with Kombucha and Prosecco on tap, sounds pretty amazing. Already, there is early interest and a long list of subscribers and it’s easy to see why — KWENCH is bringing back community and building happier people, one member at a time.
Written by: Tassan Sung, Women’s LEAD Initiative Chair