Founder Amy Nelson Was Madly Pulling a Pandemic Pivot When... the FBI Showed Up at Her Door With Guns, Seized Her Money, and Told her Husband he was the Target of a Criminal Investigation
Nelson built a successful women's coworking company, The Riveter, before it all came crashing down. This is her story, told in real-time.
It's 5 a.m. on December 9, 2020, and Amy Nelson is on Zoom in a green camo hoodie, ready for battle.
A week earlier, she'd sent an intriguing email: "Between us," she wrote, "by February I'll have a story of pulling off the world's most amazing pivot...or my company will be at the end of its journey. What a hell of a six months. Dumpster fire is appropriate."
Amy founded The Riveter, which runs coworking spaces for women across the country. At least, that's what it used to do, before the pandemic emptied offices everywhere. In the yesteryear of girlbosseratti, she was the lawyer-turned-founder — the mom with a warm, Midwestern ferocity — hefting law books and diapers, racing through airports in heels to speak on yet another panel. There, she'd expertly julienne gristly issues into precise, debate-worthy points. ("The school system runs on the agrarian calendar, our work system does not," she told a Wall Street Journal video interviewer regarding corporate America's treatment of mothers.) Now, like many founders, she was trying to skid her company into a U-turn as Covid smashed into her carefully laid plans.
Amy wasn't looking for a reporter to cover her pivot — not in its messy early stages, anyway. We'd connected on something else. But when I got her email, it occurred to me that people usually hear about a pivot only after the fact. What would it look like to chronicle one as it goes? How could others gain from seeing this play out in raw, real time? I proposed that we touch base every week so I could ride shotgun. Maybe there'd be a story. Maybe not.
She responded: "When should we talk?"
Now that we're on Zoom, she fills me in a bit more. "I have four little girls — one, three, four, and six. So it's been kind of crazy." Along with her husband, Carl Nelson, they've all been stuffed into a 1,100-square-foot condo in Hawaii — a long way from Seattle, where they'd been living in a comfortable home almost three times the size. As for why they moved? "I haven't talked about this on social media and I won't for a long time," she says ominously.
In that first meeting, there was a lot she found too difficult to talk about. But as our conversations went on — for two weeks, twelve weeks, twelve months, a year and a half — Amy would reveal that she was actually in the midst of twin crises.
Eight months earlier, in April 2020, the FBI had shown up at her Seattle home with guns, informed her husband that he was the target of a federal criminal investigation, and seized all their savings. Ever since then, she'd been trying to pull her life out of a death spiral. And what was about to unfold would be far harder, longer, and more complex than she could have imagined.
But on that first Zoom call, she only hinted at all that. Brightly, she said, "You just have to get out of bed, take care of your kids and try to save your business."
Act 1: The Good Times
"The first time I ever laid eyes on Amy was at the top of an escalator at her office building," says Carl, "and of course she was dressed to kill. My business partner, who'd walked with me, looked up at her and said, 'That's way too much woman for you, bro,' and he was right."
They'd been set up on a blind date. Six months after that, they were living together in Seattle.
Amy was 31, and an attorney at Dorsey & Whitney. She'd grown up in a suburb of Columbus, Ohio, with a public school teacher mother and an attorney father. Amy also became a lawyer, and spent more than four years as a litigator with a top firm on Wall Street before moving west. (She'd wanted to go into international politics, but when you owe $150,000 in student loans — and that was with a half-tuition scholarship to NYU Law School — "you don't have a lot of choices," she says.) Carl went to work for Amazon Web Services (AWS), where he helped build the data centers from which Amazon sells its cloud computing services.
They were married with two children in 2016, when Amy signed up for a course on how to start a business. She knew she wanted to build something but wasn't sure what that might be, and it just so happened the classes were held at a WeWork. "I thought, Where are all the people like me?" she recalls. Ironically, that gave her the idea for her company: a coworking space that caters to women. She launched in 2017, around the same time that a Time magazine article announced "The Rise of the All-Female Work Spaces." It focused heavily on The Wing, with its clubbish, exclusive, millennial pink vibe. "It's hard not to be jealous of that as a founder," Amy says. But her brand — which she named for the Rosie the Riveters in World War II — was less about places to be seen, and more about working women rolling up their sleeves and getting things done.
Halfway through raising $700,000 from local angel investors, she signed the first lease on a 10,000-square-foot space in an old building at the heart of the Capitol Hill district of Seattle. After work, she and Carl would put the kids to bed and spend four or five hours constructing desks and chairs. On weekends she bought pizzas and invited everyone she knew to what she called "barn-raising parties." "You're going to be a much more successful entrepreneur if you ask for — and accept — help," she says.
Over the next two years, Amy raced around the country growing the company. She expanded The Riveter to 10 coworking spaces and 13,000 members, with floating desks starting at $199 per month and full offices for thousands. Carl traveled a lot for his Amazon job, too. But eight days after their fourth child was born in June 2019, he was fired. It had nothing to do with what was about to unfold. According to Carl, it was technically for yelling at a vendor ("We're both fiery; that's how we always worked," he says) and probably about something else. Amazon will only confirm that he was terminated for violating the company's code of conduct. Whatever the case, Carl had started a real estate development company on the side while working there, and so he went off to chase deals.
Meanwhile, The Riveter continued to grow 20% month over month. It had 130 employees and was on track to make $20 million in revenue in 2020—beating its financial projections—when Amy closed the last of the $30 million she'd raised. That was on March 13, 2020.
The next day, most of America went into a Covid lockdown. Overnight, no one was going to work, let alone coworking. Like most people, Amy went to bed hoping the whole scare would blow over quickly. She had no idea how much worse things were about to get.
Act 2: Things Fall Apart
On December 2, 2019, someone had sent an email to Amazon founder Jeff Bezos: "Mr. Bezo's," it started, with the billionaire founder's name misspelled. "Would you care to hear about a couple of your employees who have taken kick backs [sic] in excess of $8,000,000 maybe as high as $50,000,000 and in my opinion represent a security risk to AWS?"
Carl was not named in the email, but he was later identified as one of those employees in the alleged plot.
Oblivious to any of that, in April 2020, Amy was working remotely from the family's Seattle house with its great views and seafoam green trim. Because one of their daughters has febrile seizures that can be triggered by fevers, they were being especially careful about any exposures. But Amy was on a tear, slicing and dicing through all of Covid's obstacles. The Riveter already had a robust digital platform with content and events, and on April 2, she was collaborating with eBay on "a jam-packed day of *free* online events, actions and shared moments" to support female entrepreneurs. That morning, she woke up psyched about the event.
Then, at 6:53 a.m., she heard a loud knock.
Through the multiple glass panes on the front door, Amy could see two people not wearing masks. Then the woman flashed her badge: FBI. She said they had some questions for her husband.
In a panic, Amy called for Carl. He came and led the agents inside, past the family's half-growling German shepherd, past the girls jumping around in their pink bouncy house, and up to his office as Amy told him firmly, "Do not say anything without a lawyer."
That morning Carl learned he was the target of a federal criminal investigation.
He figured it was all a mistake. "I said, 'I'll get my lawyer. We'll get on the phone with Amazon and I'll lay it out for 'em,'" he recalls. "They may not be happy about what I was doing, but nothing illicit happened. Everything was done in their best interest. This isn't a big deal."
As a lawyer, Amy knew better. This was bad.
After the first FBI visit, Amazon filed a civil lawsuit in the Eastern District Court of Virginia and the Nelsons could finally see what was alleged. Carl's former job had involved scouting land for Amazon to buy and build data centers on — or putting together deals with commercial real estate developers to do all that for AWS — and then he'd present the best option to decision makers. The lawsuit, which was fleshed out in July, alleged a massive fraud and kickback scheme involving a number of defendants, including Carl. It claims they inflated the lease prices and land purchase transactions for AWS to gain illicit profits that were distributed through a web of shell entities, including Carl's real estate startup he'd founded on the side. It added up to a lot — violating the federal RICO statute (The Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act) and engaging in wire fraud, honest services fraud, money laundering, and breach of contract, among other things. Amazon is seeking to recover "tens of millions of dollars" in unjust enrichment along with damages.
Carl agrees that the transactions took place, but argues they were completely legal and standard, all vetted by his lawyer and allowed per his employment contract. He suggests that Amazon has ulterior financial motives in its accusations, and denies that the company suffered any damages. He also points out that the whistleblower sought compensation for his information, of which he didn't have personal knowledge. (This has come out in court filings; the whistleblower later admitted in a deposition that he'd asked a few times if there was potential remuneration, and also said, "I never saw the specifics, so a lot of it is assumption and hearsay.") In response to questions from Entrepreneur, Amazon declined to discuss the case beyond what has been in the court records.
The blows kept coming. The month following the FBI visit, the government seized $892,135.78 from the Nelsons' bank accounts; it alleged those funds were connected to criminal activity. This included Amy's money, too. Much of it had been set for taxes and the girls' college educations. To start paying for lawyers, the couple liquidated their 401(k)s and sold her Range Rover.
On top of all this, Amy's father was also undergoing a kidney transplant in Ohio, and she wasn't allowed to visit him because of Covid restrictions. It was an unbelievable pile-on of things going wrong. Her disrupted business, a critically sick parent, a husband under federal investigation, and dwindling finances as the world staggered in a global pandemic — not one of which could she fix or stop. Flattened, for days and weeks, she couldn't sleep or eat. She lost 20 pounds. Pumped Xanax. Developed a shake. "They said they were going to indict Carl with a crime and drag him out of the house in front of our kids. It all happened so fast and it was so chaotic and terrifying and I couldn't be around anybody. I just — I didn't know what to do. I was literally lying on the floor."
One day, she suddenly thought of the Alexa device in her home. What if it caught us talking to our lawyers? It's made by Amazon! She scrambled to get her history, and as she listened to the recordings, she heard an unmistakable voice. It was her five-year-old, Sloane. "Alexa," the child had asked the machine, "why is Mommy crying?"
For weeks, no one could get through to Amy as she hid from the world. Finally, she answered a FaceTime call from her mom. Kathy Sterner saw her daughter in a heap on her heated bathroom tiles, and with the firmness of someone who taught public school for 36 years, she said, "You need to get up. This is not going away. You have to fight." She didn't hang up until she saw Amy pick herself up off of the floor.
But just as she snapped out of her stupor, there was another banging at the door — this one at 6:47 a.m. and somehow worse. Obviously, Amy thought, the FBI is here to arrest Carl. Standing barefoot in yoga pants and a T-shirt, with 9-month-old Holland on her hip, she looked out through the glass: There they were, four agents in their FBI windbreakers, guns glinting in the morning sun. She screamed for her husband. He came down and walked outside with his arms outstretched, not wanting his four little girls to see him cuffed and hauled away.
But it was a false alarm; the agents had come only with a search warrant and let Amy go with the kids. Out in the garage, she was shaking badly again. The possibility of Carl being taken away was hitting home. Although she'd had the acuity to once represent Standard & Poor's through the 2008 financial crisis, now her thoughts were so snarled she couldn't figure out how to dress her children. "I called our lawyer as I was shoving them in the car and could hear that my voice didn't sound like me," she says. "Then I drove to my CMO's house. And I remember the kids running around on her deck in their pajamas or diapers. No one had any shoes. And I was just like, How in the hell is this happening?"
But it was happening, and the reality of the pandemic was taking hold. Three months in, it was clear nobody was going back to a coworking space anytime soon. The Riveter was not bringing in revenue. Amy started trying to get out of her 11 leases, and laid off all her employees except one. Eventually, she had to let that employee go, too. "It was really important for me to look everybody in the eye," she told me later. "So I did. It was horrible. Now I am like the Alamo."
By the fall, the Nelsons' personal finances had become untenable. To continue paying for lawyers, they had to sell their beloved house with the green trim and see-through door — though at that point, it had become a site of trauma for Amy. To make sure the girls didn't see their father arrested, she and Carl had been getting up every day at 5 a.m. to take them to the park for three hours, watching a baby monitor pointed at the driveway so they'd know if the FBI arrived. Seattle, generally, had become impossible; their next-door neighbor worked at Amazon — it seemed like most people did — and news about Carl traveled fast. "This was the place I built a company that employed over 100 people," Amy said. "We got married, we had four babies, we had a community, were on boards and nonprofits."
But on November 1, 2020, the family packed five bags, got into a van, and left without saying goodbye to anyone.
"Of course it was raining that day," she said. "We felt like fugitives."
Act 3: The Slow Climb Back
In December of 2020, as the pandemic still raged, Amy and I begin talking. On that first Zoom, I know nothing of the FBI or legal crisis, but later realize I'm catching her in an optimistic moment. The Nelsons are resettled in Hawaii, where they have family. The condo has only two bedrooms, so they've put their baby's crib in a closet and filled the place with furniture from Rent-A-Center. But there are upsides. They're across the street from a doughnut shop, in a cool neighborhood with street murals — and, most of all, they feel safe.
Without the FBI banging on her door, Amy is drumming up what brain space she has left to focus on The Riveter, asking herself: What could it be, if not coworking spaces? To me, she says, "The company has been so much about being a working mom. And, like," she stops to laugh, "it's not that interesting. I am a working mom. It's a shit show. End of story. Right? What I want to do is use the platform to talk about women who are getting into the independent economy."
Envisioning a digital platform with tools and services for freelancers and gig workers, she is keying into the first clear impacts of the pandemic. With children stuck at home, the burden is disproportionately falling on women who, voluntarily or involuntarily, are losing their jobs. "How do we help them become 1099s?" Amy wonders. "How do we help them with their taxes? Form an LLC? It's lonely not having a workplace. I think there's a big opening."
But before raising new money for a pivot like that, she has to deal with the leases for the old coworking spaces. So far, using the skills she learned as a litigator on Wall Street, she has negotiated her way out of all but two. She feels confident she can escape one more. But the last one — a seven-year lease — has an angry landlord who will not budge. "And that," Amy says, "might spiral me into bankruptcy."
To cover her bases, she's begun plotting four new paths forward. Number one: She's been talking with a large public tech company about potentially acquiring The Riveter. Two: She's also exploring merging with a well-known competitor in women's coworking. "When you're in this moment of crisis, you have to get creative," she says matter-of-factly. Three: She's looking into building out her media properties. The Riveter still has a popular newsletter, and a few months ago she launched a podcast called What's Her Story with cohost Samantha Ettus, founder of the fintech startup Park Place Payments, where they interview female power influencers like Abby Wambach and Arianna Huffington. Perhaps The Riveter can thrive on brand partnerships and selling tickets to live tapings?
Four: Bankruptcy. It is the last resort, but you've got to put it on the list to remind yourself it could happen, she says. Still, the possibility is eating at her. Right before Christmas, a Crunchbase report comes out with the news that venture funding for women entrepreneurs plunged in 2020.
"If I fail, it sucks for other female founders," she says, as her hellish 2020 comes to a close. "I don't want to give VCs the pass of like, 'Well, we tried funding women.'"
The holidays bring some small cheer. On January 13, 2021, she reports making headway on her various paths and — big news — interviews Melinda Gates for the podcast. "But in the middle of it all," Amy admits, "I am struggling with a very deep depression."
The numbness and shock of the last eight months have finally begun to wear off. But in its place, she now feels covered in a strange, scratchy fear. She can't wash it away, and she is often on the verge of tears. "Everyone's like, 'oh, you need therapy,'" she says at one point, "but there's nothing I can do to get out of this. Like, I can't therapy my way out of an ongoing trauma."
Scientists have found that trauma can change brain chemistry. In Amy's case, that seems to be true. Like some sort of defoliating Eastern tent caterpillar, it is sapping her of the very abilities she's needed to save her company — ingenuity and drive, deep creativity, risk-taking, the capacity to dream. As someone who's always overachieved, she is lost. Grasping to find her potential again, she does the one thing she can do: She asks for help. "I've been on a lot of calls with the board crying," she admits, barely recognizing herself after some of them. "I mean, I was a litigator, and here I am just, like, on my knees." But it is edging her ahead. And it rallies people to her side.
"I had to be tough a few times," says Hope Cochran, managing director of Madrona Venture Group in Seattle, one of The Riveter's major investors. She helps Amy get approved for the Small Business Administration's Paycheck Protection Program, the government funding that becomes a lifeline for many struggling companies during the pandemic's early days. "I knew she'd feel horrible if she failed."
Another great source of support comes from her podcast cohost. "You can't think that way," Ettus tells her when she's terrified or down. "You are Amy Nelson. You are the founder of The Riveter. You're the host of this podcast. You're always going to make money. This is who you are."
Little by little, Amy begins to remember and believe it. For the first time in nearly a year, she feels the old familiar pricks of excitement at the idea of pivoting her company. Also, one of her four paths forward suddenly looks promising: The public tech company is, in fact, seriously considering acquiring The Riveter, as well as hiring her for a VP position.
"The thing is, this isn't just about me," she says in early February 2021, as she awaits the company's final decision. "Right now, we need me to be as secure as possible for the kids. So if that's a corporate job with a salary and health insurance, I gotta take it."
When they make the official offer, she accepts. The total compensation package is something like $650,000 a year, and the company is doing diligence on folding in The Riveter. "This is life-changing," she tells me, with the slight defensiveness of someone talking herself into it. But it is an enormous relief, and a great opportunity. Now she just has to gear herself up to start on March 14. The one thing that's a little worrisome is that, the week before the offer, a couple of local Seattle publications have run stories about the lawsuit against Carl. They include her name and photo. She hadn't mentioned the case during her multiple interviews for the job because, she says, "I didn't want to let Amazon's allegations destroy my career. And I was hopeful that people would understand that I wasn't accused of anything."
Five days after starting the job, she texts.
"They fired me today."
"Bc of the lawsuit with my husband"
"You aren't legally allowed to ask about a spouse in an interview. But you can fire someone for it?"
"I'm going to save The Riveter"
Act 4: Saving Herself
After the anticipation of starting a huge job, the abrupt firing strips Amy down to the studs once again. She is too depressed to talk for a while. But by now she's survived a year's worth of hitting rock bottom and is getting used to the view down there. At this point, she starts to cope. One of her biggest breakthroughs is surprisingly simple: Every morning, she makes a list of just three to five things she has to get done.
"Some days I would cheat and one thing would be like 'email Kerry,' which was only five lines but it allowed me to cross something off the list and feel like, 'OK, even if it's just an inch, I'm moving forward,'" she says. "Ultimately, this helped me learn to really prioritize: What are the most important things to do today?"
She also goes public about the case. She knows that any crisis manager worth their salt would tell her not to, but she doesn't care. She has always been vocal about her opinions and the silence has been paralyzing her. Via lengthy Twitter threads, often tagging Amazon executives, she starts detailing what her family is going through, chronicling the case, and criticizing Amazon's handling of the situation. In other cases, she argues, companies speak to their employees before going to the federal government, so why didn't that happen here? ("Amazon followed standard procedure for reporting criminal activity to law enforcement," a spokesperson tells Entrepreneur.)
"What if Carl is actually guilty?" I ask her one day. "You must have considered that."
"No," she says quickly. "I know everything and I see no issue."
Finally she feels herself gathering strength. In June 2021, she takes another big job, this time as president of SaksWorks, a partnership between Saks Fifth Avenue and WeWork that converts retail spaces into shared offices with perks. At last the Nelsons have some financial breathing room. They move out of the small apartment in Hawaii, and into a more spacious home in Columbus, Ohio. That way, they can be near her parents and closer to New York, where she now flies every week for the new job.
While she throws herself into helming SaksWorks on weekdays, on weekends and nights, she starts breathing life into The Riveter. She gets a PPP loan and uses part of it to pay back rent (later, she'll use other funds to settle on the final outstanding lease). She also starts bringing in partnership dollars. Alaska Airlines sponsors a dinner that Amy and Ettus curate with high-profile women including actress Erika Alexander, L.A. Rams' chief commercial officer Jen Prince, and Sprinkles' founder Candace Nelson in a private room at Tommy's restaurant in Beverly Hills. In June, Procter & Gamble partners with The Riveter on several digital events. AARP follows by sponsoring a virtual series for its Thought Leadership work.
But October is the turning point. That's when Amy and Heather Carter, her former VP of operations, start talking about The Riveter again. They've never lost touch. Carter has since launched her own company, an app called Coterie Works, through which people can book workspaces in the lobbies and lounges of boutique hotels. When Amy first learned about it, she was too overwhelmed to do anything but be happy for her. But now, Carter suggests joining forces again. "I was like, 'Oh,'" says Amy, laughing at the memory. "'Obviously. Of course we should.'"
It is the missing piece of the pivot. After five months at SaksWorks, Amy is ready to recommit herself to The Riveter.
As soon as possible, The Riveter acquires Coterie Works and rebrands as Riveter Spaces. Now the startup, which once operated 10 coworking spaces for women, is relaunching as an app and platform where members can work in swanky hotels. On June 16, 2022, Riveter Spaces throws a party to celebrate with its first new partner, The Roosevelt Hotel in Los Angeles.
"It was really great," Amy says a few days later, fired up by it all. "We had 150 people come through and we've sold over 100 memberships. I just feel like there's so much opportunity." At the height of lockdowns, Amy still believed that people would want places to work together. Now, she's being proven right. According to The Business Research Company, the global coworking space market will nearly double from $16.17 billion this year to $30.36 billion in 2026. And within the category focusing on women — which includes companies like Hera Hub and The Wing (complete with a new CEO and majority stakeholder, IWG) — Riveter Spaces is carving itself a unique place.
Membership is only $25. With that, users get unlimited lobby coworking plus exclusive discounts up to 50% on conference rooms, food, and beverages — and, in the near future, hotel rooms. "I'm sure we will take a referral fee, but the hotel will get the bulk of the booking," says Amy, who's building out other revenue streams like the brand partnerships and the newsletter, which is already making tens of thousands of dollars in advertising funds per month. In the future, she plans to launch microcourses on LLCs, 1099s, taxes and other instructions for freelancers and gig workers — just as she'd envisioned years earlier.
Operationally, this model is a much lighter lift than the leases that were integral to the former model. "I had insight into how hard it was to run those physical spaces and how small the profit margins can be, certainly in a 'tier A' city," Carter says. "We're obviously able to grow more quickly because we don't have the overhead." By midsummer, they expand to four hotels in Los Angeles and one in Seattle.
With the limber confidence that comes from surviving an ordeal, Amy is taking on the mistakes she made in earlier versions of The Riveter. This time, she's carefully defining both the mission and internal culture. "Before," she says, "I wanted to change work for women. And that translated to my company feeling like a nonprofit. But I didn't want to build a nonprofit. I wanted to grow fast. I wanted a return for my investors. I wanted a return for my employees who all had equity."
Also, she realizes she'd failed to set the company's expectations around the office, leaving some employees unhappy. Now, she's laying out clearly what working at The Riveter means: The purpose is not to be best friends or family, or to find personal growth at work. It is to help everyone make money — members so they can succeed as freelancers, and employees so they can reinvest in whatever fuels their lives outside the office.
Her other big mistake was assuming that, as the founder, she could also run the company. As she discovered, she was great at selling, not managing. "Now I would never endeavor to do anything without being partnered with an amazing operations person, and that's what Heather is," she says. It's why she asked Carter to be her co-CEO. So far, they've hired five employees. It's a fraction of the old team, but as Amy says, "We have big goals."
She still has her bad days. Encouragingly, after almost two years, the government returned most of the money it seized. And it hasn't yet charged Carl with a crime. But that doesn't mean it won't. "It's not common for the Department of Justice to say that there is a declination of prosecution," says Ellen Podgor, a professor specializing in white-collar crime at Stetson University College of Law, who has no connection to Carl Nelson's case. This means you often never know if the FBI dropped an investigation. (Neither DOJ or Amazon would comment on the status of Carl's criminal case.) But the hard truth is that, no matter how much the Nelsons fight, he could still end up in prison.
Every day, Amy wakes up with that uncertainty sitting heavy in the pit of her stomach. "What will Amazon's allegations mean for me, the wife of the person they're after, in my business and my personal life?" she says. But she's now able to focus on Riveter Spaces with her old clarity and a new determination. "I think a lot of people counted me out," she says. "They said, 'She's done. She's gone.' They dismissed me and discarded me. Because in America, when you have a family member accused of a crime, you become very messy and very untouchable. And for some people I will always be."
"But you know what?" she adds with a defiant shrug. "That's their loss. Because I'm a builder. I'm a creator. And I'm going to keep doing this. Despite everything."
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