WASHINGTON — On a recent weekday evening, 30 or so mostly white, 20-something women still dressed in their business-casual best sat in a circle on the second floor of a shop talking about death. Or more specifically: "Would you want to know the date of your death?"
Answers were split. "The idea that we don't have control over what happens to us is illogical to me," one says. "It makes people feel blameless."
"That gets to the crux of the question of fate versus free will," says another.
The inspiration for all this morbid chatter is the novel "The Immortalists," by Chloe Benjamin, in which a fortuneteller predicts the dates when each of the four main characters will die. The novel is the January pick for the Girls' Night In book club that takes place monthly in nine cities across the country.
Among the attendees is a 29-year-old former Washington, D.C. tech sector worker named Alisha Ramos, who started Girls' Night In as a newsletter in January 2017. It has now grown into a full-fledged business, with 120,000 subscribers, big-name advertisers and regular events such as the book club meetings. In February, Ramos announced that she raised $500,000 from venture capitalists to invest in more offline events.
Ramos, who is soft-spoken and describes herself as "super introverted," started the newsletter after the 2016 presidential election. Back then, she was working full time for a government contractor that was managing the HealthCare.gov website. "Professionally I felt it, but personally, too," she says. "There was a lot going on that was incredibly stressful."
Ramos needed an antidote to the anxiety she was feeling. But she had struggled to meet and make friends and figured other women her age had, too. Washington is "a very transient city. And because of that, I feel like I've gone through many different groups of close friends," she says. "You enter into this new life stage where your friends are getting married. They're starting to have children. They're moving away for grad school. They're just going on all these different paths. It becomes really difficult to figure out: Who are my people?"
She craved a space with other like-minded women to talk about their favorite books, great articles they read that week, products they discovered - a place away from a high-stress, fast-paced world. She initially envisioned Girls' Night In as an e-commerce site selling products to help women host gatherings with friends. But she had no money to launch it, so she decided to write a newsletter instead, "to see if the message resonated with anyone else."
Ramos started by sharing articles that she enjoyed that week, her musings and product recommendations - all fine-tuned to the pangs of city-dwelling millennials, for whom the pressure to present an active, upbeat life on social media can be crushing. "There's this general sense of FOMO [fear of missing out] our generation is experiencing because we are inundated with images of people living these beautifully curated lives and going to things like the Museum of Ice Cream," she says, referring to the famously Instagrammable interactive art exhibit in San Francisco. "Instead of becoming a way to connect more meaningfully with people, social media becomes a source of stress and anxiety."
A recent Girls' Night In newsletter referenced the acronym JOMO: Joy of Missing Out. Girls' Night In is all about JOMO. And as the online community has grown, so has Girls' Night In's appeal to brand-name advertisers including Netflix, Penguin Random House and Everlane, which are looking to reach its slice of affluent millennial women. Girls' Night In consistently recommends high-price items, such as a $29.95 candle or a $25 dog bowl.
Ramos says of Girls' Night In's evolution: "It wasn't a strategic decision; it was me as an individual, what am I feeling, what do I need, what are the problems I need solved. It really comes from a personal place. I guess in hindsight, it sounds really smart."
With success, however, come questions about whether the goals of building community and turning a profit are compatible. Lately, whether they are from companies hawking body wash or women-only co-working spaces, messages of female empowerment sound like just another advertising pitch. When I ask Ramos about whether self-care is really only for those who can afford it, she says she doesn't want it to be, "especially as someone who didn't grow up in a privileged background." (She's the only child of an Army dad and a stay-at-home mom.) "You don't have to buy these luxurious products to experience self-care. It can be going to book club. It can be drinking more water," she says. "I do acknowledge that for a lot of women, they can't find the time to do these things."
For a while, Ramos was one of those women with no time for self-care. At first, she kept working full time while running the newsletter. She preached the importance of work-life balance, but her lifestyle became the opposite. She spent her evenings on the newsletter, working into the wee hours. "There are pictures that my boyfriend took of me that I hope never see the light of day," she says. "They're of me in a fetal position on our couch with a blanket over me because I was so exhausted."
In June 2017 she quit her job and gave herself six months to turn a profit. "By the end of the year we were making just barely enough," she recalls. Around the same time, she began organizing the book clubs. "There was a big thirst for in-person meetups," says Tizzy Brown, a co-host of the D.C. one, which started in August 2017 with about 20 people. "It's really one of the ways that I've seen consistently people able to make new female friends."
If the idea of spending an evening out seems to contradict the newsletter's ethos, Ramos says that's a common misconception. People tend to picture Girls' Night In as "home alone, in your PJs, eating all the snacks," she says. "But the apostrophe in Girls' Night In exists because I've always viewed it as a shared experience."
So where does Girls' Night In go from here? The answer may involve guys."We get a lot of emails from men who subscribe and say, 'When are you launching Guys' Night In? We need this,' " Ramos says. The modern ills Girls' Night In hopes to address are gender-neutral, after all.
"Some people say, you're advocating canceling plans on your friends and being alone. That's not it," she says. "We're advocating for balance, and this need to put on your own oxygen mask first."
This article was written by Avery Kleinman, a reporter for The Washington Post.