And built it into Salt Lake City’s largest community of women-owned small businesses.

How Tessa Arneson co-founded Maven District

And built it into Salt Lake City’s largest community of women-owned small businesses.

Photo of Tessa Arneson by Jackelin Slack

The Founder Series is a column by and about Utah founders and how they got to where they are today. Click here to read past articles in the series.

Igrew up with entrepreneurs for parents, so the idea of dreaming something up and making it tangible felt natural and deeply rooted in my blood. Even at a young age, it was settled: owning a business would be in my future. Like most young professionals, I weeded through an assortment of lower-level starter jobs in design, branding, product development and film production, sussing out what I was truly passionate about and doing my best to prove my success simultaneously. Corporate America didn’t provide both, so I ditched it and opened a Pilates studio.

Creating a neighborhood hot spot

A common question we get is, “How in the world did a boutique fitness spot transition into the Maven District?” Most people interpret this metamorphosis as some magical aha moment—an overnight caterpillar into a butterfly story—but the reality is that it’s been a long evolutionary process built upon organic mishaps, unexpected luck and a damn hard amount of work coupled with endless sleepless nights. 

We didn’t set out to build a neighborhood; the neighborhood built itself. Two big pieces were at play when the fledgling concept of what would become the Maven District started over 10 years ago: 1) Pilates clients would routinely ask for recommendations, such as, “Where should I get my eyebrows done? Who is the best PT for my injury? What’s a good lunch spot?” and 2) I imagined owning a building for my Pilates studio to level up the business and redefine its brand. 

Over time, the weight of these elements started to marinate into a vision. What if, instead of sending clients all over Salt Lake City, we could send them (and go myself) to a convenient, single location? What if that collective of small business owners could do my favorite thing in the world: connect and lean on each other for support?

In those fragments, we discovered that we wanted to build a true community. We knew this sounded like another mega-mall to outsiders, but the major difference was that this locally-built haven would actually be an ecosystem, sharing clients and engaging with locals on an entirely new level separate from Utah’s affinity for big box and franchises. This would be a utopia for entrepreneurs and become our “Field of Dreams.” If we could build it, they would come.

And built it into Salt Lake City’s largest community of women-owned small businesses.

Photo (Top): Curiosity by Jackelin Slack / Photo (Bottom L to R): Curiosity by Jackelin Slack & Normal by Jen Fairchild

My enthusiasm was consuming, but it was a hurdle to garner support from others—especially banks, as they put a higher value on a national product. The top person who truly believed this dream was possible was my husband, Tim Watcke. With his unwavering support, we secured a commercial building. For years, I didn’t give myself credit. I was embarrassed and felt like this business wasn’t real because of his involvement, but I recognize now that it was a privilege because we couldn’t have started without Tim. Unconsciously, the struggle of starting a business buried itself in my mind. Helping other entrepreneurs get started and access better resources would later become a pillar of Maven.

As we opened our first building to tenants, we noticed an overwhelming number of women topped our interested parties chart. I was pregnant while this was occurring, and as soon as my little girl entered the world, the splintered pieces that had amassed over the last couple of years became crystal clear. Maven District would be a home for women to build bold and intentional lives. It would be a place for them to feel brave and safe while building a business from the ground up. We wanted for them what I wanted for my future girl: to have access to affordable spaces, easy leases and a landlord who didn’t see their questions as dumb. We wanted a place where we were simply given a shot at our version of success. The holistic seed took hold, and we had our mission ahead of us.

The day I met my co-founder

Photos of Rocky Donati & Tessa Arneson by Jackelin Slack

Rocky Donati literally walked into my life. Recently transplanted to Utah after suffering the executive startup life of San Francisco and desperately needing a break, there she was, helping to fold towels in my Pilates studio because she simply had time to kill and loved a good workout. It was evident within a few conversations that she was wicked smart. If I didn’t leverage that talent immediately, I knew I would regret it—even if I had nothing to offer her aside from the fantasy potential of what Salt Lake City could be if we banded together.

Today, Rocky is our CMO, and she’s hard to keep up with—that’s how fast her brain works. She’s a high-level executor with a deep background in scaling outdoor and lifestyle brands. I feel so lucky to have her by my side because, in addition to her business savvy, I no longer shoulder all the burden. I have someone who is my supporter, still loves me after a fight, and believes that we can change the landscape of our city for the better. She is the ying to my yang. In many ways, our opposition is exactly the balance required to shift Maven District into something truly recognizable and impactful.

And built it into Salt Lake City’s largest community of women-owned small businesses.

Photo of Maven Team by Jackelin Slack (L to R): Sidney Smith, Jen Ungvichian, Rocky Donati, Tessa Arneson, Coco Hernandez, & Heather Geertgens

Five years later, that’s exactly what we’re doing. Alongside our core team of women and the unconditional support of my husband, we created Salt Lake City’s largest community of women-owned small businesses. Our buildings, mostly centralized on 900 S. between State Street and 200 E., are home to more than 100+ local shops and service providers, 75 percent of which are run by women. 

We’d love to rave about the many success stories within our buildings, but a few paragraphs couldn’t begin to contain them all. Normal, an ice cream shop with a cult following, was chosen as a James Beard Award semifinalist. Mineral and Matter doubled its footprint and is adding a second retail location this coming year. Planted Salon has collaborated with other salons on the block and has seen huge growth within its first year of opening. We’ve seen the spirit of these women shine. 

We’ve watched Curiosity, a step-mom and daughter duo, effortlessly create massive awareness around zero-proof socializing and The Juice Shop’s owner shifting from big city life in New York to Salt Lake City wholly with the intention of making a meaningful impact on her community. Being on the sidelines while these entrepreneurs flex, adapt and ultimately scale their businesses, knowing that we played a small part simply by creating a space for them to grow, are the stories that drive us to keep pushing for more opportunities for women. 

We still love our own community-based businesses: Maven STRONG, our Pilates studio, and Maven CREATE, our coworking and event space with private offices. They provide cornerstone resources to our neighborhood and have become a proven ground for any experiment we want to test.

Finding out what’s next 

Throughout the ups and downs of transitioning from a Pilates studio owner into a co-founder of a real estate development company, we’ve learned so many important lessons. It’s hard to imagine how we got here without those lessons under our belt originally. The biggest one is that when women start making money through their businesses, they give it back tenfold. They band together and lift each other. That’s the part we didn’t build with intention—these businesses did that. These businesses built a true 360-degree ecosystem. We were just the catalyst.

Now that the ball is rolling and we have a clear strategy of what we want Maven District to be, we can do what we do best: care for our tenants, something relatively unheard of in real estate. We intentionally build high-touch points into our business model. We offer flexible, short-term timelines and experimental options like pop-ups, markets or tiny spaces because starting a business isn’t linear. It needs room to scale up or down. 

We want to help more women and underrepresented founders start businesses by lowering the barriers to entry. The path to do this is through several avenues, like setting them up through education, mentors and our many partners around the city or giving more people in this segment access to easy startup capital. 

At Maven, we’re trying to do things differently in ways that didn’t exist when we started. We’re also thrilled (and scared) to open our newest (and biggest) building across the street from our headquarters. There will be eight retail spaces, more than 50 apartments and one level offering a boutique hotel experience aimed at driving tourism to our block. It’s sort of horrifying to imagine yet another arm of our business, but so exciting. If it works, we win. If it doesn’t, we’ll find another avenue. 

We’re continuing with development projects on a smaller scale, too, and offering women a chance to own a piece of Salt Lake City by reimagining real estate investment with affordable buy-in options. As though our plates had room, we submitted a proposal in the “professional” category for the city’s Ballpark NEXT competition—and won. If implemented, our vision would transform the former Smith’s Ballpark stadium into the nation’s first dedicated hub for women’s athletics. 

And built it into Salt Lake City’s largest community of women-owned small businesses.

Photo of Tessa Arneson & Family (Tim, Lucie & Liv) by Jen Fairchild

I now have two little girls, ages six and two. I envision a future city built for them where they can be treated with equal access, respect and dignity when they wish to build something for themselves. We know that the women we have in our community are working toward that right alongside us, which is how we know we can do this. I’ve learned so much in the last decade, but the biggest piece of this puzzle was learning that. 

To other business owners, my advice would be to take advantage of mentorship from those who are smart and have been in your shoes before. Our business thrives primarily because of the help we’ve received and the help we do our best to give back. That’s the beauty of community: being a part of something bigger.

Tessa Arneson is the co-founder of Maven District, a neighborhood of locally-owned businesses in downtown Salt Lake City, 75 percent of which are women-owned. She’s an entrepreneur, girl mom, angel investor and real estate developer who builds community-driven spaces for founders. Tessa is a daughter of a Utah pioneer and is aware of her white privilege but is always trying to learn. She is a self-proclaimed wellness and self-growth enthusiast. Traveling the world inspires her design and expands her thoughts while connecting with people feeds her soul, especially after recovering from a traumatic brain injury. Tessa feels fortunate to have spent the majority of her career working in her purpose: helping women lead brave and intentional lives.