Sonny Caberwal is dressed sharply--including the navy-blue turban that evidences his Sikh faith--and perched in the industrial-rustic lobby of his Union Member House, a new kind of private club in the not particularly bustling downtown of Durham, North Carolina. Its eminently Instagrammable looks aside, it's not at all like the pricey members-only spaces with chic interiors and names like Spring Place, Radiant, and Huckletree that now dot the likes of New York City, Los Angeles, and London. Caberwal set up Union Member House with the explicit goal of bringing diverse communities together and creating connections; with this in mind, a year's membership costs all of $250.
"People tell me it's too cheap," he says. "I'm like, 'Have you talked to any regular Americans lately?' "
It all started with a health scare. In March 2018, Caberwal felt a mass in a lymph node on his neck. As a creeping fear of cancer took hold, he noticed another unfamiliar feeling--disconnection. He's a native North Carolinian, but he was so new to Durham, he didn't have a doctor--or a local network to help him find one. Caberwal, a graduate of Georgetown Law and Duke, had been deep in the hustle of tech startups for a decade. In 2016, the conglomerate Newell Brands bought Bond, a New York-based company he'd founded that used robotics to pen bulk correspondence in a customer's handwriting. Shortly after the sale, he and his wife left Manhattan for Durham, seeking a family-friendlier environment. But Newell-related work in New York kept Caberwal from bonding with his new city.
His father, a urologist in Asheboro, to which his parents moved from India in the 1970s and where Caberwal was born, guided him to appropriate care. Still, no clear diagnosis emerged, which plunged him into "four weeks of worst-case scenarios," says his wife, Preeti Caberwal, the club's co-founder and creative director. Luckily, a biopsy showed that Sonny was cancer-free. But the Caberwals had "been having conversations about our future" during the uncertain time, he says. "Connecting with different kinds of people had been the most fun part of our lives. It was a shame we hadn't gotten to know anyone" in Durham.
The Caberwals' response to that was Union Member House. They forged a deal with the owner of a former Masonic lodge dating from the 1920s, which their team refurbished to create a cozily sprawling, 6,000-square-foot social hub--co-working during the day; bar and restaurant service, curated programs, and free yoga at other times. There's also a 3,500-square-foot outdoor garden; hotel rooms are planned, too.
While welcoming to all, Union also has a clandestine flair, especially after dark, with its doorway secluded in an alley behind the club and a fingerprint scanner granting entry. Superficially, it resembles those fancier private clubs popping up in international cities--part WeWork, part Soho House (a mingling haven for stars, execs, and voyeurs of same that teased a $2 billion IPO last year)--that seek to stay exclusive (read: elitist) via cryptic application processes and prohibitive annual membership fees that run well into the thousands of dollars.
That's where Union breaks the mold, in both intent and setup. Its yearly fee of $250, Caberwal points out, is less than half the local YMCA's. (The closest analogue to Caberwal's venture is Fueled Collective, a social, co-working, and fitness hangout with locations in Chicago, Cincinnati, and Minneapolis-St. Paul, whose prices start at $95 a month for two days of access before 3 p.m. and unlimited evening and weekend access.) Nearly everyone who fills out Union's application and promises to be kind, curious, and open-minded gets in, after answering detailed questions about interests and goals. So far, the club's community, built largely on word of mouth, is achieving Caberwal's goal of bringing disparate groups together--of its 1,500 members, 60 percent are women and close to 40 percent are nonwhite.
Caberwal hopes to open 20 more Union Member Houses and is closing in on funding for eight. He is focusing on midsize cities: Madison; Kansas City, Missouri; Tulsa; and Charleston, South Carolina. "If you don't meet people outside your network, then only people with good networks get good opportunities," says Caberwal. "I believe America is more than that."