🇬🇧 🔎 From the Atlantic to the Baltic, why I undertook a European tour of women-focused coworking spaces🔎🇪🇺
This is the story of a friendship, an epiphany and a desire to take off… But also a dive into intimate places, shared workspaces designed by and for female entrepreneurs, freelancers and self-employed. Still little known in France, these communities are flourishing throughout Europe, asserting themselves in recent years as real crucibles for another, paradoxically more inclusive, future of work.
Our ambition is to open the discussion on the new places and ways of working that are necessary for the development of today’s and tomorrow’s digital female talents, as well as to highlight initiatives designed to meet the specific needs of female entrepreneurs and freelancers.
Let’s start at the beginning. How did we get here?
A 2-year search for the ideal coworking space
Fall 2017. I’m at Station F (the world’s biggest startup campus) when, by chance, I meet Eva Bordachar, a solopreneur like me. We are in the east of Paris, a mere twenty minutes from where I live. Eva, on the other hand, doesn’t hesitate to make the hour-and-a-half commute on public transport from the western suburbs in order to come to where the entire French startup ecosystem converges. She arrives armed with her smile and the small suitcase on wheels that serves as her mobile office. Respect.
Eva impresses me with her dynamism and determination. Like me, she turned the page on the first chapter of her career as an employee to embark on entrepreneurship and… learn. Her refrain: “Since I became an entrepreneur, I feel like I’ve become a student again!”. My motto: “The instinct to learn”. We get along instantly.
With her application, Hopinoy, that facilitates mutual aid between parents, Eva aims to simplify the carpooling of children to extracurricular activities and to relieve parents — often mothers — from a time-consuming and often mentally draining chore. As for me, I periodically lead web and creative writing workshops for professional women who want to sharpen their style and assert their leadership along with my accomplice Cécile Strouck, a “Plume” (a story that does not lack panache). Eva has participated in our workshops and we’ve since introduced each other to our respective women’s professional networks. Very quickly, we’ve also become friends.
Spring 2019. Eva and I continue to see each other every month for a day to work together and support each other.
In the meantime, we’ve each joined a program for early-stage startups: La Ruche for Eva, the Startup Leadership Program for me. We’ve quickly realized the obvious: the tech ecosystem swears only by teams with several co-founders. Few investors bet on a startup founded by a single person, let alone a woman, as the StarHer-KPMG barometer shows. Forgotten: seed fundraising!
Forgotten, too: Station F and its big dreams! We give ourselves the time we need to develop our respective projects and explore, each on our own, different shared workspaces, both in Paris and the suburbs. Our steps only lead us from a trendy coworking space to a self-organized makerspace, in the middle of a predominantly male, often bearded, fauna composed of hipsters or makers. We come to the same conclusion: none of these places really resonate with us and, moreover, we are never served as well as by our close circle of women entrepreneurs.
It is April 2019, and now it’s my turn to take the suburban train RER A to cross Paris, direction Poissy, where I find Eva double-parked in her SUV, decidedly faithful to her role as a “mom-taxi” because, in addition to everything I told you, she also raises two girls!
Eva picks us up — me and my digital nomad backpack — for another ten minutes by car, to her office at the Château Éphémère of Carrières-sous-Poissy (photo). My journey takes one hour door to door. Our friendship will take us even further.
Since there is no such thing as the ideal coworking space, Eva and I soon decided to join forces to create our own in Poissy. With only one watchword: this coworking space will be female-focused, or it won’t exist at all.
Liberté, Égalité, Sororité (or “one small step for a woman, one giant leap for woman-kind”)
Weak signal. For several years now, I have been interested in the emergence of female-focused coworking spaces. I see it as an interesting lever for women’s empowerment… but, up until recently and rather disappointingly, only abroad. I hoped for the arrival of a European branch of the very exclusive American club The Wing — at the time women-only — in a private mansion in the trendy neighborhood of the Marais in Paris. While waiting for this dream to come to fruition (or at least some version of it, as it since has), I tested with curiosity (and for free) the ephemeral coworking space that was open to all for three months by My Little Paris at the end of 2017. Called Mona, this place has since become an online platform.
At the same time, in 2017, the #Metoo movement gains momentum in the media and American journalist Emily Chang reveals the bleak side of fraternal culture that reigns in Silicon Valley. Entitled Brotopia: Breaking Up the Boys’ Club of Silicon Valley, her book is like a bomb. We are no longer talking about ordinary sexism based on daily incivilities (already unbearable in itself), but about toxic masculinity fueling a culture of endemic and systemic sexism, which perpetuates itself in impunity with a much wider impact on technology and society (regression of the place of women in scientific, technical and computing professions, therefore in the industries of the future, with the consequence that their needs are less taken into account by the market).
Strong signal. In this context, 2019 marks a turning point with the opening of the first location of The Wing outside the United States, finally in London. Has Europe become a continent to be conquered? On closer examination, by arming myself with my Google search bar and a little patience, I notice that such coworking spaces already exist, in the Netherlands, Germany, Sweden…
And by focusing more precisely on France? There are a few coworking spaces catering to women startup creators, but not always exclusively (within the Willa accelerator in Paris, for example, open to mixed teams).
In addition, in its special issue about freelancing published on the 25th of October this year, Socialter magazine devoted for the first time an article to this tendency of female freelancers to gather in coworking spaces or shared workshops exclusively for women. In Paris, Marseilles and Nantes, these communities take many various forms: companies, associations or Coopératives d’Activités et d’Emploi (Cooperatives of Activities and Employment). This, in turn, makes them collectively less visible.
Faced with this proliferation and in parallel with the drafting of the business plan for our future coworking space in Poissy, Eva and I have therefore undertaken a European tour of women-focused coworking spaces to compare approaches and identify best practices — which makes me a digital nomad for at least six months!
On the field to observe and reflect
What is a female coworking? We decided to have a concrete experience of them and to meet those who make them, use them and bring them to life. What do women expect from such places? What do they find there? What uses do they make of it? For what benefits?
I have so far counted about thirty spaces in Europe, in 12 countries. The census is not finished because each coworking space found on the web requires I contact them directly to check if it is still open, which is not always the case.
The objective is to visit about twenty of these sites over six months, at the rate of one week of immersion per month. Initiated in September 2019, our investigation will continue until February 2020. This article comes at a pivotal moment, after having passed the mid-point.
The first steps have been insightful beyond our expectations, because we received an excellent welcome from our European counterparts, from the shores of the Atlantic Ocean to those of the Baltic Sea:
- September in Berlin at CoWomen, Wonder and JuggleHub
- October in Zürich, Rotterdam, The Hague, Antwerp and Nantes, at Birdhaus, WeSpace, Tadah, Hashtag Workmode, Open Doors Female Hub, Girlsmode and L’Atelier Viking (to date the smallest female coworking in Europe: 30 sqm)
- December in Gdansk (from which I wrote these lines), Warsaw, Uppsala and Copenhagen, at O4 Flow, the Brain Embassy, Hera Hub and W.E.Space.
The next steps, in preparation, should lead us to London, Barcelona, Vienna and, finally, Paris.
Subtracting the male factor is not enough
We are convinced that women-focused coworking spaces provide new opportunities for women, so much so that they now constitute an emerging niche market within a European coworking market that is itself quite mature. And, according to our information, new addresses should continue to open in large numbers over the next three years throughout the continent.
However, we have discovered and visited such different concepts for coworking spaces, with such opposing biases, that a typology work is necessary to try to define the contours of our object of study.
The simple fact of addressing women in a preferential or exclusive way does not in itself characterize these third places. In this respect, the choice to “subtract the male factor” from the working environment is neither obvious nor systematic — and certainly not enough, or else women’s professional networks would have long ago made it possible to guarantee gender diversity in the business world!
Beyond the analysis of different coworking spaces, their marketing positioning and branding, completed by in situ observation of the configuration and material aspect of their workstations, we are mainly interested in identifying how these third places form a community. We, therefore, question the more intangible factors and parameters that determine the success of the user experience, both individually and collectively, from a business perspective.
By sharing our discoveries through a White Paper, to be published in March 2020, Eva and I want to raise public awareness about the place of women in the future of work from a French and European point of view. Our ambition is to open the discussion on the new places and ways of working necessary for the development of today’s and tomorrow’s digital female talents, as well as to highlight initiatives designed to meet the specific needs related to female entrepreneurship and freelancing.
The ideal coworking may not exist. So we might as well create it to our own measure.
#Future Of Work #Coworking #Women #Sisterhood #Safe Space #Entrepreneurship #Freelancing #Digital Nomads #Europe
 The StartHer-KPMG 2019 barometer analyses fundraising by women-led tech start-ups in France (a barometer available since 2017, in French 🇫🇷)
 Imperial Pink? The Wing Gears Up to Go Global, Vogue, September 2018 (in English 🇬🇧)
 Monafesto, My Little Paris, 2017 (🇫🇷)
 Freelance, mutual aid or law of the jungle? Socialter, 25 October 2019 (🇫🇷)
 “Research: Men and Women Need Different Kinds of Networks to Succeed”, Brian Uzzi, Harvard Business Review, 25 February 2019. (🇺🇸🇬🇧)
🧭 To find out more and follow our European adventures, subscribe to our publication Sisterhood Works, connect with me on Linkedin and let us know if you have any comments or questions while we are still in the field.
📍 We are still looking for possible female coworking spaces in the following European countries: Portugal, Ireland, Hungary, Czech Republic, Slovakia, Croatia, Estonia. Do you know someone who knows someone who has heard about someone going somewhere like that? Contact me.
💛 This article is dedicated to all the women, founders and members, we have met and interviewed between late September and early December 2019 across Europe : Alba, Aleksandra H, Aleksandra J, Alexia, Ana, Annebel, Asha, Audrey, Aysha, Carolin, Caroline, Emilie, Danielle, Dominika, Doris, Dorota, Estefanía, Hanna, Hannah, Jeanne, Joanna, Julia, Karine, Kasia, Kat, Katarzyna, Katharina, Kristine, M-A, Marta, Martyna, Michelle, Natalya, Nicole, Nina, Sandra, Sara, Shari, Shelley, Siri, Sophia, Stéphanie, Suzanne, Sylwia, Yana. Thank you to all of you.
💙 Special thanks to Nicole for her contribution to the translation into English.