Why can’t women have their own golf clubs? It’s a valid question a business world where female entrepreneurship is on the rise. And the answer is: of course they can, and more! Downtown Offices is a work hub for female entrepreneurs, the first of its kind in Spain. As a new addition to the Barcelona entrepreneurial and startup scene, it aims to connect female entrepreneurs and create a community for them where they can think together, share, learn, be inspired and grow their businesses. To find out more about story behind the work hub and its creator, Barcelona Startup News interviewed Astrid Aafjes, Director at Downtown Offices, whose career has always revolved around her passion of empowering women: first through focusing on women’s rights, and now through supporting female entrepreneurs.
It’s a rare gift for someone to find their life’s calling at the age of 16. This is exactly what happened to Astrid, even though she couldn’t have known at the time that a school project would eventually lead to a career focused entirely on women’s rights.
While most teenage girls couldn’t care less about the wellbeing of other women, Astrid chose to write an essay on domestic violence and go to a shelter to interview abused women. In her own words, she was interested in “using something that was already available – rights, in this case – to help women better their lives”.
She studied law in the Netherlands, moved to the US, and started focusing on international human rights and the empowerment of women. In the coming years, she worked for several UN agencies, spent time in Cambodia helping a local organization set up a department for domestic violence victims, and worked on projects subsidized by the Dutch government in China.
In 2002, she moved back to Holland and became Program Director at Mama Cash Foundation, the first international women’s fund in the world. The next decisive moment in her career came when the foundation was approached by Nike to collaborate with them on a project: empowering young women through sports.
After working together with Nike, Astrid found herself so inspired by the incredible power of sports in helping girls build life skills and grow their self-esteem that she wanted to continue. She wrote a business plan, presented it to Nike, and instantly earned their support.
That is how, in 2007, Astrid started Women Win, a organization that uses sports as a strategy to help adolescent women in developing countries build leadership skills and become better equipped to exercise their rights. Over the last ten years, Women Win has raised more than 15 million euros and supported more than 2 million young women. Next to Nike, they built partnerships with several other big brands, like Wieden+Kennedy and Standard Chartered Bank.
It was through these corporate partners that the question of female entrepreneurship first started to intrigue her. She noticed that a lot of successful women working at corporate firms had the desire to do something different. Their reasons varied: maybe they had a dream that they wanted to chase, or they started seeing the limitations of the corporate framework, or they simply wanted more flexibility. But it struck her how, at one point, they started having the itch to do something for themselves.
As a social entrepreneur herself, Astrid was familiar with the challenges of deciding to go off on your own. So when her family moved to Barcelona, she decided to direct her passion of helping women towards those who needed help becoming entrepreneurs. And this is how we arrive at the story of Downtown Offices, the work hub for female entrepreneurs that Astrid is building in Barcelona.
A Safe Space for Female Entrepreneurs in Barcelona
How do you envision Downtown Offices and the community around it?
I want to create a hub where women inspire each other, where they can learn, share, and connect in an open and safe environment. The work hub is a space for female entrepreneurs to start and really think about growing their business. Men have been doing this for years. They have golf clubs! (Laughs.) We’re trying to do something similar, to help women think in different ways and become more professional in their approaches.
In what way is a work hub different from a traditional coworking space?
The idea is not only to create a physical space, but to forge a community, and also to offer services and resources. For example, we have a mentorship programme. Entrepreneurs get connected to a mentor that can help them get started, set targets, become more focused, deal with issues that they’re facing, and so on.
We also have a monthly Business Booth, where a group of entrepreneurs come together, someone shares a strategic question that they’re dealing with, and the others help her think through it. We made an agreement with IESE business school that we do this together with their Entrepreneurship Club. Students and alumni from IESE will join us and help think through the processes with our entrepreneurs. It’s great because ideas coming from students of one of the best business schools in Spain is extremely valuable, and in turn, they get to work on live “cases”.
What about financial support?
I’m talking to angel investors who are interested in investing in female entrepreneurship, and I’m also trying to figure out how we could do a small startup fund for women who need capital to get started.
I’m trying to think about what else I would need help with if I was an entrepreneur in the early stages of starting a business. Will you connect your members with lawyers, for example?
Of course. I have a network of business providers – lawyers, gestors, accountants, anybody that supports entrepreneurs in their business – that I can connect them with.
Are they all women too?
Most of them are women, but that’s not a requirement. We’re happy to have male entrepreneurs and service providers in our bigger community. The whole circle is not exclusively for women, but the community here in the office is focused on female entrepreneurs. And you don’t even have to be working here, there’s lots of different ways to become involved.
You mentioned that you’ve launched an award for female entrepreneurs to start scaling up. Could you tell me more about it?
It’s very exciting. It’s called the Think Big Award. We will help a female entrepreneur build her company. A panel of established female entrepreneurs will shortlist 5 nominees, and the winner will get a free spot here in the work hub for 6 months, as well as free access to all our services. Anyone can enter, the only rule is that in order to be eligible for the award, you need to have been in business for at least 6 months. The deadline is the 1st of April.
I know it’s difficult to pinpoint, but what would you say, what drives your passion of helping other women?
Women are so powerful, and I see it everywhere. When women are involved, businesses are more successful. And the impact of women in daily life is enormous. So helping them have a better life makes me feel happy and fulfilled. My family likes to make fun of me, because I’m always watching documentaries and movies about and with women in an empowering role. They think I’m obsessed! (Laughs.)
How does Downtown Offices fit into the work you’ve done so far?
This project is an interesting challenge for me because this time, I am working with women entrepreneurs, individuals who are very focused and know exactly where they want to go. This is different than working with women in emerging markets who live in poor conditions and are marginalized. I think it’s the right time for me to do this. I’ve been a social entrepreneur for a long time, I have the professional network, the skills and the passion to do it.
You consider yourself a feminist, right?
That term has a lot of negative connotations, unfortunately.
Yes, and it’s sad. It’s as if by saying you are a feminist, you were saying that you hate men. But of course that’s not what it means. Being a feminist is believing in equal rights and equal opportunities for men and women.
What’s also sad is that feminism today still has to be a “thing”. That it’s not self-evident. How come you’re the first one creating a work space for female entrepreneurs in Spain, for example?
In other countries, especially in the States, there are a lot of ecosystems for female entrepreneurs. It’s a huge trend. And it’s growing in England, Holland and Sweden as well. Here in Spain, as far as I can tell I am the first person to be doing it in this way, but there’s definitely space for it. People that I’ve talked to in the entrepreneurial and startup ecosystem say that my idea makes sense a lot of sense, there is a need for it and it’s something that they’d happily support.
Do you think that women in Spain have a hard time starting a business and becoming entrepreneurs?
Actually, if you look at the numbers for female entrepreneurship in Europe, Spain has quite a high percentage. It’s not that the legal system is not supportive, I would say the opposite. For example, Barcelona Activa and the business schools here in Barcelona are very much supportive.
If there is a something that’s keeping women from going into business, it’s a cultural reason. Here in Spain, people work late, and women are expected to take care of their families. It’s very hard to do both of those things at once if you’re a female entrepreneur.
Also, one of the things I hear is that access to financial resources is a big challenge for female entrepreneurs in Spain. That’s why I want to help them connect with investors. More and more investors are starting to look into investing in female entrepreneurship. There’s data that proves that if you invest in a company with female leaders, the chances of being successful are higher. Women take less risks than men, and they’re more successful in the end. Their plans are just more well thought-out and foolproof.
When more investors realize this, there will be more opportunities for female entrepreneurs.
Especially when there will be more female investors who can relate to the goals of female entrepreneurs!
Yes. And then we’ll have to refocus and set up work hubs for male entrepreneurs! (Laughs.)