Cocktail snacks — wafer-thin cucumber slices wrapped around grilled prawns and roasted mushrooms topped with small blobs of cream cheese — dominate the downtown Mexico City opening of Mia, a women-only coworking space. Two DJs, a pair of young women from Havana, nod their heads in unison to electronic beats. But there’s more than fun and food on the menu here.
The new workspace is on the sixth floor of a classic old building overlooking the majestic Monumento a la Revolución, the monument commemorating the Mexico Revolution. The launch attendees — there are as many men as women sipping pink champagne — are plotting their own revolution.
Mexico City had no women-only coworking spaces just four years ago. Mia (the feminine version of mine in Spanish), which opened in October, is one of three such spaces, two of which have launched over the past year. These spaces — Co-Madre and Spacioss are the others — are trying to level the playing field for female entrepreneurs in Mexico by creating communities and platforms that encourage them to succeed. Together, the three coworking spaces can accommodate around 400 women. Their emergence coincides with a fundamental shift playing out in the capital of a country that is part of a region known for macho attitudes and the subjugation of women.
We want to have this space to support each other.
Marisse de Olmo, co-founder, Mia
Ten years ago, according to business research conducted by Mia’s co-founders, seven out of 10 women left their jobs when they started families in Mexico City. Today, women are leaving their jobs less and less, and those who do are often doing so for entrepreneurial ventures, according to co-founder Marisse de Olmo. In fact, women are actually launching more businesses than men in Mexico, according to the Global Entrepreneurship Monitor. But ventures launched by women are slower to grow and more likely to fail, according to Olmo. That gap in support for working women is at the core of what these new coworking spaces are hoping to fill, by providing services and facilities aimed at women’s needs: childcare facilities, spa installations and workshops targeting a female audience.
“We want to have this space to support each other, from self-esteem through to connecting with banks supporting women starting a business,” says Olmo.
For sure, the U.S., U.K. and even Spain have women’s co-working spaces. But in Latin America, they stand out as a rarity even though coworking spaces have in general grown fast – they went up by 50 percent in Brazil in 2016.
Personal experiences have influenced at least some of the founders in their decision to set up these coworking spaces. Maria Galindo, one of Co-Madre’s directors, recalls how one of her co-founders needed to continue working when she had a small child. “She rented a house and created a nursery so she could carry on working but still see her son — and from the root of this a new business was born,” says Galindo. “We realized that it’s not just mothers that need this but women in general.”
That need for support remains immense in Mexico, even with the sharp rise in the number of women entrepreneurs. Only 12 percent of the companies that received venture capital funding last year in Mexico were founded by women or had a woman on their management team, according to figures from the Mexican recruitment platform APLI.
“All of this money flowing to innovative companies that are creating jobs and generating value in the economy isn’t coming to nor being controlled by women — so where is it going?” asks Maria Ariza, director of Mexico’s newly launched stock market BIVA, who points out that only 9 percent of Mexico’s major startups are headed by women.
The lack of “access to financial support and inspiration and self-confidence,” as well as contacts, is in part to blame for the failure and slow growth that hobbles more women-led businesses than ventures led by men, says Olmo.
But things are changing. Although the venture capital investment in women-fronted companies in Mexico is low, it is ahead of the U.S., where female entrepreneurs receive only about 2 percent of all venture funding, despite owning 38 percent of businesses, according to the Harvard Business Review. Female leaders may be underrepresented in the startup world, but both Google and Facebook in Mexico are headed by women.
And while machismo and prejudices against women in Mexico are strong, the country’s startup business environment doesn’t suffer from U.S.-style “bro” and hacker cultures, says Federico Antoni, a founding partner of Antoni Lelo de Larrea Venture Partners, an early-stage VC fund. “I think that is a reason to explain why the participation of female founders is bigger in Mexico,” says Antoni.
He agrees that women-only coworking spaces have a logic. Coed coworking spaces in Mexico have exploded in recent years, and the market is currently dominated by WeWork. These women-only spaces are creating competition and responding to demand. But Antoni isn’t sure that segregation is right for innovation.
“One of the cornerstones of innovation and the entrepreneurial ecosystems around the world is the power of collaboration, and that collaboration is powerful because of the diversity of its participants,” he says. Because most partners of VC firms in Mexico are male, what’s really needed is for such men to move to these new women-focused coworking spaces, Antoni argues. “It is very difficult to create that diversity if you only have one gender point of view.”
All of the founders of the women’s spaces emphasize that they allow male employees of women-led companies to enter, and for meetings to take place within their premises with men from external companies. At the same time, these coworking spaces are particularly attractive to firms whose businesses target women.
Anahi Rivera, who owns a firm that sells vintage versions of known labels, has space in Co-Madre. “I loved the concept of only women and the idea of us supporting each other,” she says. “My business has a lot to do with women … and it’s great for networking.”
It’s still early days for this emerging set of women-only coworking spaces in Mexico City. And just how much they help in improving the investment climate for female entrepreneurs remains a question. But they’re already doing something more fundamental: creating communities that allow sister entrepreneurs to believe they can succeed in a world where they’ve been told they can’t. By themselves.