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What I discovered while researching women-focused co-working spaces in Oslo

Last year I, in arguably more eloquent terms than this, said “F*** It.” and quit my full time job to pursue my passion projects. I worked out how little I could live off (with admittedly varying results since), registered as a sole proprietorship and set off in to the unknown world of freelancing.

Part of this meant excitedly looking for working spaces in Oslo. I say excitedly because, even though I actually work very well from home (endless tea supply + cat snuggles + avoiding the icy mountain of death outside my house = happy me) I know there’s value in compartmentalising your day, putting on real clothes and just getting out and about in the world. I’m also not ashamed to say that I daydreamed of the remote working life in backdrops of hipster co-working spaces, over-priced cosey coffee spots and Instagram worthy “authentic chic” setups that would set the scene for my fantasy #WritersLife.

Sorry, not sorry.

What I found though was that, even with Oslo’s abundance of trendy coffee hotspots and a budding startup scene, the choices for me as a remote working freelancer who wasn’t looking to start a company (but wanted the hella coseyness and creative vibe of my dreams), was pretty limited.

I began to ask the question...

...Where are my people?

I settled for a membership at Mesh, a centrally-located, trendy-Ikea vibe lounge space for a monthly price that didn’t break the least relative to the other choices and general Oslo priceyness that still makes my palms clammy even after living here for three years.

On my first day I was given the grand tour and shown around all the different floors, office spaces and desk setups. Friendly staff, trendy appearance and all the free coffee you can drink? I was pretty impressed. But something was nagging at me the whole time, enough so that all the ping pong tables, artsy lamp shades and chic colour palettes in the world couldn’t distract me from.

I was surrounded by white, middle-aged men.

And I mean legit at times I was the only woman on a floor of maybe 30 people. This is by no means a new scenario for me having worked in the tech scene in Oslo since I moved here (y’know, the career I consciously walked away from for greener, groovier pastures). What was surprising was how similar it all was...

“Where are my people?”. Or any other people for that matter.

I tried to shrug the feeling off, putting it down to a possible over sensitive feminist gland in my brain or simply misreading what might just be a symptom of the unavoidable demographics in a Nordic country.

After all, I had found my trendy, albeit not super cozy but still suitable for my imagined #WritersLife backdrop. What did it matter?

Maybe it's not the place but the people

It was around this time I accidentally but gratefully stumbled in to some womens online groups that focused on supporting and empowering one another, especially through brave career changes (shout out to ToGetHerFurther). And if you’re rolling your eyes at that sentence, I feel you, I had the same initial reaction. I pictured middle class women sharing sappy inspirational quotes on pictures of sunsets and patting each other on the back for “hustling” through the week while sipping latte’s and reading cheesy self-help books. Something pulled me through my scepticism though and I found myself drawn more and more to these online communities.

Now I roll my eyes at my past self for being so cynical. In hindsight I was really just intimidated by the idea of breaking out of my shell and questioning my own “dog eat dog” views on the working world.

It’s amazing how we can so naturally argue ourselves away from the edge of good things.

These groups were so NOT what I imagined and they left me more inspired (admittedly more wise and humbled) and this ball of energy started rising inside of me. These online communities, where can I find them face to face? Here we go...back to that same question again.

Then some things started to happen.

On a weekend trip to London last December the founder of ToGetHerFurther commented on one of my Instagram posts that we should meet for a coffee (which regrettably never happened) and suggested we meet at the co-working space she uses. Huh, interesting. I followed the links and ended up on the Blooms London website and was blown away. A co-working space designed from the ground up for women entrepreneurs. YASSS. It looked gorgeous. Beautifully designed rooms, pictures of women meeting, running events, taking over the world. Not a suited bloke to be seen.

The catch? Well, I don’t live in London.

Oh well, case closed, what can you do. I was working perfectly fine in Oslo and I HAD my trendy co-working place. I didn’t need a place like Blooms to do what I needed to do.

But something inside me wanted to push it further, this ball of energy that drove me to find out more yet I couldn’t really put my finger on why.

So I just started sending tweets and emails. I reached out to working space owners in Oslo, startup incubators and other leaders in this area. I had no specific questions for them, no plan on what to do with any of the information they gave me but I just felt compelled to ask for the conversation in the first place. Where are my people and if they’re not with you, why not?

Have courage to ask the questions that matter to you

With no compelling reason for them to respond to me I was absolutely gobsmacked to find that, not only did they all respond, but were enthusiastic to do so. These busy, successful, top of their field leaders giving me time and inviting me for coffee simply because I asked to talk about something that felt important to me.

This was the beginning of the first important lesson.

What came as even more of a surprise was people reaching out to me because they had seen my tweets and blog posts. Complete strangers sending me messages wanting to share information, their experiences of being an entrepreneur or remote worker in Oslo, or simply reaching out to say they were looking for the same thing. I have met and spoken to so many interesting, fantastic people in the last few weeks and (even with my social anxiety telling me otherwise) have loved every minute of it.

So began three weeks of visits, long talks and deep discussions, some of them lasting hours on end. On top of my work and writing I was pushing my time and energy to the limit but hadn’t felt that energised in a long time.

Why aren’t there more women entrepreneurs in Oslo? In a country that’s arguably one of the most gender equal in the world. What can work spaces and incubators do to help with this? Should they in the first place?

If simply talking to people about something gets you fired up, you know you’re onto something. I came out of these meetings dizzy with adrenaline and made pages and pages of notes of what we talked about.

But, so what? I still had no plan of what to do with this information. Why do I even care? Life went on, work continued, other parts of my life (that I actually had a plan with) had to be prioritised.

Finding answers in other people (and your gut)

Then, in a freak Macbook accident, I lost all the notes I made. Now, anyone who’s worked with me knows that I have a bit of a fiery temper when it comes to technology letting me down, but not this time. I felt relieved. Maybe this was a sign from the universe to “just leave it”. No pressure to do anything if you don’t have the information to do it.

But those notes didn’t make a difference. Some of the things these people had spoken to me about had stuck with me so much that they were imprinted on my brain and I couldn’t shake it. In fact, maybe I needed to lose all of those notes to realise what I was looking for in them.

Here are the parts that stood out to me the most:

First, I had reached out to my contact employee at Mesh asking to speak to someone about co-working spaces for women. He volunteered himself which is one of the reasons I’m keeping him anonymous because 1) give him credit, he’s not a PR person 2) doesn’t necessarily represent the company and 3) what he said left me feeling both sad, deflated and kinda miffed to tell the truth.

When asked why he didn’t think there were more women entrepreneurs in Oslo he answered that it’s because men are “more naturally confident and willing to take risks”, that “women don’t choose to” and “if they did, the doors are open but we aren’t going to ask them here.” (I put these in quotation marks because they’re imprinted as quotes on my mind). As if sensing my disgruntled inner feminist he ends the conversation with “Well, instead of people like me being asked we should be asking women themselves”. I waited for him to ask me but he didn’t and that was that.

Don’t worry, it gets better from there.

I was then privileged to meet (and after the previous conversation with “women-just-don’t-want-to” dude had my sanity saved by) Beathe Due, CEO of Tøyen Startup Village.

Two things immediately stood out to me about Beathe. The first being that she talks about her work and values with an intensely focused, bright, glimmering look in her eye. The kind of look you get from someone who is talking from the gut and heart, not just the head. The second thing is that she runs an awesome workspace. Not only because of the great atmosphere, authentic down to Earth appearance and the cutest dog I’ve ever seen who apparently frequents there on the regular, but also because of the diversity of people there. It stood out to me more than any other workspace in Oslo to date.

She told me that companies, no matter how big or small, need to represent the communities they are in and that they serve. That if you say you want more diversity in your work teams, in tech and beyond then you should put your money and time where your mouth is. Mostly, she talked about the importance of the stories we share. That we lead by example and that the more stories that we put out into the world about different types of people succeeding, then the more we help create.

That same week I met with Lauga Oskarsdottir, Head of the Lab at startup incubator StartupLab which isn’t a co-working space per-se but boasts the commendable goal of getting 40% female entrepreneurs (up from 19%) in the coming years. I thought, if anyone knows about the entrepreneurial scene in Oslo right now it’s these guys.

Lauga is a confident, straight talking woman who speaks and shakes hands in a way that shows she really knows her stuff (and is probably well versed in being able to hold her own at a table of dudes).

She spoke about how this shouldn’t be about men helping women, certainly not just women helping women either but about the fact that diversity in teams is worth pursuing, not because it’s “the right thing to do” but because it makes business sense. That you can’t simply ask people to hire and invest more in women but you can show them why it’s important (for them) and how to do it, it’s taking the extra mile but it’s worth it. Importantly it’s sharing the stories of successful women-led projects, not because they are women but because they’re frickin awesome (and they just so happen to be women too.)

Lastly, I spent a coffee-meet-turned-afternoon-session with Babou Olengha-Aaby, CEO of The Next Billion and, to my surprise, another British expat making her mark (and oh was she making it) in Oslo. At the time I met her she had only recently given birth to her third child and, while most would be relinquishing the long Norwegian maternity leave, here was Babou going out of her way to meet with strangers to discuss women entrepreneurs and workspaces.

Have you ever had a conversation with someone that filled you with so much positive energy you could just hug them (even if it’s totally against the Norwegian social norms)? That’s pretty much been every interaction I’ve had with her.

She told me that we shouldn’t be focused on “helping” women in a way that victimises or separates us (including through gender-focused workspaces). That we should be working with and investing in women entrepreneurs because the reality is that it’s good for business, the economy and society. Fact. That when people think of successful tech CEOs they immediately imagine only white dudes and we need to change that narrative (because it is neither true or helpful). That, instead of focusing on our boundaries and glass ceilings we should focus on getting the right stories out there (for example through her platform Globally Spotted) so that investment, support and empowerment gets to where it needs to be.

So, what did I learn?

First that, ok yes my dream hippy co-working space still needs to exist at some point in my life but, I wasn’t really looking for a workspace at all. I was looking for community...and it’s out there!

And when answering where are “my people”? They’re not in one co-working place somewhere, they’re the women setting them up.

I learnt that by having the courage to ask questions that felt important to me I would meet the people who are helping answer them.

I discovered that there’s a lot of amazing stuff going on in Oslo and beyond when it comes to empowering and investing in women and more diversity in general but that I want there to be a lot more...and I want to help bring that about.

Your world and decisions are shaped by the stories you hear over and over again. When we’re surrounded by peers, good role models, diverse mentors and relatable triumph stories then it means we’re more likely to make our own.

So this year I’m going to figure out how to surround myself more with all of the above but, more importantly, help share it with others too. Reminding myself and others that it’s not where you work but the community you work with and for.

Find the people that inspire you, dare to ask the important questions and follow the path the positive energy takes you.