As we approach the one year mark of the COVID19 pandemic in the United States next month, news headlines are unequivocally confirming with urgency that which we already know: women in our communities are beyond the breaking point.
Headlines alone mean nothing, of course, but to see the alarm finally sounding on the gravity of the situation is a start. As a direct result of the pandemic, women are leaving being forced out of the workforce at a rate four times higher than men. By some counts, entrepreneurial aspirations have nosedived, with over 50 percent of women surveyed reporting that they’ve now scrapped pre-COVID plans to start their own business. And remote schooling and the child care crisis are costing women their careers. The staggering social and economic consequences will be felt for generations to come.
So what can be done about it? The answer may lie, in part, in the key role that coworking spaces like mine play in bringing together a critical density of minds, talent, resources, flexibility, and peer support needed to sustain all of us in daring to do differently.
Ask women: Our experiences vary as widely as our expertise
When I was asked to speak recently on a panel about ‘COVID19’s effects on working women’, I had serious reservations. Not because I have nothing to say, but because there are so, so many women in our community with experiences far more distressing than mine. Women whose voices are not being heard—and who need to be.
Try as I might, I can’t pretend to understand what surviving this last year has been like as a single mom, much less a single mom of color, or of undocumented immigration status. I can only begin to imagine the debilitating stress felt by the one in four families experiencing food insecurity linked to the loss of maternal income. And I can hardly fathom the fear that infinitely too many women are experiencing as rates of domestic violence have skyrocketed.
While I can in no way pretend to represent the multitude of essential perspectives that belong to ‘working women’ impacted by COVID19, I can certainly share mine.
I can speak to my personal experience through COVID as a straight, white, female entrepreneur—as a mom to two rockstar kindergartners who has the benefit of an equal partnership with my spouse, and a pretty incredible personal and professional support system that I’ve worked hard to build. In every sense of the word, I am privileged.
I can speak to my experience with stress: around school and childcare, keeping the people in our coworking community safe, experiencing cleaning-product-induced chemical poisoning, and doing everything within my power to keep my business afloat. I can speak to the stress of an unfortunately-timed business expansion, months without a paycheck, the financial bureaucracy born from marriage to a non-US citizen, and the utter frustration of applying for federal assistance—thankfully in my native language—again, and again, and again.
I can speak to my experience with launching stop-gap measures to support local parents that go beyond the norm: partnering with a local restaurant to create a pay-what-you-can tutoring and remote learning program that made it possible for parents to keep their jobs, kids to have COVID-safe social interaction and, unintentionally, me to continue operating my business because my kids could be there, too.
I can speak to my experience with putting aside my own exhaustion, hopes and stresses to hold space for those around me: listening, supporting and serving as a defacto therapist to dozens of local professionals in the Vibe Coworks community who are each fighting their own battles—battles against the weight of job uncertainty, the feeling of being trapped, tension at home, depression, anxiety, the death of loved ones, the disappointment of weddings postponed, the resignation of entrepreneurial dreams pushed aside, the mounting debt and, for some, the feeling of guilt that’s come with being fortunate enough to bring in record profits at a time when so many are struggling.
I can speak to my outrage and continued impatience with the abysmal disconnects around gender, race, diversity, and power in our beloved Kitsap community: my endless curiosity and anger at how so many well intentioned people don’t see with the discrimination and inequities that are so, so glaringly obvious—much less take steps to change the status quo in every way that we can.
I can speak to my own experience with the primal scream. That day in the car, just before Halloween, when my kids finally broke down from the stress, grief and uncertainty of it all. We let ourselves scream every bitter, grieving thing our hearts desired for exactly two minutes. Then we forced ourselves to stop, and made a conscious choice to re-center on gratitude, come hell or high water.
At the center of a gender-equitable recovery? Coworking spaces.
It’s there, in that space of sometimes painfully intentional gratitude, that I find the determination to not just read the headlines around the pandemic’s impact on women, but actually imagine a path forward, rewriting the future for ourselves and our children, too.
As community hubs of innovation, support, inspiration, resources and flexibility, it’s hardly far-fetched to imagine the role of coworking spaces like Vibe Coworks in achieving that vision. Today, the number of women using coworking spaces as their primary place of work and professional connections has increased dramatically, representing a stark shift from the days of old when coworking spaces were largely male-dominated. While the coworking sector is still woefully lacking in racial diversity, the percentage of female-identifying coworking members globally crossed the 50 percent threshold for the first time worldwide in 2019. Here at Vibe, that number hovers happily around roughly 54 percent.
Over the course of the last year, many of us have learned to be immensely productive while working at home. But in a majority of cases, the work-from-home life has come at an enormous cost to our mental health and overall sanity. I can’t tell you the number of people who’ve come in to Vibe saying that they ‘just need to get out of my house’ or ‘just need a break from my family’… or ‘just need to see other humans’. For many, Vibe Coworks has become a lifeline.
When I envision the ‘where to from here’ for the West Sound region and for Vibe Coworks, women are at the center of the equation. It’s an equation that starts with exactly the kind of entrepreneurship and flexible remote work that accelerates exponentially with the support of diverse coworking communities.
The hurdles we face in clearing the path towards the full and equitable participation of women in business are not insignificant, especially coming out of the pandemic. At the core is both the gender pay gap and the caregiving crisis, which combine in wildly detrimental ways for women specifically. As highlighted by the Seattle-based Female Founders Alliance in their study on gender and entrepreneurship during the pandemic,
“the picture that emerges is one of accentuated privilege, where those who can afford to live without a paycheck are the ones most likely to become entrepreneurs. It makes entrepreneurship even less accessible. This is not a new problem, and it affects immigrants, people of color, and anyone from an underprivileged background most substantially.”
As we reinvent our post-COVID world and ask ‘working women’ what they need right now, there’s never been a more critical time to destroy the barriers to entrepreneurship here in Kitsap.
A new vision for entrepreneurship and innovation
Countless times over the past weeks and months I’ve been asked what I need right now. Rarely have I known quite how to respond. Ultimately, what I need right now is not dinner delivered or a bottle of wine; what I need right now is progress.
We cannot continue to leave out of the conversation the perspectives, ambition and solutions that women in Kitsap have uniquely experienced, and that only they can provide. We cannot continue to ignore the underrepresentation of women in our businesses, our investor circles, our political leadership, and in our public events and forums. Diverse representation and truly equal opportunity has always been lacking; COVID19 has made it worse.
Each of us has a role to play in effecting real, lasting, systemic change. If you’re looking for ways to help, consider this my personal invitation to help us do more from here at Vibe Coworks—to drive forward a new future for entrepreneurship and innovation in the West Sound community that has women and historically underrepresented groups at its core.
Our vision starts here:
A perpetual capital fund in Kitsap that supports women and global majority entrepreneurs, helping them break through the critical “friends, family and fools” stage of the startup journey, such that socio-economic status can no longer determine your ability to launch a successful business.
A community culture that effectively supports entrepreneurs from our local tribal communities feeling as supported, well-resourced and encouraged in their ventures as our region’s non-tribal entrepreneurs.
A community culture that effectively supports our local military spouses, helping them instantly tap into the greater Kitsap community and exponentially grow their entrepreneurial ventures no matter where they may live.
Widespread awareness of existing alternative avenues to participating in the Vibe community, including Free 1st Fridays and the Vibe Host Program, together with future pathways including a fellowship program or sponsorship fund.
An accelerator program housed at Vibe Coworks and built to unlock opportunity, drive scale and avoid the gender financing gaps that have plagued far too many programs to date that is equity-free—meaning founders and entrepreneurs can go through the program without being required to give up any ownership of their companies.
We know we’ve got a lot on our plate. But we’re hungry. And we know that the pandemic experience being born so painfully by ‘working women’ today must become a clear example of ‘never again’.
The next time a pandemic hits (and there will be a next time), we need to know that it won’t be our daughters and yours bearing the brunt of it all. We need to know that we’ve fixed the systemic inequities that have left women today at the brink of collapse, and that we’ve finally learned to capitalize on all of our community’s talent and expertise—not half.