Creating community in online and offline spaces is always a challenge. How do you find your niche? How do you stand out in the market? Not just be different, but provide value and create opportunity? To compete with the rest of the coworking market in Ho Chi Minh City needs more than just another desk. It’s not about just taking a piece of the pie, but also growing it.
And that’s when we recently met with the founders of CO-SPACE, Anne Greenfield and Sonia Aparicio to learn about why they started Vietnam’s first women’s coworking space. After reading our piece about coworking spaces in the city, they reached out to share their story to Vietcetera’s readers.
How did you two end up in Vietnam?
Anne: My husband and I lived in Hong Kong, when my husband’s company asked him to set-up and run the factory here in Vietnam. We came for a few weekend trips and I just loved the vibe of Ho Chi Minh City, the relaxed way of living & working as well as the simple beauty hidden in so many corners. Hong Kong was at that time full of bankers and investment people. I was supporting and pushing the move to Vietnam, asking my company to also send me to Ho Chi Minh City. And so here we are.
Sonia: Love brought me here. I was living in Guangzhou and needed a change. I was never considering Vietnam, but my boyfriend got a job here and I asked myself: “why not?” I believe it’s the best decision I have made.
Why start a women’s only coworking space? What sort of community are you trying to build?
Anne: We believe “when women support each other, incredible things happen.” We are creating a community with this spirit in mind. Women that support and inspire each other. We are more than a desk. We are the 1st coworking space for women in Vietnam. We are a boutique coworking space with a clear proposition: women and many services, workshops and events supporting working women. We are aiming at giving value and visibility to female talent that often otherwise is not seen.
Sonia: This is a question that most of the people ask us at first. When Anne and I were starting with the business plan, we knew there were other coworking spaces in the city, but they were not specialized. We didn’t want to be just an office; we wanted to go a few steps further and create a community where you can find the support you need when you work on your own. We wanted to create a warm space where people could feel like home, where people would know they would find support if they ever fall, where they would find somebody who will tell them “you can do it” if they ever doubt themselves. We went to some events organized by women, for women, and it was really inspiring. That’s what we wanted: to empower women, to work together and support each other no matter what, to create a community where we could help each other to grow bigger. Because we believe “when women support each other, incredible things happen.”
Who’s part of the community? Tell us more about who’s part of it.
Women from all industries and backgrounds. Foreigners and Vietnamese. Self-employed and employed. Management backgrounds and startup entrepreneurs. Creative freelancers. Fashion, lifestyle, and small business founders. Life coaches, trainers, architects, lawyers, professors. Women that look for a calm, beautiful and inspiring workspace, connections to other women, a space to learn new skills and mentor each other. We have someone in the community that used to work for the United Nations. A professor from RMIT. We need to reach different kinds of professionals.
How do you hope to create a community that is relatable to all kinds of backgrounds?
Going alone everyday to the same handful of coffee shops is tough. Some days Google is not enough when you get stuck with some business problems; sometimes you have a bad day and you just need somebody to be there and support you, or even better, sometimes you sign a big contract and you need somebody to jump and celebrate with you. If you are a woman in Ho Chi Minh City working in a small business, we are the space where you can find all that and more.
How have your perceptions of Vietnam changed overtime?
Sonia: I have to say my very first day in Vietnam was not easy. I got robbed so my first impression was not really good. I woke up the next day pushing myself to reset my brain and start from zero, and after that day I couldn’t be more in love with this country. Its people, the culture, the amazing food, the constant change, the opportunities. Vietnam has become my home, and that is something I would have never imagined four years ago.
What aspect of life as an expat is most challenging or worrisome for you?
Anne: I’ve been an expat in China, Indonesia and Vietnam. I’m German and married to my American husband. I think every country comes with challenges. I’ve lived in Vietnam on and off since 2009 and many things have changed and improved so much. I’m amazed by the speed of change, while keeping traditional Vietnamese elements at the same time. Speaking of this change, the construction speed and underdeveloped infrastructure leads me to worry about health and pollution.
Sonia: When you are a foreigner, in any country, all the paperwork is already a challenge: getting your visa done, finding the proper neighborhood for you, getting to know people. Also, starting your own business in Vietnam is not easy at the beginning. You often don’t speak the language, so you have to trust your lawyer 100%. These are some of the experiences that we want to share in CO-SPACE: for these first steps where you find everyday as a challenge, we will try to make the process easier.
How has being an expat changed your perception of your home country?
Anne: On the one hand I have made Vietnam my home country by choice, on the other hand the longer I stay here I’m missing more aspects of Germany such as the nature, fresh air and outdoor activities. However, my perception of Germany and being German have not really changed, but I have been become more aware of how German I actually am and how German I was raised, which translates very much into how I live and work. Which quality standards I have and what goals I want to achieve. My time in Vietnam has helped me to look at and question all this and find my own way of doing things, which by now is a good mix of Eastern and Western values.
Sonia: I think when you have something everyday, sometimes you don’t get the value of it. It’s only when you are far, and you see things from a different angle, when you start to appreciate everything you had. I love Spain, I always had and I always will. But it’s true, it will always be there, and now it’s my time to be here in Vietnam and appreciate everything I have here.
Has your experience being an expat in Vietnam somehow encouraged you to open a coworking space?
Anne: Yes, definitely. I fell in love with Vietnam and it seems as if the vibrant and creative way of living and working, the dynamic ”can do” belief, the enthusiastic entrepreneurship as well as courageous startup scene is contagious.
Sonia: Totally. It never came to my mind to start my own business until I got here, and I already opened two companies in four years, both in Vietnam! It’s not the fact of being an expat, I was an expat in China before and the feeling was not the same. Here in Vietnam you can see people working on their own business everywhere, starting from the food trolleys you see on the streets. Having a good lifestyle in Vietnam is easy, and that gives you the strength to at least try. When you have to pay 2000USD for a room in some of the most expensive cities elsewhere in the world, your perspective changes.
Who should we speak with next?
Khai Tri Stationary, our pop-up store partner and Hannah Jefferys from Saigon Cider.