“Together we rise” in bright, yellow neon lights is the first thing I saw on the walls of this cozy co-working space on Boulevard Adolphe Max 30, in the centre of Brussels. Calling it a co-working space, however, seems a bit reductive. WOMADE is actually a community, a safe space, an inspiration hub made for women, by women. And it all started with just one woman, Alba Pregja, who I had the chance to sit down with to talk about this project.
First of all, tell me about yourself.
Well, I am originally Albanian but my parents came to Brussels when I was 11 years old so I spent most of my life here in Belgium. At the time I didn’t know anything about the country or its languages but I quickly adapted and learned French quite easily thanks to my knowledge of Italian.
Growing up, I wanted to study interior design because I’ve always loved art but the school was very expensive and the future was uncertain so I decided to go for translation instead. I hated it; I finished by bachelor but it wasn’t for me. So I decided to do a Master’s in Multilingual Communication at the ULB, which I loved and then shortly after I got my first job at a small Belgian company. It didn’t take me much time to realise that I didn’t like receiving orders on the job, but I thought that might be connected to the small size of the company so I tried to go bigger and started working at POLITICO. Contrary to my previous job, which I felt was a in a”man’s world”, this new environment was led by women and it was very inspiring for me. I wasn’t used to that because, as a child, I suffered from the kind of unhealthy competition there is often between girls.
Despite the inspiring female leadership, I realised that I just wasn’t suited to work for anyone and that I wanted to find a meaning in my job; the encouragement I needed came from my boyfriend who, as cliche as it may sound, pushed me to follow my dream. I started taking entrepreneurship classes at the Chamber of Commerce and went to a lot of networking events to discover how to get the funds I needed. It was then that I recognised the strong connection between women for the first time.
“As women, we have the same needs of gathering, of being supported, of being listened to.”Alba PREGJA, FOUNDEr AND MANAGER @ WOMADE
Meeting with other women, I saw that we were talking the same language; there was simply an understanding that I couldn’t find with my male friends. At the time I didn’t really consider myself a feminist and even now I am still becoming one. I don’t think you are born a feminist, you become one when you finally realise all the bias our everyday lives are infused with. The last wake up call was the birth of my daughter: I didn’t want her to grow up with a mother telling her to follow her dreams, when I still had a big unfulfilled dream myself. So when my daughter was almost 1, I decided to resign from my job and focus on my project.
Did you already have a clear vision of your project?
Actually, my initial idea was to create a concept store. Being passionate bout art, I used to spend a lot of time visiting art galleries but I always felt like an unwelcome visitor; to me, it looked like those spaces where reserved to rich, white man and women in expensive clothes looking at paintings from artists with always the same background. I wanted to create a space where I could display artworks from different artists, switching themes every couple of months, and so the idea of the concept store was born.
I started dedicating every moment of free time I had to this project and I was mostly doing it while sitting in cafes in Brussels. However, in addition to the fact that it was getting very expensive, I didn’t like being by myself all day. I wanted to share my ideas with other entrepreneurs and I thought a good way to do that would be to try a co-working space. Unfortunately, at that time, I couldn’t find one that fit my needs: they all felt like big offices, where meeting people still wasn’t natural. After trying out different spaces for a while, I realised I was craving for something that hadn’t been created yet: a quiet and comfortable space where I could meet with and talk to other women. At that time I didn’t know that female co-working space where starting to spread, but after some research I found out that I wasn’t the first person to get an idea like this one. Women where carving out their own spaces all over the world, even though it was still a very niche idea.
Why did you decide to make it all female?
Because of the synergy! I thought “Why not? We need a place for us”. The struggles I had as a child, always feeling like I was in competition with other girls, made me avoid women for a big part of my life. It took me some time to realise that we have been turned against each other by a society that, for centuries, compared us based on our beauty and ability to find a husband. But it doesn’t have to be that way, and WOMADE is also a way to prove anyone who thinks this way wrong.
“Something happens when you’re just between women and it’s very difficult to put into words, it’s a feeling.”ALBA PREGJA, FOUNDER AND MANAGER @ WOMADE
It is a way to heal from the suffering I experienced in my childhood, a way to prove that sisterhood does exist and that magic does happen when we are among us in a safe space.
WOMADE sounds like the perfect name for this project. How did you come up with it?
That’s actually a funny story for me because it originated from a mistake. I was working on the business model as well as the branding and I knew that I wanted something in English which would fit well with the city’s international atmosphere. So, while explaining to a coach that my business idea was made by women, for women, I misspoke and suddenly blurted out “womade”!
You said you took entrepreneurship classes at the Chamber of Commerce, what where the main struggles you faced as an entrepreneur?
There were so many, but I think the biggest one was dealing with the idea that being an entrepreneur is dangerous and difficult. Being a woman, and an immigrant woman on top of that, also didn’t make things easier. I discovered that racism exists also in Brussels and I felt that the banks I met with to ask for funds would have been more comfortable trusting a “manly” woman, than the young, feminine one standing in from of them. But when you really want something, you get it.
If you had the chance to give advice to your younger self, as well as to other women, what would you say?
I would tell myself “you don’t need to have all the answers now”. It is so typical for women to assume that we have to be over-educated and prepared, just think about the study showing that men apply for a job when they meet 60% of the requirements while women apply only if they meet 100% of them.
“I am not saying you don’t have to be afraid, I am saying be afraid and still do it.”ALBA PREGJA, FOUNDER AND MANAGER @ WOMADE
Even today, when I feel discouraged, I remind myself to “feel all the feels”; whether it’s tiredness or sadness, I don’t push it away, I indulge it and try to understand what caused it. How many times have you tried to push a feeling away instead of recognising it? Now I’ve learned the importance of embracing every emotion and this is definitely a piece of advice I would give my younger self as well as my daughter.
Going back to WOMADE, I saw that you also organise events. Can you tell me more about that?
Yes, we’ve organised some events before the last lockdown and we plan on doing more in the future of course! There are different types, including business events (social media strategy, how to start your business and find funds etc.), events dealing with life-work balance and mental health, workshops and also yoga. It’s a great way to start the conversation on topics that are very important to me such as the relationship between women and finance or the impact that starting your own business can have on your mental health. For me, becoming an entrepreneur is the biggest self-development journey you can go on and you need to take care of your mental well-being.
Keep in mind that while some of these events are only for WOMADE members, others are open to the public and anyone is welcome!
And lastly, since the space is right at the center of Brussels, how would you describe your relationship with the city?
I love Brussels, I love everything about it…even the weather! I like that despite being a big city, it can still feel like a small village where everyone knows each other. The only thing I would probably improve is the public transport, there are some areas of the city that aren’t well connected at all!
On another note, I was so lucky for finding the perfect space for WOMADE in this beautiful building, which was actually designed as part of an architectural competition. The small size of the co-working space means that the members working here are going to bump into each other during the day, and this makes the space feel more like a community than an office, which is ultimately what I was looking for.
Thanking Alba for sharing her story with me, I had a last look around the co-working space, admiring the interior decorations which she handpicked herself, taking care of every small detail (did I mention they also have a podcast room and a marvellous coffee machine???).
If you want to know more about how WOMADE memberships work or you simply want to connect with this amazing community of women, you can visit their website or their blog for a fresh dose of inspiration.