Astrid Aafjes is the founder of Downtown Offices, a network and hub for female founders and entrepreneurs based in Barcelona, which she set up in 2018. The first of its kind in Spain, Astrid has created a growing community where women who are on the entrepreneurial journey can access the support and resources to help them grow their businesses.
Helping and empowering women has always been at the heart of Astrid’s work and her career having worked in the USA, Cambodia and China for a number of organisations and also founding Women Win which she is still involved with on a strategic level.
Offering a similar set up to Downtown Offices, Astrid has also created Spark Global a platform and community for women in the healthcare sector.
Can you tell me a bit more about your background and career to date, what have been your highlights?
I studied law in the Netherlands and then moved to Washington D.C where my career in international human rights began. I was fortunate to get a lot of hands on experience and opportunities and in the coming years I worked for several UN agencies.
In 2002, I moved back to Holland and then became the Program Director at the Mama Cash Foundation, which was the first international women’s fund in the world. A major career moment came when the foundation was approached by global brand Nike to develop a project and collaborate together. The focus of the project being empowering young women through sports.
After working on the Nike project and seeing the impact and difference which had been made to the girls, I was inspired to take it further. I then went back to the brand with a business plan outline looking for support from them.
What was your vision when you decided to set up Downtown Offices?
During my career I met many corporate women who were looking to start their own businesses. Being an entrepreneur myself, I knew the challenges that come with setting up a business.
I had membership to an organisation for entrepreneurs and quickly saw the benefits of being part of this type of network when it came to my own business development.
Sharing my story and having access to a group of people who were also entrepreneurs was invaluable to me.
This was the starting point and I realised that a lot of women don’t have the finances to be part of such a community where there is a membership fee but that they would benefit hugely from the resources and support.
I launched Downtown Offices to create an inspiring work hub for female entrepreneurs where they can connect, learn and share.
I wanted to create a similar type of model but with a more accessible membership fee, making our services more widely available so we can help more women.
What are the biggest problems the women in your community face when it comes to getting a business idea off the ground? How are you making a difference/supporting them?
I think a lot of women have great business ideas but lack the confidence to start taking the steps to get their idea off the ground. I meet a lot of women who question their skills and I want to help them to see what is possible when they have the right support in place. The entrepreneurial journey is a series of ups and downs and course corrections so you have to be very agile and open to reinvention as you progress.
The women in the Downtown community are seeking that close-knit network, connection and structure which you get from our type of set up.
We have a very diverse group of women with businesses ranging from tech to fashion, law, food and healthcare. 80% of our community are not from Spain so we have a really international membership.
How are you attracting women to join Downtown?
Through a mix of events, workshops and other resources designed to meet the needs of our members. We host a regular breakfast event which works really well because real life interaction is crucial in building a community. We also have a mentorship programme in place as well as access to financial and legal consultancy services.
What does being an entrepreneur mean to you personally?
I love the fact that you can take the seed of an idea or a big vision and develop it into a business. If there is one thing piece of advice I can give to budding entrepreneurs, it would be that anything is possible if you seek out the right support.
How would you describe the start-up community in Barcelona when it comes to female led businesses? Is it thriving?
There is a huge tech community in Barcelona and a great pool of talent in the city. The ecosystem here is great for start-ups and entrepreneurs and I think it will continue to flourish. There are many successful female entrepreneurs coming out of the city which is great.
What would your top 3 tips be for starting out in business?
1) Start lean and don’t fall into the trap of thinking you need a lot of money to begin with.
2) Focus on testing your idea, adapting it and remember that things change all the time, so it is important to be open and flexible.
3) Choose your team carefully especially if you are thinking about taking on a partner. Really think about what you need from that person and select accordingly. You might think you need a business partner but actually what you need is someone in an advisory role. If you do choose a partner, make sure their skills complement your own.
Where do you see Downtown Offices in the future and do you have a long-term vision of how the business will grow?
To keep growing the community and for Downtown to expand would be fantastic. I want to be able to make as much impact as possible and help as many women as I can to grow successful businesses.
Many of the women I work with are freelancers and I would love to be able to support them in exploring what the next level might look like for them. That might be looking at building a team for example and changing their business model.
I am also working on building partnerships with corporates to build wider mentor programs.