Being women entrepreneurs in Madrid: two expats share their story

Expat interviews
  • expats in Madrid
Published on 2022-04-29 at 10:00 by Mikki Beru
Madrid is known to be a land of opportunities, and Alice and Emilie cannot deny it. They both moved to Spain in 2018 as trailing spouses. Today, they are their own boss and are part of a network of women entrepreneurs. Alice and Emilie look back on their expat journey and tell us about their everyday life in the Spanish capital.

You both arrived in Madrid in 2018. Why did you choose Madrid?

Émilie: We arrived with my partner, who had a job opportunity in Madrid. We had to choose between Paris and Madrid (we lived in Lille at the time). We said to ourselves: "since we're moving anyway, we might as well go to Madrid". We arrived, on a whim, without asking ourselves too many questions.

Alice: For me also, it was a result of my husband's career. He got an opportunity in Madrid (his first proposal), and we were open to mobility. We didn't ask too many questions either. We were happy because, for a first experience abroad, Spain is very close to France.

Emilie: Madrid is a safe destination.

Alice: Absolutely. Regarding risks, I already had a job in France. So I had to resign to be able to move abroad.

Tell us more about this move to Spain with your family.

Alice: Moving abroad forces you to step out of your comfort zone, to take risks… Often, people let themselves be guided more by fear than by euphoria. I have already moved a lot in France, so I didn't find it hard to leave. I was excited to move to Spain. My children were 2 and 4 years old. I thought it would be easy for them to adapt.

Émilie: It's exactly the same for us. As the children were 2 years old, we knew that it was not going to be difficult on that side.

Alice: If the children had been 10 or 15, we might have thought differently. Regarding work, it is a bit strange to resign and start from scratch. But that didn't stop me. I never asked myself the question we are going or not". I never said to myself, "We're not going because I have to quit my job. »

Were you already planning to do something else in Spain, or did you build your projects little by little?

Émilie: Of course, that requires a lot of planning. I had started a new activity in France as a freelancer. I had already quit my job when I had my children. But I was convinced that I would find a new activity in Madrid. I wasn't scared at all because I had already passed the milestone of quitting a job. But I can understand how scary it can be for those who need to quit their job.

Alice: Absolutely! I decided to quit my job in France and pick up in Madrid. I had never decided to quit working.

Émilie: I think it really depends on the personality. I also interview a lot of travelling parents and expats. For example, a lady wrote to me on my personal blog. She had come across an old article about career opportunities. She asked me how life was in Madrid. I explained to her quite objectively that it is not a land of dreams but a great city to live in, especially for a first move abroad. She replied that she had a job offer, but it seemed complicated to her, as she is a mom. Her answer showed that she was not yet ready to step out of her comfort zone.

Alice: There are a lot of excuses not to go abroad actually. There is always a risk. It can be scary. What if it doesn't work out? Many immediately think of the downsides. Instead, you have to believe in the possibilities of rebuilding yourself, in new encounters and opportunities. Everything is possible.

So that's your first move abroad.

Alice: Yes, it is. And I think we have to be confident, even if it can be difficult for a while, especially at the beginning. You will naturally have concerns, especially in relation to work, but living abroad has a lot of benefits. So overall, we are satisfied with this experience.

Émilie: Even if we have to make concessions, because sometimes we only have a salary, for example, it's worth thinking about the experience and all the benefits of a move abroad. On the other hand, I might not have left if my spouse and I were not working. But I know some do.

Alice: Moving with some sort of revenue is reassuring.

Émilie: It's another level of adventure to leave without a budget.

Did you already speak Spanish before leaving, or did you learn it when you moved to Madrid?

Émilie: I had a basic level when I arrived in Madrid, so I had to take language courses.

Alice: Spanish is pretty easy to learn. We must keep in mind that we are not dumb. It is a learning process that requires time and investment, but we are getting there.

Émilie: The language is really the number one priority. Because if you don't speak Spanish, for example, when you go to the park with the children, you could look a little ridiculous. You can't socialize and fit in. So I think it's important to invest time in learning the language and the culture.

Alice: When I arrived in Madrid, I didn't speak Spanish at all. I had to learn from scratch. I think that it's easier to learn Spanish than many other languages. I didn't even ask myself any questions because I believe that it's a must. However, the language barrier can be much more significant in other countries for some people. Still, Spanish is used and spoken in many countries around the world, so learning it has a lot of benefits.

Émilie: It's also important to learn the language when you have children. Obviously, you'll never speak as well as they do, but it's important to be able to communicate. It will help in following the children's schooling, to discuss with the teachers, etc. It's also true that many expats prefer to stay in an expat bubble. The children go to international schools; the parents only hang out with expats. Perhaps they are looking to stay in the country for a couple of years only, so they don't see any benefit in learning the language. Alice and I chose to enrol our children in a Spanish school. We also have local employment contracts, we don't live in the French neighbourhoods. So learning Spanish is also a matter of survival. On a daily basis, it is essential to communicate with your neighbours. The other way round is also true. People might settle in our home country for a couple of years and not make any effort to learn our language. So we might also have misconceptions about them not trying to integrate. Imagine being their neighbours for a couple of years and never had any interaction.

Alice: Many people move to another country without necessarily wanting to get involved. Learning the language is also a sign of respect. Regarding English, it is not so present in Spain, unlike in Germany or other countries.

Émilie: I find that learning the language also helps in discovering the culture and being able to communicate with the Spaniards, learning more about the traditions, understanding their way of life, etc. It's also essential for landing a job contract.

Talking about the way of life and communication with the Spaniards, how did you experience the health crisis and all its consequences (lockdowns, social distancing, etc.)?

Emily: That's a huge topic! First, it disturbed us professionally as we were launching our project at that time. We were wondering whether we should continue. But, in the end, we didn't give up.

Alice: We were optimistic.

Émilie: The health crisis slowed down our launch, so it was a lot of work. Overall, it was complicated. But we remained confident and optimistic. We kept telling ourselves that things would change. So we decided to get started anyway, although the Covid strongly impacted tourism.

Alice: We were aware that we were doing substantive work, so we were convinced that at some point, it was going to light up.

Émilie: The lockdown was a difficult period. For more than 2 months, we were not allowed to go out at all. From mid-March to mid-May, we had to stay indoors. So our new adventure here started slowly, especially since we were locked down with the children. We had to manage school, the little ones, and all the anxiety and stress that came along. But other than that, it wasn't so hard as we have a garden.

Alice: It wasn't such a trauma for me either. The children's age (3 years old) also helped. I was working in parallel, but I was not too worried about the well-being of the little ones. They always managed to run and play in the apartment.

Émilie: I found the September 2021 restrictions more difficult. We were all on vacation, and at the start of the school year, we could no longer leave our region because of the new restrictions. Inevitably, as soon as we went somewhere, it was full of people. On weekends, almost every place was overcrowded.

Alice: I was a bit disappointed with so many restrictions. I couldn't invite friends over. At first, it was forbidden. And afterwards, it was hard to know whether we could invite people or not, how many people, etc.

Alice: It was frustrating not being able to develop the bonds that we had created. Some of them had broken due to the distance. We also had to deal with what was happening in France. We had our own opinion, and we didn't know how the Spaniards were going to take it because they were very afraid of the Covid.

What are your views on the notions of expatriation and immigration?

Alice: I've always had a hard time using that term, "expatriate," because you don't know what it actually means.

Émilie: For me, an expatriate is someone who is temporarily detached from his country to work elsewhere and who will eventually return to their country. So, I don't feel like an expatriate at all because we have local contracts. We don't live like expatriates. I think that the notion has too many connotations

of "privileges", and I don't find myself in that environment at all. So I would rather say that I am an immigrant. But it's also true that I often tend to say "as an expat...".

Alice: We don't use the term "as an immigrant" yet, in general. However, it does refer to our situation here.

Today, more and more women are starting their own business abroad. What are your views on this, and what would you advise women who would like to become entrepreneurs?

Alice: We are part of a network of Francophone women entrepreneurs, which is open to everyone and brings together all nationalities.

Émilie: We are lucky that we got started together, so we can encourage and support each other. For those who want to get started, our advice is to see what motivates them and get closer to a group or a network.

Alice: Yes, joining a professional group, a community that can boost, and guide them, is definitely a plus. Having support is important so that you don't feel completely isolated. I know that many women have started their own business or doing more flexible jobs since the beginning of the pandemic. So it's equally important to find the right guides.

Émilie: Yes, it's a chance to be able to start from scratch. You just have to get this in your mind, even if it means starting with only one salary. We no longer have these constraints and barriers that we used to have back in our home country.

Alice: You should at least try. Succeed is not guaranteed, but at least you will know where you have failed and learn the lessons.

What about those who don't have a job or any professional activity?

Émilie: Moving abroad can also mean taking a break. I think that some people go abroad for this reason precisely. Socially, it's quite hard to say that you don't work and that you are a trailing spouse. However, you should take a step back and think about all the opportunities that it could bring. For example, you might want to focus more on your family and help your kids do things that they really enjoy.

Alice: It's true that people will often question the fact that you're going abroad, but you're not going to work. Some are very worried about that, especially the family. It's true that when you go abroad, the logistics are much more difficult because you don't necessarily have your family's support. At first, you don't really understand the local codes and you don't know what's happening around you and how. In the beginning, being much more available for the children made things easier. We, too, are happy.

What are your favourite places in Madrid and your greatest discoveries?

Émilie: What we discovered when we came here and what we love above all is really the old villages in the countryside, where you hardly see any foreigners. As soon as you arrive at a bar, everyone looks at you (we are all blond in the family). The authentic villages "pueblos bonitos" are the most beautiful villages in Spain. There are many small villages like this all around Madrid. And the people are kind...!

Alice: Yeah, it's still very traditional. There are many traditions, village festivals in a warm atmosphere...

Émilie: As we both live outside Madrid, we often spend the weekends away from the capital.

Alice: In Madrid, I especially love the small streets with colourful facades, and the wrought-iron balconies. The atmosphere is very pleasant too.

Émilie: The Spanish state of mind plays a big role. The people here are very caring and very respectful at all times.

Alice: They're also very festive; they like to go out. Madrid is a bustling city. There are plenty of beautiful things to see, magnificent views, and a warm atmosphere. Unlike other capitals, the atmosphere in Madrid is soothing. The streets are lively. Families get a warm welcome at the restaurant. It is said that "Madrid cannot be visited, it is lived".

Émilie: The summer here is amazing! Well, you have to like the heat. You can really feel the difference between the summer and winter here. All regions of Spain have their particularities. I think it's fair to say that the coast (the tourist areas are mainly on the Mediterranean coast) is yet another Spain. Obviously, you have the social codes, the stores, but even in terms of architecture, it's not the same. Rather than just going to the Mediterranean coast, visit the inland also for a change of scenery. The coastal part is more urbanized and "modern". There is a lot of tourism, so you lose a bit of the "authentic" side.

Alice: You really have to go to small villages like Maputo, Saint Ventura, or even near Sara costa, La Riorente..

What can we wish you for the future?

Emily: The success of our project! The resumption of tourism and global mobility is crucial. There are still many people who hesitate to move abroad out of fear. But things are improving little by little.

Alice: Our project is still recent, and we want it to develop slowly. We are 100% satisfied, both on the family side and on the life experience side. We are hoping to be here for a few years more.

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