After leading her nonprofit for a decade, Cristi Hegranes had perfected her pitch. She knew just how to describe her organization’s work to the boards of some of the world’s most prominent foundations.

Then she was notified that Global Press Institute was a finalist for the Creator Awards, and she threw her usual pitch out the window.

“We’re trying out some new language, new description, new slides—basically everything,” says the member at WeWork Manhattan Laundry. “This is not the typical foundation types we’re used to pitching to. It’s exciting, and a little bit nerve-wracking.”

Hegranes says the Creator Awards, launched by WeWork to “recognize and reward the creators of the world,” are different because she won’t be pitching to a roomful of people in business suits.

“This will be more like talking with peers,” she says, “people who understand how difficult it is to raise the funding to take your organization to the next level.”

Shaun Masavage, co-founder of Edge Tech Labs, plans to show off his Fret Zeppelin product by "teaching one of the judges guitar in 60 seconds.”
Shaun Masavage, co-founder of Edge Tech Labs, plans to show off his Fret Zeppelin product by “teaching one of the judges guitar in 60 seconds.”

Over the course of a year, WeWork will be giving out more than $20 million at a series of events taking place in cities spanning the globe. The first Creator Awards competition will take place Tuesday at Andrew W. Mellon Auditorium in Washington. D.C.

Subsequent Creator Awards events will take place in North America, Europe, and the Middle East. Winners from each event will come together for the global finals, to be held in New York City on November 30.

Creator Awards finalist Shaun Masavage, co-founder of Edge Tech Labs, is also avoiding the usual type of pitch. His plan for introducing Fret Zeppelin, an eye-catching device that uses LED lights to help you learn guitar, is pretty unusual.

I think our pitch is going to be pretty good,” says the WeWork Crystal City member. “We’ll try to get one of the judges to come up on stage and teach them guitar in 60 seconds.”

And finalist Thomas Doochin, one of the founders of Daymaker, says he hasn’t even had time to think about his pitch. His company, which helps kids give to others who are less fortunate, was going to relaunch his company on Wednesday with a completely new name, website, and branding.

Arion Long of Femly says she’s excited to share her idea of sending chemical-free products designed to keep women healthier and happier straight to their door.
Arion Long of Femly says she’s excited to share her idea of sending chemical-free products designed to keep women healthier and happier straight to their door.

“First we heard that we were finalists in the Creator Awards,” says the member at WeWork Dupont Circle. “But the event was on Tuesday, the day before our relaunch. So I told the team we had to get everything ready a day early.”

They worked through this past weekend to get the new website up and running by the time Doochin steps on the stage at Mellon Auditorium.

There are three categories of Creator Awards, including the Incubate Award for great ideas or specific projects that need funding, and the Launch Award for young businesses and organizations that need a little help getting off the ground. Arion Long is competing for the Scale Award, which is for more established operations aiming to get to the next level.

Long, founder of a monthly subscription box for feminine health products called Femly Box, says she was visiting family in North Carolina when she heard about the competition. She shot her 90-second video after everyone went to bed.

“I made it at about 2 in the morning,” Long says, laughing. “I was standing in front of a curtain. I had to do several takes, because someone was coughing in the background.”

Santos Jaime Gonzalez says that when he told the staff at Manestream that they were finalists for the Creator Awards, "everyone was jumping around, going crazy.”
Santos Jaime Gonzalez says that when he told the staff at ManeStreem that they were finalists for the Creator Awards, “everyone was jumping around, going crazy.”

Long, who had a cervical tumor when she was 26, says she’s excited to share her idea of sending chemical-free products designed to keep women healthier and happier straight to their door.

Santos Jaime Gonzalez, cofounder of an on-demand beauty and makeup service called ManeStreem, says he was “humbled” when he found out that he was a finalist.

“Normally when I get exciting news I send it to the team right away,” says Gonzales, a member at Philadelphia’s WeWork 1900 Market. “I got an email at about 5 in the afternoon, but I needed some time by myself to process the news. At 6 the next morning, I finally sent it out to the team. Of course everyone was jumping around, going crazy.”

What will Gonzalez do if he wins a Creator Award? He says the money will help his company scale quickly, increasing the number of beauty consultants to about 100,000 over the next 12 months.

“We’ve disrupted the beauty industry by making it on demand,” he says. “Now the true disruption happens.”

Darius Baxter is a cofounder of the nonprofit GOOD Projects, which pairs young people from disadvantaged neighborhoods with inspirational mentors. The organization currently works with teenagers who’ve gone through the criminal justice system. He wants to help others as well.

“We don’t want to wait for kids to be locked up to provide them with services,” says Baxter. “This would go a long way in helping us achieve that goal.”

And Kevin White, executive director of Global Vision 2020, says winning would allow him to start a pilot program to provide eyeglasses to high school students in Mozambique.

“Injection molds are expensive, but winning the Creator Awards would mean that we could purchase them and immediately start producing eyeglasses,” says White. “Imagine providing glasses to all the students in an entire country. It would be amazing.”

“Women hold up half the sky” has been a common saying in China for the past 50 years, but for most of that time it hasn’t been the reality in business. But China is changing fast, and in the past decade women have been holding up their half — and often much more — in big cities like Shenzhen and Shanghai.

Women own 30.9 percent of all businesses in China, according to the most recent Mastercard Index of Women Entrepreneurs. That puts it on par with neighboring Singapore (29.2 percent) and well ahead of Japan (17.6 percent).

In some Chinese industries the percentage of female founders is much higher. Among new technology startups, for example, 55 percent are being founded by women.

China also happens to be the only country where women outnumber men at WeWork. More than 51 percent of WeWork China’s members are women, compared with an average of 47 percent worldwide.

What makes all these numbers even more striking is the fact that in China, women make up only 45 percent of the total population.

What’s fueling the momentum? A mix of enthusiastic government support, robust startup communities, strong growth in small- and medium-sized businesses, access to educational opportunities, and the rapid growth of companies like WeWork that provide affordable office space has ushered in rapid advancements over the past decade.

“China is totally different from what people imagined five or 10 years ago,” says Anna Wong, co-founder of Female Entrepreneurs Worldwide, a Hong Kong-based organization that recently expanded to Shenzhen and Shanghai. “It’s evolving rapidly. Offices use facial recognition software for security and coffee shops accept WeChat pay. Society is changing, too. Female founders are very well-respected in China.”

An entrepreneurial era

Changes to women’s status in China started with the 1954 constitution, which granted women “equal rights with men in all areas of political, economic, cultural, social, and domestic life.” In the decades that followed, government reforms began to protect and empower women with national education requirements and anti-discrimination laws, including the Women’s Work Protection Regulations in 1988, Women’s Rights Protection Law in 1992, and the Labor Law in 1994.

By the 1980s and 1990s, more social programs — like the Association of Women Entrepreneurs in China, the All-China Women’s Federation, the Women’s Successful Career Program, and the Tianjin Women Entrepreneurs Centre — were born. Such programs offer a mix of career services, including subsidies for professional training, preferential tax treatment, loan programs, and mentoring.

More than 51 percent of WeWork China’s members are women, compared with an average of 47 percent worldwide.

As far as the most recent push to encourage entrepreneurship, most experts point to the country’s flagging economic growth. In a 2014 speech, Chinese Premier Li Keqiang called for “mass entrepreneurship and innovation” through more financial incentives for those starting businesses and stronger intellectual protections for innovators.

“In the past few years, the local governments have been competing with each other to build science parks and startup hubs, [enact] lower taxes, or even grant loans to attract people to start the businesses,” says Wong. “Government bodies encourage female leadership and entrepreneurship, so they can contribute to the GDP.”

Wong says that several smaller cities tried to convince her to relocate her business with promises of economic incentives.

“We were offered office space, loans, apartments for staff, and tax breaks in several cities just so we’d register the company there,” says Wong.  “These governments are always looking for good companies that contribute to and diversify their GDP.”

Cities like Beijing and Shanghai often aim to attract big tech companies, but also hope to boost cultural and creative capital by providing favorable tax policies for small businesses in creative industries — think film, design, animation, publishing, and more.

These incentives, combined with China’s development of the private sector, an influx of foreign capital over the past two decades, and higher levels of education across the nation, have created a framework where women founders can thrive alongside men.

Starting up in Shanghai

When China native Wen Yao relocated from Chicago to Shanghai earlier this year, she wasn’t sure what to expect. A WeWork Creator Awards finalist in Detroit, the serial entrepreneur has already started two businesses in Chicago and is now leading her third: Powwful, a female sportswear brand that aims to empower women of all shapes and sizes.

“When we expanded Powwful into China, we realized that we couldn’t just copy and paste what we were doing in Chicago,” says Yao, who worked as a marketing professional before starting her first business. “Everything works so differently in China — the social media platforms are different, the customer preferences are different, the behaviors are different….”

In Shanghai, women say that in business they “enjoy equal if not higher social status.”

But despite the learning curve, the Taiwan-born Yao has found herself at home in a like-minded community where women are highly regarded. “Out of all the cities in China, I feel like Shanghai is one of the best in terms of gender equality,” says Yao. “Our sportswear business is really about female empowerment, but what’s interesting is that when I met the China WeWork manager, he mentioned that women have higher status in Shanghai than in the U.S.”

Lucia Shen, founder of popular millennial-focused video site called DiX (loosely translated to “In the Moment”), agrees. “Every single city in China has its own unique culture, and you really can’t generalize,” says Shen. “But in Shanghai, specifically, women enjoy equal if not higher social status. We don’t really distinguish between female and male entrepreneurs. You’re just an entrepreneur.”

China’s own Silicon Valley

Maureen Mou, who runs luxury online fashion site Xiu.com, says it’s never been a better time to be doing business in China, particularly in the southeastern city of Shenzhen. WeWork will open its first location there later this year.

Today, Shenzhen is often compared to Silicon Valley, due to its emergence as a global tech and hardware manufacturing hub. With more liberal policies than the rest of China, Shenzhen has seen explosive economic growth, enjoying a year-over-year GDP growth rate of 9.1 percent from 2016 to 2017.

There are also myriad crowdfunding platforms, bank loan programs, incubators, competitions, and co-working spaces — all of which have been instrumental in creating China’s most entrepreneurial city. According to a study by the Global Entrepreneurship Monitor, 16 percent of adults in Shenzhen were engaged in early-stage entrepreneurial activities in 2016.

“We often benefit from experimental policies and there are countless opportunities coming to you,” says Mou. “But you have to be ready to the embrace changes. If you are slow to adapt or to adjust to policy shifts, your business will be pushed out of the market because it’s so competitive.”

Anytime, anywhere

In China today, no matter where an entrepreneur settles in China, the possibility of starting a new business is at her fingertips.

“By using ecommerce platforms [like WeChat or Weidian], anyone can be an entrepreneur,” says Yao. “There are so many platforms in China. I think that provides a lot of opportunities for women to start their own businesses. There’s very little overhead and a low barrier to entry, so you see women really thriving in mobile e-commerce.”

Current government incentives for creative professionals have made video, blogging, and media a promising space. Many women have been able to create businesses in these fields.

“You have access to all the conveniences that you’d have in any metropolitan area, as well as tax breaks, incubators, and affordable ways to test out your idea or minimal viable products,” says Shen, whose video site has 700,000 followers. “You bootstrap here and test out ideas pretty easily.”

Shen says companies like WeWork have also made things easier for women entrepreneurs.

“You know, 15 years ago, if you wanted to have an office, you had to rent an entire office or just work from home,” says Shen. “There is no such things as a garage in Shanghai, so you’d be in your living room with a small team and all your equipment. So I think having a place like WeWork has made the barrier to entry lower.”

There are still many obstacles facing women in China’s entrepreneurial framework, from social expectations to get married and start a family to securing investments from venture capital firms. Last year, for example, a high-profile investor in China stated that he doesn’t invest in female entrepreneurs. Yao says this perspective is not the norm.  

“A a woman founder in China, you’re not going to be an outlier,” says Yao. “Maybe a few years ago it would have been harder. But with the sheer number of women starting companies in China, it’s now normal and expected — and that has improved the big picture.”

Stacy Spikes believes that successful entrepreneurs don’t understand the word “no.”

“I think the people in this room have a part of their brain where they don’t quite hear the word ‘no’ properly,” said Spikes, speaking to a room packed with people eager to hear how he had cofounded the movie subscription service Moviepass. “You have to have that. There are some people in the world that hear the word ‘no’ and they go, ‘OK.’ And that’s it for them.”

Spikes believes that every time an investor says “no” to a pitch, they’re only refining what it will take to get a “yes.”

“Eventually, what they’ve done is that they’ve sharpened your pitch so incredibly that there’s nothing being thrown at you that will stump you,” says Spikes, a longtime member at WeWork Soho West. He recently spoke at a WeWork Labs event that drew more than 70 guests to WeWork Dumbo Heights.

Spikes has heard “no” plenty of times. When he was fired from a film production company in 1997, he rented a small cubicle at the Tribeca Film Center. There he came up with the idea for Urbanworld, which in the past two decades has become the world’s largest film festival for minority filmmakers, actors, writers, and directors. The five-day event takes place in late September in New York City.

In 2011, Spikes and business partner Hamet Watt founded MoviePass, which allows subscribers to see a movie a day for a monthly fee of $9.95. Spikes says they first hit upon the idea for Moviepass in 2005, and despite being told “no” for six years, he and Watt refused to throw in the towel.

MoviePass founder Stacey Spikes talks with entrepreneurs about launching a company.

Spikes says their inspiration came from art-house theaters in New York City that let customers see an unlimited number of movies for a flat fee. They racked up roughly 23,000 subscribers under their original business model, which charged an average of $35 a month. This helped them raise almost $14 million from early investors like AOL Ventures and William Morris Entertainment.

Then MoviePass caught the eye of Helios & Matheson Analytics, a data analytics company that bought the business in 2017. Spikes stayed on to chair the board of directors until early this year, leaving before the stock took a hit in the media and saw its stock price plummet.

Spikes currently working on a new venture, though the 50-year-old entrepreneur has remained tight-lipped about what it will be.

Have the perfect data

Spikes describes MoviePass as a data-driven company that collects information on individual subscribers, like what movies they are watching and where they are located. He believes that the most important thing for a company’s success is having accurate data and has made a point to remember this every step of the way.

“The truth is, if your data is off, you’re just believing your own hype and you’re lying to yourself,” Spikes says. He adds that he’ll often share his data with people outside the industry, just to make sure that the numbers are persuasive

His advice to entrepreneurs starting their own company echoes this, urging people to make sure their numbers are accurate and run their presentations by several people before going too far.

““The truth is, if your data is off, you’re just believing your own hype,” says Stacey Spikes.

“Those things are critical because if you’re not all buttoned up, you’ll pay a price for that,” he says. “And sometimes you can’t walk back in those doors several times.”

Spikes says that when people think of successful entrepreneurs, they imagine someone who is white and male. In the startup world, only 1 percent of venture capital funding goes to black entrepreneurs, and 2 percent goes to females. His advice on how to deal with this? Ignore it.

“I can’t go in the mirror before I walk into that conference room going, ‘OK, you’re black, but you can do it!’” he says. “I have to walk in going, ‘I got a great idea that you should fund.’”

He urges entrepreneurs to continually “ram the gates.”

“You might be that person who gets through the gates,” he says, “and then people are going to look at you and say ‘Well, if Stacy got through, maybe I can get through.’”

Use the right resources

Spikes looks to resources like DocSend, a content tracking solution, to help him get a read on people he’s trying to pitch. By allowing him to see how long investors spend on each slide in his initial pitch deck, DocSend gives Spikes some foreshadowing into what potential clients are thinking.

“It’s a great tool to help me in the [fundraising] process because you don’t want people who are going to waste your time,” he says.

He also advises entrepreneurs to figure out a schedule that promotes productivity. Spikes keeps himself moving forward by breaking up his week. He does certain things on certain days — Mondays are dedicated to tasks and projects, while Thursdays are for finance.

“This makes it easier because there are certain things that you don’t want to do,” Spikes says, “so you’re not stuck doing those things for your whole week.”

Spikes considers himself a voracious reader of biographies, a genre he sees as a handbook of sorts. He likens reading a biography to “an executive coming and sitting with you, telling you exactly how to do things.”

At the end of the day, Spikes stresses that an entrepreneur’s best resource is themself.

“Be smart,” he says. “Find your way into the door and into the conversation. Play the part like you’re there to win. I have a blazer in the drawer because you gotta be ready to roll. You have to think on your feet and use whatever you got to get through the wall.”

Photos by Josh Wehle

 

When Manchester United midfielder Juan Mata reflects on his more than decade of playing professional soccer, he says that the trophies and titles have been gratifying. But it’s the sport’s potential to change the world that compels him the most.

“Thanks to a career in football, I’ve been able to travel to many parts of the world, and what I’ve come to find is that this sport really brings people together and has a profound impact on the next generation of boys and girls,” said the Spanish player, speaking to a crowd of soccer fans at Colombia’s WeWork Usaquén.

He realized that soccer could help transform lives at the local level by funding initiatives to battle intractable problems like gender inequality and youth unemployment.

“We started Common Goal for our love of football and as a way to make an impact, a movement we started some 10 months ago,” said Mata.

Juan Mata poses with a fan at Colombia’s WeWork Usaquén.

Common Goal’s connection to WeWork began last year when the organization won $180,000 at the WeWork Creator Awards in Berlin. Since then, a partnership has developed. WeWork has encouraged its members and employees to help support Common Goal and its programs to empower disadvantaged people and their communities.

“At Common Goal, we use football to improve the lives of young boys and girls, and that’s why why are here with WeWork,” said Mata. “We share the same mission of bringing people together. We are thrilled to partner with a company like WeWork to help support us and our mission.”

After joining a panel discussion at WeWork Usaquén, Mata settled in to watch Spain take on Iran in a match during the World Cup. Members there said watching Mata cheer as his Spanish teammates won the match was a once-in-a-lifetime experience.

This was one of dozens of viewing parties held at WeWork locations around the world as the month-long World Cup competition unfolded. In Berlin, Common Ground co-founder Thomas Preiss spoke before 150 people gathered to take in the Germany vs. South Korea match on June 14. Half a world away, members at WeWork Seoul cheered their team to victory.

Juan Mata joins the crowd watching a World Cup match at Colombia’s WeWork Usaquén.

As England powered its way to the semifinals, members in London gathered for a series of events leading off with a June 18 panel discussion led by WeWork member Akin Solanke-Caulker, head of the sports talent agency the Athletic Network. Before watching the match at WeWork Old Street, Solanke-Caulker regaled the crowd with tales of negotiating deals with some of the biggest names in soccer, rugby, and track and field.

On July 10, the day France took on Belgium in the semifinals, Miami’s WeWork Security Building hosted a viewing party featuring WeWork member Soccer Shape, a fitness plan started by members of the Miami Football Club that incorporates drills and exercises used by top teams. Members got to kick a ball around before settling in to watch the big game.

When Larry Irvin and Kristyna Jones met at Mardi Gras in 2011, they immediately connected through their shared love of hip-hop and rap. Then the conversation got more personal: Jones gave Irvin her perspective of working in community development in New Orleans both before and after Hurricane Katrina, and Irvin shared his story of growing up as a black man in New Orleans with questions of self-identity.

“Young black men are perpetually trying to figure out who they are supposed to be, because the representations both in our neighborhoods and schools are, a lot of the time, negative,” Irvin says, citing high rates of incarceration and unemployment.

Irvin and Jones came up with a potential solution: getting more black men into the classroom.

“There’s a particular demographic, even within the demographic of black men, who aren’t attached to their academic experience,” says Irvin, 36. “College is something they’re told to do, but not with any purpose behind it.”

Together, Irvin and Jones founded Brothers Empowered to Teach, a nonprofit that urges people of color – particularly black men – to explore careers in education. It seeks to generate a network of teachers who serve as role models for the next generation.

Starting with just seven fellows in 2014, the organization has since grown to have over 40 participants between New Orleans and Baton Rouge. It has partnered with over 10 schools across New Orleans and Baton Rouge, and four graduates of the program teach in New Orleans public schools.

Irvin himself is a former substitute teacher, a job he held while coaching high school football. He discovered that he had a special connection with many of the kids.

“Having grown up in some of those same neighborhoods that they did, there was a cultural connection,” says Irvin. “It started to seem like I was meant to do this work.”

Larry Irvin of Brothers Empowered to Teach gets a standing ovation at the Austin Creator Awards.

The organization offers two programs for future educators: a one-year program tailored toward college graduates and those changing careers, and a three-year fellowship geared toward current college students. The organization’s teachers get together on Saturdays for professional and personal development workshops.

“We have intimate conversations about things like redefining what masculinity looks like, around male-female gender relationships, and around sexual orientation,” says Irvin. “We’re trying to create a better version of the individual, which in turn turns them into a great educator.”

Brothers Empowered to Teach got a big boost last year at WeWork’s Austin Creator Awards. When it was announced that the organization had won $130,000, Irvin was greeted with a standing ovation from the crowd of more than 2,750 people.

A WeWork member, Irvin uses the company’s spaces when he travels, especially to cities like Austin and Washington, D.C.

While Brothers Empowered to Teach has so far worked with only male teachers, the organization recently opened up 30 percent of its seats to women of color.

“It is really beautiful to see our fellows attached to something, approaching education with fervor and excitement,” Irvin says. “We’re trying to change the narrative and reignite a lost reverence for the education profession.”