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Peggy Wahrlich has a glowing smile and a calm attitude which radiates inner peace. It is hard to imagine that her business idea was basically fueled by anger. She brews a cappuccino before sitting down to talk business, attachment parenting and her story as a founder.
COWOKI, her coworking space with childcare, resides in a new building next to an old neo-Gothic church tower right in one of Cologne’s hippest areas, “Belgisches Viertel” (Belgian quarter). Bright rooms, modern and stylish furniture, but yet arranged in an unagitated way. A lot of wood and steel, white walls and white desks, dotted with grey or rose chairs. Two vases with large bouquets of beautiful flowers in the kitchen. A high-end coffee machine. An indispensable utensil in a coworking space. Stylish, but down to earth, is the vibe you feel.
COWOKI offers 30 to 40 workplaces – and currently nine childcare places, which are completely booked out. No wonder in Cologne, the 4th biggest city in Germany, where the search for childcare often brings parents to the verge of despair, especially for children under the age of three. In Germany, the gap in childcare provision for this age group currently amounts to 300.000 missing places as a study by the German Economic Institute showed at the beginning of 2018. Especially in the former West of Germany, this gap is huge. While there – contrary to the former East – traditionally many children were looked after at home until they entered kindergarten with the age of three, the demand for early childcare now increases since a few years. Factors like a rising birthrate in Germany, immigration and the lack of qualified daycare workers add to the pressure. The result: a “crisis” in daycare provision.
For Peggy Wahrlich the lack of innovative childcare opportunities was the initial fuel for her idea. As a freelance decorator, she was relatively flexible. “But working from home with a child brings you to your limits. In 2002, my older daughter was two or three, I had the unspecific wish for a place where I could work and where I could take along my kid”, recalls the mom of two girls, aged 17 and 10. At that time a corresponding initiative (“Zeiträume”) existed in Cologne, but the fee of 600,- Euros per month seemed too expensive. 2010 Peggy was confronted with the same situation all over again. She was upset by the fact that “fathers just could continue to do their own thing” while the mothers often stay at home with their kids. “It is unacceptable that all these women stay at home, even when they often are highly educated and are stuck in provisional solutions”. Like only working part-time for years due to the underdeveloped childcare system. It was great dissatisfaction with the existing childcare possibilities combined with the feeling “I need to do something for the women!” which gave Peggy the drive to start her own business. Doing some research, she quickly discovered “Rockzipfel” in Leipzig, which according to Peggy is seen as the “pioneer” in Germany regarding coworking spaces with childcare. Several offshoots were established in other German cities like Dresden, Hamburg, and Munich. For Peggy this felt like a confirmation of her idea: “I am not alone. There are other mums in the same situation – maybe this is indeed quite a good idea”. She worked on a concept and a business plan and finally opened COWOKI in 2017.
Was it all going that smoothly? No, Peggy also mentions all the bumps in the road like regulations by the building control department of the city and another ton of regulations regarding the opening of the childcare. Was a lot of courage needed for the decision to open her own business? Peggy thinks about it. “Sure, it requires courage, but I was more driven by this anger. This gave me some naivety, which probably let me turn a blind eye to some stumbling blocks. But the interesting thing is: You can overcome all these difficulties and grow. I don’t know if I would have dared to do it without this portion of naivety. I just had the conviction to do the right thing”.
And this belief still drives her today. COWOKI reaches the breakeven – but the salary Peggy can pay out for herself and her co-manager Melanie von Gersdorff is not high. “We don’t earn particularly much – it is all about the idealism we have for the idea. But to be clear: The wages should not stay as they are”. And there is the prospect of increased revenue streams with the opening of a second childcare group in August this year. The coworking space will then offer eighteen childcare spots. Once the second group runs smoothly, Peggy considers the concept of COWOKI scalable. The founder may consider opening a second site in Cologne in the future. She is convinced that the demand exists.
This view is shared by Christian Cordes, board member of the German Coworking Federation. He traces the opening of coworking spaces with childcare in Germany to the overall difficult care situation. The combination, however, is still a niche product regarding coworking in Germany in general, explains Cordes. All in all, about 450 coworking spaces exist in Germany, but only about 10 of them promote explicitly the childcare they offer. The big coworking chains like WeWork or Design Offices generally speaking do not offer any childcare solutions according to the knowledge of Christian Cordes and Peggy Wahrlich (although WeWork runs a school in New York, starting for two-year-olds). It often is the personal story of the founders, which drives the opening of a coworking space with childcare, tells Cordes.
So as in Peggy’s case. But she also sees a more general trend behind coworking with childcare in Germany. She comes up with several narratives which all belong together somehow in the end: Women who want to work and who demand new solutions. Men who want to spend much more time with their kids and don’t want to be the sole breadwinner. And parents who currently are paying more and more attention to ideas of attachment parenting and are re-evaluating (probably like every generation of parents before them) what their children really need. And – maybe – all this might feel easier to combine when you can work. And you still have your kid close to you. Like in a co-working space with childcare.
Roles, social models and families’ needs are changing. But answers are still missing, there is a lack of new solutions. Peggy’s credo: We must create these missing offers and possibilities. And so she did, turning anger into a business model and changing career paths to become a female founder.
June 12, 2019 at 09:24AM
Forbes – Entrepreneurs