Female empowerment is flourishing in Spain. The newspaper El Mundo has been publishing a special issue every year since 2014 with a list of the five hundred most influential Spanish women. It is a kind of vade mecum of powerful women. Of course, there is room for Letizia Ortiz Rocasolano. A woman who rose from being a famous newsreader to become the Queen of Spain occupies one of the traditionally most important posts. Yet she stands firmly in the shadow of her husband King Felipe VI. Together they have indeed modernized the royal house somewhat compared to Juan Carlos and Sofia. Yet no real innovation has taken place. Perhaps that time will come when Crown Princess Leonor de Borbón y Ortiz will one day ascend the throne.

More about this Dossier

This dossier on female start-ups was created by Erzsó Alföldy and supplemented with articles by other authors of Innovation Origins. Erzsó explains why she wrote this file:

It is not so long ago that Dutch women had to stop working once they got married and started having children. While my own single mother had to work full-time and even six days a week in my native country, communist Hungary in those days. The fact that she also worked in a technical profession would be highly laudable from an emancipatory point of view. However, my mother didn’t like that at all – no more than many Dutch women did who were forced to waste their time at home without being able to develop their talents and without any prospect of economic independence.

Ultimately, what matters is that you have a choice. And that the preconditions are in place to be able to make such a well-informed choice. Which goes further than just equal pay – however important this may be. It’s about equal opportunities for women and men. And it’s not just about who is appointed, but also about the underlying structures. Why is this important? Besides the value for women themselves and the economic importance of ensuring that female talent is not overlooked, it has also been proven that greater diversity benefits organizations.

I am fascinated by women working in such traditionally male-dominated work environments: how do they do it, how do they manage to hold their own? Once for Opzij (Dutch feminist magazine), I made a series of portraits of female scientists as part of the Westerdijk Anniversary celebrating the appointment of the very first female professor one hundred years earlier. In the past two years, I have also interviewed women working for Intermediair (Dutch weekly for educated professionals) in occupations that were previously reserved exclusively for men: from football international player, forest ranger, helicopter pilot in the Dutch Air Force and captain of inland shipping to cardiologist, police chief, ambassador and Member of the Dutch Senate. Although there has definitely been a shift within many professions in recent years and things are much more taken for granted by the younger generation than by the generation before, I take my hat off to the courage and perseverance of all these women.

Entrepreneurship: another professional field that is still commonly associated with men. Even though women are not necessarily better but are certainly no worse as entrepreneurs than men, as shown by research and in practice. Yet the bulk of venture capital is still invested in start-ups run by men. Why is this? What underlying mechanisms play a role here? And above all: what needs to be done to change this, to close the gender investment gap? Finally: what are the experiences of female entrepreneurs themselves?

For Innovation Origins, I took a tour along various initiatives aimed at linking venture capital to female entrepreneurial talent. I also spoke to the founders of a handful of female start-ups with a wonderful and diverse range of products and services: from energy-generating facade panels and a search engine for sustainable clothing brands, to a platform for finding the right artist and another one that provides knowledge and networks to other female entrepreneurs. A fascinating experience that deserves a follow-up!

Politically, Spain also has a number of strong women in senior positions within the new government of the socialist PSOE and the far left Podemos parties. The most prominent of them is Deputy Prime Minister Carmen Calvo. She deals with issues such as ‘Equality’. At present, she is still one step lower than the male prime minister Pedro Sánchez. His government would only have been genuinely innovative if both had reversed their roles. Spain may have to wait a while before it will be governed by a woman for the first time in modern history.

Street smart

Next we turn to the most wealthy Spanish women. Sandra Ortega Mera is by far number one here with an estimated fortune of €6 billion. Nevertheless, she is best known as the eldest daughter of one of the richest men in the world: Amancio Ortega. This entrepreneur from Galicia, chairman of the board of the Inditex Group, is said to be worth about €80 billion himself. He amassed his fortune with clothing brands such as Bershka, Stradivarius, Pull & Bear, Lefties and Zara. On the one hand, by keeping the entire production chain under his control. On the other, by constantly innovating. Still, Ortega runs a traditional company rather than an innovative one.

In any case, Spain is not known as a country of innovation. Although economically it is among the leaders in Europe, it isn’t even among the first twenty in the Global Innovation Index rankings. There are several reasons for this. For example, Spain is mostly made up of small and medium sized companies where the focus is primarily on making a profit.

Furthermore, on average much less money is spent on research, development and innovation than in other European countries. Maybe this is where Spanish women can step out from behind the shadows of men. Take Lola Garralda for instance. She is one of the founders of the innovative Pentagrom app, which has added another dimension to music education. She herself puts it this way to the newspaper El Referente: “More and more women will quietly go into business. There will come a time when it will be absurd to refer to women entrepreneurs. Just like you don’t refer to men that way now either.”

Read also: The Spanish start-up of the month August, Método Sancal, is led by a woman as well.