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How Two American Women Founded Vienna’s
Biggest Expat Sisterhood

So many of the women entrepreneurs I know share the dream of living abroad, speaking a new language and immersing themselves in a different culture. Quite a few of my colleagues, clients and close friends have made the leap to a permanent address of their dreams and I always love to see them in their element on my travels.

Living in a new country is a fabulous way to meet new people and make everyday glamorous, exciting and fresh. However the expat lifestyle does have its challenges. It can be lonely at first, moving to a new place where you don’t quite know the customs and maybe even don’t really speak the language. The good news is that adventurous women like us no longer need to fly solo while traveling the world—we can find each other.

I was excited to learn about Vienna’s largest all-women, English-speaking community exactly for that reason. I wanted to introduce the Women of Vienna to the Women of Divine Living so that you two might get to know each other. We spoke with Co-Founder Betsy Atkins, an Ohio native who helped grow the group to over 5,000 women. Read on for Betsy’s insights into making new friends in new places and find out what it’s really like to live in Vienna.

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We’d love to start with your story. What brought you to Vienna?
Living and working in Europe had always been my dream. I found out through a friend that Fulbright Austria managed a program for English native speakers to come teach in Austrian schools. I spent two absolutely lovely years working in two schools in the capital of Burgenland, a rural state in eastern Austria. It’s a wonderful place. I still go back as often as possible and take visitors for wine tours or a relaxing day on Lake Neusiedl—a massive lake bordering Hungary. Now I am living and working in Vienna for Fulbright Austria, funny enough. I’ve been in this city for almost three years now and I fall in love a little more every day!

Tell us why and how you founded Women of Vienna.
Michelle (our co-founder) originally opened the Facebook group when she had just moved here with her husband because she had some female-specific questions that she didn’t know where to ask. I came into the picture when Facebook suggested the group to me and after some time participating, the enthusiasm and demand for “real-life” meet-ups came into play, so I volunteered to help plan events. Eventually Michelle asked me to come on board as a second admin (and eventually co-founder and head speaker of Women of Vienna) because the group was growing and help was needed. I will always remember that first meeting—we met in the cellar room of the Zwölf Apostelkeller in Vienna’s historic 1st district. There were about 50 women who didn’t know each other at all, but we all shared the experience of trying to make Vienna our home. We really bonded over being an outsider in a new city and I am happy to say that many of the women I met that night are now considered close friends.

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How did you grow the group to 5,000 women in just a couple of years?
Fairly early on Michelle and I realized we needed more help and so over time we added two new organizers and a social media specialist to support us in the growth. But I think the real key to the group growing as quickly and successfully as it did is that we have always strongly focused on the community aspect of it. The admins and I have always strongly maintained an expectation of respect and kindness within the group. It’s hard sometimes, because naturally with women from so many backgrounds you have very different opinions. There have been times when we have had to step in and, unfortunately, remove members because of their conduct. But these times are very rare and it makes me so proud to see that the women themselves will often give gentle reminders to each other to be respectful when things get impassioned. Because so many women see the group as a safe space where they can be who they are without fear of trolling or anonymous bullying, our discussion group is thriving. We get several posts and comments every day ranging from expressing frustration at the difficulties of trying to find a job in Austria (to which the community is encouraging and helpful) to asking where to buy baking soda.

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Why is Vienna becoming a popular place for English-speaking women right now
Vienna is home to several huge international organizations, the biggest being the UN organizations that are based here. Several of our members have come to Vienna to work for one of these organizations or because their partners work for them. But beyond that, there are also several reputable universities within the city so we have students from all over the world studying here. It is also a city with a rich cultural heritage so there are artists, dancers, musicians, etc. who come here for that aspect. Because of all these factors, the backgrounds of the women in our group are beautifully diverse and varied. To list a few we have: filmmakers, photographers, historians, artists, scientists, software developers, startup founders—the list goes on and on. To me, it’s also wonderful that, even though the group is so international, we still have quite a few Austrians in the group. I love seeing that.

What are some of the things that might surprise people about Vienna? Some of the culture shock, if you will…
It always surprises people that Vienna literally closes down on Sundays and holidays. There are basically no stores open (outside of a few at select train stations) and many restaurants are also closed. At first, this is a shock but as you get used to it, you learn to appreciate the fact that you have to take time to relax and be with friends and family. Sadly it can be difficult to find work as a foreigner here, especially if you are a woman or minority. I have spoken to so many women who have struggled to find work. Austria definitely needs to work towards gender equality, but every country has its problems and I truly hope that we will be able to contribute towards changing this and making Vienna an even better place to live.

Is it true what they say about the Viennese quality of life?
The quality of life in Vienna really is amazing. It is a very green city with public parks on every corner. The public transport system is the most amazing one I have ever experienced. I can use any form of transport within the city zone for €365 a year. Vienna is also extremely safe, I personally have never felt more safe walking home at night alone than I do here. The cost of living is also not too high for a European capital city and there are so many exciting events and activities going on all year round.

What kind of events do you host? Tell us about your favorites.
We started small, our first thing was forming a team at a weekly trivia night in a bar. We also organized dinners together and soon came to regular brunch meet ups. When the group was really starting to take off we noticed that certain topics came up often, such as yoga classes, where to get a certain kind of food and how to be more involved in the community via volunteering. We decided to form topical subgroups where women could connect via a specific shared interest. Now we have 12 different subgroups that are administrated by over 20 amazing ladies! The subgroups have really expanded the number and variety of events we can have each month. For example, our monthly schedule usually includes 10-20 events ranging from brunches to dinners to cooking nights to networking workshops to hikes to volunteering evenings. The main group admins usually provide five events per month and the subgroups organize at least one event each depending on the availability of the admins. Some of my personal favorite events are the monthly brunches because they’re a great way to get to know new people and enjoy your weekend. I also really love the work we’ve been doing with a house of unaccompanied refugee boys. Our Community Involvement subgroup has been organizing events like bowling and pizza nights with them and I have learned so much from them. We also just started organizing talks and workshops on professional development for women. A recent workshop by Professor Inga Carboni on the challenges women face in networking and strategies for overcoming them was particularly informative and inspiring.

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Whether in events or online, how do you encourage networking and new people getting to know each other?
We make an effort to maintain a welcoming environment. At events we try to always personally greet everyone, especially when it’s a woman’s first time attending an event. We also try to make sure everyone is included in the discussion and has the chance to have their voice heard. Our guidelines for the group include that every post must be in English. This is not because we don’t believe learning German is important, but because English is an international language and everyone has an equal opportunity to understand and participate. I think this also makes a big difference.

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