Women without borders

Nowadays, with near global internet access, 'going to work' can be as far as the hammock, writes Casey Hynes

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 27 June, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 22 May, 2014, 3:54pm

Women weighing up their options during a slow job market might want to consider an alternative path that until recently has been trod mostly by men. Living as a "digital nomad" or location independent entrepreneur has become an increasingly attractive option for those with the chutzpah to sell products and services online.

In places such as Southeast Asia and parts of South America in particular, such entrepreneurial communities are springing up, allowing men and women to network and develop their businesses while living in exotic and inexpensive parts of the world. Stacey Herbert, a copywriter and online marketing consultant, left her native London for Bali after a break-up. She saw the upheaval as an opportunity to get out and create a new life, and has built a thriving online business since relocating to Asia.

Herbert's professional background was in fashion journalism and drug rehabilitation. When she was asked to write marketing material for the first time, she realised she could parlay her skills into a new career.

"I didn't come from a business background," she says. But when she arrived in Bali and met entrepreneurs and other people in business for themselves, "I saw real people making money doing what they loved. I just sat at everyone's feet and asked questions that probably made me sound like an idiot but I didn't care. 'How does this work? How does that work?' That's how I became a copywriter."

Herbert is not the only one who made the leap from her native country to location independence via Bali. Elisa Doucette, a writer, content strategist and columnist for Forbes, left a promising career as a corporate executive to pursue her passion for writing. Doucette was already developing an impressive portfolio, with a syndicated dating column for and the Portland Press Herald, and another, Shattering Glass, for Forbes, before she moved to Bali to work with Tropical MBA, a company that supports entrepreneurs, among other endeavours.

When her soon-to-be employers told her she'd be living in a house with three men, working in what was at the time a mostly male organisation, Doucette was undaunted. "I was like, well, it's time for that to change."

More than a year after her move to Bali, Doucette has built a successful business, having been published in numerous high-profile publications while continuing to work with Tropical MBA, which helps "location independent" entrepreneurs network online.

Even among the larger entrepreneurial/digital nomad community that continues to develop in Asia, Doucette and other women are in the minority.

"It's gotten to the point in women's liberation, feminism, whatever you want to call it, where no longer do we have to be like, 'You have to give us opportunities,'" Doucette says. "We just need to be like, 'I'm a chick and you're a dude; have we established that? Okay, good. Let's do business now.'"

The benefits of building a location-independent business in Asia seem obvious. The price level of day-to-day living in emerging market economies, such as Indonesia, is cheaper than London or New York, while there are still plenty of opportunities to meet and network with new people.

Another benefit of this footloose lifestyle is that it provides an opportunity to experience the world in a way that remains elusive for those with regular desk-bound jobs.

Jodi Ettenberg, founder of the travel site Legal Nomads and author of the Food Traveler's Handbook, left her job at a law firm in Manhattan to fulfil a life-long dream of travelling. Her decision came as no surprise to family members who knew of this long-held ambition, but it was a bit harder for others to swallow.

"My colleagues were overwhelmingly surprised," she says. "They were not outright harsh, but confused as to why I'd leave a career track that could lead to partner."

That was five years ago. Ettenberg did not plan to be on the road this long, but her love of travel and food led her onto a different career path. Ettenberg's success as a writer and speaker has allowed her to continue travelling far beyond her initial plan.

Nonetheless, she acknowledges that extended travel is not for everyone. "The decision or not to do this is very personal, and there's no right or wrong answer," she says. "The priority for me, now and when I was younger, was to live a life that involved travel."

But leaving behind the familiar to travel, let alone start an online business, can be daunting.There is, of course, the very real chance that your business venture might fail, that you'll run out of money, hate the country in which you've chosen to settle. There are many variables that cannot be controlled, even by the most stringent planner.

"The biggest challenge [for women] is really themselves in the sense of 'Can I make this work?'" says Ash Ambirge, founder of The Middle Finger Project, which provides marketing and copywriting services to businesses. "They don't trust themselves. The biggest step is accepting not knowing. You don't know if it's going to work out. That's part of the fun of it."

Ambirge left the United States to work from Costa Rica. She had been enjoying a successful career working on a number of high-powered projects in the States, but her desire to travel led her to move her business and life online.

"I couldn't help but get freaked out by the idea that I'd only ever get to do things on my own time for two weeks a year," she says. "It really broke my heart."

Yamile Yemoonyah, who was born in Colombia but raised in Germany by her Dutch adoptive parents, began her first foray into online business when she posted her artwork on MySpace. She soon realised she could sell her work remotely, and after she received requests from other artists seeking her help, realised she could build a business around helping creative professionals showcase their work.

Yemoonyah, Herbert and Doucette are among the few female members of the Dynamite Circle, a forum of entrepreneurs living and working internationally that is part of Tropical MBA. Dan Andrews, an entrepreneur and co-founder of Tropical MBA, says Dynamite Circle membership is about 600, with 15 per cent being female. This ratio is not necessarily representative of location-independent entrepreneurs, Andrews says, adding that he encourages more women to embrace the opportunity to live and work abroad.

Andrews says there may be cultural reasons that can explain why men appear to have an easier time of swapping what's familiar for life on the road.

"Men are incentivised to take risks, be outliers," he says. "Not only do men seem to be pushed to the edges, they also seem to get more benefits and less flak."

Brendan Tully, a self-described "business guy" and a member of the Dynamite Circle, says that generally speaking, men don't accept or respect women who are in similar businesses in a male-dominated culture. However, he says that among Dynamite Circle members who have launched and run their own businesses, he sees more of an attitude of equals, a by-product that comes with the confidence of success.

"I think that the guys who are running truly successful businesses, don't have that ego like they're out to get people or it's a competition. You're happy to share, your business is stable, you're making good money, you're living the life you want. It's a different mindset to when you're grinding, trying to get your business started," Tully says.

Social pressures and travel risks associated with personal safety are factors that get some women to think twice about developing a location-independent lifestyle.

In many countries, there is social pressure to settle down with a partner and children by a certain age.

"Even in Western countries, people will ask me, 'Don't you want a husband? Don't you want kids? If you keep travelling, you're never going to have a family,'" Yemoonyah says . "I'll just say 'Sure, but I can travel and get married and have kids.'"

A location-independent lifestyle, as a single person or with a family is still a foreign concept for most people, who have been raised under the collective notion that lives are supposed to fall into set patterns. But this rising tide of entrepreneurship will open doors for more people to engage in alternative lifestyles, particularly as long-term travel and online work become the norm.

And as for the challenges faced by women who travel as part of their work and lifestyle, it's similar to what Doucette says about the proverbial glass ceiling: "It's glass - it's going to hurt like hell, but if you want to, you can break through it."