It is pretty much impossible right now to be discussing women in the tech and startup world in Berlin without coming across my third interviewee, Jess Erickson. Jess founded the Berlin Geekettes network, and is currently busy building the Berlin base for General Assembly. Meeting Jess is easy – she seems to be everywhere at once – but finding time to sit down for a quiet chat is actually a bit of a challenge. However we finally manage to get together at Kommerzpunk, one of Jess’ favourite spots.
A: To start off, can you briefly outline why you came to Berlin, what you’re doing right now, and how the whole Geekettes thing started?
J: Before I moved to Berlin, I was living and working in New York City, starting my career in the music industry. I was working for a pretty well-known international label called Putomayo. Unfortunately, things didn’t go so well for them, and – to be perfectly honest – I think the music industry is really on its last leg. So I thought ‘Okay, I need to make a career change – what’s thriving, what’s booming, what’s the next big thing within our 21st century?’, and I decided that it’s tech. So I started to survey the tech startup scene in NY and found out that there were a lot of innovative startups popping up everywhere. I decided to join one, be a part of it and learn what it takes to build a company from the ground up. I joined a small startup called Speaklike, which does crowdsourcing translations, and ended up managing and coordinating approximately 2.000 online translators from all over the globe. Not an easy position, but it taught me a lot about scaling a technology company, understanding and overcoming a lot of different challenges – like for instance how to communicate with many different cultures. It was the perfect stepping stone into the tech scene.
In month six I realised that NY isn’t exactly the greatest place in the world to create a tech company, because a) it’s very expensive, and b) at the time, it was not easy to attract technology talent – meaning talented engineers who would really give it their all and join you 100%. Maybe things have changed in NY now – they have cultivated more of a startup ethos and it’s attracting more resources, but at the time it was really challenging. So I looked at Europe – I had studied in London and wanted an excuse to come back. My father is Norwegian, and I was missing Europe. I needed to decide which city I would like to live in, and after looking at all the different hotspots, I decided for Berlin. It was cheap, and I knew there were a lot of creatives moving in, starting all sorts of interesting projects, as well as tech companies like Soundcloud. Soundcloud really stood out to me – if a company like theirs could be created and succeed at such a level, then there had to be opportunity and the right ingredients to do something big. So in a sense, Soundcloud was my proxy for moving to Berlin. And then I got here, quickly started networking and landed a job at 6Wunderkinder as Head of Communications. I stayed with them for 12 months, and I learnt so much in those 12 months, what to do, what not to do… how do you attract international talent, how do you manage teams, how do you build content strategy – it was like a nose-dive into any level of a company that you can imagine.
How many people were they at the time?
They were ten when I joined, and now they’ve reached 40. There’s such quick growth with some of these startups, and it was a really good time for me to join. I got to see the company progress at every level, whereas if I had joined Soundcloud at a later stage, I might have missed out on a lot of the experiences I was able to gather at such an early stage startup.
After that I decided to do Public Relations for multiple companies, because I had succeeded in getting 6Wunderkinder known – and not just in Europe but also in the US – and I thought OK, why not support a few more. This was when I heard that General Assembly was coming to Berlin. I loved everything about GA. It was finally a position that was perfect for me – not only could I leverage my entire network that I had built in Berlin and greater Europe over the last few years, but I would get to meet the most amazing designers, entrepreneurs and developers from everywhere; those who wanted to give back to their community and teach. It is simply a job that I find super meaningful, one that will make this ecosystem smarter, faster and more connected than ever. I hope that in a few years I’ll be able to look back and see my work as something that had an impact and that managed to bring inspiration; and that’s where i am now. The response has been great, and it’s really exciting to see that there are people who want to learn and better themselves.
Tell me about the Geekettes – where did all that come from?
Working in the very male-dominated tech scene can be kind of overwhemling at times. I’m not personally intimidated by men, but I know many women who are, and I find that women in this particular scene in Berlin were not really representing themselves effectively. They didn’t seem to be getting themselves out there in the media, sharing their insights, sitting on panels and conferences… Every time I would go to an event, it was always 80% men, and that started bothering me a little. I felt like something just wasn’t right, something was missing. So as time went by, I started meeting more and more women who were not present at the big official events, and I decided to host a little ‘Women in Tech’ dinner. So I invited a bunch of them and I realised there are all these amazing, dynamic women. They are decision makers, pushing their companies to the next level – and thesy could be great, inspirational role models for other young ladies, who are thinking about entering the tech scene but are maybe turned off it because there are too many men. In essence I then pitched the idea of creating Berlin Geekettes; they all loved the idea, so I created a private Facebook group, came up with the name the next day, found an artist to do the logo and boom – that was the birth of the Berlin Geekettes. We’re now around 400 women, we have lots of supporters and have launched a mentorship programme.
Is this exclusive for women, or do you also accept men into the programme? The Geekettes events are also open to men, so what about the mentorship programme?
Yes, the mentorship programme is also open to men. If there is a man who would like a woman as a mentor, by all means! Of course we’ll be happy to welcome them – but obviously, the overwhelming majority of applicants were women. In the first round, it’s an all-women setup, but we want to reach a scale where there will be a 3-month period of 100 women matched up with 100 mentees. Right now I’m working on engaging the universities; they could send their entire female base to come and be a part of Berlin Geekettes. And if we get to the point where the universities are active and things go well, maybe we could even go deeper and go after high school students.
The critical age and the best time to attract women at that decision-making point on their lives is at age 15. If we can get to them then, get them excited and introduce them to a General Assembly or a Rails Girls class, it could completely change the course of their lives. They could easily become engineers – and I think they need that role modelling as an encouragement.
I have a best friend who says that if she had ever been told that engineering might have been a viable option for her, she probably would have dived into it in college. However no-one ever really presented that option to her, so she didn’t think it was possible. She would have had the perfect skillset to be a great engineer: she’s great at maths and at science; she’s very analytical, a pragmatic thinker, she totally has the mind of an engineer. But she never had that representation.
Personally I find the role model discussion really interesting. I basically grew up without any role models, and I wasn’t brought up with an idea of gender issues. I grew up in a tiny village, and big career aspirations were not really part of the picture in my youth anyway. I have two older brothers, so I’ve alyways been very much surrounded by men. Working with men, I don’t think they see me as the woman on the team, simply because i don’t see myself that way. I don’t invite that kind of response.
You don’t bring up gender?
It’s just not much of an issue for me. So when I first came across that whole discussion of role models, my initial reaction was to ask ‘what exactly is the point?’ – it just didn’t resonate with me at all. But I looked around and started hearing so many stories of women who who find it very hard to find their way around in a male-dominated environment. But wouldn’t you say that the whole role model thing is quite a long shot?
Yes, absolutely. But then again, it can also have pretty much instantaneous effect. My personal role model is Zoe Adamovic. Zoe is a female founder who has founded seven companies and sold three or four of them; she’s an angel investor, she’s strong, confident, and she is super inspiring even to speak to for just five minutes. So for me, coming to Berlin and seeing her accomplish what she has done in her ten years here tells me that it is possible. Even though 80% of this scene consists of men, there’s still a woman like her who managed to sneak into the boys’ club and shake things up. For me, that meant everything.
What would you say is the benefit of having women in an environment like the tech scene? Is this just about opening up possibilities, or do you think there is an actual, concrete benefit to having women on tech teams?
There is a massive benefit. In the Facebook engineering panel we hosted, this was brought up, and female engineers are valued hugely by Facebook. It’s simple: over 55% of Facebook users are women. You need to have a women’s perspective to create a product for women. Products that are created by men are usually not used or picked up by women – it’s just a different mindset. How we’re social, how we connect, down to tiny features, it’s so different what a man thinks what a woman wants. That’s why Facebook is actively trying to recruit female engineers. They know that their product will be more successful if there are more women on board. The same goes for Berlin startups – you can tell the ones that have more women, because they are just that little bit more successful than the ones that are male dominated.
If you look at the big landscape, the big picture, technology is what’s driving innoation. And if everything is going tech, if all these service industries are moving online – let’s call it the third industrial revolution – then women need to be at the forefront of everything in tech as well. They need to be mastering code, they need to be fundraising, they need to become VCs who fund the startups. They need to be there in marketing, in messaging, in communications. If we’re left behind, we’re not a part of the future. That’s why Berlin Geeketttes is so essential in building that role modeling now. Hopefully in three or four years we’ll look back and say ‘wow, we recruited an average of fifteen new women a month’, and maybe that’ll multiply into 300 women a month, and maybe Berlin will become the place to be for women in tech. That’s the long-term goal.
Is there anywhere that is actually known for being at the forefront of a gender discussion like this?
I don’t think so, at least not particularly any city; but I can tell you that I find women in NYC to be far more confident than women in Berlin. There are far more women founders, so many women who are driven to start their own companies. I don’t know if it’s a cultural thing or a NY-specific thing, but the ratio is much larger in terms of male to women in the tech scene specifically. It might also be because of fashion – they do a lot of fashion and art startups.
Also I would imagine that in order to start a company in NYC, you would need to be quite a strong person to start off with. You need to generate revenue quickly and need to be extremely focused, simply because it’s so much more expensive to live there. You have to get so much more right from the start than in a place like this, where you can actually relatively comfortably spend a lot of time just chilling and figuring things out.
It’s true, it’s just the best lifestyle here. If you want to be an entrepreneur, you’ve got to come to Berlin, because the standard of living for an entrepreneur is so much higher than it would be in NY. You have way better chances here to bootstrap it and responsively build a startup instead of throwing money everywhere. But I think that women just need to be more active. I really regret not taking more science and engineering-based classes, but now, with GA, I’m making up for lost time. I want to enroll in all the classes. I’m going to learn design, and tech, learn how to fundraise, the ins and outs of startup law. Berlin is affording all of this to me – I’m pretty lucky I guess.
You’ll be a one-woman knowledge base!
Right! (We both laugh.) Then I will have acquired all the skills I need to lead a company in the future. Because let’s say I do want to create my own startup, I’ll know how to communicate to each team effectvely. I’ll understand everything from a greater perspective. That’s partly – well, mostly, actually – why I took the GA job.
With regards to Berlin Geekettes, is there anything else you’ve been thinking about doing beyond the mentorship programme?
We’re definitey looking to build more confidence and awareness through future Berlin Geekettes activities. We don’t take enough credit for what we know. We tend to say ‘oh, that was easy because the question was simple’ or ‘I was only able to accomplish this because person B helped me out’. We never really say ‘yes, we are good at what we do’. We’re just more humble. If you look at the demographic breakdown of the community, it is a mixture of tech and designers and entrepreneurs and social media and communications women. so I’m trying to create Geekettes events now that aim at all of them.
With the Facebook engineering panel, all the engineers were so happy that there was an event catering particularly to them. I think I was alienating the really hardcore tech women a little until then, and they benefited so much from the panel that we are now putting together an all women’s Berlin Geekettes hackathon. I’m so psyched for this! You have no idea how many men have complained that women are never present at hackathons, so this is our chance to show Berlin that there actually are a lot of women introducing new hacks. This may inspire some more women to enter into engineering roles, to maybe take classes with GA or Open Tech School. We’re also talking about doing an all Berlin Geekettes radioshow together with Derk from Friday at Six… He’s a a great and total supporter. He really gets why we need to do this.
Anything else you’d like to add?
Yes, there is one thing: after three years of working in the tech scene, I’m really impressed with the engineers, the founders, the people who have such skill and talent. But what I am waiting to see come out of Berlin is an app or a product or a service that’s really solving an actual problem in life. I think it’s great that there are all these social sharing apps, location-based apps and all that. It’s a cool practice round. But let’s get real and start making things that help the greater humankind!
For instance I read an article about an app in San Francisco which allows restaurant owners to ping all the soup kitchens and charities in that local district about how much food they have left over from the day. The charities are then able to come and pick up all the food that would have otherwise just been thrown into the wastebin, and instead put it into the mouths of hungry people. That, to me, is using technology and innovation in a way that actually benefits people. We need to see more of this. I know it’s not sexy, it’s not glamourous, I know it won’t raise you millions, but the idea of social entrepreneurship is really important to me. And I actually think that women will be the ones who will take the lead in this – I think it will be a female-founded startup. Enough of all these iterations of Facebook – let’s try and really change people’s lives for the better! That’s all I ask for. (She laughs.)