Every month we ask one individual in our network a few questions about their way into tech, their motivation and their lessons learned. Sylvie Reinhard is president of the board of directors at Republik, the digital magazine for politics, business, society and culture. She is a wholehearted entrepreneur in the field of technology who began her career in 2000 at an IT start-up in the cybersecurity area. Sylvie points out that digitization has been fostering a new leadership style. A participatory leadership style of stewardship, rather than the lonely captains knowing it all – enjoy the read!
Tell us where you’re from and what your background is!
I grew up on the border between German- and French-speaking Switzerland, in a little village called Ins – the choice of this place being the result of a compromise between by French-speaking mom and German-speaking dad.
My professional background is entrepreneurial: I got involved in my first start-up when I was 20 years old and was still living with my parents. My career start in IT Security was a rather unconventional move after studying literature and economics for a semester in my early 20s. At the time I was just tired of reading books all day long and wanted to be, where the action was. In the year 2000 this was definitely the IT scene.
How did you become interested in tech?
I had techie friends, who had started their own IT company in Berne, called Dreamlab Technologies AG. They had quite a diverse portfolio at that time, ranging from company websites, to creative industries projects such as a nightlife magazine and remote controls of robots.
I quit my studies and joined Dreamlab first as a kind of Jane of all trades, doing what’s needed to bootstrap a company. Later on, in my role as COO and board member, I helped scale the company from 5 to 30 employees.
Working at Dreamlab was a rollercoaster ride, I learned so many things. For example how to be really client-oriented and adaptive to market changes.
During the late 1990s there was a huge hype in IT. Money could easily be earned, company valuations skyrocketed. In the year 2000 the “dotcom” bubble burst and many companies crashed.
As a consequence Dreamlab also struggled economically and had to sharpen its value proposition. We specialized in open standards based IT security, at a time when open source software was still very niche. We had to put a lot of effort to communicate and legitimize that choice. Many clients thought it was really strange, to share software code transparently. Today of course this is a whole different story and open source projects such as Linux have become leading standards.
What other decisive steps significantly influenced and shaped your career?
After having worked really hard in my early twenties and earning an executive bachelor of business administration on the job, I felt it was time for a break. I went on a 6-month sabbatical to New York City and Berlin and finally joined the founding team at Lift Conference, in Geneva. My second start-up, Lift Conference, was an international conference series exploring the challenges and opportunities of digital technologies. Lift started out 2007 in Geneva, but soon held yearly editions in Marseille, France and Seoul, Korea.
Managing the Lift conferences was hugely inspiring. It allowed me to connect and learn from renowned international digital innovators from all sorts of disciplines – ranging from leaders at organizations such as the New York Times, Audemars & Piguet, Logitech, Wired Magazine, international investors and upcoming start-up founders, accomplished entrepreneurs and pioneers at research institutions such as the European Space Agency or CERN – not to forget critical designers and mind-bending artists. Facilitating and experiencing this hugely stimulating interdisciplinary dialogue has had a profound impact on my perspective on things.
After 8 years with Lift in Geneva it was time for something new. I moved to Zurich in 2015, started to work with Engagement Migros, the development fund of the Migros Group, had a daughter, joined the board of the media start-up Republik, had a son and was appointed member of the board of directors of SUISA, the cooperative society for composers, lyricists and music publishers in Switzerland and Liechtenstein, with 37,000 members.
I love my life and am highly thankful for everything. But yes, there is little time to just drink tea and relax. I am working on that as I am convinced that down-time deserves also to be prioritized 🙂
What valuable advice did you get from your parents?
My mother was active in politics for many years and was always a great source of inspiration in being the change you want to see! My father is a pretty independent thinker and taught me not to care too much about what other people think.
What aspects of your work are you proudest of?
When the ventures, companies and institutions I am involved in, manage to align purpose and economic viability. This makes my heart beat.
As for example with Republik, the digital media start-up where I am presiding the board of directors. The mission is quite simple: a business model for journalism that places readers at the center. Republik is completely independent, reader-owned and ad free.
It started out very impressively, setting a new world record in media crowdfunding. But then the growth curve flattened and financial troubles threatened its existence. A nerve-wrecking but finally very encouraging “live or die” finance round allowed Republik to continue. Only a few months later we achieved financial break-even for the first time, earlier as planned. Republik is currently 100% financed by its readers.
That break-even day in june was such an emotional moment for me and the whole team. Everybody had been fighting so hard for this purpose of independent journalism and to see it thrive economically was a huge relief.
What drives you at work?
I love making change happen and challenges really motivate me. I get a lot of energy out of solving problems with a diverse team and aligning various needs and super powers to make things go boom.
What was your biggest disappointment (challenge) in your career and how did you overcome it?
When I became a mom I was afraid of getting stuck in my career, because I could not dedicate day and night to my work anymore.
But then I realized that I could work in flexible leadership and strategy positions that would allow me to make an impact in my job on the one hand, and spend one day a week at home entertaining the offspring on the other.
For me working more strategically really allowed me to keep my individual personal work – family balance. In my positions as a board of director, my main job is mostly strategic guidance and controlling, as well as coaching the chief executives. I don’t have to be around all the time, in the contrary: doing good work requires me to keep a sane distance to daily operations.
How does digitization impact your and other women’s career opportunities?
One important aspect for me personally has been the geographic flexibility digitization offers. It allowed me for example to live in Berlin in my late 20ies, while organizing the Lift Conference in Geneva, Marseille and Seoul.
Another aspect I feel is very noteworthy, is that digitization has been fostering a new leadership style. A participatory leadership style of stewardship, rather than the lonely captains knowing it all. Women in general might feel more at ease with this style of leading and therefore more encouraged to claim their driver seats.
What advice would you give women in tech?
Do the thing you love. For me this is the only way stimulating the energy and passion needed to overcome serious obstacles. And of course there will always be obstacles, that’s life, we better embrace it that way.