Every month we ask one individual in our network a few questions about their way into tech, their motivation and their lessons learned.
Let’s start from the beginning. Tell us about where you’re from!
I grew up near the Swabian town of Ravensburg in Southern Germany, where my father ran a small farm as a sideline. I spent a lot of time outdoors and was out in the fields and the forest a lot. I helped with anything: picking apples, taking care of my younger brother, distributing fresh eggs, or chopping wood.
I don’t know if my childhood inspired my wish to study environmental sciences in Lüneburg in the north of Germany, but that’s exactly what I did. The studies were very interdisciplinary, including modules from law to climatology, from education to nature conservation, and from politics to chemistry. The art of putting a little bit of everything together into something that is much greater than the sum of its parts stuck with me.
You dealt with diversity at an early stage. Why?
My initial studies introduced me to diversity in a very different way: in relation to nature rather than as a concept of sociology. For my diploma thesis as an environmental scientist, I studied the biodiversity of field margins in Swiss agricultural landscapes. Why do some field margins turn out to be a beautiful potpourri of flowers, while others seem to consist of only grass? That’s when I realized that diversity has a lot to do with observation — looking at the details and respective circumstances.
After my studies I had a short stint at ETH Zürich before I joined the sustainability industry. I believe that environmental and social problems can be solved by providing solutions to the financial industry and other industry players who are often at the very core of such problems. This catalyzed my further education in social management and social responsibility, where I researched how to introduce diversity management in small and medium-sized enterprises.
However, at RepRisk diversity always came quite naturally and I did not actively pursue diversity work after my graduation. Upon reviewing and revising our company’s values, we were surprised to learn that although we felt that diversity is an integral part of our corporate culture and an inherent quality of our team, it was not on our list of values. We added diversity to our official list of values, and shortly afterwards I was invited to do a Lunch and Learn for We Shape Tech. I don’t know if that was a coincidence…
What valuable advice did you get from your parents or the people closest to you during childhood?
There were many. But one that my mother felt especially strongly about was to “be independent,” and that has probably been the most important advice – be it financially or otherwise, but especially in deciding what I wanted to do with my life. My working mom had me at the age of 19, and she refused to marry my father “just” because of a baby. They still married when I was five years old (I thought for a long time that this was my own wedding), only once they felt it was the right thing and the right time. Never giving in to social pressure (that my parents certainly experienced) and always standing up for what you want is an approach they lived their lives by, and it largely shaped how I live mine.
It was also important to my parents that I understood that to be “independent”, I had to contribute my fair share. For example, I loved to travel and my parents supported me — but with a split model: they paid half of the costs and I had to take care of the other half. Consequently, I had different summer and part-time jobs, from production line work to animation jobs in the nearby recreation park to save money. All these different experiences shaped how I now approach life and work.
How did you become interested in tech?
At RepRisk, we have a highly qualified team of analysts with university degrees and often impressive multi-language skills. When I saw the work that algorithms beyond simple Boolean keywords can do for us, and how it allows us to focus our energy where the human brain is really needed, it sparked an intense interest for me. I was deeply aligned with the mission to drive positive change via the power of data, and saw a meaningful pathway to achieve that work with RepRisk.
What drives you at work?
A combination of purpose and the belief that we can achieve something amazing together. RepRisk has offices in Manila, Toronto, Zurich, and Berlin — experiencing the many cultures and seeing how they make the business a success fascinates me every day.
What aspects of your work are you proudest of?
Of course, I am excited about our machine learning activities. But at the end of the day, it’s the amazing people.
This working relationship between human and artificial intelligence exemplifies my earlier point of enjoying the art of putting things together into something greater than the sum of its parts. I’m also proud that we have a Learning and Development initiative that aims to provide every RepRisker a solid understanding of artificial intelligence and machine learning. This is, to an extent, how I learned the basics of coding. Things that you understand, at least in principle, are much less scary and more approachable — and I think it is very important that our employees, especially the analysts, understand that technology is not a threat but something that can make their daily work more efficient and satisfying.
What was your biggest challenge in your career and how did you overcome it?
Learning that with growth comes the division of power. While I wore many different hats when we were only a handful of people, as we expanded areas that I actually enjoyed – human resources, for example – they were professionalized and taken off my plate so as to be handled properly and for me to have more time to take care of my growing team.
While I obviously see the benefits of these developments, it can be hard to let go. Ultimately, seeing how the company thrives with these changes is much more rewarding than clinging to the status quo. And if the crucial positions are filled with people that represent our values then there is nothing to worry about.
Another big area of growth in my career was honing my ability to be open to hearing critical feedback, even from the not-so-obvious stakeholders or team members. At RepRisk, it is built into our company values that feedback and ideas are to be equally considered, irrespective of their origin within the company or that team member’s place in the “hierarchy.” We do not have a hierarchy when it comes to ideas. Our workforce is so diverse, many different areas of expertise are represented, and everyone is so engaged in the mission that this sharing of ideas comes naturally as we are all working in unison to optimize our work. Learning from that feedback is always a good way to overcome disappointments. Nobody is perfect — we should acknowledge that, meet people where they are, and build together from there.
How does digitization impact your and other women’s career opportunities?
In general, everyone and everything is impacted by it – and it is important that we are in the driver’s seat and shaping the future and leveraging the opportunities it brings, rather than being forced to react as a passenger to the changes.
My time in a technology company taught me that a diverse workforce is significantly more advantageous than a homogenous one. RepRisk is a tech company – but the human intelligence element is critical to the high-quality SaaS we produce.
RepRisk combines human intelligence and machine learning, so I’m fortunate to be a part of a company that is already living that reality, and I see that women play a key role. However, to have more diversity in technology, it is important that kids at school are exposed early to coding so that more girls are attracted to take up tech studies. Women are still underrepresented in the field of tech, and I believe the reason is simply that there is less available talent. Anyone, regardless of gender, can and should leverage tech to create positive change in the world, but women might be just a bit more inclined to do so.
What advice would you give other women in tech?
Thank you Nicole for taking the time to answer our questions and for sharing your insights!