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 in Plauen, a town with 80,000 inhabitants in the German state of Saxony. I come from a typical working-class family. Until I was eight years old, my horizon extended to the border that surrounded East Germany. After school, it was apparent – I had to leave, as there was nothing in the area I was interested in.
But I had to put my plans to study at the Bauhaus University on hold for the time being – too young, too inexperienced, they said. And that hurt. I applied to a digital agency in Stuttgart with my first self-built website for a trial week six months later. The plan worked out; I convinced them and started my training as a media designer. The door to this new, vast, technology-driven world opened!
After my apprenticeship, I worked as an IT project manager for international clients, but I soon realised that I craved to know and learn more. I went on to a diploma programme in Media and Information Studies, which at an undergraduate level meant: mathematics, electrical engineering, communications engineering, business administration, marketing, programming, management, design, film, etc. – all of which was, of course, a perfect fit for a Jill of all trades.
I worked part-time as a working student in Stuttgart, 150 km away from where I studied, to finance my education. There I was always at the interface between technology and conception, as a bridge-builder and translator. I also got to know other industries through internships in the music business and the automotive sector. About 12 years ago, I came to Zurich because of love, where I still live today.
You call yourself an “innovation cosmonaut”. What do you mean by that?
Like probably very many others, I also dreamed of travelling into space when I was a child. A famous GDR cosmonaut, Sigmund Jähn, came from Morgenröthe-Rautenkranz, which is not far from my birthplace. So the stars seemed tangible to me. Even someone from such a remote corner of this planet, far away from space hubs, must be able to pursue her dreams.
Astronauts still emit a magical fascination for me, just like the universe. I see myself as an explorer and adventurer and as someone who likes to zoom out of situations and look at the big picture, how everything is interconnected, just like astronauts hovering above the Earth. During the Corona lockdown, when I looked more into the subject of hypersensitivity and being multi-faceted, I found that I could connect it with the symbol of a cosmonaut. These people don’t have one education or one life path or are experts in one field; I argue they are experts in many areas and have very diverse life paths.
People keep telling me that I am innovative, which I interpret as meaning that I love to challenge, explore new and perhaps extraordinary ways to get things done that have an impact. Hence, I created this combination of words. I don’t have one job title or expertise or, as Emilie Wapnick would say, “one true calling” – I’m a Jill of all trades, and I had to learn to recognise it as a strength for me.
How did you become interested in tech?
I have a very close friend whom I met when I was 12. He belonged to a group of kids who were always building weird stuff with their computers and a bunch of cables. I was fascinated and learned a lot from them. I laid lines through my parents’ entire house at an early age, including a giant hole drilled in the living room ceiling, to access the world via the Internet – even though it was slow, I felt connected to something bigger than my small towns live. At the same time, we had a computer science teacher who pushed us and whose enthusiasm for the World Wide Web spilt over to me. It was clear to me: I’m going to do something with computers – whatever that means.
In 2000, I taught myself how to build websites and was able to fulfil wishes that I wouldn’t have been able to afford as an apprentice – websites for a longboard, snowboard or a good cause, like a longboard team for girls in Stuttgart in 2003. Even today, my dad teases me that I never read manuals but always go straight into the action, but he is annoyed that I find out how a device works faster than he does.
You were in China for a student exchange. Why did you decide to do this and what left a lasting impression on you from this time?
My performance at grammar school was very average. I put this down to the fact that my peer group chose English and German (my most deficient subjects) as their advanced courses instead of mathematics, sports, computer science or astronomy, which were more suited to me. I have to admit I was an overachiever in every educational programme that came afterwards. I soaked up knowledge, applied it and was also accepted, for example, into the Baden-Württemberg scholarship programme to study abroad.
I was fascinated by Asian movies, art and culture, and I like novel things that challenge me. So I decided to spend a semester in Hong Kong. I was fascinated by my new life, alone, far away from home, in a metropolis where people speak English but where the Chinese influence shapes everyday life, and by the clash of cultures.
I chose a colourful potpourri of courses: economic relations between China/Hong Kong and Germany, Mandarin, design and entrepreneurship. I have never been so overwhelmed and so dead tired in my life. Especially if you are hypersensitive (which I didn’t know at the time), your wires are always “on”; you can’t channel your information intake; such a city with all its smells, people, speed and energy is a dream and nightmare at the same time.
My love for Hong Kong is unbroken – I keep visiting it and my good friend. In Hong Kong, I have always felt free, enjoyed the dichotomy of Western and Chinese culture, as well as the beautiful nature – and my heart bleeds for what is happening there right now.
What other decisive steps significantly influenced and shaped your career?
As an eight-year-old child on my father’s shoulders, I cried out for freedom every Sunday afternoon for months with thousands of other people – during the peaceful revolution in the GDR. With success. Germany was reunited; the positive experience remained stored in my long-term memory forever. My guiding principle has manifested itself ever since.
I always had a plan for myself. Things I desperately wanted to achieve, but also things I didn’t aspire to. I regularly work on my vision of myself for the next 2-3 years and periodically reflect on my setbacks and progress. I have always met great people who gave me chances and opportunities, encouraged me, or believed in me – sometimes more than I believed in myself.
Lifelong learning shapes your life. You have just completed a CAS in AI. Why are you excited about AI and where do you see the opportunities for diversity in this technology?
This topic has been driving me for a very long time. In 2004, I probably had my first contact with AI as a working student, where I was responsible for the conception, implementation and maintenance of a tool for automated regression testing of e-commerce platforms. In 2009, during my diploma thesis, I researched behavioural targeting and customer segmentation for the personalisation of the Mercedes-Benz website, and again I connected with the domain.
Later, during my second degree at Hyper Island, I did a research activity on using AI to distribute content on social media or dark social. It became apparent that I definitely should head in that direction and enrolled in AI Management at the HWZ. There, I was particularly fascinated by how AI can support sustainability. I understand very well now why this topic fascinates me: it’s so broad, so multifaceted, it’s constantly changing and requires a wide range of skills, capabilities and diverse people working together – that’s exactly my cup of tea.
You are currently setting up Hyper Island in Switzerland. Tell us briefly what Hyper Island is and why you are driven by this new role?
Hyper Island is a business school founded in Sweden where students gain knowledge based on practical learning experiences. Hyper Island provides Master’s programmes in Sweden, the UK and Singapore, while the other locations mainly offer B2B business.
I completed a part-time Master’s programme at Hyper Island in Digital Management in Stockholm in 2020. The learning methodology convinced me: short theory or impulse presentations by industry experts and immediate application into working reality. We solved real business challenges for various customers, including Weekday, the City of Stockholm and SEB, in group work. Additionally, we accomplished research projects in our companies on business transformation, innovation, design thinking, digital technologies, management, etc. So each of us quickly came up with 12 challenges within ten months.
When the request to set up Hyper Island in Switzerland reached me via LinkedIn, I thought it was crazy at first, as I was looking to develop in the direction of AI. On the other hand, the offer was 99% in line with my vision and purpose. So I unfastened my seatbelt and jumped, and now I’m doing what you do in a start-up. Everyone is contributing everywhere, which in my case currently means communication, marketing and project management.
What aspects of your work are you proudest of?
On my last day at my previous employer, I received handwritten letters and postcards from my team as a farewell gift: The letters revealed a single thing:
What has been the toughest challenge you faced while working in tech and how did you overcome it?
I was stuck in a position of standstill where I could move nothing, which was frustrating for someone who is used to moving things forward. I found my way out of the situation by talking about it very openly with those around me, asking for help and advice and seeking a coach for neutral feedback. In the end, I had to decide to take the step into the unknown, without a goal, without a job and to trust in life. I only had to trust for 3 hours; then, I got the message on Linkedin.
What valuable advice did you get from your parents?
You can achieve everything and never become financially dependent on a man (haha, my mum). I’m sure she was trying to tell me to take care of myself financially and be independent.
How does digitization impact your and other women’s career opportunities?
For me, the world has undoubtedly become smaller in two ways. Access to knowledge has become so much easier. When I think about how difficult it was to get research papers via libraries etc., 12 years ago, now the world’s knowledge is easily accessible via platforms like Researchgate. Also, Micromasters or other free online education programmes on edX, Coursera etc. made it so low-threshold to learn new things.
Secondly, I think women network more quickly via social media, as the inhibition threshold is lower than approaching someone at a panel discussion or the like, and the possibilities are much more significant. New networks are thus created, which cross-fertilize each other and recommend, empower, encourage each other, and innovation again emerges.
What advice would you give other women in tech?
First, invest time identifying what you want to achieve for yourself in your private and business life. Create a plan with small but tangible steps in this direction. Reflect and update it regularly, just like in business.
Secondly, seek out female mentors in your environment and ask them for advice and support – often, there are women’s networks in companies or universities that can provide such roles.
Thirdly, be courageous and curious! I believe that courage and curiosity are essential drivers. For me, being courageous means consistently believing in oneself despite setbacks and headwinds, standing up for oneself, and trusting one’s intuition. In my eyes, curiosity means constantly learning and trying out new things, being interested in one’s surroundings, asking questions, being open to other people, opinions and ways of life, and learning from each other.