Picture of Role Model Christiane Demgenski on outdoor background

Role Model: Christiane Demgenski

Role Model: Christiane Demgenski

Interview organized by Aileen Zumstein

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 was born in Heidelberg, Germany, to a French and German mom and a German dad. Due to my dad’s career, we never settled in one place, so I grew up in France, Germany and Belgium. I had no idea what I wanted to do with my life except “something meaningful.”

Growing up without having a place I could call “home” made me want to travel and discover new places. So I graduated in International Relations and Political Science from Sciences Po Paris, worked for a UNESCO-sponsored NGO that builds bridges between Europe and the Middle East and later joined Switzerland’s largest bank, UBS, where I spent 5 years building innovative digital banking products in multiple roles.

What valuable advice did you get from your parents?

Have clear goals, work hard, and don’t ever become financially dependent on anybody (hi mom!).

You spent some time in Israel both as a student and as a professional. Tell us a little bit about that experience and how it shaped you.

As a second generation French and German citizen with grandparents who moved to Israel when I was little, I was obsessed with the impact of conflict and how to rebuild relationships between nations after trauma. If France and Germany could overcome centuries of war and competition to become the core of the European Union, could Israel and Palestine do the same?

For a Third Culture Kid who never quite had a hometown, Jerusalem felt like home: cultures, languages and religions mix and evolve next to each other in a colorful kaleidoscope. I ended up meeting my husband there and we are looking forward to raising our mixed-culture family in Switzerland.

And of course, it’s in Israel that I got my first whiff of why technology might play a crucial role in my life.

How did you become interested in tech?

In general, I love taking up new challenges. Be it playing rugby in university, volunteering as a firefighter, or learning 2136 Japanese kanji: I always want to stretch the limits of my knowledge and skills, especially if it is in an entirely new field, and understand how things work. And for better or worse, the way things work these days is very much related to tech.

I only really understood the power of technology when I spent half a year at the UBS office in Israel back in 2015 and got exposed to the “startup nation” vibe. That’s where I took my first coding classes and realized that I needed to find a way to harness that power, or I would be left behind.

So when I returned to UBS headquarters in Zurich, I asked to be transferred to IT – a move that surprised a lot of people, but one that has definitely changed my life for the better.

Why do you think your move to IT surprised a lot of people?

At the time, I was the only graduate trainee who moved to IT instead of the other way around. Everybody else was trying to stay away from IT, due to its reputation of low bonuses, rare promotions, and offices on the outskirts of town.

People told me I would regret it. They asked me if I was that desperate for a job. But I had an inkling that spending a couple of years at the heart of digitalization, not just making presentations about it, would do way more for me in terms of sharpening my skills. I had to adapt in certain ways of course and get used to being the only woman in a room with dozens of men. It wasn’t quite solving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but my classes on diplomacy sure came in handy when negotiating these two worlds!

And in the end I was right: the ability to bridge IT and business is highly sought-after. Two years later I was asked to join the fledgling UBS Digital Factory and help build up a team and the Agile capacity at the bank. I would never have had the expertise or gumption to do that without my two years “in the trenches”, so to speak. Two years after that, I translated that experience into my role as Chief Product Officer at Awina.

With hindsight, it somehow all makes sense – even if I couldn’t always tell in the moment.

So you left banking and are currently working at Awina, a startup that just launched this month. Tell us briefly what Awina does and why you wanted to be a part of it?

Awina helps families pay for daycare by financing up to half of their nursery fees for a very low interest fee of 3% for all. Once the kids are out of daycare, the family pays back the loan. It’s simple but revolutionary.

After 5 years at UBS, I had had enough of the corporate world and wanted to do something different. I came across the team of co-founders, Thomas Russenberger and Gogo Schumacher, who had this groundbreaking idea of helping families spread out the cost of daycare. They were looking for someone to make the idea a reality, and that’s where I came into the picture.

It wasn’t easy to break away from the golden handcuffs of banking and into a startup that was, at that point, just a brilliant but unproven idea. Our education system doesn’t encourage risk-taking! But I wanted a change and this was the opportunity. I wanted to do something meaningful. We spent the last two years refining our concept, interviewing parents and daycare employees, building our fully digital onboarding process and navigating regulatory hurdles.

Go-live is on 2 November 2021 and we are looking forward to helping as many families as possible!

Why do you think Awina is relevant in a developed country like Switzerland?

In such an advanced and developed country as Switzerland, it is absurd that highly educated women have to choose between either working and spending their paycheck on daycare, or staying home with the kids while the world keeps turning without them and they spiral into financial dependence.

While Awina doesn’t reduce the overall cost of daycare, we make it possible for families to choose when and how to spend the money, especially in a phase where their incomes aren’t yet as high.

We especially want to challenge the claim that “mothers simply don’t want to work”. How would we know without fair, affordable, high-quality childcare? It’s a false dichotomy.

What aspects of your work are you proudest of?

My mother studied in St. Gallen, left her job to raise five children and support my father’s career, and found herself in her mid-fifties, divorced and having to start her life over again, climbing her way up from the bottom of the career ladder. Her journey is inspiring, but only because she was successful in the end.

How many women work their fingers to the bone their entire lives and end up with miserable retirement funds because they weren’t working for money?

If women drop out of the workforce at 30 when they have their first kid, it’s very hard for them to get back into it after an extended break – they’ve lost their network and their marketable skills are depreciated. And with the recent Swiss federal court ruling that both partners are responsible for their own financial support after a divorce, women can’t rest assured that they’ll receive alimony if things go wrong.

At Awina…

We are trying to change a system that doesn’t want to change and that is still very much a vestige of a time when men went to work and women stayed at home. I get up in the morning and I know that the work I do is meaningful. How could I not be proud?
Picture of Role Model Christiane Demgenski on outdoor background
Christiane Demgenski
Awina AG

What advice would you give other women in tech?

Until we reach gender equality, you will always stand out as a woman in tech. Use that to your advantage! You bring a unique perspective to the table. So don’t try to blend into the background - get up, take a stand, use your voice.
Picture of Role Model Christiane Demgenski on outdoor background
Christiane Demgenski
Awina AG

Are there any books, podcasts or other resources that you enjoy or recommend?

I read literally all the time and can’t stress how important novels are for my sanity and to help my understanding of how the world works. My kindle is my best friend and my favourite hangout spot is the public library.

For podcasts, I really enjoy History Chicks about forgotten women of history and How I Built This with Guy Raz who talks with startup founders about their journey. This side of the Atlantic, I love Winning with Wies Bratby, where she teaches women to negotiate.


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