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 1979 in Debrecen a mid-size university town in late-socialist Hungary, and I am a medical doctor by education; both of which heavily determined my view on the world. The realization of me being transgender is one of my earliest memories from very early childhood. Although we did not have the words, I could have surely formulated it in a way: it would have been better if I was born a girl. It became unconsciously probably also very early clear, that this was not something that was going to be accepted, not even by my family. Young children learn their boundaries empirically.
It still feels suffocating to go back to my hometown, I get into the old childhood desperation: Is this it, is this all there is to the world? It took over four decades (far too long) to become the successful, happy, confident, fully out, and authentic Swiss trans woman I am now.
What valuable advice did you get from your parents?
This is a tough one, because my parents back there and then were not able to recognize and support their transgender child. They gave me and my siblings a lot of what they thought we needed, what that determining society presumably demanded. They very strongly influenced us based on how their world war generation parents heavily determined their lives, how they had little to no choice, even if against their will. And even if against our will. It was constant psychological pressure to become a doctor, and here is the quote to answer the question: “There are professionals needed in this world who are not medical doctors my son (but only in a very limited number).”
How did you become interested in tech?
I was a fat kid with glasses. In kindergarten there was a kid who was bigger, which gave me some leeway to escape the role of being the fattest kid in class. I was not so fortunate in elementary. Computers meant a safe world. My grandma brought a Commodore 64 with a 1541 floppy drive from abroad. In 1988 that was about the coolest gift in Hungary. All had C16s and +4s with tape only and turbo loader on cassette 😊.
I loved computer games, I did just enough programming to allow my mind to be shaped by it. Later I was more into hardware. Those were the IBM PC times. Started with XTs but kept upgrading. I say that if you can make X-Wing start with sound on a 286 with 1MB RAM and a SoundBlaster clone, then you know something about computers.
And although I did not become a tech person per se, my career always had a lot to do with IT systems and I was always better able to deal with IT folks than any other MD or pharma professionals I worked with. I was always also better with women than any other of my male peers.
(Unfortunately) especially if you are perceived as a male on top of all.
You were Chief Strategy Officer and held other interesting roles during your career in big pharma before founding your own consulting firm with focus on regulatory aspects and challenges in pharma. Tell us a bit more about what you do.
Pharmacovigilance or drug safety as we used to call it back in the day is a peculiar little, and still emerging profession within all great applied pharma sciences, yet it was always heavily associated with tech. The legislation and guidance becoming more and more demanding over the years pushed PV into a function where you could not avoid building up tech and IT capabilities as part of your core competence. Most other professions in pharma are still less tech-dependent.
I remember my first pharma interview; the person soon to be my boss’ boss talked about the need to implement a PV database. It sounded vague and far fetching, felt like a job which nobody really wanted. After my start it turned out that besides having to quickly catch-up with pharma as a science, I also was thrown in to a mega new IT implementation as a self-made project manager. I learned a lot throughout the two years in which we selected and implemented the ARISg (now LSMV) solution of my future-to-be employer ArisGlobal.
My early pharma career led me through ascending leadership positions at Gedeon Richter up to deputy head of the function, from where I was head-hunted to the Swiss innovative mid-pharma Vifor Pharma (now CSL Vifor). And the story started over. They were running an early client server version of the same ArisGlobal tool. We did several major updates and went all the way from physical servers on prem to VMs in a private cloud and finally to the current state-of-the-art multitenant SaaS cloud the company is on today.
So, I was tech savvy, had the full professional background, knew the ArisGlobal tool in its whole context and with its whole history and knew most of the ArisGlobal organization. Crazy as it sounds, I joined this US headquartered global tech company with the development and service base in India. In my time at ArisGlobal we laid down the foundation of their global platform strategy, installed a modern product management governance and outlined functionality of an end-to-end R&D platform. All I did is expected from the developers pharma level quality and functionality which is the true demand on the customers‘ side where I was coming from.
StratoServ Sciences AG I founded in 2019 simply because ArisGlobal had no Swiss affiliate and I needed an employer. After the Chief Strategy Officer assignment with ArisGlobal ran out, I started building a business remaining focused on pharma R&D with an innovative approach to their technology, quality, and other needs. We work with mid-pharma clients, CROs and tech vendors servicing them. Our key offering beyond strategy or rather as part of the strategy is eco-system optimization, making them spend right to bring in new technologies and automation supporting the right services, and to maximize efficiency and quality whilst saving nominally as well.
You are an intelligent, talented, strong, and free career woman, but have quite the challenging journey behind you. Can you tell us more about that?
It was 2016. I was a 125kg, very tall and hairy guy with a developing alopecia in a tough multinational pharma leadership position with my peers being more my parents‘ age – and I hated my life. Dysphoria is a feeling of empty sadness associated with being transgender. I was at the playground with my beautiful daughter and wife, and I was asking myself why the hell am I not happy. Some experience levels of dysphoria which make them suicidal, but in decades chronic dysphoria also eats you alive. In 2016 I realized if I do not start figuring out my gender, it will not be long for me.
I was not consciously transitioning, but I did in fact initiate what was cosmetically possible to become more feminine. I also started changing my wardrobe and started transitioning socially. Work and private was kept strictly separated. I was working in boy-mode, living privately as a woman. Thanks to Swiss laws recently passed, I was able to officially change my name and gender while keeping marriage and all other official things like my company intact.
I am still on my journey of transitioning and embracing a new existence. I have found peace with my body and have assembled my specific package of medically what I do and do not need. I learned to love the journey itself and am not looking only at where I need to get to and what I will never be able to reach. Also 40 years of male socialization does leave its marks on both personality and soul.
During your journey to transformation you had some tough challenges, as did other transwomen you know. What are challenges in business/the workplace specific to transpersons?
Till not very long ago my brand was purely male. Even my consultancy business was built on my network which was established throughout my career as a man. But as you transition it becomes less and less sustainable to keep up the male presentation. Even though CoViD and home office did give me enough room and time to properly do my homework about being trans.
Well, that happened to me exactly and it has become a soul killing exercise and a source of unhappiness again having to painstakingly maintain the immaculate impression of being a cis man. Even though this had to only be done for work travel.
I came out to my whole professional network overnight. I changed my name, my photo, added the new pronouns she/her and posted a short note. I did not even use the word transgender in it, I did not excuse myself, I did not even explain, I just expressed. I got 100% love and support immediately and ever since from all over. And not only from the friends and colleagues who I knew from before, but from everyone. I am privileged and thankful.
You volunteer at Das Regenbogenhaus and did the groundwork to build up this safe haven for the LGBTQIA+ community. Tell us about your work there.
The Rainbow House, the new LGBTQIA+ Community Centre of Zürich is my sanctuary. I work there as a volunteer twice a week if my schedule allows since the opening in March 2021. In essence the House is an event location for the over 35 queer organisations we give home and space to, it is also a daytime working space and twice a week Wednesdays and Fridays we are open for the public from 15:00 to 19:00.
I am part of the team who staffs these opening hours, to open, manage and close the facilities, treat the guests, and supervise the library (we have a huge queer library operated by HAZ, our mother organisation) and any special offerings provided during these times. Yes, I have been there since the beginning, have contributed continuously to building up the way we operate and helped build up and manage the team of volunteers as well.
I go there also to recharge, to meet folks, to exchange. There is always something happening at the Regenbogenhaus. We talk a lot, about trans, queer, about everything, life. So, I do it for myself as well.
It has been wonderful to see it progress from a lonely place to a vivid queer community centre. And when I see a 16-year-old come in, not say, or ask anything, who just sits in the library taking one book after another, seeking badly answers she is probably not getting elsewhere, not wanting to be disturbed and leaving only at closing time, I know we are there for a reason, and I know we are doing good.
Have you ever had a role model that inspired you on your path?
I do not have one specific role model. For the purpose of this interview, I can mention four people who I think are relevant from one or another angle. Here we go:
My old private teacher – He taught me university level German in two years. He saw the talent in me and unleashed the rapid success.
My first pharma boss – She spent one full hour with me tutoring me in my first year in pharma, because she saw my ambition to grow fast. Later in my career I helped similarly others.
What aspects of your work are you proudest of?
The opportunities I have been able to provide to others. For a long time in my early career, I have been imagining how it would have been if someone saw my talent and ambition and offered me a great opportunity. Instead, I always had to strive and prove myself and then later demand the appropriate recognition. And if I am then settled and empowered, I always try to bring in the right people, put them in their right roles and create an inspiring working environment, a great shop around them. The value you create in corporate is very transient, your name will be hardly remembered, but those will remember you to whom you once gave an opportunity.
I never understood why at least this very impermanency of a corporate power position does not make people want to remain very humane. I always say it does not cost anything not to be an asshole; I always tried to only leave positive things about me and my work whenever and wherever I was employed at.
What drives you at work?
I have gone through the typical work motivations of self-fulfilment, appreciation, strive for career progression and success, money. These changed. I am now only interested in work for strategy, people, and self-authenticity. I still get very enthusiastic when revelation hits me as to what is the right way forward, which no one has seen before.
I am still inspired by seeing people thrive; I especially get a kick out of me as mentor being outgrown, when Padawan becomes the master, but I am now only doing all this extrovert shit if I can remain my authentic feminine self. I do not think I am distanced from work; I am just balanced.
What has been your toughest challenge you faced while working in tech?
My biggest challenge is that my pace and strive to change (make things better) can make me become disruptive in the work environment. Looking back, it always came to that. In tech it was probably worst, because of the inertia of the development process. If you claim your agile while you are really waterfall and if you produce more bugs than your bandwidth can correct with leaving at least a sane little capacity for differentiating functionality, then you are prone for failure. In such a situation tightening the financial expectations and putting more pressure on the organization is an inappropriate and dangerous reaction.
Corporate C level is always a boy’s club, and that will not change easily, because that is the nature of corporate. We need to abolish that and a new model for profit making organization needs to take its place. Because board and corporate will not listen, and the men up there will fall back to basic survival instincts, and they fight when things are going wrong. They will fight, and not listen, even if they are aware, one of their fellow chiefs identifies as a woman. That was a disappointment which pulled me down for long.
Do you have a favorite book or podcast?
Not specifically, but I mentioned Jean Luc Picard as a role model. He is a fictional character, a starship captain played by the magnificent actor genius Sir Patrick Stewart in Star Trek, The Next Generation series. Watch the whole series and you will know all there is to know about leadership. (Available on Netflix.)
People tell me I am I brave; I am not. Being trans for example today in a rural Hungarian village and dealing with it, that is brave. The documentary “Colors of Tobi” is specifically about that. It is also about love and understanding. Because if you love someone, you want to know what makes them tick, what causes them pain. This mother, this family goes hand in hand with the trans child all the way and they learn and teach each other. That is how love creates understanding and then true embracement.
What advice would you give other women in tech?
Tech or not tech, female or not, cis, or trans my only advice is to stay true to yourself. Do not compromise on your values, your ethical, quality, and professional standards. Do not simply mold in and adhere, do things your own and very special way, and stand up for that. Do not let people tell you to take back, to adjust or moderate yourself. I always did things my way and I know I would not be here if I ever had changed or had given up on that rebel attitude. And…