Freshwater will be the new oil. Vint Cerf

"Silicon Valley is 90 Percent Men"

Jessica Erickson is the founder of the Berlin Geekettes, a group of female tech entrepreneurs in Berlin. She talked to Julia Korbik about gender stereotypes, grassroots collaboration, and the importance of a good mentor.

The European: You’re an American expat living in Berlin. What makes Berlin as a location attractive?
Erickson: In Berlin, individuals benefit from being at the nexus of Europe’s Silicon Valley and its tech and cultural hub. It is one of Europe’s most creative cities, having attracted a cluster of amazing individuals, companies, and talent. Additionally, Berlin boasts a strong sense of community – the perfect ecosystem to further myself as an individual and pull from the spirit and creativity of this exciting city.

The European: In which way do the working conditions in the tech sector in Berlin differ from those in America?
Erickson: Berlin is very unique. First, it is very immigrant friendly: it’s much easier for foreigners to come here than to London or New York. They can easiliy set up their whole existence without too many complications. Second, the costs are cheap. It won’t be cheap forever but we happen to be here at the right time: we can really make it manageable and pay decent salaries. Third, I think there is an open minded grassroots mentality in the tech scene that you don’t necessarily find in other cities.

The European: What does that mean?
Erickson: There is a general interest in the community to want to help one another, because they all hope to build it into something very big. No one’s out for themselves. If you think about it, Berlin’s tech scene has done very well with very little. We don’t have an international airport with many direct flights from Silicon Valley to Berlin. We don’t have a lot of experience established, like serial enterpreneurs. And we don’t have hundreds of established angel investors. All of these are big challenges, but somehow Berlin’s tech scene has managed to overcome that. I think it’s all because there is a strong grassroots group that makes things happen.

The European: You are the founder of Berlin Geekettes, an organization for female entrepreneurs in the technology sector. There are still very few women in this sector and even fewer in high positions. Why?
Erickson: Well, Sheryl Sandberg writes about it in her book “Lean in.” Companies need to realize the importance of hiring and recruiting more women, and, once they get into the company, promoting them faster. If you’re seeing that she’s doing well, promote her. If companies do not find women talented enough to join them, they need to focus on training them and finding them mentors. It really takes the proactive approach of both men and women to create that needed change.

“Tech has a strong male ethos to it”

The European: And the men aren’t pro-active enough?
Erickson: We’ve actually had men come to our meetups and say: How can I recruit more women to my company? What can I do to make my company look more attractive for females to join? Tech definitely has a strong male ethos to it. A report said that Silicon Valley is 90 percent men. Guess what Berlin is: 97 per cent men and 3 percent women. There is a lot of room for improvement, to be a little bit more gender balanced.

The European: Why do companies need to be more gender balanced?
Erickson: Because they need a female perspective in building products, in understanding female design. We did an engineering panel with Facebook in September 2012. Their engineers are proactively trying to get female engineers: they realized that 60 per cent of the people using the Facebook platform are women. So they need to have that female perspective when building it. So companies are realizing that having women on board could have a direct fiscal effect on their succes. That is the challenge for the future. If we don’t get on this now, we’re falling way behind and it will be even harder to catch up.

The European: What are the typical problems women have to face in the tech sector?
Erickson: When I moved to Berlin, I was told two things by a very famous Berlin founder. In front of eight people he made the strong statement that women don’t understand technology. I thought: “Are you kidding me?” I mean, it’s the 21st century – this guy is young and he’s making comments and claims like that! And then he said: “I would never imagine hiring a female engineer, because she would distract my male engineers from doing their work.”

The European: How did you react?
Erickson: The wheel in my head started turning and I wondered: How many other men – or even women – think this way? Maybe that is one of the reasons women don’t enter the field: they hear this kind of bullshit and it intimidates them. One month later I started Berlin Geekettes. There is obviously an illness – not just in Berlin, but everywhere. So you need to create a grassroots movement for women. It’s about sisterhood, empowering one another and getting them to a level where they can show everyone: I’m a leader, I can do amazing things. And whether I’m a female or not, it doesn’t matter. We’re about 500 women now and nearly all of them have heard similar stories like mine. But we don’t sit there and complain – we try to find solutions.

The European: When you are talking about empowerment – what does the term mean for you?
Erickson: The most memorable moment in my time here in Berlin was the Berlin Geekettes hackathon we hosted in March. There were 80 female engineers. Most people were shocked that that many women existed in Berlin’s tech scene, let alone engineers. That shattered some stereotypes. And then, to see them build such interesting hacks in two days which no guy would have come up with. Afterwards many women told me they now felt confident and wanted to join a male-female hackathon. It gave them the courage and strengh to dive into something else. Then, two weeks ago, I went to such a hackathon and saw five Geekettes there. So it’s working! When you have role models and support systems it gets more women confident to get into new stuff.

The European: For everyone who doesn’t know what a hackathon is…
Erickson: It’s a way for engineers to get together and build cool things in a short period of time, usually 24 to 48 hours. It’s about creating a working prototype which could become a product or it could just be for fun.

“You’re molded into certain roles”

The European: For example?
Erickson: A mother whose child is suffering from autism came to our hackathon. She had noticed that when he had a more structured day he would cope better with that. So she wanted to create an app to get him through the day. She formed a team and they started brainstorming ideas, writing down their hacks and programming through lines of code. They got 24 hours to do it. One of the team members was an illustrator and she drew pictures of a monkey: a little monkey reading a book, playing with the toys, eating dinner, going to bed. The child can take those images in a library and drag them into the correct routine order. Then he clicks it and there is a little tool with a little game in it. That’s a cool, fun, digital tool a kid can use now. A problem with the solution through a hack. It’s now being developed into something that could be commercial.

The European: You mentioned the importance of role models and support systems for women. In which way could those be established?
Erickson: The Berlin Geekettes, for example, have a mentorship program. We pair experienced women in the field with very new young women who want to get into it – and those young women almost looked at their mentor as a role model.

The European: So your mentorship program is a tool to generate role models.
Erickson: Yes, and I also advocate women to showcase their talents. For our blog there is a Berlin Geekette of the week which shows women from the design or engineering or business background. It tells their story, what they do, what they hope to be. The point is: you need to pull in the future generations of women to get into the tech scene. It’s about connecting all the women that are already existing in it and then you get the new ones coming through in a couple of years. But it takes someone to show them what’s possible and to connect them with the right people.

The European: Recruting women to the tech sector seems to be difficult. Do stereotypes play a role? It is often argued that girls and young women are just not that interested in tech.
Erickson: Socialization and the way you’re brought up as a young girl definitely play a role for how the minds of young women are shaped in an early age. You’re molded into certain modes. In a women’s magazine there is never a nerdy engineer with a computer.

The European: The nerdy engineer is simply not cool.
Erickson: It would have a huge impact on young girls if you could make a female engineer sound cool by pointing out that she has an awesome career and she enjoys what she does. But right now there is so much you have to cut through. The average young woman in America spends 50-60 hours consuming media per week. And unfortunately, a lot of media just portrays women as sexual objects and focuses too much on their physical appearance. And when they’re constantly thrown at you through TV and magazines, you definitely think: That’s what I have to be. I’m hoping young girls will re-prioritize their lifestyle and see the potential they have. They can become a talented engineer, designer, founder. It can be cool to be a scientist, to be an artist. The world is their oyster.

“A lot of media just portrays women as sexual objects”

The European: Like you they could discover their love for technology.
Erickson: My background is really crazy. I lived in Minneapolis, London, Seoul, and New York City and I met so many people from so many backgrounds – different age groups, different ethnicities. When I moved to New York, I joined a small start up called SpeakLike. There I was the manager of 2000 online translaters. We crowdsourced translations: people from all over the world would log in, see a body of text and translate it. There were only five of us in the team and we had such an amazing international community providing value. However, we couldn’t secure funding, it was incredibly difficult at the time. But I loved being around these people. And the more I scanned the tech scene the more I was inspired by the people around me and I knew, this was it.

The European: So you ended up in Berlin.
Erickson: Yes. I had noticed the Swedish start up SoundCloud when I was in New York and I thought that if they can be this successful in Berlin, maybe there’s something for me too. That was inspiring for me as an expat. I’m now working for General Assembly, where we are building an educational platform for people to learn business, tech, and design. Educating the community in these 3 areas is incredibly rewarding. I’ve learned a lot myself in just eight months.

The European: Besides empowering women – what is the greatest thing about tech?
Erickson: Being in tech is realizing you are part of the digital revolution that’s happening right now. You are bringing people together online that would never meet normally. You’re connecting communities and empowering people by basically giving them access to information they’ve never had before and making their lifes better and easier through technology. It’s the next stage: We went through the industrial revolution, now we’re going through the technology revolution – we’re at the very beginning.

The European: In which way?
Erickson: Take the idea of Kickstarter campaigns, for example: you are an individual that has a cool idea and then all those other people love that idea too and they can make it happen. It’s technology that allows that to happen. We keep fastforwarding to the future and what I hope to see is that Internet is giving access to anyone. That’s the biggest challenge.

The European: Internet access as a human right?
Erickson: Yes, exactly. A friend of mine is trying to buy an old satellite in outer space right now – he wants to give the Internet to Africa! The biggest case study is the following: there was a Malawian inventor by the name of William Kamkwamba who lived in a small village. Every day he would go to the local library and research how to create a windmill: he wanted to provide wind energy and electricity for his village. He spent 4 years doing this and finally built the windmill – but if he had had access to the internet, he could have done it in a few months. He asked: where was Google when I needed it?

The European: If a another woman would ask you to be her mentor – what advice would you give her in regard to the tech sector in Berlin?
Erickson: First, keep learning. Soak everything up, ask lots of questions. The greatest advice and inside I got was from my personal mentor Zoe Adamovicz, the founder of Xyologic. I didn’t hesitate to ask her when I was stressed out or I needed to negotiate a thing or was confused what angle to take. In a 20-minute chat she would teach me so much more than I would have learned spending weeks on the internet. Two: Become a mentor for someone else. Support someone who’s less experienced than you, give them the resources and tools that they need. You can always be a mentor and a mentee. And three: If anyone ever tells you you don’t get tech, prove them wrong.

Did you like the conversation? Read one with Maria Popova: “Literature is the original Internet”

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