A micro novel on diversity and sustainability in technology. Filled with facts, startups and real role models.
By Alex Ruby [~30-40 min – Download below]
A silent shiver rushed down Masha’s spine. The displays flashed everywhere, no matter where she looked. All of a sudden, every flight was delayed. The feeling that something was wrong had sneaked in a while ago. Somehow, she seemed to be hanging in limbo a lot these days. The master‘s degree was in her pocket. But what came next? Where would she end up after leaving the Technical University in Munich? In Portugal, she hoped to find answers. Her flight from London to Lisbon should have left over an hour ago. Long queues had also formed at the other gates, nothing seemed to move anywhere.
“Attention: we have a lockdown. Please stay calm. Stay close to your gate. We will inform you as soon as new information is available,“ the announcement came from the loudspeaker. A man at the window was emitting expletives like an automatic rifle. The toddler next to him turned to his mother in tears. Groaning crept through the room, but most passengers surrendered to uncertainty in silence. It was almost as if this situation was a symbol of something. But what for? She was on a journey. What surprises were waiting for her?
Masha took a deep breath and tied her long brown hair into a knot. She had been on the road for fifteen hours since saying goodbye to her friend Jelena in Boston. She hadn‘t slept much on the plane. But as long as there were no police squads patrolling the airport or tanks thundering across the airfield, it couldn‘t be that bad. No need to panic.
After all, she had time for another mocha now. She sent a short message to Aldo, whom she wanted to meet in the Portuguese capital. They had worked together on a transnational project last semester. Back from the café across the aisle, she leaned against a column at the gate.
“Good idea. I should get myself some tea,” a man smiled shyly next to her. An Englishman, Masha guessed. He had come on the same flight from New York. About ten years older than her, although the short-cut, well-kept full beard could be deceiving. He wasn‘t wearing a tie, but for a technical nerd, he didn‘t look the part either. His style was too upscale for a journalist and his act too reserved for a typical founder. “Almost feels like being part of a thriller,” she turned to him. “Life is stranger than fiction,” he replied genially.
Graham was English, after all, and stories were his passion. He worked for one of the most renowned newspapers in the world, Masha was thrilled to learn. In early 2014, the company had recognized that stories – if done well – could be a very effective marketing tool for companies. A brand studio had been founded in New York. A few years later, Graham had come on board and helped establish the international arm of the studio as Creative Director.
Strict separation from the independent editorial department of the newspaper was extremely important to maintain the credibility of journalistic news. Masha thought of Jelena‘s mother, who was a journalist and had recently reported on the first genetically modified baby in China. Who would take such a story seriously if it had been sponsored by a diaper or baby food company?
The studio was a sheer success and showing sustainable growth, so Graham had moved from London to New York a while ago. In the American industry, content marketing had already been well established. The market had assumed a worldwide pioneering role. All signs were pointing to expansion. Customers in other continents were to be convinced of the benefits.
Great Britain quickly jumped onto the bandwagon, with France and Italy following suit. The latter for the same reason as Hong Kong and South Korea: luxury goods qualified by nature for the integration into good stories. James Bond had produced evidence on any number of occasions. Masha saw that right away.
The projects Graham and his team worked on were not feature films. Still, they were complex creations combining text, images, and video, where suitable. She scrolled through the story of a beer brand on the studio‘s website. At the end, however, she did not feel the need to buy a beer right away. According to Graham, content marketing was not primarily about direct selling. It was not simply a bigger ad.
It was more a matter of shaping a company’s brand or influence how one of their products was perceived by the customer. Their readers expected a certain quality for the stories, he said. For decades, the editorial department had set the bar. And it was high.
“How do you decide which format to use for the stories?” Masha wanted to know. A flood of social media channels or the newest developments in virtual and augmented reality offered sufficient opportunities to inform consumers about a wide variety of topics. Her master‘s degree in management and technology meant that marketing would certainly play a role in her future work.
“We always start with the idea for the story and only then decide on the narrative form,” Graham replied. In storytelling, the story came before the telling. Simple as that. The mobile Internet had had a huge impact, no question, but each story didn‘t always have to be told in different ways through all available channels.
In apps like Snapchat, the reader’ attention span often was a few seconds long, in the subway on the way to work, for example. During lunch break, however, readers would delve into a long story if the topic and telling were gripping. For coming up with the right idea, it was important to know which values a brand already conveyed, or which perception the company wanted to create.
This was particularly important after a crisis. What feelings and thoughts should the reader have at the end? How could this be achieved? In an entertaining or an informative way? The core of the story, therefore, had to have the same value as the brand message.
Three things were crucial: a thing or person the story was about, a conflict, and the solution. Graham compared the marketing story to a first date: if you told too much about yourself, there probably wouldn‘t be a second date. Only when they had agreed on the idea the narrative form and the appropriate technology were decided on. The last thing to be discussed was the platform for publication. On it depended whether you reached the customers you intended to reach.
Movement began to stir around them. The displays suddenly flashed with new departure times. It looked like they would reach their destination after all today. The story of the lockdown was quickly told by the airport staff. Drones had been sighted over the airfield and eliminated. Security was restored. There was no terror threat. Boarding for her flight to Lisbon would begin shortly. Just before she switched off her phone, Aldo sent a mysterious message. She‘d be in for a surprise.
Masha pulled the thick woolen scarf tighter around her shoulders. She was tired and felt chilly. London slowly disappeared below them. She closed her eyes and thought about the last two weeks with Jelena. In the past, they had used to snowboard or mountain-climb, had boxed, and covered countless lanes in the swimming pool before hitting the bars of the university town at night.
But a trip to Las Vegas two years ago had had a brutal bearing on her girlfriend‘s life. How could Jelena have known that she got into the crosshair of a lunatic and become tied to a wheelchair? Laughing had been her favorite activity, nothing had upset her easily.
During this visit, though, Masha had come to realize how much Jelena struggled to fight the demons. The move from Chicago to Boston had not had much effect. Seemingly out of nowhere, the abyss of despair opened up in her mind, and she would burst into tears. Or a panic attack robbed her of air. What exactly happened in these moments and triggered the agony, was something Masha could not grasp.
Medicine and psychology were not her specialties, even though she had supported aid organizations as a volunteer on several occasions. Taking Jelena to Niagara Falls last week had been a highlight after all. Whereas New York City had been more of a rollercoaster mood-wise. If only she could help her friend. But how?
Her seat neighbor who looked like a dark-haired twin of Graham also seemed to ponder over something. Maybe he was just undecided whether to work or read. There was a black book on his laptop. From the cover, piercing blue eyes stared at Masha. A spy novel, as she could gather from the title. “Do you like to read?” Masha asked him. “Actually, yes, but I rarely find the time,” he replied with regret. Mate, as it turned out, was from Croatia. At eighteen, he had been a national electronics champion who held two patents.
Cars were his passion, especially fast ones. After his first car let him down on the racetrack, he was as sick as a parrot. That’s when he decided to convert it into an electric car. Back then, twelve years ago, this would have been extremely unusual for many. Masha couldn‘t remember any real role models in that area either. But cars were not high on her list. She didn’t have one and loved to ride her bicycle. In Nikola Tesla‘s native country, however, things were different. Young people were fascinated by the inventor and drew inspiration from him.
So had Mate. Over and over, he took his electrified car to races – and to the limit – and improved it step by step. Since then, he had turned his dream into reality. Contrary to all claims that it would be impossible in Croatia – a country without any automotive industry – he had developed a completely new electric car. Not a kitschy little box with four wheels, but something that radiated elegance and power at the same time. An object of desire. It was the fastest electric car in the world for several years.
He had achieved something extremely remarkable. None of the established manufacturers in the world, some of which employed more people than Croatia had inhabitants, had nothing on him at that time. Masha felt the honest pride filtering through Mate‘s modesty. He had earned respect through hard work and skill.
His employees designed and built by hand not only electric hypercars in their manufacture, but also developed various components for electric vehicles of established manufacturers. Mostly in the luxury segment. Masha sighed at the sight of the old, English, electrified convertible that had served an American actress and her prince as a royal wedding car. Perfect proof that technology and romance made a good match.
It was not surprising that a German sports car manufacturer had been bold enough and invested worth a ten percent share in Mate‘s company. It was astonishing that this charming young founder seemed to have remained so down-to-earth despite all these achievements. Masha started thinking.
Here she had proof that success was not necessarily based on experience, but on passion and perseverance. Maybe she should start her own company. There were so many opportunities for founders these days. Provided, you had a good idea for which there was a market. Not to mention a good team. She had some ideas.
Was that enough? She had studied management. Did that qualify her or her fellow students as executives? After all, it could be better to first gain experience in a company or corporation, and then implement it into her own startup. The next few days would hopefully inspire her with answers.
After her arrival in Lisbon, she claimed her bag and went directly to the registration desk. She had a Women in Tech ticket to the upcoming technology conference. It was her first time, but she had heard a lot about it. It was hard to get lost at the airport. Everywhere helpful people in uniform T-shirts – students as it seemed – stood and showed the way. The Lisbon sky was as mixed as her thoughts.
But the atmosphere in the big tent in front of the airport entrance was contagious. Women and men of different nationality and skin color talked about what or who they didn‘t want to miss in the next three days. Suits and sloppy jeans types compared schedules they had created in the event app. People discussed, marveled at, changed or added talks.
Masha silently agreed with them. She didn‘t know exactly what to expect. Although she was a spontaneous person, she also wanted to see a result in the end. Without preparation, she would have felt overwhelmed by what was on offer. In the coming days, she wanted to max out all possibilities that could help her in the future. Be it to get information, to gain new insights or to expand her network.
The conference took place near the Parque das Nações northeast of the city center. On twenty-four stages, more than twelve hundred experts would share their knowledge on a wide variety of topics. According to the site plan, Center Stage was located in the Altice arena. The other stages were spread across the four huge halls of the fairground opposite.
Countless incubators, accelerators, companies, consulting firms, corporations and thousands of startups also exhibited there. The tricky part was that each founding team only presented themselves on one day. It was not enough to know the table they were at but also when to go there. Unsurprisingly, almost as many investors as startups were expected. In addition, there were sessions with mentors for which Masha had registered; and of course, various evening events. She received her badge and bracelet at the counter much faster than expected. An army of helpers had to support behind the scenes.
A few minutes later, she climbed into something that reminded her of an oversized toy from her childhood. Just more advanced and elegant. It was a mixture of a helicopter and a giant drone. Aldo‘s surprise was more than a success. During the conference, he earned a few extra euros as a shuttle pilot for VIPs who preferred this extravagant service to limousines and crowded subways. With almost seventy thousand expected participants, the streets of the city belonged to taxis and car-sharing companies. The delay of Masha‘s flight aligned nicely with a gap in Aldo‘s flight plan, allowing even for the additional time to charge the electric aircraft.
The rotors purred quietly as they took off vertically and turned south. Everything seemed so simple. Aldo operated the thing only with a joystick in his hand. Small invisible computers kept the balance and provided stability as the city rolled by underneath them. Soon, passengers wouldn‘t need anyone to fly them. In future, the device was requested via an app and would fly to its destinations autonomously, he said.
Aldo had also just finished his studies. Like her, he was thinking about what to do next. He had two interesting job offers from companies. Alternatively, he could join a friend‘s startup. But first, he would go to India for a couple of weeks to unwind. Not bad either, Masha thought. Fifteen minutes later he landed and let her out in the middle of Rossio square. She chuckled. Did a star feel that way?
In the apartment, she dropped her bag, undecided what to do next. The bed looked tempting and would make sure she’d be all rested the next day. It was too late for the opening ceremony. The drones in London had made sure of that. She was a little hungry. A glass of wine at the end of the day was nothing to be sniffed at, either. But she didn‘t know the city and eating alone wasn‘t her thing.
Despite a doubting voice in the back of her mind, she opened an app that allowed business people traveling alone to meet for a meal. Not much later, she found herself in the Restauradores district, sitting on the cozy leather seat of a small bar.
The window behind her was adorned with hams. In the ceiling-high glass cabinet behind the counter selected wines were waiting to be tasted. A young man who looked like Al Capone’s bartender handed her the wooden menu and asked about her preferences.
Glancing at her nail polish he recommended a spicy, local wine. The flavor was as complex as his smile with which he served the drink. Masha let the taste of ripe blackberries and bittersweet chocolate melt on her tongue as she waited for a woman with whom she already shared several things.
Anastasia had been born in the former Soviet Union, snowboarded, and worked in the technology industry. Masha‘s sense of well-being intensified when a young woman entered and joyfully confirmed her questioning gaze. A touch of Grace Kelly surrounded her.
Anastasia‘s elegant appearance rested on evidence: her heart belonged to a very special hobby – aerial acrobatics. She attended the technology conference in Lisbon for the second time in a row. Anastasia laughed as Masha pointed at her high heels. She wore them only for special occasions. For the many kilometers she covered during the day, she had a pair of comfortable shoes. “How was your first time at the conference?” Masha wanted to know.
“I was so inspired by all the other women I met and talked to,” Anastasia replied. Many of them, like herself, had leading positions and their enthusiasm had encouraged her. Women in the technology sector had it in their hands to reach the top in companies. She agreed with Masha that the biggest challenge for attending the conference lay in planning.
Often, several experts discussed interesting topics at the same time but on different stages; or the time in between panels was simply too short and the way too long. But all presentations and panel discussions were recorded and put online. This made decisions a little easier.
As Marketing Director, it was important for her to meet with potential clients. That‘s why she had contacted selected participants via the app and had already set up various meetings. Many startups worked with service providers such as their software company to integrate solutions for customer interaction; or for their in-house-applications to digitally map processes. Contracting her company was often easier, faster, or, in many cases, more cost-effective than finding and hiring the right developers in an already highly competitive market.
One of her company‘s projects was to enable people with disabilities to access online services and information on websites. Not everyone could see or read; not everyone could enter text via a keyboard or a graphical user interface. Masha told her about the conversation with Graham and Anastasia immediately marked his talk in her schedule. She didn‘t want to miss it.
How often did you get the opportunity to hear live from an award-winning expert how to add zest to your brand and best serve it to customers? That night, she lay in bed all wired. She had not only met three lovely people but had learned new things. If the journey already held encounters like these, what else would the conference have in store?
Masha woke up full of energy. Most of the rain clouds had disappeared overnight. The air was invigorating. Finding the conference was not difficult. It was a simple matter of following the lively crowds to the subway. The anticipation and ardor were contagious. In each wagon, the station where the conference area was located was marked with a sticker on the map. Nothing had been left to chance.
Lisbon seemed to be hijacked by founders, geekettes, and old-established business folks. Her feet already thanked her for the sneakers. The distances to be walked in the next days were short of a half-marathon, and the exhibition halls were huge. The corridors started to fill. How many founders hoped to nail the big deal today? How many investors would be convinced and give a hostage to fortune? The energy was clearly noticeable.
In the middle of it, Masha saw baby strollers or men and women carrying baby slings. The booths of big shot corporations and IT giants could not be missed. Many other company names Masha read for the first time.
One yellow, happy lettering high in the air immediately caught her eye. It was the stand of Lisbon‘s founding community. The technology conference had taken up quarters in the city in 2016. Thanks to the convincing support of one hundred and ten million dollars from the Portuguese government, it would stay there for the next ten years. The plan was to double the size of the site in just three years.
The decision certainly was a stimulant to the startup scene and attracted more founders from all over the world. This, in turn, might convince large companies to open a branch office, surf the innovation wave, and secure a slice of the cake. There was more than enough inspiration for intrapreneurs and entrepreneurs at the event.
On one of the stages, a founder spoke about how food could be saved from ending up as waste. Worldwide, the incredible amount of over one billion food items was thrown away per year. A value of about a trillion dollars. Masha was simultaneously shocked and fascinated by the talk. The founder‘s concept was simple: restaurants, cafés, bakeries or supermarkets knew roughly how much would remain at the end of the day; what of it was still good to consume but had to be thrown away due to regulations.
Through his app, businesses were able to offer these goods for sale – at half price to provide enough incentive for buyers. This way, they not only reduced their losses but at the same time profited from low-cost marketing; and underscored their sustainability. Something that became more and more important for a growing number of buyers. Experience had shown that users of the app often bought something else when they picked up the goods. Side effect: up-selling.
The app company was financed by a transaction fee paid by the seller. Masha was not at all surprised by the steep growth curve shown. New employees were sought for the expansion in Europe, including Germany. Should she apply? The job would certainly be exciting. And what was not to love about food?
Fashion, on the contrary, was not important in Masha‘s life. Her budget didn‘t allow for any extravagances at the moment either. But that didn‘t mean her clothes came only from variety stores. She paid attention to a smart appearance: feminine, subtle and a little playful touch. The shop windows she constantly walked past at home could be decorated ever so tempting for young women like her. But the price tags always made her think of the heartbreaking conditions of the factory workers. A panel at the conference had piqued her interest.
Second to oil and gas, the fashion industry had the most harmful impact on the environment. Recycling was anything but to be seen on the agenda. Even if it was, it often seemed to be more of cosmetic in nature for a brand. Two Italians, whose homeland probably stood like no other worldwide as a symbol for fashion, discussed sustainability: a founder who advised companies such as Gucci, Chopard, and Stella McCartney or Swarovski; and the CEO of a synthetic fiber company.
Livia, Masha had found out in advance, was extremely committed. She was the creative director of her company and co-founder of Annie Lennox‘s group of female influencers who envisioned equality for women and girls in a fairer world. Livia was UN Leader of Change, had received the UN Fashion 4 Development Award, and had been an Oxfam Ambassador for many years. She was as energetic as a livewire and seemed to look at each one in the audience personally.
Her turning point had been a dramatic experience – a visit to Bangladesh in 2008. She described the sight of the people working like slaves in the factories as hell on earth. A prison where there was often no way out when danger knocked at the door. In Pakistan, people had been burnt alive because of barred windows and omitted emergency exits. But in Western countries conditions like these did not seem to affect customers.
The exploitation of poor people did not stand in the way of shopping frenzies or the constant hunt for hot deals. The abuse was not present enough, it was too detached from the daily lives of deal seekers. How could we change that?
Livia was convinced that fashion could serve as an influential tool for change. Clothes were part of everyday life. Everyone needed them. So why not use fashion to make the effects on the environment visible and increase social justice?
Her panel partner Giulio gave an example of what this could look like. Encounters with many influential women, and especially conversations about biomimicry, had led him to rethink. Where could we turn to nature as a role model? Where to learn from her instead of leaning in to ever new inventions?
With roughly one hundred million tons of natural and artificial yarn consumed every year which, after a short, often useless existence, ended up on landfills or filled the sea, this was bitterly needed. How did you turn your industry’s waste into an object of desire? More than ten years ago, his company had developed a new yarn. A lot of people had called him crazy.
But he had believed in the idea and his team had put a lot of energy into the implementation. Giulio‘s modesty and honest appreciation for the people he worked with struck Masha in particular. It made him not only likeable but credible.
This new yarn was made entirely from recycled nylon and was again completely recyclable. He raised an object into the air from underneath the table. It was a piece of carpet on which influential celebrities such as Donatella Versace, Julianne Moore, Cate Blanchett or Elle Macpherson and Cindy Crawford had walked to the Green Carpet Fashion Awards in Milan‘s Scala.
Livia and her company worked closely with the National Chamber for Italian Fashion who hosted the event. The award recognized individuals and companies for their outstanding achievements in sustainability and ethics in fashion. This carpet had been born again as recycled raw material.
Giulio pulled a piece of cloth out of his pants pocket. Yarn from the granulate was used for clothing and swimwear – or carpets again. Stella McCartney had just recently introduced a trench coat made entirely from it, and over four hundred clothing companies were using the yarn already. The granulate was also found in glasses frames, even in 3D printers.
Once the end products had had their day, they could be recycled again – hundreds of times. In the beginning, this material was more expensive than a newly produced one. So how to break the vicious circle?
Livia was convinced that two mutually influencing things had to happen. On the one hand: the reduction of consumption. This could be achieved by making every buyer – and by this, she meant every inhabitant of this earth – become aware of their responsibility. Because, honestly, how many clothes did we really need? We should buy a piece of clothing which we wanted to wear at least thirty times, better one hundred. Tough luck for bad quality. On the other hand: a change of thinking within fashion companies.
In her opinion, long-term success was achieved not only through profitability but also through sustainable and ethical management. The latter in particular would have an increasingly strong influence on the perception of a brand. Laws on the disclosure of the supply chain and its conditions were only partially effective. There were still loopholes for companies. Penalties were too predictable. Livia called on everybody to rebel.
Fast fashion was as unhealthy as fast food. Masha didn’t need to be subscribed. But like with so many other challenges in our prosperous society, implementation was difficult. How to persuade people with minimum income who had to pinch pennies? Or teenagers whose stressed-out parents preferred to blow up pocket money for shopping instead of investing time in family game nights?
The discussion made her realize that you didn‘t have to be married to one of the most successful English actors to make a difference; to make people think. Everyone could do it.
Sustainability, social commitment, and ethics were topics that she had also identified as her focus areas in the conference app. With one of the visitors who had contacted her, she met for coffee. Unusual by Swiss standards, he embraced her as a greeting. Then he stroked his bald head almost in embarrassment.
Christoph radiated a cordiality that was immediately contagious.
He was working on something that touched Masha personally. His foundation wanted to provide humanitarian aid. Based on his experience as a negotiator in crisis regions, Christoph focused on young refugees, aid workers, and combat veterans. His goal was to work together with partners on a digital platform to collect the world‘s best treatment methods for people with trauma. The platform should be supplemented with new product developments.
Not just wars or natural disasters could cause trauma. Sexual assaults or serious accidents could do to. Only three percent of traumatized people received treatment. Most of those affected did not have access to assistance. Either there was no contact point in their region or people had already become isolated from their surroundings.
Who spoke about their trauma when returning home and risked the stigma of a victim? Without treatment, however, people could develop Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). It revealed itself in a variety of ways: depression, sometimes so severe that it led to suicide – proven by a fifth of American war veterans; or drug problems. Anxiety, restlessness or hopelessness and despair were another manifest.
The numbers horrified Masha. She began to suspect the agony that Jelena was going through. How often had she told her how people on the street had avoided her gaze? How her friends had turned away, even though she was still the same person – only now in a wheelchair? It had to be overwhelming to handle it all alone. For who wanted to openly admit a weakness to their family, or circle of friends, and be pitied even more?
In the long run, pity amplified the feeling of being a victim. Christoph was convinced that there was a solution. The Internet and smartphones continued to spread, even in troubled regions. They had to take advantage of this. Perhaps the physical distance represented by the Internet could encourage people to open up?
At the conference, Masha did not find it difficult to get into contact with others. On the contrary. It was so easy. You simply had to ask the person in front of the line or behind you whether they were there for the first time, or to rave about Lisbon‘s flair and climate. She had met Anna at one of the many food stands. A strange coincidence.
As if something had led Masha to this place at exactly that time. Another successful young woman who was born in Russia and then lost her heart in, and to, Latvia. Something about Anna radiated trust and security. It wasn‘t just her size or her glasses that seemed to demand respect.
Masha quickly found out what it was. Anna dealt with one of the hottest topics of today – digital law and cybersecurity. Riga even hosted the largest annual conference on the subject in the Baltic region. Internet companies turned the data of their users into gold. Hackers used vulnerabilities in IT systems for industrial espionage or to influence opinions which, in the worst case, could lead to the election of a more than dubious president. Wars between countries would be waged online in the future.
With Cybercrime as a Service, a new industry branch had already emerged on the horizon. The Internet of Things including self-driving cars or the Smart Home, which was conveniently controlled via electronics, offered plenty of potential for attack. The effects on privacy and economic power, even on global power relations, were fatal. Masha found one thing extremely exciting: Anna also worked with students from the Faculty of Law of Riga and prospective founders or startups in order to draw their attention to imminent dangers and offer solutions.
It was inspiring to see the éminence grise in the lecture halls competing with intelligent young women. After all, age and gender were not directly proportional to skill and expertise. Masha knew quite a few women in Munich who proved this. But Germany still had some catching up to do in this respect. Uncertainty had spread with the General Data Protection Regulation coming into force. For startups as well as for medium-sized companies.
At the same time, threats from hackers erupted. The importance of cybersecurity had not yet arrived at many management levels. Anna wouldn’t be able to complain about underemployment in the next few years.
Programming hadn’t necessarily been Masha’s favorite subject. Neither was law. Nevertheless, she could imagine working in this field. After all, there were projects to be managed or workshops to be held. The conversation with Anna made her aware again that despite – or precisely because of – her young age there were areas in which she was more qualified than some company owners or C-Level suits. Unlike them, she had grown up with the Internet and mobile technologies. Cybercrime – that sounded like detective work and thrills. Why not find out more about it and the jobs available?
In the evening after the conference, there was an unwanted thrill that she could have passed up. She had come across a few Bavarians from Munich who had been coming to Lisbon for several years now. Masha was won over in an instant and followed them for dinner to the food market by the river in the old town.
Ingrid was there for the first time just like Masha was.
In early spring, at Lake Tegernsee, she planned an innovation event, which was aimed at smaller and medium-sized companies in the surrounding area. Corporations with a coffer full of money didn’t hold the key to new ideas, and startups could easily grow successfully in rural areas. Ingrid had not put together a fixed agenda for the next few days. She just wanted to drift and be inspired. Another woman, Annette, had already founded two startups and recently joined the innovation lab of a Swiss company. She was mainly looking for promising startups where an investment made sense.
It was a fun evening. One conversation Masha enjoyed in particular: it was beastly good, literally. Anja worked on solutions featuring an Animal-Centered Design. These included safety boxes for dogs in the car or sound-absorbing headphones for the four-legged friend in restaurants. The animals were very sensitive after all.
Various shared dishes later, the group moved on to one of the city’s most famous clubs. It was a THE meeting place for participants of the conference to celebrate the day. But Masha didn’t want to spend the night on the dance floor and made her way home. She’d rather enjoy a quiet drink, and talk somewhere homely. Fresh air couldn’t hurt either.
She found an electric scooter outside the food market. The name of the maker had been in the conference program. The scooter could easily be rented by scanning a QR code with the corresponding app. At Rossio square, she ditched it again. It was just before midnight, the square almost deserted. Two young men in black hoodies suddenly appeared from out of nowhere. One of them had white powder on his nose.
Masha was disgusted. She walked faster, ignored the two of them. But they weren’t so easy to get rid of. Her heart started to race. Hash, cocaine, or ecstasy – everything she desired for a proper party. And, oh, so cheap. Masha stopped sick and tired and made it clear that they were barking up the wrong tree. But they were obnoxious.
Only when a man approached from the right and asked if she was okay, they disappeared into the shadow of the surrounding buildings. Luis was Portuguese and had nothing left but contempt for such compatriots. He radiated a charming calm even though his day had been long; and he was happy to be hitting the sack in his hotel room. Tomorrow, he’d be making thousands of coffee specialties again.
Luis was a barista trainer at a Portuguese coffee company. It seemed as if he wanted to apologize for not having protected her in the first place. He insisted on inviting her to a typical Ginjinha bar right across the street. The sweet and sticky, sour cherry liqueur actually calmed her nerves. Luis did his part to take her mind off things. He had many funny stories to tell. Some moments were a godsend, weren’t they?
The morons had long been forgotten when Masha woke up the next day. Lisbon greeted her with a glorious blue sky. She resisted the temptation to eat a second serving of Pastel de Nata in the warm sun. Her mentor meeting was due in an hour. But what really tipped the balance and made her leave the cozy place was curiosity. What would she learn today? Whom would she meet at the conference?
The Bavarians, who had added her to their WhatsApp group yesterday, had plans for lunch and dinner already. She had enough time to figure out if she joined them. What she wanted, even more, was to meet new people. What else did you go abroad for? There was still time to grab a coffee before her mentoring session. Surprised, she saw a familiar face behind the counter.
“Hey, Luis, how’d you sleep?” she asked him. A young man in a badly fitting, crumpled suit behind her wondered why she knew the barista. “How can you not know the most charming barista?” she laughed. “That’s a real piece of art”, she heard the man again when Luis handed her the cappuccino. “No,” Luis winked at her, “it’s a piece of love.” Masha beamed. If this was how the day started, what could possibly go wrong?
The conference also did a lot to make women feel welcome. Female attendees were promoted through the Women in Tech initiative. A survey had shown that almost ninety percent of the participating women saw society responsible for creating a balance in the technology environment. The organizers seemed to take this responsibility seriously.
Discounted tickets were an example. Some thought that was unfair to men. But almost two-thirds of women felt more under pressure to prove themselves and to communicate the value of their work. This included getting tickets for such a conference at company expense okay-ed by a boss. According to the survey, seventy-five percent of women felt respected in their position at work. However, only half of them believed that their employers did enough for equality.
Somehow, all the numbers didn’t exactly add up for Masha. The conference also promoted the exchange of women among each other. There were dedicated groups on social media. Masha rarely used these platforms and was, therefore, not an active member in the community.
During the conference, you could meet face to face with a mentor. Masha had immediately applied for this after receiving the e-mail. Lucky her. These meetings had been booked extremely fast. How many women got a chance like that?
All mentoring sessions were sponsored by a travel platform. Almost everyone she knew used it to book hotel rooms or apartments. The platform was managed by a woman who had started as the fifth employee in this company. Masha did not use the platform exclusively. Just like the ubiquitous app that had almost anything the heart desired delivered to your doorstep within a day. As convenient as these apps were, they had an enormous impact on small vendors.
Masha’s mentor had worked in the technology industry for over two decades. Alex, whose age was hard to judge, had made various experiences in her professional life: as an employee, and at her own company in the last years. She had often been one of the very few, if not the only woman, in a project or team. She was convinced that the lack of diversity in teams or companies was the most common cause for difficulties. But she was interested in more than just the distinction between men and women.
Diversity was multi-layered: first, there was personality. Then came gender, age, race, ethnicity, and physical ability. External factors such as culture or religion, marital status and whether you had children, physical appearance, income, and education had an influence; also, in which country you lived. All this was supplemented by professional circumstances like the area you worked in, the responsibility or wealth of experience you had, and the hierarchical level you belonged to; whether you were in the trade union, and what location you worked in.
Simply put, women represented the largest group among those who were not white males. That’s why there was so much focus on women. Worldwide, companies in Europe were leaders in equality policies. The American continent showed the highest number of female CEOs. Asia had the most women in charge of the financial sector.
“How can I support you?” Alex offered. Masha told her that she was undecided about her career: whether to look for a permanent job or to start something of her own. Alex didn’t answer with a recommendation. They didn’t know each other well enough for that. There was also no curt “follow your passion”. Instead, she advised on an analysis where you had to be very honest with yourself.
It wasn’t just about assessing your strengths or finding out what your heart was beating for. For all the idealism, two things were just as important: what did the world really need and what would you get paid for? These four aspects formed the core of a Japanese philosophy of life: Ikigai. Masha had heard of it before. The philosophy was said to be one of the main reasons for a happy, long and fulfilled life. But how to start?
With a blank piece of paper, her mentor laughed. A good start was to list her strengths and weaknesses. For what she regarded as a weakness could, under certain circumstances, prove to be a strength and vice versa. It always depended on the situation or task at hand. Next would be to list what work she liked to do, and what she disliked, and why. Some things that she did not like to do, she simply might have done not often enough yet. In professional life, there would always be things she disliked. The question of what she could learn from the job or whom she could get in touch with helped to motivate.
Answers to the other two aspects were not as easy to find and required some market research. Was the product or solution she was burning for already implemented by a company? Were there any vacancies? If so, was it possible to identify with the work ethic and culture of that company? Or was there someone else who was working on a similar project and looking for a co-founder? If not, was there a market that she could conquer with her own company? But to found a startup was not just cool and in vogue.
It was not a matter of fake it ‘til you make it like some showboats simply claimed. Self-absorbed alpha leaders who had thrived on the load of their employees’ back, had turned customers into blind disciples, and were celebrated by them like rock stars in return, didn’t serve much as a role model either. They rather perverted the perception. Starting up your first company was one thing above all: hard work; with little or no money if you weren’t born with a silver spoon in your mouth. Masha knew this from her circle of friends.
Starting a business had an impact on the standard of living and the personal environment. Families and friends could be the biggest supporters. They could also the biggest skeptics. This could have a severe effect: during setbacks you not only called into question the idea but also your own abilities. Not everyone was born to take on responsibility for others and to make decisions with far-reaching consequences. A team that complemented each other and worked well together was essential. The pressure to succeed was high. It required strength and perseverance.
A permanent position as an employee, on the contrary, meant regular working hours and a secure income. But there was no guarantee for success either. Some companies hired employees on a part-time basis and, in the remaining time, supported them in implementing their ideas. Starting up with a safety net. Masha would have loved to continue talking. Time had passed far too fast. Alex gave her a business card with a phone number. She was in Lisbon until the day after. Her offer sounded sincere. Masha almost felt like she had found a new friend. Maybe she should really meet with her again?
On the way to the next talk, she ran into Lucian. The exhibition halls were as packed as the day before. What was the probability of coming across a Romanian whom she had met two years ago? It had been a small conference in Bonn. Masha remembered how he had always held the door. His vigor was as contagious as ever. Lucian had founded his third startup and exhibited today. It was about financial independence. Something that was important to millennials like them.
His app enabled users to easily save money. It was like a digital bank account, just different. If you bought from one of their several hundred partners via the app, you received a bonus into your account. For other credit card purchases, it was possible to round up the amount to be paid. The balance was automatically credited. You could easily transfer money to your account at any time. You could even set up a standing order. If you recommended the app to a friend, you also received a bonus.
All sounded really simple. It did not surprise Masha that his app had nearly forty thousand users. After Romania, Lucian and his co-founders wanted to enter the market in England, Germany, Poland and, of course, the US of A. At the same time, they enhanced the product so that users could invest the money in small amounts. Talks with one of the world’s largest financial service providers had already been held. Where did he get all this energy from?
The next session in her schedule revolved around the question of how startups in Europe could grow rapidly. What were the success factors? How did you get money? Investment sums in the USA were significantly higher than in Europe. But was it necessary to relocate your headquarters to Silicon Valley?
One of the experts on the stage was from Barcelona. He had founded a company for business travel booking. In many large companies, the process was still a waste of time. Travel was often booked via holiday platforms, and employees had to check each time whether the flight, train ticket, hotel room, or rental car were within their employer’s travel policy. Avi’s platform solved a real problem in a market worth over a billion euros.
All business trips were centralized in his system. Travelers could only book what was in line with guidelines. Costs were clear, data uniform, and travel plans available at the push of a button. This had convinced investors. Avi had already collected over forty million euros for his company. Much of this came from European VCs. Basically, they weren’t big spenders like their American colleagues. The different languages in Europe created a hurdle. They required more development, lead to longer lead times for market penetration, and raised the risk in general.
Investments in Europe were usually more conservative. However, there was a clear advantage over Silicon Valley: the number of local developers. They knew the market and spoke the national language; or at least English. Otherwise, the cost of living was an additional lure. Avi even offered free Spanish courses to new employees. Working in Barcelona? Why not! The city had always attracted Masha.
Less appealing was the idea of going on holiday in space. Something the company of an eccentric Briton worked on. As she passed by, Masha heard the afternoon program being presented on one of the largest stages. It was about future mobility solutions. She saw Mate standing at the edge of the stage and waved at him. He nodded back, smiling. Probably gave his talk soon.
Masha was about to walk on, but a sentence from the loudspeakers made her stop. For some time now, doctors in Scotland had been able to issue a prescription for walks in nature as an alternative to medication. The health authorities were convinced that this could alleviate high blood pressure, diabetes, heart disease, and panic attacks; even mental illness.
It was an alternative cure for patients of all ages. Elderly or disabled people were restricted in their freedom of movement in particular. This could lead to depression or worse. Masha thought of Jelena again.
Future mobility solutions had to take this group into account; at all costs. According to the UN, almost one in five people on earth would belong to it in ten years’ time. When it came to innovation, developers needed to keep the one and a half billion people in mind. That was more important than teaching robot dogs how to dance, or what was worse: training them to resist a human. Nature as a remedy. Masha could imagine that very well.
After every hike in the mountains or walks at the lake, she felt full of energy. It was as if an inner window was opened and the fresh air freed the body from thick layers of dust. Problems seemed less challenging. The expanse on mountain peaks encouraged new perspectives and made her think in larger dimensions. «Nature your soul» sounded like a good slogan. But for what?
Masha went outside to catch some sun on the steps to the arena. Slowly, an idea began to form. She would love nothing better than to talk it over with someone right away. Should she call? She didn’t want to seem pushy. If only she had a daisy at hand. Finally, Masha pulled the business card out of her pocket and called. A few minutes later, she had fixed a meeting with Alex.
A woman was resting next to her. Olesia barely had any voice left. Masha offered her a pastille. Her day had been packed with appointments, she said. One of her highlights had also been the mentoring session. Olesia came from Russia. Not really a surprise to Masha. Somehow, her inner compass seemed to be calibrated since her arrival in Lisbon.
Her compatriot was responsible for strategic partnerships of a social enterprise founded by three women. They had a startup booth today. So many visitors were interested in their work: projects and services for orphanages and schools all over the world, especially in rural areas.
One of the projects was a platform where teachers could bring their students together with other students from all over the world. A combination of learning and finding pen pals. Over fifty thousand participants from schools in eighty countries were currently in the online community.
Students learned a language, solved puzzles or learned what robotics was all about. They worked together on projects and debated about human rights, art, religion, environmental protection, and globalization. Asking questions, writing expositions, or commenting on articles was more than encouraged.
The exchange helped to get to know other countries and cultures. What a wonderful concept to promote critical thinking and social competence, Masha thought. Two things that were more important than ever in the digital world. How many students from Russia might take courses on the platform already?
In the evening, she met Alex at Rossio square so they did not miss each other. The bar her mentor wanted to go to was located in the middle of the many small alleys of Bairro Alto. Alex had discovered the club a few years ago. She knew the owner. He always stocked up on a good Gin and had a free table for her. The night was mild. They decided to sit outside.
With a blanket in their back and a Portuguese Gin Tonic in hand, the mentor session entered the second inning. After all the impressions of the last two days, a thought had matured in Masha. She wanted to help Jelena and told Alex about her friend. Would it be absurd to develop a device that allowed disabled or elderly people to move more freely than in a wheelchair, or even to hike again? Masha mentioned the doctors in Scotland, and the one and a half billion elderly people worldwide in ten years.
Alex let it sink in for a moment. The venture cradle of a South Korean automotive manufacturer was already working on a concept vehicle. The Ultimate Mobility Vehicle could both be driven on the road and walk in rocky terrain. More details she was not able to reveal. She was bound to secrecy. Along those lines, Masha’s idea wasn’t too far-fetched.
“How would you launch a startup?” she asked Alex. A profound question that required another round of Gin Tonics. There were many aspects to consider. Get opinions from potential users. What did they think of the idea? What functions should the device have? Not everyone went hiking. Not everyone who went hiking wanted to cover hundreds of meters in altitude on paths that required surefootedness.
How much would it cost to develop such a device? What price tag should it have? What were the distribution channels? Could health insurance cover it? Or would it be more like buying a car?
Could Masha develop the device herself? Would she need the help of a designer and someone with more in-depth technical knowledge? These people could be co-founders or, alternatively, from an external company who was a development partner; maybe even doubling as an early investor.
How big was the market today and what percentage of potential buyers could be reached in the first step? How many overall? In which region of the world to start, and at what marketing cost? Which business model was most likely to deliver the desired results? Develop everything in-house or find different partners for certain segments of the solution?
Somewhat more difficult was another question: was somebody already working on a similar concept? Electric wheelchairs existed. Even a construction in which two electric bikes had been welded together. There was also equipment for off-road use. However, it was not suitable for stony and steep paths. Masha remembered the many mountaintops of the Dolomites. The South Korean automaker was close, but not close enough.
In Austria, Alex knew, there was a company that developed electric vehicle concepts for difficult terrain; like vineyards on steep hills. Yet, their vehicles were not made for hiking. Could one of these two companies be considered as a development partner? Did it make sense to apply for a patent first? Masha was thinking about Mate. But the price range of his projects was out of reach for the target group’s pockets.
There were so many questions waiting for answers. Alex promised to continue supporting her. After all, this was just the beginning. If the idea turned out to be marketable, investors and eco-system partners had to be found. What Masha hadn’t been aware of: Alex invested early on in founders with sustainable solutions and business models. Startups that had what it took to become small giants.
On her last night in Lisbon, Masha had a dream. She was in South Tyrol. Jelena was with her. From the small hotel in Klausen, they could hike directly to the surrounding mountains. Their destination was the summit above a pilgrimage chapel in the eastern Sarntal Alps. It was the now or never test for their new device.
People with disabilities from all over the world had contributed to the development. Anastasia had taken care of the online platform. They had paid particular attention to sustainability during the product development. The frame and padding were made entirely of recycled material. All drivetrain parts came with an ethics certificate; across the entire supply chain.
There were different operation modes, like for an electric bike. Jelena could play an active part and support by hand, a stick shift enabling different levels, or simply get carried away.
It was a humongous tour of eight hours with steep stretches and scree fields. Even in her dream, Masha’s muscles seemed to be on fire as they got closer to the top. But her friend was full of energy. Two bends short of the summit, a groundhog posed for them. A standing ovation from nature?
The Dolomites spread out in countless layers in front of them. Jelena was overwhelmed. Tears of joy ran down her cheeks. Initially, she had taken the idea not with a pinch, but a spoonful, of salt. Now she was sold and promised to come on board as a co-founder. Who would be better suited for sales but her?
In the evening they went to the cozy cellar of their hotel for dinner. The owner surprised them with a gigantic pizza and a bottle of Riserva from the Benedictine Abbey of Bolzano. A reward for what they had achieved. He was an enthusiastic mountaineer himself; had even climbed an eight-thousander.
Savoring the last limoncello, Jelena asked, “Do you think Livia would come if you invited her to the launch event? The location we have in mind should be just her thing.”
Masha smiled. “Possibly. After all, South Tyrol is not far from Milan. We would only need Mate’s luxury limousines for the shuttle service.”