Startups, Women, and Digital Natives

Verena Delius, CEO of Goodbeans, is one of few women playing an active role in the German startup scene. (Photo: private)

Verena Delius has been the CEO of Goodbeans, a startup company that develops apps for children and families, since 2010. After winning the “CEO of the Future” competition in 2007, the two-time mother received a number of job offers from several large companies. But she ultimately chose “be2,” a small company specializing in business partner searches. Ms. Delius, why did you decide two years ago to become the CEO of a startup company?

Verena Delius: I am fascinated by the fact that in a startup, you are forced to stay close to the market. You have to constantly be aware of market changes and you can’t just rely on existing products that have proven their worth in the past. Nothing stands still, and you have the feeling you’re on the ball all the time. That’s exciting.

Besides, I prefer a modern management approach and open corporate culture. We offer flexible working hours and models, encourage open communication, have flat hierarchies, include our employees in decisions, and promote work-life balance.

According to a recent study by Telefónica Digital and Startup Genome, only 3% of all startup entrepreneurs in Berlin are female. Why do you think so few women are involved in German startups, despite the fact that it sounds like a family-friendly work environment?

It’s the perfect model for women. I think that more women will be working in startups in the future. It’s still something of a novelty because startups originated in a male-dominated and tech-heavy world. The industry is still too new to have produced many female role-models.  But I believe that things are moving in the right direction here. Women like to found startups that are based on technology and not on the product itself. Things like e-commerce, apps, or shopping clubs like “Westwing” or “DaWanda.” Female CEOs are a huge advantage for companies whenever women are the main target group.

Next page: How Berlin compares to Silicon Valley, London, and Tel Aviv

Was it your intention to move from Hamburg to Berlin?

It was no accident that I ended up in Berlin. Berlin is the only place you can find companies like this: Companies with an international culture, English as the company language, and a modern approach to working. Berlin is the right place for you if you want to manage or launch an international startup.

Berlin is all the rage in the startup scene. Yet the study by Telefónica and Startup Genome found that Berlin ranks only 15th among the top startup hubs, after London, Paris, Moscow, even Tel Aviv. Is Berlin more hype than substance?

Berlin is the best place right now to start up a company, get your first €50,000 to €200,000 in startup capital, and find international employees. Young people have the chance to jump right in to an existing ecosystem here. There are tons of events, entrepreneurs, and investors in Berlin.

The only drawback is the lack of financing for growth and expansion. We see a lot of small companies with one to twenty employees. What’s missing are larger companies with 40 people or more, plus one to five million euros in financing. Compared to London or Silicon Valley, Berlin was a late starter. There’s very little venture capital in Germany. Money is there – just not the big money. Lenders prefer to invest in companies in London or Silicon Valley instead. We have a strong grassroots movement in Germany, but too few companies are able to establish themselves permanently.

A lot of startups would much rather try their luck in Silicon Valley because that’s where the big money and better networks are. Do you see this as a problem affecting German cities?

I believe in the effects of networking. Berlin has a good network, but the big companies network in London, and the huge companies network in the Valley. So Germans have to connect with the American market and stop thinking locally. The problem is that U.S. investors are so busy screening their own startups that they don’t even have the time to consider European ones.

Next page: How startups can attract more skilled workers

So what is our problem?

We make things too complicated for ourselves in Germany. Take specialists, for example. Why is it so hard for us to recruit qualified people from abroad and welcome them to Germany? The German government could lower the minimum income limit on work contracts to €25,000 gross per year, which would make it easier for specialists to come and work in Germany. My suggestion would be to set up a kind of “welcome” at the foreigner’s registration office in Germany, where English-speaking staff would hand out welcome packages to newcomers. It could contain tips and advice to help make their start in Germany that much easier. The problem is that foreign specialists don’t even get the chance to put their foot in the door of a German company. Why has the government imposed an artificial minimum income limit of €45,000 on the “Blue Card”? That is an unrealistic figure, especially when it comes to startups. Companies should be allowed some room to negotiate.

The skills shortage in Germany is expected to get worse. In 2012, there were 43,000 open IT positions. What can our government do to stop this negative trend?

It has to spend more time visiting schools, universities, and job centers and show people all the great things that are possible with IT. These days, you can study IT and set up a company. It’s not as deadlocked a situation as everyone always thinks. Schools and universities have to teach IT in a more practice-oriented manner. What’s more, education in Germany is too often regarded as a privilege. If we want to stay competitive, we have to make education more accessible.

I want to give young people a chance while they are in school to familiarize themselves with what’s out there. We need more initiatives like “Girl’s Day”, where girls in grade 5 and up can spend a day at a company getting a feel for different professions. We could do the same for the IT industry, or in fields in which there’s a skills shortage. Germany already has a “voluntary social year” – why not introduce a “digital year” too? Another option would be to introduce a quota for interns at IT companies. Young people could come and get a taste of working life at a company during their school years or immediately after graduation. At startups especially, interns have the chance to work as “digital natives” and can gain a lot of experience. But this model has not caught on yet.