First say yes, then make a plan. The best way to force yourself to move outside your comfort zone is to say yes when you get a question that is outside your comfort zone. At that moment you can no longer think about doing it or not, you can only think about how to make it happen! So when you get an invite to speak or that promotion that requires you to step up, say yes! As an entrepreneur, I had no other option but to say yes and in the end it afforded me so many opportunities that got me to where I am today.
As a part of my series about “Lessons From Inspirational Women in STEM and Tech”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Janneke Niessen.
Jannekeis a serial entrepreneur, angel investor, board member and mentor for startups and co-founder of CapitalT, a VC fund that invests in technology companies using proprietary technology to evaluate entrepreneurial teams. In the past she has started and exited 2 international tech companies. She is co-founder of InspiringFifty, an initiative that aims to increase diversity in tech by making female role models more visible. As part of the InspiringFifty initiative, Janneke has published The New Girl Code (translated in four languages), a novel for young girls. The goal of the project is to encourage young girls, inspiring them to pursue a career in technology and invest in an educational foundation focusing on math and computer science. Janneke was named Harper’s Bazaar Women of the Year in 2019, most prominent angel investors in 2018, Most Innovative Leader in 2016 and 2014 EY Entrepreneur of the Year, a few of many in a long list of honors for Janneke.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?
During my time at university, I participated in a special entrepreneur program. One of my mentors at the program was about to start a company in the online advertising space which was really new in 1998! He asked me to join as an intern and from that moment I was hooked to tech and digital and have never looked back. I have seen and been part of so many different cycles in tech from the first bubble at the end of the 90’s until present time and I have loved every minute of it; The endless opportunities, the fast pace environment, the rush from new inventions; I love it all. Looking back, one of the nice things about starting in an emerging industry is the endless opportunities as there is no set establishment and even with little experience you are already experienced.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began at your company?
This is my third venture and interestingly I have started each company during an economic crisis. I actually believe a crisis is a great time to start something as it leads to change and those changes give new opportunities. Plus, after a crisis, the only way is up!
One of the coolest things that have happened to me was when I was approached by a talent about participating in an UBS campaign that featured real-life successful entrepreneurs instead of models. Of course I said yes and one day I flew to New York for the photoshoot and it was with Annie Leibovitz. So cool!
The most rewarding aspect of all three of my companies has hands down been the people I have had the opportunity to work with. There is nothing that can beat the magic of working with an amazing team.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
I made a lot of mistakes and I think it is important to realize that everybody does. Even the most successful people made a lot of mistakes to get where they are today. And unfortunately a lot of mistakes are very costly and I don’t think an entrepreneur ever thinks their mistakes are funny at the time. Making the wrong hires, expanding too fast or too slow, migrating to a new platform too early; So many things went wrong as I was building my companies). And it always too easily feels as though your competition is doing a lot better but it is important to remember that you get their information from their press releases and their most buttoned up communications which often times is not the most accurate portrayal of reality. I remember speaking to our competitors after we exited the company and found out they too were going through hardships and growing pains and we actually were not in that bad of a position. Perspective is key!
During the very early days of our last company we made a judgement error with a deadline which meant I needed to work through the night. Our office was pretty empty by night so when I decided to sleep for a few hours, the only thing I could do was curl up on the floor. So much for glamourous startup life. Another sort of funny mistake was when my business partner and I decided to rent an apartment in London instead of an office so we could save on hotel cost when we had to be there, which was quite often. Nobody told us back then it could easily take 3 months before your internet would be up and running….Ouch. Pretty useless office when you have no internet.
What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
The fund is using proprietary technology based on scientific research to evaluate entrepreneurial teams. 90% of companies fail and in 60% of cases that is due to the team. Still a lot of decisions are based on financials and gut feel. We believe that through our data driven approach we will generate much better results and remove bias from the investment trajectory. If you look at the numbers, the majority of VC investments still go to male founders (85%), female founders receive only 2.8% and the remainder goes to mixed teams. People of color have an even harder time getting funding. Key reasons for this are bias and network. People tend to invest in people that look like them. If the majority (90%) of decision makers at VC funds are male, that bias goes one way. Investing based on data omits gut feelings and is more objective. CapitalT also stands out because of our core principal and approach to introductions in the VC world; Without introductions, it is difficult to get attention from VC’s and we strongly believe that should not be the case. If you are really good you will manage an introduction is easy to say when you are part of a network but almost impossible if you are on the outside. There is a large group of talented entrepreneurs that just do not get the same opportunities so we wanted to create a level playing field for those entrepreneurs. With CapitalT, you can go through the analysis on the platform without being part of our network. You can focus your energy on your company versus trying to get our attention. When the facts look good, we will look at your company, whether we know you or not.
Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?
CapitalT is fairly new and we are really excited about it and we believe that our approach will make an impact. First of course, on the returns, we will provide to our investors but also on how we contribute to providing a level playing field for entrepreneurs. Venture capital have a vital and pivotal impact on how our future looks. The fact that 7 of the most valuable companies in the world today one day started with VC funding is a testament to that. As mentioned before though it is not a level playing field, due to, amongst other reasons, network and bias. Through our data-driven approach we aim to remove those.
If we can contribute, even just a little bit, to making the future more diverse and inclusive that would be great.
That belief is also the impetuous for me creating my nonprofit book, The New Girl Code.
I receive so many emails from girls who were inspired to learn how to code from reading the book or have a company idea they want to create; Hearing their stories is always really special. And how cool would it be if in 10 years’ time, the founder of the next big tech company was first inspired through The New Girl Code?
Ok super. Thank you for all that. Let’s now shift to the main focus of our interview. Are you currently satisfied with the status quo regarding women in STEM? What specific changes do you think are needed to change the status quo?
Absolutely not. Things definitely need to change. There is a real lack of diversity in STEM and not just with women but diversity in general. The implications of this lack of diversity are already significant but will only increase further. First, it is bad for business, because it is proven that diverse companies perform better. Second, tech is the fastest growing industry. Not being able to be part of that has financial implications. Last but definitely not least, diversity is vital in making sure our products and services are inclusive. There are sadly so many examples where that is not the case.
I believe role models play a key role. If she can see it, she can be it. You need to see those examples in the media, on stage, at the top of companies, as founders of companies. Unfortunately there is not one simple solution but many things need to happen to get to a more balanced and inclusive place and I believe all of should be involved in solving the issue. A good start though is to hire a diverse workforce and invest in diverse founders. Stop making excuses, stop just talking about it. Makes sure you do what you can to make tech more diverse and inclusive.
In your opinion, what are the biggest challenges faced by women in STEM or Tech that aren’t typically faced by their male counterparts? What would you suggest to address this?
You need to be 10 times better to achieve the same. Stereotypes are really tough to fight. You never start with an advantage and you are never doing the right thing; you smile too much or too little, you are too bossy or not assertive enough, you are arrogant or not confident. Just being you should be enough to be accepted and to thrive. A level playing field would be best for everybody and the best way to achieve this is to have a truly diverse workforce. If there is just one type of person, that becomes the norm and everybody that is different is less accepted. There should be different people in a team and that different is the best.
What are the “myths” that you would like to dispel about being a woman in STEM or Tech. Can you explain what you mean?
That somehow women are less tech savvy than men and it is just not true. Both men and women are equally capable of doing anything they want in tech.
Another myth that I really tried to debunk in The New Girl Code is that tech is boring and it is not! Technology can solve problems, technology makes the world much smaller, technology can create endless opportunities. The list is endless.
What are your “5 Leadership Lessons I Learned From My Experience as a Woman in STEM or Tech” and why. (Please share a story or example for each.)
First say yes, then make a plan
The best way to force yourself to move outside your comfort zone is to say yes when you get a question that is outside your comfort zone. At that moment you can no longer think about doing it or not, you can only think about how to make it happen! So when you get an invite to speak or that promotion that requires you to step up, say yes! As an entrepreneur, I had no other option but to say yes and in the end it afforded me so many opportunities that got me to where I am today.
The super power of entrepreneurs is their ability to handle no’s
As an entrepreneur, you are often faced with pushback but you cannot let that get you down. Continue to push boundaries and build what you believe in. Most of the time you can easily handle the no’s. Sometimes you can’t, and that is fine too. It is all part of the journey.
Put yourself in the spotlight
If you don’t tell people the great things you do and tell yourself that you are pretty fantastic, who will? It is a myth that just “doing the right thing” is enough. Building yourself up and putting yourself in the spotlight is not easy at first but is so important and can be done in a non-boastful, informative way. Figure out a way that is authentic to you but do it!
Ask for help
If you do not share your challenges or what you want to achieve people won’t know. There is absolutely no problem in asking for help. The best example is when we published the Dutch version of The New Girl Code, I thought it would be a great idea to hand the first copy to the Queen of the Netherlands. I told a lot of people that this was my goal. Most people laughed but one person said “I can help you” and she did! Cut to launch day, I am at the palace and handed the first printed copy of the book to Queen Máxima of the Netherlands.
Network, network, network
It does not happen in the office. Go outside. Meet with other people. Only after 20 years did I start to truly feel the benefits of putting a lot of effort into a strong network. But once you reach that point it is amazing what the power of having a strong network behind you will do.
What advice would you give to other female leaders about the best way to manage a large team?
I believe your most important role as a leader is to inspire your team and to make sure that they can do their job well. Remove obstacles, bureaucracy and allow them try things their way. I believe that when you give people trust and responsibility instead of tasks and control you will see the best of people. If you don’t think people can handle that autonomy then you should not hire them. I also believe in putting people outside their comfort zone. At my previous company we had a really great and super smart development team. I really believed that if they were able to bring their ideas to other parts of the company, it would benefit everyone so we organized a storytelling training for all employees. Before we began they were not too happy with me (to put it mildly) but as the workshop went on most loved it and had the opportunity to share their ideas with the rest of the team. The same with the sales team — we sent them to a coding course so that they would gain a better understanding of what the development team did and how they work. All around it was a great benefit to everyone and if you have the opportunity to switch it up within your organization I highly recommend it.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?
A lot of people. First my mum who has always been a great role model — she has always worked and valued financial independence. Neelie Kroes, who has been a huge supporter of me and my companies over the years. And Corinne Vigreux who is a great role model and also the corner stone investor of our current CaptialT fund.
How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?
Yes I try to, as I really believe that when you are successful that is because of your hard work. But also due to the ecosystem built by others before you. I see it as an obligation to give back to that ecosystem. Also, if you are in a position to speak up when others can’t. I mentor other founders, I invest (as angel and through my VC firm), I share my experiences and mistakes. I try to contribute to make the ecosystem better.
You are a person of enormous influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂
VC’s play an important role in the type of companies that get the opportunity to become big and become the next Amazon, Apple, Microsoft or Google. That means the VC landscape should change and become more diverse. But today emerging managers and first time funds have a hard time attracting capital. The way it works results in a world where mainly people that are already rich or fit a certain profile can start a VC fund. That has a huge impact on the limited ability of the VC world to become more diverse. If that would change and the largest LP’s in the world would change their rules it would have an enormous impact on how power and wealth is divided. More diverse entrepreneurs will receive funding, more diverse entrepreneurs will become successful. They will hire from their own networks, they will invest in their own networks and different networks will become part of this ecosystem. It can have so much positive impact on so many people. Then maybe one day, when we talk about what a successful entrepreneur looks like we will not describe a white guy in a hoody but we will describe at least 10 different versions.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
You can achieve anything! I have been fortunate enough to be brought up by parents who always encouraged me to make the best use of my capabilities and always made me believe I could achieve anything I wanted. I know that is an incredible privilege and has always given me the courage to try new things.
We are very blessed that very prominent leaders read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them 🙂
I would love to meet Shonda Rhimes. I truly admire her ability to use creativity to address a multitude of issues in an organic way that reaches a broad audience without being obvious just presenting it as normal. Great storytelling is so powerful and I think she demonstrates this every day. Meeting her would be such an inspiration! And it would be great if Lauren Powell would join us so I could pitch our VC fund on the way out!