My second interviewee is Linsey Fryatt, the Managing Editor of Berlin-based online startup magazine Venture Village. Linsey has been a part of the entrepreneurial scene in Berlin for a year now, and looks at it wearing a journalist’s hat most of the time. I contacted Linsey because I wanted that exact perspective: the views of someone who has been in Berlin long enough to know her way around; someone who is not a founder herself but intimately linked with this very particular parallel universe.
We quickly settle into a couple of comfy sofas at Berlin’s Kommerzpunk, one of the spaces favoured by the female tech crowd. Centrally located, but not yet overrun by tourists, Kommerzpunk is a cosy haven in Berlin’s Mitte district, serving a daily vegan lunch menu. The owner is kind enough to allow Lars, my photographer, to fiddle with his equipment and take up rather more space than your average guest might need; but the lunch crowd is gone, and we have the place almost to ourselves.
You can not really chat about women in Berlin tech without mentioning Jess Ericksson, the woman behind the Berlin Geekettes. Linsey and I agree that Jess and her intense drive and dedication have managed to give the situation of women in tech in Berlin a face. Linsey recalls the beginning of the Geekettes:
“Everyone mobilised tremendously quickly.”
“It went from a dinner with a few people to massive proportions. We did a panel talk on women in tech as part of Social Media Week, which was really good fun, and very well attended. It was quite literally packed, and there was a good mix of men and women. There was a lot of young and really involved, enthusiastic women there who wanted to meet each other.
The whole gender story… It’s crazy, especially in tech, because it is such a male-dominated area. It’s not like we’re stuck in a Mad Men episode any more, but and undercurrent still seems to be there. I think it’s an unconscious thing a lot of the time. In my experience, you need a good mixture of different people for a healthy workplace. That includes men, women, different social classes… It is not about man-bashing, but I have worked in a lot of different environments, and the best ones are the ones that are mixed, and where everyone’s voice is heard.
Mostly my offices have been very much male-dominated. I worked at Stuff, a UK tech and gadget magazine, and I was the only female there for quite a while, which was quite interesting. Those were obviously young guys as well, quite a bit younger than me, and often conversations would get a little out of hand. I remember joining a meeting once and saying that they really shouldn’t be saying certain things to each other in front of me, and one of the guys turned around to me and said ‘But it’s okay, Linsey, you’re the honorary bloke!’, as if it was a compliment. Well, I felt it was a bit of a back-handed compliment at the time…” She laughs.
Knowing the situation well, I ask her about her current team. At Venture Village, the team is all-female, and I can’t help but wonder if this was a conscious decision.
Linsey laughs again when I suggest this: “God, no! I think it would be illegal if it was a conscious decision! It was purely by chance. When we were recruiting – and we’ve done a lot of recruiting over the past year – the women we interviewed were simply the better candidates. We have grown our team from an initial core of three to six women now, and they were just the best candidates. Simple as that – there was absolutely no design in it at all.”
“How would you compare it? Is it different, working with an all-women team?”
“Yes, it does make a difference. We’ve been extremely lucky with our team – it’s not an office where you get the kind of friction that can come about from an office full of women. I think because of our area of work and because of the candidates we get, it’s just a good environment to work in. Obviously, we are a really international team – I’m from Scotland, we have two Australians, one New Zealander, and our new intern is from Toronto…”
Asked how she decided to come to Berlin, Linsey tells a story I have heard many times: “It was just a massive whim, really. I had been in London for ten years and I knew I wanted to live somewhere else. I wasn’t particularly challenged in London – I had a good job at another startup, but it was very corporate – we did corporate publications, and it just wasn’t really for me. I had a couple of friends here, and then it was the usual kind of story: you come here for a long weekend, you think ‘yeah, it’s quite nice here!’, and then I just became more and more excited about the idea of moving here. As my German is really terrible, I did some research to find out if I could feasibly get a job here, and found out that there was a real tangible thing going on around the digital and startup scene.
Then of course I did it all the wrong way round – moved first and then thought about the practicalities later. So I came here, and I had freelance work; I had freelanced in the UK for various tech publications, and I did some consulting here for a number of websites. For Rocket Internet actually, about whom everyone is so worked up, but I had a great experience with them. They wanted to roll out some publications in the UK, so I did that and then got offered the job at venture Village.
We have a sister publication, Gründerszene, and Nora, my contemporary over there is another one of those great, strong women. Gründerszene saw that there was a real opportunity in presenting news on the digital and startup scene in Berlin in English, for an international readership. There is a lot of international attention focused on Berlin right now, so we were getting lots of requests for that type on information.
60% of our readership is actually from outside of Germany: the US, the UK, mainland Europe, a lot of traffic from Israel… and the 40% within Germany are largely international readers as well. With this readership, we have the scope to be a little more creative. Every now and then, we run lifestyle pieces – on relocation, helping people get to grips with the startup and business scene, as well as with their lives too. I like to think that we bring a bit of personality that isn’t traditional in that type of reporting. That is really what sets us apart, and we want to continue like that.”
Asked to compare Berlin with the international entrepreneurial scene, Linsey replies with fervent enthusiasm: “It’s great. When I first started at Venture Village, I was just amazed by how many things there were to cover. There is so much going on – meetups and collaborations, hackathons, you name it. It’s extremely vibrant, especially at grass-roots level, which is exeptionally good if you’re a newcomer. You can navigate the scene really quickly – within three or four months, I knew how everyone interconnected.
A lot has been said about the Berlin hype – mostly that it really is just a hype and that there is not enough capital behind it at the moment. I think that is partially true, but the issue is that there has not been a lot of successful exits yet. But people need to remember that the scene here is just at the start of its curve – after the initial hype the serious money will come. Right now, the money money being thrown around comes in relatively small, conservative amounts. But I think that in the next five or six years you will hopefully see successful globalisations – more than just Soundcloud – and successful exits and more serious investments.
So yes, I do think there is a hype around it just now, but that’s just a phase. Not like the dot.com bubble all over again – hopefully!” She laughs, “It’s more like a wave. Because it’s quite nichey and quite young there is so much collaboration, which I absolutely love. People need that. London is a more mature market and a more mature scene, so people and companies don’t have the same need for interaction. Collaboration, here in Berlin, is uncomplicated and easy – and I find that really positive.”
“How do you personally feel about female role models?”
“I think it’s an interesting topic. I was the only voice of dissent on the panel I mentioned, primarily because I am slightly uncomfortable with having to define yourself in such a way. Do we really need to state that we are women in this day and age? Does it really matter? However the more I thought about it – and I thought about it very carefully before this panel, because I knew that people would be listening – I decided that role models are a good thing, because they make it easier for the next generation. Seeing women who are active and visible in this scene helps young girls understand that they can be a developer, a programmer or a CEO. So I do think it is a positive thing, but I did approach it with caution. Of course ideally you’d want a world where you don’t have to have these groups, but that might still take a little time.”
“Do you think that there are enough women in the entrepreneurial and the tech scene? Do you think women should be encouraged to go into tech, or do you think people should make up their mind based on who they are and what their preferences are?”
“Once again, ideally that would be what should happen. And I think that we are seeing a change – just from personal experience and from what Jess is doing with the Geekettes. When the Facebook group started, the response was massive, so there are oviously women in this area – it just made me much more aware of the fact. And it is such a good networking tool as well. Despite and as well as anything else, it’s just really good for us to use it to network with other people in the industry. But in terms of initiatives, again I am always a little bit weary of positive discrimination.”
As we wrap up, Linsey looks at me thoughtfully and continues:
“The wonderful thing about the tech scene is that people are – first and foremost – interested in the quality of your work. Other people’s expectations don’t play as large a role as in many other, more established industries. It’s a very ‘can-do’ environment, which is really positive for women. And if I’m quite honest, if there is discrimination I have personally experienced, it has been more age discimination than gender bias.”