Blog: The Foundress

Understanding Happiness

A few weeks ago, Fast Forward Imaging turned two years old. Two years ago, I set out on a journey that felt familiar at the outset, but turned out quite different from anything else I’ve ever done. This journey has changed me in many ways.

Most importantly, I have become stronger than I ever thought possible. For a while, I thought that it was all about discovering some hidden center of power within me, but – rather annoyingly – I couldn’t find that secret spot, no matter how hard I looked and how deep I dug. So instead I built this strength through hard training. Probably – as in physical exercise – some rest phases would have helped to build these ‘muscles’ more efficiently, but since that wasn’t an option I suppose I just built them through constant endurance. And this strength feels incredibly good. Knowing that I can deal with whatever rocks are thrown in my path, knowing that I can keep falling over again and again, and that I will still have the strength to get back up every time, has changed my entire outlook on life.

The most important aspect is the fact that my life is exactly as I choose to live it. I created my own circumstances; I built my life by removing certain aspects and adding others. To me, there is no difference between ‘work’ and ‘private’; I see my work as an expression of my personality and my life choices. I have a small circle of friends who understand (or at least respect) my choices, who are not upset if I don’t call them for months at a time and who do not try to ‘protect’ me from my own choices.

However my journey has certainly not made me a nicer person. Not surprisingly, I have lost quite a few friends along the way; some may say that I broke these friendships deliberately or carelessly, and they are probably right in more than just a few cases. I have certainly lost any patience with people who consider themselves a constant victim of circumstance, and I cannot bear to hear people whine about their work and their employers.

A long time ago, I decided to use my own standard as the yard stick that I want to be measured by. There is no one who demands more of me, no one who is more critical, but also no one who understands as clearly as I do how I got to where I am. Of course I long for external feedback, and I am disappointed if I experience a lack of loyalty or appreciation. But mainly, I am drawing a deep pleasure and satisfaction from being where I am and having made it this far.

It’s hard to describe the feeling of the deep joy that I sometimes experience: a warm, glowing happiness that expands in my chest and rises slowly until I can hardly keep from laughing out loud. It sometimes overcomes me when I’m out running, and sometimes when I’m on my work commute, on the bike or on the train. The sun hits my eyes, or I catch the scent of some flowers; a certain track starts playing on my phone, or I realise I have actually been rushing forward because I’m impatient to get to the office. It hits me suddenly, and it’s the lust for the challenges I have chosen and the deep satisfaction that lies in overcoming them, one by one. It’s the pure and ultimate joy of moving forward and growing with every step.

When Stuff Goes Wrong

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Stuff goes wrong. It does that all the time, and you allow for it when you make your plans. But sometimes things spiral out of proportion, beyond anything you imagined you may face. You come up against a challenge of a completely new and unexpected magnitude.

I wrote most of this blog post in Q4 2013 when I was faced with one of the biggest challenges in my career as an entrepreneur to date – not only on a professional but also on a personal level. I did not publish this post at the time, because I felt that I needed to gain some distance first.

The initial response to a threat of unexpected magnitude is, quite naturally, a moment of panic. You stare at the situation in disbelief: how on earth did this happen? And then comes the moment for your fight or flight decision. However in business(especially in a country like Germany) it’s rarely as simple as that. Neither option will be particularly quick to execute, leading to a long, slow and often painful process.

Let’s say you’ve chosen to fight. You may feel quite noble and courageous, and this will help you over the first few hurdles. However it won’t change the fact that the going will get extremely tough, and you feel that you may be in over your head. So you grind your teeth, and you struggle. It’s hard – much harder than anything you’ve done so far. And it doesn’t stop: new issues keep flying at you from unexpected directions, and you start having your doubts if fighting was such a great idea after all. Remember: this situation is bigger and more difficult than any challenge you ever thought yourself capable of facing.

But here comes the million dollar question: How do you know what you are capable of?

Since early spring 2013, I had eyed myself and my progress curiously, waiting to hit some sort of limit. I had made a decision to throw everything – and I mean EVERYTHING –  I have at Fast Forward Imaging. After a brief readjustment phase, during which I had to get used to a changed lifestyle (less time spent with friends, mostly – plus plainer food due to less time set aside for cooking), I was feeling pretty good, and I felt as if I could keep going for some time. I’d cut my exercise down to one long, slow run on Sundays, but managed to actually increase the distance to 10K, which I had set as my personal goal. It felt okay; maybe even a little bit better than okay. It certainly felt deeply satisfying, albeit tiring at the same time.

Then – in the autumn – the shit hit the fan. An issue came up that I had not made any plans for, and it was a biggie. Concerned that I had already pushed myself quite far beyond my assumed limits, my initial panic was even greater: would I be able to face not only the increased level of pressure that I had already committed to, but also this unexpected, unplanned-for weight?

Flight was not an option. I realised much later that the idea actually did not even occur to me during the first three weeks of my struggle. I had chosen a responsibility, and the idea of running from it simply didn’t even feature. I also have this thing about opportunities: in my thoroughly atheist reference system, letting potential go to waste is the only true cardinal sin. And there was no way I was going to walk away.

So I dug in my heels and set to work. However it also meant that I needed to grow far beyond what I’d ever imagined myself to be capable of. To learn new skills I never wanted to acquire. To toughen up considerably – and very few people had called me a softie in the past.

In hindsight, I made a lot of mistakes. I am still making them, and then some. You can’t learn without messing up every now and then. But you can try and avoid making the same mistake twice.

Of course I hoped that all would be well the minute the situation resolved itself, which was obviously nothing but a sweet, naive dream. Understanding the issue and even resolving it still left me with one hell of a mess that needed tidying up. And not all wounds can be healed. Understanding that there is only so much you can do, and accepting the long-term consequences of major fuck-ups is one of the learnings I took away from the situation. It was not a pretty lesson, but in the long run that only makes it even more useful.

Being forced to make a lot of hard choices, I was constantly tempted to choose the easy option (whichever that was at the time). In situations like that, it helps a lot to be surrounded by people who will not allow you to back down, and the best feedback is that which you receive from those people who will pay you the greatest respect for the decision that was the hardest to make. So often, you would prefer to choose the easier route, but you know deep down that it would be wrong, that it would be lazy, that it would make you a coward. There is nothing better than having people around you who will walk with you every step of the way, and who will not stop challenging you to be the best you can possibly be.

Of course there are other people who don’t fall into that very special category. With regards to them: don’t make assumptions. You may want to think you’ve understood what drives them, but you will never know everything there is to know about them. Other people’s motives and motivations will always remain their own.

In the end, we made it through. Along the way, I certainly discovered some limits, but in the end I found the strength to push at them – and I found them to be rather more flexible than I had thought.

A lot was broken beyond repair, and I have to learn to live with that. I have learnt to accept the fact, but it certainly wasn’t easy. But then again, maybe that’s a good thing. I like to think that feeling pain and fear is extremely valuable, as long as you manage to not be blinded or immobilised by them.

We are Panda!

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This past Saturday, I got up early cursing and swearing at myself. Why the hell did I think to apply for an event that was scheduled to start between 8 and 9am on a Saturday? However looking back at the day, there is literally nothing better I could have spent my day doing than taking part in the Panda contest, a career competition for female leadership talent. 100 women were selected out of 500 applicants and met bright and early in the foyer of the Esplanade hotel in Berlin.

Now, as some of you know I have grown a little hesitant about all-women’s events lately, so I was a little skeptical of the concept at first. However I figured that it should be fun: I have always been fond of mind games, and I guess you could say that amongst my family, analysing ourselves and each other is a bit of a sport.

In my professional life, I have gone through a couple of online assessments in the past, both of which I found quite fascinating. One of them held little surprise for me – I could have predicted the entire list of results even whilst I was doing the test. The second however shed light on some aspects of my character of which I was aware, but which I would not have seen to be as dominant as the results of the assessment suggested.

However, having spent the last six years outside of larger organisations and thus stirring in my own juice, I was curious for external feedback. Plus, I guess you can’t really grow up with two older brothers and not somehow end up being a teensy bit competitive.

I have to admit that I did not know what to expect, so I habitually expected very little. I could not have been more wrong. I was thrilled to discover that I was spending an extremely well-organised day with more than 100 incredibly inspiring, driven women. Women who – like me – are willing to go an extra mile. Who are keen to learn, keen for feedback, keen to compete – all in a collegial, deeply respectful spirit that was just as willing to challenge (and be challenged) as it was positive and fun.

As many of you know I have always felt more comfortable in the presence of men (and boys) than women. The Panda contest was one of the very few – if not even the first – occasion during which I actively enjoyed being completely surrounded by women. Which made me love the fact even more that most of the judging was done in the style of a ‘crowd ranking’, and there was a speed feedback session after each exercise: we were judged by the other women, not by a panel of judges applying a certain set of criteria. As Susanne, one of the other participants, put it: “Every comment I receive here, no matter if it’s praise or criticism, is a compliment, because I am surrounded by my peers.” I couldn’t agree more. I was equally thrilled and humbled by being surrounded by women who expect so much of themselves – and even more so with each round of the competition in which I received positive feedback, and made it to the next level.

I had been hoping for the top 20 (as I mentioned, I do have a competitive streak), and having made it thus far, I dared to hope for a spot amongst the top 10. Leaving the room after an intense Q&A session with our ‘grand jury’, Dr. Angelika Dammann, Prof. Dr. Ulrike Detmers and Karin Bollo, I was both happy and exhausted and did not really assume I’d have to worry about anything beyond dinner and a nice glass of wine to finish off an amazing day. When my name was called as one of the four finalists, it was simply the cherry on the cake, and nothing could have made me happier. (Okay, that’s a lie. Of course winning would have been even better, but both winners, Stephanie and Sanja, are such amazing women that coming second to them and sharing that position with someone like Nicola, the fourth in our circle, is a compliment all in itself.)

When I came online today and invitations to connect on Xing, Linkedin and Facebook started popping up in my inbox, I realised one more wonderful thing about the event: for all of us, reaching out to the other participants was a completely logical, natural step. Networking with men, I have grown a little weary of connecting on the day after the event, because it is sometimes misunderstood. Not in this case – on the contrary, it would have felt weird to NOT connect. I have certainly met a few women this past Saturday who I hope will become friends in the future. And the amazing feedback I received from all of these women has been a great encouragement to me: an encouragement to stretch further, to learn more, and to be proud of who I am. But also to be more aware of the great women around me, to connect, to listen and to share our passion for the lives we’ve chosen.

I’d like to extend my Thanks to Isabelle and Cameron, the amazing organisers of the Panda contest. I had an amazing day, and I can’t wait to see what you guys come up with next!

The Equality Dilemma, or: How Far Will Leaning In Really Get You?

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Disclaimer: I have yet to read Sheryl Sandberg’s book ‘Lean In’ – my current thoughts are based on an brief overview I received during a workshop with the Berlin Geekettes and an impression I’ve formed through some of the commentaries on the book in the press and my direct circle of friends. I will try and post an update on this when I’ve actually read the book (and possibly pour out a whole bucket of ashes over my head, shouting out ‘Mea culpa! Mea culpa!’ when I do).

I recently joined a group of 60-or-so women for the first of two Berlin Geekettes workshops on Sheryl Sandberg’s book. I wasn’t sure what to expect, but started feeling extremely uncomfortable only about ten minutes into the first session. Why? I’ll get to that in a moment.

Continue reading “The Equality Dilemma, or: How Far Will Leaning In Really Get You?”

Jess.

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It is pretty much impossible right now to be discussing women in the tech and startup world in Berlin without coming across my third interviewee, Jess Erickson. Jess founded the Berlin Geekettes network, and is currently busy building the Berlin base for General Assembly. Meeting Jess is easy – she seems to be everywhere at once – but finding time to sit down for a quiet chat is actually a bit of a challenge. However we finally manage to get together at Kommerzpunk, one of Jess’ favourite spots. Continue reading “Jess.”

Maria.

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On a greyish morning, Lars and I go and visit Maria Molland, Head of European operations at fab.com. fab’s Berlin headquarters – an old ground floor factory loft in a Kreuzberg backyard – is warm and bright and colourful. Maria, having just returned from a trip to the States, is certainly much more lively than I tend to be when I’m struggling with jet-lag, so we jump right in.

Continue reading “Maria.”