Melanie Kovacs was frustrated by the IT teaching she got, and developed her own product – Master21. She attributes her success with this not least to her carefully maintained network, which has continued to grow in Basel. Melanie Kovacs and her fellow campaigners use the technology and innovation network “We Shape Tech” to promote diversity by making women working in the technology and innovation field more visible.
Ms Kovacs, you founded Master21 when you were 28. How did that come about?
As a co-initiator of the Aspire network for women startup owners, I’d met a lot of very interesting women. One of them was Valérie Vuillerat, the managing director of Ginetta. She offered me a job, and I took it. At the agency I was the link between clients and developers. I worked closely with the people from the technical area, but I didn’t speak their language. Then I went back to taking courses at the university. But this was dreadfully theoretical, boring front of class teaching, and I didn’t enjoy it at all. I was sure that anybody can learn programming, but I felt it had to be done differently.
So what is your company doing better?
How did the start-up process work out?
I started a pilot project for Master21 while I was still working at Ginetta. The fluid transition was ideal for me. My co-founder is responsible for the technical side and content, I’m responsible the business aspect. I’m very happy that he gave me the push I needed to start. I’m not sure I would have dared to found a company on my own. A few months ago, we hired a new employee. I find it very motivating if every initiative doesn’t depend on me and I can work with a team.
What do you most appreciate about being an entrepreneur?
I can set my own schedule for the day, I’m learning a lot and I work every day with bright, exciting people. I’m also seeing that my services are directly influencing the students. There have already been two cases where people met on the course and subsequently started a project together. It’s more difficult to find developers who like teaching and are good at it.
What happens next with Master21?
I’m currently participating in the Entrepreneurs’ Organisation’s Accelerator Programme, and I’m also working with a coach. Currently I’m not at all interested in a financing round, because I’d like to continue to grow independently of investors. I want the firm to develop, but at my own pace and with long-term prospects.
The company’s headquarters are in Zurich, you live in Basel. What happens where?
I’m in Zurich when I’m working at the Impact Hub and want to meet people. The courses have also been held there so far. In Basel I work on corporate strategy in my home office and write texts. If things get too quiet for me, I go to the “Unternehmen Mitte” establishment and work there, or I meet someone for lunch at the Markthalle. I think it's because there are so many expats in Basel that there’s a great sense of openness there.
How important is your personal network for the success of Master21?
My network is absolutely central. At the start, I emailed every single one of my contacts, told them about my new project and asked for feedback. I maintain my network by LinkedIn and email, and I go and have coffee with people regularly. I also go to events like TEDxZurich, and I’m active in We Shape Tech.
You’re an enthusiastic networker.
Yes, it’s easy for me. For many people networking has such a negative image. I’m not interested in collecting business cards; I want to get to know people. And I’d much rather talk to one person than quickly give my card to a whole lot of people. I really enjoy networking, because I can learn something from everybody. A couple of years ago I was just everywhere, including to promote my business. Now I find it boring if someone’s just presenting their pitch, and I’m better at choosing where I participate. I find networking particularly valuable if you can share your ideas on a joint topic with others in small groups.
You brought the initiative for diversity, the We Shape Tech network, which was previously already active in Zurich and Bern, to Basel. Why does Basel need this network?
Basel still has a lot of potential in the technology and innovation area. One indication of that for us was the way that we were welcomed with open arms. Our board member Elaine Skapetis is a developer at Adobe. The company supported us generously without hesitation with our first two Basel events. The hall at the launch event was filled to bursting, the response was just unbelievable. We offer people working or interested in the technology and innovation field the opportunity to share ideas and views and learn from each other. We follow a specific format here, where one person tells their story, a discussion is initiated, and there’s time for networking. Our goal is to connect people, communicate knowledge and ensure access to other organisations and partners. Knowledge and a good network are power.
What are the advantages of networks primarily aimed at women?
In Basel men are welcome at We Shape Tech as well. To promote diversity, you need both men and women. However, sadly, only a few men have taken advantage of the opportunity to date. The few men at the meeting have an experience which women often have, namely being part of a minority. If you have a group of just women, the atmosphere is more relaxed. I also see this in courses specifically for women at Master21. If women are just with other women, they trust themselves to do more. They ask questions which they wouldn’t if men were present, say more and are more confident than if there were men there.
About Melanie Kovacs
Melanie Kovacs founded Master21, where people interested in courses with practical relevance are introduced to the fundamentals of programming. Previously, she has founded the women’s network Aspire, and organised start-up weekends. She studied business administration at the Zurich University of Applied Sciences in Business Administration and the University of Madrid and completed a CAS in requirements engineering at the University of Applied Sciences, Rappers. Together with Aileen Zumstein and Elaine Skapetis, Melanie Kovacs brought the network We Shape Tech to Basel. The Movement in Diversity initiative offers a platform and community for people who want to make a difference in the hi-tech and innovation area. The organisation focuses simultaneously on communicating knowledge and promoting the exchange of ideas.