Jeanette Carlsson, Founder & CEO of Tech Nordic Advocates, Board and EU Advisor shares her 30-year career in tech with Johanna Hamilton, and on how problem solving has always been her strength in a career that has spanned the EU Commission, PwC, IBM, board, government and diplomatic advisor – and entrepreneurship.  

So, were you always going to work in tech?

I started life as an economist in Brussels, at the European Commission because I was very interested in the whole European question and specifically economic and monetary union. It was a huge opportunity at a game changing time in European history to work on that as a young economist at the top of the commission. From there I joined Coopers & Lybrand that quickly became PwC, as a strategy consultant.

I started out using my European Commission experience, but pretty soon, I got into TMT – Telecom, Media and Technology – working on clients such as Vodafone and BT as well as the BBC and Reuters and European telco/media clients

For me, as an economist and strategy consultant, it was always about problem solving and a fast moving environment.

So you’re not really a techie?

No, I’m not a techie, coder, engineer or developer. That’s a key point. You don’t have to be a techie to work in tech. I have spent 30 years in tech helping tech companies grow and scale. My experience is that there are so many different roles and opportunities in tech, that don’t require you to be in any way technical. I’m very keen to get that message across. The work to get more women and girls into STEM is crucial, as we need their talent but it’s important to know that you don’t need to be a STEM graduate or techie to carve out a career in tech.

As a non-techie, how did you end up at IBM?

IBM bought the consulting arm of PwC. So, I joined IBM through the backdoor as it were. IBM was moving from a product to a services business, so wanted to acquire a strategic capability -people who could go and build client relationships and be strategic and visionary in their mindset. I fitted into that.

The US go-getting and ‘let’s do this’ way of doing things and speed of life also align very easily with me. Early on, IBM created a Think Tank like business charged with developing IBM’s thinking and value propositions aligned with key mega trends and top line issues. I was asked to lead the global TMT/comms sector part of that from the start, which was a huge opportunity allowing me to deploy my problem-solving strategic capabilities to develop thought leadership and value propositions for IBM and front major transformational deals with the world’s biggest TMT companies.

Tell me about your own career development within IBM?

The global comms sector leadership role was game changing for my career. All of a sudden I found myself issuing press releases and speaking on behalf of IBM, doing fireside chats and keynotes at major industry leading events such as 3GSM etc.which really developed my public profile. Having been picked for IBM’s top talent programme, I was then offered to lead IBM Europe’s big deals business selling and leading transformational deals with UK and European TMT brands such as BT, Vodafone, Sky, DT, FT, KPN and Reuters. Once again, my problem solving and leadership skills and boosted confidence came into play as it was my job to engage with the boards of big name TMT brands to understand their key strategic challenges and then offer and lead transformational programmes to help them solve those problems, drive efficiency gains and cost savings.

Did you see many other women at your level?

No. I was definitely an anomaly as a woman. There were very few of us, especially at senior level, at IBM. In fact, I ended up looking like a man for a number of years. I would be in grey trouser suits. If you didn’t see my long hair, you would assume I was one of the boys in the boardroom. Tells us how important role models is. I simply fitted in and emulated male behavious, until I got to a point of having enough confidence to think, “I know what I’m doing, I need to be and look like  me rather than be someone I’m not”.

IBM created a women in tech growth programme to nurture top talent which helped. I received executive coaching from both men and women on things like leadership and negotiation skills – predominantly negotiating with male clients, was funded to go to Business School at Oxford etc.

I guess that’s when I realised that there’s lots of female talent which isn’t being nurtured and that you can really unlock huge talent and opportunity, if you put the right support around it. And that’s not because women are on crutches, or less able, but simply because there are so many entrenched structural issues and behaviours that make it really hard for women or other underrepresented groups to flourish, incl. lack of role models and traditional ecosystems which are hard to penetrate. If you look into those in tech, and don’t see people like yourself, many naturally conclude, “this space is not for me”.

So, where did the seeds of Tech Nordic Advocates come from?

TNA grew out of a role I had at IBM designed to source independent software vendors. This got me into start-up territory where I met Russ Shaw, who had just set up Tech London Advocates back in 2013 to create a grassroot ecosystem to help fuel the growth of a more embryonic but rapidly growing tech sector at the time.

I joined TLA and became an advisor to the DTI in the UK to support startup growth, joined Russ on the connecting tech city steering group  and various embassies and steering committees to support startup growth

Having seen what we could achieve in TLA by bringing smart people together, that became the inspiration which got me thinking that the Nordics too, needed to join the dots to create a grassroots tech start-up ecosystem, reinforced by the Nordic countries being small, hence can’t offer scale-up opportunities and access to talent, know how, opportunities and capital, alone. So, we need to work more closely together across Nordic country borders to create a Nordic tech hub. That was really the vision and driving force behind Tech Nordic Advocates.

Was it complicated to join nations together in tech?

TNA has eight markets, five Nordic and three Baltic, headquartered in Copenhagen, with offices in Stockholm and Helsinki, soon Oslo and Talinn too. We are similar to TLA in the way that we’re very network focused – but we also offer structured programmes to help start-ups and scale ups grow, scale and expand internationally. We can help you find a mentor. If you need investment, TNA Invest, our investment arm will help, we offer office hours with experts amongst our partners, TNA (inspirational) Talks, incubators and accelerators. If you need training, we have TNA Academy.

And how did COVID impact everything?

We quickly realised that start-ups were particularly badly affected by COVID, given their inherently fragile nature. So, we started the TNA COVID ecosystem resource hub, to help start-ups navigate the key challenges COVID posed with no access to international markets, investors pulling funding due to delayed execution and more of that ilk.

What about women in tech in the Nordics?

As we were running the COVID resource hub, it became clear that female founders were particularly badly impacted. I knew that the female founder challenge in the Nordics is the same as in the UK and elsewhere but the COVID challenge and deeper examination brought home to me that the challenge in the Nordics is acute and hadn’t changed much in recent years. I looked into what was being done about it, and learnt that the countries that have made real progress on the gender gap in tech entrepreneurship are those that come at the problem from the top down – countries like Canada, which has a women entrepreneurship strategy and capital fund open to female founders, whereas the effort across the Nordics had by then mainly been bottom up, low-touch, non-government driven and centred around networking events.

What we’re looking at is a problem that won’t fix itself. When there’s market failure you need intervention. Canada is right at the top of the OECD league table for women entrepreneurship. The U. S on a par with more of an interventionist approach. Clearly, if we want to fix this problem in the Nordics, we must adopt a similar approach. So I developed a top-down, highly structured, targeted programme supported by the leaders of the most successful programmes in Canada, the U.S and the UK, and secured funding from private and public sector partners to launch and deliver the programme, starting in Denmark where the challenge is most acute but not a million miles from the other Nordic countries.

So, tell me about the TNA programme?

The Programme – Nordics as Female Tech Founder Frontrunner is a 3-module programme. Module One is an international mentoring programme which helps women create new and grow early stage tech businesses supported by dedicated mentors, an international business school, access to experts, partners and our GTA global network  Module Two is an international accelerator helping growth stage tech companies led by women, scale and expand internationally. Module Three is a diversity venture fund which we created to improve access to capital for female founders, matching female founders with international investors committed to investing in them, thereby removing a major barrier for female founders, while helping investors source diverse deal flow

Is the lack of female founders mainly to do with funding? Is VC funding the answer?

Very much so. Less than 2% of capital is invested in female founders across the Nordics. So access to capital is a huge barrier. Hence our Diversity Venture Fund. As for VCs, many founders – not just female – equate funding with VCs. Sometimes that’s the right answer but other times not. Taking VC money means giving away equity/control and perhaps Ts & Cs which are hard to deliver for early-stage businesses. We need to educate all founders that there is an alternative to VC money. Often soft funding – government/EU grants (outside the UK) and business angels are better options early on. That said, more and more VCs are investing early on, even in today’s climate, and data from around the world repeatedly confirm that female founders deliver higher returns on investments than males. So we need to educate investors of that fact, which also supports their own access to diverse deal flow.

Two Alumni of Tech Nordic Advocates share their thoughts on the programme:

Sara Johansen Founder and Director of GoMuseum (Denmark) said: “Being a part of TNA’s accelerator programme has taken our company, GoMuseum, to a new level. Not only have we been allocated an experienced mentor especially matched to our needs which has literally changed our entire marketing strategy. Moreover, the programme gives direct access to professional consultants, whom we can reach out to for concrete questions within e.g. legal or finance. And on top, I had the privilege to participate in TNA’s recent US trade mission providing us with high level insights to the US market and investor space.”

Yulia Zhukova co-founder of Nerdsbay (Finland) said: “TNA has been a game-changer for me as a female founder. Through their comprehensive program, I received support, mentorship, and webinars that helped me to oversee my project from a different point of view – make changes in my business plan and build valuable relations. Jeanette brings participants a sense of confidence with her energy and determination, becoming a role model and an example to emulate. Being part of TNA has opened doors to a network of like-minded individuals and mentors who have been selected specially for our industry and needs, making such connections is a very important part of entrepreneurship. While we are not currently seeking investments, I am confident that opportunities are created for projects interested in engaging with investors as well.I firmly believe that organisations like TNA play a crucial role in bridging the gender gap in the tech industry. I have recommended this programme to my female start-up entrepreneur acquaintances, as well as to those who are just considering their own start-up projects. The programme has expanded my horizons and helped me understand my capabilities. It has made me believe that my team and I can achieve excellent results.”

So, is any of this making a difference?

By end 2023, we have helped 350 female tech founders across the Nordics launch, grow, scale and raise capital for tech businesses, led by Denmark and Finland with new initiatives launched in Norway and Sweden this year and much more to come.  We work closely with partners across the Nordics and internationally, as well as international embassies to support international expansion of the businesses on our programmes, which is of course of interest to all our partners, incl. embassies. Next week, we’re bringing 16 diverse Nordic tech businesses to London to pitch to UK investors at London Stock Exchange (partner) during London Tech Week.

Russ Shaw, Founder of Tech London Advocates and Global Tech Advocates, says:

As a founding partner of London Tech Week, we’re very excited to be celebrating the tenth anniversary of the festival, and spotlighting the unique strengths of London as a globally renowned tech ecosystem. This year perhaps more than ever before, we have a brilliant range of international delegations coming to the Capital to forge new partnerships and connections that will fuel London’s tech growth for years to come. It’s great to see our GTA network right at the heart of that international output, and the TNA event in particular, is a testament of how leading tech ecosystems can come together for mutual benefit and growth opportunities.”

In conclusion

A career in tech does not require you to be a techie. The inspiration is my own background in tech and seeing what can be achieved when we put the right support around the immense talent we have out there of all genders, races and backgrounds. I hope my own journey can help inspire others – women and everyone else that tech and entrepreneurship offers huge opportunities. At TNA we work hard to support start-ups on that journey in partnership with Tech London advocates, Global Tech Advocates and all our partners.

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