Christina Rebel is Co-founder and Chief Growth Officer at Wikifactory. She has spent her entire career at the intersection of digital fabrication, social innovation, and sustainability.

Tell us a bit about yourself, background and your current role?

Born to a Dutch father and a Spanish mother with a shared ambition to see the world opened my life to a host of rich cultural experiences that I thank for serving me as an entrepreneur, every day. We had the incredible chance of seeing China develop in the 90s thanks to my father’s work. Before any other foreigner would dare to, my mother would hit the street markets with me and my sister alongside her. Over the years, we’d come to see how globalised production was transforming these markets and consumption worldwide. We had access to the brands and software the world was consuming, at marginal prices from the markets.

By 1995 and age seven, I was testing any software available on the market in CDs, whether CAD design to Spreadsheets, Games to Animation. It brewed an immense curiosity about technology and how it would come to shape our lives. As new hardware began to flood the markets, I would tinker with whatever I could get hold of.

We moved on to live in countries that suffered through crises events that startled in me a greater interest in economics and politics – whether the financial crises in Argentina or geopolitical tensions in the Middle East during the Afghanistan and Iraq wars. I learned Arabic because I needed to understand cultures empathically for myself, as with Chinese – so that I wasn’t just another that indirectly was adding more fuel to the fire of my ignorance. I offered myself for job experiences to family friends, landing me broadcasting, editorial and corporate event hosting work that showed me the efforts behind and value of communications and relationship management.

With many questions about how the world ticked and with hopes of developing my capabilities in qualitative and quantitative research methods at University, I moved to study a BA European Politics, MA Social and Global Justice at the University of Nottingham because both offered the flexibility to combine courses in Politics, Economics, Philosophy, Law, and even languages. What I aspired for was to find where these disciplines converge in a broader study of change for social and environmental impact at local, regional, and global levels.

I remember opening up my laptop for the first time at University, loading the BBC to read the news and finding an article feature about 3D printing that blew me away. From then and throughout my academic undertaking, I would then learn theory and read of practice with the inspiration in the back of my mind that if production could be distributed, this would disrupt the way society, institutions, and businesses would operate to distribute value in society.

I almost went down an academic path taking an assistant editor for the journal for Local Economy at London South Bank University, if it wasn’t for coming across a job position to support a London-based entrepreneur Joseph Tenzin Oliver that was an early sustainability pioneer and assisting him across dozens of sustainable innovation projects in events, fashion, food through to automotive. With the hype boom of 3D printing that was kicked off by the Rep-rap movement, with makerspaces and fablabs emerging as a network worldwide – we started serving companies like Daimler that wished to enthuse their companies with such inspirational spaces and a culture of product innovation.

It was in joining an innovative coworking space in London, the Impact Hub Westminster where I began to build relationships with members that shared the vision for a more sustainable, circular future for physical products. This is where I met my two co-founders Tom and Max and joined Espians, a Tech Agency that had supported Wikihouse in developing the software package that turned 3D models into sheets for CNC milling for affordable, custom-built housing that could be locally produced. The opportunity for digital fabrication machines to pave the way for global communities working together online, where their products could be produced by a distributed network was deeply inspiring.

Seeing other projects emerge around the world that like Wikihouse were sharing CAD online, we realised the product innovation community at large lacked the tools to be able to work together as a virtual team around CAD and engineering. From wind turbines for clean energy, water filtration systems for clean water, and agricultural systems for biodiversity – product development teams were and are tackling the world’s most pressing social and environmental problems. What bound us as co-founders is a will to distribute access to the tools of design and fabrication towards a future where anyone that faces a problem to solve in their lives, can have the productive tools to fabricate, test, and iterate quickly to arrive at a solution.

It is about resilient and inclusive communities where all, regardless of their gender, ethnicity, or (dis)ability can take part in innovative problem-solving. The old adage of ‘giving a man a rod to feed him for a lifetime resonates with me, but it is the potential of digital fabrication to realise a more open, distributed, and circular model of design and production that has me thinking, about what if we could teach the man how to build a rod himself so that he could share with others the knowledge, and enable a whole community to feed themselves?

At the core of our mission to democratise manufacturing is the Internet of Production. We’ve now built Wikifactory so that it offers a completely new way of designing and producing any physical product collaboratively, from anywhere – all you need is a laptop and an internet connection. It’s a platform with a computer-aided design (CAD) collaboration system where designers, engineers, and manufacturers can work together to view, iterate, prototype and manufacture almost any 3D model all in one place to get from prototype to market.

Did you ever sit down and plan your career?

Since I could reason with change as a child, every new adventure to a new country urged me to embrace uncertainty and challenges with hope and curiosity. I came to appreciate how much more effective it was to have an end-in-mind, over a plan. As my father always said, “The Road from A to B is always under construction”.

I recently found the first career plan I ever jotted down in my storage boxes and did chuckle to myself upon reading my young goals of working for the UN or becoming an Ambassador. When graduating from University with a 1st class distinction in European Politics, speaking four languages but faced with a global financial crisis, the job market in NGOs and international institutions was heavily oversubscribed.

Thanks to this failure, I concluded that I couldn’t wait for an organisation or institution to offer me the path to meaningful work. Instead, I would set myself on the mission of creating it myself together with others that aligned with the cause. But which cause to contribute, of the 1,000 social and environmental issues?

The efforts of my early entrepreneurial life in refining that end-in-mind started as broad as sustainability, and I began to need coherency and focus. In the run-up to Wikifactory, I felt that I finally had arrived at the core purpose that would be a guiding thread in every step I’d take as an entrepreneur. To realise a more sustainable, circular model of production that could empower the next generation of product innovators to distribute their ingenious hardware solutions to real-world problems. With that purpose in mind, the ‘plan from A to B’ would simply be about persistence, iteration, and greeting every day with love in my heart.

Have you faced any career challenges along the way and how did you overcome these?

Setting up a business from scratch is really challenging and Wikifactory was and still is an ambitious endeavour. Most startups fail because the Founders give up. What has kept us motivated is having a purpose deeply embedded in our Founder’s DNA. Our glue has been our mission – we are building an infrastructure, not an application, and we are socially driven.

Given our Wikifactory objective is to empower product developers to succeed in getting their products to market, it has been a challenge to continuously innovate and develop new capabilities that accelerated their design-to-production journey. When you grow a community beyond its initial seed, maintaining growth becomes more and more difficult. How do you prioritise product, marketing, and technology development for growth in a startup with minimum resources?

When my co-founder Tom mentioned his find of ‘Growth Hacking’ on Hackernews from Y Combinator, learning of these new methodologies became a real inspiration to face the challenge differently. Discovering how to use experiment design to test hypotheses in Marketing and to utilise data analyses to inform our Product iterations was spot-on. Growth Hacking married concepts of management that I had come to learn through experience over the years with my love of science. These new methodologies were only beginning to emerge back then in 2018, but they sure helped us grow our community to over 140,000 strong.

Motivating yourself by appreciating the lessons learned from each challenge is medicine to the entrepreneurial soul. Building a culture in your team that champions learning helps the edge-riding of the startup life because you empower yourself. It will feel awkward when you start implementing it in practice but soon enough it can be a life force in your company.

What has been your biggest career achievement to date?

Launching our platform in Beta and giving birth to my son Alejandro the same year has been my most significant career achievement to date because it initially felt like I was going against the grain. What I came to appreciate was that it proved the opposite.

As an online platform, we grew that year from 5,000 founding members to over 50,000 designers, engineers, and product innovators globally. Years on from then, what most inspires me daily about the community is how 70% of new projects created on Wikifactory have a social or environmental mission.

When I look back to when we first launched our Beta, I can now see that becoming a mother was the best thing for my entrepreneurial path. It made me realise that an emphatic, adaptive, and nurturing culture is what a start-up needs to get through hard times. Going through COVID as a remote team, and living through the supply chain disruptions and geopolitical crises in the last year with our clients has highlighted just how important it is to be agile.

Being swift and nimble is part and parcel of becoming a parent, but also for a start-up entrepreneur. Knowing that quality time is always better than quantity time with your child is vital, whilst the same can be said about working smarter not harder. Observing my son’s development and how we resist what we don’t understand, has helped me become a better communicator to my team in the face of changes. Being a mother is a vital ingredient to the recipe for my own success.

What one thing do you believe has been a major factor in you achieving success?

In software there is this term, ‘specialisation is for insects’, that I came across in my early career and it hit it home to me. Especially when I voyaged into the technology space for manufacturing with Wikifactory, the typical question I would receive was, “are you an engineer?”. Even by my own doing, an “imposter syndrome” would override me and have me question whether I was capable of jumping into the deep end.

Every time I would swallow the doubt and remember that life starts beyond the frontier of your comfort zone. Noting that learning is a key motivational driver in everything that I do, I would stay true to this will of mine – and embrace the challenges ahead of me. Understanding all aspects of business and technology has only helped me bring together my team toward our objectives. Empathising with their work and understanding how to speak to them is what helps me strive for Mastery as a Generalist. I love surrounding myself with people who are better than me, whether as generalists or as a specialist – because it is sharing knowledge that you embed and retain knowledge over time.

Everything is awkward in the beginning, your brain resists the most when it is about to make a major leap. We have learned this of children, and it is true in adults – if you extrapolate the incredible findings of research in child development in the book The Wonder Weeks, the same concept of a Fussy Phase prior to the child making a major neurological leap, is the same friction we meet when a new trend affects our business. In the same way, a child initially resists learning that the world is made up of ‘Sequences’ or ‘Programmes’ where to get X you have to do A, B, and C is the same resistance to change that companies face. It’s best to simply roll up your sleeves, and embrace it.

What top tips would you give to an individual who is trying to excel in their career in technology?

Many of my favourite tips derive from the early mantras of the open-source software world. I draw from these because they were nuggets of wisdom that came from a global community of developers that in my perspective have achieved one of the most impressive feats of collaboration of the last decades.

I started gathering these tips when I first began learning to code and discovering Github. Coming to grasp the vast scale of contributions by developers to the public domain greatly humbled me, and I was fascinated by the motivation behind the community. Committed in the thousands of open libraries shared was an epic demonstration of wide-scale collaboration that had largely gone unnoticed outside of developer circles.

Most fascinating was observing the improvement rate of web technologies thanks to these public contributions: distributed communities gathering to develop languages that are better compiled, programs that could be better distributed for increasingly better performance, speed, and an ever-expanding set of possible interactions. I came to appreciate just how your tech stack needed to nurture and build upon the latest underlying trends to underpin the vision of the future we were trying to build.

Tip 1 – Build upon the shoulder of giants (build upon core enabling technologies)

Given software is constantly changing, when it comes to laying out the logic and the tech stack of your web technology it’s crucial to do hours of research on Github, Gitlab (and other repositories) first. Where is the open-source software community taking it? In these online libraries, you will find the most cutting-edge experimentations that are pushing the boundaries of the sector you operate in. Where you find a significant developer community behind a project, there is the possibility for change that can open up immense possibilities.

Our early research in 2016 drew us to three core enabling technologies that Wikifactory would be building upon:

  • thanks to WebGL, 3D was coming online at lightning speed and it would be the start of CAD being shared online. There was an opportunity to assist this transition, like that we had seen with video coming online.
  • thanks to digital fabrication machines being shared open source, like the famous Rep Rap 3D printer – a network of fabrication would emerge worldwide. We saw an opportunity to bridge this network with product developers globally.
  • thanks to Wifi penetrating the world of things, then only starting to emerge as IoT, there would be an explosion of data from retail to a factor., This signalled an opportunity to rethink the entire digital thread and build one that could inform a continuous improvement of products from design to production.

This helped the co-founders frame the opportunity of Wikifactory in the wider context of disruption and would guide our decisions on which tech stack to use and how our solution would fit into this wider ecosystem change. We found that aligning ourselves with these core technology trends also helped us attract the top talent in our space to make it happen with us.

Tip two – Don’t reinvent the wheel

Even if you think your product is so incredibly innovative that no one else is thinking of it, do make a comprehensive test of that. Most often there isn’t just one person thinking like you, but many. Reach out to them, and where can feel a click in the vision shared – start building and continue recruiting. Whether it’s companies or individuals, host an event and gather them. I started my solo entrepreneurial journey using events to connect with ‘the many’, to organise and gauge their willingness to commit and contribute. It is a humbling process, and an empowering one because it might take a vision to guide you, but it equally takes the right conditions to flourish to have the greatest chances of success.

Tip 3- Share early, share often

Writing a vision on paper might be the first step in giving your startup idea some weight, but it is easy to fall through in carrying beyond this first scary step. Striking the balance between perfect and sufficient is a tricky task, so remembering this mantra can help to remind you that the truth of whether your idea will stick is outside your door. With our first ideas penned to paper, it was thanks to a mentor from the Sustainability sector, that our first pitch landed in the inbox of Nicolai Peitersen. Nicolai had just co-authored the book The Ethical Economy, where distributed production was the subject of a key chapter. There was such an alignment in our values and vision for more ethical models of production that it was uncanny. Joining our efforts for societal and economic change through our entrepreneurial endeavors felt like the most natural thing.

Sharing often is appended to the mantra because the need to gather feedback shouldn’t just be in the beginning – it should be a constant, and the way you continue to refine your business and tech. When you have something close to a minimum viable product, go in search of the founding community that you are building your product. As research body Nielsen Norman has suggested in usability tests, you just require 5 testers to get about 80% of the possible issues you’d get even if you would survey many more. Given just how expensive custom software development can cost to a company, you’ll be surprised how willing SMEs and startups that stand to benefit from your technology to provide you with the necessary feedback. The bonus is that the rewarding feeling of launching and improving your product will be a shared one. A milestone they’ll equally echo on social media together with you to help cast the net of your product even wider.

Do you believe there are still barriers to success for women working in tech, if so, how can these barriers be overcome?

Yes, there are still some barriers, but things are improving. There are opportunities out there for the taking, we just need to promote these wide and far to everyone on why those roles are available to both males and females.

Technology is impacting all areas of life, of which there are entire areas primarily experienced by women. Technology can offer women a means to explore more inclusive and ethical business models that are needed today in these domains that they grasp so comprehensively.

In companies in all sectors, in truth, there are technology roles that are crying out for more women to join them. Entering heavily male-dominated industries as a female professional will get you noticed, especially when you have a message to boost. Making this entrance means you can impact the accessibility and participation of women in the sector. Showing up in the sector with a purpose will rally women and men alike behind the change we all want to see in your industry. Highlighting women champions also paves the way for younger girls to imagine themselves in technology because the bias is still strong at an early age. This bias needs to be deconstructed because I would argue that many feminine qualities can be a gift for technology businesses.

During these times of supply chain uncertainties in manufacturing, for example, encouraging female participation can support the need in the industry for greater agility and empathy for clients’ risks and needs first to realise the opportunities for more regionalised, resilient production.

When we launched our Manufacturing Marketplace on Wikifactory last fall, a team of 5 women in our company seeded the first processes to prove the acquisition, conversion, and retention of manufacturing orders we were managing between buyers and suppliers around the world. We faced shocks, shortages, and challenges this year, but thanks to this all-woman team – we were able to connect the dots and find solutions for our clients at record speed and with stellar customer support.

Their efforts laid the groundwork for an incoming Marketplace team to drive expansion that now offers 3D printing, CNC machining, Vaccum Casting, and Injection Moldings services in the US, Canada, UK, and the EMEA region. Thanks to their efforts, it’s become clear that customer success as a mindset would breed dynamism in manufacturing and this is a clear space that can breathe through greater female participation.

What do you think companies can do to support and progress the careers of women working in technology?

The main thing companies should do is ensure that equal opportunities are offered to everyone. Companies can also go one step beyond by ensuring women in the team feel supported and heard in day-to-day working life. Businesses should also ensure that women have female leaders and management to look up to and this is something many tech firms still need to improve on because this validation does pave the path.

Companies would surely benefit in gathering teams together to openly define leadership and define the values of the group culture, and from there question whether any of these qualities are understood to be female or male. From this point of consideration, a greater openness can be achieved when we recognise that what we might have previously understood as a character trait of women, really is simply more ‘feminine’. To recognise that one person could have qualities that are masculine and feminine, regardless of gender, can be refreshing. To be empathetic and caring might be typically understood as female, but it should rather be understood as feminine in that it is not reserved for women alone. This aids in creating a conversation framework that is inclusive of men too.

Breaking away from these assignations to physical gender can certainly help to champion teams that align in virtues shared, like zest and enthusiasm, or fairness and kindness. It might be that the company champions ‘Leadership by Example’, but fails to acknowledge the more feminine ‘Leadership by Alignment’. Achieving alignment and consolidation as Byung-Chul Han, the best-seller Korean political theorist on power, is what is truly powerful – and this is something that feminine qualities can do very well in fostering. As Simon Sinek says about toxic leadership as well, champion those who build an environment for everyone to thrive, because they might not be the top performing, but we sure need their leadership to make things happen.

What resources do you recommend for women working in tech?

I would recommend exploring the incredible archives of the podcast All that We Are hosted by Amisha Ghadiali with change-makers around the world. Each episode is profound and humbling in very unexpected ways, that enthuses a more spiritual and holistic view of leadership and how you show up to the world. If you like podcasts like On Purpose by Jay Shetty and find his work uplifting, you will find All that we are a treasure cove of inspiration.

In terms of books, authors like Robin Wall Kimmerrer capture such beauty in their practice of science and connection with nature from a more feminine, complex approach that I find deeply moving. In drawing from indigenous wisdom, she is capable of decoupling our conceptions of Science to purely Western thought so that we can be more playful and more sensitive to the innovation already happening around us, everywhere. Coming across Julia Watson’s gorgeous Taschen book ‘Lo–tek: Design by Radical Indigenism’ is also an exemplary compendium of innovations from what has been perceived as the least likely corners for it to emerge on this planet. I find these works to be meaningful in proving just how narrow-minded we have been in defining innovation as something that has to be technological. As I now am reading the ‘Dawn of Everything’, I’m jumping on my seat every few pages because of how rich in new anthropological references this epic mastodon of a book is giving us to fight back on just how ‘stuck’ we have become in understanding what human nature is about.

How do you see the future for women in the tech industry?

Things can only get better for the future of women in technology if we continue to invest in change at the root, with education. Not just any education though, but quality education that is more inclusive of girls. For example, plugging the Arts into STEM so that it is STEAM is comprehensively a gain to science, technology, and engineering. It can offer ways for girls that might otherwise not be incentivised into coding to playfully be inspired into it. If we improve education and opportunities in tech and other roles that have traditionally been considered male roles, then we will see a seismic shift in the gender mix in tech companies – we now need to ensure more and more bridges and paths into the opportunities in the industry for them.

Coding is just another tool in the professional’s toolbelt that multiplies your creative capability in life as does reading or writing. Inspiring science through literature and theatre can serve to recognise that science needs to inspire – it is not devoid of narrative. For far too long, we have compartmentalised the world into categories: where a lab experiment has to be seen as something radically different to the perfection of a cooking recipe for fermentation because one is regarded as advanced science, and the other as home cooking of a more refined kind.

In practice, they share plenty in their method of trial and error, of understanding how to hold variables in a constant to observe a cause and effect. I would argue that perhaps cooking may more closely reflect the complexity of systems in nature, that we otherwise have failed to do so in what we typically call advanced science that at best can prove causation in the lab environment. Take, for example, Salicylic acid that is extracted from willow bark to make aspirin. You will find that the acid is more effective when chewed as bark itself than in its isolation as a pill because we haven’t yet been able to replicate that complexity that gives the acid strength when in relation to many other compounds inside the bark. As Science increasingly models complexity thanks to quantum computing, we will get closer to replicating the ingenuity of nature in biomimicry. I can see the future of women in the tech sector as spearheading this reconnecting of us, and our new technologies, to nature and to stem our innovations from her root.