Theresa Kauffeld

Theresa Kauffeld, known by her childhood nickname Theo, is the Co-founder of Equalista, the world’s first mobile learning app helping users to understand and act on gender equality.

Theo believes that mobile apps can be game-changers as they can combine theoretical knowledge and practical exercises to bring about real change. She is passionate about empowering women, tech4good, and purpose entrepreneurship. Before starting her own company with her sister Louisa, Theo worked in typical, male-dominated industries. (She calls it an interesting lesson in gender inequality and the fuel and inspiration for founding Equalista. )Theo lives in Germany and Sweden and if she is not working, she can be found playing with her dog or buried in a book.

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

I am Theresa Kauffeld, founder and CEO of Equalista, the world’s first learning app for gender equality.

I have a classic business background but always sought out meaning in my professional life. I first directed my interest towards environmental sustainability and software. Working as one of few women in tech for renewable energy, I became more and more passionate about female empowerment. There were several competing software products for making the world greener, but there is very little software for making the world more equal. I decided to give it a go and here we are.

Did you ever sit down and plan your career?

I actually did and it couldn’t be further away from where I ended up. I like to get really deep into topics and really figure out the nitty, gritty details. Based on that I thought I would pursue an expert track in a company, probably not take on personnel responsibility. What I didn’t take into consideration was my aversion against being told what to do. I want to try things out in my own way and see whether it works, so it makes perfect sense that I ended up as a founder of a company building a world-first product.It’s fine to make plans as long as you stay open for unexpected opportunities and pivots.

Have you seen or personally experienced gender inequality during your career in tech?

I think it is very hard to move through a professional life and not experience gender inequality, since we live in a society that is not equal and that’s mirrored in companies. Being raised to believe in meritocracy, hard work and equality, it took me a long time to notice the inequality I was facing. I didn’t expect it and so when it happened I didn’t recognize it. I tried to find reasons to justify the behavior, because gender discrimination was just not an option in my mind. And I didn’t want to be a victim of discrimination. It didn’t fit my worldview or the view I had of myself – a strong woman. Now that I know how inequality manifests in the workplace, I recall a lot of situations, including being told to smile more in a performance review.

Have you faced any challenges as a female founder of a tech company, and how did you overcome these?

We do not just want to build a product that makes the world better, we also want to build a company that is making a change. We are challenging the status quo with our product but also with our business model that is fully purpose oriented. We say no to investors and do not take in any risk capital. We say no to building a b2b solution, even though that is where the money is. We want to build a product that helps real people like you and me and generate sustainable profits to pay our team fair salaries, not to satisfy capital interest from investors. We do it differently and there are not many people in the start-up scene who understand our choice, but we have to give it a try and prove that actually you can be a sustainable company building tech for good.

What has been your biggest career achievement to date?

Very recently, we released the latest version of Equalista in app stores. While this wasn’t the first time we’ve appeared in stores, it’s the closest version of the Equalista app to the vision I had right at the very start. We’ve come an incredibly long way since day one, almost two years ago! It is mind-blowing to see your vision come to life.

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

Be prepared, but don’t be scared and don’t take things personally. I didn’t know what to expect in my career and I didn’t handle all situations well, because I wasn’t prepared. What I know now is that when someone treats me in a sexist way, that doesn’t say anything about me as a person or my competence, it only says that that person is sexist. That was a game changer.

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

I think there are still real barriers for women and tech and I think one of the most insidious forms of discrimation is to say that the barriers do not exist anymore. That is the moment when women start to doubt themselves when they face the barriers, instead of seeing right through the system that is rigged against them. I want women to spot a bias right when it is happening and think “Ha, that is the system, that is not me, I won’t take it personally!” We need to empower women and educate them about the flaws in the system and at the same time encourage them to not let those barriers get in their way.

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

Change starts with admitting that there is a problem. We can only move towards more equality when we acknowledge that right now the situation is unequal. Companies too often hide behind shiny slogans. The first step is to say, yes, we do have a problem and we are committed to change that and we are looking for people who want to be part of that change. I am very sceptical of the companies that pretend to have figured it out already. Rules and policies are the start but the real work is transformational and means to really get people on board – not just following rules.

There is currently only 17 per cent of women working in tech, if you could wave a magic wand, what is the one thing you would do to accelerate the pace of change for women in the industry?

I would magically make the competence bias disappear. We would consider people of all genders equally competent and would see them as the smart, capable and brilliant individuals that they are rather than as a stereotypical representation of their gender, age, race, sexual orientation or ability.


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