Inspirational Woman: Alice Tärk | Chief of People, Change

Meet Alice Tark, Chief of People at Change.

Alice Tark

Alice joined Change in 2018. For her, the mission in her role is 'to build the team to create millions of financial futures.' In this piece, we talk about her career, her advice to her younger self and her achievement of doing business with the rulers of the Middle East before the age of 25.

Now with almost ten years of industry experience, Alice Tark joined Change as Chief Operating Office in 2018 before being quickly promoted to the position of Chief of People.

In this role, she is responsible for delivering Change‘s mission to break down the barriers to wealth creation through building the best possible team, engaging people-focused policies, and best-in-class practices. For her, the mission is ‘to build the team to create millions of financial futures.’

Prior to Change, Alice co-founded a scientific collaboration and funding platform Guanna. She also worked at PWC. Her dream is to ‘build teams that make a difference.’

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

I’m 30 and currently live in Estonia. For the last four and a half years I’ve been building Change, an investment app used in 30 European countries. I joined as COO right when it was founded before moving to Chief of People two years ago. This has enabled me to focus on what I love – helping people to develop and thrive.

My goal is to build a great team at Change which will help fulfil its goal of helping hundreds of millions of people to start investing. We grew from a small team to a 100 in little over a year after a €175 million valuation funding round. But we’re not stopping there, we’re now looking at growing the team by hundreds more, so naturally there are quite a lot of new exciting scaling challenges in the hyper-growth stage.

I come from a finance family, so the initial plan was to make a career in financial corporations. However, I started having reservations after starting at PricewaterhouseCoopers after I left university. Essentially, I wanted a career where I could do more and create my own path. So, I began work on the idea for my first startup – Guaana – a cross-disciplinary scientific research and funding platform. I founded it with a group of friends and ended up in Dubai building the pilot for the Prime Minister’s office in 2016.  This gave me the rare opportunity to work directly with the UAE’s leadership as a very young (24 years!) and very blond western woman. That’s when Change’s CEO Kristjan heard of me and invited me to team up, which I ‘gave into’ a few years later and combined my love for startups and finance with Change.

Did you ever sit down and plan your career?

I used to be on the obsessive side of planning, but life has taught that although it is crucial to have a goal – if you don’t know what you want, how can you get it – we need to stay flexible in how to get there.

Following ‘The Plan’ would’ve been a really bad decision. It would have meant never founding Guaana. As a result, my career would have taken a very different path and I may never have ended up working with startups. Where I am today is already leaps and bounds closer to my goals in a way I didn’t imagine before. I also don’t have a 15-year plan anymore. Instead, I have a North Star goal – the end impact I want to bring to the world – and I live more in the moment and I’m flexible in how my career and life progresses to get there. Having shorter term specific plans work much better in the fast changing world of tech.

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

There have been a lot of challenges – especially in my last 7 years of building startups – it’s the nature of the industry! There is no easy path to creating a successful unicorn.

Of course, earlier on in my career I had the ‘unique’ experience of adapting to an extremely different business culture in the Middle East. But at the end of the day my biggest challenge has been myself. I have a tendency to be overly critical of myself and I think many of us experience the ‘imposter syndrome’ especially if we achieve success at an early stage of our careers. How to overcome it? Self reflection and support is crucial, having internal and external validation can make all the difference. In the tech industry the pressure is high, you will make a lot of mistakes and experience a lot of failures, and we need to remember this is the only way to learn and be the best version of yourself. You get the confidence and skills from failing. Having a support network is also crucial – both professionally but personally as well. Finding the people you believe in to face the challenges together and having someone who can relate to what you’re going through and guide you through the challenges can help you overcome almost any challenge.

What has been your biggest career achievement to date?

I would have to say – the journey itself, who I’ve become today. However, in measurable results, these come to mind:

Launching a million dollar project with the government of Dubai. Business culture there is the extreme opposite of how business is done in Scandinavia. It was challenging, but I learnt so much. Importantly, it proved to myself that everything is possible – I did not imagine myself shaking hands and doing business with the rulers of the Middle East before the age of 25. It goes without saying that this is a culture where women – especially young women – have had a different role far away from business.

And although we still have exponentially bigger potential, I am very proud of building a 100 person team at Change and helping the company to grow from nothing to a €175 million company.

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

A kick doors down mindset. Modesty will get you nowhere in the very competitive tech industry. We need to create opportunities to get opportunities. As women this is perhaps even more true – we must speak up, challenge others, take charge, offer the crazy idea, just do it. You won’t be handed anything, we need to take it.

Having inspiration and support has been the key part to develop this mindset. I’ve been lucky to be inspired by the very active startup community in Estonia as well as many networks in the Middle East. Finding like minded people has been very important. For example, when I was younger, I was part of an accelerator program in Dubai where the leadership of 30 of some of the most successful companies in the world like Honeywell and Hyperloop One were present. Spending three months with this inspirational group gave me a whole new idea for what is possible.

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

Know your ‘why’. The tough tech industry is even tougher without a purpose. With the end goal in mind, making all the big and small decisions on the journey will align naturally. Having this “north star” also helps give you positive energy – the feeling you’re moving closer to your purpose in the journey where there are inevitably more losses than wins.

It’s cheesy but it’s true – you have to believe in yourself. But it’s easy to say be confident right, but how to actually do it? For me it was all about having inspiration, support and guidance, and just taking the chances to try. You learn and gain confidence in yourself through failures but to fail you need to try. As they say – you miss 100% of the shots you don’t take.

Find others. A wider support network is brilliant, but even having one person who you can relate to and share experiences can be a game changer. Go to conferences, events, find local or online communities, reach out to a female colleague you’re admiring from afar or even ask a female leader you don’t know out for a coffee.

Find a mentor. There is someone in your local community (or even remote) who you look up to and who is looking to inspire the next generation, so make a list and start reaching out. Not everyone will have the time or interest but just like in hiring – even streamlined by target group and message we reach out to a 100 engineers for 1 hire –  persistence always wins.

Super hard work is inevitable, no matter the gender. Grit will get you anywhere. Building a startup – it’s really hard. It’s one of the best things in my life but, some days, it’s also the worst. However, if it’s something you really want, you fall and get up again on a daily basis and enjoy the hell out of the crazy journey in the end.

If you have no experience in tech, but want to try to start a career – contact a startup you would love to join and write up a hard to resist message covering the ‘why’ (please – no traditional cover letters) – why you want it, why you’re the perfect fit no matter skills and previous experiences, why you’re not just a culture fit but a culture add. Many startups, like Change, are looking for the right mindset and are happy to discover the “unobvious” matches, as skill can be easily learned if both sides want to.

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

There’s a lot. We’ve been raising more awareness in the last decade but in real numbers we cannot yet see significant progress. There’s no silver bullet, but a lot of problems could be solved if women were simply better represented. Encouraging young women to pursue careers in tech or study STEM subjects could make the difference in the long term.

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

Small and big things. From early influence and inspiration, to providing an equal working environment and opportunities. Encouraging and enabling your female leadership to inspire, collaborate with schools for shadowing days or office tours, teaching or funding coding lessons for not just kids but adults too.

But before we can inspire others, women have to reach the leadership positions in the first place. Having a relevant diversity plan, not just for gender, but for all underrepresented groups and experiences, can be really important. We value this diversity in Change too – with 24 nationalities represented in our team. It can help to create a level playing field where everyone has the same opportunity to excel. This equality should be the end goal, because not only is it morally right it also is in tech companies best interest because diverse leadership teams make better decisions.

There are currently only 21 percent 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?

We need changes on both demand and supply side – more women wanting to be in tech and then creating equal opportunities for hiring and thriving.

It’s easy to say and difficult to do, but let’s start by creating a more gender neutral childhood. By that I mean, we need to change perceptions of what subjects and careers suit each gender and it must start from an early age. The toys we play with, the games in kindergarten, the school curriculum, the overall messages the society is sending us day by day that there is no more or less fitting industries and jobs based on genders. For example, even in rather progressive Estonia, I remember protesting as a young teenger about a PE class where boys were playing team sports most of the time whereas girls did ‘girly’ exercises like acrobatics. The boys got to learn great skills for life and business on teamwork and much else – we learnt how to tumble. We were instilled with the message since first grade that there are “boys games” and  “girl’s games”. I eventually managed to talk myself into the boys’ class because the school didn’t have the answers of why I cannot do the same sports but it took a year of convincing and would be much easier if the school system creates equality for everyone.

The same for Home Ed class – for girls it was handicraft and a little cooking, and for boys carpentry, learning to build things, use tools etc. Again I could be missing some sophisticated reasoning there, but why do we have to learn 9 years of sowing while we could also learn to drive a screw or build a table. It probably also would have been useful for the boys to learn how to sew their socks.

What resources do you recommend for women working in tech?

There is endless inspiration out there but I would recommend finding a local community – the situations can be different in countries and cultures, so having a local group who knows exactly the specifics of the situation can guide you through the challenges most relevantly. If there isn’t one yet, consider starting one – find the other women and initiate it together. Once you have the crew together, with good sales and persistence, you can find sponsors either private companies or even the government to help you scale.