Meet Poland’s most influential woman in tech
Since 2014, the Central European Startup Awards (CESA) have sought out and recognized the best in the region in categories such as best investor, best coworking space, best fintech start-up and so on from 10 countries in the CEE region. One of the most important categories is Most Influential Woman, and in 2015 Poland’s winner was entrepreneur and Warsaw community leader Anna Walkowska
Anna Walkowska has been a major leader in the Warsaw start-up ecosystem, co-founding the Reaktor coworking space and the Startup Poland Foundation and directing Startup Grind Warsaw. She’s also run her share of start-ups, including Homplex and most recently the WAW.ac accelerator. Add to that her long experience in web development and IT security, and it’s easy to see that she is one of Poland’s most influential women – and people in general – in tech.
We spoke to her shortly after she had received the CESA award to find out more about her views on women in Polish technology and the Warsaw start-up ecosystem.
Web.gov.pl: Congratulations on the CESA award, and reading your resume, I can see it’s well-deserved. Could you tell me how the whole process went, from finding out you were nominated to winning just recently?
Anna Walkowska: The process was really simple. I got an email from CESA telling me I was nominated, and they wanted me to complete a form to give them more information about me. I think I ignored the first email, because then a few days later I got an email from a colleague at SeedCamp London I had met a few months ago, asking me if I had completed the form because he was the one who had nominated me. I was surprised, first of all, about why he nominated me, but then I did it.
Later I saw the other women who were nominated, and to be honest I was 100% sure it would be Eliza [Kruczkowska] because of the Startup Poland Foundation and the impact she’s making. On the other hand, I know what I’ve been doing for the last four years, so it was really nice to be nominated, and I had a small hope that it would be appreciated.
I was surprised [to win], but I felt appreciated. I know that the next step is to visit Vienna and meet the other women who have a huge influence in their countries. I would love to build this network within Central Europe, especially because right now I’m working on the WAW.ac accelerator and a start-up center that will be launched next year.
Women in tech has been a huge topic lately – what has your personal experience been like?
I have never been in line with the strategy to promote women in technology as a concept, because for me, we just do what you do. It doesn’t matter if you’re a woman or a guy, you just have to believe in yourself.
Something that’s still missing when nurturing girls is to convince them that they’re as valuable as boys and can achieve anything they want. I’m trying to promote this over “women in technology”. I’m not against, but I’m not really for organizations that support only women, because if there were organizations supporting only men, it wouldn’t be very politically correct. I’d rather promote collaboration between guys and girls and mutual respect - that’s what’s important for me.
It would be great if CESA also had an award for the most influential man as well, because it’s still about a person who has a huge impact on their start-up community.
So how does the subject of women in technology look like in Poland? Do you think it’s as big of an issue as in the U.S., for example?
To be honest, I see more girls than guys around. When we were accepting applications to WAW.ac, I was really happy that half of the applicants were women. This shows that we are equal in this equation. And in the end, almost half of the participants ended up being women.
We have lots of girls in tech in our community. Most of the scientists I meet are women too. For me technology is not only IT, it’s also biotechnology, aviation, eHealth, etc. - everything that’s based on technology. So I see a lot of very strong women who can really change the world.
I know that there are many initiatives promoting coding for kids [in Poland], where coding for girls is a separate activity. It shouldn’t be like this. We cannot separate those two genders only because in the past girls were expected to play with dolls and not computers. When I was six, I got my first computer. I started coding when I was seven by typing in code from a magazine called Komputer. That’s how I started, and no one told me I shouldn’t do it.
I also don’t agree that everyone should learn to code, for the simple reason that coding is not something that everyone needs. We could say the same about design. Yes, you have to code, but first you have to design, and not only the interface but the whole user experience.
Do you think Poland can show the U.S. and other tech ecosystems how to be more inclusive?
When you’re working on a start-up, you have to take a lot of risks, and women by default take fewer risks. We see all the challenges and reasons why something might not work out, and maybe the environment in Silicon Valley is too crazy and too risky for women to step into. It’s very rushed. I think women are more analytical and conscious of threats, and maybe that’s how they perceive Silicon Valley.
I think it’s maybe the same observation that I have here in Poland: that we should not separate men and women, because guys also see that it’s unnatural. Once they see a girl that is competent and communicative, they they will appreciate such a person and will want to work with them.
There was a corporation I read about in Warsaw recently. Their job offers were constructed in a way where many requirements were listed. When women saw these offers, they saw they only had seven or eight of the skills out of ten, so they would not apply. However, men who had only three of the ten skills considered themselves qualified and did apply. So maybe if women were more relaxed about what they really know, not just what they think they know, it would be much easier for them to take a risk and take a job at a company or a start-up.
Switching gears a little, what is your opinion of the start-up scene in Warsaw? How have you seen it grow in your years at Reaktor and Startup Grind?
When we started in 2011, I didn’t know anything about start-ups or investors; I knew something about business angels, but there was nothing in Warsaw. It was a coincidence that when we started organizing the Open Reaktor meetings, suddenly many people came out of their garages and basements, and it all just grew from there.
However, I’ve only seen people with IT backgrounds; maybe some people who could be an extension of this IT segment, such as PR or marketing people, but still based on technology. This actually began to bother me, because we had our own world of dreamers, totally on one side of the bridge, and then there were the business people, scientists and investors, and we were from completely different planets. There was even a huge gap between my parents and my start-up that I was unable to close.
When I went to the U.S. for those four months and then came back, I understood that I needed to do something to change this lonely planet of start-ups. That’s why I launched Startup Grind Warsaw for scientists, investors, start-ups and entrepreneurs, so that they would finally have a place where they could exchange their experiences, dreams and ideas and network. Because you can’t really be innovative when you’re in a small group of crazy people like we were before.
I was trying to link the worlds of business, science, investors and entrepreneurs through networking events and education. That’s why we were doing interviews with those people.
So how has the community changed over the years?
My perception of the start-up community in Warsaw has changed a lot because I have been trying to shape it. I was sure that it had to change - it was my vision, so I followed it.
What I was doing was only a part of the whole community, so I can’t speak for the other groups that have formed over the past few years. There is a huge group of academic incubators (AIP) and coworking spaces (Business Link), but we were always separate from them - or maybe they were always separate from other groups. That was probably the problem, that we were not united.
Now we have several leaders of those groups who want to talk with each other. Google Campus will definitely be one place where all of these start-ups will finally find a space to collaborate. Our start-up center will also be a place where business and start-ups will work closer together.
Warsaw is a big city, so there’s not just one start-up community. The Startup Poland Foundation has this ambition to merge all of the groups somehow. We’ll see how it goes within the next few years, because it’s not an easy job. Once we have a platform with all of the start-ups the Foundation has identified on it, plus all of the many new ones who will join, we can start to talk about a unified start-up community, because right now we have many communities in Warsaw.
There’s also the question of whether we should actually be united or remain independent, because different leaders have different visions. In general, it’s great that the start-up community is active; that makes me happy. Because of this activity, many corporations want to get some of this energy into their companies. This can result in accelerators being financed by these companies, which is something I plan to get into next year. There will be a real estate accelerator with Cushman & Wakefield, a fintech accelerator and a retail accelerator with several big companies I can’t name yet.
What about the start-ups themselves - can they compete on a global level?
One thing I’m not particularly proud of is that we don’t have many original start-ups - ambitious projects that are not just copycats of Western start-ups. I’m working on something that does not exist yet, in the space of 3D and real estate. I would really like to inspire other people to create something unique, so that we can export this innovation abroad. Once we have some really good products or services, I would like to help them grow and expand to other countries using Startup Grind’s network, which is now in 180 cities, and the Chamber of Commerce network, plus our partners from different global companies. This is how start-ups in Poland should develop and should think about their products.
Is WAW.ac an extension of what you’ve been building with Reaktor? What are your plans for the accelerator?
WAW.ac is an experiment, both for myself and co-founder Andrzej Kuśmierz and for the city of Warsaw. Both the city and I know there is a need for different kinds of support for start-ups from public money, and the city of Warsaw has some plans for entrepreneurship development in the city, and they wanted to test if an accelerator partnership makes sense. We are proving that it is a really great solution, and they also see this in the media and in testimonials from our start-ups.
We started the accelerator with financing from the city of Warsaw, but within a few weeks several huge companies such as T-Mobile, Adamet and Intel joined us because they knew that it’s important and they would like to be part of this initiative and be close to creative people doing really interesting things.
We will have a demo day at the end of October, and after the program is over we have some plans for continued support for those start-ups. If Warsaw continues to provide funding for accelerators next years, we will definitely apply for support from the city. If we do not win the tender, we will launch it anyway, in the form of the three accelerators I mentioned, and Andrzej will be launching a life sciences accelerator.
We know that we have to provide knowledge and support for creative people doing both IT and science related projects, because the venture capital funds are not going to do this. It’s not even their role. Start-ups think that they will get this smart money from VCs, but it’s not going to happen. Maybe a few advise them on managing their company and introduce them to some new customers, but in most cases they have to be mature enough to be able to do it with only their financial support.
The WAW.ac accelerator will continue with or without financial support from the city of Warsaw, but I would be more than happy if the city would always be our partner. We see the mutual benefits and I am proud that we are doing this in Warsaw. I love this city and I appreciate what has been done so far. It’s the best place to be and develop your business. We have huge potential.
Read also: Get to know the Startup Poland Foundation