Power games at work: no thanks!

Less competitive pressure and power games, more cooperation and humanity – the founders Naomi Ryland and Lisa Jaspers call for a revolution in the world of work.

Sina Teigelkötter

Ms. Ryland, Ms. Jaspers, when did you first think: something is going wrong here?
NAOMI RYLAND: When I was looking for investors for my start-up, I received a lot of advice from other entrepreneurs: It is essential to exaggerate the sales forecast, claim that there are already dozens of other investors, and if critical questions come up: the blue of the sky is lying. Everyone did it, it also works. But I was uncomfortable with it.

The start-up scene is considered difficult terrain for women. Lots of alpha animals …
RYLAND: The system is made by men for men. But there are very successful female founders who are unfortunately still far too little known.
LISA JASPERS: Interestingly, many of these women entrepreneurs are so successful precisely because they break rules and conventions.

You introduce some of them in your book "Starting A Revolution", for example Ida Tin, the inventor of the menstrual app Clue, or Vivienne L'Ecuyer Ming, tech entrepreneur and expert in artificial intelligence.
RYLAND: We wanted to show that we finally need new role models that do not consolidate the status quo, but instead stand for a more humane working world.

You initially self-published the book, financed by crowdfunding. Wasn't a publisher interested?
JASPERS: That was a conscious decision in order to be able to be free while writing and at the same time to incorporate as many ideas from others, the "crowd", as possible. At the Frankfurt Book Fair, we handed our "Manifesto" into the hands of a few publishers a year ago.

How did you react?
RYLAND: All of the women told us more or less immediately that they would publish the book. All men were "not interested".
JASPERS: Funny that around a third of buyers today are men …
RYLAND: Of course, we are not aimed at women or men, but rather at people. And many of them have the feeling that our economic system, our world of work is no longer working well for them. Many are unhappy in their job because they see no point in it.
JASPERS: But women often notice faster: Something feels strange here.

Why do you notice this earlier?
JASPERS: Because they did not help to shape this alpha animal culture. You feel rejected and expelled faster. We wanted to show them: You are not wrong, and certainly not alone. But there is something else.
RYLAND: This became visible at the latest through the Corona crisis. Executives who had previously strictly refused to work from home suddenly raved about how nice and productive it is to work from home – because they sometimes saw their children and partners instead of spending their time at airports.
JASPERS: We wrote the book before the crisis, but now it feels like the time is right to ask these questions.

Why are we so afraid of feelings at work?

Then let's put a few of them.
JASPERS: Why do companies only measure their success by growth and not also by the satisfaction of their employees? According to a study carried out by Google, people who work in "psychological" security, who feel comfortable in their team, generate more sales and are estimated to be twice as productive.
Why don't all companies, regardless of their position, set corporate goals? Why do the bosses do that from above? Doesn't everyone know best what they can do?
Why are so many people afraid of feelings at work? Emotion also means: I am involved, committed and have energy, I want to change something. This separation between "private self" and "job self" is artificial and does us no good.

And if we take another look at the start-up scene: what needs to change?
JASPERS: There is a very narrow understanding of entrepreneurship in this world. The "unicorn" idea hovers over everything: to get as big as possible as quickly as possible, a "unicorn", a start-up valued in the billions. Whether this is at the expense of the environment, employees or one's own health is of secondary importance.
RYLAND: Those who do not fit into this concept will not find anyone who will invest in them and support them. But luckily there is also the "zebra movement".

What's this?
RYLAND: An initiative by four American women entrepreneurs who have taken zebras as models instead of unicorns. In contrast to them, zebras actually exist, they are "real". In addition, they are herd animals, they do not compete, they cooperate. Of course, they too want to grow with their companies, but not exponentially, but organically and sustainably. You want to create value not just for those who start and invest, but for society. This movement is also slowly arriving in Germany. We both clearly see ourselves as "zebras".

What does it take to increase the herd here?
JASPERS: Investors who understand this concept. Almost all funds today function according to the law of the fittest: it is clear from the start that only one in ten companies will survive. The main thing is that it outshines all others. This throwaway culture is madness! We will certainly not abolish them overnight, but we can at least add to them.

By which?
RYLAND: With other financing models such as start-up cooperatives or crowdfunding and with new funding logics such as "revenue based financing": Whoever invests in this model does not receive any shares, at least not forever, instead the financing is repaid over years as a percentage of sales. That takes the pressure off.

More and more people who start up are consciously choosing not to invest in order to remain independent for as long as possible.
JASPERS: The state is also asked to provide capital that is not "risk capital". At the moment, only people can actually afford to found a company who has a certain back-up, such as savings, an inheritance, a family that supports them. But this also means that many are excluded because the hurdles are very high.

But there are certainly funding programs for start-ups.
RYLAND: But they are always aimed at very narrow groups, such as pure technology start-ups. How about providing companies that are committed to social and socio-political goals with loans with low interest rates?
JASPERS: That would benefit everyone: Thanks to our very homogeneous start-up culture, there are far fewer innovative products than there could be. At least I often think: If the majority of lingerie companies had been founded by women, I wouldn't still have to awkwardly close my bra at the back. And of course it is not only about so-called "women's issues" such as pregnancy, menstruation or impractical bras, but also, for example, about ideas on how to deal with climate change. Various teams are needed to develop this.

The "Female Founders Monitor" recently reported that just under 16 percent of all founders in Germany are female. The scene remains a boys club. Why does it take so long for the situation to change?
I, too, often fall back into old ways of thinking: Whenever I find myself measuring my own value by how much revenue my company is currently making, or passing pressure on to my team unfiltered, I have to remind myself every time: What do I do am I here actually? I didn't want that anymore!
RYLAND: Yes, it is tough, and that applies not only to the start-up scene, but to our working world as a whole. But my hope is that when people come back to their offices "after Corona" they will be confronted with the feeling they feel. Surveys already show that the majority would prefer not to return at all, and not just because of the possible risk of infection.
JASPERS: I want them to think about where their discomfort is coming from. That they go to their superiors and say: Let's think about how things could work differently. This window for changing something must not close again.

Naomi Ryland, born 1985, founded the career platform tbd *, where you can find out about sustainable jobs and network with others. She studied Intercultural Conflict Management and German and is co-founder of the social entrepreneurship network SEND.

Lisa Jaspers, born 1983, is the founder of Folkdays, a label for fair fashion and design. After studying politics and social economics, she worked, among other things. at Oxfam. There she met Naomi Ryland. Both live in Berlin and have written a book together about their vision of "New Work": "Starting A Revolution" (208 pages, 18 euros, Econ).

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BRIGITTE 02/2021