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The best way to start your career? To learn from role models who are already successful in their job. In a new interview series, students of the Burda School of Journalism have the chance to talk to inspiring female leaders and profit from their advice. They meet successful women with leading positions at Burda and talk to them about their career, how digital transformation is changing the future of work and women in business. Aliz Tepfenhart and Marisa Gold kick-off the series.
Aliz Tepfenhart is managing director of Burda Digital and an e-commerce expert who recognized the potential of online commerce at an early stage. After holding various executive positions within the Otto Group, she came to Burda three years ago and successfully manages the businesses of multichannel dealers Cyberport and Computeruniverse as managing director.
Marisa Gold is starting out as a journalist. After studying ethnology and media studies, the 25-year-old has been a trainee editor for the magazine Freundin since 2017. She has a two-year-old son and runs the podcast "Supermuddis", which deals with the compatibility of family and career. In this interview, she talks to Aliz Tepfenhart about female executives, physics homework and why a disappointing experience was the best thing that ever happened to the managing director.
Marisa Gold: How would you explain your job to a kindergarden child?
Aliz Tepfenhart: My five-year-old daughter always asks me, "What do you do in the office all day long?" I answer: "Mummy sells a lot of computers and then the postman comes and delivers the parcels". Cyberport is the third largest online electronics retailer in Germany. With software that is individually tailored to their needs, we can advise our customers in the best possible manner - this is particularly helpful for complex products such as notebooks.
M.G.: Have you always been interested in technology?
A.T.: We started programming at school when we were 14. I went to a math and physics high school and we worked with punch cards and wrote programs in old programming languages like Fortran, Turbo Pascal or BASIC - for example for our physics homework. It was much more exciting to write a program that solved the physics problems instead of spending four hours doing the homework ourselves. The logical way of thinking I acquired through that, for example by painting a Fortran tree, still helps me today when I have to structure problems.
M.G.: Where did your interest in math, physics and technology come from?
A.T.: I always thought science was cool and logical as a child. I was born in Romania and in my childhood mathematics and physics were very exciting for me. Many other subjects were censored by communism. Mathematics was always honest.
M.G.: Do you have to be courageous to drive digital innovations?
A.T.: Courageous? I don't think so. You have to be curious and hungry for something new. We do a lot of proof of concepts at Cyberport and Computeruniverse. That means we deploy a few developers and test if something works. If yes – we roll it out. If not – we try something new. This is the essence of digital innovation: To try as many things as possible. Even new things that sound totally crazy. We cannot analyse or predict everything in advance.
M.G.: You often see the CV of successful people and think "Mine will never look like that". A Princeton professor, Johannes Haushofer, once published a "CV of Failure" in which he wrote about all the things he was not successful at. Have you had a moment of failure?
A.T.: Not failure, but disappointment. When I was head of marketing at Küchen Quelle, I was offered a career as a buyer - which was THE job in mail-order selling then. I was trained for my new role, did both jobs at the same time for one year without additional payment, because my predecessor was sick - only to find out they gave the job to a man after all.
M.G.: Why do you think he got the job instead of you?
A.T.: Because he was a man, they spoke openly about that. The mail-order business was a man's domain at that time, as a young woman I was the pink elephant anyway. That was incredibly disappointing for me and I had lost confidence in my manager completely. I then quit and was offered a job at Quelle International. After two months in project management, I was appointed to the Executive Board. In the end, it was the best thing that happened to me.
M.G.: Is there still a difference today between women and men in the tech industry?
A.T.: No. At least it doesn't feel like it. I meet many female colleagues, there are more and more women at trade fairs, also in Silicon Valley. I was CEO in Eastern Europe for many years, where it is more natural for women to be in management positions than in Germany.
M.G.: Should there be more women in management positions?
A.T.: Definitely. The mood is different when women are around. I think it's always good to mix the sexes. But on one hand women must be prepared to take over these roles , and on the other hand companies have to make sure they have structures that allow them to do so. In my opinion, a quota is not helpful. Companies must be prepared to offer flexibility to their employees, otherwise the compatibility of family and career will not work. Digitization gives us every opportunity to balance and manage work and family life. I see women doing much more when they work from home than if they were in the office. I am convinced that the trust we give our employees pays off.
M.G.: And to what extent do women have to be ready to take over leading positions in the business?
A.T.: Women sometimes tend to think "Oh, God, I can't do that" - although they can cover 80 percent of the requirements. Men tend to say: "Of course I can" - and maybe cover only 50 percent. Women have to stop that pattern of thought. I say to young women: Have confidence in yourself and just do it. You don't have to fulfill everything a 100 percent. 80 percent are very often enough to be successful and make things happen.
M.G.: I have a two-year-old son. I often feel guilty when I'm not with him but working, and vice versa. Do you know that feeling?
A.T.: Try to break the habit! I know that feeling, but it gets better over time. There is an African saying: It takes a whole village to raise a child. Children need different influences. Since my daughter has been going to kindergarten, she has developed incredibly and has become much more self-confident. It's important to give love to children, but they don't need a mother hen. At work, on the other hand, you simply have to say: "I'm leaving now". I organize the evenings so that I usually put my daughter to bed. Everybody knows that - you can plan it accordingly. After 20.30 I am available again.
M.G.: Is there any advice you would give to young women like me at the start of their career?
A.T.: Don't think about how to be successfull, think about what you want to do. And do the things well. This is how the best results are achieved. It's important to be passionate about something. Be curious and be humble! Don't take it for granted that you'll be given chances. Pay it back with a good performance! Go the extra mile!
M.G.: What are you looking for in candidates who apply for jobs with you?
A.T.: I look for people who are passionate, who are enthusiastic and who give me the feeling they would really enjoy their job. Also respect is extremely important to me – I want people who treat others and the job they are given respectfully. And you have to be curious – without curiosity you won’t be successful in the digital world.
Aliz Tepfenhart studied business administration in Ravensburg and worked as marketing manager at Küchen Quelle. Subsequently, she was responsible for Romania, Hungary and Croatia in the management of Quelle International. In 2009, she was appointed CEO for Quelle Russia by the Otto Group before taking over the management of the mail order company Baur in 2013. Aliz Tepfenhart has been managing director of Burda Digital since 2015 and is responsible for the e-commerce retailers Cyberport and Computeruniverse, among others. She is also a member of the supervisory board of Holidaycheck.
Marisa Gold is a student at the Burda School of Journalism in the class of 2017-2019 and trainee editor at the magazine Freundin. She studied media studies, ethnology with a focus on the Middle East and Arabic in Tübingen.