Each month we have the honor of interviewing WOMEN WHO INSPIRE US. This month we talked to Leonie Flückiger, co-founder of Adresta AG, a tech start-up in Zürich that creates digital certificates for the watch industry on the blockchain. Read about her path to technology, entrepreunership and her engagement towards more diversity in tech!
Tell us a bit about yourself, your background, and your current position.
My name is Leonie. I did my bachelor’s in material science at ETH Zurich, where I also got a chance to be a teaching assistant for mathematics. They were looking for female teaching assistants at the time, so I took the opportunity. I gave my best to be an excellent teaching assistant to fight against the stereotypes.
My bachelor thesis was concluded in a laboratory in London. During the three years of my bachelor’s, I spent many hours in the lab and looked for a more flexible master’s. I switched to mechanical engineering and specialized in micro and nanosystems, where I was allowed to take more entrepreneurial and business classes.
Next to my studies I was always working and also joined ETH juniors, the student consulting company of ETH Zurich, as an employee. Later, I joined the main board of ETH juniors for one year, where we executed over 100 projects with the industry. One of our projects was with Helvetia insurance, and this project ended up becoming the company I co-founded.
A challenge was that I still had to finish my master’s at this point. I co-founded Adresta AG in December 2019 but still had to write my thesis. Fortunately, I found a professor in the MTEC department that supported me in doing my master thesis about our start-up.
Adresta is an excellent example of corporate incubation.
What brought you into the tech industry?
That I ended up studying at ETH was more of an accident. Originally I wanted to study industrial design. I only learned about material science through a woman in the career information center. I visited the information days at ETH, and the material science group showed a lot of hands-on experiments. It was super creative. I instantly fell in love with all the colors and experiments going on.
I knew ETH was a good university, so I wanted to try it. However, the first three years were mostly math and programming and not much of the creative work they showcased (laughs). Today, I am very thankful for everything I was able to learn during these six years of scientific studies.
I first got in touch with hands-on tech topics at ETH juniors. Most of the projects had to do with new technologies, engineering, computer vision algorithms, and automation. The philosophy at ETH juniors is that the mainboard structures and manages these projects, but we are often not yet experts on the topics ourselves.
I led projects such as building a fraud detection algorithm for a bank or an AR solution for dentists. Through my experience at ETH juniors, I even adapted my study schedule to take more computer science-related courses.
One day, we got the chance to offer Helvetia Insurance a project about blockchain for the watch industry. None of us had any clue about blockchain, but we had to assess how much it would cost. My colleague Patricia and I teamed up, did research around blockchain for days, and ended up with a 6 figure offer to bring watches to the blockchain. Helvetia accepted our offer.
Mathew and Nicolas, now my two co-founders, started the project within Helvetia. Their goal was to find a CTO within ETH juniors and spin out the project – Adresta is an excellent example of corporate incubation. Even though I had no full-stack coding experience, I was very interested in this position. I approached them anyways, they onboarded me as their CTO, and we won the final pitch within Helvetia to start our venture. And that’s how I got into tech.
Which aspects of your work are you the proudest of?
My original goal during ETH was to join a large consulting firm, which was my dream job for a long time. I never intended to start my own company. I never thought this was possible. When I had the opportunity to co-found Adresta, I considered the opportunity costs and risks initially. In your venture, there might be no salary at the end of the month. I am proud of myself that I went for the opportunity anyway and I am proud that I approached Mathew and Nicolas about the CTO position and started my own company.
At ETH juniors, which is essentially the entrepreneurial school of ETH, I was surrounded by people that had already founded a company. Our small network includes the founders of GetYourGuide, Beekeeper, or Teralytics. Four new startups were co-founded during my year at ETH juniors, including Adresta. It encouraged me to continue on this path because I knew that I would always have the support of the network.
I am inspired by the women around me and deeply impressed by the girls that shared a part of my year at ETH juniors.
Were there many women at ETH juniors?
We struggled to find women for ETH juniors. Even though we aimed to always be 3 women out of 10 members on the mainboard, we often ended up being just 1 or 2. We organized special events, where even the president of ETH Zurich, Sarah Springman, attended to encourage more women to join us.
We employed over 100 employees in a year for our projects and the majority was male. Something that we observed is how women tend to show up for interviews differently. Based on this we tried various things to attract more women. We for example trained the team to ask different questions and updated the evaluation scheme.
The board of directors of ETH juniors was also male until my only female colleague and I suggested changing that. Now, Mariateresa Vacalli, the CEO of Bank Cler has joined them. I am inspired by the women around me and deeply impressed by the girls that shared a part of my year at ETH juniors.
Is there anything you wish you would have done differently?
I sometimes wish I would have given myself more time. During my studies, I was running at a very high pace. Now that I am not at university anymore, I realize that I don’t have to push so much and take my time to learn and grow.
Another thing is to value having a strong team. It’s worth so much. It makes me feel lucky to have such great co-founders. I learned a lot from them about building a good culture.
Also, I might have underestimated what it means to be a leader. You think a leader is the one screaming in the front, but that’s not how it works. From my co-founder Mathew, I learn a lot about leadership and from Nicolas about patience.
I certainly did not co-found a company to end up in a homogenous environment again.
Do you act for diversity in tech yourself, and if yes how?
I certainly did not co-found a company to end up in a homogenous environment again (laughs). The nine people at Adresta come from over five nationalities, speak seven languages, and have an age span of 23 – 60. I love having inspiring role models around me, such as Hilde. She is our senior colleague, a sales wizard, and super tech-savvy. I am learning a lot from her, too.
When we were looking for experts to join our advisory board, I looked at the list of candidates, and they were all men. I knew that we were in a hurry, but I took the time to search for a potential female advisor. I didn’t know where to look at first but then I came across Esther-Mirjam De Boer from getdiversity.ch, contacted her, and she agreed to help us. We identified multiple women in the industry who would fit as advisors, and hopefully, we will bring them on board in the future.
I advocate whenever possible for women in the tech industry. While I was still studying at ETH, I represented ETH materials science at the high school fairs. I keep telling all the girls and young women that they should look into technical studies or start their own business.
What’s one thing you would like to be doing or would like to have five years from now?
Ideally, we exited our company and hopefully, I will have some money to support other start-ups, especially female-led teams. I wish there were more female entrepreneurs.
Additionally, I’d love to build school courses that teach us hard skills and soft skills. At ETH juniors, we learned to communicate, organize, and estimate projects, but we were also allowed to push, fail, and eventually find confidence and believe in ourselves.
A good friend of mine did her bachelor’s in Computer Science and now works at one of the largest tech corporations. In her last interview, they asked her where she wanted to be in five years. She said “managing director”. They told her it was a bold statement for someone so young. She got the position and is doing fantastic at her job.
It is so important to know your worth. Go out there, try and fail and do things you never thought would be possible. It is not our nature to go out of our ways, but I believe we need to break out of our cages sometimes.
The key is to embrace your failure. You grow a lot if it hurts.
What advice would you give other women in tech?
When I have an idea, I reach out to someone to pitch it. If they say no, you try again later. It’s this mindset shift that was a game-changer for me. One of the best pieces of advice I got was that a no today is not a no tomorrow. It helped me get in this mode where I try everything. It took a lot of time and experience to realize it, but the key is to embrace your failure. You grow a lot if it hurts.
We would like to thank Leonie Flückiger for her time in sharing her story and for being a role model for young girls. Thank you Leonie for being a woman who inspires us! 💛
Author: Lisa Stähli
Our Women Who Inspire Us series has already featured:
- Catherine Pawlotsky, CIO of TCS
- Chanel Greco Founder & CEO at Saperis
- Dr. Angelika Fuchs, Global Program Lead for Data Automation at Roche
- Isabelle Ohnemus, CEO & founder of EyeFitU
- Priska Burkard, co-founder and CEO of Tech Face
- Vanessa Gentile, director alliance & channel Switzerland at Salesforce
- Nadia Fischer, co-founder & CEO of Witty Works
- Valentina Ricupero, business consultant & coach
- Anastasia Hofmann, co-founder of food-tech start-up Kitro