When we look back at the stories of successful women, they are often full of pain, setbacks and unconquerable will to get up, over and over again, and to fight on. Coco Chanel was like that, so was Jeanne d’Arc. And Barbe-Nicole Clicquot-Ponsardin is a lesser known, but no less impressive example. As young, widowed single mother, she defied the will of her family, her advisors and her entire social environment, and took the economic as well as oenological and technological fate of Champagne production house Veuve Clicquot into her hands.
She was only 27 at the time, and the 19th century had only just dawned. The year was 1805. It is difficult to imagine how high the obstacles were she had to overcome, and how hard the pushback from society. But with assertiveness and the courage to take risks, she transformed the champagne producer into an internationally successful enterprise. In the process, she became a focused, highly innovative business woman, who invented the remuage rack, and later rosé champaign as we know it today. This makes Madame Clicquot one of the most influential women of her generation, a personality whose legacy reverberates until this day.
Two hundred years later, we unfortunately still have not arrived at a point in our development as society in which women in leading roles are as common an occurrence as it should be. Women still face discrimination and prejudice, where none should be left. For that reason alone, a woman who stands her ground in male-dominated areas deserves all our respect.
Now, of course champaign and success are a match made in heaven. When we think back at the times we clinked glasses filled with champaign, it’s the very special moments that come to mind. A great deal you closed, maybe, the first great job you landed, or an award you won.
It was on exactly such an occasion that I had the opportunity to clink glasses with Verena Pausder, who had just won the Veuve Clicquot Business Woman Award 2019, a special honor awarded in the name of Madame Clicquot every year, since 1972. It is awarded to women who distinguish themselves by outstanding merit, business sense and assertiveness – all qualities that Verena Pausder embodies like few othersVerena Pausder. Verena is the founder of the app Fox & Sheep, as well as the HABA digital workshop, which is dedicated to the digital education of kids. Fox & Sheep is among the most successful German apps, and made its creator Verena Pausder one of the most successful women in the tech business.
But we didn’t just celebrate together, I also took the opportunity to ask Verena a few questions:
Why is it so important that girls learn to program at an early age?
Because technology has to become second nature to them, something that they have access to and that excites them. So far, as a society, we haven’t done a particularly good job at conveying this excitement.
We gift them the wrong christmas presents. We tell them they are oh such amazing horseback-riders and ballet dancers.
We aren’t all that pleased or proud when women disassemble computers to see what’s inside. But at the age of six, seven or eight you still reach them. Once they are 13, 14, this particular train has often already left the station. If you didn’t connect to a technical world at that point, you won’t take up IT studies ll of a sudden. And that’s exactly why it’s so important to enable girls to take that path at a young age.
Why are there so few female founders here in Germany?
If you don’t have any previous experience, and if you didn’t enter the tech-industry in the 00’s, like I did in 2007, when it was still ok to make mistakes because there were even fewer female founders at the time, the question does indeed come up: where do you learn all that stuff? And where do you find the courage and confidence to stand your ground in a world like ours? The status quo is problematic, and the dynamic is obvious: too few girls in the industry, too few IT students, too few female founders and entrepreneurs in general.
It’s not easy, of course – you need to balance a range of diverging lifestyles, especially if you wish to have kids. It’s particularly challenging in the thirties, when people tend to still experience financial uncertainties, where the nights are very short if you have small kids, all during the initial phase in which the challenges to any budding company are enormous. Now that’s really something you need to be able to live through. I believe women are absolutely able to, but we still don’t have enough role models. The way I understand it, that’s the idea behind this award, to show: what are the tough moments?
What are the good moments?
Why is it worth the struggle, and why does it all turn out well in the end?
How do you manage to balance your private and professional lives?
The most important career choice is the partner on your side. My husband is an entrepreneur himself, so he understands exactly how much rains down on me every single day. And he’s the father of our four children. We both know how challenging it is to sleep little and then having to make important decisions the following day the next morning. He doesn’t confine me to the mother role only, we share an understanding that we are both entrepreneurs – and that is a huge blessing. Moreover, we have an infrastructure that is just as thought-out and complex as that of my company.
Who needs to be where, and at what time? Who picks up whom, and when? We are very organized, and I really think you just CAN’T leave a successful day up to chance, if you want things to work out a certain way. I believe we create a strong balance by being very close to our children, and making sure that they are surrounded by great people when we’re tied up.
I imagine that you, a woman in the tech industry, are confronted with a lot of prejudice. Which cliché gets on your nerves most? Which one did you really have enough of?
I always said “I’ll just go and DO IT, and it’s not really important for me how you think about it”. In other words, clichés never interested me much. There is a prejudice that a mother who is not permanently with her children is a bad mother, and that does get on my nerves.
It is definitely possible to have amazing children, and an amazing relationship with them, without hovering over them like a drone all the time. Of course, it is also possible to be a fantastic stay-at-home mum. The point is, there are no set rules, and nothing’s to be gained by speculating about how others should handle their responsibilities as parents.
What is the biggest challenge in your job?
The biggest challenge is that, as a founder, you’re always on the frontline. You need to must all your energy, every day anew, to take the next step, to motivate your employees, to tap a new revenue channel, to pay all the wages. At the end of the day, you are the one who’s responsible. If it doesn’t work out, it’s down to you. As amazing as that is in good times, as tough it is in the difficult phases. You just need to get through the latter. You feel the fatigue sometimes, but you don’t have the option to stay in bed in the morning. You can’t say “I have no energy, friends, you go ahead without me.”
That is the biggest challenge, that you need to give your all, that you need to stay motivated, and that you need to project this energy, even in times when you feel just as over-worked and tired as everyone else.
Have the courage to break with conventions. Have the courage to choose a path for yourself that no one may have walked before you.
Madame Clicquot took over the business against the will of her family, her advisors and the entire society she lived in – and she made it a success. We have come a bit of a distance, as society, but there’s still a long way to go. What would your advice be for young business women that are just starting out, and who may face some of the societal obstacles that are still in place, after all this time?
Break open structures. Who will lead this country into the future, if all is parceled up, if every position is filled, if every network is closed? How would innovation and progress be possible in such a society? What doe wa have to lose? What can happen if we go out into the world with the approach: “let’s think about this in new ways.” The worst that can happen is that someone doesn’t get it. Well, then try somewhere else. If you keep at it, you will find that a door will open eventually…and you’ll have the choice to pass through it.
Where do you see your industry heading?
Providing education, particularly digital education, will be a challenge for a long time to come in this country. In fact, the process will likely never be completed. On the one hand, that’s beautiful, because I know I’ll be able to work in this field all my life. On the other hand it’s also pretty frustrating to see how slow progress often is, and to be aware of how short our time really is, when we watch our kids growing up.