It’s not hard to see why Geke Rosier is the first winner of the Dianne Bevelander Prize, named in honour of the founder of the Erasmus Centre for Women and Organisations. Tracking back through her life’s journey, Geke’s fiercely independent spirit is clearly visible, alongside a fearless approach to creating change and being an outspoken trailblazer in spaces that are gender unbalanced.
It’s what led her to found RightBrains more than a decade ago as an organisation which aims to bridge the gender divide in tech. “RightBrains is on a mission to attract and retain more women in digital technology through education, regular events, role model stories as well as a career and mentor platform,” says Geke. Educational programmes include a Digital Leadership Programme, a Mentoring Programme, and a data and AI e-learning programme and the career and mentor platform is a safe place where women can connect, share experiences, network and elevate their careers.
We spoke to Geke about what it was in her early life and career journey that led her to establish RightBrains and her experiences along the way.
What was it about your early years that you can see connects you to where you are now, as an entrepreneur yourself and the founder of an organisation that has a social impact as well as a business mission?
I was always the kind of girl who did her own thing. There are friends of my mother who say now that they always knew I would do something like RightBrains; that they saw it in me when I was just 12 years old. To me, being independently minded is just who I am – and I am also not afraid of things. After I did my bachelors at Nyenrode University, I travelled to Spain for an internship. I ran into tons of friends and really liked it there. The next step for me was to find a way to stay in the country so I went to the Dutch Chamber of Commerce in Spain and asked for a job. I ended up working there for a year. To me, it was logical to just do that – to see something I wanted and take the steps to make it happen.
It strikes us that you go into new spaces easily and are not afraid to make your own community or to make yourself heard …?
I guess you could say that – for both my working and personal life. I met my husband Marc when we both did an MBA at Thunderbird School of Global Management. After we graduated, he got offered a job in Munich and I said to him, quite plainly, that if he wanted us to stay together I would have to go to Munich with him or we would have to break up. That was just how I dealt with the world – open and direct. We ended up living in Munich for three years and the UK for one and during that time I worked in product development at a large cosmetics firm in Germany and the UK – my first job!
You came from what you call an IBM family, with your dad working at the company for 25 years, but your first proper move into tech was when you moved back to the Netherlands and were referred by a friend for a job at Microsoft.
For the first time, Microsoft was bringing software products like games, joysticks, encyclopaedias, route planners and educational software to the consumer market and I joined the team. It became obvious to me that they thought they had hired someone with retail marketing experience whereas at the cosmetics company I had developed products for was a direct sales market. But it was a wonderful job for me because I love building things, I love the creativity behind it. Before not long I had built a merchandising team of young people and was travelling to different places across the world. At that time, Microsoft in the Netherlands employed about 50 people and we had fun together – I am still in touch with many of my colleagues from that time.
You faced some challenges along the way, including as a new mother?
In 1998, I had my first child who was born at seven months. I received a visit from my new boss, who came bearing a gift for my premature baby and also with a request that I look for a new job that was better suited to a mother with a young child. That was my first career hiccup, if one can call it that. It wasn’t what I would have chosen but in the end, it didn’t hinder me in my career nor confidence. I always say: “everything happens for a reason”. Later in my career, this boss sent me a really nice message via LinkedIn, saying that it was the most terrible thing he’d had to do in his career and that, of course, the decision to fire me came from above. But that difficult moment actually moved me into a great career.
It’s amazing that this story didn’t define you as you went forward?
I think it relates to being an entrepreneur – the core spirit of going into uncomfortable and even risky situations and moving from there. I’m opportunity thinker, that helps. My next job was as an IT marketing consultant at Brodeur Partners. I had been hired as part of the PR team but I soon saw that there was a marketing strategy department for tech companies in the organisation and I asked the owner if I could work there, which he agreed to. For the next four years, I was able to become acquainted with the world of tech startups and later, when the internet bubble burst and many start-ups didn’t survive, with the complexities of integrating IT into bigger businesses – what is now called digital transformation.
It was arising out of this that you set up ForceFive in 2004?
Yes. My partner and I founded it as a consultancy services and programme management organisation in the area of business IT alignment. I was focused on business development, on building attractive propositions for clients - which I loved. I had no business network then but found ways of creating one and before long had met people like Eric Kuisch who was then at KPN and who is now on our advisory board at RightBrains. It was a fertile time in terms of my thinking about what makes a sustainable business and the role of women in that. I co-authored and initiated the book ‘Ronde vormen in IT’ (2011) and, at ForceFive, we created a USP in bringing the C into IT - collaboration, creativity and communications. At that time we were talking about the need for right-brained people in making IT a success. The actual tech was becoming easier to develop but making it a success required right-brain thinking – which women can bring to the table.
There came a point at which you decided stop with ForceFive and set up RightBrains.
There came a point where I wasn’t getting any energy out of what I was doing – I wasn’t creating anymore and found myself spending so much time talking to purchasing departments about money which was unavoidable when you work with big organisations in our field of work. I wanted to be focused on innovation and solving problems. At the time, I saw two big opportunities. One was to create something that could play a role in more women entering the IT market and staying there and the other was for companies to connect with this in a way that would help with their diversity which is vital for innovation. At the time I wasn’t even thinking about how crucial it is to have women in IT in ways that are so obvious now – the algorithms that have only been designed by men for instance – but I knew that there was a real business case for attracting more women into IT, and for retaining them.
Are you surprised at the work that still needs to go into achieving gender balance in IT and organisations?
I was. I am happy to say that I met Dianne Bevelander once, when I attended a Women in Leadership Open Masterclass at RSM. In that masterclass, I heard a lot of young women talking about their insecurities in their own career journeys. In the room I had to ask the question whether it was really the case that women were made to feel so insecure, because that had not been my personal experience. But I realised that it is and I am very happy to be playing a role in redressing the imbalance at RightBrains. We work to create an environment where women at different stages in their careers can become connected, inspired and educated. We do this through different things, including profiling role-models and their inspiring stories on our platform. In 2015, we launched the RightBrains Digital Leadership Programme as the first component of our journey. This six months-long programme is designed to educate managers about the latest technologies and their impact on strategy, business models, marketing, organisations and leadership. I am a big believer in knowledge as a real change driver. When our first programme got underway in 2015,I felt very proud that I had been able to materialise this big idea. In the meantime, 100 talented women have joined this programme.
How do you think this change will come more generally?
I truly believe that we are not going to make a change if there is no sustainable business model – that the leadership of organisations should start investing in their future digital talent pool now. And not just through the appointment of a diversity manager who has a huge task and has to enlist volunteers to make the change happen. Organisations need a clear strategy around diversity and inclusion, not just as an add on at certain times of the year, and not just focusing on the internal organisation. They need to facilitate and reward female role models to go out there as ambassadors of their organisation to attract and build their female talent pool. This must come from the top – a commitment by leaders to, for instance, sponsor five women in their organisation, actively having their back. Filling the future talent pool entails employer branding, organising tech events for women and much more. Sometimes I feel like a missionary in this space but I do see it coming more and more into place and I am so happy to be a part of it.