It is funny how you just connect and “click” with some people. Even if you have not met them too often. It happened to me with Amelie Gross, an Austrian entrepreneur and head of the Junge Wirtschaft Austria (Junior Chamber of Commerce). This association represents the interests of young entrepreneurs in Austria, irrespective if they founded their own new business or if they took over existing companies.
I met Amelie at a friend’s wedding in Salzburg in 2014. We kept in touch and always said we have to meet up. However, our busy lives allowed us to meet only four years later. I have been following Amelie on Instagram and was fascinated by her commitment to improving the business environment in Austria in addition to running her own business. I asked her if she was interested in an interview and two days later we already met up in Vienna.
When I met Amelie at Coccoquadrat, a coworking space, she had already had a very long day involving a press conference. Nevertheless, Amelie was completely relaxed, having a cappuccino while catching up with me on the past four years. Her business style is a mix of Audrey Hepburn meets Carly Fiorina with a crème jacket matched with a black blouse with intricate details and black pants.
“I do not like the boring grey outfit combos forced on us career women. We can be successful and look and feel great in our outfits.”
Amelie is one of the many young entrepreneurs in Austria who took over existing companies – structurally, SMEs (small and medium-sized companies) dominate the Austrian economy. When Amelie was in her mid-twenties, she took over the family business, a debt collection agency. “I somehow grew into that. Your whole life revolves around the question if you will take over the business, with all the advantages and disadvantages.” According to her, it was an advantage that she could tap into existing resources and being exposed to a lower risk than starting a business from scratch. Less leeway compared to founding it yourself is one of the drawbacks she mentioned.
When she was 25, her mother retired and told her either to take over immediately or she would sell the business. Amelie took over with the goal of giving it a try for some years and see how it would work out for her. I ask her what would have happened if she had not had to take over her family’s business. “Probably I would have ended up as an employee.” I was a bit surprised and asked her why. “I think because I am not a big risk taker and building a business from scratch entails a lot of risk.”
However, before taking over the family business, Amelie wanted to gain experience. After her law degree, she did a legal clerkship, worked at a law firm, did internships and also went abroad (to the US and Spain). That way, she was able to find out what she wanted to do professionally. Her 20-year-old self she would tell to try out even more things and travel even more. “That is the only way how you can evaluate what you really want in life.”
I ask her if she ever regretted not choosing a different type of career and how she made the decision to succeed her mother. “Do you know the feeling when you want something and you actually have decided on it but still somehow think about other things?”, she asks me. “I like to compare it to buying a dress: imagine you have already found the perfect dress for you, you made the choice. But still, you look at other dresses which might be nice even though you have made the decision. It was similar for me with my career choice.”
Our interview location Cocoquadrat had a really stylish Berlin-esque atmosphere. There is coffee (of course, in line with the Berlin feel with all the different types of milk), snacks and healthy breakfasts. If I had not known I was in Vienna, it could have been Hong Kong, London or New York as well. As I am too far away from the Austrian start-up scene most of the time, I asked Amelie about her opinion. Even though the scene is growing, it is still lagging behind the major tech hubs. Especially when it comes to women in tech.
Even though women make up around 43 % of newly founded ventures, only 5 to 8 % of all new tech start-ups with strong growth are run by women. (Note: statistics supplied by Junge Wirtschaft Austria) Amelie thinks that one reason for this phenomenon is the lack of encouragement for young girls to pick up programming.
“I think it should be mandatory to learn coding languages at school. The same way we learn English or French, it should be treated equally.”
However, she also sees a paradox: the image of the start-up industry, especially in tech, is that we mainly associate it with young men in hoodies with an IT background. Even though most of these high-tech start-ups were started by men who also do not have a hard-core IT background. “I think the secret ingredient to success is to have the right idea and find the right people for your team.” We agreed that there are probably some other barriers for women in Austria to found their own businesses.
Amelie told me a story which happened in her family: “My cousin lives in the US and he and his wife, who is a career woman, equally contribute to the family’s income. I always thought that this will automatically influence her little daughter. But when they came visit me at my office in Salzburg, the girl sat down at my desk, watched us and then said: ‘Now I’m a man.’ I was so shocked. Obviously, even though her mother is very successful, our society associates big desks with successful men!” To come back to the tech industry, the people we look up to as a society are also mostly men. Studies prove that if we do not see people who remind us of ourselves at the top, we also tend to believe that we cannot make it.
We also talked about whether there is a backwards movement from a feminist perspective. Have Instagram personalities, especially female “lifestyle bloggers”, contributed to a backward view on women? “I think so. Look at these girls: they all tell us we have to be perfect, live the perfect lives, get babies with the perfect guy. It is frustrating, even for us, for established women.”
Furthermore, Amelie thinks that a lot of women over-plan their careers. It happens very often that women use a potential future baby, which is not even “in the making” as yet, as a reason for not advancing their careers. A lot of them think about potentially having children. As a consequence, they are hesitant to change jobs. Even when they are unhappy in their jobs.
“That is just crazy, we deprive ourselves of so many opportunities that way. We should think like men and only deal with issues that are actually there, not only in our heads.”
I asked her if women also need to work on their communication style and confidence. “Well, I do think that there is a major difference in how we communicate compared to men. I see it when I send a complaint email to a company which my husband would phrase totally different. And usually, he is more successful with his complaints. Maybe we all tend to believe men more than women because of their communication style? But at the same time, I do not want to play games and start being more masculine. But us women, we definitely need to believe more in ourselves. Very often, I encourage women who have accomplished a lot to take over leadership positions. But their first reaction is most of the time: ‘I think I am better suited for the second row.’ These women successfully run multiple business and still think they are not experienced enough! We need to stop thinking like that.”
Austria lags behind other start-up hubs because traditionally, the economy’s structural focus has been on SMEs. At the moment, there is a big demand for successors within those SMEs, especially in more rural areas. However, a lot of people are hesitant to take over existing companies because of the inherited liabilities associated with these businesses (e.g. there is a system of vested benefits entitlement depending on the amount of time the respective employee has been working for the company). Furthermore, the challenge for entrepreneurs in this field is the lack of skilled labour to hire.
In addition to this structural phenomenon, there is no culture accepting failure. Austrians sometimes seem amused if somebody fails in running their business. While it is accepted to fail in the US and even admired if you stand up afterwards, try again and succeed, Austrians do not see failing as an essential thing for your career. It is better to be in a safe but boring job instead of risking something and, therefore, risk failure. Furthermore, the negative image of business owners is another big barrier. The negative image goes back to the industrial revolution: when big companies exploited the employees. But this image is outdated: “In SMEs we all need to collaborate. It is important to talk to your employees and share your vision with them. Otherwise, your business will fail.”
Amelie also criticized the high taxes and bureaucracy in Austria. “If somebody earns EUR 1,800 net, the costs for the company are nearly double the amount because of all the additional contributions. This is an enormous burden for small companies. Furthermore, applying for a UID number, a tax number which is mandatory to be able to purchase and sell, can take weeks. Moreover, the Austrian Industrial Code (Gewerbeordnung) is out-of-date and needs to be adapted to the needs of the 21st century.”
What would be the concepts which could change the environment in the long run? Amelie gives an incentive system similar to the UK, where you could, for example, get tax benefits if you invest in companies as an example. And at the same time, I can support regional companies and see them grow with my investment. It might be more attractive from an ROI (return on investment) perspective than having it on a savings account. Furthermore, she thinks it is crucial to change the mind-set of Austrians:
“We need to move away from the attitude that it is the society’s duty to take care of everyone. Austrians need to learn more self-responsibility again and we also need to foster an environment which encourages entrepreneurs instead of stigmatizing them.”
Nevertheless, Amelie thinks that the system of subsidies for young businesses is a positive driver for entrepreneurship in Austria. Moreover, the service and support offered for entrepreneurs by the Chamber of Commerce contributes to change. “You cannot compare it to Silicon Valley, Berlin or London, but I definitely see a lot of potential for entrepreneurs in Austria.”
Amelie has now been the head of the Junge Wirtschaft Austria for about a year. This function is elected by the nine regional heads of the Junge Wirtschaft and involves campaigning. Even though it is an honorary position, Amelie effectively has two jobs – or putting it in comparison to most people, even three. “It is a lot of effort, I put a lot of energy in it but I love to challenge myself. It is great to be able to actively shape our society.”
By the end of her electoral term, Amelie aims to have improved two major topics: firstly, the broadband infrastructure in Austria. It is still patchy, especially in the countryside, thus, acting as a barrier to not only high-tech start-ups but also traditional ventures. The new government has included this request into their programme and Amelie hopes that this goal will be achieved very soon. The second major goal for her term is the improvement of supply of skilled labour.
Success for Amelie means to have a job which allows her to lead a nice life – not only from a monetary perspective but also in a way where she enjoys working and can grow with the tasks. On bad days, Amelie’s “pick-me-up” is meeting friends who work in totally unrelated fields. She appreciates talking about something that is not related at all to her job. It helps her put everything into perspective again.
What would she advise young aspiring entrepreneurs?
“Get out there, ladies! Go to events, try to meet people, and talk about your idea. I know it is sometimes difficult to share your idea with strangers because you are scared you might get copied. But you need to get feedback and get a feeling for the market. Only if people know about you and your product can they help.”
Furthermore, aspiring entrepreneurs should forget about the romanticized image of the start-up scene. Being an entrepreneur is not a nine to five job. If your priority is to dedicate more time to your private life, founding will not be the perfect match for you. It is a lot of work, but it is definitely worth it.”
Amelie Gross is the owner of Inkasso Merkur, a debt collection agency in Salzburg, Austria. From 2017 to 2019, she was the head of the Junge Wirtschaft Austria (Junior Chamber of Commerce), an association representing the interests of young entrepreneurs.
Pictures courtesy of Amelie Gross, unless otherwise stated.