Innovation Origins is delving deeper. In addition to our regular news on innovation and technology, our journalists will routinely cover important themes in depth across the week. Our first dossier featured start-ups founded by women. And today we present the final article from this series. Read all the articles in this dossier here.

Recently, after a decade with TEDx, she has embarked on a new path with FEM-START: an incubator and accelerator for female start-ups all over the world that focuses on tech and social impact. Starting with Ghana, Spain and Lithuania. FEM-START is a unique initiative. Something like this already exists in the US and Australia, but not yet in Europe or Africa. The interview with Marian Spier takes place the day before she’ll travel to Ghana for the first FEM-START competition program. And although she understandably prefers to talk about her latest brainchild, she does want to talk one more time about TEDxAmsterdamWomen, which she has been organizing as a parallel event to TEDxAmsterdam since 2010.

How did you come up with the idea for TEDxAmsterdamWomen?

When I started out at TEDxAmsterdam, which I attended the big TED Global conferences in Oxford for, I noticed how many interesting female speakers there were with good narratives. Mostly scientists. That’s not so strange either. Because the purpose of TED Talks is also about speaking about science in as simple terms as possible. So, in 2010 we started TEDxWomen International with a group of like-minded women based on the idea: we have achieved so much in terms of the Millennium Development Goals, but not so much when it comes to equality.

Marian Spier (c) Jurre Rompa

Women are still not on equal terms with men. So let’s use this platform to address the ‘woman’ issue. Since I come from The Netherlands, I was asked: do you want to organize TEDxAmsterdanWomen? I had a background in the tech sector and didn’t know much about women’s emancipation. Although I was raised really emancipated by my mother. She always said: if you want to achieve something – just go for it! Then 800 women immediately signed up. I thought: this is much bigger than I thought! So it was important to think about who we wanted on stage. There weren’t that many events aimed at women back then as it happens.

What changes have you seen in the past ten years when it comes to TEDxAmsterdamWomen?

The goal of TEDxAmsterdamWomen was to make women more visible. Specialisms, but also women speakers. That worked out pretty well. In ten years, we’ve had at least 250 people on stage, who you now see in TV programs or as specialists. It all started in 2010 with a TED Talk about the female heart by cardiologist Harriette Verwey: ‘Women make a difference.’ Lots of women have died of heart attacks because their heart problems were not recognized as such. Had scientists done research on this sooner, my grandmother would probably still be alive. That story really exploded in the press, a lot of journalists followed it up.

Over the years we’ve had many female speakers whose lives we’ve seen change. Like entrepreneur Janneke Niessen, founder of CapitalT together with Eva de Mol (a capital investment fund that focuses specifically on women, ed). She held a TED Talk on entrepreneurship back in 2013. But we also had Corinne Vigreux, co-founder of TomTom, talk about her life. At the time, that was one of her first major public appearances.

Did you also put any specific women-related themes on the agenda at TEDxAmsterdamWomen?

Absolutely. Entrepreneurship was one of those themes. And women’s hearts, of course. Other topics that were raised were the unhealthy relationship with food, burn-out syndrome and psychological issues affecting young people. But also male infertility: a problem that is still very much taboo. By the way, we also invited male speakers, as long as the topic had something to do with women’s issues. For example, we had a TED Talk about terrorism. The stereotype of a terrorist is still a man with a beard. But anyone can be a terrorist, even women with a good education. And Lex Peters from the Female Cancer Foundation told us how simple it is to prevent cervical cancer. So many women benefited from that!

The annual Startup Awards were created in 2015. What have they achieved?

The Startup Awards have really helped women move forward. The women who were in the finals have all become more prominent and successful entrepreneurs. The first winner was Danique Wiltink from Nimbles (digital platform that brings together supply and demand in homework support field, ed), Tessa Duste from Rooflife (start-up that focuses on the construction of green roofs, ed), Diem Do from CodeGorilla (start-up that prepares long-term unemployed people for work in IT, ed) but also Eline Leijten from Plugify. I’ve seen all these women really take off! Although there is still a long way to go for women entrepreneurs.

Marian Spier with participants at FEM-START

For example, at TEDxAmsterdamWomen we had an American woman entrepreneur aged 70. Very successful and with a great deal of experience. She had set up as much as four companies over the years. But she also told us that as a woman she wasn’t even allowed to sign a bank account herself when she started out! Yet she’s living proof that business really is for everyone: regardless of your gender, race or age. Even though many people still have the image of new entrepreneurs as young, white, highly educated men around 25 years of age.

But what the example of that 70-year-old woman who recently started a new start-up shows us, is that you are never too old to go into business. And that you can still set up a business at the age of 70. Although in the end the question still remains the same: do you have a viable product?

FEM-START sounds like a logical successor to TEDxAmsterdamWomen. What is the purpose of this new initiative?

I want to do with FEM-START what I’ve been doing with TEDxAmsterdamWomen for the past ten years. That is, making female speakers visible. FEM-START is a consciously inclusive incubator and accelerator program for women entrepreneurs with a focus on tech and social impact. The aim is to link entrepreneurs to investors. Although we had built up a database of 400 start-ups over the past five years with TEDxAmsterdamWomen, it also became clear how difficult it is for those women to raise investment funding. Investors are looking for companies that they can invest in. While entrepreneurs are in turn looking for funding in order to further develop their business. I would like to bridge that gap.

The focus is not just on The Netherlands, but also internationally. As in Ghana, Spain and Lithuania for the time being. I work a lot with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Dutch embassies in those countries. We are now starting in Ghana because I was asked to do that. So, it was the right moment. And as an entrepreneur, I believe that you have to be where the problem is. At the same time I also thought: let’s start out small, see if the market is waiting for this. I started preparing the work in April: collecting data about the local ecosystem. Such as the prevalence of start-ups, funding, what stage they are at, the number of employees per start-up, and so on. Then we wrote to women entrepreneurs.

Marian Spier (right) together with the winners of the FEM-START entrepreneurs competition.

I had no idea beforehand how many start-ups that would bring in. However, in the meantime, 66 start-ups have registered for the accelerator program in Ghana! I will be in Ghana in the next few days. We have set up a competition program there. A winner will be chosen from that. They will then be invited to come to The Netherlands in September to present their pitch during the Amsterdam Capital Week. And I’ll then introduce them to a Dutch investor. After that it will be Spain’s turn, followed by Lithuania. We are going to do the same there. We consciously choose countries where we can actually do something for women.

How important are role models for women entrepreneurs?

Extremely important! In the meantime, there are more women role models, which other entrepreneurs starting out can mirror than when I first started with TEDxAmsterdamWomen. I will be working with local role models in all three countries as part of FEM-START. Women with a certain stature, who have achieved all the important things with their business, who have proven themselves and built up their own network in the local start-up scene. If you go to the FEM-START Awards page you will also see that those women are at the top of the page, above my name. Because in the end these are the names that other women recognize as well.

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About the author

Author profile picture Erzsó Alföldy is a versatile and experienced journalist with a background in science and culture. Writes about sustainability, the energy transition and equal opportunities for women in the labour market. Follows closely the developments in her native Hungary. For Innovation Origins she is currently producing a series of articles on female entrepreneurship and the funding gap'.