Anne de Kerckhove: Celebrating my Anniversary as Freespee CEO on International Women’s Day

Anne de Kerckhove_Freespee CEO

As an active promoter of women in leadership roles, celebrating my work anniversary at Freespee is particularly meaningful as I started my tenure of CEO on International Women’s Day. What a year it turned out to be!

Freespee grew by over 58% in terms of top-line revenue with fantastic brands across Europe. We grew the team across Sweden and London hiring so many brilliant, interesting, quirky people. Each person who works at Freespee has a unique history, unique passions and unique talents. Some are great musicians, others body builders, some are ex-skiing champions, other great cooks. Most have travelled the world and explored different cultures. The more I get to know my teams, the more I discover their great unique stories and journeys. Two passions tend to bring us together: a love of discovery and innovation.

I tried to push the topic of diversity of gender, backgrounds and nationalities every day.  I push our Freespee teams to let go of their boundaries, their fears, their pre-conceived notions of other people to become one unified team, in love with its diversity. With over 15 nationalities across the company, we don’t shy away from discussing the particularities of each country. We talk about them openly and laugh about our differences.

Beyond my work at Freespee, I mentored 8 women towards the next step in their career through the INSEAD mentoring program, amongst others and I invested in 3 companies with female co-founders.

As a speaker at many conferences, I push audiences to explore their desire to take risk, to create change, to build new different teams. I often talk about the taboos most people shy away from.

As I reflect on the year gone past, I wonder: have I done enough? Am I having impact? Am I creating change?

Society still has so many stereotypes, so many pre-conceived notions about our roles as men and women in society, about what is acceptable.

One of the most telling moments for me this year took place in September. I was a guest speaker in Paris at a conference for Les Sommets du Digital. Half an hour before my speech, I broke the zipper of my trousers. It was annoying but I certainly was not going to let it ruin my night.

 I tried to hide the issue with a long flowing top but I am a very animated speaker and within 30 seconds of my speech starting, everybody in the room could tell my zipper was undone. A sea of panic hit the audience and I could feel it sweep across the room. As I finished the speech, I explained to the crowd that my zipper had broken, that I was aware of it and laughed about the joys of speaking on stage and managing the unexpected. The crowd immediately sighed of relief and joined me in laughing about how uncomfortable the situation had made them feel. Together, we had almost let a tiny piece of metal take over this conference and our shared experience!

We need to see past our differences and learn to let go! We must learn to see beyond appearances and learn to truly see the people that surround us. We must focus on positive impact in everything we do.

In a time of political uncertainty, of conflict and social media manipulation, it is more important than ever to take a deeper look and to see past the superficialities.

Despite some good progress it is frustrating that in 2019 we are still talking about the challenges of building equality in the workplace.

The truth is change won’t just happen because we want; tech leaders – men and women – must keep pushing for it on a daily basis.

Anne de Kerckhove: Freespee’s new CEO joins us on International Women’s Day

international women's day

I am incredibly excited to be joining Freespee as CEO.

It’s always wonderful to lead a very talented team of many backgrounds and nationalities.

What perfect timing: I join on International Women’s Day. I have worked hard over the last few years to promote diversity at all levels of organisations: mentoring and financing female entrepreneurs, coaching women to join boards and helping men and women from all backgrounds and skills succeed in fair and equal environments.  Diversity is an essential success factor of any company. And anybody with common sense finally recognises that. But we still have a long road to equality of gender, ethnicity, backgrounds, particularly in the Tech and startup world.

I have a confession to make: I am a tech startup addict.

Over the last 15 years, I have helped lead 5 tech start-ups to profitability and IPO.

I don’t have a pension plan or big savings: I reinvest all my money into the next generation of talent and innovation. I have personally invested in over 25 new tech companies and set up and invested in 3 tech early-stage funds. I mentor over 10 founders a year, as a way of giving back to our startup community. I am one of the few female executives in the UK to sit on 2 public company boards in the tech and gaming space.

I love it.

It’s as exhilarating today as it was when I started. In fact, it’s more exciting these days. AI, Bots, big data, UI/UX, virtual reality all enable us to create amazing new immersive and personalised experiences for customers in B2B and B2C.

I did not start up as a natural candidate for tech startups. Both my parents were diplomats and far removed from tech businesses. But my brother was a child model and with his earnings at 8 years old, he bought our first Apple computer. We played every game possible for weeks and then we took the computer apart out of curiosity. I was hooked from that day onwards. Our household was littered with decomposed computers and games over the years.

My mother always worked and made it to the top of her profession, having come from a very modest background where her schooling was stopped at age 14. My sister and I had a natural role model at home. We never questioned whether we could be leaders. We thought all women were naturally designed to lead. My sister was fearless and left the house at age 7 to pursue her career as a dancer. She became a prima ballerina and choreographer by the time she was 19.  Role models are so important. They drive our behaviour.

At 17, I set up my first company: a travelling theatre troupe whilst studying at McGill University. That’s how I made money to travel around the world and live my passion for discovery and new cultures.

Then I became a banker…Can you believe it? In fairness, it was a fantastic learning experience and I was surrounded by great mentors. One, in particular, noticed that I was always asking too many questions. He realised I was not fascinated by finance but by what we were financing. He transferred me to a new project and innovation financing division. It was amazing. Our role was only to finance things that had never been done or created before. I was surrounded by entrepreneurs and innovators in small and large companies.

I quit banking with his blessing and support and joined the camp of the MAKERS.

I have never looked back. It is very important to understand your true nature and your passions and to work in an environment where you can embrace them every day.

At Freespee, we are at the Inflection Point: when a company has found its market fit with a unique and superior product and is facing double-digit growth. It’s such an exciting time for us.

Our challenges will be to manage this hyper growth effectively:

We must stay true to our company DNA.

We must continue to recruit only the best.

We must continue to innovate to stay ahead of the curve.

We must continue to have our clients at the centre of everything we deliver.

We must empower our clients to have greater conversations with their customers.

We must continue to foster a culture of integrity and impact, of innovation and risk-taking and a culture obsessed with our clients and their businesses.

We must continue to grow the diversity within our business and promote young talent from all backgrounds.

We must push forward the best engineers, the best salespeople, the best customer service teams through constant training and empowerment.

We must drive a culture of joy and success amongst our teams and our clients.

We must create a culture where extraordinary things happen.

This is one of the biggest trends in tech currently across the world, pushing the boundaries to deliver the unimaginable. It’s not about a specific continent or country leading the startup scene.

From Elon Musk taking us to Mars, to Xavier Niel creating the world’ largest incubator in Paris: great people are making extraordinary things happen.

They refuse to believe in barriers and limitations. That’s the next generation of tech start ups and Freespee will be part of that.

Extraordinary requires risk. Risk requires diversity. Surrounding yourself as an executive or founder by people who think like you, who look like you, who come from the same school and neighbourhood as you, who share the same skin colour means you will never push the boundaries.

Worse – you will probably create a culture of exclusion and inequality, whether you wish to or not.

Creating true equality in Tech firms will require us to be courageous and bold, to stand up for what’s right, to make our common voices heard. Change won’t just happen. We men and women leading the tech world will make it happen.

Learn more about Anne on her blog here.