Europe, Interviews

Christina Burkhardt – Founder of SHIFTSCHOOL

I grew up in a little village – which means I had never seen any female founders. Becoming a founder was challenging and very demanding – but at the same time, it felt like a big adventure where you have no idea where you’ll finally end up. And that’s what it still is: very challenging, demanding – and one big great adventure.

Christina Burkhardt is the founder of SHIFTSCHOOL, Germany’s first academy for Digital Transformation & Leadership. As a mother of three children, education is very important to her. She is a strong advocate of educational reform and is committed to more female founders as well as more visibility of women in the digital economy. Christina is a passionate bridge-builder between analog and digital worlds and was awarded with the “Inspiring Fifty” prize for her dedication in early 2019. 

In a nutshell, tell us a bit about your job, and what role technology plays in it?

I’m the founder & CEO of SHIFTSCHOOL, an Academy for Digital Transformation based in Nuremberg, Germany. My husband Tobias an I founded the company in 2015. After the crazy first year setting up the company – where basically you do everything and every task that has to be done, we split our roles: I’m now responsible for everything related to Marketing & Communication, for our Community and Finance. We use many different tools that make life easier for us in handling things and being able to work wherever we want to work.

Technology, of course, plays also an important role in the academic program “Digital Transformation Manager”. The people in our program will learn and discuss a lot about technological developments and why they play an important role. In one of the eight modules, they have to pass during the program they even have to learn the basics of code and then use it in a practical context. But we place the overall emphasis more on the general understanding and dealing with questions like what impact and influence technology has on our everyday life, on our jobs, on business models, on people and our social life. 

Where did your professional journey start and how did you get to where you are now?

I studied languages and International Business. Already during my studies, I gave birth to my first daughter – and had to change my plans. I always wanted to go back to Tokyo – a city I fell crazily in love with during an internship. Instead, I started working as an assistant to the CEO of a smaller company once I graduated and was responsible for marketing and CSR. When I was pregnant with our third daughter, I felt like I needed a change in my life. I had always been very much interested in education as such and in our education system as I already as a pupil and later as a student felt that this system was “wrong” and no longer suitable for the 21st century. Later, as a mother of three, education started to play a major part again in my life and asking questions on how this system should actually look. At that time my husband had been a lot into the question “What does Digital Transformation actually mean for us, for our economy, for education” and we were discussing those questions a lot.

I grew up in a little village – which means I had never seen any female founder. Becoming a founder was challenging and very demanding – but at the same time, it felt like a big adventure where you have no idea where you’ll finally end up.

Back then he would often say: “Actually you would have to build something completely different regarding educating employees – a school that has a completely different curriculum and different philosophy in order to prepare people for what is coming and in order to enable them to actively design this big change that we will face.” And one day I said: “Why do we always say ‘you should’ – let’s just do it!” So we started building our SHIFTSCHOOL – a school we would have loved to go to ourselves. Up to that point in 2015, I had never really thought about becoming a founder. I grew up in a little village – which means I had never seen any female founder. Becoming a founder was challenging and very demanding – but at the same time, it felt like a big adventure where you have no idea where you’ll finally end up. And that’s what it still is: very challenging, demanding – and one big great adventure.

What is the greatest transformation in technology you’ve witnessed in your career?

That’s definitely the moment when the smartphone entered the market. This changed the game completely. You could call it the greatest transformation I’ve witnessed – but greatest as in “biggest”. The smartphone has such a huge impact on our lives. As I like to look at things from different angles and question things, it is the biggest transformation – but not the greatest as in “brilliant” as we should not forget that it has its downsides as well. I love technology – I just think we all have to be a lot more thoughtful about how to use it and how we get something really beneficial for our lives out of using it. 

When you think about ‘women’ and ‘technology’ what comes to your mind first?

We need more. 

We always hear there are not enough women working in tech. What needs to happen to change that?

If you want to change things, I think you should start by asking what you yourself can do in order to make a contribution. What can you do in your personal life, in your job, in your community to make a difference? To me, it always starts with education and with children / teenagers. They need more role models and need to see women in tech and get an idea of what they can become and what jobs are out there. There is this sentence: “If she can see it, she can be it” – and I think there is a lot of truth in it. It’s nice if many people always state what should and could be done about something. I think it’s far more helpful to actually get going and do something about it. So it needs each and every one of us to make a contribution – to finally change things and make a difference.

It’s nice if many people always state what should and could be done about something. I think it’s far more helpful to actually get going and do something about it.

What skills do you need for a career in tech (aside from the actual tech skills)?

I would say they are the exact same skills that you’d need everywhere else: passion for what you do, being able to communicate with people, keep your focus, be able to work in teams, always ask questions to understand things better and in more detail, be willing to make decisions and be able to see and keep in mind the big picture. Last but not least: be willing to learn new things and believe in your abilities and yourself.

What is your advice for aspiring entrepreneurs?

Ask yourself why you want to become an entrepreneur and what your values are. What do you want to accomplish? Talk to many many people about your idea and never ever be afraid of asking for help. Don’t wait for the perfect personal moment to start. There will probably never ever be this perfect personal moment. There is only the perfect moment for your idea. And then you have to jump! Otherwise, it might be too late. Never forget that you have a brain and two hands: no matter what happens to your startup or company – if it doesn’t work out this time, you will find another job somewhere. Keeping this in mind, the risk you take is never as high as it seems in the beginning. My biggest learning and advice is though: take really good care of yourself! Only then will you be able to have enough energy to keep going, especially in the times when it gets really tough. 

Never forget that you have a brain and two hands: no matter what happens to your startup or company – if it doesn’t work out this time, you will find another job somewhere. Keeping this in mind, the risk you take is never as high as it seems in the beginning.

What and who were the influencers of who you are today?

My grandmother has definitely influenced me a lot. As a child, I always begged her to tell me stories about her youth, how she grew up and about her life. She had a really tough life, was an orphan already when she was 18 years old, lost her brother with 21, was a nurse in World War II and was a woman who was working fulltime with two little children already in the 1950s. I think she was desperate very often – but she never ever gave up and was so keen on learning something new all the time.

Ask yourself why you want to become an entrepreneur and what your values are. Talk to many many people about your idea and never ever be afraid of asking for help. Don’t wait for the perfect personal moment to start. There will probably never ever be it.

Then my parents influenced a lot of who I am today. They showed me that no matter what I do with and in my life – they will always love me and be there for me. I am sometimes afraid and have doubts about certain decisions of course – but then I think: “Your parents believe in you – why shouldn’t you then?”

And last but not least my husband Tobias. He showed me the “entrepreneurial world” and believed in me and my abilities to build and lead a company. He challenges my thoughts and my view on the world which I consider being extremely helpful as it makes me look closer at things, start asking different questions and dive deeper. We share the same vision about our life and why we do what we do – but are very different in the way we act, we think and the way we are. This “being different” is extremely valuable to me. Yes, it has sometimes driven me crazy – and still does – but I’m very grateful for it and it has definitely influenced a lot of who I am today.

If you could go back in time, what advice would you give your 14-year-old self? 

My oldest daughter is 13 now. What I try to tell her and to show her is first of all: it is very very important to believe in yourself. Second: it is in no way important to always please other people. Third: the greatest thing for your personal development and for being independent is to ask many many questions, to always be keen on learning and to try new things.

With “learning” I don’t mean learning the things you are taught in school – it’s more learning about yourself, about your passion and about your strength, learning about community, about nature, about life and how to cope with things that don’t work out. That’s what I try to show her and what I would give as advice to my 14-year-old-self. In one sentence: “Forget about grades in school – they DO NOT define who you are! There are so much more important things in life that really count and are worth going for.” 

Christina Burkhardt is the founder of SHIFTSCHOOL, Germany’s first academy for Digital Transformation & Leadership. As a mother of three children, education is very important to her. She is a strong advocate of educational reform and is committed to more female founders as well as more visibility of women in the digital economy. Christina is a passionate bridge-builder between analog and digital worlds and was awarded with the “Inspiring Fifty” prize for her dedication in early 2019. 

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