In celebration of Women’s History Month, March 2016, we sat down with Co-Founder and CFO of Santex, Annett Koegler. Growing up in Communist East Germany, eventually pursuing a career and starting a company in the United States, and raising a family across multiple continents, Annett’s life has been far from basic. Here she shares with us her perspective on being a female executive in the tech industry and balancing its demands with family life.
Jennifer Eckley: To start, please tell us a bit about your story about how you first became interested in technology.
Annett Koegler: Back home in Germany, I was studying International Business Management in a 4-year program, part of which involved traveling to work for a company. Having spent a year in the U.S. as an au pair after high school, I was excited when they gave me an internship at a small bank in Sacramento, California. Little did I know that this company didn’t have experience hiring interns! I arrived, and the manager told me, “Well, we don’t know what to do with an intern, but we have this software that we purchased and we don’t know what to do with it. Maybe you can figure it out!” So he gave me the massive manual for this mapping software that tracked data from customers, and I started reading through… and I liked it! The information just clicked naturally with me. Within two weeks I’d figured the software out and it really helped the company. I was so excited that I went back to Germany and found someone who could teach me how to program and use HTML code.
I’d met Juan [Santiago, CEO of Santex] during the student exchange, and we agreed to go back to the U.S. He wanted to pursue his own business idea, but it was the late ‘90’s and he found that a lot of his clients wanted websites. So he came to me and asked me to build them! So I learned as I went and found it really fun, and that’s how Santex was born.
JE: What challenges have you faced transitioning from software developer to owner of a company to CFO?
AK: The challenges have been almost constant from the beginning. Everything I’ve done for the company is kind of from ground zero, up, and I’ve learned a lot on the way. When I became pregnant with our first child, Farahn, Juan had the idea to hire developers in Argentina, so I’d be able to spend more time with the family. This also helped us take on a greater workload and gain more clients. During that time I became more of a Project Manager to coordinate work between Argentina and the U.S. and monitor project timelines. Then with our second child, Johan, I “retired” for a couple of years to focus on raising the kids. Afterward, I was anxious to go back to work to expand myself personally and intellectually and learn new skills. But I quickly realized that being out of technology for four years is a lifetime! So much had changed. I realized that with the family, I couldn’t dedicate myself full time to the work and meet important deadlines, so we re-evaluated where I could provide the most help. And I made the full circle back to the business management I’d been studying and took on the role of CFO. Having been with Santex from day one, I know it as if it were my child, so I feel like I can see what it needs.
JE: I remember you telling me when I first entered the company that stress can be a good thing, and that you do some of your best work under stress. Can you expand upon that point?
AK: When you stand in front of something and don’t know where it’ll take you because you can’t see the road ahead, that’s a stressful situation… but that’s where creativity comes in. I don’t like everyday to be the same with the same routine. When that happens, things are clearly working, but you’re not creating anymore or being challenged. Stress can be nice because it pushes you beyond your comfort zone.
JE: Have you noticed any challenges particularly related to gender?
AK: I don’t know that any of them have been specifically because I’m a woman. For me, I don’t think it’s been any real advantage or disadvantage. When meeting with clients, I’ve never felt that I haven’t been taken seriously simply because of my gender. In the early years of the company, I noticed a certain respect was automatically given because I knew about technology, which impressed people.
JE: In working across countries and cultures, have you noticed different ways in which female executives are treated?
AK: There is a difference most definitely. I feel the most equally treated in Lima and Cordoba for who I am and what I do. In the U.S., I’ve observed other women executives needing to be extra aggressive to get noticed or treated as equals to their male counterparts. Female programmers stereotypically had to look more “nerdy” from my perspective. Those images needs to be portrayed so as not to be misunderstood. Women are so concerned about the stereotype that it can become consuming. In South America I don’t feel that way. Women celebrate being women and express themselves as such in business and in private.
JE: Have you ever had issues sharing ownership of the company with a male executive?
AK: I think the key is finding a person who is compatible with who you are and what you do. With Juan, I’ve been really lucky that our areas of expertise complement each other. Even as my responsibilities changed, he did a really great job keeping me in the loop with the company so I never lost touch with what was happening. I’d come back and it was as if I’d never left! I think if we were working and competing in the same area of the company, that might make things different. But our work is compatible.
JE: Was balancing motherhood with a growing career a challenge?
AK: Part of being a woman is the nurturing instinct, and many women are forced to leave careers to focus on family. I had a choice, which was very liberating to me as a woman. Not everyone gets that. I’ve had the flexibility to dedicate time to both my kids and work, which has worked out really well.
JE: You have both a young son and daughter. What have you told them about pursuing their dreams and/or owning a business?
AK: Juan and I want to sell the business before our kids are old enough to get into it, so that they can start something of their own! We don’t want Santex to be a traditional family business. I want the kids to be able to pursue their own interests.
Right now, Farahn’s dream is owning a horse ranch. What does that mean for her future? I don’t know! But I don’t want to pressure her into any one direction. Kids should be kids and be out playing in nature. The pressure will come soon enough. I want them to be happy, they don’t need to make Juan or me happy. If I’ve achieved that as a mother, then I’ll be happy!