Startup Challenges, Diversity & Inclusion, and Attracting Investment with Christina Caljé – Starting to Scale Ep.2

Will is joined by Christina Caljé for our second episode, an amazingly accomplished woman in the Amsterdam startup world.

Christina co-founded Autheos, which was recently named 'Startup Disrupting Media' by EU Startups, after over 10 years of Executive experience in finance and e-commerce companies across New York, London and Amsterdam.

On top of that, she sits on the Rotterdam International Advisory Board and was listed as one of the 'Most Inspiring Women in Tech' in 2019 and appeared on the EUtop50 'Top Woman Entrepreneur' list in 2020. See? We weren't lying.

Will digs into Christina's background to understand the journey that she's been on to get to where she is today. They also discuss diversity and inclusion in the Netherlands and what it's like to be a woman in the Tech industry, before drawing on her own startup founding experience to talk about the main challenges and how to attract investment.

This one is packed with value from top to bottom, so don't miss out! It's available on Spotify, Google Podcasts, Apple Podcasts, YouTube, OR you can read through the episode below. Enjoy.

You were on the 2020 EUtop50 'Top Woman Entrepreneur' list, but how did you get to where you are today?

I was born and raised in New York City, I worked at Goldman Sachs for about eight years, first in New York and then in London. I started off in a sales role, so helping institutional clients and hedge funds to figure out where to invest their money. That was either in the capital markets or the stock markets, and I kind of enjoyed that, kind of didn't.

I moved around a little bit after that. I did a little bit more of a client relationship management role, more relationship regulation side of things. And then I wanted to get some international experience after doing that for about two years. I moved to London and became the Chief Operating Officer of all of the talent practices across Europe, Middle East and Africa. When I started off in 2007, it was definitely a different era. A lot more glamour, money.

Do you think that working with clients and investments played a big part in where you are today?

Yeah, that's such a thoughtful observation, because when I started off, I was thrown into the fire with managing clients. They say, here's a client and go talk to everybody that you can and make as much money as you can for the firm. And then, sort of depending on the client and how they're constructed, you might be talking to the CEO of the company, you might be talking to their Chief Investment Officer, so you're talking to very senior people right off the bat.

And in the beginning, the nice thing is that they had a slight mentorship model or apprenticeship, in the sense that you're paired with a more senior salesperson and then as you get a little bit more experienced, they start transitioning relationships to you. So, there's a sort of playground where, here are the smaller clients and see what you can make out of it, and then pair you with a senior salesperson, and then those are the bigger clients, and then you learn sort of best practices on how to build those longer lasting relationships.

So, I think yeah, absolutely. It helped me to be able to create a dialogue with people at all levels of the organisation. And the nice thing about Goldman Sachs, where I worked, is that even within the organisation, they try to keep it relatively flat and open in terms of, if you want to reach out to one of the most senior people, if you have a reason for talking to them, probably you can get on their calendar in some sort of way – at least back then. So I think that prepared me, and also having grown up in New York City, I grew up with this way to sort of adapt to different personalities and different environments, because I was surrounded by such diversity.

It's very diverse in New York, and there are over 180 nationalities based in Amsterdam. Is that what attracted you to the Netherlands?

If I'm honest, love attracted me to Amsterdam!

But what I'll say is that growing up in New York, since I was surrounded by so many different cultures, that made me yearn to experience other cultures more. And so, I grew up in the heart of New York City in the East Village, and that already is sort of the pinnacle of culture, and where most people want to be in the United States. So, I thought “where else might I want to live?” I thought California and I thought Europe and then fate stepped in. I met my husband who is Dutch. He was actually living in the in UK, so I lived in London for a couple of years. Then we started to think about where a nice place is to settle as we were starting to have kids at the time. Amsterdam is a really great place because there is a certain amount of diversity, there's a lot of green space, there's a nice work-life balance.

But my path from banking to where I am now... Basically, at some point, like a lot of people had in 2020, I had this sort of self-realisation back maybe 10 years ago, 8 years ago. Do I love what I'm doing? Do I feel like I see myself in the people around me? Do I want to emulate them? Is that the path that I want to go on? Without a lot of the things that were drawing me to the industry before, the reputation of the industry had declined, there were a lot of reputational issues happening in investment banking at the time. The amount of money that you could make at the bank, also, as a result of those reputational issues was much lower. So, there were different things that forced me to reprioritise and ask if I really loved the work that I was doing.

That pushed and drew me to technology, and I thought there was so much fun stuff going on at the time. Apps in particular, were changing the way that we were interacting with people. And so that, for me, was a really exciting change.

I had reached a certain level of seniority within the firm, and I thought I could either continue going to reach the top – and that would be a real commitment to this industry and this company – or I can try to make this lateral shift and see what it's like in tech. And in order to facilitate that transition, that's when I went into more entrepreneurial endeavours. That was the start of my startup journey or entrepreneurial journey.

There is still a stigma for female leaders in technology. What challenges do you feel you specifically had when founding Autheos as a woman?

I look at it in two ways. I think that the challenges around not having a lot of role models, or a lot of people that you can see yourself reflected in various senior levels, that can sometimes be limiting in terms of what you think your own opportunities are, what you think your own path is. Even when I was in banking, there was already this issue of lack of gender representation, lack of ethnic representation. Less than 5% of the firm were black or brown in the most senior levels and less than 10% women. So already for 15 years, or however long it's been, this has been something that I've been aware of.

So, on the one hand, there's that sort of limitation of what your own potential might be, just because it's human nature to sort of look around you for inspiration and what you can become yourself. But on the other hand, I try to look at it in a positive way. Because there is an interest in trying to equalise that, there are certain pockets within each industry and certain organisations or individuals that really want to try to bring more balance, and if you can find those people, find those organisations, you can create a lot of opportunities, because you're the only woman, or the only black person or the only Asian person, and you will stand out.

That's a way to try to spin it in a positive way. And actually, it's something that I learned from my mom at a really early age, that you're not bound by the limitations of your own circumstances.

Did you feel disconnected from the Black Lives Matter movement being in the Netherlands? How did you feel you could express yourself as a black woman in Amsterdam?

Yeah, I went through exactly that, feeling disconnected, feeling like I wanted to contribute in some sort of way, and literally, I would sit down and think "what can I do?" Well, I wouldn't have wanted to be in the streets because it was still in the height of COVID. There was a certain conflict there that you want to be there lending your voice physically, but then, okay, you're in a group of people. So, one, I couldn't do it in the US, but even here in Amsterdam, they had a couple of demonstrations. And even with that, I thought "that's not where I'm going to be able to have the most impact." Where I felt I could have the most impact is... I humbly accept that I am seen as somewhat of a role model within the tech industry here in the Netherlands, there are opportunities for me to speak in press articles and to introduce podcasts like this, and that's where I felt this is a good opportunity to start talking about it more.

So, one thing that's interesting, in England, there's already the conversation around ethnicity as an aspect of diversity that needs to be addressed in terms of the lack of representation in certain sectors in leadership. But, here in the Netherlands, it's really a conversation about gender diversity only. So, what you said before about there being 180 nationalities, it's been very interesting for me as an American coming here, who is so used to having this conversation around race and diversity, and to have it be sort of overlooked. I find it really surprising that it's not more of the conversation around diversity and inclusion.

I was in the inaugural Black founders programme that Google launched in Q3 of last year. Basically, 10 founders, a highly selective programme where they had founders from the UK mostly, I was the only one in the Netherlands, and there was one in France. And they had us basically do this sort of leadership training programme that also led to a funding of start-ups as part of the Black Founders Fund, which was great, because there was a lot of interest in the programme and my involvement. And that allowed me to speak to certain press outlets using this as sort of a benchmark of the conversation. And Google, as a tech stalwart, lending so many resources and time and creating programmes and a capital fund to this to bring more ethnic diversity and bring more balance to the fundraising process and where capital is distributed – that made it easier. Like, a really concrete opportunity for me to say "okay, this is actually an issue that I see as a person in the industry here in the Netherlands, let's talk about it more, how can we make it more accessible?"

I think the biggest benefit of that is that people now realise that I'm somebody that they can talk to about this as a topic, whether it's people looking to recruit talent in a more thoughtful way, in a more diverse way, or if it's people looking for an advisory board member to help them think about how they create a more accessible product that is translatable to a lot of different types of people. So, that's been the way that I've been able to take my own role here in the Netherlands and translate this social movement of Black Lives Matter to our Dutch context here, and I work a little bit with Dutch Startup Association and Techleap to help them think about what their diversity and inclusion strategy should be internally, and also what they put out in programming to the start-ups here in the Netherlands. It's been really great.

Amsterdam is incredibly diverse, but how do you create inclusivity as well?

I like to propose starting small with people. So, having a coffee or a beer, especially now as things are opening up a little bit more with COVID restrictions, either with somebody who doesn't look like you, or somebody who is not in your normal social sphere. Because that's our natural tendency is just to end up talking with people who we feel like relate to us in some sort of a way, and then that just creates a self-fulfilling prophecy around having this homogeneity in your own social circle.

So, I think within your own company, if it's a big enough company, where you have to proactively reach out to people to get to meet them, whether it's a person in a different function. So, a salesperson talking to a developer or somebody in design, that's also another way to be more inclusive, because inclusivity is not just about the gender, it's not just about the ethnicity, it's also about personalities, it's about where you're from, it's about where you went to school. So, I like to say start small, have a coffee or drink with somebody who doesn't look like you.

The other thing that I say, for people in leadership positions, I think leading by example is so important, and I have a small example that I would give in my own experience. I had my daughter, who's now 6, when I was the COO of Peerby, and after two months, maybe even one month, I was already bringing her into the office once a week. Not to say that you should come back early, but basically, I would bring my daughter to work, and I would be breastfeeding in meetings, and she would be saying stuff in meetings. Actually, there was somebody else on my team who around the same time, maybe a couple of months after, was pregnant, and she said to me later "it was really great to see such a signal for me to realise that I could bring my child in and be able to have them crawl around in this welcoming environment."

That signal of me bringing in my baby, was able to help somebody else be more confident that, you know, when they say that they wanted to bring their child in, or they had to stay home for something for the baby, that it was something that was so welcome, and so understood, and it's not even a question. So, leading by example, that's one instance.

What about inclusivity in the context of COVID-19?

It has been really tough for some teams, because either you have people that are parents, and they have kids that were in the background and distracting.

I think that the pandemic has also created a sort of empathy, where you get this window into somebody's personal life that you didn't get before, and you understand a little bit more the challenges of maybe living alone in a small apartment, being a parent.

That's another really great way to breed inclusivity in the company, if you understand a little bit more about people's own personal situations, what their challenges might be, what they're really like, and being aware of those things will help you to create a more inclusive culture.

What challenges did you face when you started your first business? And how did you overcome them?

I think back then the challenge was having people see the value that I could bring in a different industry, so demonstrating that those skills were translatable from banking to tech. And so, for me at that time, I decided I wanted to work at the LinkedIns, the Googles, the Facebooks, all the big names, especially at that time. I would get quite far in the recruitment process, and then in the end it'd be "well, you don't actually have this experience, blah, blah, blah." And so I thought, "well, how can I get that experience?"

Sometimes it is a little bit about reflecting on what is it that I want? What's my goal and what am I missing? Where am I now and what do I need to add to make me more viable for whatever that goal is? Or, what's going to increase the chance of my success? And for me at that time, it was building out a portfolio basically to show that business development is the same for finance as it is for tech, and talent recruitment and the administration around setting up a legal entity, you still have to go through the same process in launching a business and recruiting people.

So, what I did at that time was I started a consultancy that helps US-based tech companies, typically medium-sized, that were looking to either launch or expand practices that they had here in Europe. And so that was a great way. It was really setting up a lot of start-ups. A lot of work. So, my own background, I am very generalist in terms of what I've done. I've done the sales, I've done the compliance stuff, I've done recruitment, so a little bit of everything. I think that has prepared me also to be an entrepreneur and to launch a business because you understand what the different building blocks are that you need to set together.

But I think that the toughest thing sometimes is just getting up the confidence to take that leap, so one thing that I advise people to do is to look at your budget, like how much cash do you have in the bank? How long can you go without having your income? And give yourself that as a starting point to test out this idea. And even before you take that step, some things that you can do are talk to other people that you admire, either in that sector or product space, or tangential, just to start building up your own network. Because launching a start-up, growing a start-up is so much about the support network that you have around you.

Those are the biggest challenges I find, taking that first step, going from zero to one. And that's about just creating this cushion for yourself and this sort of mental strength to take that leap. And then secondly, just creating a great network of people who can help advise you on what to do, what not to do.

If you've never founded a business and don’t have a track record, how do you get investors to give you money?

Well, I think in the earliest stage, that's why there is a spectrum of investors. Most people don't have friends and family that can invest that much capital to launch a business, but that might be an option, there's the angel investors, and you have some early-stage investors. Venture capital investors will always change the dynamic, in my opinion.

So, I think the biggest thing is talking to angels. People who have basically built and launched a company and exited the company or are working for high-growth companies themselves and they do angel investing on the side. Angel investing meaning they will give capital, typically not a huge amount of capital, between 10,000, and 100,000 per start-up. But a lot of what they contribute is actually their network, their advice, and they're much more involved because they're doing it, in most cases, less for the financial return and more to give back to the ecosystem and for the fun of it. Founders that they think have a lot of potential and they want to try to help. There are different groups, looking on Twitter there are a lot of lists that you can find of great angels.

Or in the Netherlands, I'm part of Operator Exchange, which is a group of 40 entrepreneurs who have launched and exited companies or been in high-growth companies, and we share a lot of deal flow with each other and in most cases, even if we don't invest, we will try to recommend somebody in our network that you might want to talk to, who can help you with some sort of investment potentially.

So, I think if you're thinking about how to get money from an investor in the earliest stages, frankly, it is a lot about the confidence of the vision of the founder and entrepreneur, their ability to sell that idea, and it just comes with conviction. So, knowing your market, knowing why you want to build the product, understanding what your milestones for success might be, how much money you want to raise and why you want to raise it, what that's going to get you, what your ultimate vision is for the company, 3, 5, 10 years down the road.

And it is a little bit about the network, and that's why I think it's important for people like me to also be proactive in saying, "hey, come reach out to me, talk to me, I can help you in some sort of way." And it's also important for entrepreneurs to try to move through that discomfort of reaching out to somebody that they don't know, saying "hey, can I talk to you about my business idea?" Because that is a lot of what you will have to do as an entrepreneur anyway, you've got to get over that.


Thanks for checking out the second episode of Starting to Scale. There’s plenty more to come with some real value and insight into the Amsterdam startup world. Make sure you’re following Will Aldred and Oakwell Hampton on LinkedIn to keep up with the show.

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Will Aldred

25th November