When two prominent female figures in the digital industry come together to talk about innovation and the changes that are shaping our times, you just know it is going to be an interesting conversation: Tijen Onaran is the founder and CEO of Global Digital Women, which is considered one of the leading diversity companies in Germany. Dr. Salima Douven is driving new ideas and innovations as Head of Open Innovation & Incubation at Henkel dx, the digital division of Henkel. Here, they talk openly and honestly about diversity and a “doer mentality” that is fast becoming a crucial business asset.
Tijen: Salima, I am so happy we have this opportunity to talk. As befits a conversation about innovation, let’s get started with a pitch: You are Head of Open Innovation & Incubation at Henkel dx, the digital business division of Henkel. How do you explain your job to people?
Salima: As with any good pitch, I will keep my answer short: My team and I are working to lead Henkel into the digital era and to bring innovation to the streets as effectively as possible.
Tijen: A perfect elevator pitch! What is rather unusual in the field of innovation is that you’ve been with Henkel for such a long time. What keeps you at the company?
Salima: I have been with Henkel since 2008. I worked for another company while I was writing my doctoral thesis, but I consider Henkel to be my first big corporate employer. Fresh out of university, I knew that I wanted to work for a large corporation. But I must admit that I didn’t expect to still be here 14 years later! Henkel has always provided a good environment for me, I’ve been able to work on many exciting topics, and quite early on, I became involved in the field of digitalization. At the time, I realized that this area offered many different possibilities – and it still does! No two days are the same and that is why, even after 14 years, the end is nowhere in sight – even though this may be considered rather unusual nowadays.
Tijen: I hold a similar view. When I look at CVs nowadays, I find it fascinating to see all the things people have done, even at a young age: Education, start-ups, interests in a wide variety of areas. It was different back when I was first applying for jobs. Having that many different experiences on your CV wasn’t perceived as a good thing. Today, this is considered normal; in fact, it is seen as a real asset.
It is also an expression of diversity in the sense of career diversity. Perfect, linear resumes are no longer in demand. It’s ok to have a bit of an “edge” nowadays, and companies are open to a broader range of resumes – I think this really enriches the whole process.
Salima: That’s true, a lot has changed. Things that used to be seen in a rather bad light and even considered erratic are now viewed as an expression of versatility, flexibility and being interested in many different areas. There has definitely been a change in perspective. Which is a good thing, of course; I see this reflected in my personal environment.
Tijen: You are in daily contact with start-ups and young companies. Do you have any start-up experience yourself?
Salima: While I was writing my doctoral thesis, I founded a start-up with a friend. It was for “elective affinities”, we wanted to connect people who were not related by blood but by spirit. We encountered a lot of rejection at first and it took a lot of time and resources to overcome the administrative hurdles. There were times when we felt like giving up. But we prevailed. We wanted to work on a topic that had not been addressed before, to create an innovation that would be of importance to many people. It was an experience that has had a lasting impact on me.
It helps to just do it. Talking a lot, planning a lot, focusing solely on concepts – these things don’t work, because they have a negative effect on the understanding of everyone involved. Doing things – that is what demystifies processes.
Dr. Salima Douven, Head of Open Innovation & Incubation at Henkel dx
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Tijen: Now you work for a large corporation. Do you have any tips on how to successfully implement new processes, personal responsibility and entrepreneurial action?
Salima: It helps to just do it. Talking a lot, planning a lot, focusing solely on concepts – these things don’t work, because they have a negative effect on the understanding of everyone involved. Doing things – that is what demystifies processes. We notice this again and again when we implement new projects within the company: There comes a moment when you just need to act. In my experience, that is the key to getting people on board permanently.
Tijen: “Just do it” – That leads us to our next topic. That is why we now have the Xathon, created by Henkel and partnered by our company, Global Digital Women. This is a great joint project, which gives female founders the opportunity to enhance their start-up and pitch in front of a top-class jury. Why did you set up the Xathon? What is your personal experience?
Salima: To me, the digital industry sometimes seems a bit torn. On the one hand, it is diverse, always in tune with the times, trendy and modern. On the other hand, though, a critical look at the number of female founders and CDO quotas speaks volumes: There is still a lot to be done. The industry is full of blatant contradictions. We ourselves have experienced this: Whenever we have called on founders to send us their applications, it has been mainly men who have come forward. So, we took a clear stand at Henkel: We can and want to do something about this. That was one of our reasons for creating the Xathon.
The Xathon offers female founders a platform to exchange ideas and support each other.
Tijen: What is a common prejudice you encounter regarding diversity?
Salima: That there are no women in the innovation and digital industry. That argument is so annoying. Keep looking then! There are!
Tijen: A classic example! And another reason why I’m so delighted with what you at Henkel have created with the Xathon.
Salima: Exactly. The Xathon has shown us just how many great female founders there are. We want to give these women a platform. We want to give them a stage and enable them to network. Since launching this business hackathon for women two years ago, we have received so many applications that we can’t even consider them all. But this just goes to show: The innovative women are out there!
When founding a company, you will often be on your own. The newspapers and media often paint a fancy picture of founding. But most of the time it is simply a lot of work and a big challenge. To see that others are going through the same experiences, to realize that there are valuable tips, to see that there are mentors and experts who can support you – all that is worth so much.
Tijen Onaran, founder and CEO of Global Digital Women
Tijen: It’s an important event. On the one hand, as you say, it’s about visibility, giving young talent a stage. On the other hand, I’m asked time and again whether such events actually have any impact. I reply: Yes, they have a big impact. I have participated in many such formats. You never know who you'll meet, whether you’ll receive an important tip that will have a lasting effect on you.
I can say from my own experience: When founding a company, you will often be on your own. The newspapers and media often paint a fancy picture of founding. But most of the time it is simply a lot of work and a big challenge. To see that others are going through the same experiences, to realize that there are valuable tips, to see that there are mentors and experts who can support you – all that is worth so much.
To conclude our conversation, Salima, what is the biggest lesson you’ve learnt in the past few months? What can you pass on to others?
Salima: For many people, the time of the pandemic has been challenging – sure, for me too. At the same time, I am grateful to have so much support. In the past few months in particular, I have often felt very blessed: I have a great personal environment, I have a job that is fulfilling and that allows to me to try different things. So, an important lesson I have learnt is to be grateful. Grateful for the environment I move in and for the opportunities that have been created for me. That, too, is a change of perspective.
Tijen: Absolutely! Gratitude is a great topic. There is so much stuff going on in our everyday lives. It’s ok to complain sometimes. But it’s also important to keep reminding oneself of certain things: I have a good job, family, friends. That is worth so much. On this note: Thank you for talking to me today!