Tuesday, April 16, 2024

Gry Stene of IT Girls Rock: Navigating Tech Entrepreneurship

In this exclusive interview series, hosted by Jesse Samberg, we delve into the inspiring journey of Gry Stene, the founder of IT Girls Rock. Gry shares her experiences of navigating the tech industry, overcoming challenges, and creating a movement to elevate women as tech innovators. From facing funding obstacles to adapting to changing customer trends, Gry’s story is one of resilience, innovation, and empowerment. Join us as we explore the highs and lows of Gry’s entrepreneurial adventure and discover the valuable lessons she has learned along the way.

Interviewee Name: Gry Stene

Company: IT Girls Rock

Intervirew Host: Jesse Samberg

The Interview

Let’s get started. First, we’d like to know more about how you started your business journey

Gry Stene : Hmmm… where to start. I started out in big international tech back in the late 1980s, and because I loved to travel and I would grab any opportunity to work in faraway lands. My foray into entrepreneurship probably started as interpreneurship in the late 1990s when I was part of a small regional team in Sydney for a Swedish global company with an ambitious outlook. We were at the forefront of eBusiness and capitalised on that, encouraged to innovate and be creative by the main office. Imagine running your own startup backed by a flush mother company. We were all in our 30s and had so much fun. I continued that spirit in my later employment and assignments too.

However, it wasn’t till I was in my late 40s that I dared step outside the corporate world and dapple in my own tech startups. First as side hustles, then contracting to pay the bills while working full time on the startup, and later all in.

Reflecting on your business history, what stands out as the single greatest challenge you’ve successfully navigated, and how did you overcome it?

Gry Stene : Finding your people, your circle, your team. I have had a number of startups (is there such a thing as a serial “startup’er”) with varying degrees of success In my opinion, people are hands down the biggest challenge, followed closely by funding. First you need to find the right co-founders or backers, then you need to build an inclusive, high performing team that innovates for impact, and finally, you need to get your customers on board. When my co-founders in my first startup had to step out, I was able to attract co-founders with complementary skills and we set off to change the world with technology.

It’s a known fact that all women founders in tech companies get under 2% of VC funding, and that was us. But there were other ways, and through sheer tenacity and generosity of angel investors, we we re able to raise the funds required to put together a stellar team to help us design and build the technology we envisaged for our customers.

Like many first time tech founders, we were ill prepared for the funds required to launch, market and sell the technology, and sadly we were not able to secure the next level of funding, we had to close shop. A lot wiser and with scars to show.

Businesses often face ongoing challenges. What does your business consistently grapple with, and how do you tackle these challenges head-on?

Gry Stene : Understanding your target audience, speaking their language, and understanding what problems they believe they have, so you can design solutions that work. As technologists, we are full of ideas and often the ideas are more about cool stuff you can do with tech rather than what problems we can solve for our customers. My go-to approach is to use design thinking and human centred design. Make sure you always invite participants with diverse backgrounds and lenses, to ensure that we get nuanced perspectives in terms understanding the problems, innovating, and coming up with creative ideas that actually work.

Can you share with us the most unforgettable story involving a customer or client? What made it memorable, and what lessons did you draw from the experience?

Gry Stene : To satisfy the condition of an award (with money) that we won, we had to work with a government organisation to ensure that we understood the real problems they faced as a sponsor and incorporate those in our solution. We ran a series of design thinking workshops and the room was buzzing with ideas. You could feel and touch the positive energy in the room. So much invaluable information between those walls. The challenge was that what had come out probably required 3 years of development by a full team, not the 3 months that we had allocated.

One key challenge when working with customers is to understand that things take time (TTT) and to learn to say no with a good explanation. There is a lot of focus on being agile, but often this can hide the complexity. To ensure that we focused on the most important stuff first, we used a combination of product prioritisation frameworks and were able to deliver to our promise. At a pinch.

In hindsight, we should have grabbed the bull by the horns and stayed lean from day dot, but that requires full alignment and trust between the team members, which may not always be present.

Looking ahead, what are your current plans for your business when you retire?

Gry Stene : IT Girls Rock is a movement to elevate and advance women as tech innovators. It consists of a community platform and offers coaching, mentoring and transformational programs to individuals and groups, as well as team coaching for businesses who want to build a culture that attracts and retains women and other underrepresented people. We are also building capacity to augment and stand up teams with talented tech women who can step into a project for a reason, a season or a lifetime, or we take on the whole project for you.

To enable this, I have designed a coaching and mentoring framework, DREAM Compass(tm) that underpins all our offerings, and I am recruiting mentors, coaches, and tech leaders other than me to ensure that the movement is sustainable and can continue without me being a key factor.

Navigating the small business landscape can be both challenging and rewarding. Can you share a bit about the specific hurdles you’ve encountered in areas like sales, marketing, and adapting to changing customer trends?

Gry Stene : Being an extreme extrovert with a 1 month old startup when COVID hit was extremely challenging for me. From being full of beans with a highly impactful program that I was sure would get a grant (it didn’t) and connections with all the right people in the right organisations, to sitting at home by myself when everyone disappeared for 18 months. Having worked globally and online since the 90s, I didn’t get what the fuzz was all about, and I felt a magnitude of loneliness in that.

I also happen to have a very consultative way of working and rely heavily on sounding boards and getting people’s ideas and feedback to make sure you are creating the correct, and the people all but disappeared without notice.

Fortunately I recognised my predicament only a few weeks into the isolation, and realised that with adversity comes opportunity. Suddenly EVERYONE was online (not the local people and organisations I wanted to work with but…) and I made sure I had regular and ad-hoc virtual catchups every day to keep me sane.

My familiarity and comfort with working online has been a great sales and marketing asset as I work across continents and oceans and have no qualms about reaching out to strangers. It also helps me understand the market trends and volatile financial reality of my customers and friends.

Leaders Perception magazine would like to thank Gry Stene and “IT Girls Rock” for the time dedicated to completing this interview and sharing their valuable insights with our readers!

Interested in connecting with the host of this interview series? Feel free to reach out to Jesse Samberg on LinkedIn: Jesse Samberg’s LinkedIn Profile

Explore additional categories

Explore Other Interviews