You may think of the tech sphere – globally or in Belarus – as a flock of nerdy male coders, ambitious male startup founders and imposing male investors. This has logic behind it; still, the share of women in tech keeps rising. For example, in 2018 women made over 25% of tech employees in Belarus.
We talked to three aspiring Belarusian women about IT trends, career opportunities, gender gap in the tech sphere, and their overall experience in working in the most progressive industry in Belarus.
“Belarus is an IT miracle. No one understands how this happened”
Anna Lazitskaya, head of Product Growth at Onde.app, Lean evangelist, ASO expert and self-care advocate. Minsk Product Community leader and YouTube blog maker.
How did you wind up in IT?
I got into IT almost by chance. I started with a fashion editor in a Russian startup and then got interested in the product domain. Later, I focused on mobile startups.
How did you start working for a Belarusian startup?
I read about the founders of SplitMetrics and I wrote to them asking if they would take me to work for them. They agreed to try me. This was five years ago. We had a shared office with another team – a room full of eight people, and it was so wholesome, so friendly, we were like a family. We are still friends. This is a thing unique to startups.
My main job now is at a startup that lets anyone create a transportation network like Uber. We work with 70 countries, all of which have different cultures, and we try to adapt to each one of them.
Besides, once every two or three months I organize In Product Manager’s shoes meetup together with EventSpace (event venue for IT meetups, lectures, and other events in Minsk – author’s note). At first, we even offered people to walk in shoe covers to feel like they are in someone else’s shoes. We have around 200 people coming.
I started In Product Manager’s shoes because at some point I realized that there were no proper networking events in Minsk when it comes to product development. If I have an idea for a mobile app, I’ve got no clue where to start and what to do and there’s no one to ask. So I thought “why not”, I’ll be the one to organize that.
My other project is a blog called IT girls. Despite its name, it isn’t focused on women specifically; it’s simply founded by women in IT. In the blog, we talk about people in IT, explain how these are not just boring nerds who write code, talk about teams. It’s about people and their experience. In short, our goal is to humanize IT and to explain that a product is not just code – it’s also team work with marketing, sales, support.
What qualities does one need to be successful in IT?
The most important thing is to be flexible and be willing to change. It’s an extremely dynamic space, you’ve got to learn all the time and try new things, also all the time.
Are people in Belarus generally less dynamic than people in the rest of the world?
Obviously, in Silicon Valley everything is hyper fresh. They’re as up-to-date as it gets and understand trends like no one else. But no matter where you are from, you’re still part of it, and you progress together with the whole world.
In Belarus, people might be slower when it comes to learning if they’re working in more traditional industries. I see it when new employees come in. Only at first, of course, they catch up.
Besides, there’s an advantage to how people think in Belarus. In the Western world, in Europe especially, people think that to become someone you need relevant education. You can only start a project after you know enough.
Belarusians don’t see the absence of relevant education as a problem. We’ve learned to adapt, we don’t have the same social guarantees that exist in Europe, and this results in people feeling ready to try and do something even when they are not actually ready for it.
This has its advantages and disadvantages. For example, if people from Denmark develop something, it’s probably really good straight away because they knew well what they were doing. In Belarus, you make loads of mistakes before creating something solid, but you’re willing to keep going until it’s done and try new things, and this is also amazing. But at the end of the day, chances are the same, it’s 50/50.
I feel that people in Belarus are changing. Not just in IT, but generally in Belarus. They are becoming more flexible, more ready to protect their interests, build their personal boundaries. I think Belarus is generally developing in the right direction.
Are we just naturally evolving or is there an external push to become more flexible?
I think Belarusians are changing because they travel more and see how things work elsewhere. For example, you go to the U.S., you see how people talk to you in restaurants, and you come back to Belarus and think: well, I could have a restaurant where people will be that polite. You obviously adapt something to the Belarusian culture, but keep the important bits, and, as a result, you develop your own unique product.
Since so many niches are underdeveloped in Belarus, we have the opportunity to experiment, don’t we?
Sure, in many niches in Belarus we have minimum competition, sometimes none at all. Sometimes, all you have to do is notice a niche that interests you, and it will be empty. It’s almost impossible in the States.
What’s your personal secret of success?
To set high goals. To shoot for the stars, as the song goes. Thing is, you put in roughly the same effort when you try to achieve an average goal or a high goal, but you get more when you go for a higher goal.
However, there’s a downside to it: the goal is always somewhere in the background of the mind. I keep thinking: I’ve got to work more, I am not doing enough… I can be very self-critical while it’s also very important to appreciate and take care of yourself.
I imagine you’re also very hardworking.
I used to be a workaholic, but not anymore. I believe that hard workers are people who don’t have enough skills, they are on a learning spree so they’ve got to work very hard. When you become better at what you do, the need to be a workaholic disappears.
I strongly believe in life-work balance. If your life is skewed, at some point you just become less effective and finally burn out because you never have enough time to restart.
What does it feel being a woman in IT?
I was very lucky. I met people that never looked down at the fact that I am a woman. I did often catch myself realizing that I am the only woman in the room, but I hope that does not influence my work or my behavior.
I notice that people don’t expect women to start projects. They don’t expect women to be interested in such things so the ones who look interested are perceived as an exception from the general rule.
I never felt that way and never thought in these categories.
Generally, I think these borders, the ideas that women shouldn’t do something or can’t do something because of their gender, exist just in the heads of women in the first place. Surely, this comes from the society and upbringing, but in the end, it’s your responsibility to realize that you’re as capable as a man and that men are afraid to do things just as women are. You are allowed to be afraid but you’re also allowed to do cool things.
Do you think that stereotypes about women in Belarus are stronger compared with the Western world?
I think they are. In particular, self-confidence in women in Belarus is a more rare thing. But we’ve lived in quite a conservative society for a long time with its crooked ideas about what women should do in a society. People need time to see that there are amazing women who do amazing things. We’ll get there even sooner than we expect.
This, of course, is a problem that’s not unique to Belarus. Most founders are men. Most scientific discoveries are made by men. But how long is it that women are even allowed to get an education, a hundred years? This isn’t enough to catch up. But we’ll get there.
For example, it’s so cool that things such as EMERGE are organized by women. This is such a cool international event, people come from all over the world, it’s all in English, in the trendiest street of our city. The event is so lively and packed, it’s hard to find parking!
Back to the IT and its trends. What’s on the rise now? Where is the best place to start for people who want to get into IT?
You surely have to start with something you’re personally interested in or you’ll burn out very quickly. Mobile is, of course, huge. SaaS works well. That’s where the money is.
To me, the exciting niche now is self-care: meditation, mindfulness, all that. People started to take care of themselves more and the trend is reflected in the tech community as well.
Besides, if you can improve something for a large business, do something quicker and easier, you should definitely do that. Large businesses have large budgets and they will pay you a lot to solve a problem they have.
What’s the place of Belarus in the global IT sphere?
Look, here’s what I hear from people who go to the IT conferences all the time now: Belarus is some kind of an IT miracle. No one understands how this happened. Many large companies, including the ones from Silicon Valley, believe in us, believe we can keep growing. For many B2B companies, Belarus is a market with fast-growing companies that will soon need external services.
It used to be that at the conferences people have never even heard of Belarus. Now, they know we exist, they know we have many cool IT companies and many cool projects are done right here. We’ve caught a wave as a country, we’re perceived as fresh, new.
Products that were sold to Google and Facebook, even though there were not many of them, have built up Belarus’ reputation really well. We’re not just EPAM and Wargaming – although these guys are undoubtedly awesome – we’re loads of small promising products with creative, talented, and ambitious teams behind them.
Explore the topic:
“A woman has to always prove she is worth the place she’s taking”
Elena Shkarubo, founder and CEO at MeetnGreetMe.com, director at Demium Startups Minsk Business Accelerator, a GMF fellow, a member of SPARK Initiative, mentor at Her Rights, inspirational speaker. Elena holds an MBA in Strategic Management from the Kingston London University.
How did you wind up in IT?
I never really wanted to be in IT. Truth be told, I wanted to run away from IT because my first experience of working in an IT company wasn’t rosy. I did something like business analysis and hated every moment of it. But this job helped me get an understanding of tech, the processes around it, and what lies beneath the surface.
I had a very clear idea of a project that I wanted to do. It just didn’t have a tech basis at this point. My thoughts of this idea date back to 2005, when there were no projects such as Uber, Airbnb and no one heard of platforms, marketplaces, shared economy, etc. All I wanted was to connect locals and travelers so that the locals could help them with different requests. This would work in some unclear complicated ways that would include emails or something like that. First, I thought of focusing on Belarus only, but my friend suggested it could be a global service. And that’s when it became clear I need a platform. This is how the idea became a tech startup.
What qualities does one need to succeed in IT?
I don’t think there are qualities specific to IT. If you want to achieve something, be it IT or ballet, you need to be passionate about it, learn a lot, work a lot, listen to people that have the experience and analyze what they say.
My co-founder who is a CTO didn’t even have a tech background: he’s a lawyer and a beekeeper (as a hobby). Yet he learned everything he had to know to become a really good developer My other co-founder, a designer, to learn UX/UI read every book he could find about design. This is what you need – persistence, passion, ambition.
Having said that, last year I met up with an investor from Silicon Valley, and he asked me to tell him my three strongest qualities. I have never answered such a question before. I told him I’ve got grit, I am coachable, and… I was thinking what to say, and he suggested: “probably, nice and authentic”. I was like yeah, sure, thanks. And then he told me: “You need to become more a badass”.
I long considered how exactly I should approach that tip. And I decided to become a bit bolder sometimes. To be a bit pushier. To be braver. To say “No” in a way that everyone understands that I mean “No”. And this helped me a lot.
What about IT in Belarus? Is there anything different about how people achieve something here?
The recipe for success is the same everywhere: you’ve got to learn and practice what you learn.
However, look, let’s take New York. Do you think the majority there wants to be in IT? Of course, not. Why? Because there are so many different niches and jobs that we can’t even dream of.
In Belarus, the only niche where you can earn good money and not be limited by your city is IT. If you work in IT, you work with the outside world.
There is a tiny number of jobs in Belarus that offer similar possibilities to the IT sector. Compared to other countries, Belarusians’ relationship with IT is, therefore, often very pragmatic. It’s not about passion and interests, it’s about money and opportunities.
How did you change because of working in IT?
I experience strong job conditioning. I’ve started to think deeper and in a root-cause analysis way. And I started noticing that my mindset and the ways of thinking became different. I even converse differently and when I talk to someone, I can understand straight away if they are involved in IT deeply or not at all.
I assess things differently. By the time I started my own startup, I’ve talked to many startup owners. When you do something on your own, you assess the results based on your own previous results. When you start talking to people, you realize that the cases you have are not necessarily because you did good or bad. A lot, a lot depends on luck. Therefore, you can’t treat your successes and failures very personal. Instead, you start treating them as a pattern.
All startups from all over the world experience as many pitfalls as they experience success stories, it’s just that they don’t talk openly about the bad stuff in the media. The bad stuff is what you discover when talking to the founders in a bar over a glass of wine. I heard stories from the biggest, most successful guys – top management of Dolby International Google, Huawei…
Everyone experiences problems, and the bigger you are, the more painful these problems are. So when I am facing one of them, I don’t freak out as it used to be, I perceive it as something routine that should be dealt with based on the experience of startups X and Y and my own approach. I accept it can be really tough and painful though.
Right now in the business incubator I run we have a very exciting project on mental health: guys develop an AI-based diary for entrepreneurs going through tough times. Everyone shares their problems and failures, but they also show that they got through this. This is the way to support each other.
The guys did loads of market research and one of the studies showed that the number of mental health problems among the founders from the Silicon Valley will grow by 20% in the nearest future. Why? Because your startup might be worth 3 millions but your neighbour’s startup will be worth 30 million.
Are there any advantages and disadvantages of being a woman in IT?
Well, remember the investor that told me to become a badass? I don’t think he ever advised a man to become one. I can’t even imagine such a case.
Historically, a woman always has to become something more. I think the imposter syndrome is more common among women. A man can enter the conference room and give a speech in a weird shirt and colorful socks with pink elephants on them, and this will be fine. This will be considered “Silicon Valley” fashion or something. But a woman has to always prove she is worth the place she’s taking.
Where do men make decisions? They go to a sauna, get beer and decide on all the important things right there. Imagine me coming up to a man and going “Hey, let’s first bathe together, then get some beer and talk business”. Doesn’t work, does it?
But this is fine. Because women also have the tools that men don’t. First, on most conferences, there are few women. So, you attract more attention, you are noticed more often, you stand out as a rare thing. If you’re a woman that likes to also look good, this is even more pronounced.
I had many cases when people at the conferences would come up to me and ask if we’ve met before. I say sure, we might have. This gives me an opportunity to build an emotional connection that is unlikely to happen when two men network. And this is the kind of meetings people remember better.
The other advantage is that right now there are many funds that are directed at women in tech and at funding startups launched by women. However, I had a very negative experience in that area: an American company that promised support for women turned out to be a fraud company.
What about a gender gap in Belarus? Does it differ from the one in the Western world?
I think we pay more attention to it. Look, it’s all very complicated when it comes to feminism. Once, in the 11th grade, I had a project for the History of Belarus course, it was on Euphrosyne of Polotsk. I was a raging feminist back then, and when the teacher asked something about the role of men in the story, I said that women are completely self-sufficient and they don’t even need men. And on exactly this evening, I was attacked by a man, and only thanks to another man who was my friend, I managed to avoid a horrible situation. And that taught me a lot.
Equality can mean different things. Equal pay should be obligatory. We’ve got loads of research from all over the word showing women are paid less for the same amount of work.
All issues with pregnancy and maternal leave – women are less likely to get funded because of a likely maternal leave. A question about how to combine having a child with having your own business, the dilemma men don’t face at all, shouldn’t be a female-only question.
Besides, in Belarus, no matter how successful of a businesswoman you are, you’re still expected to prepare all meals, keep the house clean, and so on. It’s different in Europe, maybe because they’ve started earlier.
Also, the little things can be important. For example, I got used to handshakes in Europe, while in Belarus it’s not a common thing for women and men can even ignore you while greeting everyone else.
In the end, it also depends on how you perceive a situation. Maybe, it’s harder for women. But then again I met up with the girls from poor African countries and even they managed to get out and achieve great results.. Let’s face it, it all depends on your goals, your ambitions, and on what you are willing to do to achieve them.
Have you ever personally experienced discrimination?
Well… When I worked in Moscow, I was paid less because I was from Belarus, which is a different kind of discrimination. Still paid much more than here, though, so…
But when it comes to sexism, no, this never really happened to me but then again it’s been a long time since I worked for someone or maybe I’m just too focused on what I’m doing to notice the rest
Do you think we should fight in some way for equality?
Well, fight for what exactly? If you’re a female programmer, you’re even more welcome because you’re rare. It’s more that girls don’t want to work as programmers, because let’s face it, it can be a rather boring job. If you’re fighting for a man to stop interrupting you – well, then you’re fighting for him to be polite. Is it really a problem for you, do you really want to fight for this? If yes – go for it!
So what you have to do is show an example and strive to develop open-mindedness in people. We already have this kind of people – people who are open-minded and are more cosmopolitan than an average Belarusian.
Are there any women in Belarusian IT that inspire you?
If I had to point at someone, I would point at the girls that founded Imaguru (a startup hub in Minsk – author’s note). They were the earliest people in Belarus to begin the startup movement. Also, the ones that do EMERGE.
Which startups do you think are most trendy right now? Especially in Belarus, if this is even divisible by countries.
There’s a specific requirement for Belarusian startups: they have to think globally straight away because Belarus is just too small of a market. I, for example, don’t even have clients from Belarus. It can be a country for testing out the idea but it’s definitely not enough for much else. It’s not just the size of the market, it’s also mentality. It’s important for Belarusians and other post-Soviet mentalities to save money, to find a way to get something for free.
Personally, I really like the mental health niche. I think it’s the niche that will blow up among tech startups, although also not in Belarus. The idea for the mental health app for entrepreneurs was called absurdist by investors in Belarus, while it was met very well in other countries.
MedTech will also continue to develop because people are getting wealthier and start taking care of their health more. FinTech also, because this niche is still far too traditional.
I’m not 100% sure about the Silicon Valley though, the space tech for them can be the same that the blockchain based payments for us. Last year a futurist from SAP on a conference talked about billionaires’ investments – it’s all about the development outside of the Earth.
Generally, if a product can make the life of a single person better – go out and do it. We excel at worsening our lives, worsening the environment, health, mind… So there’s a lot of opportunities for making something better.
What’s the place of Belarus in relation to the outside world? Are we really the IT country?
Romanians say the same thing. Serbians say the same thing. Bosnians… Basically, all Balkan countries say they are IT countries. And Europeans perceive each one of them the same way they perceive Belarus.
Sure, we have great programmers who win international competitions. But this is not enough. Probably in ten years, it would be shameful not to know how to code.
Belarus has a solid education when it comes to maths, physics, programming. But first, I don’t know, let’s start learning English.
People can’t network because they don’t know English. They can’t learn, because most resources are in English and are not translated.
Sure, we have developers. But everything else, the soft skills! Pitches, presentations, sales, marketing. All of this is almost non-existent. Developers who decide to launch their startups can’t present their idea, can’t present themselves, can’t speak English. And these are the must-have things for not only becoming successful on the global scale but simply to meet the today’s normal.
“In Belarus, women dominate in infrastructure for startups”
Irina Hliabovich, VC girl, lawyerpreneur, startup builder and legal-tech geek.
How did you wind up in IT?
I started in the private equity industry, in the first equity fund in Belarus. I worked as a lawyer for five years but the range of tasks I was doing was much more diverse: from supporting large M&A deals to producing TV shows. As a part of our strategy, we invested in IT companies in Belarus. That was when I started looking at the IT sector.
In 2016, I got into an internship for the USAID Community Connections Program. This was the first study tour for Belarus dedicated to venture capital and innovative entrepreneurship and I was the only woman out of ten people and the youngest one in the group. This was when I became passionate about this topic.
Once I finished all the projects at my job, I quit with a dream to start a venture fund. To do that, I needed experience. This is what I am doing now – gaining experience. I work with venture funds, investors and startups in different countries.
Which startups would you say are in trend now?
All investors are now looking at the startups that use deep technologies, create innovative business model and have a unique value proposition at fast-growing markets. But there are not many of them.
All investors hunt for next unicorn, but still build balanced portfolio looking closely into SaaS models and products that have high competitive barriers, aimed at a large market and be easy to scale. products that involves AI, deep learning, machine learning. Other than that, your product has to be technologically advanced, for instance, based on AI, deep learning, machine learning.
As example, of emerging startups are the ones based on voice recognition technology. This is for the emerging markets, such as India, that have high levels of illiteracy. I was recently talking to the guys that invented the algo that could tell the mood from the voice, as in it could tell whether the person is calm, or irritated, or agitated. This will be used for the enterprises, such as call centers, that do the phone call analysis.
Which kinds of startups are your favorite?
I prefer working with B2B startups. Businesses are predictable. You know what they need and you know what they’ll buy. With B2C, a lot depends on going viral; you’ve got to know behavioral economics…
I also love legal tech startups, of course, as a lawyer who is passionate about her job. I was the one to start a legal tech community in Minsk with the Legal Hackers team.
What qualities do you think one needs to get ahead in IT?
In IT, there are plenty of different jobs for different people. All these jobs require different skills and different character traits. Therefore, you don’t need anything special in your character to go ahead. You’ve got to love what you do and know your niche very well. You’ve got to work hard.
IT is a competitive industry. We compete with all the emerging markets and, at the same time, we compete globally.
To work in IT, you’ve got to be multicultural and be open to diversity. There are no borders in IT. You sell things from Belarus to the U.S., from Bangladesh to China. Your team can be based in different countries. One startup that I work with Belive.tv (a cloud-based streaming platform) has a Slack-based team, as I call it. Our founders are in Israel, developers and the support team are in Ukraine, marketers are in the Philippines, analyst sits in Bangladesh, community manager sits in Canada, business developers in the USA and Minsk.
The startup and venture industry in Belarus aren’t fully formed.
So you’ve got to be a leader, think critically, have an entrepreneurial mindset because you have to be open to anything, navigate, balance risks, learn all the time, be extremely flexible.
Do you think you live up to these demands? This sounds overwhelming and obviously requires a lot of work.
I’ve got a motto: work hard, have fun, no drama. I work a lot but it doesn’t bother me. I’ve got a lot of projects and ideas that I want to bring to life – and I am the happiest under pressure. I get sad when I am not stressed and things aren’t happening 24/7.
Right now I work with multiple startups, multiple investors, lecture in the Belarusian State University, two of courses I created myself. Iim co-organizing a legal tech community in Minsk, part of Global Legal Hackers.
And even this is not it. Me and my unstoppable friends want to host a conference “Future lawyer” for all lawyers, thinkers, and enthusiasts from Eastern Europe where we’ll come up with syllabus for Legal Tech and Innovation course and make it open for everyone.
How does it feel to be a woman in IT?
It’s a men’s field. Most people I talk to are men. But I believe it’s always good to be a woman whatever you do! To be fair, you don’t think about gender at work at all. You never come to the office and think, “Oh well, I am a woman and they are all men”. You do your job and never really pay attention to any gender-related things.
And then at some point, you get a moment of reflection.
The first time I thought about it was when I was listening to Ginny Fahs, a software engineer from Uber, she talked about something they’ve started in California. Last year, when the anti-harassment movement started there, most important women, top managers in Silicon Valley, got together and talked about what’s happening in the industry. Have you ever heard that 5 of 10 women could be harassed during fundraising, while there is no common understanding of “harassment” within industry? It means that even powerful women are so ashamed and clueless that they prefer to ignore such issues.
Then they began discussing how many women are founders in IT, how many women are partners in the investment funds.
Women that come to work in venture funding are tough. If you’re put in a vulnerable situation, you can’t make it public, you can’t show that you’re weak.
So those women from Silicon Valley started encouraging such speeches, started debating rules and discussing problems, talking about harassment that comes both ways, when women are unfair towards men as well. So they started #MovingForward community to create diverse and inclusive, harassment-free workplaces in VC.
In Belarus, IT industry is the most tolerant industry towards women. It’s because this is the most progressive industry in Belarus. Sure, you’ll get cases of chauvinism and snobbery, but not as a general rule. No one has ever asked me at a job interview if I am married or if I am planning to have children anytime soon. Outside of IT, I was asked these questions a lot.
Then again, there are societal issues. For some of my girlfriends that work in IT, it’s a problem to admit to people outside of IT that they didn’t take long maternity leave and went back to work in like six months (paid maternity leave is up to three years in Belarus – author’s note).
You’ll sometimes get payment gap. But this isn’t perceived as something normal. Besides, women in IT are a kind of sisterhood, and this is very valuable.
Also, an interesting thing about women in IT in Belarus is that they dominate in creating infrastructure for the whole startup ecosystem. You will find very few women who are IT founders, but the infrastructure players are all women: Imaguru, EMERGE, Ulej, EventSpace…
Surprisingly, everything that supports startups is organized by women. I guess, this the clue to the recent vibrancy of the VC industry in Belarus.
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What do you think should be done to strengthen what we have and to eliminate the gender gap that exists in IT? To have more female founders, more women that work in IT?
First, we need success cases. More stories that are told. More campaigns that call out the inequality.
For example, the girls that started the “convenient in everyday life ladies” campaign (a social campaign in reaction to a male journalist calling female editors and journalists detained in BelTA case “ladies who are convenient for everyday life” – author’s note), this was so cool! They made T-shirts and posters with women who were important for Belarusian culture and Belarusian history, like Bona Sforza and Elena Aladova. And these T-shirts gave out the positive message of how every woman can be as cool and as important. Not “convenient”.
Also, it would be really great to organize events that aren’t focused on just gathering women to show that, hey, we are women and talk to each other on femininity. Organize events where women give talks on their professional sphere of interests for a diverse audience of men and women encouragement and support, too.
Also, business couples that give talks could be motivation for many How many successful couples do we know that founded something? Just a few, like Vladimir and Elena Lenev from Adani Group. All couples that succeeded together in careers could tell their story. Because it’s a partnership that’s important.
So first, we’ve got to encourage others by sharing our successes and achievements as well as disclosing challenges and gender-related problems without fear. Second, it’s important to voice any problems you face that are gender-related.
More useful and exciting insights are waiting for you at the EMERGE conference that will be held in Minsk on 4-5 June 2019 – keynote speakers from Google, Facebook, Nike, Microsoft, and EPAM; tech trends in our habits, aging, and sex life; challenges like corporate culture building and market expansion strategies.
Text by Alina Gorbatch.