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Female Tech Heroes role models #11 - Menke Steenbergen: 'Embracing differences is the key to success'

Jul 8, 2020 2:23:55 PM. By: Anna Mazur

Menke was three years old when she saddled her grandfather’s horse for the first time. Since that first ‘click’, her passion for horse riding led her to a professional career. However, due to an injury, she shifted her route to a veterinary, later to policy making and entrepreneurship in the sports discipline. Since 2012, Menke has been trying to disrupt the industry with a tech product - sensors to measure horses’ rein pressure, but the market was not ready for such an innovation back then.

It took a couple of years to develop the product, build a dedicated team and overcome obstacles of obtaining the investment, as a female entrepreneur. In 2018, her startup IPOS Technology pioneered the combination of horse riding and technology, receiving great exposure worldwide. Menke tells about her journey as a female tech entrepreneur.

The coming months we will introduce female and male role models who act upon increasing diversity in the tech industry. By telling their personal and career stories, we can inspire and learn from each other.

Horse rider, teacher, veterinarian and a policy maker
When her horse got a serious injury while preparing for Grand Prix competition, Menke Steenbergen decided to teach horse riding lessons, and become a vet. Early during her veterinarian education, she recognized the problem shared by numerous equestrians - half of all horses in training suffer from injuries. So she wanted to contribute to the solution and lead the change in the industry, by looking at the roots of the problem: “I realized that one of the most effective ways to do that is probably by looking at the human behaviour. I kept thinking about what can riders do to minimize their horses’ injuries and optimize their performance? Since veterinarian degree had not given as much insight into human behaviour, human interaction or behavioural change, and focused only on animal welfare, I decided to try governance level.”

Graduating from her Master in Governance and Organizational Science, Menke joined the Ministry of Agriculture and got involved in making policies on how to keep horses, maintain their welfare and organize horses’ trading. She enjoyed the social aspect of the policy making process, highlighting the feminine qualities it entails: "Policy making is a lot about getting everybody on board and creating support. It’s a typical feminine characteristic that women can bring to a business or governmental institution."

How and why tech?
Animal welfare was always an important topic for Menke. When it comes to injuries, the psychology about treatment is very similar to the human one, she describes: "When a horse gets injured we, riders have to think about how to prevent the injury the next time. When a horse already suffering and performs poorly. Similarly, people will call a doctor only when they get sick. Never to ask what you should do to not get sick.” Menke describes it as a ‘knowledge paradigm’: “You don’t know what you don’t know. I also wrote a book about horse welfare and prevention of injuries, yet the book nowadays is not the most effective way to change human behaviour. When I discovered research on rein sensors, I realized that data technology has great potential.”

A horsewoman got inspired by the idea of the Fitbit app, and its influence on how people move. Menke explains: “We know that moving at least 30 minutes a day is a new recipe for a healthy lifestyle. Fitbit made it possible to count your steps. As more people download it and start comparing their records with one another – that’s what makes people click! That’s how technology can change human behaviour.”

She brought the idea to the horse riders’ practice. She introduced rein sensors that would turn rein tension into measurable data, making it easy to compare data with the others. That’s how IPOS Technology was born as a solution to make the training more efficient and prevent injuries.

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First steps into entrepreneurship
IPOS was one of the startups that pioneered the use of tech in the horse industry. The first 100 sensors were sold with great success worldwide. The market was enthusiastic about the product from the beginning, thus the growth of the company required more investment. As a starting female entrepreneur, Menke had to experience challenges with obtaining the first investment in a ‘male-driven investor world’: “It’s the same as at school," Menke says.

"Women have to achieve 300% to get the same results as guys. We can say it’s not true but it is. We are not treated equally. Especially, investors who previously managed hierarchical corporations tend to have a very authoritative mentality. Discussions with female investors are much different. They talk about the alignment of their own goals and that of a company, not only about finance management. During the first funding round, we received investments from BrainPort Eindhoven and BOM Brabant Ventures. But negotiations with angel investors ended up with trying to calm down the argument that spurred up between the two potential investors.” For the next rounds, Menke decided the solution is simple - to let a man lead the negotiation process because a male investor will always trust a male more.

Learning business, tech and getting the team
In the first stages of production, she made ‘all the mistakes in the book’, Menke tells. Her goal to learn more and to find the team brought her to the HighTechXL Accelerator in 2017. She emphasizes a very helpful network culture of the Brabant region: “People were always willing to hear about your ideas, think together with you, and connect you with an expert for a ‘Brabantse coffee’.” That’s where Menke met her future technology partner, Marcin: “He was working at the High Tech Campus and looking for ways of using his technology expertise in helping startups. We get along really well, and have the same values about work: we let the quality speak for our work, not the loud words.”

“Learning about business development process was great especially due to the mutual support of other female tech entrepreneurs”, Menke admits. “Having the group of other women on the campus that you can share with was very valuable. For example, in this problem of finding investors, I used to think that I am just a bad negotiator before I talked to other women and realized that they had the same experience with the investor culture."

Leading as a woman
As a CEO, Menke has a leadership style of her own. Now in the team with 6 men, she takes a ‘facility manager’ role, when it comes to arranging finances and dealing with investors. Everyone is treated as their own chief. “Trust is the core of successful relationships”, Menke believes. Also, showing appreciation: “I work with horses and when I tell my horse: ‘Good job!’, she will give me way more! It’s the same with people. So we need both: to show boundaries and be able to stand up for ourselves; but also, we need to show appreciation.” On the end note, Menke’s message to the world is that the qualities that women bring are very different from those of the guys and that embracing those differences is the key to success.

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