Starting my own company was nowhere in my plans when I moved to Stockholm in August 2016. I came here to pursue a Master’s degree in Machine Learning at the KTH Royal Institute of Technology. I followed the typical path, finished my courses in three semesters and then worked on my master thesis during the last one, as part of an amazing team at Spotify. I had a great time over the two years and loved the courses I took, the incredibly smart people that I met, and finally the five months at Spotify. Not to mention that my parents were extremely happy. For them, the prospect of me graduating and potentially getting a job at Spotify was the best path I could have built out for myself.
As I am writing this down I realise that this is probably the version of the story that I had in mind when I moved to Stockholm. It could have been a very nice path to the start of a successful career in tech. But life seldom works out so neatly and in my case at least, it has always been and still is a rather winding journey of exploration.
At the same time that I moved to Stockholm, my best friend Dora — also independently — moved here. She studied in a different department and I always enjoyed hearing about all the user experience research and testing she was doing. There was one particular project that she had done that I found really interesting. She worked with teenage girls to brainstorm and understand what tools they would like to use to learn programming. One of the more concrete results of the research was this idea of a phone case with embedded LEDs that could be programmed to display any color. I thought it was brilliant.
I have always been a champion for bringing more women into technical fields. Dora and I had in fact co-founded a student organisation to empower more women to pursue STEM studies in our university. Through this and numerous other initiatives I was involved in, I understood that it is crucial to ensure that women stay in the tech pipeline. The first step for that is naturally to get enough girls in the pipeline in the first place. This can be achieved by exposing girls to technology early on, in ways that they find relatable and interesting — for example through a programmable phone case.
I remember that in the few months after the project was done I was so excited and almost anxious if Dora would ever decide to try to turn it into something more than just an idea. And to clarify, I was anxious if she would ask me to help. First of all, because as an electronics nerd at heart and previously an electrical engineering graduate, I would have been very sad to miss out on this opportunity. And second, because getting more young girls excited about technology was something I deeply cared about — as she very well knew. Luckily I didn’t have to wait too long. Soon enough the ask came and we started working on a prototype as well as a business case around it.
As much as I was excited about tinkering with electronics, I was starting to worry what it would mean if we were to gain momentum. Soon this would not be something that I would do in my free time and on weekends. Would I drop the machine learning career I was preparing for and work on something that (at least in the beginning) had nothing to do with machine learning? Was that insane? Was it what I wanted? What would that mean for the two years I just spent on this master? Was I totally closing the door for working with machine learning in the future?
I had so many questions. And some of them seem rather silly looking back now. Of course I could work again with machine learning if I decided to. As a matter of fact, I will probably work in many different fields in my lifetime. But back then, I grappled a lot with the question of whether I was making the right choice, especially as I was finishing up the masters. It was hard choosing a path that was so different from what everyone else in my program did. Yet I was going to work on the one thing that I had been (so far in my life) the most passionate about. While I would be happy working as a machine learning engineer, being happy and comfortable is not what pushes people to create great things.
There I was, excited and scared of taking the leap. I had the opportunity to work on something more fulfilling and with the potential to drive positive change. I knew it was going to take a tremendous amount of work to make it happen. I also knew that there was one aspect that I hadn’t even taken into consideration: whether I could actually afford to do it, and for how long. This more practical concern also tied in with my parents’ skepticism and their worry that I was saying no to a financially stable career in tech.
In the end, the startup-friendly ecosystem in Stockholm, the early support from KTH Innovation and other organisations in Stockholm, and generally the extremely supportive community helped me rationalize my decision. I was used to living on a student budget, I had no debt or anyone depending on me, had some savings that could last a few months, and most importantly, I was going to work on my all-time true passion together with my best friend. And so I followed my gut. I chose the unclear and risky route of driving change and couldn’t be happier.