“When I worked as an intern before starting university, my 50-year-old boss told me everyday that mechanical engineering isn’t for me, it’s not for girls. It took half a year for him to come to the conclusion that I am clever enough.” Katharina Kreitz founded her own company Vectoflow after finishing her studies in mechanical engineering, passed a 10-month MBA program in France in order to qualify for Exist funding, and had a Formula 1 team as their first customer only a few weeks after launching a self-made website. Vectoflow offers customized aerodynamic measurement solutions with the help of an innovative additive manufacturing method that significantly increases the robustness of the probes, making them ideal even for harsh environments with high pressures and temperatures. Even though Katharina doesn’t like the word, she became a role model for many women and entrepreneurs. In our conversation, we talk about her experiences of being the only woman in the room, why women have to learn to leverage the advantages they have, astronaut Barbies, the gender gap in STEM, and learn that math is for the lazy ones.
Together with your co-founders Christian Haigermoser and Florian Wehner, you founded Vectoflow in 2015. Can you tell us a little bit more about your company?
I studied mechanical engineering with a specialization in aerospace and aerodynamics. During my studies, I was not always present at university because I get bored quite easily. So instead, I worked for a lot of different companies like Airbus or NASA at the test bench. During my diploma thesis, I met Christian. He was my supervisor back then at BMW when we had the idea to use 3D printing for technical measurement systems. We found an expert company for 3D printing near Munich, EOS, which is now the biggest manufacturer of 3D printers worldwide. With their help, we developed the first prototype which was from an optical perspective pretty ugly but it worked, so we applied for Exist funding. The problem was that we didn’t have someone for the economics part and couldn’t find a suitable co-founder, so I took a 10-month MBA program in France, and then we were granted to receive Exist. Only one month later, a Formula 1 team approached us. At first, we thought it was a joke and that one of our friends hacked our self-made website, but it turned out to be true and it indeed was our very first customer. We started in the automotive world, the turbo-machinery gas turbines came a little later because they are much riskier. Today, we’re basically instrumenting everywhere where there is a flow – may it be water, air, gas, or anything else.
What prompted you to start Vectoflow?
In the past, the work with pressure-based measurement equipment was very annoying because pretty much all instruments and devices came from a single supplier. They were the only company offering this equipment worldwide, so obviously, the materials were very expensive and customer service was not a priority. Christian and I experienced the same challenges, and when we were working in the wind tunnel, we talked about 3D printing and the new development that you can also do this with metal. We came to the conclusion that this would actually solve a lot of our problems and that’s how the idea of Vectoflow came up.
Being a woman in a field dominated by men, some may view you as kind of rare, and you’ve probably come across some bias. Looking back now, how would you describe your early days as an engineer?
I must admit that I am just used to it and don’t really know the difference. When I started at university, we were around 10% women. Also later on at BMW, for example, there were 76 engineers and me. At NASA, there was no other woman at all. So for me, it’s completely normal to be the only woman in the room. I know I have to perform 150% in order to be accepted. At Vectoflow, we have one woman in the sales team and whenever one of us has a sales meeting, we always have to answer ten really, really tough questions before the actual conversation starts. After these questions, everything is fine, but you have to go through these ten questions.
Has it changed over time?
Today, many people know me already. When you’re basically the only female person in a sector, you get quite well-known worldwide after a few exhibitions and conferences. But in the end, it hasn’t really changed. I also hear from a lot of other companies and sectors that many people think women have certain positions because they are a woman and rumors are circulating that they don’t deserve it.
Do you have an example or a situation in mind that is just typical for gender bias?
I remember a meeting with a huge research facility in Germany. The man who invited me called me one day before the actual meeting to ask ‘Katharina, do you plan to come alone or do you bring an expert.’ There are thousands of these examples, but I have to say I don’t remember them all because it’s just normal somehow.
You seem very confident from the anecdotes and insights you share. Have you ever experienced someone crossing a line you never experienced someone crossing before?
Yes, that was before I had my own company. I was working for another firm and had a friend in the same department. When I left the company, they offered me, an intern, a position many people had been waiting for, some even for years. Actually, I declined, but when I was done with my studies, the boss asked me whom I would give that position to since I’m not accepting it myself. I mentioned my friend’s name. At that time, I thought we just had a normal friendship. Years later, we met at a conference again, having a good time also with the colleagues in his new company. A couple of weeks later, my co-founder told me he would have a meeting with this exact company, and when I said that I have a friend there, he explained that people are saying ‘Katharina is burnt.’ I asked him if he knows how this rumor came up and the reason was that I’ve been wearing pants with the zipper in the back when my ‘friend’ and I had been working together. It was their sign to say I would be easy to get. What can I say, it was normal jeans, it was just hip at that time. It left me totally speechless. I trusted a friend, I even recommended him for a really good position and he is talking about the pants I was wearing years ago. That was the only time I was really frustrated because of a person and for sure, it has been a female issue. You will never hear someone talking about a man or his clothing like this.
Have you ever experienced mansplaining and how do you deal with or react when someone tells you how to do your job?
Well, the good thing is I’m an extrovert and loud and just tell them ‘no, I don’t do it like this’. Of course, if someone has a good suggestion, that’s great, but if I’m convinced that my solution is the better way, I just stick to it. Actually, I’ve always had more advantages because I’m a woman, but many people can’t believe that most of the time.
You talk about the advantages of being the only woman in the room. Can you explain that a little more?
I have an example for that. It was at an aerodynamics exhibition in the first year of Vectoflow and all the chiefs of the big automotive companies came together. There was a dinner and no one knew me at that time, but I was the only woman at the conference. There was this table with all the executives and managers of Porsche, BMW, etc. I was seated far away from that table, but I just approached them, and, well, they somehow squeezed me in – you just can’t do that as a guy. Also if I contact a new customer, I can have a completely different attitude than a man could have. When I did cold calling during the German Accelerator program in the U.S., it was just helpful being a little more charming because no one likes being called by a stranger, even after an intro. Sometimes, women can use their edge when it comes to emotional intelligence and leverage that type of understanding in conversations with men, you just have to find out how. As a woman, you can risk a little bit more which a man couldn’t do. It’s important to play the advantages you have as there are so many disadvantages. Try finding your own benefits instead. Of course, the things I do, might not work in every field, so you have to try out different things to see what’s good and helpful for you.
Do you think it’s also about women being more risk-averse than men?
I know that men are more open to risks than women but it’s still the same for them and it’s still a risk. They also don’t like it or feel uncomfortable. You don’t feel uncomfortable because you’re a woman but because everyone feels uncomfortable in certain situations. For sure, it helps to be a little bit extroverted and loud. I just don’t like the attitude and thinking: I’m a woman, I’m disadvantaged and people are treating me badly. Of course, there are these glass ceiling examples or situations where you can’t get through because of other people who still think that women can’t do anything. They do exist but not everywhere, and often women are standing in their own way because they focus too much on the disadvantages. You just have to learn how to play the advantages of being a woman.
Of course, there are things that are not fair right now, so we have to start somewhere. When I worked as an intern before starting university, my 50-something-year-old boss told me everyday that mechanical engineering isn’t for me, it’s not for girls. It took half a year for him to come to the conclusion that I am clever enough, too – despite my gender. In general, I would not be in favor of the 10% quota or measures like that but for people like him, it’s necessary. They have to work with women to see that we are as clever as men, that we can be helpful, and that we can sometimes even be better. I think you just have to be careful with the feminist movement. There’s a lot of good stuff, but not all of it.
Some of the women’s communities, that have recently been formed, just share the motto ‘all men are a**holes’. These women are looking for someone to blame and a reason to rest on the opinion that they are women and can’t stand for themselves. It annoys me that women at this point do not want to make more of themselves.
Even though you don’t like the word, you’re a role model and visit schools to motivate young girls for the tech scene. Is there a particular piece of advice you give them?
Women need to be more willing and open to take risks. It’s completely normal that you’re scared. At the beginning when we founded Vectoflow, my co-founders said they would do the tech stuff and I would be the one taking care of talking, investor relations, sales, and these kinds of things – basically, everything where you have to get in touch with people. And honestly, I really saw myself sitting in the basement and coding or whatever, but not being interactive with people. When I started to speak publicly, I couldn’t sleep for days because I was so nervous, and I practiced a thousand times. Back then, I hated it, but it gets better after a while, and it can even be fun. Now I’m super happy and really enjoy it, I love sales and giving speeches is no problem at all.
Another issue is that when girls apply for a job at Vectoflow, they are often around 150% over what I need and still think that they can’t do it. Usually, they even want less money than a guy who is capable of only 20%. I mean, as an employer or from a financial perspective, I think ‘great!’ but as a woman, I’m dying on the inside.
If you could turn back time, what advice would you give to your 15-year-old younger self?
‘Don’t go to a ‘Neusprachliches Gymnasium’, better go to a math or science school instead, and try to convince your mother that you’re really not as talented in different languages as she is.
Do you have a role model yourself or someone who inspires you?
When you’re starting your own company and win some prizes, an abundance of people are interested and want to help you but not all of them are actually helpful. So, we have one mentor who accompanied us all the time. He already sold his company now, but he was in a similar branch and actually, the complete opposite of me. He was really calm, thinking everything through, and I always admired that. He always knows something about every topic – it was a huge help. Besides him, my father also has a company and this also shaped me a bit.
In an interview with Handelsblatt in 2019, you said you would try to make a fool of yourself once a day. How did this come about, and do you still do it?
It depends a bit on the situation or what I’m focusing on at the time. It’s actually something I learned from one of the mentors at German Accelerator. When I was in the U.S., I had a lot of customer meetings but to get these, I had to cold call a lot of people. As you know, when a random person calls you to sell something, you usually just want to hang up. So I knew in advance that there could be many negative results in one day. Making a fool of yourself just gives you a different mindset and it makes it easier to deal with failure – take it with humor and learn to laugh about yourself.
What is your vision for women in business in the next 10 years?
That we do not need things like the ‘International Women’s Day’ anymore, because – is there an ‘International Men’s Day’? No, because it is nothing special.
When I told people that I was studying mechanical engineering everyone was surprised, and the usual question was ‘Do you want to become an astronaut?’ Well, no. I never heard ‘Oh, that’s cool’! It must become more normal for women to also work in a technical field or found their own company. Of course, the right setting is needed, also in terms of family. Many women don’t want to take the risk because they want to start a family, but basically, running your own company is like a baby – then you have to manage two. Support from the government would be helpful, so that it’s easier for women to take the risk, also in case of failure. Another important thing is the mindset, especially in Germany. Women shouldn’t be judged for starting to work again soon after having a baby – no one would judge a man for this.
Do you think it will be possible to overcome the gap in the STEM field?
I think that something should be done way earlier than at the end of school before girls graduate. That’s also one of the reasons why we at Vectoflow, for example, invite STEM-interested girls over on Girls’ Day to learn more about what we do. We need some kind of ‘rethinking’ because there are statistics that girls are better at math in the first to fourth grade – and then for some reason, it goes downhill. I think this is because of the environment and the typical stereotypes where everyone keeps telling you to do something with nursing or with children because you’re a woman. In contrast, math is for geeks and they are all strange. You could sell math a bit differently, for example: Math is for lazy people because once understood, you don’t have to learn it again, not like vocabulary or something in French. If you start there and sell it a little bit differently and show the cool stuff, you could really make a difference. Mattel now also offers an astronaut Barbie, so the change has started, but we have to do way more.
If you could change one thing instantly to get more women into the STEM world, what would it be?
It will probably not help right away, but, for example in the U.S., everyone is a fan of NASA, everyone is admiring astronauts – also girls. It’s in the news and everyone is talking about it, because they are working on cool stuff, like traveling to Mars, etc. If you look at Europe, we offer flights to the L 1 Point and nobody even knows what the L 1 Point is. It seems boring compared to the U.S. Or take Tesla as another example. Every child in the U.S. knows Tesla because they are so cool and make electric cars. It doesn’t have to be electric cars, but maybe we have something different that children in Germany can dream about. It’s about changing the mindset in Germany. The sad thing is that we are a technical country, we’re leaders in certain fields, but we suck at selling it – that’s a general issue for Germans and something we should address and fix.