When Edlira Kasaj joined the ReDI team, in Berlin, she was instantly struck by the city’s informality, and its color. Her previous roles, promoting business in the UK, Italy and her home country of Albania, had been more buttoned up and corporate. Berlin was “hippie,” she tells Red Herring. “Everything is accepted.”
Perhaps. But despite its reputation as one of Europe’s most open and liberal places, Germany’s “poor but sexy” capital has a gender problem in its fastest-growing sector. Four of Wired UK’s “hottest” startups in the city are led by women (Careship, Clue, Lemoncat and Peat). But only 9% of Berlin startups were founded by women. That falls behind Europe as a whole (17%), and Silicon Valley (24%).
Clearly something isn’t right. That’s where Kasaj and ReDI step in. The ReDI School of Digital Integration was founded by Dane Anne Kjaer Riechert in 2016, at the height of Europe’s migrant crisis. German chancellor Angela Merkel had opened her nation’s borders to those fleeing war and tragedy just a year before.
Over 1.5m have arrived in Germany since. Most are men: few are homemakers, and even fewer have gender-based violence to worry them en route to Europe. But hundreds of thousands of women have also traveled to Germany, many of whom live in refugee camps and housing in and around the Hauptstadt.
ReDI, which is located in a Nazi-era building beside a major memorial to the Berlin Wall, teaches migrants and refugees tech skills, so that they may contribute to an industry in desperate need for talent: in 2016 Germany had 42,000 vacant tech jobs. Now it has 55,000.
But Riechert wanted to make ReDI’s courses more available to women. In April 2017 the school piloted a three-month “digital women program” aimed at recent female arrivals. In December it hired Kasaj, an experience aid and innovation professional.
Immediately, she saw the scale of the task. “Women from traditional societies were less confident than men, were often in charge of their children’s upbringing and had lower computer skills,” she says.
The school’s evening hours were no good for most women, who spent them at home looking after children. Neither were weekends. Eventually ReDI created its own Kita – daycare – so women could study computer skills.
Its latest course began in February. Eighty women signed up for classes in basic computer skills and e-commerce, among others. Some women still wanted to pass their place onto sons, brothers and husbands, Kasaj says. But many have flourished on their own terms.
Female migrants struggle to find work in Germany’s economy due to language, education or the traditional labor divide of traditional homes. Teaching them computer skills is an essential way to break down those barriers. Neither is it simply a one-way street.
Germany still has a huge tech gender divide: just 16.58% of its industry’s workforce is female – a shade above the Netherlands but far behind eastern European nations like Lithuania (24.93%), Romania (26.30%) and Bulgaria (30.28%).
Germany needs women in tech like Rita, a Damascene who fled misogyny and nepotism in 2017. Having worked a host of menial, low-paid jobs in Berlin, the 32-year-old telecommunications expert joined ReDI’s cybersecurity program in 2017 and now has a paid internship at Cisco.
“I travelled because, as a woman, it’s not a place you want to be,” Rita says of her home country. She has not claimed asylum as a refugee because she wants to keep the right to visit her mother in Damascus. It is, she admits, “the hardest road” – without any state benefits on which to fall back.
But ReDI, and her subsequent tech work, has given her meaning – and the desire to achieve even more. “I feel free,” she says. “It’s challenging. But it’s rewarding.”
For Kasaj, instilling migrant women with that belief is one of the best things about her job. “People crave meaning,” she says. “Once you’ve been thrown from country to country for so long, and you used to be a doctor, or an engineer, or a teacher, and you come here and you’re just a refugee, all you crave is meaning. Our students are so committed to bring value for themselves and the society that has welcomed them here.”
ReDI now has a school in Munich, and plans to open more locations further down the line. That is vital, says Kasaj: “The migrant crisis is here to stay…It’s time to stop talking about refugees, and start talking with refugees.”