Barbara Maim: An entrepreneur's journey from Switzerland to India
Barbara Maim is the Co-founder and CEO of Minsh, a community messaging system, a private social network with your own customised brand. In 2008, she co-founded Minsh, and a few years later, in June 2011, she moved from Lausanne to Bangalore with her husband and Co-founder, Jon.
HerStory spoke with Barbara to know more about her move from Switzerland to India, the challenges and the experiences she had had along the way.
Decision to move to India
Though Switzerland offers many benefits and Barbara loves her country, she still decided to move to India. “Switzerland is a small country, with a small startup ecosystem and also a very expensive city to live in. So we decided to leverage the evolving silicon valley of India,” she says.
She and her husband left behind their families, gave up their home, sold their furniture and moved to Bangalore. They had not been to India before and did not know what to expect. Getting the paperwork and visas done were a big nightmare given how organised and efficient such things are in Switzerland. Finding a house to settle in also took some doing, but, slowly, they had things sorted and began to get used to the rhythm of India. Today, Barbara has a son and she says, “He is Indian, only his blonde hair and blue eyes mark him apart.”
Barbara’s biggest challenge was to give up everything and start over in India. “I think it was tough to get used to India’s jugaad approach and the South Indian relaxed way of doing things.” She has taken to it well and still manages to visit her family every year.
Growing up in Lausanne
She calls herself a country girl as she grew up in a small and friendly village where everybody used to greet each other. As a child, she wanted to work for Pixar and work on awesome animation movies, and that pushed her in the direction of Computer Science.
In early 2011, she got very close to working at Disney in Los Angeles, but she says, “I realised that I didn’t want to work in a big company, but rather keep working on my own startup, and made the decision to move to Bangalore with my partner.”
Barbara has studied at Lausanne, did her Masters in Computer Science in 2005 from École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL), a technology school. For her Masters, she moved to Montreal, Canada for six months where she worked on computer graphics. She says, “I liked computer graphics so much that I decided to accept when my computer graphics professor back at EPFL offered me to do a PhD right after I graduated.”
Right at the end of her PhD, she co-founded Minsh, her startup. Their very first product was intimately linked with her PhD topic: an online underwater virtual world connected to Twitter. The idea behind it was that each Twitter user was a fish and could explore the underwater world and see schools of fish form and evolve depending on the trending topics on Twitter. The goal was to let Twitter users meet other users based on their interests.
Though technologically the project was an amazing success, they had difficulties getting paying customers and raise funding. They reached a point when they had to take a call, either to call it quits, take up jobs and settle down. The other option was to not quit and continue the same adventure in a different ecosystem teeming with more activity and where cost of life would be less expensive than Switzerland.
A woman entrepreneur across countries
Barbara says that her experience in India as a woman has been fine. Initially, when she attended events
with her husband, men wouldn’t look at her and would speak to her husband instead of her. “It was so frustrating in the beginning, but I now understand it’s a sign of respect towards my husband and indirectly, to me. “Nowadays, she goes to conferences and events alone. She’s realised that people are open and ready to talk to her. “I think being a foreigner also helps break that gender barrier, which, although fading, is still very real for many people,” she says.Barbara likes the opportunities India offers; she says, “Good thing about India is that you can approach anyone in India and strike a conversation. People will respond and be friendly. There is no fear of invading someone’s privacy or space like it is back home.”
Women in Tech
There are few women entrepreneurs in Switzerland, but when they startup, especially in the high-tech sector, it is refreshing. People give a lot of encouragement and attention, so it helps women open some doors, Barbara says.
The reason behind small numbers of women in technology in Europe, according to Barbara, is the cliché that women are more interested in languages and social sciences, whilst men in hard tech and physics. “It’s something hardwired into our brains since childhood. Though it is changing now, still more men continue to remain in tech,” she adds.
With regards to women entrepreneurship, she is of the opinion that women are connected to the child and are nurturers. One has to be able to decide if one is ready for the trade off: either you take care of your child or you are ready to work. And even though we see more and more men working from home and being there for the children, women still find it hard to let go.
Working with her partner and co-founder
“I met Jon during my studies, and we never got separated ever again after that,” she says with a smile. Barbara would not have it any other way.
She adds, “I think it has helped that we studied together, and then we’ve worked together. The hard part is to press the off button when you get home,” she reveals. She says they even fight regularly, because they don’t always agree on certain things, but they understand each other, they understand the other’s fears and cheer the other when they’re feeling low. “We’re in sync with each other; we’re passionate about our work and we love each other, and that is awesome.”
What keeps her motivated is her family and her husband, who’s taught her never to give up. She also wants her son to be proud of her.