Barbara is breaking boundaries: a journey of female entrepreneurship

Laura Diez

Startup Stories

"Could you refill the coffee machine? It's empty." A phrase female founder and CEO Barbara Stegmann has had to hear only minutes before she was on stage to present her company living brain.

In a world driven by innovation and the pursuit of individual potential, narratives of entrepreneurship go beyond conventional business stories. They embody the experiences of trailblazers who challenge norms, chart uncharted paths, and redefine societal expectations. One such inspiring journey is that of Barbara Stegmann, the CEO and Co-founder of "living brain," an innovative startup in the digital health sector. In this interview, we delve into her motivations, challenges, and the unique insights as a female founder that have shaped her vision.

What inspired you to found a startup in the digital health sector?

"In fact, the founding of living brain was more of a coincidence. From a young age, I had a passion for psychology and medicine, which led me to devour medical and psychological literature at the age of 12. I felt that I wanted to realize myself in this field and decided to study psychology. Early on, I developed the desire to be self-employed, driven by my conviction that work should be fulfilling and not just based on instructions."

What is living brain about?

"At living brain, we develop new therapy methods for people with neurological diseases."

As a result of strokes, epilepsy or other neurological diseases, many people suffer from cognitive deficits. Problems with, for example, memory, attention or executive function make everyday situations such as preparing meals a challenge. Because these everyday tasks are critical to independent living, they need to be practiced.

But how do you practice everyday tasks in a therapy room? Barbara and her team have developed the teora®mind software application, which simulates interactive everyday situations in virtual reality.

In their virtual world, people can practice activities of daily living until they become second nature again. They practice making coffee in a virtual kitchen or tending tomato plants in a virtual garden. The environment is interactive and gives you one task after another to train your brain function. The difficulty levels are customizable and the application can be used one-handed and while sitting. The product is certified as a medical device and has been compared to current standard therapy in a clinical trial. teora®mind outperformed them.

What distinguishes living brain product teora®mind from conventional methods?

"Conventional methods often rely on abstract exercises that don't translate well into everyday life. At living brain, we create targeted therapeutic approaches aligned with the patients' needs. Our aim is to design exercises that mirror real-life situations, seamlessly integrating into daily routines. Rehabilitation should extend beyond therapy rooms, actively supporting individuals in their day-to-day lives."

Have your achievements or abilities been doubted due to your gender in your career?

"Frequently, including a particularly memorable incident at an event with about 200 attendees, where just two of us were women – myself and a lady from the catering team. In the midst of a conversation, a man abruptly interrupted, asking, 'Could you refill the coffee machine? It's empty.' The situation felt peculiar, given the context and the sudden interruption.

This was a moment I haven't forgotten. It's precisely why I believe it's important for us to share stories like these, to have conversations about such matters. We need to move away from assigning specific roles and traits to men and women, because these assigned traits have been shaped by generations before us. That's why, in my view, it shouldn't matter whether you're male or female. What should matter are the attributes, perspectives, thoughts, and ideas you bring.

Men and women, in my opinion, are not inherently superior or inferior to each other. Any perceived hierarchy is a result of societal conditioning that starts from childhood. We should provide all individuals the opportunity to break free from these molds, support role models and set new standards.

I´ve been in a lot of situations where there is a difference in perception of men and women. At the beginning of our founding journey I was used to people ignoring me at events especially when my male co-founder and I were both at the booth. It occurred less the longer living brain exists but it still happens.

Some people who came to our booth and talked to us shook hands with him and ignored me. As soon as they asked how we were doing with financing, my co-founder told them he is not responsible for that, pointed at me and said: “That's our CEO”. Most of these people were embarrassed at that point and tried to make it up by being extra polite or extra friendly.

I'm regularly asked whether I handle marketing or HR at living brain, and the raised eyebrows when I say, "I am the CEO," are always the same. The astonishment on people's faces. I'd say it's etched in their minds and not a malicious intent. It's what many of us learned early on in society. Often, in addition to surprise, you also notice a little bit of discomfort, as if the people themselves were uncomfortable with the way they reacted. In most cases take it with humor and kindness and smile at them while I shake their hand and say “Hello, I'm very pleased to meet you!” in a particularly nice way of putting it."

How could we contribute more effectively to having honest conversations about gender roles and role models?

“It would be my wish that we speak more openly about these issues and give greater prominence to role models who transcend gender boundaries. This effort should begin even in schools, where presentations by female and male leaders occur with equal frequency. Personally, I also believe that the topic of building a business should be addressed earlier within the education system.

I am firmly convinced that it is of great significance to engage in more discussions about these matters and provide more individuals with the opportunity to break free from restrictive structures and shine in their authenticity. Men should have the opportunity to shine with social engagement, which is often mistakenly perceived as exclusively female. Women should be able to excel at detail-oriented and bold strategic plans - something that is often perceived as something only men can do.

I believe that each of us had qualities during our childhood that were later labeled as "not masculine" or "not feminine." These traits still reside within us. It would be desirable if we could grant ourselves permission to be our true selves, regardless of the societal conventions imposed upon us. Every time we are told how we should be based on our gender, it also resonates with the child we once were. My aspiration is that we can all embrace this aspect of our genuine selves, beyond societal norms.

It is important that we create more space for individuals who challenge prevailing notions and provoke confusion. Through this sense of bewilderment, prejudices are questioned and reconsidered. I hope that we can establish more platforms where such individuals can share their thoughts and perspectives. This could contribute significantly to fostering change and acceptance.”

Did the absence of female role models affect you in founding living brain?

“I lacked a role model because I didn't have a single woman in my circle whom I could have asked, someone who was an entrepreneur herself and faced these challenges. It was so intense for me because I spent a long time questioning what I was doing wrong. I kept wondering, am I wearing the wrong things, speaking incorrectly, looking the wrong way? Should I wear more or less makeup, dress differently? Should I become more masculine or less masculine? I kept thinking it was my mistake, that I was doing something wrong. And then, gradually, I began to meet more and more female founders and entrepreneurs within my network.”

What advice do you have for young women who want to make a name for themselves in the startup scene?

"Seek out a network of other female entrepreneurs and founders. Because in moments of doubt, remember that it's not about you. Before I founded living brain, I was not aware of the reservations about female founders. And because I wasn't aware of it, I didn't base the reaction on my gender, but on my abilities".

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