What was the trigger that made you decide to become an entrepreneur?
I was doing a PhD in Darmstadt and working full-time at SAP. My topic was how to best manage and measure research departments. Working with the research departments of SAP partners like IBM, Intel, Microsoft, ABB, Philips, I realized that they were very interested in this topic. It was not my idea, honestly, to start as an entrepreneur. I was thinking of taking a normal consulting job.
But I had a mentor, Peter Jeutter, and he told me: ‘Before you work for somebody else, Tatjana, maybe you should work for yourself.’
With his incredible help and energy, he invested into my new initiative, I pulled colleagues together around the idea of innovation and Research and Development (R&D) management. They were skeptical but supportive. Together with people from Intel and Philips we founded the International Institute for Research Performance and Innovation Management e.V. (IPERF). There we look at the newest instruments and processes for businesses to better manage their R&D function and launch innovative products and services into the markets.
What are you most proud of?
Short answer: I am most proud of making a difference in people’s lives.
Long answer: At about the same time as creating IPERF, I was invited to become a professor at the best business school in Russia. There I discovered a completely new world where I felt the enormous satisfaction of sharing my knowledge and acting as an advisor and mentor to students. I felt that I was enabling people and opening new worlds for them by showing them possibilities they were not aware of. I helped a lot of students to get their first internships and interesting jobs in international companies, something they were dreaming of but didn’t know how to approach.
This is something that really drives me. I am still in touch with ex-students who now are working for top international tech and consulting companies or are my colleagues. They still come back and tell me ‘You really made a difference in my life and I’m really, really thankful.’
I am especially proud when I see people grow and value what I do. Recently, we trained the IT department of Bayer. We had people from all across the world who attended our four-month training. We received very good feedback. We used the net promoter score (NPS) for the final evaluation, and we got nines or tens across the board, meaning they would recommend us to others. So, this is a completely different audience, people who are already well established in their careers (as opposed to students), and I’m able to make a difference in their lives and careers, too. This is something I’m proud of.
On top of your day job(s), you also teach in St. Petersburg and a place I had to google – Innopolis. Tell us more.
Innopolis is a completely new city and a new university. It was planned by a Singaporean architect as a smart city and built from scratch about six or seven years ago. They started by building the university, followed by student dormitories, a sports complex, a hospital, a school, a kindergarten, and so on. It is the smallest city in Russia, but very modern – you can see self-driving cars there. I suppose it’s the city with the highest IQ, most people there are very smart tech students.
The University of Innopolis was the first purely IT university in Russia and offers four master programs: Big Data, Artificial Intelligence and Robotics, Software Technology and Cyber Security, everything taught in English. I teach R&D and innovation management to tech students.
On the opposite end of the spectrum is Saint Petersburg, the second largest and most beautiful city in Russia. Here, I teach at the oldest and the most prestigious university, at the Graduate School of Management, the best business school in Russia, according to international rankings of Financial Times (FT). Here the focus of my teaching is more on the business side. I teach master’s students, as well as executive MBA.
Where did the funding for all your ventures come from?
After talking to Tatjana she sent me a scan from the employment centre, dated February 1, 2013, informing her she will receive a starter package of 1800 Euros for six months. That was her funding. “It paid the medical insurance,” she says.
I bootstrapped and lived from very little in the beginning. But I was young and didn’t have kids to take care of. I left SAP with my last monthly salary, about 2400 euros. I was planning after my PhD to take an around-the-world trip and then we learned that my mother had a brain tumor, so the plan was abandoned.
My sister Lydia came back to Germany from Paris, where she had been living and working. She’s a fashion designer. We rented an apartment in Heidelberg. Lydia decided to create a company in Germany, Benten8, where she applied her fashion skills to a new field. I helped her with this initiative from the business side. Together with young programmers in Benten8 we designed and created apps. At that time at SAP, for example, provided all management with iPads, but they didn’t have any content. So, we closed this gap. We were earning a little money from this company. At that time, I started IPERF, and bootstrapped everything else.
Tatjana’s sister is now a software product design architect.
Talk to me about the idea of founder dependence. And a related question – is there a tension between growing and maintaining your NPS scores or that level of quality?
This business is not made for exit. The consulting business, especially consulting R&D departments – the brain of the companies – is very much based on the quality you deliver, the image you generate in the industry, and most importantly – on trust. It requires time to build trust and quality. I am very proud that so many customers trust us to support them in this important endeavor. I am also very proud that when the pandemic started, I didn’t have to lay anyone off. Our team is very small, and we don’t just grow our team to work less. We grow the team only if we have more projects. My costs are very transparent.
When I look at your website, I only see women on the team.
Indeed! I’m a very female-oriented person. I have a consulting company in Russia that was until recently completely run by women. The core of our team is female. We have had men on the team in the past plus we have partners who support us who are not on the website.
Samsonowa and Partners was started with two women who were students at GSOM nine years ago. Our CEO today is a young woman who finished GSOM in St. Petersburg and studied at the Stockholm School of Economics. Together with Tatiana, we run this business remotely and manage a very disperse team: one team member is in the UK, several are in Russia, a new colleague is in Kazakhstan, and two are in Germany, so it is also very international. Gender equality is important. I don’t blindly choose women when hiring. There are many aspects involved, the most important being trust, and the feeling that the potential candidate has energy and passion. The expertise can be taught. Let’s put it this way – women always have an open door when coming to me.
Tell me about some of the relationships that have shaped your entrepreneurial clout.
There were so many people who believed in me despite the fact that I was always different. I come from a different cultural background. I didn’t speak German perfectly, it was my second language. I didn’t feel brave. It was awful for me to talk in front of people. I still don’t understand how I became a professor. It really started with some people who were attentive and supportive. It started in school, the most difficult time in my life. Just imagine you come to a new country without being able to communicate in the language spoken there. My teacher saw something in me and it had an immense influence on the next steps in my life.
My managers at SAP also supported me and saw potential in me. Petra Franzel was very important in my career. She explained perspectives that I didn’t see. Others include Joachim Schaper, Lutz Heuser, and Wolfgang Gerteis, to name just a few. With all of them I still have good working or personal relationships.
Are you paying it forward? Do you coach and mentor others?
Yes, of course, a lot. When spot talent among my students, I try to help them find job opportunities. It happens automatically. I’m so thankful I had those possibilities when I was in their situation that I do it without thinking.
Are there public figures, world leaders or executives that you really admire?
I really admire Angela Merkel. She achieved so much. I think she’s just amazing in every perspective. She is one of the most powerful women on earth and still so grounded and humble. There are many others, but she is really a good role model to look up to.
Last question! What do you stand for? What do you want your legacy to be? What are the values that you share in your business as a leader?
Whether I’m consulting big companies or teaching students, I always trying to be a source of energy and inspiration, to really enable and make others feel valued. Sometimes people come back and said, ‘That really made a difference.’
We’ve had an impact on the careers of corporate people. They grow and develop.
Let me give you an example. We often work with R&D departments of different companies and it’s always a long-term interaction. Sometimes we start working with R&D managers or deputies, and then they grow and get promoted to top management or CEO positions. But our projects and interaction continue. And it’s always great to see that they’re coming back to us with a smile and an open mind.
Remarks or questions? Let us know in the comments!