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“I believe that anyone can programme, everyone should be able to work in tech, so don’t be afraid to try” Interview with Michelle Tian | Passionfroot

Michelle Tian is the Co-Founder and CTO of Passionfroot – a Berlin-based start-up that aims to unlock the full potential of the creator economy and help pave the way for a more equitable future. Eleanor from Team Germany at SR2 sat down  with her to find out what makes her tick, what she thinks Millennials can learn from Gen Z, and what companies can do to ensure diversity and inclusion aren’t just buzzwords.

Hi Michelle! It’s so great to meet you – to start would you be able to tell us a little about your story so far?

I grew up near Silicon Valley and was always surrounded by technology growing up. I ended up studying Computer Science at UC Berkley and ended up working for Apple as an intern and then Airbnb. There I was working on payments processing and honestly really enjoyed it – I think that Airbnb gave me a lot of opportunities to learn about things outside of the engineering side of the business, so I worked alongside the accountants and legal team, I had great mentors and managers there too. Then I wanted to relocate to Berlin, so I moved in March 2020 right at the beginning of the pandemic. I worked for Shopify here, and it was during that time that Jen (Passionfroot’s cofounder) reached out to me. At the time I wasn’t really expecting to start a company with someone that I didn’t know but Jens and I were all very aligned on wanting to build a company that’s very diverse and inclusive. We wanted to build a company that empowered creators or any person to work on their own terms. I started working on Passionfroot full time from Dec 2021 and now working on getting the product off the ground.

Can you sum up what Passionfroot is in 30 seconds?

Our vision for Passionfroot is to build a business management platform for creators. We basically want to help anyone who is creating content online, whether that’s writing newsletters, making podcasts, vlogging, posting educational content on twitter – we basically want to help them run their business more smoothly, and manage the ‘back office’ and the administrative workflows of content creation.

Why is Berlin the best place to work in tech/ found a start-up?

Interesting! I don’t know if it’s the best place as I’ve never tried to do it somewhere else but if I compare Berlin and San Francisco, I think the cost of living in SF is extremely high and in Berlin it’s much lower so there’s a lot more creative people there and more diversity, so I feel like having that around me is more inspirational. I’m looking forward to hiring people from all different walks of life with different perspectives. I think in the creator industry as well it’s cool because a lot of people who work in tech in Berlin are creative themselves so they can bring a creative perspective into the product.

Who inspires you most in a professional/personal sense?

I think in general I can be inspired by anyone, so I feel like it’s hard to pinpoint one person who inspires me the most. Different people inspire me in different ways!

2021 was a record year for female founded start-ups in Europe but you see people talking particularly on LinkedIn about female founders being ‘over mentored and underfunded’ – do you agree with that and what do you think can be done about it?

There’s been data published that shows that female founders find it harder to get funding, and I’ve read articles how when a female founder is in a meeting with an investor, she will tend to ask questions that would ‘lift’ male founders up, so I think there probably is still a long way to go. We got lucky with our funding round, but I think it’s also because Jen my co-founder came from VC and knew how to ‘play the game’ and we wouldn’t have got the funding that we did without that network. I don’t know how to fix the problem; we have to help people out by making connections but that’s a small part of a systemic problem.

Half of your angel investors are women or people from underrepresented groups – which is an amazing statistic. Diversity and inclusion is at the core of what you do, so what advice would you give to other, more established, companies to ensure these aren’t just buzzwords and are integral to their ecosystems as well?

One of the biggest problems in bigger companies is the number of women in technical roles, so just making an active effort to hire more diversely, whether that’s making the job descriptions more inclusive, or having diverse pipelines, and there are recruitment companies (like SR2!) that can help with that if they can’t do that themselves. I think one thing is that with women and minorities, many people don’t want to be the first one. It’s a topic I could talk about for hours and hours! There are no quick solutions – it will take time and a lot of effort for companies to become diverse, and it’s also about making sure that when those people are hired that they aren’t just statistics but rather that they have the career paths to grow and move up the ladder.

What can millennials learn from Gen Z?

I am the millennial that needs to learn from Gen Z! the most interesting thing I think is that for a lot of people growing up today, they don’t see themselves going into traditional roles and industries, and they would rather follow their passion and become a creator. I think that learning that you can and should try to work on your own terms rather than follow someone else’s dream, I think just the fact that it’s possible, is something we can all learn. Maybe if I’d grown up in the Gen Z world, I wouldn’t have ended up working for big tech companies myself!

Dream dinner party guests, what’s on the menu and what’s on the speaker?

I’m a person who thinks that every person I meet or run into has something to offer and something I can learn, and I love meeting people with new perspectives, I would be happy to find random people off the street and invite them to my dinner party so they can teach me something interesting! Food-wise I would make Chinese food as you can have a bunch of different plates and there’s different options for everyone. I really enjoy cooking, but it would depend on what my mood is that day. For music, myself and the other founders have created a Passionfroot playlist, so we could have that in the background, but I really like listening to albums which makes me not a great party DJ!

Because of the role that social media plays in our lives are we all creators now?

I think to some extent yes. There’s this concept of the creator economy, which is big in the tech world, but we are targeting the passion economy, which is anyone who has a passion that they want to somehow market and monetise online, so we would say that Passionfroot is part of this passion economy. Some of our customers are people who are like tax consultants making TikTok’s to teach people about taxes for example! Anyone who is building an audience by sharing what they care about and finding their niche on the internet is most definitely a creator and that’s why we also think this opportunity to support creators is really huge, because in the future people from traditional industries are going to quit their jobs and then just become creators.

2021 was a huge year for Passionfroot but what is on the cards for 2022 and beyond?

2021 was all about research and groundwork for us, and when we got our funding. In 2022 its about shipping our product and starting to deliver value to the creators, because we have a lot of ambition, but the first step is building something that creators love and need, and slowly adding more and more functionality so we can support every part of their business.

Any advice to young women who are interested in a career in tech?

This is an interesting question for me because I grew up in an environment where a career in tech was a no-brainer as I was always surrounded by it. When I was at university, I saw that students who didn’t have a computer science background in high school struggled a lot to programme. And it’s not because they were less capable, its rather that the more exposure you have to it the better you’re going to be. Don’t look at how much better people are doing than you, it’s likely they had more time, exposure and privileges that allowed them to get to where they are. I believe that anyone can programme, everyone should be able to work in tech, so don’t be afraid to try!

What is the mantra that you live by?

Be kind to other people and don’t worry so much about what other people think.

Thanks so much for speaking to us Michelle, you rock! #womenrock

An interview by Eleanor McCloskey

A voice for diversity in Tech and Engineering


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