She’s one of the few women at the top of a Silicon Valley giant: Karin Schwab is Vice President and General Counsel of eBay. In a very personal conversation she talks about targeted networking, diversity as a success factor, e-commerce as an opportunity for wome – and her very own driving force.
German-speaking Europe does not play a particularly pioneering role when it comes to gender equality. Now we regularly read about misogyny in Silicon Valley, about lawsuits and multimillion-dollar suits such as the one that Frenchwoman Francoise Brougher, as former Pinterest-COO, sought and won against her employer. You are Swiss and had already made a considerable career in your home country before joining eBay in Silicon Valley as vice president and head of the legal department. What did you do right?
Karin Schwab: I started at eBay in 2005 and actually felt from day one that it was a very inclusive and diverse organization. We already had a female CEO at that time in Meg Whitman, and I was lucky enough to meet her in my second week of work in Berlin and sit at the same table with her. That was of course super-impressive: a female CEO and to get in touch with her right away! There were also women in the leadership department from the Europe team who became role models for me. I was impressed to see that you can be super-successful in your job, have a family at the same time and be taken seriously. So to come back to the question: I was inspired by all these women, by this environment where I felt welcome. And I didn’t let myself be held back or bound by social pressure.
Is the mentoring principle as important in Silicon Valley as it is here in Europe, or is it more about networking?
Being networked is absolutely central – whether in Silicon Valley or in Europe. But for me, networking means gathering and finding people who support you. And who challenge you, be it as a coach, mentor or sponsor. Who throw my name around when there’s an opportunity. I also always stress to young women that they should act very consciously and invest time to create such a network.
It seems you speak from your own experience …
Personally, I was lucky to have a key mentor early in my career who really pushed and challenged me. He encouraged me to step out of my comfort zone and go out into the world before committing too early to what I wanted to do long-term. Again, for me, networking is finding people to speak for you without them being direct supervisors or having direct influence on your career. In America, this is called advocacy. That’s incredibly important, because there are many people who don’t dare approach others.
You are one of the few women to have made it to the top of a technology-driven company in Silicon Valley. How much technical know-how is necessary to make a career in a digital world?
There are countless ways you can eventually end up in a tech company. Look at me: While I’ve always worked in e-commerce throughout my career, I have no technical training – aside from a few, from today’s perspective, mundane computer courses in secondary school. When I think about what is important to be successful in a tech company, these are things that are also central in other industries. For example, the right way to handle the customer experience. This requires precise analyses: How does the customer go through the web page, what information is available to him and where? For me, a proper understanding of the customer is central; you have to have a service mindset. That’s much more important than technological knowledge.
Let’s come to eBay at this point: What measures is eBay taking to be an attractive employer for women?
We have a high percentage of women at the senior leadership level at eBay. As I said earlier, eBay has always been supportive of women across the different stages of a career. You try to take the pulse of the times here: What’s missing, what needs to be done? Once a year, there is not only a general employee survey, but separately from that, a „D&I“ survey: What are the opinions on the subject of diversity and inclusion? This is not just about women, different nationalities or the LGBTQ issue, but also about elderly people. What can be done to support older employees?
In Europe, the “misery” starts with the fact that women are already afraid of entering STEM professions when it comes to training opportunities. They often don’t feel addressed because the offers are formulated in „men’s language“ or are afraid of being looked down upon if they are the only woman there. What’s it like in Silicon Valley?
Let me give you an example of something we do in the global product organization at eBay. We have dedicated meetings where four to five women meet once a month in several small groups. There is a rotation so that the women sit opposite a different executive leader each time. On the one hand, this helps to discuss topics that are close to one’s heart in a small setting. And it serves the networking theme – because it gives the women access to the executive level and allows them to build a personal relationship. Later, independent of this structured process, they may dare to approach the leadership and ask for support or discuss something.
What can e-commerce giants like eBay do, which are visited by millions of people every day, to loosen traditional views?
For us, there are two issues. But before that, let’s take a step back: eBay carries the issue of diversity in its DNA, so to speak. Our founder is a U.S. Iranian who grew up in France, so he has a very international background. He created this platform because he felt: it doesn’t matter where someone comes from or what their status is, but there are so many people who need things – let’s bring this community together. One of the principles he created for the company at that time is the principle: people are basically good. This deep belief that people are basically good led him to the conviction that it has to be possible to deal with each other, even if it means people can’t look each other in the eye. The other thing is that diversity is particularly broad in American companies. That’s why we try very hard to ensure that people feel comfortable in the workplace and can be who they are. Our former head of D&I used to say: It’s like being invited to a party in secondary school – being invited is one thing, but when you’re just standing around against the wall because no one asks you to dance, you want to sink into the ground. Our idea is to ask the staff to dance and tell them: Yes, we want to see you on the dance floor!
In Germany, eBay has been in second place (after Amazon) in the ranking of the most popular mail order companies for years, i.e. ahead of Google and local providers. Why is this so?
I can’t comment specifically on individual markets or make a comparison with Amazon. But the fact is, of course, that millions of people have an enthusiasm for eBay. We hear stories all the time about how people find things on our site that they’ve been looking for for ages. We then try to implement something like that in our marketing campaigns. For example, there’s the story of someone who used to drink hot cocoa from a certain cup at his grandmother’s house. And suddenly, years later, he finds this cup on eBay – probably not exactly the same, but the same design. That is then a very special moment. Often it’s not about things that cost the earth, but are emotional and very personal. eBay is a place where that magic happens.
Through Corona, the e-commerce giants have partly fallen into disrepute: “They would ruin the small stores”. At the same time, online department stores are often an important „gateway to the world“ for the „little ones. How have conditions shifted after Corona?
For a long time, we were the only ones allowing small merchants to enter e-commerce. Corona has exacerbated this; after all, for a while everyone had to keep their store closed, nothing worked. Many had to think: How do I get rid of my merchandise now? This hardship often motivated them to test how it works when they put their products online. To support this development, we set up the „eBay – Your City“ project in Germany, together with the German Retail Association. The retailers were offered a special deal from our side: they didn’t have to pay any fees for the first few months and got a store for free for six months. In the meantime, 26 German cities have entered into a partnership with us. We’ve added 2,000 new sellers, and additional sales of 200 million euros have been generated thanks to this promotion. You can see the potential! If you have a good product that you present well, you can attract the whole world as potential customers.
If you want to start a store on eBay: Is it subject to a lot of bureaucracy or is it done in an hour?
Anyone can start selling on Ebay within minutes. I myself also sell on Ebay. You could say I’ll try a few things first and see what happens. That’s the beauty of online trading, that you start without fixed costs. You don’t have to rent a retail space right away. And when the business grows, you can always build an infrastructure around it. So it’s actually a very simple thing.
What opportunities does eBay offer entrepreneurial women?
As we all know, women were particularly hard hit by the pandemic. They either lost their jobs or they had to take a step back professionally because of childcare. Many then said: Okay, this is the moment to try something new. A lot of women have started selling via eBay. The great thing is the flexibility you have. We hear that again and again when we talk to sellers who have taken this step. That they don’t have to show up 9 to 5, but can organize themselves in the way that best suits their personal situation.
Let’s come back to you again. What I liked very much: In one of your interviews you answered the question – What is your driving force? „Appetite, where action is“ – well that could also be said by a man – but then it comes: „Having an impact„. Would you consider that as a typical female approach, a man would probably, if he is honest, rather say: being powerful, earning a lot of money…?
I’m not sure it’s really a male-female thing. For me, it has more to do with intrinsic or extrinsic motivation. Money, status or power – those are those extrinsic factors, so coming from the outside. Intrinsic factors are more things like: You feel like you’re learning or making a difference. You feel empowered. I count myself as an intrinsically motivated person. I’ve always been interested in learning something new, in taking on a new challenge. That has always been more interesting to me than a title or status. I think there are men and women on both floors.
Finally, a question that I always ask my interviewees: What would you say to your 20-year-old self today in terms of job and career?
I would tell myself what my mentor told me back then: Go out into the world, look at other things before you settle anywhere! In the end, you might return to where you came from. But you are closer to yourself and you know why you are doing something. The other important thing is: allow yourself to dream big! Think about what you would like to experience, to learn in an „ideal world“!… And then see where it takes you and write your own story.
You can read the German-language version of this interview in the new edition of SHEconomy-magazine
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Karin Schwab (49) received her doctorate in law from the University of Fribourg (CH) in 2001 and supplemented her expertise with post-graduate studies at the University of Zurich and Queen Mary University of London, among others. She gained her first professional experience at AXA Insurance. From 2002, she was a partner at the renowned Zurich law firm Homburger, where she worked in data protection, competition law, IP licensing as well as corporate sales and mergers.
In 2005, she joined eBay in Bern, first as legal counsel for Switzerland, Austria, Poland and Sweden. Two years later, she rose to become eBay’s European head of IP (Intellectual Property) and Litigation, and in 2009 she became Associate General Counsel, Europe.
In 2013, Karin Schwab moved to the company’s headquarters in San Jose, California, as Vice-President and Deputy General Counsel. Since 2019, she is also responsible for product development, payment processing and advertising.
Facts & Figures:
eBay was founded in September 1995 by French-American-Iranian entrepreneur Pierre Omidyar in San José, California, under the name „AuctionWeb.“ Legend has it that his wife Pam, a passionate collector of PEZ machines, expressed to the then 28-year-old software developer a desire to exchange information with other collectors. Whereupon Omidyar developed a system on which the later foundation of eBay was based.
Today, Omiydar is a member of the board and, with a 7.2 percent stake, one of the main shareholders of the listed group.
Ebay currently employs 12,700 people worldwide and generated 2020 revenue of $10.3 billion (compare: Google: $182.5 billion; Amazon: $386.1 billion).
In the first quarter of 2021, Ebay recorded 152 million users worldwide, who could choose from 1.5 billion offers. Ebay users can be found in 190 countries. 52 percent of Ebay’s total revenue comes from international operations (source: affde.com).
At the end of September 2021, there was a 5 percent year-over-year decline in customers (source: Statista.com). However, the third quarter has shown a significant upward trend with growth of 11 percent compared to previously reported figures. (Source: Ebayinc.com).