Paula Schwarz is the perfect example of the inspirational Berlin entrepreneur: young, ambitious, capable and not actually always in Berlin. We interviewed the half-German, half-Greek founder while she works from Athens on her latest project Startupboat, a venture that started as a mobile hackathon in the summer of 2015 and has transformed into a number of initiatives designed to help tackle the immense issues of mass migration.
We talked to her about work and what she finds inspiring
Paula walks me through how an idea like Startupboat (an actual boat which has twice travelled to the migration frontlines) works in practice. “The crew, composed of entrepreneurs, investors, consultants and NGOs, assesses the needs of the area, develops concepts and mobilizes the tech and startup community to implement them,” she says. For example, Startupboat developed website first-contact.org, which provides accessible, relevant information for refugees in Arabic, English and Pashto.
“We used a process that we today call scrapping,” Schwarz says. “We start from scratch.” From the initial team, they went a step further and “developed a crew of developers, translators and founders, who want to use scrapping technique as effectively as possible.” With such a pressing issue, this technique is especially valuable and provides room for the quick development of a number of ideas.
Beyond first-contact and information sharing, a platform is currently being developed to tackle housing. Transportation is another major focus and the team has recently launched marhacar.com, a carpooling network of volunteers picking up registered people arriving in Lesbos. A storage donation platform is also in the works. With 14,000 refugees a week still accessing the Greek-Turkey Border, Schwarz says she realizes there is still plenty of need for even more concepts and in order to develop these initiatives Startupboat must continue to create lean prototypes.
She also admits there are challenges. “There is no methodology for dealing with a new user group”, she says and everything is thus “unpredictable”. For example, the name of the former marhacar.com (Refugee Taxi) had to be reworked, given that many refugees referred to the boats they used for migration as ‘refugee taxis’. The situation is in a state of flux and any company dealing with the situation must be, too.
Still, you can tell the satisfaction and necessity of the work outweighs the many hurdles. As an experienced founder, Schwarz is also well-equipped to meet these challenges head-on.
Paula started her first company at just twenty years old, an information platform for journalists seeking information from remote and hard to access regions.While she says her first experience was eye-opening,“I never wanted to start another company again”, she also learned key lessons from diving in head-first. “Any form of structure in the beginning is hindering and perfectionism is something you have to let go of,” she says. “Sometimes you have to rethink everything.”
Armed with this knowledge, she went on to start a Berlin-based consultancy firm, was a mentor with Venture Bus in Africa (where she helped set up a carpooling company in Kenya) and started Berlin coworking space, Migration Hub. Next she’s opening another space in Athens.
“Spend a lot of time figuring out what you care about and then focus on that one thing”
So how does she do it all? I ask: What inspires you?
“I want to wake up and to try to give people an opportunity to work together from scratch and build something new which is not there at the moment.” My advice is to “try, and if you fail at least you did something,” she says. “Ideally if you are inspired by something from deep inside your heart it’s the nicest thing that can happen to you.”
The advice is familiar but Paula backs up her big ideas with tangible results. I ask how as a young, woman working in a male-dominated space she’s able to get so much done.
“You can easily get distracted if you’re looking for confirmation,” she says. “Many young women look to fit into a standard. You should ask yourself: ‘What is it that I am trying to achieve? Do I want to money? To be pretty? To make social impact?’ Spend a lot of time figuring out what you care about and then focus on that one thing.”
She also adds, as someone who works across borders, that you should look outside of cultural perspectives and let that inspire you. A way of doing that? Learn the local language. Paula, given her focus, is learning Arabic.
Clearly being a young founder doesn’t hold Schwarz back. In fact it may be a major key to her success and one of the many reasons we think she’s an inspiring founder.