For Ebba Blitz, CEO of encryption service company AlertSec, running a technology company is not much different from her sailing across the Atlantic in 2000, when she didn’t see land for 16 days after leaving the harbor.
“I remember preparing for the journey, and then throwing away the ropes as I set sail, moving further from land until I had no cell phone reception.”
During the journey, which she made with five male companions, there were times when she saw nothing other than vast expanses of sea. She experienced everything from tranquility to strong, unexpected storms.
So why does that trip remind her of her current adventure running a company?
“You need to stay focused, know what you are doing, work well with your team, and be prepared for the unexpected,” she says.
“The greatest adventures all take time.” And indeed when they finally saw land, she felt gratified: The journey was an amazing experience.
Taking the leap
Blitz was a television show host in her native Sweden when in 1998, right around the tech boom, she was sent to Silicon Valley to do a program on the companies there. The main angle for her story: What made Silicon Valley such a dynamic, successful place?
She was “blown away” when she started interviewing tech entrepreneurs, both the big and small ones. “That touched on my sense of service, I guess. The startups especially identified problems and just worked and worked until they solved those problems.”
This stayed with her, and many years later, when she was hosting the Swedish version of Shark Tank, observing entrepreneurs in the program from the sidelines, she thought: “That should be me!”
At this time Blitz was already sitting on the board of AlertSec, and had been contemplating expanding into the US which comprised bulk of their customers. She then remembered a question posed by Facebook executive Sheryl Sandberg in her book “Lean In.”
The question was – “What would you do if you weren’t afraid?”
Blitz knew the answer right away and decided then she would take the leap.
A wonderful community
Moving to the U.S. was everything Blitz had expected. “Palo Alto is a beautiful place, and has a lovely climate. People have this warmth and pay-it-forward culture. That culture was what I noticed when I first came here in ‘98,” she says. “It was also one of the key factors responsible for the growth of Silicon Valley.”
But now she’s no longer doing the interviews. She’s crossed over to the other side, leading her team and making sure the company does what she has envisioned it to do.
“What we build is dependent on input from customers,” she says. “My biggest mission is to listen to their needs so I can bring that back to my team and say this is the problem we want to solve.”
In this case, AlertSec has sought to find a way for companies to ensure that the sensitive information they entrust to third parties would still be secure even from their endpoints.
Blitz’s ability to turn adversity around stems from an incident in her childhood.
“I was born with an ugly voice,” Blitz says. “I had nodules in my vocal chords. I was embarrassed about it as it was.”
One day, however, a teacher at Kids’ Club asked Blitz what was wrong with her. “Do you need to sound like that,” she was asked. “With a voice like that you will never be married!”
Blitz was six years old when she was told this, and she was sad, shocked and devastated.
“And so I worked very hard. I took a lot of therapy – speech, voice, even singing. I think the fact that I was able to work in TV and did a lot of voice-overs in Sweden was a direct consequence of working so hard to correct that ‘flaw.’”
Blitz never saw that teacher ever again, but she still remembers her name and the way she looked. “I learned a great life lesson from this event; I was so angry at first but now I am just thankful,” Blitz says. “This brutally honest and mean comment actually helped me.”
She sees all setbacks and trials in this manner – every odd would eventually push one to become better.
Despite her busy schedule she makes sure to set aside some time to unplug all her devices. “I could go on and on working all the time, but I know that’s not good.”
She also spends precious time going to the YMCA every morning with her daughter and swimming a thousand yards. “Counting the number of laps is a great way of not thinking of anything else.”
It’s one of the ways she bonds with her older daughter, who is in high school. Blitz, who is an avid reader, also makes it a point to read to her younger daughter every night before bed.
“I don’t hope to influence them, but inspire them” she says. “I want to present them with opportunities. I value autonomy. I am happy to help but I am confident they will find their own way.