Business Forum: Part 2: Best practices from Switzerland—Photonics and otherwise

April 29, 2015
This month is the second part of an interview with the husband-wife team of Professor Ursula Keller and Dr. Kurt Weingarten.
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This month is the second part of an interview with the husband-wife team of Professor Ursula Keller of ETH (Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich) and Dr. Kurt Weingarten (General Manager of JDSU Ultrafast Lasers in Zurich). They live in Zurich. The discussion was frank because I have known both of them since they were graduate students at Stanford. The discussion was also insightful because Ursi is Swiss and has lived in America, and Kurt is an American who has lived in Switzerland for more than 20 years.

The five main subjects we covered are the Swiss educational system, technology and research, entrepreneurship in Europe, women’s rights in academia, and family-career balance. I like the Swiss way!

Milton Chang: How did Kurt wind up starting a business in Zurich?

UK/KW: We were not entrepreneurs when he showed up at ETH. Ursi worked at Bell Labs, and Kurt was a senior manager at Lightwave Electronics. They gave Kurt an opportunity to look at the innovation program started by Vice President of Research, Professor Hütter to spin off a business in the framework of ETH. That was a very advanced concept around 1993.

MC: What is the startup situation in Switzerland?

UK/KW: The Swiss tend to be conservative, risk-adverse, and consider being a craftsman in a good company with a pension plan a good job. The attitude of entrepreneurs here is different: U.S. entrepreneurs want to be really successful; European entrepreneurs would be happy to have a small- to medium-size company—more of a lifestyle enterprise. A 10- to 50-person company would be considered a success. Some would even say they don’t want to grow much more.

With mobility and social networking, differences are shrinking between nations. Google having the largest campus outside the U.S. in Zurich, employing over 1000 people, has also made a difference. Now, young people are thinking about starting companies, and VCs are investing. Definitely, Silicon Valley is still very attractive. Really good people go to the U.S. to start companies.

MC: What do you see in photonics startups?

UK/KW: Hardware technology is strong here and there are at least a half-dozen recent photonics startup companies, which may mean it has become even more dynamic than in the U.S. Startups here have very reliable products. They are niche, diamond-in-the-rough good companies, even though some have not yet reached critical mass.

MC: Changing the subject, what was the attitude towards women faculty when you first joined ETH?

UK/KW: I (Ursi) was the first professor in physics, and there were only a few women professors in other departments when I showed up at ETH. The stereotype here is girls don’t go into science, and a woman has to choose between having a career and having a family. Many of my colleagues were shocked when I became pregnant, figuring I had already made the choice of career over family. They even considered stopping my promotion to full professor!

Having women professors in hard science was uncharted territory. During the last 20 years, my physics department has made negative progress in the percentage of women professors and, for sure, I am not part of the local “old-boy network.”

MC: Is that the reason you organized the ETH Women Professors Forum?

UK/KW: I really like physics and want to be a good role model to motivate other women to start their careers in physics or in any other MINT area (physics, chemistry, and informatics). At the same time, I want to change the “working environment and climate” in these areas. We not only have to hire more women professors, but we also need to make them feel welcome and help them succeed.

By the way, I recommend the excellent book by Sheryl Sandberg and Neil Scovell—Lean in: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead. The goal is that we all recognize that everyone can excel independent of our race, gender, or our looks. What matters is personal delivery and performance.

MC: How did you get that organized?

UK/KW: When I became a director of NCCR (National Center for Competency in Research), I used some of the funding to build up the ETH Women’s Forum because one of my charters was to have an outreach program to make a significant impact for the good of the general public and to promote women. It took us a while to get organized since we are not trained to organize and network. I hired a person in political science who also knows engineering education to help me build up the Women Professors Forum. It has been a very satisfying personal experience.

MC: Tell us more about this Forum?

UK/KW: We unite women professors at ETH Zurich and are committed to promoting the next generation of female scientists and engineers through mentoring and networking to help them make choices. It provides a platform for exchange through its regular scientific meetings. For example, women professors can exchange know-how and address issues over lunch.

We exert a positive influence on the administration regarding university policies and guidelines. Given ETH is a government-supported university, the executive board and the president of ETH have to be sensitive to political pressure and consider our proposals seriously when we ask for support for our cause. One of our goals is to get ETH to adopt the APS guidelines, which gives a clear and simple recommendation like rotation in leadership among all professors within the department, and ways to achieve transparency and accountability and how the department should be organized so that minorities can excel.

MC: How effective is this effort?

UK/KW: It is having an impact on ETH activities. Ten percent of the professors at ETH are now women, and 80% of them are now members of the Forum. Much more work remains. Many departments are still polarized, and we still have to recruit women professors from all over the world because women in Switzerland are made to believe that they need to work part-time when they have a family. We need more role models to get students excited to consider a different lifestyle.

MC: How do you manage to achieve career-family balance given each of you has a career?

UK/KW: We share our responsibilities equally at home. We raise our kids equally; we both took care of them since they were babies. We encourage all couples to live an equal partnership so both persons can pursue their dreams and wishes. That, in fact, can create more synergy and be an incentive to do more, to cover for each other and to reduce risk for your family when you start a company.

We believe our approach enriches our family and strengthens our long-term relationship, and encourage others to consider this approach. Our children are now 16 and 18 and are responsible individuals. We strongly believe that every healthy and capable person has to take on his or her basic responsibilities.

MC: Looks like you’ve done it.

UK/KW: Every couple has to figure it out for themselves. We are a role model because the Swiss are traditional and the concept of a mother with a successful professional career is new and is not as acceptable as in the U.S. We now have part-time men and part-time women at our company; being able to spend more time with family is better for careers than taking a couple of years off.

MC: Any parting words of wisdom?

UK/KW: Our family mantra is to have fun, to learn, and to leave the world a better place than we found it. Our 14-year old son wanted to modify the last phrase to “have no regrets.” Our response was that that may mean you did not try hard enough, been adventurous enough, or did not take enough risks. Life offers so many options!

About the Author

Milton Chang

MILTON CHANG of Incubic Management was president of Newport and New Focus. He is currently director of mBio Diagnostics and Aurrion; a trustee of Caltech; a member of the SEC Advisory Committee on Small and Emerging Companies; and serves on advisory boards and mentors entrepreneurs. Chang is a Fellow of IEEE, OSA, and LIA. Direct your business, management, and career questions to him at [email protected], and check out his book Toward Entrepreneurship at

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