An Interview with Alicia Asín on being a woman and an entrepreneur
The CEO and cofounder of Libelium, Alicia Asín, is the first woman to receive the King James I Entrepreneurship Award. In her view, it is paramount to teach girls "starting at nursery school" that they can do anything they put their mind to.
The winner of the King James I Entrepreneurship Award 2017 is a female entrepreneur, marking the first time in 29 editions that the work of a woman has been recognized. This situation reflects the inequality that prevails in a world in which, according to the 2017 Entrepreneurship Map prepared by Spain Startup, only 18% of the entrepreneurs who start a business in Spain and Europe are women. The award recognized the short but intense career of Alicia Asín (born in Zaragoza, Spain, in 1982), who at the age of 24 created Libelium, a spin-off from the University of Zaragoza, alongside cofounder David Gascón.
The key to its business is the design and development of hardware for cost-saving, wireless sensors for gathering environmental data in areas like smart cities, water management and technologies applied to the healthcare sector. Libelium has 50 employees and is present in more than 120 countries. How did they come up with the idea? "It was my partner and co-founder of Libelium, David Gascón´s final project; together we gave it shape ", Asín recalls.
In addition, this young computer engineer is a regular speaker at conferences and events related to smart cities and the Internet of Things (IoT). She has also been recognized with other awards for entrepreneurship, like the National Young Entrepreneur Award in 2014, which she was also the first woman to receive. We spoke to Alicia, via email, to learn more about her career and the current entrepreneurial outlook.
On occasion you have commented that, had you not created your own company, you would not have been able to observe so many different aspects of a company in such a short time. Is entrepreneurship the best way to prepare for the job market?
Definitely. Entrepreneurship gives you a global vision of the business world. So, if you finally end up working for someone else, you have a very clear perspective of what a company expects from a professional and how to assert yourself.
Recently, you have received the 2017 King James I Entrepreneurship Award, and before that the National Young Entrepreneur Award in 2014. In both cases, you were the first woman to be recognized. What has this meant for you?
The juries have highlighted the effort involved in creating a technology company with an international focus without external funding. The share capital belongs only to two partners, David Gascón and myself, which is a rare model in Spain. I hope these awards serve as inspiration for other women who are considering their professional future.
Female entrepreneurs are still in the minority, none the less. The current operations director at Facebook, Sheryl Sandberg, launched the Ban Bossy campaign in 2014 against the term bossy, which is commonly associated with women in upper-management positions. Do you think gestures of this type are necessary?
I think that where it is most important to promote these gestures is in our young people, from early stages, even starting at nursery school. Teach them that they are capable of anything and give them references in all fields: business, senior management, sports, science, arts ... Unfortunately, I think these equality policies come too late when women have already initiated their professional careers. We must promote female leadership from an early age.
How could that be done?
By promoting scientific and technical studies among young people. If they want to run the companies of the future, they should opt for this route without any hang-ups. The road will be hard, but you have to visualize the goal as something achievable. We must provide them with references of successful models cultivated through constancy.
Do you feel that young people, regardless of their sex, suffer from a lack of support from their environment compared to other countries like the United States?
Luckily, David [Gascón] and I had the support of our families. In our case, we started very young – I was just 24 years old - and we barely had anything to lose. As the years pass and people achieve a stable position in life, risk aversion grows. On the contrary, I have met entrepreneurs in the United States with children and mortgages who did not hesitate to leave a traditional job and dive in.
At this point, it seems that mentoring and incubation programs play a key role, what would you recommend to someone who is just starting out?
I would tell them to listen to everyone, but to not lose sight of their own criteria while making decisions. It is also crucial to generate value in every part [of the business]: the more people who benefit from the existence of the company, the better. And, of course, sacrifice. It is very rare to hit the jackpot. There are business stories that have been created through many years of effort, like Inditex and Mercadona. I find these more attractive than the Instagram model.
What advice did they give you when you presented the idea for Libelium 11 years ago?
They told us not to make hardware because it was a very difficult market, not to develop a horizontal platform to specialize in a single vertical; and, above all, that if we did not work with investors and mentors we would not manage to compete in technology at a global level. We did just the opposite in everything.
Surely you encountered obstacles along the way ...
Financing is one of the first obstacles, but then there are many more: growth consolidation, the flexibility to adapt to a changing market...
Do you remember the main obstacle you discovered?
The same week that we received the National Entrepreneurship Award, a fire devastated our facilities. There were no personal injuries, but we had to start the business from scratch. With this, we learned that behind each challenge there is a great opportunity to continue growing and improving. The fire was the turning point that has brought us to where we are now.
Like positioning your company among the most internationally influential Spanish IoT start-ups...
Spain is the European Silicon Valley in terms of smart cities, a field in which IoT plays a key role. Many Spanish companies are leading European projects and investments that have been made in large cities as pilots programs. In Spain, we are developing pioneering applications for different uses in smart cities: smart parking, environmental controls, traffic management, lighting systems, waste management, water quality, etc.
What are your goals now?
We are in the midst of a strategic shift towards a comprehensive IoT solution approach. We have a large ecosystem of partners and distributors that allows us to provide end-to-end solutions, which will allow us to jump from being positioned as a hardware and device company positioning to a company that provides value at any point along the IoT chain.
Can you give me an example?
Our technologies are helping to monitor volcanic activity in order to alert the nearby population in case of eruption, measure environmental parameters to prevent and combat climate change, improve the crop productivity and are even bringing healthcare to populations that do not have access to healthcare services.
By Elvira del Pozo