“Having the strength to know how to ask for help in the right way and providing it in return makes a much more connected community where everyone wins.”
– CEO & Co-Founder of ReDI, Anne Riechert
Anne Riechert, Co-Founder of ReDI invited the Silicon Allee team over to talk about the incredible journey her company has taken in the past three years. From bringing together a large group of like-minded individuals, actively helping refugees, to creating a physical space where refugees can make their future – Anne offers a unique perspective on entrepreneurship, innovation, and diversity, reflected by her eclectic mindset & culture-rich experiences.
Okay Anne, get ReDI. What’s the elevator pitch for your company?
ReDI is a tech school where we are connecting human potential with jobs. We started three years ago teaching asylum seekers and refugees various coding skills in order to help them get work in Germany.
So you started in 2015?
And who are the founders?
Ferdi van Heerden and myself.
So, what was your inspiration to start ReDI?
One is that I founded the Berlin Peace Innovation Lab in collaboration with Stanford when I arrived in Berlin in 2012 — it was a community connecting the startup and tech industry with non-profit and social causes because I felt that these two worlds could learn a lot from each other. And over three years, I built a community of about 1,800 people, bringing them together to do workshops once a month to look at gentrification, obesity, etc.
When the refugee crisis started developing in 2015, we very quickly got a group of people together at a Berlin town hall to do some brainstorming looking at how technology can make a difference to the newcomers arriving in Germany. We realized, though, that there were no refugees that took part in the discussion, which was honestly quite embarrassing. For us it was a wake up call that we need to be a lot more participatory, so we started going out into the refugee camps and making new friends to thoroughly understand what is needed, because a lot of people were donating jackets, and teddy bears, whatever you thought a refugee might need — but the real needs of the refugee was perhaps having a close friend or somebody they can talk to in German, or even bus tickets so that they can go and see their lawyer, very basic things. But the biggest need we heard was that they needed jobs. They wanted to be independent, not get money from the state, and feel the dignity of having a job, feeling useful. So that was the initial inspiration.
Then in the summer of 2015 I met a man from Iraq called Mouhammed in the refugee camps, he had studied computer science and had a bachelor from the university in Baghdad, and he was telling me how he would try to go to the library because he didn’t have a laptop and try to teach himself so he would not lose his skill sets. I think for coders if you don’t use it, you lose it. This is because the technology is moving so fast, and I thought that this was ridiculous that he was somebody who has the right skill sets that are so needed in Germany, and that it would be so easy to get him connected into the tech industry here. But just helping one person is of course not enough, so from that idea we got the community from the Peace Innovation Lab together and the refugee community together as well and started building.
Tell us about your competition and why you think you are better?
I think what makes ReDI school different is that it’s a community effort. From the beginning, it was built by a community together, and I think the founding principle of ReDI is about co-creation. We usually say ‘stop talking about refugees and start talking with refugees’, and I think that makes a huge difference because if you talk about people, in this case, it’s refugees, but you could also say, end users.
So many times, companies think they know everything about the end users but they haven’t spoken to them in a long time. But for us, we see them every day, so we engage with people and we do those workshops and it means that our end users have a huge part in the product and they help us develop it all the time. We see many of our former students coming back as mentors and teachers in some of the later semesters. So I think this community spirit is really there and I hope it’s what you can feel when you walk into the room; that it’s friendly, it’s open, it’s something that is so imperfectly perfect that you walk in and there are a million things that you need to get done, but people also have the wish to actively participate and see the opportunities that we can provide.
What advice would you have for newcomers to Berlin?
I think for both migrants and entrepreneurs it’s extremely important to understand the power of knowing how to ask for help, because I think that it’s essential for an entrepreneur to know that you can’t do everything by yourself, and if you get really good at asking the right people for help, most people are honored when you say “Hey, I’m not sure how to do this. I know you’re an expert. You can help me!” I think people like to feel useful and that they can help as long as it’s a well-intended question about wanting to build something and do something new.
It’s the same for the refugees to go out and engage with the local network and specify what kind of support that they need because many people would like to help. I think there’s a lot of strength knowing how to ask for help in the right way and then also being a person on the other side when people come to you for help that you also provide it too, I think it makes a much more connected community where everyone wins.
Are there any groups, individuals, or projects in Berlin that has been influential to you in the origin story of ReDI?
What really made a difference to us was Klöckner, which was the first company that supported us, they also effectively own this office space so their office is next door. It’s a steel distribution company in Duisburg. Many people when they hear that they were the first kind of supporters are like “what does steel production have to do with coding?” but I think it shows a vision from the CEO that he could see his industry would die if they don’t digitize. So they used to deal tons of steel with a fax machine, and of course, all these processes are becoming digital and they’re now building a platform for steel distribution, even making it available for their competitors to also price compare on the website which is super exciting. I’m personally excited about the companies that have to become digital because they have to go through such tremendous change in their business culture and the people that they hire, so it’s super inspiring to see that you can make that kind of change and we are certainly very grateful for them that we could do this in the beginning.
Also, it was super nice that Mark Zuckerberg came to visit. In February 2016, Mark and his wife Priscilla came to visit the school when it just got started and that was a quality stamp that what we are doing is the right thing and what is needed, so that put us more into the media attention and also you can’t get a much better start!
Could you name one particular moment that’s been pivotal during your time in Berlin?
It was in the beginning when we were running for the first six months as a volunteer program. I was doing my day job, my co-founder was doing his day job, and it was way too much work to do on the side as it went from being a volunteer project to being something more. It was thanks to Stephan and Joana Breidenbach who are also the founders of betterplace lab, the donation platform in Germany. They gave us some money so that we could start and turn into a gGmbH.
I’m super happy we have this ‘nail it before you scale it’ strategy. We could have been in potentially 20 other cities around Europe, but we decided to stay in Berlin and to make sure it’s a sustainable project we are building. Then we started in Munich, and once that’s sustainable we can look at Frankfurt and Hamburg to start schools there as well. Maybe they’re not pivotal moments per se, but it’s those important moments where there’s a fork in the road and you have to choose which path to take.
What’s your favorite spot in the neighborhood?
I really like Bondi, but it’s mostly for work lunch. It’s got an Australian vibe, it’s really good. We like to go there and I think it’s interesting because you’ve got HERE, us, you guys and more. Everyone meets often and you can hear the buzz of people working on exciting things while having a break. I think these meeting spots are super important.
Do you think Berlin’s informal nature and unique history has been a positive aspect of your time in the city?
Yeah absolutely! I think Berlin is an open and free city where people can come and express themselves, so I really appreciate the freedom that lives here and I hope that will continue. Also, I love how it’s so international, sometimes it can feel a little like a train station of people coming in and out all the time, it has its pros and cons. I chose Berlin because of this multi-ethnic melting pot that it is, and it’s what we live every day at ReDI school, this core belief that innovation is driven by diversity and people from different paths of lives coming together, sharing perspectives and building things together.
Where do you see Berlin in 5 to 10 years time?
I see gentrification happening very fast which means there’s a lot more money and structure coming into the city, but on the other hand, there’s something to be said for this ‘poor but sexy’ lifestyle, and I like that. ‘Rich but sexy’ would be the ideal scenario for me and I want there to be social spaces for everyone no matter what cultural background they have, no matter what your educational level is, but a place where people are meeting across borders. I think the world needs a powerful example of where this multiculturalism really does work, even on financial and social levels where we can still pull together and be stronger. Let’s see, I hope it won’t lose its sexiness, let’s put it that way!
What gets you ReDI for the day? Coffee, Tea or Club Mate?
Gosh, I just stopped drinking coffee and I so desperately want a coffee now! But I have to say tea.
Interview & Editing: Connor Bilboe
Photo: Connor Bilboe