Silje Vallestad did not major in technology, nor did she ever plan to make her mark on the tech industry as Founder and CEO of the mobile app development company, Bipper. Yet here she is, a successful entrepreneur blazing trails in an industry where women are not heavily represented in leadership positions.
So far, Vallestad has developed and launched two mobile safety apps – Mobilekids and bSafe –which have experienced incredible success in the European market. Now, Vallestad is working on establishing Bipper’s headquarters in Silicon Valley while continuing to raise brand awareness for her company in the United States. How is she doing it?
According to Vallestad, the success of her mobile safety products, Mobilekids and bSafe, stems from the fact that she developed them from a different perspective than the typical tech industry innovator. Instead of trying to push the limits of digital technology, Vallestad set out to offer a simple solution to what she considered to be a common problem for parents. That is how to keep young children safe when using mobile devices.
“I was certain there had to be some sort of mobile phone service for kids, but I couldn’t find anything,” said Vallestad. “When this wasn’t available, I decided I had to develop it myself.” So that is exactly what she did. In 2007, while on maternity leave, she decided to pursue her idea of a mobile safety service for children by submitting her proposal to a business plan competition called Venture Cup in Norway. At the time, she had no financial backing and no employees, but she was determined to turn her vision into a reality, which isn’t anything new for Vallestad, who was already starting up volunteer projects and NGOs at the young age of 14. “I knew at an early age that I had the ability to make my vision come true and turn ideas into reality,” she said.
Vallestad explained, “I had the vision, but I had no idea if it was technically possible.” She soon discovered after being chosen as the winner in the business plan competition, that not only was her idea feasible, but the judges of the competition clearly identified a market and a need for Vallestad’s service. Aside from gaining praise and attention for her mobile safety service idea, Vallestad also gained access to start-up capital and business mentors who provided her with the advice and guidance she needed to continue moving forward with her idea.
In fact, if it wasn’t for a mentor who told her that no one would invest in her idea if she ran her fledgling company like a hobby or a side project, Vallestad would have probably been content accepting the comfortable job in the financial industry she was offered around the same time as she began seriously thinking about pursuing her tech venture full time. “It took two years to raise enough cash and hire the first person who knew anything about technology,” Vallestad said. But finally, in the spring of 2008, Vallestad finally received her first seed investment and hired her first employee.
After dodging the devastating blow of the Great Recession that crippled the economy in late 2008, Vallestad launched BipperKids, her first mobile safety service in 2010 with two European operators. One year later, Vallestad introduced bSafe, a mobile safety app for women, to the market, fully realizing her dream of making the world a safer place.
On Gender Equality
For Vallestad, the journey from idealist to technology innovator did not happen without some bumps along the way. In addition to the typical challenges faced by tech start-ups, Vallestad had to overcome obstacles related to being a female founder and CEO in the tech industry. In the pre-iPhone era in which Vallestad was working, she not only had to develop the software for her mobile safety service, but also a unique handset to support the software. This required a tech team and a manufacturer to build the hardware.
Vallestad submitted the technical specs for the handset to the online forum Alibaba, hoping to collect bids from interested manufacturers. “I registered my account as CEO, Mrs. Silje Vallestad, and no one answered. I didn’t get a single response.” She continued, “Two weeks later, I changed ‘Mrs.’ to ‘Mr.’ and everyone answered. I got tons of responses when I was no longer a Mrs.” Vallestad chuckled as she recalled pretending to act as “Mr. Vallestad’s secretary” when speaking with interested manufacturers on the phone. “Norway has come a lot further than the United States in terms of gender equality, so playing the role of the secretary was funny,” said Vallestad.
In terms of being a successful female entrepreneur in the technology industry, Vallestad has experienced positives and negatives. She said, “After moving to the United States, I see fewer women in business, especially in C-Level positions.” Vallestad continued, “This is a challenge when it comes to networking.” Vallestad feels like she is excluded from certain networking opportunities because she is a woman, but on the other hand, she also feels that there are plenty of opportunities that are made available to her simply because she is a woman as a result of what she referred to as “positive discrimination.”
She explained, “Being a woman makes it a lot easier to open doors and get a place at the table.” Vallestad continued, “It is easier for me to call a larger company and get a meeting because I am a woman and that is intriguing. A lot of organizations seek female founders, especially in the tech world.”
The Secret to her Success
To what does Vallestad attribute her success? For her, it comes down to one word: networking. Vallestad said, “When you want to grow a business, networking is key.” She continued, “I’ve been good at knocking on doors and asking for meetings.” Vallestad also encourages other entrepreneurs to go straight to the top by requesting meetings with C-Level executives. “You will never get a meeting with them if you don’t ask,” she said.
It looks like Vallestad’s networking method continues to pay off as she recently welcomed Hollywood actress and mom, Jada Pinkett-Smith, as an investor in Bipper. Pinkett-Smith is a vocal advocate against human trafficking and believes a mobile app like bSafe can make a big difference in personal safety.
Vallestad also learned a tough lesson early on in her career about how to recognize the signs of burn out and responding before it is too late. “I guess that’s part of having it all,” Vallestad said. She continued, “You have to be a perfect mother, a perfect wife, and perfect professional, but you can’t be perfect at everything.”