DAVOS, Switzerland — Silvia Console Battilana is only 33-years-old but she is already the CEO and cofounder of the Silicon Valley-based company Auctionomics, which combines economic theory and online auctions.
Auctionomics is a service company that allows websites to offer more complex auctions.
She is also the cofounder of Xswan — a non-profit organisation that raises money using invite only social auctions online.
Battilana spoke to Business Insider about her companies and how she came up with the idea for her groups.
Lianna Brinded: Tell me how Auctionomics was created and how you become a co-founder of a company at such a young age.
Silvia Console Battilana: You might recall the days of TARP, the treasury bail out. At the time my co-founder, Paul Milgrom, the godfather of auction theory worldwide, had asked me for coffee to ask if I wanted to start a company with him. He had invented a brilliant new auction design (the Milgrom assignment auction) and wanted to make a software company out of it.
I vividly remember the Coupa Café coffee table where the conversation took place.
I obviously agreed and we would probably have started very slowly if TARP had not happened. Within days the US Treasury was on the phone with us and wanted help designing an auction.
There was lot of excitement, we quickly incorporated, booked a big office space and started recruiting.
As you well know the big banks were against an auction so it did not materialise, however that excitement and thought of being able to shape markets with auctions it something that stayed with us.
I am Italian, so I am used to a culture that is much more macho than the Valley.
LB: How and why do you think this partnership happened?
SCB: The journey has been complex. Paul had decided to pick a smart and very active recent PhD graduate instead of an experienced entrepreneur.
That is the way the valley works, you place bets based on your gut. I had started a different test prep education company during my Phd years, and had also founded endless organisations from scratch: Stanford rotaract, the political economics group which included Harvard, Princeton and MIT students, a project in India to get water wells to remote villages, a project to bring computers to Bulgaria, a project to bring eye doctors to Panama and so on.
I had lived in remote warrior village tribes in the jungle so probably I was fit for the big dollars jungle of business. So I had the “pedigree.” Yet auctions was something I was not familiar with, and handling billion dollar projects with only academics and no business people to start with was challenging at the beginning.
LB: Auctionomics is based in Palo Alto — Silicon Valley. There is still a dearth of women in tech out there, what is your experience with this?
SCB: I am Italian, so I am used to a culture that is much more macho than the Valley.
I have always found the Valley to be a place where smart women are listened to, no matter how young they are. I have a funny story for you.
The year I became CEO of my company I was a Visiting Professor in Bocconi University for a semester. I went to a bank to cash out money with my ATM. The machine ate my card. So I went in and asked them to return the card and give me €400. “It is not possible,” they said. “Call the director,” I answered.
So given where I come from culturally, I truly appreciate how you are taken very seriously in the Valley if you know what you are talking about.
I call my father, who lives in another city and within 15 minutes the director comes out with an envelope with the money, saying to please call upon him for anything I need — The power of a male over 50 years old. It was my money, and my bank account.
So given where I come from culturally, I truly appreciate how you are taken very seriously in the Valley if you know what you are talking about. There is no dismissing you because you are female. And being young is a plus.
That said, I host small off the record events for female entrepreneurs and top executives and hear that in the venture capital world it is still a little macho and old school.
LB: I’ve met several young and successful female entrepreneurs in Davos this year but outside WEF, men still outweigh the proportion of women in STEM (science, tech, engineering, maths). Naturally we have to get more women into these subject at an early age — but how do you do that?
SCB: I really believe positive female role models are essential.
When I was growing up in Italy most of the girls wanted to be “veline,” which is half dressed television hosts in a famous show we had.
That was the ambition. Being exposed to female role models that are entrepreneurs or technical and are ‘cool’ is really essential.
That is why the work fellow Young Global Leader Sheryl Sandberg is doing with stock pictures and advertising is very important. Exposing girls from a young age to the possibility of them being anything they want to be, including mathematicians, doctors, entrepreneurs, is key.
There is a group of WEF participants called global shapers, leaders under the age of 30. I love to see their drive. Nothing is impossible, and there seems to be no gender for them.
It gives me hope. Things unfortunately get rough at the C-suite level. My friends who are at that level in big public companies have to double prove themselves. And that of course trickles down.
LB: In what ways can companies help to allow women to flourish in tech?
SCB: Another movement that I find really fundamental in allowing women to raise in business is the support of the male partner in raising kids.
I was very lucky to have a supportive husband who does his half. He’s a very present father. If I have a business deal far away from home I know the kids have him. Mark Zuckerberg took his four months of paternity leave, sending a great message.
I truly believe that paternity leave is a big answer to changing the balance: the global shapers have all the energy of the world, however maternity takes a hit on business women in societies that rely purely on the mother for child caring. I have built my company around delivery instead of being at an office.
My team is spread internationally and gets together when we have big projects. They can do their work from wherever they want as long as they deliver. If they have kids we pay them one month of night nanny (to fathers or mothers).
They do not have to choose between career or quality of life. If we are on a big project that takes them far from
home for months, we fly their family in, kids and parents. This has allowed us to retain top talent: they can be at the top of the field without having to sacrifice their family. This is of course great for women who want to be present while still having a career.
I think the future is going in this direction with the sharing economy. Being in an office and working 9 to 5 will probably be eliminated with virtual reality.