| 6 minute read

Meet an Inspiring STEM Female Entrepreneur Challenging the Status Quo!

Elena Galán-Muros

At UIIN, our work is underpinned by research. With 15 large-scale research initiatives currently running across various topics in the field of university-industry collaboration, we are excited to share our insights with you in our research projects blog series. Today, it is our pleasure to introduce the project Women Entrepreneurs in Regional Inclusive Ecosystems (WeRin), an ERASMUS+ Knowledge Alliance project with the goal to make entrepreneurship education and support programmes more inclusive for women.

Despite a rise in participation of female students in entrepreneurship education (EE) at Higher Education Institutes (HEIs), they still fall behind compared to their male counterparts. Additionally, even when they have participated in EE, they are less likely to move towards actual entrepreneurial careers after they graduate. And when they do, these graduate female entrepreneurs are often less well embedded in the regional entrepreneurial ecosystem. Many simply do not feel sufficiently invited. Given that female students now make up over 60% of the student population in Europe, this signifies a considerable loss of potential entrepreneurial talent and capacity.

With 13 other partners across Europe, UIIN is therefore taking part in the WeRin project, which seeks to enhance inclusivity of entrepreneurship education and support programmes with the intent to increase the share of female graduate entrepreneurs and enhance their level of embeddedness in regional entrepreneurial ecosystems across Europe.

In this context, we have been interviewing female role models, women entrepreneurs with inspiring vision to change the status quo, with the aim to hear more about their motivations, inspiration, and personal and entrepreneurial journey. Here is the story of Melanie Rieback, based in Amsterdam.

Who is Melanie Rieback?
Melanie Rieback is a 42-year-old computer security professional and successful social entrepreneur. As CEO and co-founder of Radically Open Security, a social enterprise in the computer security space, she has been widely acknowledged for her work. She was named 2010 ICT Professional of the Year (Finalist) by WomeninIT, one of the 400 most successful women in the Netherlands by Viva Magazine (Viva400) in 2010 and 2017, and one of the fifty most inspiring women in tech (Inspiring Fifty Netherlands) in 2016, 2017, and 2019. Melanie was also called the Most Innovative IT Leader by CIO Magazine NL (TIM Award) in 2017, and one of the 9 Most Innovative Women in the European Union (EU Women Innovators Prize) in 2019. Her company as well received its recognition, being named the 50th Most Innovative SME by the Dutch Chamber of Commerce (MKB Innovatie Top 100) in 2016.

About her studies
Melanie holds a bachelor’s degree in biology and computer science from the University of Miami. After participating in the Human Genome Project, one of the biggest scientific research projects in the human history to decipher the sequence of all the human genes, she realised that she was more interested in the computer side of things than in biology. Melanie therefore decided to switch to computer security for her master’s degree at the Technical University of Delft, in the Netherlands. After finalising her PhD in Security and Privacy of Radio Frequency Identification Technology at the Free University of Amsterdam, Melanie worked as an assistant professor at the University for five years.

Melanie describes herself as an innovative person and a high achiever, which she illustrates with her non-for-profit company that gives all its profit to charity. Following this mindset, Melanie likes to do things that are not conventional and is currently trying to incubate other companies with a similar business model.

About her entrepreneurial journey
Radically Open Security was founded in 2014 as the world’s first not-for-profit computer security consultancy company. The company currently employs 40 freelancers and is prototyping an innovative new business model involving a Dutch fiscal fundraising institution in the process. The aim is to provide a commercial front-end that sends 90% of their profits to a backend foundation (Stichting NLnet) which has supported open-source, Internet research, and digital rights organisations for almost 20 years.

According to Melanie, there were three main reasons to build the company and to do so in the way it is built now. The first reason was Melanie’s philosophical and ethical differences with other market players in the computer security industry. Secondly, she noticed that most companies in the sector were motivated by profit, which makes them unappealing and demotivating for people such as ethical hackers or members of the open-source community. Thirdly, the decision to make it a social enterprise was to show that computer security could be done differently and that there could be an alternative on the market for both the staff members, as well as the customers.

When asked about her personal experience as a woman entrepreneur, Melanie says that she has always experienced being a woman as an advantage, since they are a minority in tech and science – even more so in cybersecurity – and thus a woman who is competent at what she does will easily stand out. For her, gender has not been a barrier and it has qualified her for prizes such as being a finalist at the EU Women Innovator prize, which has granted her “a lot of really nice attention”.

Her inspirations
Throughout her journey, Melanie has been inspired by several movements and ideas to challenge the status quo, including the Post Growth movement, an economic perspective receiving its name from the belief that society operates better without the need of constant economic growth; Kate Raworth and her Doughnut Economics, a book that transmits the 21st century way of thinking to improve and safeguard the world’s economies; and the Holacracy, a management system that takes horizontality to the extreme and where there are no roles, being every employee free to participate on different tasks and move between teams.

As her biggest role model, however, she promptly mentions Andy Tanenbaum, Professor Emeritus of computer science at the Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam and her promoter from when she was doing her PhD. She highlights his passion, enthusiasm, and his place in computing history, as well as the best-selling textbooks he has produced. Melanie emphasizes that she learned from him almost everything she knows now about conceiving, running, leading, funding and managing projects.


Authored by Jose Villagran, Junior Project Officer at UIIN.

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