Patricie Merkert

Vice President Business Development ,Innovation bei MANN+HUMMEL Group

Interview by: Pricilla Weixler
Edited by: Lena Rübelmann

Patricie Merket is the Vice President of Global R&D at the MANN+HUMMEL Gruppe. We can tell that she is the stereotype of an intrapreneur! So, this time we will have a closer look at a real tech intrapreneur.

Patricie always strives to accomplish more than the status quo and with this mindset she broke the glass ceiling. Her passion for physics developed at an early age. Notwithstanding several setbacks and other opportunities, she stuck to the field and found a niche she feels comfortable in. In this interview she takes us on her journey to physics as well as doing an MBA next to her job and being a mum.

Praising diversity as a decisive factor of success she introduces us to the experiences she has had working in diverse environments herself. Determined to give women space in the technological field and have them accepted as equally qualified she encourages young girls from an early age on. As a working mom she had to combat a lot of prejudice from acquaintances, family and other families. She and her husband received little understanding; instead they had to fight hostility and judgments denying them the capability of parenthood. In this case as well as in her working environments she proved these enemies wrong and succeeded personally and professionally. To get yourself some inspiration of that very persistency and fierceness and lose your doubts have a good read of the following conversation.


Q: To start with: How would you describe the tech industry using 3 words?
A: Exciting, sometimes frustrating (as in, you have to solve issues and some issues come back to you again and again), new with potential to discover.


Q:  What motivates you?
A: What keeps me going is this: there is something I don’t know, something I have never done before. I want to explore it somehow. I want to learn. As long as I learn I am highly motivated whereas if things get repetitive I get bored. So, I became aware that I constantly need something different otherwise I won’t be satisfied anymore. Thus, what motivates me is the eagerness to learn and to find people that are also eager to do something. To help them, to motivate them and also to achieve something, that’s what keeps me satisfied.

As long as I learn I am highly motivated whereas if things get repetitive I get bored.


Q: In your job you often went from white paper to a whole concept? This seems pretty close to what startups do. Did you ever think about building your own company?
A: Honestly, I thought about it a couple of times because due to the MBA I have a whole bunch of friends who started their own startup. Before that it was never an option for me to say I would do it.
Probably, I am too scared to do so and I actually don’t have the fantastic attitude of: yeah let’s do this. Plus, I always liked being in the company, although, sometimes I hate the politics but also like it in a certain way. I like to have interactions with the board and different people and access different views, thus, for me, it was never an option. Right now, it is a nice mixture of both worlds because I work within a company but somehow experience the startup feeling.


Q: What do you like most about your current job?
A: I am really into bringing concepts like Scrum and Agile Work into the MANN+HUMMEL Gruppe and trying to find out how this can live in an organization that is established already. It is very interesting to see how many challenges but also how many advantages we have because of this startup corporate mixture. That’s why I like that tension area.
As such an agile team we can benefit of knowledge that is already existing in the company – that’s super. And we can just hire a consultancy company that will help us build an MVP and build a digital service model. These are some of the benefits of being in a company.
Very challenging on the other hand are questions like: How do you calculate the budget? And who makes the decision? What do you allow us to do? How far can we go? It is just great to combine the traditional corporate world with new approaches.


Q: Where do you get input? You have been at the MANN+HUMMEL Gruppe pretty long (11 years). Where do all these new ideas come from?
A: I read a lot. I go to conferences. Over the last two three years I have been in contact with organizations of Startup Mannheim. We have also bought a membership in Plug and Play so at least you get a connection to the startup world. If you walk around with open eyes listing to buzzwords, you’ll stumble across Eric Reese and then you hear everybody talking about Agile and then I started to think about it – at least that’s what I am doing. I think: In an ideal world: How would this concept fit in our world? How do I do this and who do I need to convince? My boss is super open and we have this mandate to do things differently. We developed the idea of this agile digital service team together with our CEO. The story was, in January we were on a tour in the US and we talked about how a former project did not exactly deliver what we wanted it to. We started to come up with this: We as a company already have to send people to Silicon Valley to pull up their own startups with ideas from MANN+HUMMEL. It’s an experiment in two ways: first of all, do we get good technology-digitalization money out of it? The other one is an organizational experiment: How can we run this with any organization? From time to time we have to push the organization as much as we can. Let me tell you just pushing HR to get the contract was hard enough because we needed people from all over the world: one is out of the US, one is out of India and one is German but lives in Czech Republic. How do you get these people to come to Germany to work for 6 months? That’s not so easy – and again, being in a corporate helps. You can use the tools and processes that are already there.


Q: Patricie, you did your MBA while working and having two kids – when and how did you do all this?
A: I did my MBA from 2012 to 2014. During this time my kids were 14 and 8. My older son really hated it because he was in his teenage years and he was pretty lazy concerning school. He always complained: “Mum it’s so boring with you, you always have good grades.” I tried to motivate him by creating a competition between his and my studies but he didn’t join in. He told me: “I am never going to compete with you.” To sum it up, for me it was an intense time. I had my regular working days and when I came home, I had dinner with my kids and tried to catch up. At 9:00 o’clock I was on the desk again and worked until 1 or 2 o’clock at night for the MBA. Then I got up early the next morning because I had to finish all these courses. Looking back, I cannot imagine how I managed to do all this. 2250 hours per contract each year for the MBA – that’s an enormous number of hours per week. You have to stay on track. Speaking about the MBA, I also want to mention that I did not only learn facts, I also learned a lot of interactive things such as dealing with alpha dogs. I also learned a lot by working with cultures that don’t see women as an equal business partner. It was for sure a great time! I was in Chicago, Hong Kong, and Toronto. Now I know a lot of people round the globe with different knowledge and from various business fields. That’s also one good point about the MBA.

Looking back, I cannot imagine how I managed to do all this. 2250 hours per contract each year for the MBA – that’s an enormous number of hours per week. You have to stay on track.


Q: You mentioned being a mother and working was tough. Do you consider this as the biggest challenge of your career?
A: Again, I was lucky. Once I finished my Abitur I went to the US for a year. This was a game changer for me because I worked as an Au pair for a family where both parents worked. I could see that the kid who was 8 months old could distinguish between me being with him all day and his mum. He knew exactly when we were both in the room and I was stricter than his mum. Somehow out of this experience I figured that it is feasible to work and having a family, it is just a matter of perspectives. You just have to find a model that works and the model my host family decided to take was having an Au-pair.


Q: What was your model?
A: I got my first child during my PhD. I talked to my husband about the future and I told him that I wanted to have a career and children. There were ways to figure it out but they were not conventional to Germans, especially not in the late 90s. It changed a lot but back then it was still very uncommon to do that. I took half a year off during my PhD when my son was born and it was really difficult for me because I didn’t have any other input. That was the reason for me to go back to work after 6 months. Briefly before my daughter was born I got promoted to the product development and I told my boss that I was pregnant. He said it was fine and I came back after 8 weeks. We had daycare mums and Au-pairs for 11 years and for a certain period my husband worked from home which helped a lot.  I strongly believe it is really difficult if both partners try to pursue a career. My husband never wanted that because he is very happy with the position that he is in. It was me who received a lot of rejection going from “you know when mums aren’t at home you kids will have problems later and definitely do drugs and will not finish school to “this is not what you are supposed to do”. Sometimes I even felt excluded from certain events because of that. It took me a really long time – actually until my girl was 11 – to find my peace with the situation. Because of the judgment of others, I also tried to be the super mum. Baking cakes, being at any school event and so on. At some point I realized that I was killing myself if I continued like that and wondered who I was trying to prove something to. I figured that there are so many moms that don’t work or who work only a couple of hours a day, they should bake the cake. If I have time I will do it, no problem, if I’m busy, I won’t. I managed to put society’s pressure and expectations aside. I didn’t want to feel this pressure anymore. It was a huge relief for me when my friends finally told me – I think my son was 10 years old by then – Patricia we always thought you made a mistake but seeing your kids growing up we don’t think you made a mistake.

I think you have to find your freedom with whatever decision you make. And I think you should make the decision before you have kids. Of course, things change because kids can be sick or healthy or whatever but I think you have to think about it before.

It was me who received a lot of rejection going from “you know when mums aren’t at home your kids will have problems later and definitely do drugs and will not finish school” to “this is not what you are supposed to do”


Q: Going back in time – what was your inspiration to go into the field of physics?
A: I was very lucky that from 5th to 7th grade I was at a catholic girl’s school. “Lucky” because at that time, math was not a real problem for me and there was nobody telling me that I couldn’t do it. This changed a bit when I went to a mixed school. I remember that there you had to choose a subject and I choose electronics. This was during 9th and 10th grade, I was the only girl. The boys were whispering and suspecting I was going to leave within the next two weeks. Too bad that I heard what they were saying and it motivated me to prove them wrong. Finally, at the end of the year we had to take a final exam. It was something practical and it didn’t work when I did it although I was sure that I did it right. The boys came and helped me and figured out that the board was broken and it wasn’t my fault. Then the guy who bet I wouldn’t make it in class told me that I impressed him. This definitely brought me closer to physics. Plus, in 9th and 10th grade I had a very good physics teacher. This was also the period in which it was time to think about whether to continue school or do something different. My mother was totally against physics and wanted me to study law or medicine. Nonetheless, I took physics classes as a core subject and again, I was the only girl. I felt a little uncomfortable and didn’t like the physics the professor did in combination with math. I thought I was done with physics.


Q: What brought you back to physics?
A: Shortly after, I went to Sweden and took a class called molecular biophysics. Things like MRI imaging I thought were pretty cool. I wanted to do something in that area but in Germany at that time you could only do that as a physicist. In Darmstadt I discovered material sciences, which was more hands on and thus I decided to start studying it. I think that in the very beginning it was mainly my stubbornness which drove me to keep going, to prove everybody who said I couldn’t do it wrong. I did my PhD in material sciences and my plan was to go back to university and become a professor very focused on teaching. Anyways, I decided to join a company and with that a teaching experience was required. Therefore, I am teaching at the Duale Hochschule Stuttgart at the moment for a few hours per month. I like it a lot, especially because it is even more challenging with the students nowadays. They get distracted so quickly because their attention span seems to be very short. This means I have to think of diverse ways to keep them with me during my lectures. That is very challenging.


Q: What was the reaction of the people around you, your family and friends when you chose to go into physics?
A: My dad was neither supportive nor discouraging. He just told me if it feels right, then go for it. I had been talking about it for years. I probably decided it when I was in 9th grade and pretty much my whole environment knew about it. And the people who were in my courses knew that I was able to do so. Therefore, it was not that big of a surprise for them when I wanted to go in that direction.


Q: Why are young women losing the interest in tech?
A:I think that it happens very early, it happens in the teen years. I think schools are still not doing well enough to support young girls in their paths. When I think about physics and what my daughter is learning right now it just isn’t interesting for girls because the subject is made for the boys. Car racing, raw materials are things they look at instead of giving more varied examples to work with. Again, I was lucky because I was at a girl’s school. I don’t recall they thought of something completely different but maybe the way they conveyed it was different. Plus, if your parents are not in the technical field you might have trouble to find somebody who pushes, challenges and supports you. I think it’s also really important to do two to three weeks of internship just to get an impression on what is actually going on there. I think we lose girls at a very early stage. I support these girl’s days in Baden-Württemberg for example: Here you see role models and get to touch and feel stuff which is important to get a clear picture. We should be engaged with girls that are interested way before they have to make their choice of studies. This would help them a lot to pursue their interest and see their opportunities. I think more opportunities like this would help a lot.

When I think about physics and what my daughter is learning right now it just isn’t interesting for girls because the subject is made for the boys.


Q: Was there a situation in your career where you would have been treated differently if you were a man?
A: If I take my own career as an example, after the MBA there was a time where I had the feeling that I was getting to the ‘Glass Ceiling’ that everybody was talking about. There were people promoted to be senior executives and I was wondering many times what they were doing better, or differently compared to me. When I reached out to my boss to talk to him about it, his answer was that I could be promoted but I had to change some behavior of mine. He considered me too straight-forward and too criticizing. This is when I wondered whether he would speak to a man like this and also ask him to change these very characteristic traits. Out of round about 120 senior executive levels, there are less than 10 women employed at the company. At the level of directors, it is even worse. At this level I only know one or maybe two women.


Q: Where else do you see stumbling blocks for women in your work environment?
A: What I really see in the company is that if you look at the very R&D we have enough women on the project manager level. If you climb up the hierarchy ladder then it becomes less and less. For one, I think that we, as women, always hope that other people will see how great the work is we do and we don’t really talk about it. That’s probably one thing I learned: you have to talk about it to figure out what the network is that you need. Without a network nobody will look at your name and point it out. Unfortunately, that is not how it works. Thus, you have to promote yourself and that is at least one thing that I feel uncomfortable with doing. Also, I was lucky to be in a women’s network where they look at women on an executive level who could actually go to C-Level. They bring 12 women together per year. Of course, you talk about personality but more important is this network. Then you have women on the same level who can talk about the same problems. None of my non-work friends know another woman in a position like me – so who do I talk to? I can talk to the guys but most of them feel weird to talk to me about a topic like that. So now I have this new stream of women of which some really became great friends. The probability as a woman to come from a middle manager to an executive position is five times less than it was for men. Taking the same qualification, to C- Level was seven or eight times less. What is the takeaway out of this? You need to work hard and have the network.

Without a network nobody will look at your name and point it out.


Q: What else has to be done?
A: It is very important to be flexible in the ways you are offering working time, I think this is one of the key aspects. We see this with men, when they started with this parental time. When I had the first man asking for two months off, I was surprised. Now, it is pretty common that men take the 2 to 3 months off and work arranges around it. Plus, I think that the demand of the younger generation is there to be more flexible. Today, you can work from home, co-working spaces and you travel much more than in the past. I think the technology is ready, but it also requires a boss who is willing to go this way. I think companies are still not ready to offer different models than the old ones.


Q: Is there anything you would like to add?
A: If someone would’ve asked me 16 years ago where I wanted to be in five years, I would’ve guessed a team leader of whatever, I never thought big when I was younger. But think about and talk about what you do and who you are because nobody else will do this for you. As a matter of fact, you have to be active, more towards it, that’s a key learning of mine.