A conversation with Măriuca Talpeş, Bitdefender co-founder, about business, women, education and Romania
Măriuca Talpeş is undoubtedly one of the most famous women in the tech industry in Romania. Both her and her husband, Florin Talpeş, have been very active entrepreneurs, speakers at many conferences and very inspiring characters for almost three decades. Together they embarked on the entrepreneurship path in 1990, shortly after the Revolution, creating in 2001 what came to be the most sold Romanian IT product on the international market: Bitdefender, a cyber security software with more than 500 million users. Besides being the co-founder of Softwin, the parent company of Bitdefender, Măriuca Talpeş currently leads Intuitext, a company that aims to solve educational problems by creating software and online communities such as Didactic.ro, Olimpiade.ro or SuntParinte.ro.
N.B. In this interview, originally published in ELLE Romania, March 2018 issue, I wanted to talk with Măriuca Talpeş less about the ascension of Bitdefender on the market, which is something more frequently discussed in the local media, but more about her perspective on women in tech, female empowerment, work-life balance and more. She makes time for both playing an instrument and dancing, while still working tirelessly and being a very prominent figure advocating for girls education, so read the whole piece to find out how she does all of this and also to find out her advice for women who want to pursue careers in STEM.
I know you’ve been playing the flute for some time and participating in dance competitions. How do you find the power to do new things?
Time exists. If you have a passion, it’s all about putting it in your schedule and making it happen.
I do not think it’s a power, I think each of us has more recent or older passions. In terms of movement and dance, I have always liked dancing ever since I was a child, and after I managed to persuade Florin into it, we started dancing together almost daily. It brings great joy to our lives and great balance in professional life too. Regarding music, I always wanted to play the piano, but in my childhood I had a jam because of a very severe teacher, so I rediscovered the piano once Florin received an organ as a gift from his colleagues which ended up sitting at home covered, so one day I wanted to see how it sounded and since then I have not stopped. After several years of piano, I asked my music teacher if there was a wind instrument that would fit a lady and she recommended me the flute, which I have been playing for five years now and which I really enjoy.
You started your own business when your twins were only three years old. How did you reconcile family life with your personal life?
I think both mothers and fathers should be involved in raising a child. Of course, the mother traditionally deals with food, health and education, maybe more than the father, or others in the family. I think maternal care comes naturally with the birth of a child, so it’s something you cannot control, it’s normal as it is; and obviously you can fit the two worlds if you manage your time well. In addition, if you feel at home in the office and you work with passion, you go back home to your children positively charged. So if you feel good at the office and if you obviously make time (and you have to make time!) for your kids – you can spend the afternoons and weekends with them. I think balance is natural and I think it’s about how we organize our own time.
Additionally, technology helps us a lot today. Since computers are also at home and present everywhere in our lives, you can combine your work with your presence home, next to your children.
Which women inspire you and why?
I am inspired by all my colleagues who do wonderful things together with the entire team and I am also inspired by people with art, theatre or painting careers and by athletes who have exceptional results, obviously Simona Halep being one of them. From the business area there are many ladies who have built solid companies from scratch with large customer portfolios and a very fair business style. In education I admire Maria Gheorghiu, Simona Crisbășanu and Corina Puiu for their work in NGOs. However, that does not mean I’m not paying attention to the professional paths of men in the industry. I do not look with other eyes at what women do or what men do; after all there are no differences when we are born. I think that we complement each other well and that we need to learn from one another.
In your opinion, why do you think women don’t get to occupy a larger percentage of top management positions?
I think that in Romania women dominate middle management and this is why they are often not at top-management meetings. I think there are more explanations: middle management requires people you can rely on in the long run, and I think many ladies are in this category. I think they are the core people at this level of leadership because they are hard workers and trustworthy people. That is how they came to dominate the financial and accounting sectors and not only, and that’s also how they became team leaders. They are also very empathetic, so jobs that imply empathy such as direct customer service, support services, quality services, and even marketing are dominated by women. For example, at Bitdefender, I can say that company-wide we have 50% women as our product managers, 80% of our marketing intelligence employees are women and the HR, financial and support areas are also dominated by women. Top management wise, it is an area specific to taking high risks and considering women do not take such risks, preferring to grow slowly but surely, top management became a place for mostly men. But I think this will soon change because we are increasingly talking about Data Driven Decisions and Data Driven Management, so this impact of artificial intelligence in decision-making is believed to soon unify the differences between men and women in management.
Where do you think the huge gender gap in the tech industry comes from?
Unfortunately, at school there is this tradition that forces girls not to go to science-based classes. So starting with primary (and middle school) school parents recommend girls to go to the humanities: “You are not made for mathematics”, “It is normal not to like physics or computer science”, “You will be very good at foreign languages or Romanian”, all this followed by high school years and the (formal) separation between the humanities and the sciences, the humanities classes becoming dominated by girls and the science classes by boys. Conversely, based on discussions with teachers who prepare the national teams for mathematics, physics and computer science Olympiads, the girls’ capacity to sustain a heavier training is much higher, the girls being very determined, willing to work hard and passionately, while boys behaving more hurriedly in their trainings. Moreover, I can say that there is a tradition that maybe comes from religion: the Orthodox Church says that the man dominates at home and that the woman must obey, and this has an impact on later leadership. There should be a change here.
In my opinion, there is another tradition: that of the heavy industry. In the old days, our parents and grandparents talked about engineering as an industry that demanded physical strength, and automatically the hard work was associated with muscle power and so with the men, which lately has radically changed. Now we are talking about soft skills and knowledge. However, the IT area is still dominated by men, with a presence of around 70%. So where does this gap between boys and girls come from? From school.
If we look at the percentage of students in the science classes of high schools, and then of universities, we can already see the minority tendency. According to a Eurostat study published in 2015, although Romania has 29.3% female ICT students, occupying the second place in Europe, the study shows that these problems are not only local. These figures are also mirrored by the situation in Bucharest, where at the Faculty of Mathematics 58% of the students are girls, while girls represent 32% of information technology students and 25% of the computer science student body. So the closer we get to the IT area, the fewer girls there are. An interesting study done by Microsoft in 2017 shows how we can generate and stimulate interest in science and engineering among girls, considering that this appetite for technology comes around the age of 11, and unfortunately, suddenly decreases after the age of 15. Their conclusions are that there are too few STEM-positive female models, teachers and families are not encouraging little girls enough to pursue these industries and that there is already a feeling that men are treated differently in STEM jobs. In Romania there are very interesting projects for girls, two of which are Girls Who Code and Girls in Technology, which are specially designed for girls with the purpose of bringing them closer to programming. Considering that science-based professions have increased three times faster than any other non-STEM profession, it is very important for science to be promoted from primary schools onward. There are studies that say that 80% of future jobs will be related to science and technology, and that means that it is mandatory for all children to grow up accustomed to these subjects from tender ages. If programming is seen as complicated today, and only those who study computer science can do this profession, programming will soon become a language we will all be able to speak. In the future, we will not only be users, but we will mould our technology with our hands. This implies creating a mandatory elementary level of technology literacy for everyone.
What measures should be taken at an individual company level in order to have more women involved corporate management?
We’re talking here about three factors: teachers, families, and positive examples. My wish would be that all professors who teach science subjects to go all the way in their classes and passionately do what they do. If we had an elite of teachers in the STEM area, our chances to have students to follow their teachers’ paths would be higher, so I think we should pay more attention to primary school because that’s where we build passions. If every child would have the chance to meet a teacher who is passionate about what they teach and who loves their students, then the students would have every chance to love that field as well. In addition, we need as many women in the industry as possible to tour schools, high schools and universities in order to promote the companies they work for, encourage girls to specifically consider these options and be seen as worthy career models. Obviously, families should not block girls’ access to high schools with science backgrounds. On the contrary, families should encourage girls to pursue such education because future jobs are in science fields, so it is very important to educate parents and teachers to fairly support children’s ambitions.
What advice would you give to girls and women who want to advance leadership-wise?
All you need are successful products and services for your customers and the desire to grow your business. That’s all.
Cover image from the photo archives of Măriuca Talpeş
This interview was originally published in ELLE Romania, March 2018 issue, number 244. The English version of the interview has been edited for clarity.