Rolf Schrömgens, founder of the hotel search engine Trivago, is creating a space for founders, entrepreneurs and investors with his new startup brafe.space, which challenges conventional financial rules and power structures in order to dare a different, sustainable way of doing business. In this interview, he talks to us about his understanding of diversity of perspectives and the way to get there.
At the beginning, I didn’t understand the topic of diversity at all. As an entrepreneur, I wanted to create the perfect company with Trivago, i.e. one that was maximally productive and added value. I didn’t think diversity was particularly important at first. I even thought that we couldn’t afford diversity, because we would have to focus exclusively on the best-performing people without bowing to external demands.
But over time, my perspective changed, mainly thanks to my colleagues. Our company had many young members, and they confronted me daily with questions about diversity.
It was only then that I began to realize that diversity not only makes sense ethically, but also economically. I realized that diversity meant a competitive advantage. Originally, I had focused solely on productivity, but I realized that this view was too short-sighted. A homogeneous team lacks perspectives, and that can be a hindrance in the long run.
Diversity of perspectives has tremendous power. I liken it to a sculpture that needs to be viewed from different angles to see its full dimension and complexity. The same is true for problems. If we look at them from only one perspective, we see only a shadow.
We need to make the power centers, especially the supervisory boards, more holistic. Currently, they are often dysfunctional. While there are now more and more women on supervisory boards, unfortunately they are often part of the problem because they reproduce the existing narrative and act similarly to their male counterparts. A diverse selection of supervisory boards could lead to positive change.
An important moment was when we introduced 360-degree feedback at Trivago. This involves employees’ competencies being assessed not only by their superiors, but also by colleagues or customers. We discovered that our assessments were not fair: They were often more dependent on our own judgments than on the actual performance of the people being evaluated – judgments we make based on prejudices, such as origin or gender. This was an eye-opener for me. I had always believed in objectivity, but it became clear through the results that it did not exist.
The lack of diversity in the teams was to blame, because it hides part of the reality. So companies need diversity to be as productive as possible. At the same time, of course, it’s also about fairness and representation.
We had a certain amount of diversity right from the start, even if I wasn’t aware of it at the time. We had an international team and quite a few women. However, our founding structure at the time was still male-dominated: We were three male founders who were friends. This meant that despite our individual diversity and complementarity, there was a dominant male energy that flowed into the organization.
So, we tried to bring that perspective a little more into the background by fostering a “bottom-up culture.” Although it was less noticeable at the lower levels of the organization, male dominance persisted at the leadership level for the longest time because we were still operating as three founders. It was a while before we added Anna Drüing as the first woman to our leadership team.
I see an important opportunity for the future in transforming our corporate cultures. The cultural dimension – how we work together, solve problems and act in our companies – is becoming increasingly crucial to the future viability of organizations.
I am convinced that creating progressive corporate cultures that focus on diversity and inclusion can lead to a significant increase in productivity in the long term. The positive aspect of this is that by developing such cultures, we are better able to identify problems and deal with uncertainty.
These skills could potentially even enable us to increase our productivity. It might even enable us to move away from the currently prevailing capitalist approach, which is strongly focused on short-term profit and too little on sustainability.
In established companies, this often proves extremely difficult, especially if they are large. Young companies, on the other hand, face the challenge of operating in a financial system that does not sufficiently encourage the development of a diverse corporate culture.
Therefore, we need to create ecosystems where these changes are possible. In such ecosystems, companies could emerge that are much stronger in the long run because they can think more sustainably and use more information.
We should pay attention to how we can steer young companies in this direction and ensure that they do not become part of a system that limits their potential through short-term profit orientation.
We have recognized that our current financing system in Germany, especially in the early stages, does not promote sustainable development. For example, especially in the early stages, financial investors are interested in short- to medium-term returns and thus simply cannot afford long-term and sustainable investments that pay into deeper changes and long-term innovation.
Moreover, compared to the U.S., for example, our systems are still far from understanding and leveraging the importance of corporate culture. Even the turbo-capitalist funds in the U.S. have already recognized and integrated this importance, albeit not always ideally. Even if diversity is often still treated superficially there, it is at least intellectually grasped and functionalized.
In Germany, on the other hand, the early financing system often pursues the goal of short-term value enhancement and capital absorption, without regard to long-term value creation or the long-term profitability of a company. This is in contradiction to a sustainable approach.
Therefore, we try with brafe.space within a network to develop systems based on sustainable, holistic and long-term value creation. So, we want to support entrepreneurs* instead of promoting a system based on an outdated purely return-based US model that has proven to be insufficient. Especially in light of the current challenges.
We all have the opportunity to make our own impact to effect change. Brafe.space, for me, is one such starting point that can actually make a difference.