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My life in Silicon Valley


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Business Spotlight - epaper ⋅ Ausgabe 7/2022 vom 29.06.2022

INTERCULTURAL BUSINESS

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In Germany, Kerstin Ewelt’s work history as a director at the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung (FAZ) would impress any employer. In the U.S., however, even though Ewelt explained that the FAZ is the equivalent of The New York Times, her work history was considered irrelevant. That’s why, in 2010, at the age of 42, she had to start over in her career, working in the tech industry in Silicon Valley, California.

Making use of her native language, Ewelt began getting “niche jobs,” working from home, for as little as $15 an hour, in short-term contract positions for Google, LinkedIn and Apple, before getting her first permanent position, with Yahoo!, in 2014.

She describes this job as a “game changer” because of the great improvement in benefits, security and salary.

Three years later, Ewelt joined Quora, a social question-and-answer website with over 300 ...

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... million unique visitors a month. Today, she is the head of international community development at Quora, managing an international team that represents 23 different languages.

Originally from Braunschweig in Germany, Ewelt studied at Freie Universität Berlin before beginning her career in journalism. She worked for the Berliner Zeitung and later the FAZ. In 2003, she followed her then-husband to Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, with a plan to return to Germany after three years. However, as Ewelt herself says, “life intervened.” Today, she lives with her family in Silicon Valley.

What is it like to live and work in Silicon Valley?

I really think a sentence that is true here is: “Do it, try it, fix it.”

That’s an MO that you’ll find in almost every company here in the valley, and this is very refreshing. Here, you have a pool of highly qualified talent and few bureaucratic hurdles. And you have a risk-taking start-up mentality, and it’s all in one place.

That’s hard to find anywhere else in the world.

In terms of living here, one of the best things, I think, although it sounds so shallow, is the weather. It’s so unbeatable and it’s free, right? That makes up for a lot, and especially — and this brings me to the negative part — the extremely high cost of living here in Silicon Valley. This creates a lot of pressure. A lot of young people I know cannot afford their own apartment or their own house.

Is there also a negative side to working here?

You have different regulations here, right? You figure out quickly that you don’t have works councils here, you have much less time off, you have fewer sick days. But you get used to that and adjust to it. What I see again and again in the valley is that employees feel passionately committed to a mission, to the purpose of their company. In Germany, a lot of jobs are jobs, and then you go home. Here, I have the feeling that we take our jobs home, too. A good example is Quora. Our mission is to share the world’s knowledge, and that’s not an empty phrase for us. Everybody takes it very seriously.

You had to start over in Silicon Valley. How did you work your way into a top position?

What worked was being a blank slate. I think this is how I was seen. You take your first steps, you show that you’re willing to learn, you adapt, you run the extra mile here and there. And from that point on, one door after another opens.

Now, I’m back in a high-level position, but it took me more than ten years. And I was already relatively old when I started — Iwas over 40.

But this is another advantage: Here, you don’t talk about age. It’s not on your résumé. Who knows if my story would have happened the same way in Germany. I doubt it.

“Employees feel passionately committed to a mission”

What are the differences between the tech industries in Germany and in the U.S.?

I believe the biggest difference is that there’s not enough venture capital in Germany to finance the ideas of entrepreneurs.

A lot, if not everything, depends on this. You just have to look at how people here buy houses and invest their capital, and how that works in Germany. Here, you can still get a mortgage when you are 65, even though the bank knows that you can never pay off this house because you’ll stop working in a few years. That would never happen in Germany. And I have the feeling that it’s all connected: This willingness to be more risk-taking comes with so many things that we can see here in America, as opposed to Germany, where it’s still hard to open your own business.

What are the differences in the way Germans and Americans communicate in the workplace?

I think Germans communicate in a much more direct and straightforward way than Americans do. So, there’s no need for guesswork when you talk to Germans, I think. My German boss used to say: “What you see is what you get.” Americans are much more polite in their communication. They paraphrase a lot. And still, to this day, I often have to read between the lines. People rarely just say “no.” A lot of things are framed in positive terms.

On the other hand, Americans are much more informal and usually use first names. I often find that Americans quite like the direct, open communication of Germans. But I’ve put my foot in my mouth often enough. That’s the downside.

What were your first impressions of the U.S. and how have they changed over the years?

My first impression was, as many people say, that everything comes in big sizes: houses, cars and the self-confidence. And everyone is very, very nice. These are superficial, of course. Now that I’ve lived in the U.S. for so long, I would say I’ve assimilated well and have noticed other things. For example, many couples here have the same political views or belong to the same party — either Democrats or Republicans. In Germany, we are used to a much more differentiated political system. We have six parties.

And it’s normal if your boyfriend, husband or partner supports a different party than you do. That doesn’t mean you can’t get along. Here, it’s much more polarized.

Did you have to work on improving your English when you first came here?

My English was very rudimentary. I don’t belong to the generation in Germany that learned English in elementary school and I never needed English for my professional life. On top of that, I would say that I’m not really a language talent. I still have an accent — although I’ve tried, I cannot get rid of it. Thank God, people in California are very tolerant of that. For the first six months, I went to a language school in Pittsburgh and I watched a lot of TV — mostly children’s shows, where I think they speak the best English.

Do you miss Germany?

I do. I used to go back every year, until the pandemic.

I miss my people. I miss my family and friends. I also miss the slower pace. Nothing is open on Sundays, right? Once in a while, the shops are open on a Sunday, and then it’s a big deal, and everybody is excited about it. In this country, Sunday is almost like any normal day, and a part of me hates that. Sometimes, I feel stressed out on Sunday evening, thinking:

“Where has my weekend gone?” That’s my favorite part about going back to Germany: People are less stressed and life is less hectic there.

CLOSER LOOK

WORKER REPRESENTATION

In Germany, a large proportion of the workforce has some form of representation — if not by a trade union, then often by a works council. In the U.S., worker representation is far lower.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, only 11.6 percent of all American workers were represented by a union in 2021 — and only about six percent of private-sector employees. There are signs this may be changing, however, as several large U.S. companies, including Amazon and Starbucks, are seeing a wave of union organizing.

“I’ve put my foot in my mouth often enough”

BODY IDIOMS Kerstin Ewelt explains that she has put her foot in her mouth a few times by saying the wrong thing in a certain situation. Here are some more useful idioms that refer to various parts of the body.

• Chris and Tony work together but they don’t see eye to eye on anything.

• OK. Tell me! I’m all ears.

• Julie’s going to be angry, but I’ve got to face the music sometime.

• This is so complicated. I think I’m in over my head.

• Ihave no idea what this meeting is about. Let’s just play it by ear.

• Tom has left the project. He’s washed his hands of that responsibility.