It wasn't hard to predict what Czech entrepreneur Jana Marlé-Zizková heard when she jumped into entrepreneurship at age 47: "You're too late to be a startup founder." But despite societal expectations implying she should take a different path, Jana decided to forge ahead.
Jana co-founded Meiro, a Customer Data Platform (CDP) that helps businesses collect and activate data to turn it into a strategic asset. She's also the co-founder of She Loves Data, a non-profit organization empowering women across the globe to unlock their full potential and become active contributors to today's data-driven world.
Around the world
Jana embodies the spirit of a global citizen. Born in the Czech Republic, she obtained Swedish citizenship when she moved to the country as a political refugee (fleeing the communist regime in the former Czechoslovakia) at age 18. She continued her education in Sweden and the US and has worked in various European locations. This international upbringing broadened her perspective by exposing her to diverse cultural experiences and allowing her to witness firsthand the unique challenges women face in different regions. "We have several women in our community who are trailing spouses or women who had to take career gaps for personal or family reasons. Many have amazing track records and even take the trouble to upskill or pivot and volunteer. Still, the current hiring systems often do not give them a chance. There's also unconscious bias in all forms — gender, age, ability, race. We have to change that," Jana affirms.
As a computer science major, Jana took on roles within large enterprise software corporations and global companies. She navigated various marketing, sales, and country operations positions and headed teams at Estee Lauder, Sybase, SAS, and Socialbakers. In 2008 and 2009, she was named one of the "Top 25 Businesswomen" in the Czech Republic. She was also featured on the inaugural 2020 "Singapore 100 Women in Tech" list.
Apart from these accomplishments, if there's something that genuinely characterizes Jana, it's being a serial sabbatical taker. "I would take three years off in the middle of my career and go sail around the world, or move to Asia from Europe and align with the new way of living, understanding the cultural and business aspect of the new place," she recalls.
One might not immediately connect travel and data. Yet throughout her expeditions, Jana recognized the unique characteristics of each place, including its people, behavior, and habits, and the importance of data in understanding all of this information. In this way, data collection can provide specific insights that, when used correctly, can unlock a whole new territory of possibilities. "So I believe data is a great part of our lives we cannot disregard," she says.
After backpacking through Southeast Asia during her studies and sailing around the world, Jana was captivated by Singapore's approach to technology and its promising landscape for innovation and progress. Several years later, when her partner received a job offer with multiple location choices, including Singapore, they embraced the opportunity and embarked on the journey. After a first sabbatical in the city, she immersed herself in the digital scene and never looked back. It's been 12 years since.
Singapore proved to be an enlightening experience for Jana. With a particularly innovative digital approach, the country is set on becoming a tech-driven city-state. To achieve this, it's taking several steps towards becoming a Smart Nation, leveraging technology to transform how people live and businesses operate. Through three different pillars — Digital Society, Digital Economy, and Digital Government — Singapore works to make technology accessible to every citizen. Characterized as a mobile-centric economy, where virtually every aspect of life happens within smartphone applications, it presented a much different scenario than her previous experiences. This digitally-forward approach presented a huge opportunity to work with data in a radically different way.
"I realized that the typical transactional data I used to work with could be enriched by the new digitally-created data. Merging these sources presented an exciting opportunity for both individuals and companies to leverage for their benefit," she explains.
In 2015, she finally started Meiro as a data consultancy. However, with the looming impact of data legislation, her consultancy projects and clients were affected due to data storage location issues. During this moment, Meiro's CTO proposed a solution: a flexible data platform that could allow clients to maintain their existing processes and infrastructure while complying with data governance, security, and regulatory requirements. This marked a significant shift for Meiro, transitioning from consultancy to software development. The transformation was financed through the profits generated by the consultancy, plus personal savings. Meiro successfully launched its platform in late 2018 and achieved profitability within a year, all without relying on external investments.
When describing herself, Jana says she has two full-time jobs: CEO and co-founder of Meiro and a volunteering CEO and co-founder of She Loves Data. Her involvement with the latter began as a way of giving back to the community and empowering women.
Her motivation lies in women's unequal (or absent) representation in tech. As a leader herself, Jana witnessed how data could sometimes be a barrier for specific individuals — especially women — in their career growth. Since data is central in shaping business strategies and operations, leaders must be comfortable with it. "I've seen women that were CMOs of very well-known brands that, after we met, would take me aside and say, 'Jana, this is such an intimidating topic. How do I even start to learn? I don't even know where to start!'" she says.
Recognizing a promising opportunity, Jana and her team organized a women-only day activity. Their objective was to create a safe and judgment-free environment where women could feel comfortable asking questions: "What we didn't really envision is that we would have 500 registrations and we would not be able to just simply talk. So me and my CTO opened a bottle of wine and said, 'OK, we need to teach them something.' So we put a structured workshop together about what data is, why you need it, how to store it, what the programming languages are, also telling them why it's important for anyone out there who is a business professional."
The overwhelmingly positive reception prompted them not only to continue but also to expand on an international scale: "When I went to visit my clients in Australia, I know some of my partners like Amazon and Google and Facebook guys, they would say, 'Hey, you do this in Singapore, why don't you do it in Australia?' So we ran a workshop, and I would stay one day longer."
She Loves Data has created a community where women from diverse backgrounds can learn, connect, and have fun. Through their webinars and workshops, they help promote technical and digital literacy, all while providing mentorship, soft skills development, and networking opportunities.
"We're definitely not the only community focusing on women and tech. But I think we owe our growth to several things: One, there is obviously a need for the training and workshops we do. When you combine the need with the passion of our volunteers, it truly fuels all our activities. Second, we listen to what our community needs and try to meet that," Jana says.
Offering deeper insights into businesses and their customers can enhance our understanding of behaviors, improve decision-making processes, and make problem-solving more effective. This means the future demands a data-literate, diverse, and inclusive workforce.
On the other hand, it doesn't imply that women must exclusively pursue careers in technology. Still, engaging with and comprehending data can empower them across a broad spectrum of professions: "Because today data and tech [are] everywhere. And if you are a professional, no matter what you do, if you work in finance, marketing, or even sales, you work with Excel [and] data. So, data is everywhere. We all need to do it because the digital and technical revolution is here. Everything is moving so much ahead. It's amazing, and the evolution is so fast, so we need to upskill ourselves, right? It's not enough to have some [university-level] education and be done for life."
She Loves Data's mission is to enhance digital and technical literacy while closing the competence gap that often hinders women from accessing better job opportunities. In addition, Jana observed that, while many women have foundational knowledge, some need help to effectively use it to their benefit. This is why the organization also emphasizes addressing the confidence gap, touching on subjects like self-promotion, and providing resources for the practical application of technical skills: "I feel, especially women as they are, that they might be more intimidated. So we're gonna inspire them to go beyond their preset mindsets and use it to their advantage. We empower them."
Men continue to dominate the tech workforce; only a quarter of all tech jobs are held by women, and men have most technical and leadership roles. But She Loves Data is determined to rewrite this narrative by supporting women's professional growth. "One lady in India was a teacher and wanted to change her career to tech. She joined our Courage Circle — confidence gap workshops — and later attended several trainings, one being Web3 Digital Trends. This past July, she got a well-paid job at a Web3 company and said she never would have had a chance to land this job without She Loves Data," Jana recounts.
A vision for the future
Jana's vision extends beyond these women's individual lives. She Loves Data's aspirations are nothing short of ambitious: creating a world with authentic gender-balanced leadership. "I believe that we need to create a good pipeline of diverse leaders. So if we have more women in leadership, not only in the organization but also in the world-running countries, we will have a much nicer world. So let's get these women ready for that," she says.
A global transformation requires a collective effort. That's why Jana actively cultivates collaborations and identifies the importance of establishing a clearly defined partner ecosystem. In this regard, she continuously seeks opportunities for synergy with other companies and is leading conversations with top influencers: "This year, together with Meta, we launched a program that is called She Loves Data x Digital, and it's focusing on new trends like how do you use blockchain, and various business opportunities. So, we always link technology to business opportunities and practical business use cases. We also drive the Courage Council initiative that has us and C-level leaders identifying and addressing issues like diversity at the top, generational diversity, and the impact of automation and AI on women's careers. These are huge challenges that need leaders to link arms to solve."
Starting as a small passion project, She Loves Data snowballed and achieved unexpected success. Today, the organization has 180 volunteers in 18 countries and a community of over 30,000 people: "Today it's, I would call it, almost like a social movement, which we've never planned, but it happened because we felt passionate about lifting up women — [and] men as well, because currently, about 15% of the community members are male. And that's great because we can't keep women in a sheltered environment. We need to be able to open education for everyone and be more inclusive. But sometimes we still do women-only events to break the barrier, inspire women to learn more, and use it to their advantage in their career development."
Leaders of tomorrow
In her entrepreneurial experience, Jana discovered the importance of balancing pre-set plans with the agility to pivot and adapt to an ever-evolving industry. "Fail fast, learn, and move on" became her motto. Regarding She Loves Data, Jana started with her desire and intent to give back and empower women. Little did she anticipate the impact it would have on female lives worldwide. Her journey reminds us to expect the unexpected when facing the unpredictability of entrepreneurship.
In your own pursuit, it's crucial to identify and passionately follow your unique spark; you never know where your passion project may take you. But passion is not always enough. "You really have to devote time and a certain type of resilience to it. Because you will be pushed back and questioned by society and the people out there," she advises.
Jana's story challenges the notion of a linear career path. It shows there is always time to learn, fail, pivot, or start something new: "People told me that I was too late to be a startup founder, and they meant it like I should be doing different things in life. And I don't believe that. I believe you should do what excites you, what brings energy to you, and what keeps this positive sparkle in life. We were taught to have a linear career and that there's a linear way. It's not true. We can go back, and we can try something new. If it doesn't work, OK. We can go back and find something else. So create those alternatives for you and identify what makes you tick."
What makes Jana tick is the prospect of a brighter, fairer future for women — a global transformation powered by technology and implemented by well-equipped leaders who understand the opportunities of the digital age: "It's not going to happen top-down. It has to happen bottom up. So we hope that we are maybe the sparkle, that we can inspire those women to have amazing careers and then get to the leadership of businesses, cities, countries, the world. And that's the change we need. That's what I believe in."