Reimagining swissnex San Francisco: an interview with Gioia Deucher, CEO
After a 4-year tenure as CEO of swissnex Brazil, Gioia Deucher returned to the Bay Area in the summer of 2017 to take the lead of swissnex San Francisco. She has overseen a significant change process to take the organization to new heights after its arrival at Pier 17. In this interview, Gioia compares the experience of working within different ecosystems.
Seven months ago you returned to the United States to lead the 21-person team at swissnex San Francisco, after previously setting up swissnex Brazil in 2014. Can you tell us about your experience of moving from San Francisco to Brazil four years ago?
Our office in San Francisco was the only swissnex model I knew well — a swissnex in the world’s most revered innovation hubs, where the majority of technology developments and thought-leadership originates, that has shaped our daily lives over the past few decades. In other words: an unequivocal point of attraction for any Swiss institution seeking academic and innovation partnerships. A region unlike any other that sparks the imagination of inventors and entrepreneurs worldwide.
Building a swissnex in Brazil before that required me to completely shift gears and switch lenses — a process that wasn’t easy at first. I had to reset my understanding of innovation, and redefine how an organization like swissnex could truly add value.
How would you compare the two swissnex locations?
“Brazil is not for beginners” is a saying you hear repeatedly in Brazil. A country of immigrants, not unlike the U.S., Brazil is a melting pot that has achieved a shared cultural identity — that’s impressive, given its regional and ethnic diversity. This, paired with reliance on vast natural resources and an immense (largely homogenous) internal market, has made Brazil surprisingly self-sufficient and inwardly focused.
Universities, for example, have only recently made internationalization a priority; both lectures and research are almost exclusively in Portuguese, which poses an inherent barrier to international partnerships, and student or faculty exchanges.
In this context, swissnex Brazil focused primarily on academic stakeholders, helping Swiss universities and universities of applied sciences navigate the local ecosystem, forging first exchanges and partnerships.
This is, of course, in stark contrast to the main focus of swissnex’s work in San Francisco, where most Swiss academic institutions have existing partnerships, and where the focus has increasingly moved toward startup and innovation projects, with swissnex pioneering new approaches and programs to connect the Swiss and Silicon Valley ecosystems.
Another key difference is that in Brazil, swissnex covers a whole country — 207.7 million inhabitants in 26 states, with a surface area of 8.516 million km2. This enormous radius of activity required us to pursue a less centralized, or localized, approach, so we started with two offices from day one (in Rio and São Paulo) and our activities spread from the very South all the way to the Amazon region.
What did you learn from the experience of moving to Brazil?
Building a swissnex in such a different context was incredibly challenging, but exceptionally rewarding. Culturally, I learned to value the importance of building human relationships first, before engaging in business. I learned that scarcity can lead to some of the most impressive innovations. I understood that there is a big part of the world where the worries, concerns and dreams of Silicon Valley — though understood and admired — have very little applicability.
In terms of the swissnex mission, I discovered the opportunities that offer themselves to any Swiss institution looking to engage with a not-so-coveted Brazil. The hunger to engage internationally is palpable, and when bureaucratic, linguistic, and cultural challenges are overcome, the exchange is particularly rich and rewarding.
How did it feel to come back to San Francisco?
Compared to the journey south, coming back to San Francisco felt rather easy: I’m treading back in familiar lands to the heart of technological innovation that is in so many ways self-explanatory, and excels at selling itself. Though not without significant challenges, swissnex San Francisco has the wonderful luxury of developing novel approaches to “connecting the dots” — rather than grinding to first identify the relevant “dots,” then convincing each side of the value of engaging with one another, then ensuring that the connection doesn’t get lost in translation… San Francisco is a more transactional environment, where you can be (almost) sure that hard work pays off.
And, of course, coming back to swissnex at Pier 17 implies that the organization has reached a whole new level of visibility, opportunity and scope, which is incredibly exciting. Today, the team counts 21 people (up from around 13 when I left in 2013), and has built a fantastic new program that touches more institutions and individuals than ever before.
We’ve undergone a major change process at swissnex SF since your arrival; can you share your insights into this?
The past two years have been a period of significant change for swissnex San Francisco. We moved from 25 workspaces at our Montgomery office to 75 at Pier 17, which we share with over twenty partner institutions. At Pier 17, we have a permanent gallery space and a significantly larger event space. Furthermore, swissnex experienced the first leadership change since swissnex San Francisco was founded by my predecessor, Christian Simm, 15 years ago.
These changes bear significant opportunities and challenges, and led us to revisit our very raison d’être, business model, strategy, and activities. A decade and a half old, we have morphed to become hosts and curators as much as facilitators, thought-leaders, experts, and connectors.
At the same time, we’re part of a global network, serving largely the same Swiss stakeholders, however with increasingly different value propositions between our two North American offices and our three emerging market hubs. These differences are not always easy to communicate, but they are crucial for us to remain relevant and serve our mission in the most impactful way.
To tackle these challenges, the swissnex team has spent significant time and energy identifying our organizational strengths and weaknesses, and deploying strategies to tackle them. After two years of incessant focus on attracting and delivering to sponsors and partners in the face of new financial challenges tied to Pier 17, it was important for us to take a moment to think, breathe, and evaluate; to set the course for a sustainable and meaningful future in our new home.
How have you been tackling these challenges?
The secret sauce of swissnex San Francisco’s success has been an organizational culture that promotes self-initiative, risk-taking, and experimentation — Christian Simm’s trademark. This diverse, fluid, and entrepreneurial nature, however, has also made it difficult for outsiders to understand what swissnex is all about, and has sometimes led the team to work in silos. Our move to Pier 17 further contributed to that, as we are now scattered throughout a big building, making it harder to exchange and collaborate organically.
My most important concern coming back to San Francisco was this growing pain: how to balance creativity and structure. I decided to focus on alignment — a shared understanding of our “why,” a common strategy that would provide context for our diverse activities and act as a “fil rouge” for our messaging.
Process and structure follow, but only to support the strategy. We are proud to launch 2018 activities with an emboldened vision: swissnex San Francisco strives to advance new ideas and international collaboration for the benefit of societies. We work in the realm of knowledge, and strive to advance the most inspiring and promising ideas at the intersection of art, science, technology, and society. Our goal is to turn conversations that matter into collaborations that make a difference for our Swiss stakeholders, our local Bay Area community, and beyond.
As a governmental organization, we do what we do in the public interest, not for the benefit of shareholders. So we select, discuss, and promote the ideas and collaborations that we believe have the potential to benefit society.
In this new light, we will dedicate the latter part of the year to explore the forces shaping the emergent future within the concept of “responsibility towards creation,” codified in the preamble of the Swiss constitution along with key values such as solidarity, openness, and diversity. Employing the many formats we have developed over the years, under the umbrella of the swissnex Salon, we will host research and arts fellows, organize symposia and conferences, produce publications and thought-pieces to co-create insights on how advances in technology have impacted these values, and brainstorm on how we can ensure we build a responsible future.
Where do you want to take swissnex SF during your tenure as CEO?
I strongly believe that swissnex San Francisco has an essential role to play in contributing to Switzerland’s strength, resilience, and leadership in the face of a rapid technological progress that impacts all areas of life and work. We’re located in one of the epicenters where these changes originate, and we play a key role in bridging the two ecosystems by convening relevant actors, moderating conversations, and through knowledge-transfer.
Furthermore, locally in the Bay Area, we have built a strong reputation as a place where meaningful conversations happen that trigger shifts in perspectives and broaden horizons. Pier 17 is a neutral platform that brings together creators and decision-makers from the corporate, academic, entrepreneurial, creative, and political sectors who influence developments globally. We have become the “gold standard, setting the bar for international collaboration in the Bay Area,” as a European representative recently expressed.
However, while here in the Bay Area we are highly respected and admired for our work, in Switzerland, there still seems to be a cloudy perception of our value. This is something we urgently need to change. Our ultimate mission is to serve the Swiss science, education, and innovation ecosystem — a value that, while recognized by our partners, remains strikingly absent from the public eye, and is all too often misunderstood.
Building on the change process we have embarked on, my mission is to emphasize internal alignment to strengthen our messaging and emphasize impact for Switzerland and beyond. We will continue experimenting, probing, and pushing the envelope, as is required for any organization concerned with innovation, all the while selecting focus areas to help partners understand better how they can engage with us.
My goal is that, three years from now, swissnex relies on a sustainable business model based on a value proposition that is clear, yet broad enough to remain relevant at the cutting-edge of innovation.
Hailing from Sydney, Australia, Perrine Huber is Head of Marketing & Communication at swissnex San Francisco. Having previously worked on international arts and cultural events including the Biennale of Sydney and Sydney Festival, Perrine is interested in engaging audiences with new ideas.