IWD 2022 Company Profile: AltoVita, the female founded firm disrupting a sector

IWD 2022 Company Profile: AltoVita, the female founded firm disrupting a sector

Vivi Himmel talks about the importance of having a diverse mindset and the challenge of breaking into a male dominated sector

Lee Hayhurst spoke to Vivi Himmel about the importance of having a diverse mindset as a founder and the challenge of breaking into a male dominated sector in travel and technology

A female entrepreneur whose firm is disrupting the corporate accommodation sector has called for more to be done to encourage and support women in technology.

Speaking on International Women’s Day London-based Vivi Himmel, co-founder and chief executive of AltoVita, said there needs to be greater awareness of gender equality.

She says more needs to be done, particularly in relation to helping employees with childcare, to counter perceptions of the technology sector being male dominated.

“International Women’s Day is important because awareness is still very low,” Himmel said.

“People are kind of aware they need to do something, but no one is truly doing something ground breaking and impactful.”

Himmel said the corporate accommodation sector had been almost entirely the domain of men until she and her business partner Karolina Saviova founded AltoVita in 2018.

Originally providing standardisation and quality assurance it gained traction in corporate relocation which Himmel said was falling short of offering a “consumer grade” experience.

It has built proprietary distribution technology to supply corporates and relocation management companies with accommodation in 165 countries and 1,238 cities globally.

With a background in investment banking, Himmel was relocated herself from New York to Hong Kong to London and received relocation packages with her job.

“I felt really valued by my employers, but we did a lot of research and found that the space is very much broken,” she says.

“Employees of international businesses were receiving very poor experiences in terms of options being shared and availability and rates.”

The switch to starting up a company in corporate accommodation saw Himmel enter a heavily male dominated sector.

“The sector we operate in is very niche and the leadership of our legacy competition is very much male dominated. We are two of very few female leaders within this sector,” she said.

As well as gender diversity, Himmel said she is also proud of instilling a diverse international DNA into AtoVita’s workforce of 40 which speak 15 languages and come from 20 countries.

She says the key to addressing Diversity, Equality and Inclusion (DEI) is to make sure it percolates throughout the organisation down to the most junior levels.

“One way to mitigate any DEI issues is to really empower teams in development and be willing to take risks with unpredictable factors.

“One of the things I like to say is we take calculated risks, but not unforced errors. That has resonated well with the team because they know they have the opportunity to excel.”

Himmel believes one of the reasons corporate accommodation grew to become so male dominated is that the sector’s leaders all emerged from a similar background.

It, therefore, became the cultural norm, and meant recruitment and promotion processes never had to address the issue of employees taking time off to start a family.

But Himmel says firms should not only be offering women the flexibility to balance their careers and motherhood but also fathers should be given the same opportunities.

Policies like helping staff with the logistics or even the cost of child care result in a more empowered and more committed workforce, Himmel points out.

And she believes that if sectors or companies are not prepared to do this then governments should compel them to through legislation.

“At the end of the day it comes down to the fact that a lot of women have had to choose whether they want to focus on their career or raise children.

“And then it comes down to companies giving women the opportunity to come back to their careers. We still struggle seeing women returning to positions they used to hold.

“Even today the expectation is that when you have children the husband continues to work and the woman takes time off the care for the children.

“I’m personally committed to addressing this from a different perspective in that we provide equal opportunities for both parents.

“It’s not always the woman who takes time off and essentially gives up the opportunity to succeed in their career.

“We need to be open-minded and offer women the opportunities for coming back to their careers and make conscious decisions to make that happen.

“Women who raise children are excellent multi-taskers and make arguably more mature decisions than male counterparts because they have to manage their time more carefully.

“We are committed to being really results oriented and to be true to our mission of being flexible in our execution.”

When it comes to the technology sector, Himmel admits the perception remains that it is heavily male dominated.

But she said not all roles in the technology eco-system are aimed at technologists. “I do not have a background in technology but I’m a founder of a technology company.

“I attended many different coding classes, not because I wanted to code but to immerse myself and to be able to have meaningful conversations with the tech team.

“Within tech it’s not just the coding that makes the difference in product creation and product management.

“You need a lot of empathy, you want to be able to deep dive into the problems to find the solution and be passionate enough to be able to iterate and produce the right product.

“It’s very much like the difference between designers, versus architects, versus engineers. A lot of civil engineers are male, but designers and architects are often female.”

As a woman and also as an Asian, Himmel said she has faced many instances in her career to date where she has had to make sure her voice is heard.

“It’s not easy to overcome, but I think that knowledge is power and being prepared makes a huge difference. Also being brave and bold.

“Often, if you just state the obvious people will disregard unless you are saying something controversial and are passionate about what you want to get across.”