Thorleif Thorleifsson

Maritime Optima at the Global Microsoft Digital Startups and ISV Conference

To explore what the current landscape is like for female tech entrepreneurs, Microsoft invited our CEO, Kristin Omholt-Jensen, together with Mary Beth Chalk, the co-founder and CCO of BeeKeeperAI to speak at a Global Microsoft Digital Startups and ISV event. Here are some of the questions Paula Gamble from Microsoft and her team asked asked Kristin along with Kristin's answers.

What inspired you to start your own business and what problem are you solving with your product or service?

I have been working in the maritime industry for many years. After selling my previous tech startups in 2018, I returned to the industry and noticed that they were organising themselves in the same way as it did a decade ago.

There is a lot of manual work involved, leading to significant time wastage. I believe that the industry has not yet fully embraced its digital potential.

I am passionate about solving problems like these, helping people save time and resources. I am also drawn to the opportunities presented by technology and data.

Being curious and fond of challenges, I decided to develop software to set together a team to make a product helping the industry organize itself more efficiently and realize its digital potential.

Our ultimate goal is to create a chartering AI assistant. When we founded the company in 2018 we were told that it was impossible.

Seems as we have done an almost perfect investment in data and a backend architecture for some of the AI technologies that have been made public, so we are looking forward continuing working with Microsoft to unlock this potential, to combine the AI technologies with our investment to provide shipowners, shipbrokers and cargo owners with more time to analyze, understand, and make well-informed decisions.

What were some of the biggest challenges or barriers you faced as a female founder and how did you overcome them?

My world is a man’s world. There are not many females in the global maritime industry or in the software industry.

I have never thought about whether being a female is a disadvantage or not. I face a lot of challenges, but I am not sure if they are related to being a female or not. I am just used to working with male colleagues. So I am focusing on just being who I am, and I think that is good enough.

My biggest challenge in Maritime Optima was the Covid lock downs where I felt we had to re-think everything, we did many mistakes during Covid. Then I think our biggest challenge has been related to recruiting the right people. We were like an inner circle when we started and then many of our previous colleagues wanted to start working with us. That was great but then we started to grow and had to recruit people people we don't know, and I think that phase is challenging.

What are some of the skills or qualities that you think are essential for a successful entrepreneur?

Passion and stubbornness!

It's about never giving up and being willing to sacrifice other things you enjoy and want to do. Find a startup team that enjoys spending time together, where you can share everything and sort out problems together.

When recruiting, you need to attract talented and independent people who are willing to go the extra mile when needed, which I find very challenging.

Another aspect of being a successful tech start-up is to put together a Board of Directors that want to involve in building a company, and being able to attract the right type of investors who will help you building the company from day one. Then, you have to align expectations between existing and new investors as the company grows.

How do you cope with stress, uncertainty, and failure in your entrepreneurial journey?

You need to feel a positive energy from your entrepreneurship. That is very important.

I'm not always good at coping with stress, to be an entrepreneur means a lot to do all the time but getting enough sleep is crucial to me. I need 6 hours of sleep every night. So I am organize myself by making a to do list and check out when I delivered.

I love spending time outdoors and breathing in fresh air. I enjoy walking, hiking, and swimming in the ocean, but I find it hard to find that kind of time.

In addition, I think it's important to have a patient family that knows how to cope with an entrepreneur who is working 24/7.

What are some of the best practices or tips that you can share with aspiring or early-stage female founders?

For all entrepreneurs no matter gender I have this to say:

"Never start by being alone. There will be so many challenges and you need a shoulder to cry on and someone to discuss with, and I have a partner like that. Without my Co-Founder and CTO Pål-Robert Engnæs I would not have survived as an entrepreneur.

Find a partner to work with – a person that is different from yourself. Have different qualifications but with whom you enjoy working.

Believe in yourself! Don’t take no for a no if you believe in what you are doing. Don’t let anyone take away your confidence.

I also think it is important to find partners externally, and I have been very fortunate to work with Thale Mjåvatn in Microsoft. She guide us, helps us and it feels as she is a part of our team. Without Thale, we would not have survived as a small tech start up.

Hopefully life is long. For female founders, I would like to say: Take the time to give birth to children. Being a mother of four is the biggest giftI have received. I became an entrepreneur when my youngest was 4 years old. At that time, I established my own consultancy services, and later I had 2 tech-start ups, and now Maritime Optima is my life.

Which are the favorite apps you use in your professional and personal life?

Any app with Maps; – ShipIntel & ShipAtlas – Flight radar and
App offering News like Aftenposten (Norwegian), the Guardian, Tradewinds, Dagens Næringsliv, BBS etc


What are some of the trends or opportunities that you see for startups in the post-COVID era?

I was very stressed when I understood that the global Covid lockdowns would last and be very unpredictable and made it very hard to plan. I remembered we discuss to give up at one time. We lost our R&D partners, it was impossible to recruit, some of the existing colleagues become sick and then they did not want to go outside their homes for a while. There were of course very many challenges but also some opportunities that we did not foresee back when we started.

For us the biggest opportunity for us during Covid was that Microsoft moved their Office 365 to the cloud solutions and brought with them their customers. That has opened up a land of opportunities for us and made it so much easier to get customers onboard ShipIntel. In addition I am very grateful we became a part of the Microsoft Start-up program and IVS program, and are taken so good care of by Microsoft.

So I think the best thing that happened to us during Covid was that I met Thale Mjåvatn and that she worked inside Microsoft and wanted to spend time working with a small company like ours.

How do you measure your impact and success as a female founder?

Oh – I am not sure how to answer that. A success might be the same for both a male and female, I think. What is success?

I would like to see more females working in the maritime industry and in software companies in general, so if we by attracting more female colleagues could contribute to that, that would be great.

One motivation is to bring the next generation into shipping. My father was a Sea Captain, and during my childhood we travelled a lot together with him. He showed me the world and he showed me the maritime industry. I would like to bring that on to the next generation, the next generation is interested in tech and data, and if they can use their skills and interest focusing on the maritime industry and many companies started using ShipIntel a kind of mission is completed.

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