At just 28, Kiwi entrepreneur Genna Elvin has already co-founded a multimillion-dollar tech company and is working with Microsoft and Google.
Elvin and husband Francois Gaspard set up Tadaweb in 2010. Based in Luxembourg, the small data company specialises in human intelligence, providing customers with access to precise and constantly changing online information.
“In a world where everything is about big data, what we focus on is providing our users with a way to basically work with online information, teaching a computer how to interact with online information like a human,” Elvin says.
“We focus on getting better information through replicating the process humans do when they work with online information.”
Tadaweb’s offices are like Disneyland, Elvin says, inspired by Silicon Valley’s start-up culture.
“We invest heavily in a place where people want to be,” she says. “We’re really trying to disrupt our market and really build a technology that no one has ever built before.”
“We have everything from a giant inflatable gorilla, to ping-pong tables, a bar in the office and a giant gong. Each member of the team gets 50 euros when they arrive to make their desk look awesome.
“We’ve created a mini Google in Luxembourg, essentially, with our culture.”
Born on Waiheke Island and raised in the Hauraki Plains-Coromandel region, Elvin didn’t plan for a future in business. At Victoria University, she studied international relations and psychology.
“At that time I started to get involved with my first company, Sun Mana, which was installing solar panels in the Marshall Islands. It was a small project funded by the US government, and that sort of got me bitten by the entrepreneurial bug – although I didn’t know it at the time,” she says.
After graduating, Elvin began working for the New Zealand government in the area of high-risk immigration, receiving five promotions in a year, she says.
“It started off as a holiday job in the immigration department and I worked my way into the intelligence department.”
At 22, Elvin and then-boyfriend Gaspard moved to the other side of the world. “We both had amazing jobs and we decided that we just wanted to try and live in Europe for a few years,” she says.
They first touched down in Brussels, where Elvin did her Masters in international conflict and security, before moving to Luxembourg to start Tadaweb.
“While I was studying, my husband – who is Belgian and I met 10 years ago – had been working on the technology for years and years, and I actually found myself working more on the company than on my studies or my job put together, so we decided to move to the south of Belgium and start our company.”
In six years Tadaweb has grown to a team of 50, with developers from all around the world, and is set to employ another 100 by the end of next year, Elvin says.
The tech firm has received significant investment from some high-profile executives including the former head of mergers and acquisitions at Google Europe and a former head of investment at Goldman Sachs, among others, who are now on its board.
This year Elvin met Bill Gates, the founder of Microsoft and the world’s second richest man.
“It was very, very cool – it was a really rare opportunity,” she says.
“We were fortunate enough to be one of the companies to be selected to go over and present at Bill’s – Microsoft’s – biggest technology conference. It was cool to sort of have a Kiwi presence at that kind of event because there’s not many.”
Elvin was raised by her mother, a teacher who pushed her to work hard at school.
“I didn’t have a lot when I grew up, so I learnt the importance of making the best out of situations and finding innovative ways to make money,” she says. “Throughout my high school years I worked in a fish and chip shop and taught the saxophone to kids at my local primary school.”
Many years later, doing work for Microsoft is a dream come true. Elvin says she likes working with the tech giant as they share the same technical values.
“Nothing drives Microsoft more than tough technology challenges and that’s what gets myself and my team up each day,” she says. “We also highly value their dedication to making the world better and we have already embarked on joint projects with regards to tracking diseases such as dengue fever.”
As a Microsoft official technology partner, Tadaweb has access to its private technology. “We help them to make their technology better, and they help us to make our technology better.”
Her advice for start-ups hoping to partner with large industry players: “If you can provide really big technological challenges to companies like Microsoft and Google – challenge even them – then they’ll be super curious to get involved.”
Elvin is planning her return to New Zealand next year, and is hoping to set up an angel investment hub in the South Island, focusing on areas such as artificial intelligence and renewable energy.
“Our dream is to get into angel investing and try and build up a tech hub in New Zealand – bring back some of our knowledge that we’ve learnt in Europe and the Valley,” she says. “What I really want to do, particularly around the Tasman region or top of the South Island, is build a technology incubator and get young companies through acceleration that have worked in Europe and in America … and into investing and promoting New Zealand’s tech scene.”
Passionate about supporting women in tech, Elvin last year started a scholarship programme at Hauraki Plains College in Ngatea, Waikato – her old high school – to provide three years of funding for a young woman interested in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM).
“I got lots of scholarship funding when I was going through university so I wanted to give back,” she says.
“Basically, we created the Tada Female in STEM Scholarship which provides three years of funding – $2000 per year – to a young woman that doesn’t have a lot of economic resources, who wants to do science and technology at university.”
Long term, Elvin is unsure if she will sell Tadaweb or take the company public.
“We could potentially sell, we could IPO, or we could hand on the reins to someone else but we are definitely keen to come back to New Zealand,” she says.
“Tada is going to carry on one way or another but we’re definitely, within the next five years, coming home to build something in New Zealand.”
Last year Elvin featured in Forbes as one of Europe’s Top 100 Female Founders and was recently awarded the World Economic Forum’s Woman of the Decade in Business & Leadership Award.
Asked what she’s most proud of, Elvin says raising her son and a successful start-up at the same time. “Jack, my son, is almost the same age as my company and I have learnt so much from both motherhood and building a company.”
Elvin says people should use her as an example of what can be achieved, globally.
“I think that it’s important to reinforce that just because we [New Zealand] are young and maybe far away, that it’s not impossible to go to Europe or America and actually build something amazing.
“That uniqueness of being from so far away and from the kind of place that many people aren’t really sure of can actually be turned into something powerful.
“I’ve had the advantage of talking to the CEO of Microsoft, I’ve had the advantage of talking to some of London’s top VCs and sometimes you can either just be scared because people think you’re not capable, because you’re female, or from New Zealand, and you need to take that and blow them out of the water.”
• Age: 28
• Born: Waiheke Island
• Education: Bachelor of Arts from Victoria University, Masters in international conflict and security from University of Kent
• Last book read: Super Intelligence: Paths, Dangers and Strategies by Nick Bostrom
• Last family holiday: Sri Lanka
First Published NZ Herald – 18th November 2017