20 April 2024

A journey to the boardroom and beyond

| The European |

Marianne Styrman, Chief Operating Officer at Norwegian edge connectivity provider Celerway, discusses her startup successes, the challenges that keep her going, and why the communications technology industry is more resilient than most

I have always pursued opportunities in high-growth tech companies, looking to draw on Norway’s rich technical and economic heritage and our instinct to build and create. The communication technology space, in particular, has fed my growing appetite for innovation and shaped my career progression. I have founded companies, exited them, and worked for global giants. And, to me, the journey has been infinitely more rewarding than the initial objective.

The role of education and good teachers 

I attribute that initial spark for my drive and energy to a memorable macroeconomics teacher I had when I was 17. As students, we learnt that Norway had great oil and gas resources. Yet, with fantastic foresight, he taught that uncovering new streams of products and services for exportation was integral to maintaining our nation’s economic wealth. That notion kindled in me a passion for working in the export business. I wanted to make a difference. I knew I didn’t have the necessary skills to become an excellent engineer. But I understood markets and strategy, the basic building blocks of economics, and applied that knowledge in the context of exports and technology. That was the start of my journey.

Norway has a strong history in communications technology, with most leading semiconductor manufacturers basing their wireless R&D here. This rich technological heritage and my passion for business opened doors for me in the industry, keeping me on the path of communications technology. Norway has much to offer the world with our connectivity and comms expertise. In fact, telecoms companies perform extremely well in the Nordics, with 5G speeds in the region eclipsing most of the rest of the planet.

Early years and startups 

Early enterprise experiences – and the willingness to take on a challenge – led me to branch out further afield, founding several successful startups. As a founder, I realised I needed to manage, build, inspire and adapt to the challenges and changes required to keep everything in focus. In 2000, I co-founded Moustik and Movilisto in Spain, specialising in premium SMS services. It became the first SMS technology provider to the European Media industry, enabling text voting in their TV shows across the continent, including one of the most popular international music competitions. Company exposure and hard work helped the business expand exponentially and achieve a solid European presence.

At 34, I had suddenly reached the pinnacle – or so I thought. I was at the top of my game! But instead, I wondered: “Where do I go from here?” I realised then what made me happy, energetic and satisfied was not the destination but the journey. The obstacles and triumphs I faced and overcame with my team along the way motivated me every day. I needed to return to where the action was.

Mixing with the big boys 

As much as I enjoyed my startup successes, the wins seemed transitory. I set my sights on more considerable challenges, more established companies, and joined tech giant Texas Instruments in 2005. I managed the global marketing team of wireless connectivity portfolio there, expanding it from $23m to $500m in eleven years. It was a great experience and learning opportunity to grow the business to that scale in a global corporation, especially in hardware. However, it felt increasingly like the future of communications technology lay in software.

Opportunity came knocking and I was challenge-ready, joining Norwegian IT service management specialist WebStep in 2016, focusing on its software business and attaining listed status on the stock exchange. To maintain business growth whilst achieving stock exchange accreditation, aligning and coordinating different knowledge-based departments was paramount. All my experiences and insights gained from being a founder to working in large corporations gave me the edge to stay efficiently organised whilst everything else was happening around me. 

Together with my team, I orchestrated and streamlined the processes needed to achieve the goals and vision of the board. Once we had accomplished the listing, I felt it was “mission accomplished”, so I explored new pastures. That was when Last Mile Solutions, an independent IoT platform for long range wireless communication, invited me to join them as its CEO.

The communications ecosystem

Despite my successes, it hasn’t always been easy. There are always fresh challenges to face, from the bursting of the dot-com bubble in 2000 to the financial crisis of 2008, right up to the supply chain chaos created by the covid pandemic. However, I believe there is something inherently resilient about the comms tech industry, no matter how volatile the markets are. It’s our innate human need to connect, communicate, collaborate and cooperate, which is baked into our DNA, and this is not only person-to-person but machine-to-machine.

Evolutionary shifts in remote working fuel our reliance on communications technology, igniting innovation and resiliency. This accelerated need for connectivity will keep growing along with our desire to innovate, work efficiently and cooperate globally.

Building resilience as a woman in tech 

I have gained valuable insights from being in the tech sector, and the top of the list for me is inclusivity, especially for women. Half of the world’s talent is female, yet women hold only 26.7% of tech jobs. We must break the glass ceiling and attract all this untapped potential, as this remains one of the industry’s most significant challenges. I want to encourage more women to take that vital step into the tech sector. Women do brilliant things and bring different skills to the table. We need to make it more appealing for them to want to be part of this industry. 

From a personal perspective, being a woman in tech has, on occasion, been challenging, but at the same time, made me more resilient. I have often been the lone female voice in the office and certainly the only female representative at board level. That means extra pressure and higher visibility on me, so when I’ve had to present, comment or report on a project, it feels like I’ve had to prepare myself twice as hard and speak twice as loud.

The last 30 years have been a rewarding and insightful journey to where I am today, Chief Operating Officer at Celerway. What we do at Celerway will set a new standard for connectivity technology and what we can deliver with edge applications. Our solution is about empowering the ever-expanding edge: we strive to be the first choice to power productivity, innovation and agility at the edge.

My most significant challenges have also been my greatest successes, and it is my continued curiosity about what lies beyond the horizon that keeps me engaged and ready for the next chapter. 

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