WMNinTECH: Caterina Rizzi trailblazes a path for women techies in Montreal

Seated in one of the spaces curated, designed, and rented by the company she co-founded, Caterina Rizzi is calm and collected. She exudes the type of confidence you would expect from someone who climbed the corporate ladder in retail before completely rebranding herself as an entrepreneur in the real estate and hospitality sector with Breather.

MTLinTECH got the chance to sit down with Rizzi to discuss her own career, how she views the current landscape for women in tech, and how she hopes to change it for the better.

After graduating university with a fine arts degree, Rizzi secured a job with a major Canadian fashion chain working as a merchandiser. The move to retail wasn’t really a move at all; she had been working full-time as a salesperson and later merchandiser while attending school. At first she created merchandising plans for all the stores nationally, then internationally as the company expanded.

“Then they moved me over to the creative side for set design, styling, stuff like that,” Rizzi told MTLinTECH. “And then I started doing photoshoot campaigns and leading the creative team internationally as we expanded to the middle east and the US. I stayed for six years and then decided I didn’t want to be in retail anymore.”

So she took a few years off and took advantage of the chance to explore all her possible options. As a professional concept designer, she learned how to re-design her own life and re-brand her skill set.

“Looking at my cv it was all retail stuff. I spent a lot of time thinking about what my strengths and skills were and making them a bit more agnostic and generalized.

I was able to realize my skills and strengths were transferrable and phase out those words that were associated with retail specifically.

Once I shifted what my cv looked like, and my repertoire and my online presence and whatnot, I started to realize it was quite easy to apply myself to different domains. And then I did. I dabbled in a whole bunch of stuff.”

She ran the creative direction for a non-profit organization swapping clothes, then she worked doing creative strategy at a SEO marketing firm. But most importantly, she figured out she could transfer the experience she already had into literally anything if she did it right. And it was right around this time that a completely different kind of opportunity presented itself.

“I still call Breather the right place at the right time, if there was ever a thing like that. My co-founder and I hadn’t seen each other in ten years. About six/seven months before we founded the company, we ran into each other for the first time. He had an idea similar to what it is today, and we would bounce ideas off each other. One day I was at his house and he said, ‘You know, an angel investor told me if I’m really gonna do this I need a team.’ And I said, Hi!”

She saw a whole new way to apply her design skills and went for it.

“I think when you’re conscious of what interests you, you inadvertently push yourself towards it, you’re a little bit more open and interested in those pursuits. I was having fun bouncing ideas to see what it could be built into. I think it’s that natural curiosity you have for things that will automatically draw you towards the right things for you. I think listening to your gut is very important.”

After a few months of stealth mode, followed by a seed round, Breather was up and running and experiencing what Rizzi called “hypergrowth” for the next four years.

“There was no bureaucracy, there was no older generation not thinking as edgy as you were. I liked the responsibility that came with the job, I wasn’t scared of that. I loved leading the company and growing the company and taking care of everybody. That just really suited me.”

After her own successful venture, she’s ready to help other women entrepreneurs, and wants to create the resources to do so not just in the tech community, but in the business community at large.

“I get asked to do talks involving women entrepreneurs all the time. I would be introduced to all these entrepreneurs, men and women, but realized women were at a particular disadvantage. They didn’t know where to look, who to help them, what to do.”

Part of the problem is simply the lack of females in the tech sector, especially when it comes to investment.

“I think that investment wise it’s absolutely a male dominated environment. And as much as people say they’re open, the general feeling of that atmosphere is not very inclusive to women, it just isn’t. It’s a boys club and I think that they need to acknowledge that. It’s not everybody, but the majority is the majority.”

While Rizzi couldn’t go into detail about her upcoming plans now that she’s taking a step back from Breather, she did elaborate on the goals she hopes to accomplish.

“In the last year in particular I’ve really started to notice what a disadvantage women are at, how they don’t have as much at their disposal resource wise. There’s a couple of things I want to do with what I’m doing.

The goal is to help and unite female entrepreneurs. The goal is to make sure there’s a much tighter network. The goal is to provide better resources for these women so that they can flourish.

I want to see more dialogue about our strengths and weaknesses. I’m interested in focusing on solutions, not the problems. And I think sometimes we spend too much time complaining about the injustices instead of just finding solutions to them.”

Part of the solution to creating more dialogue is creating more groups and spaces for women to meet face-to-face.

“I think that women have a better capability to nurture and support each other than men do. The confidence boosting you have when you’re together as opposed to singular, the hive mentality. Watching the women’s marches was incredible. It empowers you, it’s really impressive. My goal is that everybody should have that nurturing environment. I think it’s time to get out of social media and back to face-to-face interaction. Because that really is what empowers us as a group, and there’s a lot more power in it face-to-face.”

Finally, when asked what advice she has for female entrepreneurs just starting out, she circled back to the topic of confidence.

“I want women to stop thinking they’re not good enough. If you want to talk to someone that you admire, send them an e-mail that actually shows that you know something about them and ask for 15 minutes of their time. Or if not, can they answer this one question for you. What have you got to lose? They don’t answer you? Who cares, so what?

I think that everything’s possible. this automatic discouragement is the big issue for me. Because I have more of a mentality that I can do anything if I put my mind to it.

So it’s really disheartening to me to hear people say ‘I don’t think i’m good enough to apply for this job’. or ‘I didn’t say something because i didn’t think it would sound smart enough’. I want that demystified asap. I think you can do anything you want if you actually work hard at it and keep a good clear conscience and believe in it. And if not, get someone else to tell you that they believe in you. Get a cheerleader. That might be the best amo for people that feel like that.”

All photos were taken in Breather spaces.




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