Q&A with Deutsche Bahn Digital Ventures' Marie-Luise Klose

Marie-Luise Klose is a Senior Manager in Venture Development at Deutsche Bahn Digital Ventures, based in Berlin, Germany, and Co-Founder at Talentlabor. Before joining Deutsche Bahn, Marie-Luise held positions as a digital consultant and global manager at Rocket Internet. You can follow her on Twitter: @mariekolumna

What drew you to venture capital and working with startups?

Having worked for large organizations at the beginning of my career, I was looking for something fast-paced, adventurous, and demanding. There is probably no better place to take responsibility, learn at rocket speed and challenge yourself than the start-up world. It got me super excited to see how many new digital products change our lives and habits and I wanted to contribute to this transformation. Developing an entrepreneurial mindset and experiencing fast failures and steep learning curves was a crucial aspect of my personal skill set.

How did you land your first role in VC and how/why now at Deutsche Bahn in the intersection of corporates and startups?

While I am well aware that many people feel attracted to the start-up and VC ecosystem from the very beginning of their careers, I found my way to the industry on rather winding paths. My background lies in political science, media, and marketing. Having worked as a journalist and PR manager for several years, I felt the need to try out something completely new. From BMW, I joined Rocket Internet in 2014. The Berlin-based company builder and investor were back then the epicenter of the European start-up ecosystem, the mothership of now publicly listed companies such as Zalando, Home24, and Delivery Hero.

At Rocket Internet I worked as part of the growth team with dozens of start-ups. Among them were companies we built in-house from day 1 as well as mature start-ups rocket invested in. I have actively supported the growth and scaling of different B2C and B2B business models and was able to build a profound understanding of the challenges and potentials.

When I got approached by Deutsche Bahn Digital Ventures, the corporate VC of DB Group, the fund had already placed the first investments but there was no one in charge of leveraging the collaboration potential between the portfolio and the organization. This intersection is incredibly interesting but also quite a challenge: I am in charge of helping both sides to overcome cultural barriers, identify meaningful growth opportunities, help the founders navigate their way through the corporate jungle (and protect them from unnecessary internal complexities) - while at the same time bringing new technologies to DB.

What does an average day look like in your role? And how do you organize and prioritize your responsibilities?

My average workday is usually combined of three parts: 1. Strategy and operational consulting of our portfolio companies I am always eager to have a close relationship with the founders of our portfolio to understand where they stand and their objectives. Together we develop specific approaches and strategies on how to pilot/sell/scale their products within the DB organization. 2. Technology transfer into DB To bring new technologies to the organization that accelerates innovation and digitization is a crucial aspect of the job. I speak to many internal experts to understand their challenges and suggest new solutions that may fit. 3. Deal Sourcing Together with our investment team at DB Digital Ventures, I am always excited to speak to new companies, to understand their potential either from an investment perspective or from a collaboration perspective.

When did you decide to start a venture yourself? Could you share a bit about Talentlabor and what it is?

I have always loved the energy of new beginnings. Working with inspiring entrepreneurs has been an important part of my career. It was always in the back of my head that I would love to start a company myself. However, I never wanted to do it for the sake of it.

When I started Talentlabor (German: “Laboratory for talent”) in 2021 with my co-founder, we wanted to start a business that enables companies sustainable growth and innovation. Talentlabor is a consultancy and coaching firm for SME businesses. Our mission is to enable teams to think and act as entrepreneurs, with a strong focus on new technologies. We offer fully customized, inspiring, and interactive programs, enabling employees to create digital value. Our program always reflects real challenges the companies face during their transformation process.

What is your favorite part about doing what you do now? And if you’d like to share, what’s your least favorite part? (at Deutsche Bahn or Talentlabor)

What I love about my role at the VC of Deutsche Bahn is the neverending inspiration and everything that I learn through the founders. I am not an expert on a very specific topic, but I have the chance to learn so much every day about such a diverse set of topics. In my role as a founder of Talentlabor, I absolutely love the fact that everything I work on is direct value creation for the business. While in a large organization it’s needed - and sometimes cumbersome - to get all stakeholders on board, in my own company we don’t have any hierarchies and can move extremely fast. I also enjoy working with diverse customers who face completely different challenges in digitizing their businesses. It further broadens my horizon and learning curve.

Have you faced major challenges as a founder? (Any obstacles you had to overcome?)

I was surprised by how hard it can be to fully understand the needs of your target group. We had a bunch of assumptions that we had validated before the start of the business, however, when we spoke to the first customers we figured that all of them have different needs which are limited comparable. We had to be very flexible in tailoring our offering to each customer which led to limited scalability. However, it led us to offer a product that was a real fit to the needs, fully customized, and therefore a competitive advantage.

Also, the COVID19 pandemic was and still is a huge challenge for us, as it is probably for most businesses. Our workshop programs are absolutely based on personal interaction and an inspiring atmosphere. A certain part of it can be realized virtually, but nothing can compete with face-to-face work in this field.

Maybe one last point: Starting a business in Germany is a complex thing to do from an administrative perspective, too. Registration, taxation, and other legal topics kept us busier than we had assumed. It’s not the least bureaucratic country in the world.

Are there spaces/sectors you’re particularly excited about right now from an investment perspective?

From an investment perspective everything labeled as “enabling technologies” gets us excited at DB Digital Ventures. We look for a strategic fit with DB group and for new technologies that can make a difference in the organization. I get very excited about Human-Machine-Interfaces, 3D-Printing, Robotic, AI, and Cloud Services as well as Cybersecurity, Data Management, and Digital Twin.

What are some of the “unspoken rules” in venture investing (if any, in your opinion)

Network is key, people make the difference. In the end, every investment decision breaks down to the question: Do we trust the team that they can do this?

I believe this is partially also the reason why the industry lacks diversity. We aim to reproduce successes by betting on the same type of people. This is what makes it so tricky to answer the question, it goes way beyond the professional background. It pays off to be brave and overcome the stereotype.

What are some of the things that you're doing to improve diversity and inclusion in the portfolio and ecosystem more broadly?

I am personally very engaged in female networks for VC and start-ups. We have also joined an initiative by the German start-up association aiming to support female founders. I can see change happening: Diversity used to be a rather soft topic, now it’s actually calling the attention of investors if teams lack diversity. When I see a team slide in a pitch deck, it makes a difference if the founding team and management are composed of different backgrounds and socio-demographics. Diverse teams perform better. I also support the hiring process by referring great people and recently participated in a study by Ernst&Young on female leadership in the German VC and start-up ecosystem. Awareness is key, and seeing how much attention the topic gets compared to some years back is fantastic.

What advice would you give to young women who want to enter VC - on the investing, operations, or platform side?

Do not copy anyone. At the beginning of my career, I wish someone had told me that it’s all about finding your individual way, your individual skillset, and your individual tone of voice. When I started working I tried to imitate whom I found inspiring or considered a role model. I believe this strategy does not pay off for most people. Dare also to be different. The VC scene is still a very homogenic scenery but this is changing. What we need is bright minds with very different perspectives and authenticity.