Enterprise

How I decided to leave the US and pursue a tech career in Europe

Melissa Di Donato moved to Europe to broaden her technology experience with a different market perspective. She planned to stay two years. Seventeen years later, she remains in London as CEO of Suse.

Suse CEO ​Melissa Di Donato

“It was a hard go for me in the beginning. I was entering inside of a company that had been very traditional in a sense.”

Photo: Suse

Click banner image for more How I decided seriesA native New Yorker, Melissa Di Donato made a life-changing decision back in 2005 when she packed up for Europe to further her career in technology. Then with IBM, she made London her new home base.

Today, Di Donato is CEO of Germany’s Suse, now a 30-year-old, open-source enterprise software company that specializes in Linux operating systems, container management, storage, and edge computing. As the company’s first female leader, she has led Suse through the coronavirus pandemic, a 2021 IPO on the Frankfurt Stock Exchange, and the acquisitions of Kubernetes management startup Rancher Labs and container security company NeuVector.

“Being an American in Europe is unique,” Di Donato said. “Being an American leading a tech company that’s listed in Germany is unique. Being a female American running a German tech company on the SDAX is even more unique at the size of our company.”

Di Donato’s story, as told to Protocol, has been edited for clarity and brevity.

I was at a stage personally, where I was a New Yorker, had been in San Francisco for more than a decade, was really interested in getting a more well-rounded experience for my career, so I thought living in Europe for a short time would do the trick. I thought it would give [me] a different perspective. I was managing some projects that were global projects in nature, so it didn’t really matter, necessarily, where I lived. When I left IBM, I had a lot of my old contacts from my days at Pricewaterhouse and Oracle, and they started calling and saying, “Oh, we’re doing a global systems integration project or global outsourcing project, or we’re doing an implementation in Europe.” Everyone started coming to me asking me for help. So then I ended up running a number of different businesses from Europe in the U.K.

It was a really interesting transition to go from Salesforce, SAP, and then, obviously, the last three years for Suse. Being an American and being an American woman probably didn’t work in my favor for sure. I scream both of those things as soon as I open my mouth. I still sometimes pinch myself of the fact that [Suse owner EQT] turned over a $2.5 billion investment to an American woman. Granted, I was a big part of running an 8.5-billion-euro portfolio at SAP, but still, [I was] not German and not German-speaking. I don’t live in Germany, I live in London. Open source has not been reveled as the most diverse of areas of technology, let alone that technology itself is already struggling to ensure that diversity is included at all levels. It was a hard go for me in the beginning. I was entering inside of a company that had been very traditional in a sense, but also very ready to grow and transform on its own right, without being inside of another business.

Being a CEO for tech business in a private setting in the U.S. and in Europe is probably very similar. We have the same KPIs, the same measurements, the same outlook, the same big dreams, the same futures, same technologies. We tend to adopt things a little bit slightly later — I would say six months, depending on what the technology is, to a year or two years later in Europe — than we do in the U.S. Where there is a difference is running a U.S.-listed company and a European-listed company. The American investors in technology just tend to be slightly more used to and well versed in investing in technology businesses, which often can be very fluid. You have a lot of tech startups coming out of the valley and out of the U.S. that have very significant valuations that are not profitable, for example. That’s kind of par for the course in the U.S., and American investors are used to that. European investors are well known to be a bit more conservative. They want to have profitability and growth measured together. There’s a lot less ability to invest for growth in Europe.

When I first arrived, European tech was really still in its infancy. The successful homegrown companies, there weren’t many. You could count them on one hand. You couldn’t string together the European tech scene in a way to create a cohesive tech ecosystem.

The early days of the [2008] financial crisis … changed the face of European tech for the better. We had a lot of ambitious young graduates coming out looking at an entrepreneurial approach to business as unemployment was hitting its peak. Venture was just starting to really grow a decade ago in Europe. People started staying in Europe. All the big investors, private equity, and VCs from the U.S. were now making their way to Europe. Startup by startup, it was solidifying into profitable companies and put Europe on the map for tech investment only in the last decade. We started showing and encouraging the investor communities, but also the European startup community, that they can really chart their course, and they don’t have to be a Silicon startup to really be a tech icon. We produced a record $100 billion in capital investment [last year], and we have 98 new unicorns in Europe.

Being an American woman in Europe running a German tech company is challenging a lot of days. Businesses must see equality and diversity as a key underpin to the success of business. Europe generally is behind the U.S. in the way of diversity, particularly in the C-level and the boardroom. I am very vocally against quotas, because I don’t want anyone to ever think that I was put into a company because I’m a woman, but rather I’m the right candidate. But it’s like brass tacks here. I don’t want to be the exception. I want to be the norm, and we’re not there yet.

I have been incredibly embraced and well received in Germany. I’ve been a very sought-after leader in Germany, and they rewarded me incredibly with elevating my role and my position and all the things that I’ve done in Germany. I’ve been incredibly well supported, more so than I could have ever asked or dreamt of, really. So the issue is not Germany at all. The issue is tradition, and the fact that we don’t have enough women in the pipeline. But we are going to change that. We are absolutely going to change it.

This story was updated to clarify the stock exchange on which shares of Suse are listed.

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