QX: After stations in New York, California and Hong Kong you became Junior Professor at the University of Bonn researching „Digital Detox“ while being an entrepreneur at the same time. What’s the biggest challenge having to balance these two opposite directions?
Alexander: Actually, it is very much the same thing. If you want to change the world, society will offer different roles and vehicles. Professorship is one; Start-Up is another. So really, to me, they are just tools to do what I think needs to be done.
QX: You are keynote speaker and moderator of the „Big Idea Lounge“ at this year’s Leadership Conference. It seems that you like sharing expertise but also getting more exposure, especially to Digital Bohèmes?
Alexander: I like creating dialogues, in any direction. It is as much about connecting with people, as it is to connect people with each other. In this setting, you need to announce your “wants” and “haves” as much as learn about those of others. This allows to create a dialogue that would otherwise have been much slower, or not have happened at all.
QX has evolved incredibly over the past 15 years. When I joined, people largely turned to investment banking, consulting or large corporates. Now, QX is much broader and more diverse. There are founders, media people, Digital Bohèmes and even magicians. Every single one of these people is exceptional and will leave their mark.
Innovation, especially of the digital kind, is interdisciplinary. Basically computer science steps in and says: “Show me what you do all day, and I will show you, how we can make it better, faster and cheaper; actually all three at the same time”. This dialogue is not easy, you need to bring the necessary people and disciplines to the same table.
QX provides an excellent breeding ground for this type of innovation. There are entrepreneurs, corporates, family offices, bankers, SMEs. This diverse environment is absolutely unique. At the Big Idea Lounge, I am hence equally happy to engage with the Digital Bohèmes, as well as bankers, managers and the creative types. This mix alone already guarantees an electrifying dialogue.
QX: You joined QX as member when you were a student more than 15 years ago. From your current point of view what concrete (mentoring) advices do you have for our younger seniorities?
Alexander: Take responsibility. At age 18, your education does not end. Your parents just hand over the steering wheel. Think of yourself as your own coach. Does this-and-this help me be the person I want? Does it help me grow? Does this challenge me in the right way? Accept this responsibility. Like your parents', your own decisions should not necessarily be easy, but ultimately beneficial.
Take bets. You cannot plan the future. But you can put yourself into situations that make great things likely to happen. Like at the horse tracks, you are pacing bets: on the place you live, on the people you hang out with, on the topics you tackle, on the technology you research. The more of these bets you get right, the higher the chances for magic.
Take risk. We have full employment. You are guaranteed a job, and if everything goes wrong, you will still earn an above-average income. Consider this a comprehensive collision coverage. This is your safety net. Now, show me how high you can jump.
Seek challenges. Leave your circle of comfort. If you have a job you know by heart, if you live in a place you are entirely familiar, if you are really comfortable: your learning curve has gotten flat. Leave! A semester in Thailand? Head for Tajikistan. Happy in your corporate career? Serve the homeless. A political activist? Join an investment bank. Only ever consider changes that sufficiently scare you.
Love people. At the end of the day, they are the only thing that matters. Your boss. Your peers. Your customers. Put people first. With all their faults, hopes and fears. Develop genuine interest. Nothing else ever matters.
Show kindness. To your peers. To juniors. Many of these will succeed. Some will surpass you. They might seem like small fry now, or even like rivals. But later in life, you will be part of the same hunting pack.
Show loyalty. And when the shit hits the fan, show more loyalty. People sense loyalty, and they will only invest time and energy into you, if they feel this will ultimately pay back.
Be a gentleman.
QX: What are your future goals or dreams?
Alexander: We are living in absolutely thrilling times. Digitalization has only started. Forget everything you think you know about start-ups, apps, or venture capital. We are about to build the Internet of Things. This is massive. This is difficult. This dwarfs everything we have seen so far. And, the future is wide open.
This is an historic moment. It can only be compared to the “discovery” of America, or the first Industrialization in the 19th century. I am immensely grateful to be alive during these times.
I consider myself a digital renaissance man, equally versed in technology, culture, society, politics and economics. This ability to navigate in a very big picture is extremely sought after. Can I explain to large corporates why their current digital strategies are ultimately failures? Easily. Can I explain German SMEs, how to engage in digitalization? Of course. Can I run a VC fund? Most likely. Can I equally advise European policy? Yep. Are we actively working on start-ups? Yes, certainly.
During the last six months, things have happened insanely fast. I cannot even list all the things I am currently working on; six weeks from now, the world will look entirely different. During the next months, things will crystallize and fall into place.
There are days, when I get scared and start worrying, where exactly I am heading, and if I made the right choices. Then I remember the words of one of my buddies and mentors: “Alex, you will die as a very rich man. The only question is, when exactly fortune sets in.” He has seen much more of life than I and is much smarter. So really, I am not worried.
QX: We know you are a passionate traveler, are there any cultural or social experiences you would like to share with other QX-Members?
Alexander: I used to have a Pakistani roommate. One day, his wife came over from Lahore. I welcomed her, took her hand, shook it, and walked off. Naive as I was, I had left the poor girl rather traumatized. Another man had dared to touch her body. I could have grabbed her breasts, and it would not have left her more confused. I felt rather ashamed for my insensitivity. The next week I had to fly to Qatar. I was so afraid to make a similar mistake, I only folded my hands in a praying position and greeted women “Thai-style”.
Seriously, I have stepped in a fair amount of Fettnäpfchen. But ultimately, if you show politeness, curiosity and respect, you will be forgiven any cultural misunderstanding.
QX: Considering our topic, last but not least: What is your Vanity?
Alexander: In the last five days, I was on stage with Thomas De Maizìere, Frank Bsirske and Günther Oettinger. Frank Bsirske had his chauffeur drive me to the airport. Günther Oettinger invited me to Brussels. At moments like these, I do feel flattered.