Using tech to address the affordable childcare problem

workingmums.co.uk spoke to Christiane Demgenski about her award-winning role as Chief Product Officer at a start-up that offers loans to fund childcare costs.

2023 FDM everywoman in Technology Awards. Park Plaza Westminster Bridge Hotel. 9th March 2023. Photograph by Steve Dunlop www.stevedunlop.com [email protected]

Can technology solve the problem of childcare costs?  Christiane Demgenski thinks it can at the very least start a conversation about how we value childcare. She is Chief Product Officer of a start-up which specialises in offering loans to parents so that they don’t have to shoulder huge childcare costs in the first years of family life. Her work has earned her a coveted FDM everywoman in Technology Award.

Christiane took the Tech for Good Award at the recent awards ceremony and says winning was a complete surprise. Like several of the winners, she doesn’t have a background in technology and has leveraged her other expertise – political nous and communications skills – to the benefit of the start-up she works for.

From politics to tech

Christiane studied political science and then took a job as a graduate trainee at banking company UBS. She was introduced to different parts of the business as part of the induction process and, as she had previously spent a year in Israel and had learnt Hebrew she was sent to Israel for six months to work on a Swiss/Israeli start-up project. That exposed her to a dynamic entrepreneurial mindset and she worked closely with a small team on the project.  Together they built and tested the software they needed and Christiane could see the tangible results of her work.

Inspired by what tech could do, she returned to Switzerland and moved into the IT department as a business analyst, acting as a bridge between the development teams and the business experts. The idea was that she would ensure the right things got built, but she soon realised that there was room for a fresh approach. At the time, the IT people were based in a different building. “I realised that we just needed to talk to each other more,” she said.

UBS subsequently began agile transformation efforts and Christiane’s role was to bring everyone together and to bring the IT and business people together in one place. She spent two years as an agile coach, learning how to break down the divisions between the IT and business worlds. “What we had before was a recipe for miscommunication,” she says. “Agile working forces people to communicate and creates greater transparency and feedback loops. It changed the mindset to focus on the value we were producing for our customers.”

Childcare loans

It was 2019 when Christiane decided banking might be a ‘golden cage’. “I was becoming very shaped by that world,” she says. “I thought that if I wanted to change I needed to do it soon when I was more free to take a pay cut because I had no family.” Having started her career in political science, she said she was still very much grounded in the idea that she wanted to have impact on the ground – “to change the world”. She met the founders of Awina and was struck by their mission to make childcare more affordable. At UBS, she had seen the impact on women’s careers of having children and had personally experienced how her own mother had been held back after she had children and took a career break to support her husband’s career, only realising the negative consequences on her retirement benefits after she divorced.

At the time Christiane joined as Chief Product Officer Awina was just starting up. It was set up by experts in childcare and banking.  Christiane’s role was to build the product, a complex process as it required negotiating different regulatory rules while ensuring a good experience for the user. Awina loans parents money to cover up to half their childcare costs which they then pay back gradually as their career develops. It means parents don’t get into debt in the early years of their family life, a debt which they sometimes find it hard to climb out of.  “It’s an investment in the future,” says Christiane.

To shape the product, she spent some time in daycare settings. She says having her own child – now one –  has also shaped her view, showing her that childcare is not just about economics, but about each parent’s different circumstances and about relationships of trust between childcare provider and parent as well as about the relationship between parent and child. She says: “It was a huge realisation for me that it’s not just about economics. Financial education about the long-term impact of taking a career break is good, but women are not stupid. They just face impossible choices and we need to make those choices easier by improving the systems around them.”

Christiane says the loans are a stop gap until political solutions are found to address the childcare issue, until employers and society value working parents – especially mothers and until governments invest properly in children. She worries that quality could suffer in a bid to provide cheaper childcare and says the issue is how to build quality childcare which is affordable for parents.

Christiane says that while the current economic and financial upheavals have impacted funding for startups such as Awina, she hopes that at the very least the company has kickstarted a conversation about affordable childcare and mentions that the Swiss House of Representatives recently approved a plan to reduce childcare costs by 20%. “Before people were burying their heads in the sand. If we have been able to show there is a need and that the system is broken and doesn’t offer parents a choice that will be valuable,” she states.


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