Kiteboarding design interview in Kiteworld magazine

Elsa Berger – The Best Wo-man for the Job

Elsa Berger - Lake Ammersee

THIS ARTICLE FEATURED IN THE WINTER 2020/21 PRINT EDITION OF KITEWORLD – SUBSCRIBE TO OUR SPECIAL SUMMER AND WINTER EDITIONS HERE

Kiteworld magazine summer print edition


THE BEST (WO)MAN FOR THE JOB

Elsa Berger was just one of five women in a class of 65 studying sports equipment technology at University in Vienna. She’s now the product manager at Duotone and believes there are no barriers for women to pursue a career in kiteboarding hardware. Jim Gaunt hears how she found her feet in the business

 

Credits: All photos Duotone / Words: Kiteworld editor, Jim Gaunt

When did you think a career in kiteboarding might be possible?

Like many Austrians I was obsessed with skiing and always hoped to get a job related to that. Learning more about the industry left me a little bit frustrated though as the innovation in development seemed to have stagnated beyond the equipment just getting lighter. I actually applied to ‘North Kiteboarding’ in 2015 (before the brand became Duotone). Manu (who is now one of my favourite colleagues) got the job, but it seems I made a lasting impression in my interview as Toni (Antonio Destino) contacted me in 2017, asking if I’d be interested in joining the team. I eventually quit my job at Scott (where I was responsible for the product management and development of their entire glove range) and joined Duotone the following year.

 

 

When did you start kiting?

In 2012 I was on a windsurfing holiday in Fuerteventura and getting a bit bored of just going back and forth and having the mast fall on my head whenever I tried any freestyle manoeuvres. I saw the kiters jumping around with seeming ease. Two weeks after that trip I had my first kite lessons and never touched my windsurfing gear again.

 

Describe your role at Duotone

My first day at Duotone was the launch of the new brand back in July 2018. I was initially responsible for bar development and product management, doing the 3D constructions, line specifications and prototype testing in our lab and field tests. I dealt with suppliers and was the contact point for marketing, sales and customer service. I’m very comfortable when it comes to organisation and love to solve problems, so quickly moved more deeply into product management. Now, together with Antonio Destino (head of R&D) I manage the entire product management of the kites, bars and – as of six months ago – the twin-tips, too.

 

What does your day-to-day workload look like?

There are annual tasks, such as discussing colours, planning production slots with factories, preparing launch dates and so on, but there’s definitely no weekly rhythm, which I like. Thinking ahead about possible problems while also dealing with current problems makes my job so interesting. I am the contact point for all the kites, bars and twin-tips, so day-to-day there’s always a lot of communication work across all departments, plus daily contact with suppliers to be sure that we get what we want at the right time. I really enjoy ‘fighting’ for the best quality we can get, which means a lot of risk as well as crisis management.

 

 

Tell me about the team you work with

When I started working for Duotone there was one man (no girls backthen in the R&D team) responsible for each product group. Product managers are now responsible for the product process itself, while developers spend more or less the whole day designing as they have fewer emails to answer. The developers and product managers work closely together, which is more fun than working alone. I’m also responsible for test trips and dealing with our team riders and schools who also do some testing. I try to create feasible timelines for getting all this done, which isn’t always easy.

 

In an ordinary year, would you travel much?

In a ‘normal’ year I travel a lot; not necessarily to test myself, but to ensure we’re getting the ‘right’ productive and technical feedback. I regularly visit factories to check their processes and quality, but of course everything is different this year and I’m spending a lot of time in my home office in Austria. I even got a ‘Corona – dog’ as I finally have time to train her.

 

Were you always interested in product design?

My dad is a hobby carpenter, so from an early age I had experience of working with wood. Though it was fun, I wasn’t very talented, especially when it came to thinking about how to make things functional. Last year, however, I bought a panel van and did pretty much all the handcrafting and designing myself. I now have a super nice, practical camper! The first time product design had a more profound effect on me was when I got my first pair of sandwich construction skis aged 12; the moment I suddenly became a way better skier.

 

 

How soon were you aware that there aren’t many women involved in product management / design? How did you feel
about that?

I was always aware, but the first time I really thought about it was when I started university; there were 60 boys and just five girls on my course. When I started at ABS we were a team of just two developers, but as I got more and more involved in the industry I was surprised that in the sports hard goods sector there are barely any women. I actually really enjoy showing guys how things work and that women can do it at least as well, if not better! During my first months at Duotone I was working with the GKA and many other brands to finalise the new ISO Standard for quick release safety systems. I felt well accepted and nobody seemed judgemental about the fact I was a woman. Being young and female can make it a bit harder when talking to a supplier who has been doing his job for 30 years. If I have to tell him that we need to change a QC process, or that he has to meet certain deadlines it hasn’t always been accepted in the first mail.

 

What has been the most interesting project that you’ve been involved with at Duotone?

One of my favourite projects was the Flite99 lines, the first project I was completely responsible for. I really like the feedback of a good product. If I go to a shop and ‘my’ product is on display and people are getting stoked about it on forums – you know all your work was worthwhile!

 

 

How has your job and focus had to change in 2020, going through the initial Covid-19 outbreak and those immediate market concerns, to now looking back at the end of the European summer season?

We were in Cape Town when news broke of Covid-19 in China. A week after returning to Europe we had a crisis meeting with our biggest Chinese supplier who told us they couldn’t produce anything and were completely locked down. That was the first moment that I thought, ‘Oh dear – this will be just the beginning’. The factory couldn’t produce anything for weeks! Fortunately they came back online sooner, worked quickly and still managed to produce everything on time. Shortly after that our Sri Lankan kite factories closed. By then business was down almost 10% on the previous year, meaning we had to postpone developments as we also still had ‘old’ stuff to sell. The whole R&D team were working shorter hours, but after Spain, Italy and France were allowed to kitesurf again, the market just exploded with huge sales numbers. In no time we had to get back on track
and our sales manager had to calculate the thousandth forecast for 2020. We are still working from our homes a lot, but firing 120%.

 

What’s your general outlook for next year for the kitesurfing market?

I think there are super interesting times ahead, especially for kite development itself. Fabric suppliers are just getting an idea of how attractive the market could be with newly developed cloth. As well as for kites, we’re also working with suppliers to get the most interesting material mixes for twin-tips and surfboards. I think it’s a really exciting time to work in this industry.

 

 

How do you think more women could be encouraged to pursue a career in design / product management?

I don’t think there is a barrier as such; it’s more a lack of motivation in most women to work in this field. Of the seven team members working in the Duotone R&D department, three are women; Xuerao Zhang is a designer / developer, Julia Keller is our intern working on testing materials, plus myself. I think that’s a healthy average.

 

What is the best part about your job?

Enjoying it! I’m happy my work revolves around one of my passions. I really like my team and no day is quite like the day before.


THIS ARTICLE FEATURED IN THE WINTER 2020/21 PRINT EDITION OF KITEWORLD – SUBSCRIBE TO OUR SPECIAL SUMMER AND WINTER EDITIONS HERE

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