Rewind a few decades, to Vienna In the mid-1990s. At the time, the Austrian Freedom Party (FPÖ) was just beginning to make waves as an anti-foreigner movement. Marie Ringler, then a political science and gender studies student at the University of Vienna, decided she had to take a stand in the face of the growing racist sentiment around her. “Why is the world so broken?”, she wondered.
With a group of friends, Ringler organised rallies and demonstrations. It was fun, yet she quickly realised that these didn’t have the impact she was looking for. “We weren’t changing anything,” Ringler says. “The government was happy to see us spend our energy in the street, since they could carry on as usual.”
After half a year, the Green Party asked if Ringler would run for office. “I was 24, and had no idea what I was getting myself into!”, she says now. Not only was she a woman, but she also would be the youngest sitting representative in the regional Parliament.
But duty called. “When you have that nagging feeling that street rallies are not changing anything, you have a responsibility to take action,” she says. “And I felt that politics could be an avenue for that.”
The mechanics of politics — parliamentary debates, bringing motions and cobbling together a majority — should represent 10% of a politician’s time and energy, according to Ringler. “The other 90% is talking with your constituency, the citizens, stakeholders, and your party members. Politicians often lose sight of what is the most relevant in order to get things done.”
She used her office to create transparency, sharing what was happening in the Parliament with the citizens using the Internet. In 2004, she started a blog to show what was happening behind the scenes of the Parliament. “I created a lot of anger within the system,” says Ringler. But she never bowed; she wanted to bridge the gap between the elected officials and the people they represented.
“Life is too short to be in politics forever”
Fast-forward to 2010. Ringler decided to keep moving, because otherwise, she’d be part of the system – and, she says, part of the problem. “People stay in politics forever and become dependent on its structures. It feeds their vanity,” she says.
At the time, Ringler was a part time MBA student at the University of St. Gallen. One of her professors presented a case study about Specialisterne, a Danish company that leverages the unique strengths of people with autism to find them jobs. The idea changed her way of seeing business. And when she found out that the founder was a part of a network called Ashoka, she was determined to be a part of it.
There only was a small problem: Ashoka didn’t have an office in Austria. Ringler decided to change that. “I basically recruited myself and called Ashoka’s German director
to build a new branch,” she says.
The role was the perfect application for leadership skills she had been honing for the past two decades. “Starting the office means you have to raise funds, build a network, find fellows,” she says. “You have to build the reputation of the brand and make yourself useful to the ecosystem.”
And she succeeded – first, as Austrian Country Director. Then, as Europe co-Director. And today as head of the organisation’s European operation.
Ringler aims to build a culture of trust and innovation. “What I love about this role is that it allows me to work with our different country offices and help them really
step into their greatness. That's what this role is about.”
Empathetic problem solvers
Ashoka’s interconnected, global structure has been a perfect fit for the former politician. Ringler is an optimist, but doesn’t look at the world through rose-tinted glasses. “What I care about most is: How do we build communities of business leaders, policy makers, and citizens who want to drive change? It really is an art.” And Ringler believes it’s ultimately the way to move forward.
Move what forward, you ask? Anything: “We have two years to solve the biodiversity crisis, so we better get going.” But that’s only an example. Ringler wants to erase poverty, increase political transparency, give a voice to the unheard. “Ashoka is topic agnostic,” she explains. “It’s about exposing problems and finding their solutions from the bottom up.”
As long as you give great entrepreneurs support and create spaces where they can really take action, she says, they will provide solutions to the world’s problems. And the best entrepreneurs are empathetic problem solvers. “You need to be able to step into someone else’s shoes to solve problems in a way that will impact everyone,” says Ringler.
So how has Ringler’s early experience in the male-dominated world of Austrian politics informed her work? She says there really is a difference between the way women and men lead. “Women often empower individual members of their communities to lead, more than men do.” That result is a “deeper scale,” or organisations that have a better reach within their communities. They create movements.
Men, in contrast, tend to scale more traditionally, seeking quantity over quality. The more countries reached, the merrier, in other words. “Men are born in a world that teaches them to not listen to their emotions, not listen to their intuition, not be empathetic and to elbow their way to the top,” Ringler says. While learning about leadership theories, Ringler realised that the qualities that made a good leader were usually not the ones that men are taught to value.
“Being a man means being assertive, and always putting the focus on what you're doing,” says Ringler. “But we all know that modesty and humility are key criteria for good leaders. Stealing the spotlight might get you a CEO position, but does it make you a great leader? Not necessarily.”
Ringler’s advice for ambitious women? Stop doubting yourself. She likens women getting top positions to jumping off a high diving board. “Society can make sure that you get into the swimming pool. It can help you feel comfortable in your bathing suit and teach you to swim,” she says. “But you need to climb up a high ladder, and jumping 10 meters takes courage.”
The world might be broken. But the more purpose-driven people who take that leap, the more problems we can solve. Together.
Marie Ringler was elected to office as part of the Green Party at the age of 24. She’s now working to improve the world by supporting and connecting social entrepreneurs.