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Knowledge Is a Solid Investment

by Natascha Zeljko

The subjects of education and knowledge are often discussed, but often to little or no avail. comdirect, however, tends to pursue several approaches at the same time. Here, we sit down with Annette Siragusano, head of corporate communications at comdirect Bank AG, co-founder of the “finanz-heldinnen” initiative, and vice-chairwoman of “Stiftung Rechnen”

You have just received the International German PR Award in the category Sustainability – Responsibility – CSR for finanz-heldinnen [financial sheros]. What is the aim of this initiative and what personally excites you about it?

We are still happy about the award. It’s is a great tribute to our commitment and our work in the finanz-heldinnen team. It confirms that we are on the right track and also spurs us on to push forward with so much passion. We launched the initiative just over a year ago, as we noticed that finances are still a taboo subject, even among girlfriends. We said to ourselves that it can’t stay this way. One only has to look at the current “Realzins-Radar” [real interest rate radar], which comdirect regularly publishes. We are losing value, we have inflation, we have a massive pension problem. And this affects women several times over, through the gender pay gap, through parental leave, through part-time work. We, therefore, urgently need to deal with the issue of finances, but there is a great deal of reluctance and uncertainty. This may also be due to the fact that an industry has made this complicated for decades. Our philosophy as a direct bank, on the other hand, has always been that we believe in self-determined investors. Investment is not rocket science – you can learn it just like anything else. And you don’t have to invest huge sums of money. One can begin with 25 euros per month, because what it’s really all about is getting started. And then you can approach the topic step by step.

With finanz-heldinnen we were therefore concerned with the question, “How do we manage to wake women up and show them that investing money can even be fun?” At the beginning, we also asked ourselves whether something special was really necessary for women. We didn’t want to give the impression that we are simply doing this in pink. We noticed through many conversations that women don’t just want pink, but to be addressed differently and to discuss differently among themselves. Then there is less inhibition to ask questions. What it’s about is creating space to exchange ideas within the community, which is also why we offer afterworks together with Global Digital Women. A lot can be found in our online magazine, which offers financial information for every life situation. We also publish a podcast Schwungmasse, in which there are financial tips and great conversations with role models, and whoever wants to know and learn more uses our learning app “finanzcoach” and the workbook. We want to uplift women and encourage them to take the first step towards investing money.

Another social commitment of comdirect is the “Stiftung Rechnen” [Calculating Foundation]. What is the motivation behind it?

Ten years ago, as a founding member, we set up “Stiftung Rechnen” together with the Stuttgart Stock Exchange. The basic idea behind it was: more from life through the joy of math. Dealing with numbers takes place all the time, everywhere. We wanted to show that math can be fun. And the fact that math can be fun, I also only recently discovered. At the “Mathe.Forscher Forum” [Math Researchers Forum], we discussed exploratory and discovery learning – analog and digital – with around 50 teachers. Interestingly, the topic of mathematics has a rather negative connotation in society. People even flirt with the fact that they were ‘bad’ at math, which is totally accepted in society. You never actually hear anyone say, “I was great at math.” Which is a pity. So much has to do with mathematics and arithmetic. These are often very small, everyday things. The challenge is to awaken joy for this subject – especially with girls. We see that young girls at the age of seven, eight, nine, perhaps up to ten years approach this topic quite naturally and have a lot of confidence in themselves. Then, after puberty, this suddenly changes. Then: oops, no math, that’s not for me. We have to create positive experiences before this phase, so that girls aren’t afraid of contact with it.

We need more extracurricular learning venues and spaces for encounters and discussion.

Education and knowledge will be traded as the resources of the 21st century. Nevertheless, one has the feeling that not enough is being done for them.  

Of course, more can always be done. Maybe many things are not perceived in this way because you expect something new and big to happen. What you overlook is that there are many small and smart initiatives that, in my opinion, invest in exactly the right things. And if you continue to expand these projects, there is a lot of potential. We should break away from the logic that education should only take place at school or at home. At a time of digitalization and new technologies that are changing faster and faster, we need a wide variety of services – digital and analogue. We need more extracurricular learning venues and spaces for encounters and discussion. You cannot formally depict all this in school. We do well to come into contact with technologies at an early stage, in places where the future is emerging. To arouse curiosity and reduce fears. A great example is the HABA digital workshop, where children learn to program at an early age and understand how an app works. Verena Pausder has created a great model that shows how school education can be supplemented today. Another example is the Girls Digital Club in the Google Future Workshop. I’ve tried both myself… though with the GDC my daughter is the one more on the road…

You not only deal with the topic in a professional context, but also privately. You have two children of school age. What are your experiences?

I believe that we are basically on the right track. But certainly not yet at the goal. As is so often the case, the people, the teachers, make or break it. Often there are more offers and more project weeks, especially in secondary school, and out-of-school learning locations are also becoming more important. And formats outside school hours, such as the Long Night of Mathematics, are also offered. So something is happening. And yet, of course, more could be done. More experimentation, more research and investigation, sometimes though there is simply not enough time. We also know from studies that many students would like to study a subject like financial knowledge more, which is exactly where more could be done. Which is  exactly what I actually needed every day later in life. You have the diploma in your pocket, life starts, but you don’t know what an effective interest rate is. Ultimately, it’s not about equipping every school class with smartboards, but rather about teaching in a different way. I think we also have to move away from everyone doing their own thing. We could be much faster if we learned from great examples and shared the knowledge about them.

In Holland, for example, students trade stocks (playfully, of course). Why do we find it so difficult to break out of old patterns?

We are still afraid of bringing the economy to school. Because the suspicion resonates that companies come and they want to sell something. Even in my days, there were stock market simulation games at school. But Germany still finds it difficult to deal with the issue of share culture. The equity ratio in Germany is still in the lower double-digit range.

What’s going wrong?

There must be many reasons for this. On the one hand, in many other countries we see different access to securities and shares, because it is quite natural for shares to serve as a retirement provision. Unfortunately, Germany still has reservations about this. Often it is fear or supposed ignorance that contributes to this. Many experienced the times of the dotcom bubble, then the Telekom shares came and all became share experts. At that time there was a big hype, everyone was keen on Manfred Krug and the Telekom shares – so from one extreme, the non-investing, to the other. They didn’t explain that it’s not about buying individual stocks quickly, but rather investing long-term and sustainably, for example in ETFs. This was followed by a flight into investments such as overnight money accounts. We have just published the new comdirect “Realzins-Radar”. According to it, Germans lost 7 billion euros in the first three months alone because there is no awareness about fighting inflation. That’s 84 euros per German citizen in one quarter alone. This shows that it helps to be open to these issues at an early stage and to discuss them at school. Finances, economy, and the competent handling of money is nothing bad, it is essential.

Another essential topic is social competence. We will experience collaboration at all levels.

What other core competencies must be taught to the younger generation?

The central question to ask is, “How can I flexibly adjust to the demands of the new world of life and work?” Another exciting aspect in this context is: in the future, do we need more methodological competence and less knowledge? I think we need both. Because it will not be a question of googling everything in the future, either. You have to put it in context, you have to be able to evaluate and interpret it. And that’s where you need knowledge as a reference. It will be a matter of quickly familiarizing oneself with new topics. Another essential topic is social competence. We will experience collaboration at all levels. Am I able to work in a team? Am I able to lead a team? Am I able to familiarize myself with new technologies and get others excited about them?

This also places high demands on mental strength.

Absolutely. Dealing with change and building inner security while dealing with change is the challenge. But that’s exactly where incredible opportunities lie: attention, bad buzzword, out of the comfort zone! I think you have to challenge yourself again and again. To realize that it is possible, everything is not so difficult. That gives you courage for the next step and strengthens your curiosity for new topics.

What are the educational hurdles between today and yesterday?

We need to get away from this principle of either/or. A good example that I got to know is the model that Dr. Patrick Bronner is implementing with his colleagues. He is a teacher at the Friedrich Gymnasium in Freiburg and in 2016 won the German Teacher Award in the category Digital Education. At the “Mathe.Forscher Forum”, he impressively demonstrated how teaching can work combining analog and digital. From the most varied use of apps, e.g. document scanners, interactive blackboards, digital class books, or even digital teamwork for organization to functionalities, this makes it possible to look into orbit, experience functions, or discover the body. You see, it inspired me. I would also like to be a student…

New work is not about chic furniture. It’s about attitude.

You are in charge of corporate communications in a strongly innovation-driven company. What challenges do you see with “new work” in mind?

First of all, new work is not about chic furniture. It’s about attitude. And about working methods. You have to be able to constantly learn, work in a team, and share knowledge. The days of lone fighters are over. This also applies to leadership, as even the leadership tasks have changed dramatically.

It’s no longer a matter of placing orders and controlling people. Leadership means being an enabler. To make sure that all the balls are in the air and that they count for the right things. To feel where there are bottlenecks and impasses and to solve them, and then, of course, to go into topics operationally and work as a team member. Leadership means giving orientation, creating space for a team so that it can work well and focused, and ensuring that the right issues are driven forward. So in the spirit of: stop starting, start finishing. And that’s where we jump back into school. This is where we have a great opportunity, this is where we can learn to work in an open structure with a clear feedback culture, and with a high pace, many new topics and at a very high level. This is exactly what we do every day on the job today.

Which digital innovation fascinates you personally?

I find voice command incredibly exciting. The past two years we’ve seen that it’s very much on the rise. And when you look at how the kids deal with it, it’s impressive. They walk around and talk into their cell phones. They don’t even start writing, the next generation speaks. That’s a radical change. Another mega topic is sharing: sharing knowledge, collaboration, even in everyday life like automotive. So instead of buying a car, I borrow or share it. There’s an incredible amount going on. And of course artificial intelligence! And the related question of, “What do I recognize as added value? Or where does a society say, ‘That’s going too far for me now.’?” Because you don’t want your personal data to be analyzed. This discussion is legitimate and exciting.

Fast round: True or false?

I would like to go to school again? True.

Success at school has nothing to do with success later on in the job? True.

Education is above all a government mandate? Not true.

Digitization makes us smarter. True.

The demands at school have increased. Not true. They have become more diverse.

Formal degrees are overrated. True.

Empathy is the new super skill. It is one of many.

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