Bea Knecht is a transgender entrepreneur who knows what it is like to play the tough guy, and to have to prove her competence as a woman
Text: Wiebke Harms
Photography: Michael Mann
• Enough is enough, she feels, when the man opposite starts talking nonsense about Tesla. Bea Knecht is in a restaurant with some company directors when the conversation turns to the US manufacturer of electric cars. She thinks highly of its founder, Elon Musk, and likes the cars. The man sitting opposite her does not; he predicts Tesla will fail. Knecht counters his theories and refutes his arguments, finding them less and less convincing. “Rubbish!” she exclaims, eventually. He snaps back at her: “Do you realise who you are talking to?” There is an uncomfortable silence around the table.
“Later he calmed down and told everyone what fun it was to have such a heated discussion with a woman,” Knecht says with a grin. In fact, she has a “Do you know who you are talking to?” kind of biography herself. She did a degree in computer sciences at the University of California, Berkeley; a master’s in business administration; and has experience at renowned companies such as the German software multinational SAP and three of her own companies. “The predominant problem is that women are believed to lack the necessary competence,” she says, speaking from personal experience.
Men’s capabilities are called into question far less often, she notes. Again, she is speaking from personal experience, because this 50-year-old entrepreneur knows both perspectives: she founded two of her companies – Levuro, which markets interactive advertising, and Genistat, which analyses data and ratings – as a woman. But she founded her first, Zattoo, with a partner while they were at university, and at the time she was still a man.
Zattoo was one of the first companies in Europe to stream television via the internet. According to company figures, 1.2 million people in Germany, Switzerland, Spain, the UK and Denmark are regular viewers, with 17 million registered users. The company now employs about 100 people in offices in Zurich and Berlin. Its main source of revenue is advertising, which viewers see when changing channels. For just under €10 a month (£8.95), users can switch channels without having to watch the commercials, and get additional channels. A new line added in 2012 is becoming increasingly important for Zattoo: providing cable network operators with the technology and software to stream their own content. Today, Knecht is one of the most well-known digital entrepreneurs in Switzerland, largely because of Zattoo.
Five years ago, she still went by the male name of Beat, but she is obviously no less competent now than she was then. “It is not as though I swapped my brain,” says Knecht, who feels she simply adjusted her external appearance to fit her inner self. With long hair but no make-up, and dressed in a black, medium-length knitted dress with black tights and black pumps, she clearly cares about her style. She goes over to the sink in the open-plan kitchen of her apartment on Lake Zurich several times a day to splash water on her face and freshen up; make-up would only get in the way. She still enjoys talking shop about cars, as she did in the old days when she drove classic 1970s models: a Porsche 911 and a Mercedes 280 SL Pagoda. Today, it is electric cars. But she feels people who did not know Beat sometimes find Bea’s expertise a little unnerving: “A woman who is fascinated by technology – that does not fit the image.”
Knecht is transgender. Growing up as a boy in rural Switzerland felt wrong to her. She has four siblings; her family runs a holding company with several travel, removal and haulage firms, founded in 1909. During puberty, she felt she had to act out maleness. “At first, I thought that was just part of the transition from boyhood to manhood. It only gradually became clear to me that others play at being men because they are men, and it is no effort for them.”
Although she by then suspected she might prefer to be a woman, Knecht continued life as a man, with a slightly out-of-character hobby of lavish interior design. She had several relationships, always with intelligent women. Decades later, it dawned on Knecht that her girlfriends had always been a kind of avatar – enabling her to enjoy through them things she was unable to live out for herself.
Putting aside her personal life, she focused her full attention first on university and later on work, launching Zattoo in Switzerland in 2006, and in Germany a year later. The company had to negotiate licence agreements for every single channel, making the business complicated and slowing down expansion. In 2008, the company was thrown into crisis, and Knecht had to lay off staff and sell her house in the United States to invest in it. “The speed and the density of the events I had to juggle with during that time would have amounted to about 15 years’ worth in normal business life,” she says. Zattoo didn’t come close to making a profit again until 2010, and Knecht realised she needed a break. Two years later, she resigned the chairmanship of the executive board and joined the supervisory board.
By now she was in her mid-40s, and still wrestling with the old question: did she really want to spend the rest of her life acting at being a man? She took time out and tackled the gender issue in the same structured way as she would an IT project. She travelled to the US, met a hundred or so transgender people, read up on surgical procedures and talked to doctors. In April 2012, she decided to go ahead with the process in America. She had her facial hair removed by laser and transplanted on to her head; she took speech coaching to raise the pitch of her voice; and she drew up a plan for how to tell her family, friends, co-workers and business associates about her gender realignment.
Zattoo was at the top of the list, and she skyped her successor, Niklas Brambring. “She had prepared the conversation very conscientiously,” he recalls. “She was very clear, very matter-of-fact, neither defensive nor rushing.” Five weeks later, Knecht returned as a woman and chaired a general meeting.
She managed her transition the same way that she previously guided Zattoo through its crisis, because she knew the risks. “I had not yet been socialised as a woman. I asked myself: ‘Am I even capable of going through that?’” She started thinking of her gender realignment as a five-year project. The external transformation was just the starting point; everything else had to follow gradually.
By now, the five years are up. Was it enough time? “Yes,” says Knecht.
Sitting in an armchair, she looks like a woman who likes to dress in a classical style. “As a man, I looked like my father; as a woman, I look like my mother. Isn’t that crazy?” she says. Her mother initially mourned the loss of her son, forever mentioning to Bea that she had always been the most talented member of the family – always in the past tense, as if she had died. It was as though by giving up her male identity she had also forfeited her talent. Today, mother and daughter phone each other every day.
Different things are expected of Bea than were expected of Beat. Knecht feels she now has to be more considerate when making decisions. “A woman is not allowed to be a bastard,” she says. She lived in the US for 15 years and values American politeness. Holding open doors, stepping aside for others, pulling out a woman’s chair for her when sitting down at a table. In her apartment on Lake Zurich, she offers tea with honey as a sweetener. She opens a new jar, because she has a cold and does not want to give it to others. “I would say I have always been thoughtful of others,” she says.
Nonetheless, she can be tough when she is talking about business matters. She compares starting a company with climbing the north face of the Eiger. “You don’t set off with a pregnant woman in that situation either.” She is not surprised that more men than women work in startups; men are better equipped for suffering, she reckons – testosterone is like a form of doping. Knecht takes oestrogen, a female hormone. When she returns from a trip and carries her suitcase up the stairs to her flat, she misses the testosterone. It never felt difficult when she was a man. “But as a woman! The same person, the same bone structure – a real problem.”
Thinking in categories like men and women can be pointless. Yet it is difficult to escape them, to get away from stereotypes. Knecht tries to separate gender and personality. She prefers to describe herself as a personality type, in her case INTP, which stands for introverted, iNtuitive, thinking, perceiving. It comes from the Myers-Briggs personality test, which is popular in the US. The characteristics suggest she is introverted, able to think analytically and only makes decisions after devoting a great deal of thought to them, which can sometimes delay things. Albert Einstein and Isaac Newton are also said to have been this type. “A typical inventor,” says Knecht. She sometimes irritates other people in meetings when 99% of the issues have been sorted out and she locks on to that final 1%. “Until everything is just right,” says Knecht. “That has nothing to do with being a man or a woman. It is simply my character.”