“I hope there will be more swissnex-type initiatives”

Evelyn Lager, the first employee of swissnex Boston, talks about the early days at swissnex Boston, from her first meeting with Xavier Comtesse to implementing the first major projects at swissnex.

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Evelyn Lager attending swissnex’s 10th anniversary gala in 2010 / swissnex Boston

Evelyn Lager was the first hire at swissnex Boston, back when it was still known as SHARE, the Swiss House for Advanced Research and Education. Lager helped translate Xavier Comtesse’s vision for a Swiss science and technology hub in Boston into reality. Twenty years later, she is Senior Director at Babson Executive Education. She looks back on those “fast and furious” first two years of swissnex Boston in this interview.

swissnex Boston: How did you first hear about swissnex Boston?

Evelyn Lager: It sounds very old fashioned right now, but I, along with all the Swiss citizens who lived in New England got a letter in the mail, informing us that this new “Swiss House” would open up. There really wasn’t a lot of information in it, but it had Xavier Comtesse’s email address in it. I emailed him and got this one liner back saying, “here’s my number, call me and we can talk.”

I called him, and what I thought would be a five-minute chat turned into a very intriguing thirty-minute conversation. After that, Xavier said, “well, if you have this many questions, then we should meet.” So I got into the subway, rode out to Cambridge and met with him. It was just very intriguing. It became very clear, very quickly that this initiative had a big vision, but that the building blocks were not there yet.

Was this when swissnex already had the building at 420 Broadway?

No, this was before. Our meeting famously happened in the garden of Xavier’s residence in Cambridge. He kept saying, “you know…Broadway, Broadway.” But when I walked by on Broadway, I only saw this old, run-down building with a supermarket and a laundromat. When I told my friends about it, they said, “so this is the Swiss consulate? Are you sure this guy is for real? Have you fallen prey to some scam artist here?” It was really not how you would envision your first interaction with a diplomatic figure. Let’s put it that way.

Where did it go from that first meeting?

When I left the residence that day, Xavier said: “Well, this is great. I can’t hire you right now, but I’ll let you know when I hire you.” And I said “Oh, but I wasn’t interviewing.” And he said, “Yeah, well, I was.” That gave me sort of a really good sense of what the rest of the days would look like. It never fell short by a minute of that first impression.

After a few months, Xavier did call me and left a voicemail. It seemed they had worked through some of the kinks in the budget, and got the budget approved, because he left me a voicemail saying “well, I’m ready. Are you going to come or what?” So I became the first employee, and we started working out of Xavier’s residence until the renovations of our building at 420 Broadway were finished.

What were you doing at the time?

I was working for an outplacement company and finishing my bachelor’s degree part-time. I had three night classes a week and a job that essentially supported my studies. After I joined swissnex, that dynamic changed quickly.

So at some point you move into the new building, and swissnex starts to become operative. What were those days like?

Crazy, but invigorating. It was fast and furious in 1999 and 2000 — a bit like the wild west. When we opened, it was very much like an open startup. It was a community platform. As we got more and more attention in both Switzerland and the US, however, there was more of a spotlight on us, so we had to mature very quickly.

I remember that the Governor of Massachusetts came for the opening night. His security detail came by to look at the premises beforehand and wanted to know in every little detail what the Governor was going to do. One of the things was to sign the guestbook, to which his security agents said the Governor did not touch any provided pens and would need to bring his own pen.

It was just that level of detail, that at the time, nobody on our staff had gone through. We were a little bit like fish out of water, and so we had to do a lot of improvising and thinking on our feet. And it was a lot of fun.

Was there a lot of attention from the press?

Yes. Because the concept was so novel at that time, we got a huge amount of press. There were times where it seemed like we were exclusively organizing tours of the space for the press. One of my highlights would be running around with the Swiss TV crew. We even had a visit from the French Senate — that wasn’t the press, but all these high level visits surprised us how much attention we were garnering.

I think we got so much press attention because we were at the forefront of setting up something completely different and new, and it wasn’t what people expected from the Swiss. There were bigger European countries with more traditional consulates that couldn’t believe we, the Swiss, were the ones to be on the cutting edge. I actually think there’s a great entrepreneurial spirit in Switzerland. Maybe it’s because the country is smaller, there are a lot of opportunities to be at the forefront for similar initiatives like swissnex. I hope there will be more swissnex-type initiatives that Switzerland is going to cook up.

What were some projects and activities you are proud of working on at swissnex?

With the Gerbert Rüf foundation, we established a program called NETS, “New Entrepreneurs in Technology and Science,” working with Swiss entrepreneurs, getting them acquainted with the US ecosystem. I was in charge of that. It was an incredible program that lasted for over 10 years, and parts of it live on through the Venture Leaders Program. Looking at the alumni of these programs, it’s very rewarding to see how much impact that has had.

Another activity that sticks out to me was when I arranged a visit for diversity and inclusion officers from Swiss universities and academic institutions. At that time, there was a radical initiative by a few women faculty at MIT who wanted to become more data-driven in fighting for equal access for women at MIT. They conducted a scientific study and ended up suing MIT on the basis of the findings of that study. So it was very interesting to arrange that trip for the Swiss constituency who was not quite that far along. It was important for them to see what was happening here and to discuss among themselves what would realistically work in the Swiss context.

You’re now at Babson Executive Education. What was the impact that your time at swissnex had on your career?

My first job at Babson was a new role and very undefined. It was to set up an institute that would build relationships and programs with European Partners, but there wasn’t a grand plan to make it work. My time at swissnex prepared me really well to tackle this challenge — to see great ideas and opportunities, but to think critically about how to translate that into tangible outcomes. How were we going to go about capturing that value, and how were we going to anchor it in the existing ecosystem?

These days at Babson I’m working with companies to develop leadership capabilities, especially around entrepreneurial leadership and innovation. What’s become clear is that there are always different stakeholders, different objectives, a different context, and different characteristics. I think that’s the story of swissnex: work from experience, but keep an open mind, be flexible, and know how to take curveballs. The experience at Swissnex sharpened my attention to all stakeholders, it frequently turns out that they actually needed something completely different. Sometimes they know it, and sometimes they uncover it in open conversations.

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Connecting the dots between Swiss and North American innovators. www.swissnexboston.org

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