Being Fearless: How speaking up and embracing change has brought Martha van Berkel success in a new market
As the co-founder and CEO of Schema App, Martha van Berkel is helping organizations of all sizes to be found more easily on the Internet. Now a leader in the market with their tool that automates schema markup (the language search engines read), Martha traces her success back to an outspoken personality, and an ability to pivot.
By Shelley White
When Martha van Berkel was growing up in Vancouver, her father gave her some advice that stuck.
“He said, ‘Martha, you’re very outspoken, and I wouldn’t change a thing about you,’” says Martha. “And then he said, ‘Use it to your advantage.’”
As an entrepreneur working in the lightning-fast tech industry, Martha lives by that advice every day. She says that business ownership is a great fit for her personality because she likes being in full control of her company’s destiny and she’s not afraid to make herself heard
“I’m a person who likes to make decisions quickly, move fast and just get things done,” says the Guelph, Ontario based co-founder and CEO of Schema App. “I don’t want to wait six months for twelve people to make a decision.”
Martha is a passionate evangelist for her company’s central product, Schema App. It’s a tool that automates schema markup — the code marketers need to put into a website to help search engines read and understand content. Schema markup is based on a global vocabulary developed in 2011 by Google, Yahoo, Bing and Yandex — the Russian search engine —called schema.org. Companies who adopt schema markup perform better in organic search and have improved engagement across their website, while also being ready for voice search.
Schema App helps marketers ensure their website content is being explicitly understood by machines, Martha explains. This can include everything from simple Google searches to digital assistants like Siri and Alexa to machines talking to each other via the Internet of Things.
“Our software allows marketers to do that at scale, and without having to be technical or engage their IT team,” she says.
Schema App’s target market is mainly large enterprise and marketing agencies, says Martha, but their clients can range from Canadian small business owners to large U.S. health networks. Regardless of their size, these clients all have one thing in common: They are companies who rely on people finding their information on the Internet.
The concept for Schema App came from Martha’s husband, Mark van Berkel, who is a semantic technologist by trade. He began “noodling,” she says, and ended up creating the first iteration of Schema App. At the time, Martha was working at Cisco. But after taking maternity leave in 2013 with her newborn daughter, Ruth, Martha decided she wanted to make the leap with Mark into entrepreneurship.
At first, they ran a digital marketing agency, consulting with small and medium-sized businesses. But they soon realized the real future of their company was Mark’s app. So they pivoted, right around the same time Martha had her second child in September of 2015.
“We rewrote our website overnight and released our first product in 2016,” she says. “But it hasn’t been until 2018 that the market’s been ready, and now we are leading the market in how to do it at scale.”
Being a CEO is not without its challenges, says Martha. In fact, launching a business with a young family was “probably the craziest thing I’ve ever done,” she says. Martha recalls the day when she had her second child in 2015.
“I took a customer call at 11am, then another one at 12pm. And I said, ‘You know, I don’t think I should talk to you, because I think I’m in labour.’ I gave birth at 5:00pm.”
Martha went back to work building her company after just two months off, with the help of some part-time childcare in the home. “It really is a different rhythm in entrepreneurship,” she notes.
When she got invited by Cisco to join the Women’s Entrepreneurs Circle (WEC) last year, Martha says it felt like “coming back home.” After graduating from Queen’s University in 2000 with a degree in mathematics and engineering, Martha landed a job at Cisco as a customer technical support engineer. It was the first of a series of positions at Cisco over 14 years, ranging from product management to strategic initiatives to senior management positions in global operations and technical support.
Cisco was a great learning ground to prepare her for her current role as CEO of her own company, she says. “I’m so thankful for the skills I learned at Cisco in strategic planning and in leadership.”
Being involved in WEC has been a three-pronged opportunity, says Martha. Firstly, she gets to continue her relationship with an organization she knows really well. Secondly, she gets to take advantage of resources, such as WEC’s internship program where they pair University of Waterloo students with female entrepreneurs. And thirdly: “The salesperson in me said, ‘Hopefully I can find someone from Cisco to buy from me,’” says Martha.
The WEC program has enabled Martha to bring on interns for two years, and she says it’s been a great benefit to the company. “They really did contribute to helping us accelerate initiatives that otherwise would have fallen by the wayside.”
Last summer, intern Jenny Jin did some branding and marketing work to help them raise their profile, particularly in preparation for approaching enterprise. This year, intern Brandon How-Tein Fat completed a project in four months that Martha says would have taken them six to 12 months to do on their own.
“We wanted to create a metrics dashboard that pulls from all of our data sources,” she says. “So he’s helped us move away from very siloed metrics to being able to look much more broadly at our metrics.”
Of being a woman in the male-dominated tech industry, Martha says she feels fortunate that she had many “amazing male mentors” who were very supportive throughout her career at Cisco. She notes that she’s also forged strong relationships with female colleagues along the way. For example, she meets every month with a group of female founders she met at the Fierce Founders Accelerator, an initiative of Waterloo, Ontario based tech hub Communitech.
“We solve problems, share wins and there’s lots of tears and laughter,” says Martha.
In her view, there’s no limit to what women can accomplish in the tech world.
“Is there a glass ceiling? I don’t think there is. I think we make choices, like having children, that take us out of the running for some things and that can be a disadvantage,” she says.
But women can overcome any challenges they face by being “greedier” about demanding and articulating what they want, both in their day-to-day work and in their career as a whole, says Martha.
“I think men tend to just ask for what they want,” she says. “My advice to women in tech would be: Don’t be so shy to say what you need and just ask for what you want. I think that will serve us all better.”
The Cisco Women Entrepreneurs Circle addresses some of the obstacles women-led businesses face in building their tech capabilities. In partnership with organizations including the Business Development Bank of Canada, Cisco is connecting women to the expertise and knowledge needed for their entrepreneurial ventures to thrive. Are you a business owner? Fill in a short survey to register for free virtual training from the Cisco Networking Academy, and kickstart your journey towards business success.