Startpage's New GM Talks Privacy, Women in Tech

November 17th, 2021

New General Manager

The representation of women in tech is thankfully on the rise, with numbers slowly trending upwards, hitting 28.8% in 2020 according to a recent report. However, the numbers are still disproportionately low and only get worse as we look at women in tech leadership, from managers all the way up to the exec level.

System1 actively works on increasing diversity, including gender diversity, within the company, and has many women in leadership roles of all levels. We caught up with one of these leaders, System1’s new General Manager of Startpage, Alex Kubiak, to pick her brain about all things women in tech, data privacy, and the future of Startpage, the world’s most private search engine.

What was your career path to get where you are today and did you always see yourself going into tech leadership? 

“I came from the product management side, which I’ve always really enjoyed because it allows you to marry the technology and the business goals together. That’s one of my favorite things about it — collaborating with teams to work to optimize the technical side of the product for the users, for marketing purposes, and for the business goals. Prior to Startpage, I majored in computer science at Princeton University, and then worked on the email development team at TechStyle Inc. That’s where I got the opportunity to move to product management, which I really loved.

Working on Startpage for the past few years has been really exciting. It’s a very technical product by nature, just from being in the privacy space. For example, the fact that we own and manage our own servers and hardware is unique within the space, and great to learn about. Being such a technical product, moving into the GM role has still been very product focused. And that’s the question, right? How do you get a product you love to more people, how do you make the user experience better, and how do you keep the underlying tech innovative and the best it can be?”

In your experience, have you noticed a lack of women in tech and leadership roles? 

“It’s hard to ignore that tech has been male-dominated, but at Startpage and System1 we do a ton of recruiting specifically to find women in tech, and also have many diversity initiatives to bolster that here. I’ve been happy with how far we’ve come since I joined. I was also thrilled to have Jen Robinson come on board at the highest tech leadership level; that’s a great influence to have in a tech organization.”

What advice would you give to women considering a career in the tech industry? What do you wish you had known?

“Definitely don’t listen to imposter syndrome, for one. And when considering a team or a company to work with, finding people who align with your priorities and your values can almost be more important than the actual product you’re working on, because finding an environment where you can thrive is paramount.

For example, at an interview, one could ask about the leadership’s relationship with the tech teams. Some teams experience leadership being very heavy-handed with the product roadmaps or upending projects, which can instill the feeling of a lack of ownership. But then there’s companies like System1, where leadership is vocally encouraging thinking outside the box, and everyone even has a direct line to the CEO to pitch ideas, which is rare in a company of several hundred people. That kind of environment just feels more positive, productive, and full of possibility.”

It’s been about three years since System1 invested in Startpage. Has anything changed during that time?

“It’s been refreshing how much System1 leadership cares about preserving and improving the Startpage product. In the past few years, Startpage has made extraordinary leaps and bounds both in the design and front-end side, as well as the underlying infrastructure that powers our privacy tech. We’ve launched dozens of new features like private news, translation, shopping, and currency conversion, not to mention major improvements to our Anonymous View service. This wouldn’t have been possible without our exceptional engineering and design team.

And I’ll add, what hasn’t changed? Our privacy policy :)”

What’s one of the main reasons you think people don’t switch to a privacy search engine?

“It’s really hard to change a routine! Search is something people use every day, and it’s difficult to motivate yourself to change a routine that you’ve done in the same manner for years. That’s why Startpage is introducing other products in the privacy space, so we can familiarize people with the benefits of private search and browsing in a more holistic manner.”

Why do you encourage users to opt for a private search engine over other products?

“Anything you do on your non-private search engine is being tracked and compiled to build a profile. This can be used ‘against you’ in many ways. For example, there have been studies in the news about how if you are categorized by your search engine or social media as having clinical depression, you may be likely to buy more, so advertisers will target these people and take advantage of their mental health to make an easier sale. What I like to remind people is that you have a choice when it comes to search. Startpage is a private alternative that will not track or record your online activity.”

What can people do to educate themselves about data privacy and stay safe?

“First, keep up with the news! It feels like every week we hear more detail about a company that has malicious tracking practices or uses data unethically. (For example, Startpage’s Privacy Please! blog and newsletter do an excellent job sharing and detailing the latest in privacy.)

Second, be conscious of the information you’re sharing over the internet, and what kind of profile could be built about you. In person, you wouldn’t tell a stranger on the street about a skin rash or about your personal finances. But when you’re online, things can feel so abstracted that it’s easy to forget who’s behind the screen. So, just being conscious is the most important first step to actually moderating your online presence.”

Do you believe that there will be a reckoning in data privacy in the United States? Do you see data privacy being regulated in North America the way it is in Europe?

“That’s hard to say. European legislature is much more driven by consumer protection (versus corporate interests) than in the US, which is why Startpage is based in The Netherlands. It is great though that American legislators have been trying to implement laws like CCPA to begin to add some protection.

Actually, one of the reasons why The Netherlands specifically has great data protection is because of an extremely detailed census collected prior to World War II. When the Nazis invaded, they were able to access data from the census director’s office that detailed exactly who was Jewish and where they lived. The overall invasion wasn’t that different from that in France, for example, but because of the data collected, the Jewish death rate in The Netherlands was considerably higher. So the compromising of data actually cost lives at a massive scale, and as a result, The Netherlands has some of the greatest data protection laws in the world.”

Has the public perception of data privacy changed since you joined the industry? 

“Definitely, the importance of data privacy is now very much in the zeitgeist. Think Cambridge Analytica, the Facebook whistleblower…. more people care about exposing threats to data privacy now than ever before, which is a good thing.”

What’s a problem related to Search you’ve encountered at your job and how are you solving it?

“One interesting challenge is how to better our product without the data that many other companies rely on to improve their services. Startpage has an ironclad privacy policy that means, for example, if we introduce a feature, we don’t have the quantitative data to understand whether our users like or dislike it.

This presents opportunities for creativity in that we rely a lot more on UX research and qualitative user feedback to make inferences about the efficacy and reception of a feature. We’ve been able to have a lot of success even without the data, so the tradeoff is definitely worth it.”

What’s your favorite thing about Startpage?

“Definitely Anonymous View — when you search with Startpage, you have the option to visit any web result within an anonymous proxy. That means the site won’t know you’re the one there — it will only see Startpage’s server and IP address visiting. It’s a lot like how VPNs work, but easier and more lightweight.

What I love about Anonymous View is that it brings Startpage out of just private search and into protecting the user throughout their whole browsing experience. This concept is something we will be investing a lot in over the next few years, so stay tuned for some announcements very soon.”

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