We are a few months after a trip to Iceland Innovation Week with Business Iceland, and let me tell you, Iceland is doing something right. This massive event is in its second year, changing what it means to be at a conference and blowing preconceptions of who people in tech and gaming should be out of the water.
Iceland Innovation Week was founded by two women, Edda Konráðsdóttir and Melkorka Magnúsdóttir, and every room I walked into was packed with not only people but women, and everyone was welcome across any gender, sexuality etc.
Heading into IIW, I was eager to learn a little bit more about the festival (not a conference), women in tech and gaming, and Iceland’s culture. I got the opportunity to sit down with Edda and pick her brain about the festival and what Iceland seems to be doing right.
Edda Konráðsdóttir: I am the founder and co-owner of Iceland Innovation Week, which is an innovation festival happening in Iceland. It’s a festival that we founded a few years ago to make Icelandic innovation and the startup sector more accessible.
So before that, there was no event in Iceland that you could go to see what’s happening here. Most of the events were small or for a specific type of sector and always in Icelandic, so not very accessible. That was one of the reasons why we wanted to start the festival, and it is decentralized.
You have events happening all around town, from different startups or innovative companies that just open their doors, whether it’s a happy hour or a pitch event or a panel discussion. All of that schedule or that agenda is free and open to everyone. That kind of ticks the box of us trying to make innovation more accessible and for people to know what innovation can be like across sectors, and it’s not only tech or only hackers in hoodies drinking Mountain Dew.
We also wanted people to see that innovation could be one of the pillars of our economy here. We also do have a festival program that we curate ourselves that we have ticket sales to. That’s what’s happening tomorrow in Gróska where we have a stage program that we have curated.
We’re bringing in some international speakers, with the President of Iceland speaking. We also have someone on Anna Petrova, who is the head of Startup Ukraine, which is a startup ecosystem initiative from Ukraine. She’s going to be talking about innovation in turbulent times. I heard how most of the startups there are pivoting. Like if you’re in tech, you’re now in military tech. If you’re in health tech, now you’re in military health tech.
So, some really interesting things going on there and then a lot of sustainability discussions. That’s a big theme of the festival. Diversity and sustainability, I would say, are two of the biggest themes. And then we have food and gaming. Then we have this broad tech sector because, for example, fintech and health tech are both very big in Iceland, but we had to choose some themes.
I have to ask bluntly. It’s two young women that have started this. Whenever I go to an event, whether it’s gaming or tech, I’m often the only woman in the room. Even right now, with the journalists here, I’m the only woman in the room. So, How did this happen? How did you get here?
Edda Konráðsdóttir: This is typical of Iceland. There is gender equality here. It’s further along than probably anywhere else.
Is that for real, though, or do people say it is?
Edda Konráðsdóttir: I’m not going to say that it’s perfect. There’s a long way to go, but we’re one of the first or first countries to have a female president and to have.
Who was also on a gaming board, I think.
Edda Konráðsdóttir: She was a prime minister, so a female prime minister. So I grew up with a female president, so it’s also role models. You always see men in these higher positions, then you can’t even get the idea that you could get there someday. That environment helps. My background, I was running all these entrepreneurial initiatives.
I worked for a company for five years where I was running accelerators, where we had some gaming companies and all kinds of tech startups go through. And then Melkorka, who’s my co-founder, her background is in art, theatre and dance. Then she comes into innovation or the startup sector, and we meet, and we click.
“We are a few months after a trip to Iceland Innovation Week with Business Iceland, and let me tell you, Iceland is doing something right.”
We start planning all these delegation trips for Icelandic startups going abroad, taking them everywhere. We always felt like we could never bring these people here. They’re always asking, “Can we go see what’s happening in Iceland? What’s happening there?” So we felt that need and decided to just do this event.
At that point, I had been working for five years within this startup community, and it is not big. We kind of knew everyone within the community or most of the people, so it was fairly easy to pick everyone’s shoulder and be like, “Hey, we’re going to do this. This is going to be our annual event for this community.” And then we were like, “Okay, yeah! Let’s start an event.” And then COVID came. So the first two years, it was completely online.
We got those two years to learn how to do things and how we wanted to brand this thing that we had created without spending as much money as if it was in person. Then last year, so 2022, was the first year that we actually were able to do this how we always imagined it to be, and it grew just beyond all of our expectations, and our dreams came true with that. We decided to have everything in English so that it would be accessible for people. But this first year, we didn’t market it at all outside of Iceland, but people just came.
So you go from this online event—this small dream with startups. How do you end up with companies like CCP?
Edda Konráðsdóttir: I think, like they were saying earlier, about this Icelandic mentality and how you think big. I think that’s something that we’re all born with. We’re born on this small island, right? So when we want to be the best at anything, we always say we want to be the best in the world because the best in Iceland is just too small for us.
All of Iceland is the size of one of the cities near me. I just learned that today. That’s amazing. All of Canada lives in one spot, though. We have all this space, and we all live in a clump.
Edda Konráðsdóttir: That’s kind of how we do it here too. We have the Highlands that are inhabitable, so most of us are here by the coastline. So how does this happen, these big companies? I think a part of it is this “just do it” mentality, and don’t give up. But also, there is talent here, which is great. We kind of hit something with gaming and especially with CCP.
It’s the story of entrepreneurs doing something great, and then that dissolves, and you have great people that go on and do other great things. I think CCP was also an example of that. We now have some people that were early CCP-ers that are now doing some of these younger gaming companies, and we see how startup communities evolve, whether it’s within only gaming or just some other type of sector.
I have to ask, as a woman in this industry and two women starting this event, did you meet a lot of backlash trying to do this?
Edda Konráðsdóttir: I have to say, no, we haven’t. We decided that we wanted to just do this idea, and we made it. I mean, maybe we have? It’s a direct question, and my first answer is just no.
As I said, I’m often the only woman in the room, and people will often talk past me to my boss. So you don’t have that here? That doesn’t seem to be something that’s happening to you in this circumstance, anyway.
Edda Konráðsdóttir: I wouldn’t say that we don’t have that in Iceland. Like I said before, we don’t have perfect equality here. There are always going to be scenarios that both me and Melkorka have gone through where we feel that we are less than equal or where there are some hurdles in the way that maybe wouldn’t be if I were male. But I’d say Iceland is a great environment to start something like this, at least for us.
Everyone has just supported us so much. Especially within the startup community, the gender equality in tech in general, I have been the only woman in a room. Numerous times. And I have felt that I haven’t been listened to as much as other people, but I think we just both got to a point where we had gone through so many experiences that we just got into some like “fuck off” mode. We have had our experiences, but we’re stronger for it, and we just did this and killed it.
It’s amazing seeing how many women are at Iceland Innovation Week. Then my other question is, this is very different from most events. Iceland Innovation Week seems to be a much younger, hipper, modern take on your standard conference. Is that something you did on purpose?
Edda Konráðsdóttir: We did that on purpose, definitely. We felt that this classic conference setup, people are kind of getting tired of it. We’ve been attending a lot of festivals all around the world, and we have event planner eyes. When we go to these events, we see people that have worked so hard to create a great event. They have amazing speakers, and then all the attendees sit there, they’re scrolling on their phones, or they’re just walking in and out, and you have some amazing person on stage sharing something, and it’s just not being heard.
We felt that that was a shame, and most of the stuff at these conferences was happening, like at the dinners or the parties, and the deals were getting done at the bar. So we thought, why not just have a festival that’s more fun?
If we had met at a conference, not a party, I probably wouldn’t have had the chance to speak to you right now.
Edda Konráðsdóttir: Yeah! So, we did that on purpose. We decided, for example, for our climate summit, Ok, Bye, we decided we wanted to make it theatrical. Melkorka has a background in the theatre. So we decided it’s just going to be like you go to the theatre. It’s just from 9 to 12, and you just sit in there, you turn off your phone, you listen, and then it’s over, and then you can go and network. So if you’re in, you’re in. If you’re out, you’re out.
We don’t want to have our speakers stand on the stage where everyone’s just scrolling on their phone, walking in and out. We decided to wrap it up in a shorter time period. You’re attending a show, and then you have all the side events, happy hours, and pitch competitions happening here and there, so you can pick and choose what you want to attend. It’s more relaxed, and that’s why we call it a festival rather than a conference right now.
Where do you see the future for women in terms of gaming and technology?
Edda Konráðsdóttir: I think the future is bright, and it’s so great to see because I mentioned role models earlier. I kind of want to take that angle on it. You need role models for the rest to follow. So we have to start earlier. It’s the education system.
If you have more women that are learning tech-related studies, then the younger women see that as a possibility to go study that and start a company. If you see a female founder of a cool gaming company, then it’s more likely that you think, “Oh, I could do this. I fit in there,” instead of just seeing someone that doesn’t look like you there and you kind of think, “Okay, maybe I’m not welcome in this sector.”
For me, role models are always the key there, and we’re starting to see that change. We’re starting to see more women apply for programs involving tech. We’re seeing that increase. We’re seeing more women be CEOs of companies. And I think that it’s going to take generations to change, but I think the future is definitely bright. Especially seeing Gen Z in the workforce. It’s a force of nature, and it’s a good one. I think it’s going to be exciting to see.
And also, if we talk in terms of gaming, I think the “female gamer” is also changing. You don’t have to exist—the perception of having to be some specific type of girl. And also how you see women within the game objectified, whereas the male characters were more strong. That’s also something to change, to see more strong females within games. There are so many things that have to change in the environment, and I think we’re getting there.
Have you seen much change since you’ve gotten into the industry, or is it just a very slow progression?
Edda Konráðsdóttir: I’ve seen a lot of change. Because my perspective is the innovation and startup scene in general, when I started, the startup community in Iceland was very young. We had just recently had our VC [Venture Capital] funds started, and now, most of them are run by women. We have one all-female VC fund that’s investing. We have two others that are led by women.
It’s great they’re starting to show up more and more. If you kind of look at the bigger picture, there are women that are also controlling the money that is going into the startups, whether it’s gaming or other, and then it’s kind of a snowball effect. We’re seeing a change in that and female founders of great companies like Parity—which I recommend you check out. So yeah, there is a change, but we can always do better.
What are you personally hoping that people get out of Iceland Innovation Week, what is the goal?
Edda Konráðsdóttir: It depends on who you are and what you come to the festival for. If you’re a startup looking for investment, we hope that you find those connections to an investment. If you’re an investor, we hope that you find your unicorn to bet your money on. But I think most of all, we just want to make great connections and showcase how innovation in Iceland is flourishing.