She Starts Up: Silva Arapi – Cloud68.co

In this edition of the “She Starts-Up” campaign / interview ,the spotlight will be on an inspiring, cause-driven tech woman, active in the Free Software movement since 2015 Silva Arapi. As a Co-founder of Cloud68.co, Silva is working to build a sustainable company that makes the use of open-source digital infrastructure easy and convenient, while consistently trying to deepen her technical knowledge in topics close to her heart and drive. She is currently conducting her master studies in “Advanced Master in Privacy, Cybersecurity and Data Management” in Maastricht University, the Netherlands.

In this interview, while reading about Silva’s tech & entrepreneurial journey, you will also get the chance to know more about Cloud68.co, which is a diverse team of digital rights activists and free software enthusiasts:  Boris, Redon, Sidorela and Silva, who share common principles and ethics and work as a collective when it comes to decision making. They believe in the power of open-source technologies and in a world where ‘privacy is the default’ and ethics come before financial gain. Thus, their vision is “Making the use of open source, privacy oriented and ethical platforms easy and convenient”.  Cloud68.co-founded in 2019, is legally an Estonian based company as they are taking advantage of Estonia’s E-Residency program. 

EU4I: Can you tell a little us something about your background and how it links to what you do for and with Cloud68.co? Also, if you could elaborate about “WHAT DOES BEING A WOMAN IN TECH MEAN” to you, in your everyday life. 

Silva: I have been fortunate enough to experience a wide range of educational opportunities. My education in Technology started in the University of Tirana where I graduated in Business Informatics and then in Information Security. Last year, I began my studies in an advanced master’s program in “Privacy, Cybersecurity and Data Management” at Maastricht University in the Netherlands, a degree which will add a legal perspective to my current knowledge. However, my primary passion and interest has always been technology.

Regarding my professional experiences, I have always worked with technical teams, in both the private and public sector, until I co-founded my own company. In addition to my professional accomplishments, I have been engaged for many years now in advocacy for digital rights and have dedicated a big portion of my time to volunteering in this important area. This is a cause that I believe in and will continue to support in any way that I can. Now to elaborate more on “Being a woman in tech” I have to say that during my student years at the University of Tirana, I attended a class where the majority of students were women, and the minority were men. I think that the fact that in Albania, tech careers were promoted as ones that would lead to more job opportunities, encouraged more people, including women, to pursue such careers. During those years as a student, I wasn’t really aware that tech was a male-dominated industry. Nor was I aware that Women in tech had to work harder to gain recognition, to be taken seriously, and to advance in their careers. It was only when I started engaging with different international tech communities who were addressing diversity gap issues, that I started learning more on this matter. I wondered if having had that awareness earlier would have impacted my career choices. I don’t have the answer to that, but I am happy that it didn’t, as I really like what I do. 

I’d also like to thank you for the opportunity to share my story and experiences through this interview. I believe that giving a voice to women in the tech industry will help others understand these issues and tackle them. 

EU4I: You are one of the founders of Cloud68.co alongside Boris, Redon and Sidorela.  How did the idea to establish Cloud68.co emerge and evolve later? 

Silva: The co-founder’s team met at the local community of Open Labs Hackerspace where we all engaged as volunteers. Open Labs is a not-for-profit organization based in the city of Tirana that promotes free and open-source technologies, online privacy, and digital commons. 

Our work in the community and our common interest and passion for open-source technologies lead to an interest in working together. In 2018 we started our consultancy, called Collective68, which was established in Albania, and we were working on some small projects. We learned a lot through that time, as that experience taught us a lot about the pain points of the teams we were working with. As a consultancy, we were struggling to explain the value behind our knowledge to the local market and after long days and sometimes nights and weekends of brainstorming sessions, it was clear to us that we needed a different approach if we wanted to scale our business.

The product of these sessions and meetings gave birth toCloud68.co, and here we are today, providing reliable open-source digital infrastructure to SMEs and organisations. 

EU4I: What do you think are the key success factors in such an initiative that aims at promoting the open-source technologies, privacy and ethics in online platforms, while the awareness and knowledge of the people in the above topics is limited?  

Silva: A key success factor is to genuinely believe in the cause. As you state in your question, the awareness on the issues surrounding this topic could be higher. Getting people to understand how their choices when using technology can impact their lives or society can be very challenging; add to that also the fact that, in many cases, the competitor of the solutions we offer are big tech companies. So, one can easily get discouraged if s/he is not truly understanding the underlying issues or believing in the cause.
We have seen similar companies in other European countries that quit, they are not around anymore because of the struggles that companies face in the first years of their establishment. 

However, awareness of the matter is increasing. Many countries worldwide, inspired by the EU GDPR (EU General Data Protection Regulation) are proposing their own data protection rules and trying to protect their citizens from big tech. EU is also introducing new regulations, such as the Digital Services Act or the Artificial Intelligence Act, which aim to regulate Big Tech and grant more rights to their residents. More and more, we are hearing on the news about the bad practices that big tech companies are following, not only in terms of mass collection of data but also in their failure to keep it adequately protected and secure. All of this can contribute to the cause and people will start looking for alternatives. A good example is the massive movement of people from Twitter (after Elon Musk acquired it) to Mastodon, an open-source and decentralized social network. As someone involved for quite some time in raising awareness regarding these issues and as a co-founder of a company supporting migrations from big tech platforms (including offering Mastodon instances soon), I am optimistic about the future. 

EU4I: Can you tell us and the readers a bit more about the cooperation between Cloud68.co and EU for Innovation programme? I could name a few where Cloud68.co was either supporting initiatives that EU for Innovation initiated such as AlbaniaTech, Tirana Inc. or some that were purely driven by your company such as OSCAL (Open Source Conference Albania). 

Silva: The initial support of EU4I by creating opportunities for local tech projects to meet and get in touch with similar teams in Europe made our team believe that there are great local initiatives in Albania, that can compete in the international market. These meetings, supported by EU4I some years ago, helped us understand that there is a larger market outside Albania, where the idea to build Cloud68.cowas born, and that we must also focus on offering our services in other countries. This revelation was a game-changer in our decision to scale up our operations and prepare to provide open-source digital infrastructure to a European and, lately, to a global market (now we offer our services in four continents). 

Until we moved our focus to an international market, we tried to help in any way we could to share the know-how and our experience with the EU4Innovation team and the initiatives supported by the organization. This effort is better reflected in the technical implementation of the AlbaniaTech portal, where we provided the underlying infrastructure using open-source tools to develop the portal that will hopefully help the local tech ecosystem get better insights on the local start-ups. 

We were also happy to be involved in Tirana Inc. by sharing our acquired know-how on developing a team from idea to scale with participants. This experience was quite inspiring not only for us but also for the participants of the projects. 

Our team members also shared honest feedback from time to time with the EU4Innovation team. The goal here was to improve the program for other groups. 

Our journey on scalingCloud68.co has helped us understand the struggles of starting a business in the challenging environment in Tirana (to put it politely).Cloud68.co is established in an EU country, and we have shared our learnings with the EU4Innovation team, and hopefully, this helped the program improve. 

I am also happy and grateful for the support that EU4Innovation has offered towards initiatives such as OSCAL, the international conference about open-source technologies, where I have contributed as a co-organized for many years. The organizing team behind the event has struggled getting sponsors, and EU4Is support was crucial. 

EU4I: Would you think & mention of any EU for Innovation Initiative, where Cloud68.co was also involved, that had/will have impact on the start-up eco-system?

Silva: The Albania Tech project is, in my opinion, one of the projects that will hopefully have an impact on helping tech SMEs get to know each other and have insights into how the ecosystem is doing. The project is still new, but if it continues with the same pathos and is consistent in the following years, its impact will only be positive. I’m proud to have been involved in establishing the underlying infrastructure of the project and will be happy to see its effects in the upcoming years. 

EU4I: To your perception, have EU for Innovation activities contributed enough to the development and promotion of the innovation and start-up ecosystem in Albania? What should be done, additionally and in which direction?

Silva: There is a saying that I like: “it is a marathon, not a sprint.” This saying applies to an initiative like Cloud68.co but also to programs like EU4I. The tricky part is for EU4I to have consistency and to be around for a long time. I’ve seen many similar initiatives previously that aimed to empower the local tech scene that started dynamically but ended abruptly for one reason or another.

We are also entering the second decade of the term start-up, being mentioned a lot as something trendy. Unfortunately, today is not enough to promote just the idea of starting a small tech business. Many countries have a clearly defined strategy for the industry. Developing a tech scene around open-source technologies and privacy-oriented tech solutions would have a higher impact for everyone that is thinking of starting a company in Albania. 

We also need to be addressing the elephant in the room. Or I’d better say the elephants in the room. Significant data leaks from public institutions, relatively low rating from financial monitoring institutions like Moneyval, low progress from local banks in providing ‘start-up friendly’ services like payment gateways, high banking fees for transfers outside the country, highly bureaucratic hiring procedures, and frequent changes of the tax system are only some of the issues that have been around for more than 1.5 decades and have urged our team to establish our company in a EU country and not in Albania.

It is my understanding that EU4I as a program can influence only at some level to tackle these long-standing issues, but if there are opportunities to address some of them, the impact on the local tech scene would be significant. 

EU4I: Do you envision further continuation / strengthening of cooperation between Cloud68.co & EU4Innovation programme? How? Any idea/recommendation for improvement and future cooperation? 

Silva: Institutions, initiatives, and the public administration in Albania specifically, and in Europe in general, will benefit from the use of free libre open-source platforms. Such applications don’t have to be programmed from scratch every time and for every entity, saving taxpayers a lot of money. This happens because major open-source projects can share expertise and software development costs. To give an example, if EU4Innovation platforms are established in every Balkan country, they don’t need to create the platform from scratch if the code of the platform is open source. This approach also creates business opportunities for local tech companies to offer their services to maintain and develop the open source software for governments (local and central), institutions, and public interest organizations like EU4Innovation instead of empowering financially big tech corporations that will not reinvest their profits in Albania or similar countries.
Open-source software also allows the public to audit the code of the software, which provides more transparency on these platforms. The public can report bugs and software issues, which if not tracked in time, can lead to security issues and, as a consequence, to personal data leaks. 

I’m mentioning the promotion of open-source tools and their benefits because projects like EU4Innovation influence the public discourse, and promoting free, libre open-source tech platforms will have an impact on the innovation environment and the business aspect of local companies, including my own company. This approach is better presented by the slogan Public Money – Public Code (https://publiccode.eu/en/ ). When an influential project like EU4Innovation adopts this approach and rhetoric, it would have lots of value for the local tech scene and create job opportunities for local companies to develop and maintain such open-source solutions. It will generate growth for local businesses and not only for big corporations outside of Albania. 

EU4I: You are currently conducting your studies in the Advanced master’s program in Privacy, Cybersecurity, Data Management and Leadership at Maastricht University, European Centre on Privacy and Cybersecurity (ECPC). Tell us a bit more about this current experience but also how it links to your engagement with Cloud68.co or future plans?

Silva: I am pleased with the progress of my studies. This master’s covers a fascinating field of study, which includes both law and tech, and specializes in privacy and data protection. As I previously mentioned, I have dedicated a significant portion of my time to privacy advocacy. Through these studies, I am consolidating further my knowledge by adding the law layer to it. Privacy and data protection is an ever-changing field of study as new rules and regulations are introduced constantly. In practice, that means that privacy professionals will always continue learning.

Cloud68.coservices are the choice of many companies and organizations that value privacy and want to move away from big tech. My extensive knowledge will help take this mission forward while we also consider this ever-changing environment in terms of tech laws.

EU4I: To your view, what should be done to further promote success stories of (women and /or men) beneficiaries and improve the visibility of EU for Innovation collaborators such as Cloud68.co and yourself? Any recommendation? 

Silva: I would love to see the stories shared on your website in other formats, for example, through an audio podcast (which you can host using castopod.org). Tech founders prefer this type of content, as it is perceived as more entertaining.

There is also a small but growing audience on Mastodon (decentralized open-source alternative to Twitter) and Peertube (open-source alternative to YouTube), where other tech co-founders like myself spend quite a lot of time searching for good stories about SMEs that use innovative technologies. My suggestion would be for you to consider expanding your presence in these federated platforms.

EU4I: Is there something you like to share with readers to encourage them in starting their own innovation / entrepreneurial journey?

Silva: While the experience will be very challenging, it is rewarding as well. You will keep learning something new almost every day and challenge yourself in ways you wouldn’t have by doing the typical 9 to 5 job. You will enjoy the independence and flexibility that this role brings and the opportunity to have an impact.

Before taking such a step, give yourself the time to find a cause that truly matters to you or make sure it is something you care about, as this will keep you strong and motivated on the hard days. Working with the right people is also essential so that you feel supported along the way. Judging from my own experience, having other co-founders is very helpful. However, you should carefully choose with who you want to work.

EU4I: Would you like to share any favorite inspirational /motivational quote?

Silva: I like a quote by Morgan Freeman: “You don’t know how much you appreciate your privacy until you don’t have it.” It is not a motivational one, but it makes you think.

EU4I: Thank you very much Silva, not only for the time and efforts you put into this interview, but also for the valuable advice to explore alternative channels of communication for EU4I; and really consider this project as an influencer of the public discourse, promoting free, libre open-source tech platforms will have an impact on the innovation environment and the business aspect of local companies. Very insightful, highly appreciated! 
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