Petra Ehmann is German and lives in Switzerland, but her story actually begins 10,000 kilometres away in Bolivia. Most of her early childhood memories are from South America, a particular one being the first time her parents’ car broke down in the middle of the Atacama Desert. “Having my father repair the car and explain to us how the engine works was a common occurrence,” she says. “For me as a child, it sparked an extremely early interest in technology and the sciences.”
Her childhood in South America seems far removed from our chat today in the centre of Zurich. The 36-year-old, considered one of the leading digital voices in Switzerland, sits across from us at a trendy Greek restaurant. But these adventures of hers around the globe continue to shape her approach towards work and life, even today. “It was extremely courageous of my parents to drive us across the vast expanse of South America, where there’s no civilisation on secluded roads in remote areas.”
Ehmann is well versed in living a life off the beaten track. When she was 19, people’s frequent advice was to study business or do an apprenticeship. Instead, she decided to study engineering at ETH Zurich – surrounded by male classmates. “I got plenty of strange looks and it took a lot of courage for me to do it,” she remembers. In the end, it was that same courage that took her around the world. First to Bosch in Mexico, then to Hilti in Shanghai and eventually to São Paulo in Brazil.