Journalist: Franziska Pfister | Photographer: www.foto-shooting.ch | Magazine: La confiance est source de courage – Octobre 2022
Ellen Ringier had a strict upbringing. She tells us how this benefits her to this day and her reasons for offering parenting advice via her Fritz+Fränzi magazine.
Ms Ringier, what was the bravest thing you’ve ever done in your life?
When I was young, I’d climb up cliff overhangs and race downhill with Bernhard Russi, who was the best even then, with me bringing up the rear. I used to ski down the Gemsstock in Andermatt without making a single turn – I’d never dare do that today!
“Unless they have ‘helper syndrome’, nobody is keen to work unpaid for 30 years.”
Did you think about a career in sport back then?
No, although that was suggested to me a number of times. In women’s sport, many disciplines were in their infancy at the time. Everything pretty much revolved around sport in my family. My mother added golf to the mix when she came over from England. She fell in love with a handsome Swiss officer on the ski slopes, my father. He led a regiment in Ticino and at his instigation we got up at 5 a.m. on many a Sunday and went on an excursion to Ticino.
You grew up with two sisters in a conservative, catholic environment in Central Switzerland. Do you think you were given the same opportunities that would have been afforded to a brother?
Yes. My mother was a strong personality, coming from a family of London bankers. Her school moved to Scotland to escape the bombing during the Second World War, into an old castle with no heating. That toughened her up. She loves being outdoors, come rain or shine. And she raised us children the same way, so we built up a certain resilience that’s benefited us in later life.
The Swiss parenting magazine Fritz+Fränzi was founded 21 years ago and has a readership of 225,000. The magazine has twice been honoured with the Q-Award for best Swiss speciality publication. Published by
the non-profit foundation Stiftung Elternsein, it appears ten times a year, alongside four special editions of a magazine for parents of pre-school children, and much more. The editorial team and publisher are based in Zurich and Ellen Ringier is president of the foundation’s board.
Resilience in terms of perseverance?
More in the sense that I learned to set aside my own needs. I think my father hoped that if he treated his eldest daughter like a son for long enough she’d become one some day! I wasn’t indulged and I had a strict upbringing.
Were certain things forbidden?
My mother had more self-confidence than most Swiss women at the time. When she came to Switzerland aged 25 she had done a degree and worked in a bank on Wall Street for a year. She encouraged us girls to push for what we wanted. If my father had had his way, I wouldn’t have sat the exam for grammar school. Back then, we children generally complied with the less important, everyday rules …
Why was he against that?
He achieved excellent grades himself and thought grammar school places should be left for children who were more intelligent or, perhaps, more hard-working than me. My English grandmother persuaded him to let me sit the exam. My father always found it hard to understand that someone like me, with so little interest in learning, managed to get school leaving qualifications and a law degree. He smiled when I handed him my dissertation and placed it on a stack of papers on his desk, but after his death, I found it – unread – towards the bottom of the pile.
Was courage needed to hold your own against your father?
Initially yes. It was not the norm then to contradict your father. I actually would have liked to study medicine, but he refused to finance that. He maintained I would fail the first interim exam. Instead of defending my plan, I meekly asked: “do you have a better idea?” He said law. I followed his suggestion – and have never regretted it. Despite everything, I not only admired my father for his sense of duty, but also loved him for his warm and engaging personality.
At the time, girls were in the minority at grammar schools and universities. What are your thoughts on a male quota for medical degrees?
I am against holding women back. If there are more female doctors than male, then they have proven themselves in the market. There are reasons why those seeking help often feel in better hands with female medical professionals (or why bank customers prefer women investment advisors). Women are seen to empathise more. A male quota would be a bit of joke!
You are an entrepreneur, have created a foundation for parents and publish a parenting magazine. Was entrepreneurship always the chosen path for you?
Not at all. In fact, my career was blocked for many years. The day after my honeymoon I was back in Hamburg, without any prospect of obtaining a work permit for Germany. It was only a few years later that I found a job in insurance thanks to my mother tongue being English. I loved being an employee and colleague and never felt the need to know everything better or shape things myself.
Dr Ellen Ringier (70) grew up in Lucerne. Her father was a businessman and art collector, her mother came from an English banking family. After leaving school, she studied law at the University of Zurich and obtained a doctorate. Following various jobs in the courts, law firms and the largest German insurance group, 30 years ago she dedicated herself fully to voluntary work for various cultural and social organisations. In 2001, she founded the Stiftung Elternsein (parenthood foundation). She is married to publisher Michael Ringier and has two children.
On returning to Switzerland you worked in a law office.
Yes, but carrying the name Ringier sometimes made that tricky. I always felt exposed and clients were unsettled: will that stay within these walls or be in tomorrow’s edition of Blick? At 40, I found my personal reset button and accessed the trust my grandfather had set up for me in England so I’d never need to be financially dependent on a man. I drew the initial CHF 2.5 million for my magazine from that trust.
You are referring to the parents’ guide Fritz+Fränzi. Was this entirely your own project?
Yes, and I'm proud of not having asked for any support from either my husband or the Ringier company. My husband was actually against me starting a magazine. “Losing money on magazines is something I do better than you,” was his characteristically wry comment.
The magazine was a success and the print run is steadily increasing. How long will publishing magazines on paper continue to be profitable?
That’s something all publishers would love to know! Our focus is discerning articles on parenting matters. No recipes, crosswords, crafts, beauty tips or such like. To put it differently, our magazine is not an easy read. It’s one to pick up many times and have to hand. Despite this, digital content is becoming more relevant for us, too, though this is harder to fund.
You are considered a patron in Switzerland. Do you ever feel you are living in your husband’s shadow, despite your own successful projects?
In our marriage, we each “do our own thing”. My husband supports organisations and people in the world with which he’s most familiar, hence art. I knew from the start that I would need to fund my own project. I therefore showed the business plan for Fritz+Fränzi to the former editor-in-chief of Blick, Fridolin Luchsinger. He took a look and said: if you do this, you’ll lose CHF 3 million every year. I adjusted my expectations accordingly. I had a limited number of years in which I could secure financing, otherwise I would sooner or later have no choice but to shut down the magazine.
“I am pleased with how everything has turned out.”
But it all worked out?
Yes, though it took a lot of work. My colleagues and I exploited ourselves, which is true for any new business starting out. We worked day and night at the start. One colleague’s husband was a photographer and took pictures for free, of our own children, in fact. But I always wanted a busy life – spending all day playing golf or visiting the spa would never have been enough for me.
Where do you find the motivation?
Unless they have “helper syndrome”, nobody is keen to work unpaid for 30 years. Joking aside, I am grateful for all the good fortune in my life and wanted to give something back to society. Earning money and being in the limelight was never my life’s ambition. I was always looking for something meaningful and wanted to help others.
Bravery is generally regarded as a male attribute. Is women’s bravery overlooked because society views them differently and has different expectations of them?
I think so, yes. Women in Switzerland were given fewer opportunities to be brave. In the Second World War, the men in our neighbouring countries were all fighting at the front, and many did not return. Women had to step into the breach and they did not readily give up the power they gained.
What does bravery mean to you today?
Being prepared for criticism from some parts of society. In conservative circles, I am anything but popular as I’ve spoilt the typical image of a businessman’s wife. My tendency to make statements critical of society led to me being labelled a “cryptocommunist”. I stand up for fringe groups and want to work against the divisions in society. Switzerland needs a broad pool of people in the political centre who identify with the country and want to achieve something for society and not just themselves.
If you knew then what you know now, what career choices do you think you would have made?
I am pleased with how everything has turned out. Given the same circumstances, I would still study law. Looking back, I would have liked to work as a solicitor for longer, perhaps in a child advocacy role.
In what way should young people be brave, if they are at the very start of the career?
In my experience, many students are above all interested in jobs that pay well. I would advise them to disregard convention and choose a degree subject that fully engages your heart and soul. Getting to know yourself through your work and being able to contribute more and more is so enjoyable and fulfilling. These days, it’s also not unusual to switch careers and try your hand at something totally new in your 30s or 40s.
Ellen Ringier – In the spotlight
The first thing I think of when I hear the word “courage” is …
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have a firm code of values.