The Zero Project Team
Operational Board Members of the Essl Foundation
Founder and Chairman of the Board
Martin Essl is the Founder of the Essl Foundation, which through the Zero Project is committed to a world with zero barriers.
As an entrepreneur – and coming from an entrepreneurial family in Austria – Martin Essl is well-known for his dedication to social responsibility and modern arts. After selling the bauMax conglomerate in 2015, Martin Essl now concentrates on philanthropy and real estate investing.
Martin and Gerda Essl, together with their children, established the Essl Foundation in 2007. The Essl Foundation supports social innovation and social entrepreneurs, with a focus on persons with disabilities and employment.
Currently the Zero Project is the Essl Foundation's main focus. It is also a member of "Sinnstifter", a joint initiative by twelve Austrian Foundations that co-finance social innovations. Moreover, the Essl Foundation is a member of the Disability Thematic Network Group within the European Foundation Centre (EFC).
Furthermore, Martin Essl supports Ashoka Austria and has co-initiated the "Haus der Philanthropie", which translates to House of Philanthropy. It is a co-working space for charitable foundations in Vienna.
CEO and Member of the Board
Michael Fembek is the CEO of the Zero Project.
A former business journalist, he has initiated and developed the Zero Project since 2008. In July 2022, Michael Fembek joined the Board of Directors of the Essl Foundation, in charge of strategy, international cooperations and communications. He is also head of the Disability Thematic Network of Philea, the leading European Association of foundations.
Since 2009, Michael Fembek co-initiated several activities to promote philanthropy in Austria, including the association Sinnstifter, Verband fuer Gemeinnuetziges Stiften, the House of Philanthropy and the Sinnbildungsstiftung. He is also the publisher of the annual CSR-Guide for Austria.
Michael Fembek holds a graduate degree in Economics from the Vienna University of Economics and Business. He was honoured with the title Professor by the President of Austria in 2022.
Zero Project Team — International
Director, Business Partnerships and Operations
Anna Königseder is the Zero Project's Director of Business Partnerships and Operations. In this role she oversees our business outreach efforts and the development of international business partnerships. Growing up with a brother with down syndrome, she was fuelled with a passion for disability inclusion from a very early age.
Thus, after working for ten years in the private and industrial sector in Austria and internationally, Anna joined the Zero Project in 2019. As the team’s key lead on process management, she is also responsible for all operational matters, as well as the digitization effort underway at the Zero Project. Apart from that, she is also in charge of managing and coordinating all business sector related activities that bolster the Zero Project Network.
Anna Königseder graduated from the University of Vienna with a Master’s degree in Translation, and holds a Master’s degree in International Economics from the Université Paris Nanterre.
Robin Tim Weis
Director, International Affairs
Robin Tim Weis is the Director of International Affairs at the Zero Project. He is responsible for developing, coordinating, and implementing the Zero Project’s strategy, policy, and programs relating to its international activities. He also engages the Zero Project’s international partners in order to build public sector coalitions to achieve a world with zero barriers for all.
With a background in science diplomacy and cybersecurity, Robin Tim Weis looks to empower the aspirations of persons with disabilities and remove the barriers they face. Thus, he manages programs such as the Zero Project Ambassadors’ Circle, which elevates the importance of disability inclusion within the diplomatic collective.
Robin Tim Weis holds a M.Sc. in Cybersecurity Law from the University of Maryland, a M.A. in American Studies from the University of Heidelberg, and a B.A. in International Affairs from the Free University of Brussels.
Zero Project Team Members — International (from A to Z)
Tom Butcher is Senior Advisor to the Zero Project and has worked with it since its earliest days. Based in the US and with a background in international finance and investment, he helps extend the reach of the project internationally, especially into both North and South America. Tom is also President of Light for the World USA, Inc.
Tom is currently Director of ESG with VanEck, a privately owned and operated global investment company based in New York. Amongst other areas, he is especially interested in DEI (Diversity, Equity and Inclusion) and, in particular, the inclusion of persons with disabilities in the workplace. Tom continues to use his extensive contacts, and the wide experience he has gained from working internationally, to promote both the foundation and the Zero Project around the world.
Tom holds both a Bachelor’s and a Master’s degree from the University of Cambridge University in England.
Digital Content Manager
Isabella Essl is the Zero Project's Digital Content Manager. In this capacity she manages the Essl Foundation's digital content for website, video portal and social media channels. Furthermore, she has spearheaded the redesign of the Zero Project YouTube channel, since joining the team in 2018.
With an academic background in conservation biology, biodiversity management, Japanese Studies, and comparative literature, she is interested in conservation and climate issues related to adaptation and biodiversity conservation measures. Isabella has published on these topics, specifically, on how conflicts of interest occur between climate change and nature conservation laws in Austria.
Isabella Essl holds an M.Sc. in Conservation biology and Biodiversity management and an M.A. in Comparative Literature from the University of Vienna.
Maria Chiara Franco
Junior Project Manager
Maria Chiara started as a research assistant at the Zero Project in February 2022. Thereby, she supports the team during its journey to the Zero Project Conference 2023, in areas like CRM, research, and communications.
Throughout her experiences, her interests have grown closer to matters of social injustices, which she actively explores through her personal research as well as by challenging discriminatory practices in multiple areas.
Currently, she is pursuing a MA degree in International Business and Economic Diplomacy at IMC University in Krems. Moreover, she holds a B. Sc. in Business Management from the University of Derby in the United Kingdom, and an AP degree in Marketing from the International Business Academy in Denmark.
Head of Communications
Judith Hermetter is managing the Zero Project's external communications across all channels. With a background in handling strategic communications for impact-oriented organizations, she will be further developing the Zero Project Brand, as well as campaigns and initiatives to communicate the Zero Project Network's activities to a broad audience around the world.
Prior to joining the Zero Project in December 2021, Judith was Chief Marketing Officer for ClimateTech Start-up Glacier, and Head of Communications for British non-profit education technology developer onebillion. Earlier on in her career, she was managing marketing localization campaigns for well-known brands in an integrated media production agency in London, and handling different corporate communication projects for organizations in Austria and France.
Xin Hu joined the Essl Foundation in 2018 as a Database Analyst and supports the Zero Project team in all relevant areas.
The maintenance and update of the Zero Project research database count among his main responsibilities. Thanks to his versatility and very structured work approach, he regularly takes over additional tasks such as internet research and data preparation, which supports the various digitization efforts underway at the Zero Project.
In his professional career, Xin could gather experiences in different sectors with a strong focus on data management. He has also successfully completed an apprenticeship as electronic technician at Siemens Austria (Vienna).
Head of Research
Wilfried Kainz joined the Zero Project in 2014. As the Head of Research he oversees the research process and coordinates the accessibility features, as well as the Zero Project Conference logistics among other things.
Wilfried’s business expertise spans over various industries. As a consultant, he helped to scale an Austrian hospitality start-up into a stock-listed international company. After a brief stint at Covadis, an internet start-up in Switzerland, he became CFO of Cresco Ti Systems, a med-tech company before returning to Austria in 2006, joining his former employer. Since 2015 he has been active as a management consultant and continues to channel his lessons learned into the Zero Project.
Wilfried Kainz is a business administration graduate from the Vienna University of Economics and Business and holds a Master of Business Administration (MBA) degree from the University of San Francisco.
Personal Assistant to Martin Essl
Claudia Koch is Martin Essl's personal assistant. She is responsible for the travel management, correspondence, appointments and also takes care of additional administrative tasks.
Her office is located on the premise of the former bauMax headquarter in Klosterneuburg. Claudia Koch has supported the endeavors of Mr. Essl since 1991, when she started as a Secretary. In effect, she has supported the Essl family business for over 30 years and continues to support the operational integrity of both the Essl Foundation and the Zero Project.
Claudia Koch completed her business management high school degree at the Vienna Business School Commercial Academy.
Manager, Civil Society
Sumita Kunashakaran is the Manager of Civil Society outreach at the Zero Project. This includes the civil society engagement portfolio, which boasts partners in over 180 countries.
In addition, she actively manages the Impact Transfer Program, a joint initiative between the Essl Foundation, Fundación Descúbreme and Ashoka. The program is the first accelerator to support the internationalization of innovative disability solutions for a barrier-free world.
Sumita is the former Advocacy Lead with the Disabled People’s Association (DPA) based in Singapore. As such, she is interested in policy matters regarding intersectionalities and marginalised communities. She led the working group for Singapore’s first ever parallel report for the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD) and has also published several papers for Universal Periodic Review (UPR) processes, Gender Equality Reports, and position statements for policy and legislative issues in Singapore and ASEAN. With her background in Terrorism and Security, her past research has also been featured by the Contemporary Security Policy journal.
Sumita Kunashakaran holds an M.Sc. in International Relations from the University of Edinburgh, and a B.A. in Sociology from the University at Buffalo, SUNY.
Head of Strategic Partnerships
As a lawyer and international relations specialist, Sabine Wachernig is responsible for developing strategic partnerships for the Zero Project. She joined the team in 2023, having worked over the past 20 years with different organizations in international development, mainly in Eastern Europe, Central Asia and Africa.
Sabine’s focus has been disability inclusion, education and economic development. She has vast experience in the field of strategic and organisational development. Civil society empowerment, philanthropy, and the quest for systemic impact capture her passion.
Her unique experience at the interface of institutions and societies will contribute to forge strong partnerships for inclusion and accessibility worldwide.
Sabine Wachernig holds a Masters degree in International Relations from the Johns Hopkins University, Washington D.C., a Masters degree in Law from the University of Salzburg, and a Masters degree in Art History from the University of Salzburg.
Zero Project Team — Austria
Director, Zero Project Austria
Michael Pichler is the Zero Project's Director for Austria. In this capacity he spearheads the numerous inclusive activities of the Zero Project in Austria. With his long-standing background as a human resource manager, he brings the employers perspective to the table and sees himself as a bridge builder between the various stakeholders. Michael Pichler aims to make an important contribution by developing Austria into a model country for truly inclusive employment. The Zero Project Unternehmensdialoge seek to ignite this transformation and inspire Austrian companies to employ persons with disabilities in a sustainable and inclusive fashion.
In his more than 20 professional years, Michael was able to gain extensive experience in all areas of human resource management; be it recruitment; professional training; or further education. As the Head of HR for bauMax–formerly Austria’s largest chain of hardware stores–he was able to manage the inclusive employment initiative and take on a pioneering role in Austria. Moreover, he has been able to lead large restructuring projects in which he gained valuable change management experience and was able to build up a valuable network with top decision-makers in Austria. In recognition of his work in the HR field he was awarded the 2016 HR Person of the Year award.
Michael Pichler studied psychology and law with a focus on human resource management and organizational development at the University of Salzburg. Further, he worked for the research institute for organizational psychology as part of his diploma thesis. Numerous training courses in the field of personnel and organizational development complete his profile.
Consultant, Zero Project Austria
Katharina Praniess is a consultant for the Zero Project Austria team and its activities. In this volunteer capacity she supports people with disabilities in using and organizing personal assistance. She is committed to enable people with disabilities to lead a self-determined life. Personal assistance is an integral key to this mission.
Katharina Praniess experience with personal assistance is informed by her academic background in psychology. In her undergraduate thesis, she dealt with deep brain stimulation, a method that helps people with brain damage to obtain more mobility. In her graduate thesis Disabled masculinity? – the experience of love and partnership of men with physical disabilities she examined the partnership and sexuality of men with disabilities. This was the first academic paper to critically analyze this topic.
Katharina Praniess holds a MSc in psychology from the Sigmund Freud University in Vienna and also obtained relevant certifications to work as a peer consultant for the WAG Assistance Cooperative. She lives with personal assistance in Vienna.
Counsultant, Zero Project Unternehmensdialoge
Karin Praniess-Kastner is the Counsultant for the Zero Project Austria and develops and organizes the Zero Project Unternehmensdialoge in Austria. This series of events inspires companies in Austria and underlines best practices for the employment of persons with disabilities. The practices illustrated under the auspice of the Unternehmensdialoge aim to encourage companies to break down barriers for all in Austria. The program’s goal is to ultimately enrich the life of persons with disabilities and enable them to embark on a more sustainable and fulfilling employment relationship.
As a well-established strategic development consultant Karin Praniess-Kastner facilitates trainings, workshops and team coaching’s for an array of clients. This training is complimented by her 30 years of experience with organizations that focus on the integration of children, adolescents and adults with disabilities into society. Examples include the Wiener Hilfswerk, one of the largest Austrian providers of social services–for which Karin was honored to serve as President for over thirteen years in a volunteer capacity. Moreover, as a former member of the Vienna State Parliament, Karin Praniess-Kastner vitae illustrates her public commitment to a world with zero barriers for all.
When she is not seeking to outline sound models of employment for persons with disabilities, Karin Praniess-Kastner loves to spend her free time with her family, her two daughters, one who uses a wheelchair, as well as with the finer things Austria’s has to offer, namely the opera, a lively theater scene, and great hiking opportunities. Karin holds a MSc in social sciences, organizational and personal development and has completed several certificates in training, mediation and coaching. Today she is also a trainer for aspiring trainers and coaches.
Zero Project Team Members — Latin America
Sustainability and Diversity Director
Andrés holds a bachelor’s degree on Economy from Pontificia Universidad Católica de Chile, as well as an MBA from Universidad Adolfo Ibáñez. His experience includes working in several foundations such as Fundación Imagen de Chile as Marketing Director, Comunidad de Organizaciones Solidarias as CEO and Aldeas Infantiles SOS Chile as CEO. He has over 13 years of experience on Marketing and Communications in Microsoft and SAP.
María Ignacia Rodríguez
Head of International Affairs
María Ignacia holds a bachelor’s degree on Political Science from Universidad Católica de Temuco and a master’s degree on Political Science from Universidad de Chile. She has a background on academic research on public policies and socio-territorial conflicts. Since 2018, she has led key projects at the national and international levels at Fundación Descúbreme, and since 2019, she leads the regionalization of the Zero Project to the Spanish-speaking community worldwide.
Carola holds a bachelor’s degree on Economy from Universidad de Santiago, as well as an MBA from the University of Westminster. Her experience includes working as Commercial Director at Aldeas Infantiles SOS Chile, over 12 years on IT multinationals a Marketing Director, and 6 years managing bilateral trade issues in the Chilean and British governments.
Maria Catalina Saieh
Catalina holds a BA on English Literature and Linguistics, an MAoin Literature from Pontificia Universidad Católica de Chile as well as an MBA from the University of Chicago. She is the President of Fundación Descúbreme, Vice President of Fundación CorpArtes and President of Fundación Educacional Colegio Laudare. She is also Vice President of Grupo Copesa, Director of SOFOFA and Director of Asociación de Empresas Familiares.
International Affairs Analyst
Tania holds a bachelor’s degree on Political Science from Pontificia Universidad Católica de Chile and is currently finishing her Law studies at the same university. She has an academic background on political and social research projects at universities and civil society institutions. Until 2021, she worked at the Chilean Chapter of Transparency International as coordinator of support to victims and witnesses of corruption, and she joined the Zero Project Latin America team in early 2022.