Connecting, inspiring and empowering women to lead the way
Interviewed by Montana Cantagalli
Meet Maria Grazia Medici; a Partner and Head of Life Sciences and Healthcare at Osborne Clarke in Italy. In this interview, she talks about how and why she decided to go into law, her hopes for the next generation of lawyers and the transformations she has observed in the field.
You are Head of the Life Science and Health sector at Osborne Clarke in Italy. What motivated you to take on this leadership position and what drew you to specialise in the regulatory aspects of Pharmaceutical and Real Estate law in the first place?
Taking this leadership position was a natural step for me. Having previously worked in a small boutique firm, I found myself at this fantastic organisation, Osborne Clarke, which is very well structured and gives people the possibility to do what they want. I was excited about the idea of being in an international law firm with a brilliant network of people. So, I thought why not? Let’s do it.
And why pharmaceutical law? That was a bit of a “it just happened.” When I started working as a lawyer, I was given the possibility to work for clients in the pharmaceutical business and I really enjoyed it. It is law but it is also science, and I like the combination of the two. As a lawyer, having the possibility to understand scientific, technical, chemical, and biological aspects is a real privilege, particularly as this sector is developing so fast. In the fast-paced world in which we live today, it is so important to stimulate your intellect. If you don’t, you’re done for. You need to keep an open mind that allows you to look forward.
In the fast-paced world in which we are living today, it is so important to stimulate your intellect. If you don’t, you’re done for. You need to keep an open mind that allows you to look forward.
Have you always been comfortable with taking leadership roles and, if not, how did you find comfort in it? What do you think shapes a good female leader?
I never really thought about it: I just focused on doing my work and having fun in the process. I am pleased with the results I have achieved and the relationships I have built with clients and colleagues. This has given me comfort. If you are of service to other people and help them to grow and achieve their results, then they look at you as a leader. At the beginning, it can be a bit scary, but then you start gaining confidence. Historically women have had a duty of care towards their families, and this has made them adept at listening to people and their needs. It means that sometimes you are taking on a leadership role without knowing that you are doing so. Women are also well trained in taking care of many things at once, and this makes us more flexible and better able to look at and solve problems.
If you are of service to other people and help them to grow and achieve their results, then they look at you as a leader.
What excites you about the new generation of lawyers and how do we encourage younger generations of girls to take an interest in law? What are some important words that every upcoming woman in law should hear?
The new generation is smart, ambitious, and not scared of being ambitious, and I greatly admire that. They are also driven by a desire for success and to make a difference, and this is important. Younger colleagues tend to do things differently from my generation and are more technological, which is part of their strength. Being technical helps you to be creative, for instance finding solutions that do not expose clients to risk.
To be a successful lawyer, you need to have solid technical knowledge and a good understanding of the law. Lawyers are pathfinders. We are here to help our clients, to listen, understand and share our experience with them. Once again, empathy is essential to guide your client to the right legal solution.
If I had to give advice to a young woman starting out in law, I would say: listen to your client, listen to people, be empathic, never put yourself on a throne because you are not a professor. Your priority should be doing everything you can to help your clients find the right path for them.
I am proud to be at Osborne Clarke because we pay a lot of attention to the personal growth of our associate female associates and try to support them in different ways. Helping people find the right path is essential for their success.
Lawyers are pathfinders. We are here to help our clients, to listen, understand and share our experience with them.
Could you tell us about some influential figures in your life from whom you took inspiration on your own career journey?
My mother had a big influence on me. She was a professor of women’s history and women’s studies in the Middle Ages, and she always told me that women should work and pursue a career. She was a big support to me during my own career.
Later, I met many influential figures for different reasons and from different backgrounds. At 14, I got to know a fantastic American lawyer who took me to court in the US and this really opened my mind. It was thanks to her that I decided to become a lawyer.
Law is known to be a very demanding sector to be in. How do you perverse your mental wellbeing when faced with significant work demands?
At the beginning it was all work, work, work. I didn’t have much time for my personal life. My husband and I were very busy with our jobs, and having lots of fun with it, until one day, when I was a bit older, we decided to step out of our comfort zone and have two children. It was at that point that I realised that we could do and have everything we really wanted; it was just a matter of organisation. It was then that I also saw how incredibly important it is to preserve your mental wellbeing. This can involve anything, from going to the gym to going shopping: doing whatever it is that makes you feel good. It is beneficial for your work, because if you have a good mindset and reduce stress, you work better and produce better results. Personally, I don’t need to be stressed to work well.
It is incredibly important to preserve your mental wellbeing. This can involve anything, from going to the gym to going shopping: doing whatever it is that makes you feel good. It is beneficial for your work, because if you have a good mindset and reduce stress, you work better and produce better results.
Did your career feel different post-motherhood?
It did: it made me stronger, for instance it gave me the strength to change course and to go to a different firm. Having children forces you to distance yourself from work and focus on other things that are important.
Can you think of one or two significant obstacles you have faced in your career journey that you learned the most from?
Oh yes. When I had my first child I was working at another firm and was told that I would not receive a bonus because, since the bar association had coverage for women during their maternity leave, I had already been given my dues. It was not intended as an act of aggression, but simply what they thought was normal and right for the firm. I was shocked and for the first time in my life stood up very strongly for my rights. The outcome was that, after listening to what I had to say, they recognised that they were in the wrong. With this incident, I understood that while there are certain battles that it is best to let go of, there are others you need to fight strongly. Younger female lawyers should always have in mind. You have to stand up for yourself because no one will give you anything if you do not raise your hand. This is not because people are bad: I’m optimistic about that. It is simply that everyone is trying to get the best for themselves. If you think you deserve something, raise your hand and ask, otherwise you are never going to get anything and someone else will. Raising your hand forces you to explain yourself, to analyse your strengths and weaknesses, and this helps you to get better results and go further.
If you think you deserve something, raise your hand and ask.
What pivotal shifts has you witnessed in the legal sector? What impact would you like to have on the legal sector during your time as a practicing lawyer?
The first shift that comes to mind is technology. When I started twenty years ago, the firm I was at had only one email for the whole company. Technology has dramatically changed the law field in terms of timing of reply, the tools you can use, and the kind of attention you need to give to a matter to avoid a quick answer that ends up being the wrong answer. Another change has been the increase in the globalisation of the services offered by legal firms. When I started there were already some international law firms in Italy. The legal profession is not only domestic: you are not just an Italian lawyer or a French lawyer practicing Italian or French law, but you are also part of an international organisation.
In terms of impact, I think it is the responsibility of senior lawyers to inspire younger generations to get to where they want. Aspiring female leaders should not think that having a family should mean sacrificing their career. Women have the right to have a career and a family, and we can show them that they do not need to choose. There are many senior female leaders with children around the world, in politics and beyond, who also serve as living proof that women can have both. In recruitment I see how smart and hard-working women are, and how far they can go.
It is the responsibility of senior lawyers to inspire younger generations to get to where they want.
You talked about the impact of technology. Have you ever felt worried about the role of tech in your sector?
There are risks, especially for the younger generations. The fact that technology could lead to the elimination of some jobs, for instance. Technology also risks undermining person-to-person contact and a more human approach to business, which is something in which I believe strongly. At the same time, technology creates infinite possibilities. What I hope is that the moment that tech is no longer useful for helping people, it will be forced to take a different direction.
Finally, how has being a lawyer impacted you as a person?
It has taught me not to look at things from one direction. As a lawyer, when you have a problem, you must look at it from all perspectives to be able to take the best decision. If I have a problem or I am litigating, I will often play the devil’s advocate and try and think about what the other party would say. Seeing issues and problems from different perspectives and putting myself in other people’s shoes is a skill that I am now also applying in my personal life.
Video edited by Claudia Heard
Interviewed by Eimear O’Neill
Mireille Helou is Senior Vice President of MENA at Orange Middle East and Africa. In this interview, she discusses the changing nature of the telecommunications sector, the role the industry plays in empowering women, and her journey to her current position at Orange.
To kick things off, could you please give us a little background on how you arrived at your current position at Orange?
To answer this, I need to start from the very beginning: I don’t think I’d be where I am today if it wasn’t for my parents empowering the little girl I used to be and making me believe that I could be anything I want to if I put my mind and heart to it. This belief allowed me to embrace STEM, and to study mechanical engineering. It also nurtured a kind of inner drive to constantly look for new challenges, opportunities, environments, cultures, and teams. So, when I graduated from university, I was eager to leave my home country of Lebanon to pursue new horizons.
I decided to move to France, only to find out that the industry wasn’t ready to recruit a young female mechanical engineer from Lebanon. This attitude side-tracked me from what at that moment I thought I wanted most, and I had to change tack. I took a job as a project manager in a small company that worked on electrical projects for the Middle East and rapidly moved up the ladder, taking on more managerial responsibilities. This was a very formative customer-facing experience, especially when it came to agility, adaptation, organisation, and stakeholder management.
Six years later I was ready for a new challenge, and I found it in a sales and marketing department at a medium-sized company. There, I oversaw the development of new services and new business opportunities for key sectorial accounts. Three years later, at the dawn of the .com era, I leveraged my two previous experiences to help a German startup set up offices in Paris before joining Orange Group as a business manager.
All this to say that nothing was planned; opportunities and looking for new horizons led me here. Without knowing it at the time, when I joined Orange it was the start of a long professional journey in a sector that would constantly evolve over the years, and within a company that would face multiple transformations. Fast forward to today and I am the senior Vice President for the MENA region and a board member for three of the four operations.
I don’t think I’d be where I am today if it wasn’t for my parents empowering the little girl I used to be and making me believe that I can do and be anything I want to if I put my mind and heart to it…It nurtured a kind of inner drive to constantly look for new challenges, opportunities, environments, cultures and teams.
You’ve worked with Orange for over 20 years, including posts in San Francisco and La Reunion. What about the working environment and company ethos made you want to stay with the organisation for so long?
Orange is a big group. It operates in 26 countries in Europe, the Middle East and Africa and is present in more than 120 territories across the globe. This offers a wide range of opportunities and exposure to diversity. My journey took me from functional to operational positions, from sales to sourcing and supply chain, to innovation, and now to my present position in governance. It led me from Paris to Nairobi, La Reunion, San Francisco, and finally to Casablanca where I am speaking to you from now, 22 years later!
Every time I embraced change and moved beyond my comfort zone, I found myself on a path to growth. Once you understand that, there is no going back; every experience becomes humbling and a learning curve, yet at the beginning, each one feels scary and, every time you come to something new, you know that other people will have their own expectation for it. There is a fear to fail others, the fear to fail yourself, and, when you’re moving countries, it just gets amplified by the personal stakes and adjustments you undergo. It is your duty as a leader to show up as your best, most authentic self in order to build trust and to build lasting relationships, which are key for any challenges you take on. You also need to actively listen to understand the dynamics, ecosystem, workloads, and culture of the business, because they will differ.
Every time I embraced change and moved beyond my comfort zone, I found myself on a path of growth. Once you understand that there is no going back, every experience becomes humbling and a learning curve.
At the end of the day, I’m very proud to be part of a group that has embraced a purpose that will give everyone the key to a responsible digital world. Valuable human capital and a wealth of competencies and expertise are amongst its biggest assets. Orange is also a group that believes in equal opportunities and actively promotes diversity and inclusion. All this is why I find myself 22 years later still in the group and eager to continue, to bring value, and to see the business and its people grow.
I’m very proud to be part of a group that has embraced a purpose that will give everyone the key to a responsible digital world.
In a 2019 interview with Line Pelissier, now director of Career Paths, Recognition and Services at Orange, she noted that “the telecommunications sector has made a massive contribution to women’s liberation through their work.” What, in your opinion, has made the telecom sector such a launchpad for women’s careers, and how can other industries take inspiration from this?
The telecommunications sector has been a game-changer when it comes to connecting people to each other and to new information. Telecoms have brought economic impact to everyone, but especially to women, and especially women in Africa and the Middle East. The advent of mobile finance, for instance, has been a key enabler for the financial inclusion of women. Studies show that mobile finance adoption has a positive impact on women’s economic empowerment, as it helps them to develop the ability to make life-determining decisions, including around their finances. A lot of women have been able to start small businesses to support their families and to better their lives and gain financial independence. This has benefited women hugely.
As a company a network of 30+ Orange digital centres which offer free digital programmes, with a special focus on young people and women, serving as another example of how Orange and telecommunications services have contributed to female empowerment. Over the last two years, more than 700,000 people have benefited from these activities and an additional 20,000 young people have gone through intensive training with these programmes, of which 40% are women. This has given them access to the job market and the ability to build their futures.
I think that this shows, overall, that we’re taking a more multifaceted approach than we did in the past.
It is often said that the historical lack of opportugnities for women in the professional environment and ‘seats at the boardroom table’ can, and in many cases has, created a certain competitiveness between women at work, straining professional working relationships between women. Increasingly, this is being dismantled by the existence of more opportunities for women, and by organisations like WIL which seek to encourage women to work together and share ideas through networking. Do you think we'll see more of this in the workplace going forward, and in what other ways can we break the cycles of the ‘one seat at the table’ mentality that have limited women for centuries?
Representation and role models are really important. We think that there is one seat at the table if we only see one person of that gender sitting at the table; that it’s the only space that can be occupied. As more companies commit to diversity and begin to understand that diversity is a factor of performance, and not diversity simply as representation, it gives me reason to be optimistic about where these things are headed.
When it comes to competitiveness, I would say that there is healthy and unhealthy competitiveness. It is healthy if used as a tool for betterment and if there is fairness. This is especially so when you see yourself as the first person to compete against, because this compels you to bring the best out of yourself. When people are insecure about their capabilities, they might see others as threats or obstacles. This can lead to toxic workplace behaviour and unhealthy competition.
As more companies commit to diversity and begin to understand that diversity is a factor of performance, and not diversity simply as representation, it gives me reason to be optimistic about where these things are headed.
At Orange we have done a tremendous job of building a community of women leaders and encouraging them to work together and share ideas through networking and mentoring. Promoting collaboration in the workplace and helping women to grow confidence is a way to fight against gender stereotypes and discrimination. I think there is a major shift that’s happening with the younger generations too – they are more driven by purpose. I’m quite optimistic that we’ll be seeing more women in the workplace, more women at all levels, in the coming years.
Telecoms is a dynamic industry that is required to continually evolve in line with emerging technological developments and trends. What are the most notable developments you’ve seen throughout your career, and how has the changing nature of this industry impacted your attitude to work?
The telecoms industry has seen tremendous growth. How we communicate, how we access information and how we interact with technology, have all transformed. Each technological generation has brought its share of improvement in terms of data speed and network capacity. When we first started using Skype, for example, there was a dial tone, which took a lot of time to connect to the other user. We have also seen the expansion of internet connectivity and broadband, the democratisation of digital access, all enabled by the explosion of data and content services and the proliferation of social media. Not to mention mobile money adoption, which has given new opportunities to the unbanked population and had a tremendously positive impact on societies and economies. Going forward, we can expect to see the exponential growth of cloud computing and AI and this contributes to the overarching idea that new developments are continually emerging.
In a nutshell, telecoms enable individual businesses and communities to connect, collaborate and thrive. They are the backbone of modern society. How has this impacted my role? I’ve seen disruptions, revolutions, novelties, technological evolution, and growth. This has made me a more adaptable person and given me agility, something you need to strive for. Being surrounded by uncertainties and in fast-paced environment has positively shaped me as a person and helped me to develop resilience.
Telecoms enable individual businesses and communities to connect, collaborate and thrive. They are the backbone of modern society.
If you could have a dinner party with anyone from history, who would you invite and why?
I would love to have a dinner party with trailblazing women from all domains who have had big and small achievements; women who inspire and empower the next generation. Names that come to mind include Marie Curie, Rosa Parks, Cleopatra, Ada Lovelace, Wangari Maathai, Simone de Beauvoir, Simone Veil… but I’d also like to include all the mothers, sisters and teachers advocating and fighting for the empowerment of their daughters, pupils and communities. Ultimately, it’s the whole community of inspiring women that I’d love to have at a dinner party! So many female achievements are understated in history and I’m sure there are a lot of women who don’t appear in books that have yet to be discovered, and I’d love to invite these silent heroes to my dinner party too.
So many female achievements are understated in history and I’m sure there are a lot of women who don’t appear in books that have yet to be discovered.
Meet WIL Member Audrey Krause-Roehrig, Finance Director at fritz-kola. In this interview, Audrey discusses the impact of her international upbringing on her career, her love for mentoring, and what it takes to be an authentic leader.
From your biography, I gather you had quite an international upbringing. Could you tell us more about that and how it impacted you as a professional?
My grandmother was German, my grandfather French, so there was a strong feeling of being European from the start. My grandparents and my parents were also very interested in discovering new culture .My grandparents both spoke four languages, which was quite unusual in France at the time. I often say that that my parents lived with a suitcase in their hands, because they love to travel around the world: my father would go to Africa or Asia in his free time and come back with all those wonderful stories. We were brought up to be European and got used to meeting people from abroad and experiencing different cultures, and that is probably how my sister landed in the UK, and I landed in Germany. It felt very normal for us to live and work abroad, and I wanted to do so as soon as I could because I thought that when I got married and had kids, I would end up coming back to my home country. But things did not turn out quite like that! You meet people abroad and then your new home becomes somewhere else. You have all the benefit from being a foreigner but also all the advantage of knowing that there are different countries and opportunities, and that the work can be different wherever you go.
You have worked with non-profit organisations such as “Start with a Friend”. Could you tell us more about this?
When the war started in Syria and many refugees came over to Europe, I asked myself how I could really help them. What could I contribute that would be meaningful for them and for myself? A friend suggested that I support someone and help them start their new life in Germany, something which spoke to me as I had also lived through the experience of being a foreigner in Germany and having to learn how things are done. So I did - met and supported two people on the programme and prepared them for job interviews, eg. looking over their CVs. A friend, photographer, helped by taking their pictures for their CVs. Back then I was working at Beiersdorf, a manufacturing company, so I also asked some colleagues of mine to do fake interviews with them to prepare them for the real ones. They learned simple things like the way you sit in Germany, how you start an interview and so on. Once recruited, I supported them with their contracts to check they were okay, and we also discussed what they would do as a next step. One of the men I mentored, who I am still in touch with, has been living for five years in Germany, learnt German and had a family. When you see that, you feel that you have really changed someone’s life by helping them get on the market.
Mentoring is about personal development at the end of the day. It is about discussing with people, supporting them realise what might be holding them back and where they want to go to. It is also about challenging them on their stated objectives and expectations if they are really the ones they are longing for.
Mentoring is about personal development at the end of the day. It is about discussing with people, supporting them realise what might be holding them back and where they want to go to.
You are also a mentor for Step Up and for our Women Talent Pool leadership programme. What inspired you to be a mentor? And what aspects of mentorship do you wish you would have had more of in your own journey?
I decided to start mentoring a few years after I was in a talent programme during which we were asked to write a letter to our retired selves, once we were old and holding a retirement speech. I wrote “When I leave the company, I want to be able to say that I helped grow many seeds; that I helped people grow.” This has followed me ever since and I hope that through all the mentoring sessions that I have been giving I have helped people in this way. Through mentoring, I get the feeling that I can contribute to somebody’s life.
My experience as Tandem for “Start with a Friend” and further experiences as Mentor within the companies I worked for led me last year to ‘Step Up! Karrierewege e.V.’, a very small NGO that welcomes 40 teenagers a year onto a programme. Its goal is to help students from different social backgrounds find their path and show them what is possible. Looking back, I am not sure that I got all the right advice when I was still a student myself. One of my sons is studying engineering, and when I look at him, I often think “That would have been great for me too”, but the idea never crossed my mind. I think it is very important to help young people who might not have the right setup or the right background behind them to find their way and the right career.
Although I did not necessarily pick the right area of studies for me, after that I had a lot of luck. On my way, I have met a lot of people who have supported me and given me advice. And I know that I grew because I had the chance to have all these people in my life. You always need a little bit of luck, too, to find the right people who can support you, and I had lots and lots on the way. Now I want to give back what I have got from others.
What is a change or movement you would like to see towards gender equality in your current sector? And how can companies make themselves more approachable to all, especially women?
What I would really like to see is more women at the top level of the hierarchy, on executive and supervisory boards. We are still missing women there and this has a lot to do with how women make decisions at different stages in life. I respect them all, but I do think that it is important for women to think about what kind of investment they are ready to make to keep moving forward in their career. For example, in the first years when I was working, I had two kids and most of my pay was going toward supporting myself to be able to work in a proper manner, like getting help with childcare. And there was a price to pay because we could not do the far-away expensive holidays and other expensive activities. But in doing this, and being able to progress in my career, I was making sure I was having a return on investment in the coming years. It is important that, in society, people change their views and help even more women to reflect on this and recognise the benefits of continuing to invest in their career. Women also need to make sure that they keep on moving forwards to ensure that they are at the right place when people are looking for them.
There is still a long way to go, and we are not there yet. Nevertheless, there are changes happening that I see on many levels. I see men coming into my company who are part of the new generation, and who are much more open to doing part-time jobs to take care of children. This is very different to my generation. It is great to see because it is not just women who needs to adapt but society, and that starts with the partner. In terms of legislation, I was always against quotas, but increasingly I see a need for them to get things moving in the right direction.
The question of companies being approachable to all, not just women, is something we are thinking about a lot within the management at my company. Because it is not only about women at the end of the day, but also about getting a diverse team that is working well together. On the one hand we want to have more, on the other hand side you cannot force it. I believe that if you have a good company culture then it will bring in the right people at some stage.
I believe that if you have a good company culture then it will bring in the right people at some stage.
Tell us about what it has meant for you to combine motherhood and a career.
I was very lucky to be born in France because there you do not have to make a choice between the two. You think “Okay I have my kids, check the box, I go back to work.”.
It helped me a lot to be abroad. Unlike in France where you have a lot of pressure to go back to work immediately, in Germany you have pressure to stay at home and be a mother. So, in the end I had to find my own way of doing things. I strongly believe that being a mother makes you a better leader and being a leader makes you a better mother. Since I was not the only one looking after them, my kids have grown up to be independent and are used to being in contact with different people.
What has changed in Germany is that, today, we have many more role models of women with kids, something that was always more visible in France. It is great for younger women coming through to see that they can do both, the way men always could.
What are some mistakes or obstacles throughout your professional career that you feel you most significantly grew from?
I grew when I was facing big challenges. When you have a team and they are all young, passionate, just out of university and burning to do stuff, it is not difficult to listen and be heard, because they are already leading themselves. What is more complicated and what really makes you grow as a leader is when you lead people who are very different characters, from young to old, women and men, who have all different needs in the way they like to be led. Leading a team that needed to be convinced, where the individuals might not want to bring their best to start with, is where you grow most. I think I also grew a lot with all the feedback I received throughout my career. At first, I thought I needed to be very professional, to keep a face straight and get on with solving problems; but in fact, being a leader in a company is about being together, being a team, showing how you feel and not only how you think.
I do not believe that anybody has a career without bumps, because the bumps are what make you a person in the end. In the face of challenge, you are forced out of your comfort zone. When everything is too easy, you do not grow. Being an authentic leader is about being able to talk about what did not work: this encourages people to ask questions, and to come with answers.
I do not believe that anybody has a career without bumps, because the bumps are what make you as a person in the end. In the face of challenge, you are forced out of your comfort zone. When everything is too easy, you do not grow.
Tell us more about how your perception and definition of an “authentic leader” has evolved throughout your career, and the extent to which you are encouraged to be authentic in your sector.
As I said, I used to think a leader needed to have all the answers and today I do not think this is the case. For me, the leader is the one who creates the trust so that people in the team feel they can raise issues and show how we can solve them together. I do not want to have all the answers, nor do I need to be the strongest in the room. I make sure that the people in the room can be who they are. This is what makes an authentic leader and ensures that the best is brought out in teams.
I do not want to have all the answers, nor do I need to be the strongest on in the room. I make sure that the people in the room can be who they are. This is what makes an authentic leader and ensures that the best is brought out in teams.
I do not know if people are encouraged to be authentic in my sector, but in my company, it is the case. This is why I chose to work for fritz-kola. Here, the value that the company represents my value as well. I can be myself and I have a feeling that my teams can be themselves too. It is a very creative and bold company, and people come to work here because they believe in what we are working for. The hierarchy is very flat, and people treat each other as equals whatever their position.
Video edited by Juliette Travaillé
Interview by Anna Marin and Marella Ricketts
Meet WIL Member Rita Malavasi, Public Policy Senior Manager at Amazon Italy. In this interview, she shares with us her nuggets of wisdom, from what she has learned from working in an international environment to the benefits of companies prioritising diversity and inclusion.
You come from an extensive career in International Business Development and Public Policy, and you are now working as a Public Policy Manager at Amazon in Italy. Can you tell us about how you entered the field of business development and public policy? How did you end up in Brussels in the first place?
I had the opportunity right after my first Master of Art in Economic Development and Management in Bologna to start my professional career in Brussels at the EU Office of Region Emilia-Romagna. It happened by chance, through an internship offer. After my internship, I started working as a Public Policy Manager at the same office in Brussels, the city which would be my home for the next eight years. I understood from the very beginning that it was going to be a significant and long-lasting experience for me in that city - both from a personal point of view, with the incredible people you can meet from all over the world, and from the professional point of view. I had the chance to learn institutional relations by working at the very core of the EU institutions. I developed my career in an extremely international environment that has been and still is today, the “fil rouge” of my path.
Over the years your career has taken a path towards Institutional Relations and Public Affairs. Could you explain a little more about what that means and your current responsibilities?
In addition to the international dimension, politics and public policies have been my passion from a young age. After serving as Public Policy Manager at Emilia-Romagna Office in Brussels, I came back to Italy and worked in the field of international business development for seven years, where I led a team and a network of professionals across the globe. During the coronavirus, when life suddenly got quieter because we were forced to spend more time at home, I reflected on how my career had developed and I understood that I was looking for a new challenge that could bring together the two parts of my professional career into a new path. My position in Amazon offers me exactly this opportunity to combine my background and experience in Institutional Relations and Public Policy with my know-how on business development and operations, but in a very new and hyper inspiring environment. Today at Amazon Italia I lead on Operations and SMEs policies within the Italian Public policy team. In other words that means ensuring that our presence in Italy brings a positive economic and social impact in the country, focusing on some key areas of policy: Workplace, DEI, Skill, SMES and economic local development.
During the coronavirus, when life suddenly got quieter because we were forced to spend more time at home, I reflected on how my career had developed and I understood that I was looking for a new challenge that could bring together the two parts of my professional career into a new path. My position in Amazon offers me exactly this opportunity.
What has working abroad in Brussels taught you? What have you brought with you back to Italy?
In Brussels, the opportunity that I had at the beginning of my career was extremely important. We had a small team of mostly women and a director who would give us a lot of space to bring our ideas to the table and implement them into new projects. It was a way to network with other people and organisations as well, and these relationships have stayed with me and helped me advance in my career, even if I decided to go back to my country.
In Brussels, the opportunity that I had at the beginning of my career was extremely important. We had a small team of mostly women and a director that would give us a lot of space to bring our ideas to the table and implement them into new projects.
As well as being an expert in Public Policy and Business Development, you also have experience within Diversity and Inclusion. Could you tell us more about that and if you have noticed any change in recent years in how much emphasis organisations and companies put on inclusion?
Diversity and Inclusion is a key asset for a competitive and attractive organisation today, be it a private or a public company. The topic today is given much more priority compared to a few years ago. I’m very proud that the Italian Government within the National Recovery Plan designed an innovative initiative called Gender Equality Certification (GEC) for companies that want to promote gender equality by structuring their own management system – not only to demonstrate their commitment to gender equality, but also to set and monitor specific targets for improvement. Amazon IT was the first e-commerce company in Italy to obtain this important recognition. Thanks to the GEC, we doubled down on Amazon’s commitment to strive to be Earth’s Best Employer (one of our Leadership Principles) and enrich diversity of experience in decision making by increasing female representation. From the point of view of the employees, Amazon's commitment to reach the GEC is definitely confirmation of what Jeff Bezos used to say: It’s not only that diversity and inclusion are good for our business. It’s more fundamental than that — it’s simply right.
Can you tell us a little bit about your day-to-day life at Amazon and your main responsibilities?
I’m the Ops Senior Public Policy Manager of the Italian team and I’m leading Operations and SMEs policies. Since 2010, Amazon has made investments of more than €12.6 billion in Italy and we are present in more than 60 sites across Italy, including Fulfilment centres, Sortation Centres, Delivery stations, a customer service in Cagliari, a corporate office in Milan, and our Innovation Lab in Vercelli. One of the main goals of my team is to make sure that Amazon represents a force for good in the country and that our extended presence acts as a driver for social and economic development locally and regionally. This is a key asset of our own competitiveness. In addition, I lead the team on our SMEs initiatives. In Italy we have 20,000 Small and Medium Enterprises using Amazon every day to expand their sales channels and export the most representative products of our territories all over the world. According to the latest 2021 report, SMEs that used Amazon in 2021 to sell their products in Italy and abroad created over 60,000 jobs in Italy and recorded sales abroad of more of 800 million euros. We promote free training programmes and ad hoc initiatives to facilitate the digitisation and internationalisation of IT SMEs and we work closely with the Italian Institution to enhance our achievements and to promote a stronger private-public partnership.
How has the experience of working in different countries shaped you - in both a professional and personal way? What have you learned about yourself from this experience?
I have been travelling alone since I was very young, and the international environment and mindset is what characterises my personal and professional life. Working in an international environment is a never-ending occasion to learn and to understand new points of views that drive innovation and bring new challenges both in my personal and in my professional life. It has been a great opportunity to grow.
If you could travel back in time and give yourself one piece of advice, what would that be?
The main advice I would give to my younger self would be to remind myself that perfection does not exist. Learning that it is okay to fail is something women especially should understand. Failing is not shameful but an opportunity to grow and to learn. This is probably the most important advice I would also give to a young woman at the beginning of her career, as well as to be brave and take the most out of every experience. Do not compromise with what you want to achieve.
Learning that it is okay to fail is something women especially should understand. Failing is not shameful but an opportunity to grow and to learn.
Interview by Montana Cantagalli
Meet Maija Corinti Salvén, Head of Government Affairs Nordic, Baltic and Alpine Region at Apple, with experience in Digital Policy, Public Affairs and EU Relations. In this interview she talks about finding your own path, fighting for gender equality in tech and the opportunities offered by the digital transformation.
To begin, can you tell us a little bit about your professional career leading up to your current role at Apple? What inspired you to pursue this path and what advice would you give to a woman navigating the pursuit of a high-level career in tech, which remains a male-dominated industry?
When you look at CVs and LinkedIn profiles it always looks like a straightforward career path but actually, it is often a path full of detours and deviations. I never knew exactly what I wanted to do, but I was politically interested and wanted to have an impact. So, as you do in Germany, I started studying law and engaged within a political party. But I hated it, so I dropped it, realising that this was not my thing.
Instead, I had always been interested in philosophy, but the challenge was that I never knew how this could transform into a job afterwards. Nevertheless, my experience with trying out the standard combination of law and politics showed me that the path to success is not via suffering, it can only go via something that you have passion for and that you also enjoy.
That is when I moved to London to study political philosophy within a degree course called European Studies, in a context of European history and EU integration. I did a year abroad in Stockholm, then went back to London and did an MSc in the same field. I enjoyed my studies greatly though I still had no idea what I was going to do with it. I wanted to do “something with Europe” because of my personal background and I wanted to do something that was politically relevant, something that would have an impact. Then, by chance, the Association of British insurance companies was looking for someone to join their European affairs team who was non-British, a job starter, and who came from a European Studies background.
My experience with trying out the standard combination of law and politics showed me that the path to success is not via suffering, it can only go via something that you have passion for and that you also enjoy.
So, I entered a world that I did not know existed before and discovered it step by step. It was interesting: you deal with a lot of different policy topics, you engage in lobbying campaigns, you get to understand how politics is really made in the EU. I then moved to the Deutsche Bank EU Affairs team in Brussels because I wanted to experience life and work in the heart of Europe. Next, I joined PayPal, which connected me from financial services to digital technology which I found very interesting because digital policy was still a totally new area. Then – having moved to Berlin in the meantime – I joined Apple, so remaining deeply involved with digital technology and tech, always in a Public Affairs role.
So this is how I ended up in the digital economy and spent virtually my whole career so far in public affairs and as a lobbyist. And it is still interesting: two days are never the same! And I have the feeling that I can really contribute to shaping our society, our economy and the framework conditions in which we all operate.
I have the feeling that in public affairs jobs I can contribute to shaping our society, our economy and the framework conditions in which we all operate.
What inspired you to pursue this path and what advice would you give to a woman navigating the pursuit of a high-level career in tech, which remains a very male dominated industry? What is the advice you would give to a woman who wants to pursue a similar career path to you?
I would say, "Follow your interest". If something interests you, that is where you should go. Do not stop to ask yourself "Do I know it?", "Do I know anybody?", "Do I look similar to the people who are already there?". Interest and the desire to learn and develop are what drive you forward. Even if you do not know anything about the area or topic yet, it might end up being the most fascinating discovery that you will make.
In my kind of work - public affairs, communications, even management roles in tech - there are actually a lot of women. I would encourage all women to consider a career in tech, because many of these companies are international, really dynamic and very modern.
I am not a fan of saying “women have to do this, or women have to do that” because it is not women who have to change but the system around us. If we do not want to just copy the current male patterns but create new ones, we need to define a new middle ground and move into it. And I think part of it is being confident and assertive, not waiting in the shadow until you’re asked to step out; be on the playground and play it our way, thereby changing the rules. It is about attitude and mixing up the patterns with different approaches.
Have you witnessed or been a part of a significant movements of institutional change towards gender equality in your sector? And what is a significant change you would like to see personally?
There is now EU legislation on quotas in management positions: I am a supporter of quotas, even though it is a difficult philosophical argument. Practically though quotas speed up the necessary progress; organic growth towards gender equality is not sufficient, and we have seen that now for centuries. So, we need quotas as a catalyst and to increase the pool of competence. In my view, EU legislation and the corresponding domestic and national legislation on this issue are a sign of progress.
The challenges we face in my sector are the same as in other sectors. But one sign of progress that I see is the many women leadership networks in all kinds of careers and professional areas. I am the co-founder of a female lobbyist network in Germany, and I am a board member of WIL Europe. We women need to pool our resources, to share experiences, and come together in strength and solidarity.
What do you think are the primary challenges facing women in the professional sphere today? And how did you yourself approach these challenges in your own professional journey?
The fact that all women are seen as potential mothers is a big challenge. If we think of women as potential mothers but not equally of men as potential fathers, then we make an unjustified differentiation, leading to different treatment and inequality of opportunity. Your competence is not defined by being a man or a woman, so the chances you will have in life should not be defined by it either.
The other fundamental flaw that I within our society is that we are made to believe that the burden of change lies on our individual shoulders. We are supposed to tackle structural discrimination with individual effort; while the underlying inequality is systemic. There are many brave but very exhausted women, while the patriarchal system is very resilient. What is needed is political will to change the structures of power, how labour division is organised, how companies are organised, how families are organised. how our entire day-to-day is organised. And that includes men. Gender equality and fair chances through democracy is not a matter of looking at women: it is a matter of looking at a just society.
Gender equality and fair chances through democracy is not a matter of looking at women; it is a matter of looking at a just society.
For the last few years, you have been a mentor to emerging female leaders on WIL's leadership programme, The Women Talent Pool, why?
Along most my own path of development, I was usually alone and an outsider; I never had access to the kind of guidance, mentoring and resources that WIL offers. I know how much I would have liked to have that and how valuable this would have been. I might have been faster or less exhausted or more resourceful. I am driven by motivation and development and by opportunity. If I can help others in their development and motivation, that’s just great! I am a fully trained and certified systemic coach alongside my corporate career, by the way. So mentoring and coaching have become part of my DNA.
You are passionate about the potential of digital transformation; how do you think the digital revolution can impact social movements like gender equality? Is there not a risk of the move to digital undermining the push for greater social inclusion?
Yes. I love to hate the overused dichotomy between “risk and opportunity”. Everything is risk AND opportunity; it just depends on how you look at the world. Digital technology is a new technology which means that it is new for everybody. If something is new for everybody it is true opportunity for change, a reset to zero, because the old privileges do not necessarily hold and the conditions for learning are different. There is a sense of novelty which creates curiosity and innovation by default, which we can be tap into.
We see that digital transformation can reinforce social, gender and other divides. But this is because we allow it to replicate the already existing non-resolved flaws. If we are smart with it, we will use digital technology in a very inclusive sense. Digital technology can allow people to grow and progress, to work in politics or economics, to do everything that they want to do whether they are at a specific location, whether they are men or women. It does not take physical strength, it does not take a specific kind of education, it applies to all kind of use cases. It creates connections and impact across the world, something that was possible only locally before. Digital technology holds real transformative potential as a political, social and economic catalyst, and as an ethical catalyst. In a sense, the digital transformation forces us toward progress; yet digital anarchy or digital oligarchy are not particularly helpful if we really want to progress in a sustainable way. We need a true digital democracy and that means including everybody. Philosophically this is a very clear imperative path. It is a huge opportunity, but we need to step up intellectually to understand that and then make smart politics to use as an opportunity. So, I fully believe that digital transformation is what could save humanity. I am just not sure if humanity is smart enough to realise it and do it.
So, I fully believe that digital transformation is what could save humanity. I'm not sure if humanity is smart enough to realise it and do it.
Interview by Abby Ghercea
Meet Dorothée Coucharrière, European Affairs Director at ENGIE. In this interview, Dorothée discusses balancing competing interests in the energy industry, the current energy crisis and opportunities it presents, and how chimpanzees and humans are more alike than we think.
You have recently joined ENGIE as the European Affairs Director. Congratulations! Can you tell us what a normal day at work looks like in this new role?
I’m not new to the public affairs or energy sector but the climate and energy crisis is setting new challenges and ENGIE is a multi-energy, global company, with many different activities and challenges to take up. At this moment, as you can imagine, with the crisis that the EU is going through in the energy sector, life is very busy, especially in Brussels. My days are full recently with emergency measures, trying to mitigate the short-term impact of the crisis, but also at the same time trying to reflect on long-term strategy. My day-to-day is quite diverse. I manage a big team of senior people, all experts in their fields. I feel more like the director of an orchestra, trying to put all these instruments in harmony. I have external meetings with institutions, internal team meetings, working groups, and discussions with colleagues from different businesses . ENGIE is a very large group with 100,000 collaborators all over the world, so there is diversity in our activities and interests as well. I am like a translator interpreting between different worlds: the political world, with short-term and long-term goals, dealing with regulations, mobilising internal colleagues, and aligning with stakeholders.
My day-to-day is quite diverse. I manage a big team of very senior people, all specialists in their fields. I feel more like a director in an orchestra, trying to put all these instruments in harmony.
Currently, Europe is facing an energy crisis and the focus on the climate at a global level appears to be at an all-time high. How do these contexts affect your work?
In the energy sector, we are at the core of the reactor. We are focused now on how we change the paradigm to reach climate neutrality by 2050. To meet that target there is a need to shift the current model, while at the same time maintaining important aspects like our economic stability within boundaries. We also must align 27 different member states, multiplied by different stakeholders, including foreign partners. At the EU level, the targets on the table are quite ambitious and they have to be implemented evenly across all member states, which have different legislation and different energy strategies. As a company, we are taking the lead and developing renewable electrcity and renewable gasses to build and independent and resilient energy system. People are reducing massively their energy consumption and that is interesting as this lever is not usually easy to trigger. The crisis is a shock, but it is probably thanks to this shock that we can go a step further. The EU is being built through crisis anyway.
At ENGIE, we try to shape the sector and solve the crisis on the long run. We are at the forefront of new technologies and very successful in renewable energy and we need confidence and long term support from the policy makers to go on with the plan.
The crisis is a shock, but it is probably thanks to this shock that we can go a step further. The EU is being built through crisis anyway.
You have over 15 years of experience working within the energy and transport sectors to mitigate climate change. What are the most positive changes you have seen within these sectors regarding climate change, and what do you hope for the future of these sectors?
I’m a specialist and have always been active in this debate while working in the institutions and private sector. There has been an improvement in the way we see our impact on this planet and what we need to do, and we were quick to realise that we needed to develop other technologies. However, I think that there is still more we can do when it comes to the way we consume and the way we see our place in the world in relation to nature and biodiversity; we are just one part of it. Climate change has an impact on biodiversity loss and vice versa; it is not just one or the other. Sometimes it is easy for policymakers to only take one instrument as a reference, and yet what we are facing is so much more complex.
As companies we have to deal with different factors that affect the execution of our business and to evaluate risks. We are in changing times, and it is important to understand that this does not mean fewer jobs and less business: in fact, we have to build what we do around the economy. It has been interesting, for instance, to see a movement towards more rail travel or use of bikes. The problem is that we are not alone in Europe, and we need to think of ourselves less as an isolated region and more as part of the globalised world. It is a difficult equation, but I have seen over the years that things are moving in the right direction. Again, this crisis is a new opportunity to go further.
You volunteered at a chimpanzee sanctuary in the Republic of Congo. What inspired you to volunteer in animal welfare and what have you learned from it?
I was attracted by forest protection, and I quickly saw that you cannot protect a forest if you do not protect the inhabitants of the forest. Unfortunately we see in many tropical forests across the world that indigenous people are facing the negative collateral effects of certain activities. Again, if you want to protect the forest, you need to protect what is part of the forest.
The way that chimpanzees organise themselves is very interesting. Chimpanzees are a good example of how humans behave and studying them is a way to learn about human organisation. When you look at chimpanzees, you see that they are aggressive apes; they fight for food and are dominant for example. In some ways they appear very human, with many shared characteristics, but at the same time they are so different because they are perfectly in harmony in their environment. If you break this harmony, it is a disaster.
Can you share any insights you have gained from being a member of the WIL network?
What I experienced as a woman in high positions in big, political organisations made me think that women need to strengthen their relationships with each other. Being part of the WIL network is not just about talking to or about women, but about finding a place where we can learn from each other, share experiences, visions, and empower each other, all of which are very important to me. Men have been doing this for a long time. When I look at men, I see that they are very organised and, in my view, accept the ranking of society much more than we do. In previous roles, for instance, I would see younger men sitting behind the older ones and not challenging their position, a bit like the chimpanzees I observed during my volunteer work. I think that women missed some of the codes of society because we were not part of the shaping of it. Now, we have to be part of the re-shaping.
As women, we also have specific challenges to deal with, especially when it comes to handling our professional and family lives. It can be a huge burden. However, men can benefit from this too because it is really a battle about the recognition of your need for personal time and a balance with time spent at work.
I would see younger men sitting behind the older ones and not challenging their position, a bit like the chimpanzees I had observed during my volunteer work. I think women missed some of the codes of society because we were not part of the shaping of it. Now, we have to be part of the re-shaping.
Finally, we end with a question from the Proust Questionnaire: Who are your heroes in real life?
My heroes are the people of day-to-day life. After COVID we see a lot of pressure on our society and my heroes are teachers, nurses, food-makers and all of those people working hard and without whom the system would collapse. There are probably some jobs that we could remove and society would continue, but the people I have mentioned are very crucial in our society. At the same time, I also look up to artists because they bring us joy and vision and that is very important.
Video edited by Marella Ricketts
Interviewed by Lin Peterse
Meet Rania Ekaterinari, a C-level executive with experience in Banking, Consulting, Energy and Utilities, Investments & Asset Management, Strategy, Corporate Transformations and Corporate Governance, and an independent board member in large listed companies.
She talks about crisis management, her experience in corporate boards, the impact of quotas, and the importance of self-belief.
We had the opportunity to interview you five years ago, and since then a lot has changed, both in the world and in your career. Could you tell us briefly about your career path during the last five years?
My career was never linear. I always wanted to be exposed to new challenges and take up new roles, without being afraid to leave my comfort zone. I am an electrical and computer science engineer by academic background. However, I did not work for long as an engineer; soon after graduation, I started working in the oil and gas industry in business development in the Caspian region, and then a couple of years after, I switched to corporate finance, focusing on oil and gas. I stayed in financial services for 10 years but because I missed the industry and the real economy, I assumed a C-suite position for the biggest electric utility in Greece, just at the time when the Greek sovereign crisis started to unfold. This unprecedented crisis in Greece lasted for 10 years and found me at a position of high responsibility as Deputy CEO in a multibillion company with 7 million customers and great exposure to sovereign. There are things you learn at university and things you learn during your career, but there is nothing compared to what you learn when you have to navigate a big ship in times of great storm. There were so many things that I learned: how to face your biggest fears, how to be resilient and how to be courageous, to name a few. When everything seems to be falling apart and there is no sense or normality, everything that you have been taught and trained to do before does not work. Managing crisis primarily requires self-control, resilience, and the ability to connect with and empower your employees, customers, partners and stakeholders.
Unfortunately, crises are not going anywhere. A year after Greece exited the sovereign crisis, there was the coronavirus pandemic, followed by the energy crises and inflation. The pandemic disrupted everything and created a new norm. Such an environment demands a new kind of leadership with a mindset that is adaptive, inclusive, and innovative. Most importantly, you have to care about your people. You need to understand what people want: what your employees and stakeholders want in times of crises and uncertainty and be able to manage this.
Another important element from my career over the last five years is the fact that I took the decision to lead the Sovereign Fund of Greece for four years. This was a newly established organisation which aimed to run public wealth in a professional manner, transferring majority shareholdings in large State-Owned Enterprises as well as public real estate under a single corporate structure. State wealth in many countries is like an unexploited gold mine, which, if managed properly with strong corporate governance rules, can greatly benefit the economy and society.
What has been most instrumental in contributing to your career advancement over the years?
I think the most instrumental thing is that I never wanted to lie back; I always wanted to explore new things. I believe that getting exposure to different environments is what helps a woman accelerate in her career. You get to understand the different corporate cultures, different team dynamics but also politics, and gain experience not only about how you succeed, but also about how you manage failure. In this way you test your strength of character and you become more aware of your strengths and weaknesses. This leads to being able to move forward more quickly and decisively. Getting exposed to these things and constantly trying new things was what drove my career and brought me to where I am today.
Did you have role models and what was the most valuable advice given to you by another woman?
When you have a full and ‘’restless’’ life, you come across many personalities. I feel blessed to have met so many great women in my life. So, yes, in my personal life I have had many role models, starting with my mother. My two teenage daughters are also role models to me in a way as they represent the new generation. It is exciting to discover how they think, how they are driven by their own strong set of values, and how important it is for them to have a sense of purpose. I have also met many strong women in my life, who have become close friends and who I trust and love dearly. They are by my side whenever I need them and vice versa.
In my professional life, I have also come across some amazing women, mainly through networks. Being part of the Rising Talent pool of the Women’s Forum for the Economy and the Society at the age of 37, for example, was a great experience. I have had similar experiences with the European Network of Women in Leadership, which I have been a member of for almost 10 years, and the 5050 Women on Boards network, which I recently joined. Through these networks, I met some amazing women from different parts of the world, some very successful in business, others with exceptional scientific recognition and some totally fearless about standing up for their rights in countries where women have no voice. It has been a source of positive energy and inspiration to meet all these women, either online and in-person events. Each one is a role model in her own right and they have become examples of how to improve myself.
You have served as a Career Development leader on WIL’s Women Talent Pool (WTP) Leadership Programme. As you are a role model yourself, what are the ways that you help other women develop their careers and advance into leadership roles?
I once heard from a female politician that if you are fortunate to have an opportunity in your professional life as a woman, it is your duty to make sure that other women have similar opportunities. It is very important for us as female professionals to raise awareness about why diversity and gender balance in the work place matter, to become advocates of inclusion and why this is so important not only for business, but for society too.
I believe that every woman should be an active sponsor of another woman, and this is something I have always done in my life. In professional networks, we often talk about our own need for support, but it is equally important to give help and support other women and to be an active sponsor for those who are looking to get promotions. Personally, I do lots of mentoring, either to women in their mid-careers or to ambitious young talents getting started in their careers. I have also been a Career Development leader for WIL’s WTP programme.
There are always dilemmas and trade-offs if we choose both motherhood and our careers. And usually my message to women who are starting a family is that they have to stay true to themselves and to their spouses and feel happy with the choices they make, even if sometimes there are trade-offs to be made. It is important to explore, open their horizons and try new things. Look for the opportunities with confidence.
I heard once from a female politician that if you are fortunate to have an opportunity in your life as a woman, especially in your professional life, it is your duty to make sure that other women have similar opportunities.
You have a technical background in electrical engineering. How was this beneficial to your career development and are you still reaping the rewards of this technical training in your working life today?
Yes, absolutely! Having a technical background and thinking like an engineer was pivotal to my career because it taught me how to approach and analyse things in a way that is useful in times of crisis. STEM is very important because in today’s world; companies need to have a strong technology and innovation mindset. We need more women to graduate from STEM and it has been reassuring to see more and more doing so, and some with great distinctions!
You are on the board of four large multi-billion companies, two of them listed. You shared your experience in a WIL workshop on How to Become a Board Member in March 2022. Were there surprising questions that came up? In your view what is needed to enhance the pipeline of female candidates for board nominations?
The ‘’Boardroom’’ did not happen overnight. Having completed a career across different sectors and fields of expertise, and being in C-suite positions for more than 10 years with demanding managerial mandates in large companies, I was selected and nominated as an independent member in the boards of four large companies. It is important to note that before becoming an independent non-executive member, I was an executive board member (being a CEO), thus I already had experience of how a board functions from the position of an executive, clearly different from the non-executive one, but equally valuable as board experience.
At the workshop, I have received many questions from younger women about how they can build their path to the boardroom. It is important to understand that being a non-executive board member is a demanding job. It helps to have previous executive experience: you cannot be part of a collective decision-making body like a board if you do not understand the duties and responsibilities that a CEO has when it comes to running a company and executing a strategy. That is why it is important to have gained some operational experience and to have managed people and stakeholders.
It also helps to think about what kind of board to target, as there are different kinds. You need to have an idea of where you want to go, or at least what kind of sector or industry. It is also important to start thinking about what kind of board. There are boards of listed companies and publicly traded companies where members have demanding duties and liabilities. You can also join the board of a private company or a non-profit company or a start-up. They each have different corporate cultures.
Last but not the least, keep in mind that the path to the boardroom also requires to raise your profile. To better understand how to make it to the board one day and shape its strategy, it is important to network. Joining networks of women where some of them are board members can provide insight on what is going on globally and what kind of profiles companies are looking for.
To better understand how to make it to the board one day and shape its strategy, it is important to network. Joining networks of women where some of them are board members can provide insight on what is going on globally and what kind of profiles companies are looking for.
Many believe that more diversity will not happen naturally, and evidence shows that quotas introduced in many European countries have resulted in a rapid change in the number of women serving on boards of publicly traded companies. What is your view? What is the situation right now regarding the number of women serving on boards in Greece?
Historically speaking, boards have been very slow to change; they are supposed to represent the pillars of stability and wisdom within their organisation. But this is changing and quotas have helped to make the first big step of change. Regulators and investors have been pushing for more diversity and require reporting on progress made. They are also pushing for boards to have more independent members: not just members who know the company and were ex-employees for example but for qualified professionals, who can contribute to a better decision-making process and strategy-setting dialogue, through an independent mindset. And that is where the opportunity emerges for younger women to feed the pipeline of candidates for future nominations as independent members.
However, we cannot talk about diversity if the senior management of each company does not believe in it. Quotas do not fix the problem for ever. We need to set the tone at the top and lead with intention towards a more inclusive work environment that supports both men and women. This goes beyond regulation and quotas; it goes beyond the ticking of a box. And it says a lot about the DNA of each company, their senior leadership, and their corporate culture.
We cannot talk about diversity if the senior management of each company does not believe in it. Quotas do not fix the problem for ever. We need to set the tone at the top and lead with intention towards a more inclusive work environment that supports both men and women. This goes beyond regulation and quotas; it goes beyond the ticking of a box
With the wisdom gained over the years, would you do something differently? What advice would you give to your younger self?
The first piece of advice would be to believe in my strengths and not be so judgemental of myself. Perfectionism is good, but it is not always an advantage. Sometimes it can consume a lot of your time and energy and keep you away from other things that could make you happier. We should not lose valuable time by trying to be so perfect in everything because there is no such thing in life. You can be a good mother, but you cannot be a perfect mother.
The second is to always try to find satisfaction and happiness, wherever you are in your life, and avoid thinking about what could have happened differently. I think that it important to feel happy and take pleasure in the little moments in our daily lives and try, by faith and by having this attention to little things, to find harmony and balance in our relationships—personal relations, family relationships and professional relationships.
I also think it is important for women to choose their battles and try to develop something we already have: our emotional intelligence. We need to understand the impact we can have on others and how to connect and empower them and I think this is something that we can do easily. We must not go into battles that are unnecessary, or which waste our energy, potentially affecting our happiness.
Last but not the least, whatever you give in your life, you will get back. When you care for others, you lead through strong values that do not change over time, creating a network of people who value you deeply for who you truly are. That, to me, is considered success.
Whatever you give in life, you will get back. When you care for others, you lead through strong values that do not change over time, creating a network of people who value you deeply for who you truly are. That, to me, is considered success.
Interviewed by Anna Marin
Meet Bożena Leśniewska, Executive Vice President Business Market at Orange in Poland. In this interview Bożena talks about being a part of transforming a company for the digital era, her own experiences as a leader and her mission to support others to succeed.
You are the Executive Vice President (VP) in charge of Business Market at Orange, a huge company in the telecom sector. Could you tell us about your responsibilities and what a typical day in the life of an Executive VP at Orange looks like?
I oversee the business market here at Orange Poland. This means the entire activity of Orange, starting with the business customers, biggest enterprises and ending with smaller companies. They are all under my responsibility. Here, in our country, we have already expanded ourselves from being the telecom operator to a digital solutions provider and I really appreciate that I have a pleasure to supervise this transformation in B2B. Today, Poland is one of the leading countries in this market.
But you also asked about a typical day - for me it usually means a lot of meetings, making decisions and building the plan for future growth. It is an interesting and challenging job. Personally, I really like meeting customers. I like the direct communication. But each day is different.
You mentioned that communication is an important part of the job, and a part that you enjoy. Digital communication has expanded dramatically over the last few years. In your role at Orange, where you have been for 16 years, you have contributed to the company's transformation to become more agile and digital. How did that transformation unfold and what challenges did you and your team face on this journey?
I would say that the company and the telcom sector have been in a phase of transformation for many years. For us, at Orange, it started several years ago, when we shifted from being a state company to a private one and then continued with the digitalisation of the market. Since I have been working at Orange, we have been in a state of transformation. And today we belong to the most well-advanced companies with many processes fully automated and hundreds of robots doing the repeatable jobs. We are aiming to be a paperless company and we are making this change step by step. Many of our customer service calls are now answered by artificial intelligence, but I could give you many more examples – including the growth of e-commerce and our fully digital operator product, Flex. However, in my opinion, our most important transformation is the transition from providing telecommunications solutions to delivering our customers the full value chain. From connectivity to integration, security, software and customer relation management. This has been a huge change and 30% of the revenue today comes from these new businesses. I am very proud of this. It started in B2B, and it has been very successful.
I should also mention our green strategy, which is an important part of our development, and we have a huge focus on sustainability and responsibility. This is not only in terms on the climate but also diversity.
You co-created the Academy of Leadership Postgraduates Studies for Women at Kozminsky University, which is about to enter its fifth edition. Congratulations! Can you tell us more about this initiative and why you embarked on it?
This is something I am very proud of. A few years ago, in collaboration with friends from different businesses, we sought to create a place where women could connect and communicate. We felt that as successful women we should share our experience with younger women, who are on their journey towards management and leadership positions. So, we created the postgraduate one-year studies with our partner Kozminsky University, which is one of the leading Polish universities. The classes are run by people like me, and I am running a digital transformation module.
The idea of the postgraduate course is to support mid-level leaders so that they can grow and advance their skills and knowledge. We want them to learn how to build a professional brand and how to position themselves in business. I am very proud that we managed to do this, while having a lot of other engagements. We work on the initiative on a voluntarily basis and will be starting again in October. We usually have around 30 participants and we already have around 100 alumni students.
We felt that, as successful women, we should share our experience with younger women.
But as well as doing the postgraduate studies, you are also an active mentor in various mentoring programs, especially for women, including Vital Voices Foundation and Perspektywy Foundation. Why are you so passionate about mentoring?
I am very passionate about mentoring and the programmes you mention are just some of the tools to be able to do this. We also have a project here, internally at Orange, which supports women-lead organisations. This is something I created a few years ago to help women within Orange to find their place in the company.
I believe that mentoring is a very good way to find out what your strengths and weaknesses are. It is a unique meeting of two people, which can help them see themselves in a different light. I am very happy to be involved in this. I also see the results and the progress. My mentees are promoted, they are starting to build companies and change the world. There is no bigger satisfaction than that. It is my mission for this second part of my life, to share my experience and knowledge. For the first part of it, I did everything by myself. I was not privileged in any area and everything I did was done without support. So, when I started to think about what I could do with the power, knowledge and competence that I have been building for years, I decided that my mission was going to be to support people. Share my experience and energy, so that they can reach their full potential. I have been focusing on women for a long time, though not only. I feel that women need it more and that I could give them more.
Mentoring is a unique meeting between two people, which can help people to see themselves in a different light.
You mentioned that many of your mentees are successful, they are starting companies and getting promoted. What do you think makes a mentor-mentee relationship successful?
I think that trust, confidence and no judgment are the key. When the relationship is open, there are no bad questions or answers, the mentor-mentee relationship can go very smoothly. The mentor is the servant in this case, listening and guiding the mentee. When the relationship is successful, it allows us to overcome obstacles and break barriers. It builds confidence which helps the mentees to pursue their ambitions.
Christel Heydemann recently joined Orange as its new CEO, making her the fourth female head of France’s largest companies. As a fellow senior female leader at the company, what impact do you think there is of having more women in senior leadership roles in male-dominated industries, and what advice would you give to women striving to become the leaders of tomorrow?
I was delighted when Christel joined the company. I appreciate her way of handling the transformation that we are going through, and I believe that it is fair to have women in top-positions. For many years the business was dominated by men, so now we are trying to open up and have more diverse representation. This is important, because the products we are making are for everyone, not just a part of the population. I believe in the power of diversity, especially now, when times are so uncertain. Diversity helps us achieve better results and be more efficient.
I think that the most important thing for women striving to become leaders is to not be afraid. Try to learn and be bold. Sometimes you win and sometimes you learn. It is not a shame to fail and make mistakes, it is learning, and that is what is required to be successful. The more you know and the more times you try, the more adaptable you become to an uncertain future.
Sometimes you win and sometimes you learn.
You are an avid traveller and even climbed Mount Kilimanjaro in Tanzania in 2013. What was your most memorable trip to date and what are some of the benefits that travelling the world have brought you?
I love to travel and be in the presence of other cultures. I always look for new and interesting business ideas on my trips, things that are not present in Europe or in Poland. I bring those ideas back to my team.
One of my most inspiring trips was the one I did with other executives in Orange, to China. A great deal of inspiration came from seeing how they work over there - it was eye-opening. But from the more personal travels I really appreciated the coasts of Australia. The blue sky and the blue ocean were second to none.
Video edited by Marella Ricketts
Interviewed by Tessa Robinson
In this interview, colleagues and friends Olivia Sinfield and Victoria Parry discuss their different pathways into the field of law, the value of strong interpersonal relationships in the workplace, and the traits they value most in leaders.
You are both Partners at Osborne Clarke (OC) in the UK. Could you both describe a little about what attracted you to the field of law and your career journey until now?
Olivia: Initially, I was attracted to a career in law because I wanted to make my dad proud; he has always been a huge influence on my life. And then it became more of a personal challenge because I didn't get the grades to study law at university, so I had to switch to history instead. From that point on, I desperately wanted a career in law, not only to make him proud but because I had something to prove to myself: that I could be a lawyer. There's nothing like a setback to make you more determined! First, I trained at a city law firm, where I had the great pleasure of meeting another of our current colleagues, David Cubitt. He came to OC first and I followed quickly. I then had three children, and that led to a five-year career break after which I had a serious case of imposter syndrome and thought that there were too many obstacles to return to a career in law, so I started thinking through other options. But I remember clearly again, my dad, on a holiday in Portugal, questioning how I could possibly have invested so much in a career to think about walking away from it. He told me, “Olivia, you've just got to put your game face on and get stuck back in”. And I did, and the rest is history. My dad and I sometimes talk about that moment and how things could have been different if we hadn't decided to have that one last piña colada…
Victoria: For me, if I'm honest, I don't think that I particularly chose law. The school I went to was in the north of England and it was very much the view that if you had higher grades and you were arty, you were doing law; if you were good at science, you were doing medicine; and that was kind of it. I went with the current and in fact, if I had my time again, I probably wouldn’t do a law degree, because I think that you get a little bit more out of doing something you absolutely love at university. That said, my law degree gave me the employment law option, which I did love, and I came out of university certain that I wanted to be an employment lawyer. I've got the best job in the world: I always say we get paid to kind of be a little bit nosy in people’s lives and act as a strategist at the end of the day.
Later I migrated down to London and joined Linklaters, which was great for my career and very enjoyable. But back then they didn't do employment tribunals and my dad, also influential, said to me, “There's no point chopping the trees down in the wood if you're in the wrong wood”. So I made a brave decision to leave Linklaters and went to a boutique law firm where we did lots employment tribunals for the banks in London, and it was there that I met David Cubitt. We left the firm together soon after and went to another law firm where we met Olivia. We were delighted when she joined us. Shortly after I had my first child I came back to the firm, where I was one of the first people to work part time. It was a long time ago, so there weren’t any iPhones or laptops or anything. I went on to have three more children!
You have been colleagues and friends for over twenty years now. What has your relationship taught you both about solidarity between female professionals and the importance of a strong network?
Olivia: I've been lucky in my career because I've had Vic (Victoria) as a friend, colleague, mentor and role model. Between us, we've experienced some key critical moments, both professionally and personally, having gone through marriages, promotions, highs and lows at work and having our children. We've both got four kids. I actually went into labour with my eldest daughter at Vic’s house and she got me through it by feeding me chocolate chip cookies! Because of that, there's a huge amount of trust between us and, I think, mutual respect underpinning our relationship. That's important to me: she’s someone who understands me and who will be totally honest with me. Sometimes that means delivering tricky messages. Vic’s on our executive board and does all our reviews. Her feedback is always frank and honest, but from the heart, and I value her opinion. I might not like it, but I always listen!
The sense of solidarity between us brings fun to our days, which is important since we spend so much time in these four walls together. When you're in your career for the long run, like we both are, I don't think you can underestimate the importance of really enjoying, really loving what you do and who you do it with. I'm very lucky in that respect.
Victoria: I think that over a lifespan, as a female and as a mum and as a lawyer and as a friend, every now and again you meet people who you consider to be truly talented: someone's in your life for a reason!
Olivia and I started off just as colleagues, but we’ve faced lots of challenges and we see that there's lots of competition out there. For us, it's important to be collaborative. As Olivia says, sometimes that means giving tough messages to each other, but it’s always done with love. I think that's helped us build a relationship based on trust, respect and empathy. As Olivia said, we've got four kids each, so there are always going to be curve balls-and that's just on the night job! In the day job, there are plenty of curve balls too, but what’s important is that we navigate our problems together.
When you're in your career for the long run, I don't think you can underestimate the importance of really enjoying, really loving what you do and who you do it with.
You both have over fifteen years of professional legal experience. Looking back over this experience, what, if anything, do you wish you had known at the start of your careers and why?
Olivia: That it's okay to dance to the beat of your own drum! When I started my legal career over 20 years ago, I had a preconceived notion of what a lawyer should be like and look like. And it was much more LA Law than Ally McBeal. I can clearly remember going into Jigsaw and buying my trouser suit in three colours and then wearing that same trouser suit day in, day out. It’s taken time to realise how important it is to bring your real self to work, which is something that's really encouraged at OC. That’s what clients and colleagues can relate to. I do think you become a bit more fearless with age and less concerned about what others think. So, if I were speaking to my younger self, my message would be to make your own footprints in the sand rather than trying to tread in somebody else's.
Victoria: I still remember a time when women weren't even allowed to wear trousers at work! Although it sounds like a 100 years ago, it was actually only 30 or so. My boss took me aside one day and she said to me something along the lines of, “We have really intelligent people at this place and that's great, but our clients need you to stop pretending to be geeky and start being yourself and more down-to-earth. What we don't need are more rocket scientists. We need people who can talk to clients. Not everyone's going to like it. Some people will hate it. But you don't need to be all things to all people, just be yourself and enough people will like it to build a career.” I think that's probably one of the most important career conversations I've ever had. I was newly qualified, and as lawyers we're very good at praising or criticising work. But often we forget that there's a human being behind that. Everybody is high achieving in this profession. Otherwise, we wouldn’t be here. But we need to allow people to be themselves. I'm very grateful for that conversation because it has stayed with me for 30 years.
If I were speaking to my younger self, my message would be to make your own footprints in the sand rather than trying to tread in somebody else's.
Victoria, you are an active participant in Osborne Clarke’s Corporate Responsibility Programme. Could you explain what attracted you to this and why you are motivated to be involved in the programme?
Victoria: Everybody feels passionate about different things and it's important to find your own passion and be true to that. For me, diversity is most probably my passion because of my experience as a working mum. I spent the first five or six years pretending that I didn't work part time, sometimes not admitting that I was a working mum. Now I want to be an advocate for change on that. I am delighted with the journey that OC has been on in this regard because we're up there with the brightest and the best on this issue. That's the legacy that I want to leave my daughter, so that when she reaches the world of work, she won’t feel that she has to be all things to all people. I want her to feel that it's okay to make her own choices.
Olivia: Vic really is an advocate for that. Just to give you an example: I'm a part time Partner, so I work four days a week, and if I'm not working and my out of office isn't on, Vic is always the first to ask me why not. So, yes, she does very much walk the walk on that front.
Everybody feels passionate about different things and it's important to find your own passion and be true to that.
Olivia, you often advise clients on issues relating to the Future of Work and help them to adapt to changing working practices. What would you say are the greatest challenges and opportunities for organisations right now, and what do you think the next five years will hold?
Olivia: I think the biggest change we've seen over the last 18 months concerns people. I sometimes hear that referred to as ‘human capital’ and I have to say I absolutely hate that term! We’ve seen a real shift regarding employees’ expectations and the stakes have been raised in terms of what people are looking for. They're looking for alignment around their personal values; they're looking for places that have great culture, where there's an opportunity for them to advance and be creative and have a voice and play their part in the wider business. I think there’s a real opportunity for businesses to look at how they can meet these expectations and become workplace destinations of choice with positive working environments where people are really engaged and invested in their own future. That's a fantastic mix. The flip side of that, and where there are challenges, is getting the balance of power right: ultimately work must be done, it must be properly supervised. As a result, you've got a little bit of a seesaw going on now. It’s slightly up and down and I think that most businesses are now just waiting for it to settle and working out how to find a happy equilibrium. Regarding the future, I'm going to be succinct and say this: the future is a metaverse. But the metaverse is worthy of a whole different conversation itself...
We've seen a real shift and change around employees’ expectations and the stakes have been raised in terms of what people are looking for.
Finally, what trait do you both value most in a great leader and why?
I've got my three role models here and I'm going to call all of them out because you don't get many opportunities to do that. Vic, of course; David Cubitt, who is our fellow Employment Partner; and Ray Berg, our Managing Partner. These people deserve all sorts of praise because all of them embody the qualities and the traits that are important to me.
The ones that I value most are, first and foremost, authenticity: leaders need to bring their real selves to work and be true to who they are. There are two parts to that. First, it's about allowing your strength to shine and encouraging others to shine as well. Second, it’s about being open and honest about your own vulnerabilities too, and just being human. So that's the first value I’d highlight. The second is being value-driven in everything you do. That goes hand in hand with authenticity because it’s inspirational and something you really want to follow and be part of. The third is the simplest one: just being kind.
Victoria: Leaders need to be visionaries, to know where they are going. I also think it's important to lead with humility. Times have changed. Today it’s more important than ever to be led by people who we want to follow. Teams need to understand where leaders are going and why, which requires them to be open. We're all on this journey in life and there are many paths that we can follow. There's no right or wrong way, but we need to be straight up with people. People will spot a fake. Most people in this world are doing the best that they possibly can every single day. We need to make it okay for people to get it wrong, to make mistakes, to feel that they're valued: as we always say at OC, we back the racehorse, not the race. The leaders in this business need to make it psychologically safe for people to follow others and to want to follow; to be kind and to have fun along the way. I feel incredibly lucky to be surrounded by people who are truly talented and who value others for who they are.
Times have changed. Today it’s more important than ever to be led people who we want to follow. Teams need to understand where leaders are going and why.
Video edited by Juliette Gill
Interviewed by Hanna Müller
Ever wonder what people say when you leave the room? In this interview our Member, Charlotte West, Executive Director for Global Corporate Communications at Lenovo, talks about corporate reputation and its link to business purpose, including how to infuse Diversity & Inclusion into company culture.
You are Executive Director for Global Corporate Communications at Lenovo promoting the reputation of complex global businesses across diverse markets and audiences. What does your current role entail and what set you off on this career path?
Lenovo is a big technology powerhouse, operating in 180 markets around the world with $60 billion revenue each year.
In my role as Executive Director for Global Corporate Communications, I represent the company on the global stage. That includes two aspects: building and protecting our reputation. The building part is about telling great stories and launching new products, while the protecting part is trickier in terms of issues and crisis management. We step in when the company's reputation is possibly being tarnished. I came to this career path after studying business between the UK, Germany and Singpore. I quickly realised that I liked communications the most and accounting the least! So I knew where I was heading. After that, I gained work experience in marketing, communications and PR and tried to build a career out of it. Interestingly, I had already written my dissertation on crisis management. I pulled it off the bookshelf the other day and realised that, even back then, I was already passionate about issues, reputation, and how I could help corporations build it and protect it. My path was probably established quite early during my university days.
Stakeholders are no longer only interested in a company’s product but also in the values that they stand for. In a nutshell, how would you define corporate reputation? Do you think it is a vital asset to a company or it is only a “feel-good” concept?
The easiest way to explain corporate reputation is thinking about it like your own personal reputation: things that people say about you when you leave the room. When it comes to corporate reputation, it is similar: what are people saying about our company? Keeping that in mind, corporate purpose is massively on the agenda of businesses today although it is not new. If you look at companies from the early 20th century like Cadbury's and Bourneville in the UK, many of them had purpose at their core. They established towns for their workers and pushed improvements in health facilities.
Even if purpose and values are nothing new, they are more critical than ever. We have seen that in particular over the last two years during the pandemic. Companies are expected to stand up and protect their employees. Now, more than ever, consumers want to trust in the companies they buy from. Research tells us that consumers are willing to pay more for a product with better environmental credentials behind it. Edelman’s trust barometer shows us that also employees want to believe in the brand for which they are working. That is a new trend we’re seeing.
Now, more than ever, consumers want to trust in the companies they buy from.
As a member of Lenovo’s Environmental, Social and Governance (ESG) Oversight Committee, how do you infuse Diversity & Inclusion (D&I) into your company?
The ESG Oversight Committee is made up of various stakeholders from around the business. We basically help force the discussion, debate, and action around ESG in the company. Lenovo’s heritage was built up on Chinese and American roots, so in that sense, we developed a diverse approach to the way we think about leadership and the work together from day one. A few years ago, we initiated the company's first D&I report. That means we made our business publicly accountable. Through that tactical move, we established a forcing function for change, something I’m incredibly proud of and that I believe is our role in comms to drive, i.e. real business change.
Since then, there has been more investment in and clear KPIs for D&I. We also look at it in our own teams, how we build the makeup in terms of diversity and culture. As I sit in a worldwide job, if everybody is American, or if everybody is British, we are not diverse. We are always looking at every opportunity to think about how we can bring our D&I story to life.
You are committed to empowering underrepresented communities through your Directorship of the Lenovo Foundation. What are some strategies implemented by the foundation to promote access to technology and STEM education?
The Lenovo foundation has been around for several years now, and I am very fortunate to be on their board. It is very easy to look at the big halo NGO partnerships of other companies. Our strategy is a bit different. We tend to look at smaller partnerships that are based in our own communities. For example, supporting women returning to the workforce, giving access to technology so that they can build their skills after having children, or offering coding classes for younger women. These small partnerships mean can create lasting impact in a different way – a small amount of money can go a long way.
Small partnerships can create lasting impact in a different way – a small amount of money can go a long way.
With more than 20 years of experience in PR, what do you wish you had known at the start of your career?
This is a hard one, because you pick up so many bits of advice along the way. One thing is to listen more and speak less. As a woman in the workforce, I feel we often have to force ourselves into conversations or be a loud voice to get heard. Sometimes that brings us to speaking too much. Working in a company like Lenovo that has a culture originating from Asia, I got used to a style of listening and being considered before you respond. That would be the one bit of advice I would give to my younger self. It is probably easier once you have established your own profile and people know you, but even in the early stages, listen a bit more than you speak.
Listen more and speak less!
We like to close our interviews with a question from the Proust questionnaire. The one we have chosen for you is: what do you consider your greatest achievement?
This question is impossible to answer. This might feel like a cop out, but it is true to who I am; there is no one great achievement to put on my epitaph when I die. There have been lots of achievements along my career that have helped me. It is the cumulative impact of each piece on my journey.
One example I am particularly proud of: at Lenovo, we regularly put on major media product launch events where we typically have executives to speak on stage. In the past, nine times out of 10, those executives were white, middle-aged, and male. But I wanted to transform things and show up on stage in a way that reflects our customers. It wasn’t popular, but I pushed and drove change and since then we have had a different lineup of speakers on stage: a mixture of different genders, races, ethnicities, religions, and ages. Putting those voices on stage and doing things differently may seem small, but it might be one of my greatest professional achievements.
Video edited by Tessa Robinson
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