Connecting, inspiring and empowering women to lead the way
Meet our Members
“If you keep going, you will be rewarded.” WIL Member, Inga Karten, Principal at Miller & Meier Consulting spoke to us about some of her career achievements such as having been the German spokesperson for Billion Euro project and having expanded her consulting firm internationally. Who is her favourite heroine? And what is her vision for the future of Europe?
You have an academic background in political science, German language, and literature as well as having studied media science in Cologne and Melbourne. Since 2008, you have been Principal at Miller & Meier Consulting. Could you tell us more about your career path and what led you to consulting?
I chose my university subjects based on my interests, knowing that a degree in economics or law might be more useful from a career perspective. My reasoning was that I would rather do what I like and what I am good at. After I graduated, I wanted to work in a political environment without becoming a politician. I had tried political journalism, my original career goal, but did not want to go that way and then I ended up in a political consultancy in Brussels. I moved to Miller & Meier in Berlin after a couple of years and never regretted that choice of a consulting career. In consulting I love the variety of issues and people you are dealing with. That can be challenging but is also very exciting.
You currently advise international corporations on transportation and infrastructure policies including the planning and approval of large-scale projects. What are the 21st century transport and mobility challenges?
The main challenge is of course to bring a globally growing demand for mobility in line with climate protection goals. From my point of view, we need to drastically reduce the amount of privately owned cars. Especially in urban areas where there are so many promising new offers like eScooters and ride-pooling. The challenge is now to bring these offers also to suburban and rural areas. New solutions are politically wanted, but there is still a lot of reluctance to remove long-standing privileges e.g. from taxi drivers and car owners. In a car country like Germany this is particularly challenging, but necessary in order to avoid just creating more traffic.
We need to drastically reduce
the amount of privately owned cars.
New solutions are politically wanted,
but there is still a lot of reluctance
to remove long-standing privileges
e.g. from taxi drivers and car owners.
During your time at Miller & Meier, you were also the German spokesperson for the billion Euro project of the Fehmarnbelt tunnel between Denmark and Germany, which was recently approved. What were the issues at stake?
The most interesting thing about this project is that it is a cross-border project. You might not think that there are huge cultural differences between Denmark and Germany, but the countries have very different procedures and traditions in planning, approving, and communicating large infrastructure projects. In Denmark for example there is a construction permit for the tunnel since April 2015, the German permit was issued in January 2019 and is now challenged in front of the Federal Administrative Court. This of course sparks questions and a need for explanations.
Between 2013 and 2017, you founded and headed the U.S. office of Miller & Meier Consulting in Washington D.C. What were some of the challenges and highlights of such an important international expansion?
I feel lucky that after working in Brussels and Berlin, I got the chance to work in the “lobbying capital of the world” for a couple of years. Politically these were exciting times. I was there during the last election and witnessed the transition from President Obama to President Trump. For a political scientist and political consultant that was fascinating. One of my personal highlights was the International Women’s March on the day after the inauguration of President Trump with several hundred thousand mainly, but not only women protesting on the National Mall in Washington.
From a business perspective, the biggest challenge was to come to a city where everything works based on personal relationships and networks as a foreigner without any network. That was difficult, but I learned a lot. Americans are – at least compared to Germans – so much better at networking and small talk.
What leadership skills were necessary for the successful conduct of this expansion? What is your vision of female leadership more specifically?
In this case in Washington, it was mainly persistence – not giving up even if matters move slower than you had hoped for. If you keep going, you will be rewarded.
I do not have a vision of female leadership. I also do not like to distinguish between male or female leadership skills – I would rather like to differentiate between good and bad leaders, regardless of gender. My vision would be to make female leaders as normal as part-time working or stay-at home Dads.
My vision would be to make female leaders
as normal as part-time working or stay-at home Dads.
Before joining Miller & Meier, you worked as a political consultant in Brussels. Based on your experience in Brussels all those years ago, what is your vision for the future of Europe?
When living in Europe you tend to focus on the differences and on what separates the different member states. Living outside of Europe, you get a different perspective and see more of what unites us as Europeans. I had this experience in Australia as well as in the United States, although both countries have close historic and cultural ties to Europe.
I wish we could all focus more on what unites us. Europe can only tackle global challenges like climate change, migration, trade conflicts etc. when we stand together.
What impressed me most when I was working in Brussels were all the passionate and idealistic Europeans I met there. All of them are my hope for the future of Europe.
I wish we could all focus more on what unites us.Europe can only tackle global challenges
like climate change, migration, trade conflicts etc.
when we stand together.
Lastly, we like to conclude from a question from Proust questionnaire: Who is your favourite heroine, fictional or real?
I do not really have a favourite heroine, but I do admire people who stand up for their beliefs and for others – even if this means facing personal disadvantages or even risking your life. Rosa Parks, who refused to clear her bus seat for white passengers in Montgomery, Alabama in 1955 is one example. There are numerous more recent ones of women fighting for their rights in countries like Saudi Arabia, Iran, Russia, and so many more. They all have my biggest respect.
Interviewed by Marwa El Diwiny
Cellist, mother, and Vice President for Public Affairs at L’Oréal, Cynthia Sanfilippo, spoke to us about leadership, work-life balance, her passion for music, and life advice for women! Read more about her experience at L’Oréal and gender equality below!
You have held Government relations positions for US blue chip corporations and have extensive experience in public affairs that has led you to now be in charge of enhancing L’Oréal’s network and Public Affairs capabilities throughout Europe. Could you tell us more about your current position and challenges at L’Oréal?
As the Vice President of Public Affairs Europe, I have two main responsibilities. First, I head L’Oréal’s representation to European Institutions and lead a small team in Brussels, which does public policy work at the European level. I build a network, do monitoring, and represent L’Oréal in trade associations or direct meetings with EU institutions on fields of interest to us.
Second, at the regional level, I oversee a network of directors and people involved with public affairs activities in every market across the European Union. I ensure that public affairs is strategized at the country level: having roadmaps in place, the right tools, setting the direction and vision for the European team, and assisting country managers with their interactions within the public policy world.
I am also a member of the Western European Zone Management Committee at L’Oréal, headed by the executive committee member in charge of the business in Western Europe. I can access the strategy of the organization and input developments in the public policy field into the business, making sure we are equipped for the topics of tomorrow. Because L’Oréal has the ambition to be a beauty tech leader, we have a strong focus on creating an ecosystem that can allow us to continue to grow and provide more personalised beauty to our consumers worldwide.
L’Oréal has the ambition to be
a beauty tech leader, providing more
personalised beauty to
our consumers worldwide.
L’Oréal has long embraced Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR), your US branch having even been recognised as the top performing global company on sustainability in 2017. What main initiatives has L’Oréal’s undertaken on CSR, in particular on the environmental aspect?
L’Oréal has a strong corporate social responsibility policy. In 2013, we launched a program called Sharing Beauty with All: a set of strong commitments with four different pillars.
The first pillar on ‘sustainable innovation’ includes measures such as improved environmental and social profile of our products.
The second pillar concerns ‘sustainable production’. To combat our footprint, our 42 plants worldwide will soon reach carbon neutrality. We have dramatically decreased our water consumption in absolute terms, and reduced waste from plants and distribution centres with zero waste to landfills. We also decoupled our environmental footprint from economic growth because produce more with much less resources.
The third pillar is ‘living sustainably’. We have developed an internal tool that looks at the environmental and social profile of our products to determine if they are good to go on the market.
The final pillar is ‘developing sustainably’, for which we set targets for the work we do with communities. For example, we want to enable more than 100000 people from underprivileged communities to access employment through our programs by 2020. Such programs include solidarity sourcing, vocational training in the beauty sector, and equal opportunities for people with disabilities.
L’Oréal also has a strong program for employees, called Share and Care. Our employees worldwide benefit from health coverage and financial protection in the event of an accident. L’Oréal fully pays every woman for 14 weeks or more while they are on maternity leave. In addition, we have the principle of one training per employee per year!
L’Oréal has also been recognised as one of the leading global companies committed to gender equality in the workplace. What is L’Oréal doing to increase female representation in decision making?
Diversity and inclusion are part of L’Oréal’s DNA. L’Oréal truly believes that gender parity in particular is a performance issue and a key driver for innovation. We are committed to promoting women worldwide every day through equal access to training and promotion. Women represent roughly 69 percent of the global staff within L’Oréal, 33 percent of the executive committee, and 48 percent of the management committee.
Women represent roughly 69 percent
of the global staff within L’Oréal.
Is L’Oréal also promoting gender equality in society, and how?
We are promoting gender equality through access to beauty from which a certain notion of well-being is derived. When you go to an interview or want to feel good in general, you put on a little bit of makeup to gain self-confidence and potentially perform well. We primarily work with underprivileged communities where we provide training so they can launch their own business, in addition to training for hairdressers. This September, we received a UN award for helping employ rural Chinese women! Moreover, the brands within L’Oréal have their own causes that vary from fighting illiteracy to fighting violence against women.
You report directly to the Executive leadership of L’Oréal and have held multiple leadership positions. What is your vision of female leadership and secrets to successful leadership?
One of the secrets of successful leadership is finding your own values and being true to yourself. Authenticity is a key value of L’Oréal! Leaders with strong ideas, express their ideas, sincerely. There is no individual success, success is always collective.
Another component of leadership is freedom. When I joined the group, my boss at that time said: “Do what you want, and if you're going too far, we will tell you”. We have an entrepreneurial spirit at the heart of our large organization: 80,000 employees work as if they are running their own company!
People have different views, which can lead to an enriched dialogue, especially from someone of a different background or age. The key is to not take criticism personally, but constructively.
One of the secrets of successful leadership is
finding your own values and
being true to yourself.
You have a passion for music, and you are a cellist by training. Where does this passion for music stem from?
My passion for music comes from my parents: my father was a musician, and my mother studied music. It was clear that my sister and I had to play music, starting with the piano from age 5. Music was fully integrated into our curriculum, we had 10 hours a week dedicated to music!
Music develops our sensitivity by opening ourselves up to other ideas, being able to see and experience things differently. Music is part of my life: I need it, I enjoy it, and therefore I make time for it. If not daily, then every two days or every weekend. If you prioritise something, then you always have time for it!
How have you kept up with the cello while managing an ambitious career?
I have a fantastic partner who also takes care of our children. In the beginning I felt guilty, but at the end of the day, it is quality over quantity time that my children need. I have moments to myself during which I play music or go to concerts.
Finding the right partner is essential and so is knowing yourself! I had to accept that not everything would be perfect, and to instead do my best according to what makes me feel good, because then it will be reflected in the family and work environment.
Lastly, we like to conclude our interview with a question from the Proust questionnaire: Which talent would you most like to have? Why?
I would like to know myself even better and to have greater confidence in myself. It is a big effort to trust yourself, because to do so you must analyse what you are good at, what you want, and how you can build upon your vulnerabilities. Also, being conscious of who you are as a woman is a strong card to play!
Find out more about Cynthia here!
Donatella Sciuto, Professor in Computer Engineering & Vice Rector of Politecnico di Milano, recently named one of the most influential women in Tech in Italy shares an insider’s account about the developments of STEM with regards to gender balance, how the future of Computer Science and automation will unravel, what it means to be member of varying boards and explains her significant scientific development which led her to be named Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) Fellow. For all science lovers and advocates of gender balance, this interview is must read!
You are Vice Rector of Politecnico di Milano and have recently be named one of the most influential women in Tech in Italy! What are the changes you have seen the field of STEM undergo in terms of gender balance?
Undoubtedly, I have seen an increase in the number of girls attending our engineering school with respect to the time I was a student, although in computer, mechanical and automation engineering the numbers remain disproportionally low, considering the potential job market. Where I work and teach, at Politecnico di Milano, only one student out of five is a girl when it comes to engineering programs. However, there is an increasing awareness on the lack of women and girls in STEM. As a result, companies are addressing this issue through the implementation of policies and practices, hereby also acting upon the substantial evidence which has indicated that diverse teams lead to greater innovation and more effective problem solving.
Diverse teams lead to greater innovation and more effective problem solving.
Increasing the number of women in science isn’t only harnessing the best talent to tackle the challenges we are presently facing, it also boosts the economic security of women, giving them a greater social and political voice and thereby establishing greater equality throughout society as a whole.
However, the problem which pertains is: how do we attract more women into STEM? One way of doing so is by showing them real life examples of how science and technology can have a direct effect on the world around us. Females are often drawn towards careers which have a positive impact on society. It is therefore important, especially so with young girls, to make them aware that technologies and science are inclusive and can positively change our lives! Just think about the central role that technology has gained in medicine, where applications and data can really make a difference when treating serious diseases, in particular using artificial intelligence techniques.
Still, most of the applications of Artificial Intelligence and the programs that use them are created by white males. To avoid the inclusion of implicit bias, it is important to have a more diverse workforce. We must all do our bit to ensure more females go into STEM.
What is Politecnico di Milano doing to attract, retain and support female students into STEM?
Unfortunately, the number of girls in engineering at Politecnico di Milano has only marginally increased in the last years. This is primarily due to the fact that there is a lack of encouragement by both families and schools, and because the number of female role models in STEM is low and not visible in society. This explains why many girls’ loose interest in science the older they get. We have recently published our first Gender Budget, a report on gender equality at Politecnico, and distributed it to the press and to companies. Numbers don’t lie, they have given us back a very clear picture of where we are today and where we should be instead.
At Politecnico di Milano, we aim to amend this “leaky pipeline” by offering different opportunities of learning about science and technology tailored to different ages. For 6-11-year old’s we organize lectures on the advances of science, showing why an airplane flies or how you can build a video game, for example. We regularly arrange open labs visits for families and children over the weekend. For those who attend middle school, we work with ValoreD, the association of companies which aims at boosting gender balance in the workplace. ValoreD has recently adopted a European program called “InspirinGirls”. Here, women from different professions go around to middle schools in Italy to share information about what their jobs entail. By doing so, they hope to inspire girls to pursue their passions and to understand that no work is restrained to one specific gender. Aside from this, Politecnico di Milano, in partnership with the European Commission and the universities in Milan, organizes the Researchers’ Night. The event takes place at the end of September and aims to engage a wide audience through exhibits and talks, so that people who aren’t well acquainted with science learn the value of STEM.
No work is restrained to one specific gender.
Other initiatives Politecnico di Milano has put in place to foster female engagement in STEM is a summer school in which lessons on coding and robotics are given to high achieving high school girls. In addition, we provide short courses on coding at different schools in Milan. We are trying to highlight to girls how the field of STEM has countless possibilities, in the hope that this heavily ingrained notion that science is a male orientated field can be overturned.
You have taught as a Professor in Computer Science and Engineering for 27 years. What is next for Computer Science in the coming decade?
The first significant prediction I see for Computer Science is the evolution of natural processing of languages. Verbal interaction with devices is already available but it is still limited, with texting and messaging slowly vanishing.
On a different scale, there is an increasing number of digital sensors and devices connected to the Internet and huge amount of data that are produced. To become useful information they need storage and advanced processing that must be performed often in real time and here there are numerous technological challenges to be addressed, such as cloud and edge computing, which means dividing the task of processing between the device and the remote servers (i.e. the cloud).
As intelligent things proliferate, we should expect a shift from stand-alone intelligent objects to swarms of collaborative intelligent things. In this model, multiple devices will work together, either independently or with human input.
Moreover, now more than ever before, ethics in science is an imperative: we reiterate this point to our students!
Ethics in science is imperative.
You were named Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) Fellow- an organization which develops standards for the computer and electronics industry- for your scientific contribution on “embedded systems design”. Could you specify what embedded systems design entails?
An embedded system is what we use in everyday intelligent devices. They require a combination of hardware and software which interact with one another in such a way, that they provide the expected functionality achieving the performance, security and power consumption required.
Having been Vice President of Finance of IEEE Council on Electronic Design Automation from 2008 to 2010, later President Elect and President from 2011 to 2013, in what sectors of society has automation had the greatest influence and how do you envision its future?
The electronic automation design constitutes all the tools and methodologies that are necessary for companies to design and produce hardware components and intelligent devices. Previously, many tasks required a manual process, now with the increasing number of transistors and elements that we can put together, resulting more complex systems, the demand for advanced tools has increased, and support in the design of more specific chips for advanced applications such as those based on artificial intelligence techniques, or fast 3D image processing or virtual reality.
You are a board member of the Bank of Italy, Human Technopole, Avio and Raiway. Can you give some examples what these memberships meant and why was it important for you to be on the board of these different organizations?
These are four very different organizations but all of them have enriched my competences and I think I am contributing to their governance with my technological and management competences.
Being a woman and a computer engineer with an understanding of cyber security enabled me to bring diversity to the board of the Bank of Italy. Avio and Raiway are two high-tech companies which are listed and therefore when renewing their board they had to satisfy a gender quota. As such, I was selected by headhunters on the basis of my technological competences.
My experience as a researcher in computer engineering and as a professor was considered useful. Comparatively, Human Technopole is a governmental project which aims at setting up a new research center focusing on Life Sciences, whose mission is to promote human health and well-being through an interdisciplinary approach to health and aging. I have been appointed by the Prime Minister to the Supervisory Board which is managing the startup phase, from the organizational, infrastructural and scientific point of view.
All four cases are extremely different, requiring me to study different fields and with a different perspective. Different styles of management have been required in these different positions. It has been enriching both academically and personally.
We always conclude our interview from a question from Proust’s questionnaire: With which historical figure do you most identify with?
I do not have a specific person I identify myself with, rather, I identify to two sentences by two different people. The first being the first woman mayor of Ottawa Charlotte Whitton who said: “whatever women do, they must do twice as well as men to be thought half as good, luckily this is not difficult”. The second one being from a chief of Justice in the USA, Charles Evans Hughes: “when we lose the right to be different, we lose the privilege to be free”. This remains one of the most important sentences I have heard.
Interviewed by Caroline Dougherty
We had the pleasure of interviewing Pinuccia Contino, the Secretary General of WIL and manager in the Directorate-General for Justice and Consumers at the European Commission. Having held several different roles at the Commission, Pinuccia discusses what she has learnt from these various positions and how factors like intellectual curiosity and multilingualism have shaped her career. She also offers insights into how the Commission is ensuring product safety for European consumers and the creation of a new middle management network across the Commission that she has played an active role in creating. Read the interview below to find out more!
You have been working for the European Commission for over 28 years. During this time you had the position of Civil Servant, Head of Unit “Programming, Evaluation, Communication” and your presently so, Head of Unit “Product Safety and Rapid Alert System”. What made you change positions and what did you learn from these various experiences?
Within the Commission, there is the possibility to move from one policy field to another with relative ease. This is much unlike national administrations, where shifting from one ministry to another often poses problems.
This mobility within the Commission corresponds to my interests as I find it of value to understand and work in a plethora of areas which are of importance to European citizens. Consequently, throughout various points in my career, I have switched policy fields and roles: from working within a cabinet to taking up managerial positions within these differing fields.
I find it of value to understand and work in a plethora of areas which are of importance to European Citizens
These experiences resonated with my aspiration of life-long learning as I had the ability to transmit what I learnt in one policy field onto the other, whilst simultaneously feeding my intellectual curiosity. These factors combined were the driving forces which led me to change professional career paths.
You speak several languages and directed the unit “Multilingualism and Translation Studies” for over three years in Brussels. How has being multilingual shaped your career and why do you feel it is essential to promote multilingualism?
After my initial traineeship, I started working as an interpreter temporary agent, later becoming a civil servant. This would not have been possible had I not fully mastered four EU languages.
To delve into some examples, when I worked as an administrator within my first field, we focused on creating greater cohesion throughout Europe in respect to Education policy. This was a pivotal moment for Europe as the level of higher education throughout the Union was being increased. Due to my language knowledge and aptitudes, the Commissioner responsible for Education entrusted me with the area of multilingualism policy. I thus had the honor of leading the first communication on multilingualism policy, which was adopted by the Commission in 2005. This policy was being defined for the first time in history, so it goes without saying, my passion for languages indisputably shaped my career in many exciting ways!
My passion for languages indisputably shaped my career in many exciting ways!
This experience enabled me to get an understanding of the different areas within the Commission which later led me to be appointed as the head of a new unit in the DG for translation, known as “Multilingualism and Translation Studies”. Overall, knowing a lot about languages has been one of the threads that have positively shaped my career.
Being Head of the Unit “Product Safety and Rapid Alert System”, could you share ways in which the Commission is ensuring that the products we buy on the European markets are safe?
As with many areas in the European Union, the duties of the different actors and the legal obligations which need to be met mean that product safety remains a complex and sensitive issue. If the manufacturers were to produce only safe goods, regulating and intervention would not be required; consumers could happily buy and use products as they please. Unfortunately, reality is not always as the law prescribes and therefore it is crucial to make sure that the right of, consumers to product safety be enforced.
To say it in plain words, the enforcement system for product safety is made up of national authorities who are appointed by the Member States to verify the safety of products put on the market, and of the Commission who assesses and keeps track of the measures taken by the Member States against dangerous products. Once we have been alerted about an unsafeproduct, it becomes outlawed throughout the Union: this is recorded on a large database.
I like to tell my colleagues in the Member States that when they take a measure against a dangerous product they are not only acting on behalf of their country, but as a true European authority.
When a Member state acts against a dangerous product, they are acting as a true European authority.
My role is to make sure that the system works and every actor fulfils their role. My position allows me to help the Member States by funding some of their product safety activities and grants me the possibility of offering guidance on what the best practices are which they can put in place. Additionally, I discuss the potential risk of new products and technologies that come onto the market. I also do it with my international counterparts, another fascinating part of my job. In my unit, we could be considered as a “catalyst and service provider” in the field of product safety, serving Member States and ultimately, European consumers.
At our previous event at the European Parliament, you spoke about the Internet of Things. What is the Internet of Things and how safe are the products in the Internet of Things?
The Internet of Things can mean several things, but let’s talk about individual products which are connected to the Internet through WiFi.
To ensure the safety of connected products, tailored actions have been put in place to assess whether the current legal framework is as far reaching as is required. Similarly, protecting the system as a whole against hackers is of equal importance. My department within the Commission is helping analyse the product safety legal framework to ensure that it covers connectivity, hackin g or bugs. We can propose new legislation to combat the potential dangers.
Additionally, we are discussing and sharing concerns about the Internet of Things with organisations such as the OECD and with the United States. From the many fruitful discussions that have taken place, a consensus has been drawn that greater pressure needs to be put on the manufactures who design the connected products, to ensure they do not distribute faulty and/or easily hackable products.
Currently, you have an active role in the creation of a new middle management network across the European Commission. Can you walk us through the initiatives of this network and how it came about?
This is first ever initiative of its kind in the Commission!
Middle managers, otherwise known as head of units at the Commission, have always been considered as the backbone of the institution. They link operational work, political vision and the setting of political strategies and priorities, so need to maintain a strong line of communication in all directions. I form part of the limited number of managers who, together with my colleagues in HR, invested a lot into setting up this middle management network, so that the Heads of Unit could share their main challenges and theways they overcame them. The network also serves as a hub in which we explore and develop new tools and resources, as well as identifying areas for collaboration. This initiative demonstrates that learning from peers holds greater weight than learning from books and videos.
Learning from peers holds greater weight than learning from books and videos.
This network was started at the beginning of last year through a thorough co-creation process. Every month, two or three heads of unit on a rotating basis propose topics for discussion. It is an interactive process and involves a great deal of peer-learning where participants share ideas and collectively tackle challenges.
The initiative has so far been a great success and I am optimistic that it can bring more impact, effectiveness and ultimately greater happiness into the institution.
You have served as the Secretary General for WIL since 2008. What does it mean to hold this position and how has being a part of WIL’s leadership team contributed to your professional development?
To hold this particular position has been thrilling for me as I have met, and continue to meet, extraordinary women, not only from my field, but also from the private sector. Getting to share, develop new ideas and learn from fantastic women who have launched their own businesses or who have very meaningful jobs has been very beneficial to me. How? Mostly so by sharing innovative ideas and formulating new visions on how women can better contribute to the development of the European society.
In reference to my professional development, this network has helped me broaden my horizons beyond the Commission. Specifically, through the Women Talent Pool Program where I am exposed to younger and often more forward-looking perspectives on things!
To conclude, we have the tradition of concluding the interview with a question from Proust’s questionnaire: If you had to recommend a book to our network what would it be?
The book I have chosen is quite surprising. It is not just a book, but a series of books named “A Song of Ice and Fire” by George RR. Martin, which have been adapted into the widely popular series known as “Game of Thrones”.
It is the best saga on power I have ever read! So don’t hesitate and dive into it, you will not regret it.
This month, we got an insight into one of our Board Members’ personal and professional life. In this interview, Emanuela Palazzani, Founder & CEO of Atman Advisory, shares ways in which she prioritizes family time and reveals what she does as a daily routine to achieve a better work life balance. Additionally, an indispensable piece of advice, on what to do to ensure you progress up the career ladder, and a message for her younger self, are shared! Further discussion surrounding gender equality and on what the importance is of female networks take place! Interested to know more? Read the interview below to access further information
After graduating with a bachelor’s in Political Science from the University of Milan, you joined Rubinetterie Teorema SpA as marketing & strategic lead. After 10 years, you were assigned the position of CEO. In your opinion, what qualities does an individual require if they want to move up the career ladder?
I started my career by working for 25 years in a family owned business, later moving into the corporate world. Although the qualities required to move up the career ladder hugely differ between a multinational cooperation and a family business, something which can apply to both, is to ensure that you make time to listen to all employees’ perspectives and thoughts. This is done best by being present in the “C-Suite”.
Professional development doesn’t come from pursuing your own agenda. On the contrary, you must be open to different inputs as this allows you to evaluate your own ideas and potentially offers a new way of looking at situations, which in turn allows you to flourish as an individual and a professional.
You are presently the founder and CEO of Atman Advisory, a consulting firm focused primarily on strategic, financial and marketing advisory to Italian SMEs. Since 2013, you have collaborated with Softlab S.p.A., an ICT company based in Rome. What has this collaboration entailed?
I advise Softlab on the strategic, financial and marketing side of things in a full 360 degrees and coming from an industrial background, I felt I could really utilize my expertise through this collaboration. I don’t like to advise firms from the “side-lines”, I like to be at the “front-line” and immerse myself within the company, so much so, that I feel as if it is my own company that I am advising.
I like to advise firms from the “front-line”.
Whilst leading your own consultancy firm, being on the board of numerous organizations, contributing to prominent publications and speaking at different international conferences, how do you balance personal and professional life and is there a daily routine to which you stick to?
The work that I do requires a lot of travelling, therefore my daily routine often includes packing and unpacking! However, being a mother has always been my main priority and I therefore always ensure I secure time for my family. My daughter is now 27 years old; this means I have more time for social engagements and have undevoured upon new activities.
For example, I do breathing techniques and meditations every morning. These are skills I learnt whilst I was in India and which have taught me that being aware and embracing the different emotions you are faced with will allow you to assess what areas in life you need to prioritize.
Although I am still trying to master work life balance, I have also come to realize that trust and clarity are essential in securing a stable work and family balance. This is why communicating with my friends and family via Facetime or WhatsApp is something I also do every day!
Routine is good in all aspects, specifically so for one’s health!
Being aware and embracing the different emotions you are faced with, will allow you to assess what areas in life you need to prioritize.
You are the only Italian to have been admitted to the second edition of the "Women on Boards: Succeeding as a Corporate Director" Executive Course, held at Harvard Business School. What were the main pointers you took away from this course.
Till now, I am still the first Italian to have been admitted. Although it was really demanding, it was an incredible experience! This course has equipped me with the necessary skills needed for being a leader of the future! For example, I was taught how best to fire and hire CEOs and how to encourage and advise management.
I have tried to implement these new skills in my role different roles, including as Board Member at WIL Europe.
I have also become aware of the importance of life-long learning and therefore, my one advice to you would be to never stop studying.
You are currently a Board Member at WIL Europe and were previously a National Deputy Chairperson of AIDDA (Association of Women Entrepreneurs and Company Executives). Why do you feel female networks are important?
Female networks are very important but only a few selective ones are really influential! WIL Europe is among them, as a high-level association full of women with advanced careers and motivated personalities.
I am particularly proud to be a Board Member of WIL Europe because it is a very selective network, thus enabling a community of like-minded women across Europe to meet, exchange and learn from each other! In addition, WIL Europe organizes diverse and unique events on relevant and pressing matters, therefore offers insights and knowledge for the future!
WIL Europe organizes diverse and unique events on relevant and pressing matters.
You are a strong advocate of female development. Throughout your years in business, what changes have you seen with regards to enhanced gender equality and what do you feel are the hurdles that still need to be overcome?
To achieve the top positions in politics, finance, insurance companies and so forth, we still have a lingering way to go if we are to reach total gender equality. Although there is a lot to do, I strongly encourage women to continue to bring gender discrimination to light and to not stop fighting against the bias we face.
The motto I live by is “the ones who dare succeed.” If you dare, it means you have the competencies to fight the discrimination that still pertains throughout society. You must have self-confidence and believe that you are capable of achieving any position possible!
We always end our interviews with a question from Proust’s questionnaire, therefore: if there is one thing you could say to your younger self, what would it be?
I will refer to Pablo Picasso who once stated that the past is something which occupies too much space in your brain. Therefore, I would have said to my younger self to be more focused on the present and not to worry so much about the past. Alongside being focused on the present, we must look into the future as this is the only place we are going to live, the past is done and cannot be undone.
I would have said to my younger self to be more focused on the present and not worry about the past.
We had the pleasure of interviewing Helle Frank Liautaud, a member of our network and interim Executive Director in charge of setting up of the NGO B Lab in France. Having been an entrepreneur and held leadership positions in companies such as VMware, Helle discusses the importance of bringing one’s “whole self” to work and of sponsoring women in the workplace. She also offers insights into how to drive innovation through a more inclusive and diverse work environment, which must be promoted by the leaders of the organization. Alongside getting to know how the WIL Europe Network has been for her, Helle talked about how necessary it is to set and articulate boundaries in order to have a balanced professional and personal life. Read the interview below to find out more!
What motivated you to move from Denmark to Paris for your undergraduate studies in law and to return at a later date for your professional career?
I was born and raised in Copenhagen, Denmark, which is a wonderful country, but a small one! As a young person, I was attracted to the idea of opening my mindset, which motivated me to move to Paris. When I started out here as an attorney I was for many years focusing on getting my professional French correct, so when I went out with friends they would always tell me, “you speak like you are in a courtroom”. I recall the day I was able to read first Le Figaro and a few years later, Le Monde! When you learn a foreign language as an adult, you remember with every word the context in which you learnt it, so words have a special meaning for you.
When you learn a foreign language as an adult, you remember with every word the context in which you learnt it, so words have a special meaning for you.
You recently became the interim Executive Director in charge of creating B Lab France. Can you tell us more about how the organization is promoting business as a “force for good” and your role within this NGO?
B Lab, founded in 2006, is the international NGO that is behind the B Corp movement. It has been established to promote a better way of exercising capitalism, by shaping corporate governance and ensuring that all stakeholders are dealt with in a similar manner. The companies that join the B Corp movement volunteer to exercise their professional activities in a way that strives to benefit society and to design their governance to ensure that they put social and environmental concerns at the same level as the interest of their shareholders - also referred to as the “triple bottom line” (people, planet and profit). With today’s pressing challenges, companies can display their commitment by obtaining certification as a B Corp. When companies gain this certification, not only does it mean they are redefining their internal governance, it also entails that efforts are being made to integrate social and environmental progress into the heart of their business models.
There is already a great community of B Corps in France, so time is right to open a branch here. My mission is to give life to the French B Lab organization, which will carry the voice of the international movement in this country, while using all the great French B Corp certified companies as ambassadors of business as a “force for good”.
During your time at VMware, you engaged in dialogue around sustainability. How have you promoted the sustainable development goals (SDGs) through your work and what do you feel is the central challenge in achieving them?
The SDGs are extremely important! The objectives are encompassing to the global challenges we face today. They have generated a moral compass to encourage and inspire every individual and organization to take action. VMware, a global technology company, is already engaged in “tech for good” and can play a role to bring about the innovation that is needed to achieve the SDGs. In order to further promote corporate engagement in achievement of the SDGs, B Lab has entered into a partnership with the UN to develop an online platform, which will allow corporations to manage their impact through performance on the SDGs.
Whilst holding leadership positions in a large organization such as VMware, what have been the biggest leadership challenges you have faced as a woman?
The absence of role models and being a minority have been central challenges for me. There remains a pressing need for practices to be put in place to ensure top leadership positions aren’t tilted towards men. Amidst the perpetuating gender imbalance, we must not dismiss the fact that conversations surrounding gender equality have seeped into the public domain and as such, are now a constant point of discussion. These discussions have manifested into change, however not fast enough. Organizations are not putting enough pressure to address the “systemic web of challenges”, a term referred to by INSEAD to define the hurdles that women face in a workplace that has not been designed for them!
I was personally faced with a harsh reality as my career advanced: the higher I went, the more isolating the working environment became because of the lack of females present in higher positions. I did not really have anyone I could turn to for guidance or advice!
As a way to overcome this, I propose for more sponsorship programs to be implemented. You take away this deficit of being a minority because a safety net is formed in which your skills are properly acknowledged, and support is given when needed. An internal advocate is vital if we are to see an increased representation of female leaders. When it comes to mentoring, I don’t dismiss that this is a useful tool to help females advance in their professional careers. However, too much mentoring prevents independent growth, that is why I stand behind the belief that sponsoring women is more effective and efficient to close the gender gap.
Sponsoring women is more effective and efficient to close the gender gap.
How has being a member of the WIL Europe Network impacted your life and your career?
For women, networking often does not come as naturally as it does for men and most networking events have been typically male-dominated. WIL is a great initiative to create something for women by women, which redefines our idea of networking and makes it a desirable and even fun for women to connect with one another.
An important lesson I have learnt, is that the road to happiness requires the ability to set boundaries, as both professional and personal life can be all-consuming. I disagree with women who say that you cannot have it all. In my experience, it is possible, when you learn to define and articulate your own boundaries.
WIL is a great initiative to create something for women by women.
What has been your strategy in creating a more inclusive and diverse work setting, for example, through your work with the global “VMinclusion Council” at VMware?
Through my experiences, I learned that it starts at the top. Until you get the leadership of an organization convinced that diversity and inclusion is a matter of strategic importance, you can waste a great deal of time further down in the organization.
In addition, I believe in the organizational benefits of bringing your “whole self” to work. I encouraged people to participate in discussions with their “whole self”- with their ideas and values - as this initiated more fruitful and frank discussions. With Tech companies such as VMware, success is all about innovation. Therefore, diverse teams and the idea that people can bring different perspectives drive the highest level of innovation! Comparatively, from a leadership perspective, providing an open community in which employees feel they can share their personal stories, can enhance a sense of purpose and definitely create a more welcoming environment for women, who are more often than not, underrepresented.
We have enabled a more inclusive and diverse workplace by getting leaders to share their personal stories of how they “dare to be themselves” at work, through the creation of peer group mentoring sessions, directly combating each aspect of the “systemic web of challenges” for women, inviting experts to discuss the importance of an inclusive culture and much more!
Although these initiatives are all useful tools when establishing diversity and inclusion, benchmarks and setting targets of where you want to be are vital for driving change. You must hold leaders accountable for success, like you hold them accountable for any other business objective that you are trying to achieve.
Diverse teams and the idea that people can bring different perspectives drive the highest level of innovation.
To conclude, we have the tradition of concluding the interview with a question from Proust’s questionnaire. Who for you has been a key figure in your life who has supported and motivated you during your career trajectory?
My husband Pierre! I have a wonderful husband who, on top of everything, is my best friend. We have a rich family life, whilst simultaneously staying respectful and encouraging of each other’s professional careers. It is a dynamic and supportive partnership and I am very lucky!
WIL met the Founder of the Pink Shoe, an organisation which equips ambitious females with the necessary tools to access top jobs across all sectors and professions. In this interview, Helene offers a fascinating account of how her diverse professional experiences shaped her decision to set up her own businesses in technology and healthy food, and later develop prospects in the political sphere. She lays bare key elements of a successful leader and highlights the measures she is presently taking through the Pink Shoe, to facilitate women entrepreneurship! If you are up for a thought provoking read- read bellow to access the interview.
How did you start your career as a young graduate and what steps led you to where you are now?
My career began at Citibank as a trainee, covering retail and commercial banking which was a great grounding in business. Managing in-store card accounts for Marks & Spencer, I learned a lot about marketing and the value of delivering first class customer service. Being headhunted to join a boutique magazine publisher, in a smaller company with greater autonomy and wider scope of work, I was able to be more entrepreneurial. This was a return to my real passion as I set up my first business when I was still at school. Organizing coaches for groups of friends to attend events across the UK, still too young to sign contracts, I ‘substituted’ my mother’s signature on the paperwork (without her knowledge)!
Serendipity has played a big part in my career. When offered the opportunity to work in the US, I spent two great years marketing for a small group of restaurants along the eastern seaboard. The enthusiasm and energy of the founders and team was inspiring. I helped them double the business then realised it was time to do that for myself.
Back in the UK, I carried forward this energy and enthusiasm to start my own businesses, first in technology then a healthy food business. Even at the start-up stage, I was aware of my exit; taking advice from a longstanding entrepreneur I made sure to ‘always leave some bread on the table’ i.e. sell when there is still room for growth in the business.
Finally, I got involved in politics by offering marketing and public relations (PR) help to a young candidate who then went into the House of Lords. My political PR mentor had been adviser to Margaret Thatcher, giving me the possibility to gain brilliant insights into how politics works.
Interestingly, you have been Chief of Staff for both a Conservative and a Labour Peer. What is key to being able to work across political divides?
Party political differences are much less defined ‘behind the scenes’, especially in the House of Lords, which has a more collegiate way of working. My roles were international and focused on enterprise and developing global diplomatic relationships. In both roles, I was impartial and not involved with party politics, so it was vital to work across all parties. It is still rare for someone to have held senior roles with peers across the political divides, and I would encourage more people to do it.
Party political differences are much less defined ‘behind the scenes.
You set up the Pink Shoe in 2007 to encourage female entrepreneurship and leadership and facilitate access to top jobs across all professions and sectors. How is the Pink Shoe different from other women networks? Is there a story behind the organization’s name?
At the time, there were already some excellent women’s networks, however most focused on specific business sectors or professions. There are three key elements to Pink Shoe – it works across all professions and sectors, it is a diverse group of women leaders from every different background and has close connections with Parliaments in the UK and globally.
The name Pink Shoe signifies the ‘positive footprints we’re creating’ i.e. the legacy and impact of our work and our intention to improve the world of business and society and make it more women-friendly. Surprising as it might seem, until about 100 years ago, pink was a colour for boys, and blue was for girls. This was not widely known, and I wanted to signify the power and positivity of pink in that context.
Pink Shoe actively seeks to influence policy with the aim that female leadership and entrepreneurship is pivotal to Government strategy. By working across all industries, we are able to share best practice between sectors. Last but not least, I would also like to mention that we very much welcome men to our events. It is only by working together with women and men that we will achieve the parity we are all working towards.
The name Pink Shoe signifies the ‘positive footprints we’re creating’
What other programs do you offer?
Alongside our work on entrepreneurship, we also offer programs that aim to create more balance in the public life and on boards. This is a program called BoardAble! It was created a few years ago to enable participants to step-up to Public Appointments, Non-Executive Director roles, and Senior Board positions. It is a series of professional seminars and workshops as well as one-on-one customised mentoring programs. Alongside professional seminars, we carefully match each participant with a senior woman in public life who can take them to a board meeting or just give them some insights into what it is like to be a public appointee. I am proud to say that some of the women who have completed this leadership program have already become very senior chief executives within major public organisations!
Participants are selected via a competitive application process, just as if they were applying for a ministerial public appointment. We give them feedback at every stage. Even those applicants who do not get in are offered constructive feedback on how to improve their CV and future applications.
You drive the Economic Blueprint for Women, a robust portfolio of solutions created in the US by Women Impacting Public Policy. The UK Economic Blueprint for Women is helping to create the conditions for women led businesses to gain a fairer share of business opportunities. There are still many obstacles that are unique to women entrepreneurs. What are they? What can be done to better support women entrepreneurs and encourage an entrepreneurial spirit in young girls?
I do not see obstacles, only opportunities. Of course, there are challenges in business but by working together and focusing on what can be achieved we are all more successful.
With the Economic Blueprint, we have a roadshow supported by NatWest visiting different areas and regions of the UK, listening to female entrepreneurs about what they need in order to grow their businesses. Outcomes will be published in a White Paper later this year. The things they need are the same for every business owner: funding, a good mentor, and of course access to more business! We are working on practical solutions such as a digital platform so that women can collaborate to gain bigger contracts.
Knowledge is key so we have partnered with two universities to build a data repository. This will enable us to have tangible data to demonstrate to Government and industry the economic benefit of more women growing their businesses.
I am also passionate about encouraging entrepreneurial spirit in young women and indeed in new entrepreneurs of any age. As we are expected to work longer, entrepreneurship is likely to become a suitable option for people in later life too.
Finally, I believe that role models are not just the global business icons – great though they are, these entrepreneur superstars can appear unreachable to many entrepreneurs. With Pink Shoe, I am highlighting achievable business icons – women entrepreneurs with highly successful businesses but with whom young women can identify.
Much of what I’ve achieved is thanks to the amazing, inspiring and creative people whom I’ve worked. This is especially true of Pink Shoe and many visionary women that have been with me over the 12 years.
Your work allows you to meet many successful female leaders. Do female and male leaders lead differently? Are these differences real or perceived?
There are some differences in leadership style of men and women, but successful leaders have lots in common with other leaders, regardless of gender. Women are perceived as more collegiate and inclusive, yet I have worked with men who have these traits too.
The most successful female leaders I know all have the ability to build great teams. Teamwork is essential for success. In my experience, most women have a collaborative and empathetic way of working, taking a 360 view of the world. Good communication skills are also one of best gifts we have. Successful leaders in these 24/7 media times have to be great communicators and empathise with the audience.
Finally, male leaders still seem to find it easier to take credit and speak up. It remains the case that some women do not always assert themselves, and women who do – like Pink Shoe Patron PM Theresa May, can be perceived as being ‘difficult’. However, as Mrs May nicely put it, “politics could do with some bloody difficult women”.
What is the best piece of advice you recently heard from a fellow woman leader?
Not that recent, but for me this is very true: “Define success on your own terms, achieve it by your own rules, and build a life you’re proud to live.” (Anne Sweeney)
Finally, I love this quote from Sheryl Sandberg and am doing my bit to make this come true: "In the future, there will be no female leaders. There will just be leaders."
* WIL Friend
For the first Newsletter of the year and almost 10 years after she co-founded WIL Europe, we had the pleasure of interviewing our President, Thaima Samman, Partner at SAMMAN Law & Corporate Affairs. Do you want to know what was young Thaima like? Where she got her inspiration from and what she considers as her greatest strength? Then read our interview!
You are the President of The European Network for Women in Leadership (WIL), which you co-founded almost 10 years ago. Could you tell us more about WIL Europe’s mission and what you consider as its best achievement, and how does the organization remain relevant 10 years later?
Our best achievement? We have created a unique cross-European and cross-sectoral platform, that allows women leaders to meet and exchange, learn and grow, expand their horizons, step out of their comfort zone and increase their visibility! WIL Europe currently has more than 300 members across 24 countries, coming from the private, public and academic sectors, who meet regularly in different European cities to discuss topical issues together with high-level speakers.
In addition, in 2012, we also launched our own leadership program (WIL’s Women Talent Pool - WTP program), an 18-month cycle program, to identify, promote and train a new generation of women leaders in Europe. The program includes cross-sectoral meeting and networking opportunities, workshops and training sessions (including online) given by our senior level members or professional coaches. Three cycles later, more than 120 future young women have benefited from the program and are on the path to leadership! The fourth cycle was launched in March 2018 in the presence of the European Commissioner for Digital Economy and Society, Mariya Gabriel, the “godmother” of this cycle.
Last but not least, by featuring and promoting diverse role models and professional achievements, WIL Europe empowers women even beyond the network. This is something that is personally very resonant with me, as inclusiveness of all forms is a value I hold dear. Even if gender equality in the workplace is far from being a reality, real progress has been made, even if uneven, and I am proud to say that we have contributed, at our level, to bringing such change about. Let’s not forget that the idea of gender equality is relatively new. Only 70 years ago, French women had to ask their husbands for permission to open a bank account...
That said, we should never take our rights for granted and stop advocating for them. The former French Minister of Women’s Rights, Laurence Rossignol, once told me that gender-based discrimination is the most difficult type of discrimination to tackle. It is often less obvious than other types of oppression and we may even love our oppressors; they can be our partners, relatives, and friends… and it is not necessarily easy to challenge their belief (and their interest) on the organization of society which is today rather male friendly, or call into question their “authority” or their views on what a relationship with a woman should be.
In short, this is why our organization remains relevant. By building a close network of women in leadership positions, we provide our members with a friendly place for best practices sharing, opportunities and support and create new opportunities for women at large by showcasing different types of professional success. We also contribute to keeping up social and political pressure to ensure that gender equality remains on the agenda!
Last month, you served as jury member for Inspiring Fifty, a non-profit diversity initiative that named the 50 most inspiring women in French Tech. Promoting role models and making women’s expertise and achievements more visible is also one of the key aspects of WIL’s mission through, for example, our online Directory and the interviews we conduct with our members. Why is increasing one’s visibility important for advancing one’s career?
Due to their tendency to network and promote their accomplishments, men find it easier to move into top leadership roles. Like it or not, executives tend to promote people they know! Therefore, we women need to dedicate 10 to 20% of our professional time to communicating and increasing our visibility, not less, not more. At WIL, we are actively doing this by providing our members with on-line and off-line visibility opportunities, high-level networking events, and speaking opportunities.
That said, even before helping women to promote themselves, we need to make sure that they can project themselves in these roles. Today, women’s choices are not completely free as they are often shaped by gender stereotypes. As I said earlier, at WIL EUROPE, we are trying to fight these stereotypes and to enlarge women’s career choices by showcasing varied and accessible role models. By seeing different examples of life success, women will be more likely to freely choose what they want to do, and hopefully be inspired to make better choices. I fully understand that professional success is not the only type of success, however, all persons, regardless of gender, should be given the opportunity to decide for themselves.
Like it or not, executives tend to promote people they know!We need to convince women to dedicate 10-20% of their professional time to increasing their visibility.
7 years ago, WIL launched its first edition of the Women Talent Pool programme, a leadership program that aims to train the next generation of female leaders. You seemed yourself to be a leader from very early on, co-founding for example SOS Racisme, a French NGO fighting racial discrimination, in the 1980s. What was young Thaima like and where did you get your inspiration from?
This is a difficult question! I’m not sure that I’m the right person to be asking that question but I’ll try. While I would argue that there is no fundamental difference between young Thaima and the way I am and I think now, most people would probably disagree... My values are the same, but I understand the world better so I’m less idealistic and more pragmatic than when I was 20. Back then, I wanted to change the world and change was necessarily a good thing. Now, I understand that life isn’t that simple and that change for the sake of change isn’t always good, as history has shown us time and time again. I still want to contribute to making the world a better place, but in a different (and, of course, more modest) way and feel very fulfilled whenever I contribute to achieving something that is part of a greater positive change, whether involving gender equality or other forms of discrimination.
Where did I get my inspiration from? Strangely enough, probably from the fact that gender stereotypes had little influence on me as a child. I was lucky to live in a loving family with three children (two girls and a boy), in which gender discrimination was not an issue. My parents placed great importance on education and independence. Whenever I heard sexist comments later in life, they never got under my skin. To make it short, my freedom was a result of the freedom my parents gave me at an age when gender stereotypes are internalized, combined with a natural inclination against all forms of discrimination. Being a part of WIL Europe and its efforts to help women break free from gender stereotypes brings me a lot of personal satisfaction and inspires me to keep going.
My freedom was a result of the freedom my parentsgave me at the age when gender stereotypes are internalized.
You have extensive experience in Public and Corporate Affairs, having worked in leading international firms such as Philip Morris and Microsoft, before creating your own law firm, SAMMAN Law & Corporate Affairs. What does it take to be successful in a sector that combines relationships with both political and business stakeholders? What do you consider to be your greatest strength as law and corporate affairs specialist?
Being a law and corporate affairs specialist is intellectually challenging but very rewarding, but you do need to be made of the right cloth.
You need to be a good and serious lawyer and a policy/regulatory advocacy expert so that you can zoom in and zoom out, understanding both the technicalities and the broader context you are working in. It is also crucial to remain open-minded. If you are smart and humble at the same time, you will be able to reconsider your knowledge and beliefs and move forward. The wisest people in the world know that they still have a lot to learn, and this is what makes them wise! In my field of work, success is only possible if you can cope with an ever-changing environment and the uncertainties that are inherent to this type of work.
While relationship skills are obviously important, so is being strategic. Creative problem-solving is like designing a computer algorithm. You can’t solve the problem without first having all the elements of the code. But getting them is not enough, you still need to know how to connect them in an innovative way. To draw another parallel with the digital world, while it is important to have the pertinent data, you also need a good algorithm to bring everything together. Needless to say, this is the most complicated part of the process!
To answer your question about my greatest strength, I think it’s the fact that I am as comfortable with political as I am with business stakeholders and am not easily discouraged by obstacles along the way.
To draw a parallel with the digital world, while it is important to have the pertinent data, you also need a good algorithm to bring everything together. Needless to say, this is the most complicated part of the process!
As you know, at WIL, we have the tradition of concluding the interview with a question from Proust’s questionnaire. We have picked the following question for you: What is your personal motto?
I strongly resonate with the quote “It is not necessary to hope in order to act, nor to succeed in order to persevere” (William of Orange).
I believe that you should not be afraid of exploring new horizons! If you fail, you fail! But take it as a learning opportunity! What you should be afraid of is the fear of trying and innovating or, to use Erich Fromm’s words, fear of freedom.
Following our EU Breakfast Debate on gender diversity in the workplace last month, we had the pleasure of meeting one of the key leaders in this field. Catherine Ladousse, Executive Director Communications EMEA at Lenovo, has been pushing for gender diversity for over two decades. She is co-Founder and Chairman of the French women's network “Cercle InterElles”, active WIL Member, and the co-creator of Lenovo’s global diversity program ‘Women in Lenovo Leadership’. Catherine talked to us about her educational background, the role of women in tech, the importance of joining women’s networks, and her New Year wishes. Read the interview to find out more.
You hold a Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees in Literature and Philosophy. How did your educational background help you in your career and why do the humanities still matter in the 21stcentury?
Through exploration of the humanities we learn how to ask good questions, analyse and synthesize a text, and how to think critically. All this helps us better understand what is happening around us. When facing a situation where something is unclear, we learn how to ask the right questions to better understand it.
Working in communications requires you to have the ability to bring your message across with high impact. You need to understand different target groups and know how to adjust your message accordingly. Curiosity, open-mindedness, and adaptability are crucial for this kind of work.
All in all, I can say with confidence that the humanities still matter. In this fast-changing world, it is important to have some solid foundations and the humanities can equip you with good communication and critical-thinking skills that will help you thrive in today’s world. However, this kind of general education should ideally be complemented with some additional technical courses.
In this fast-changing world, it is important to have some solid foundations and the humanities can equip you with good communication and critical-thinking skills that will help you thrive in today’s world.
You have over 25 years of high-level corporate communications experience in leading global companies (IBM, Lenovo…). How has the role of women in tech evolved over the years?
The progress has been relatively slow. For example, in the 1960s, there were more women in computer manufacturing than today. There is a decrease in interest. We do not encourage enough girls to pursue STEM studies, despite all the efforts made by private companies and government initiatives to attract more women to STEM. This makes it difficult to hire more women in these lucrative and exciting industries. Encouraging female students to choose these industries is key to success!
On average, tech companies currently have less than 30% of female employees. At Lenovo, we are currently at 34%! We have a lot of female employees in China, probably because there are fewer cultural stereotypes about these jobs than in the Western world. In Europe, we still have plenty of work ahead of us!
On average, tech companies currently have less than 30% of female employees. At Lenovo, we are currently at 34%!
You are a co-Founder and President of Cercle InterElles, a professional network of women in STEM, and an active member of WIL Europe. Why is it important to join women’s networks?
Mentoring is key for helping women increase their confidence. I created my first women network about 20 years ago, when I was working at IBM. The network was led by women but stayed open to men who wanted to participate in our initiatives. While women should be provided a safe space to network, exchange, and grow, it is also important for men to help us create a more inclusive company culture.
Women’s networks allow women to feel part of a community and learn from their peers. They are also beneficial for the companies involved. For example, Cercle Interelles unites 14 women’s networks from various companies in the scientific and technology sector. We exchange best practices and we play a role of ‘think tank” as we try to come up with concrete solutions for the management to get a better gender balance and promote an inclusive culture. If we share our expertise and diverse experiences across our companies, we will go faster!
While women should be provided a safe space to network, exchange, and grow, it is also important for men to help us create a more inclusive company culture.
What are the best practices you have noticed at Lenovo to encourage gender diversity? What is the secret to your success of building inclusive leadership behavior?
Our company has its roots in China. In order to be able to grow and expand, we had to build an inclusive culture and make sure that people from different backgrounds can thrive in the company. We often say that diversity is the DNA of our company, and we just issued our first report on Diversity & Inclusion, presenting our programmes and our commitment in this field.
Since the very beginning, we have been focusing on the question of gender. We have thus put in place both internal and external programmes on gender diversity. Internally, we have a variety of programmes for leadership development of our female employees, such as WIL’s Women Talent Pool Programme. On the top of that, we have been working hard on shutting down sexism in the workplace and creating safe spaces for everyone. Invisible sexism is the most difficult type of sexism to avoid when you have such a big gender imbalance. Men tend to form groups among themselves and do not make the effort to include others. In order to tackle this overarching challenge, we conduct an employee survey every year, which allows us to find out how to create a better and more diverse workplace.
At the external level, through our women’s network “Women in Lenovo Leadership (WILL)”, we are partnering with diverse organizations across the world (e.g. the Women’s forum, Women in Africa…) to develop our female talents and get a better gender balance in each position. Through this network, we try to identify key obstacles for women in STEM and develop strategies for tackling these challenges. Last but not least, we launched a very successful marketing campaign 2 years ago that aimed at attracting more female candidates.
We have been working hard on shutting down sexism in the workplace and creating safe spaces for everyone.
Lenovo is our Women Talent Pool (WTP) Partner. Why do you find this programme valuable for your employees?
Our employees have been very grateful for this opportunity. By nominating them and asking them to be part of it, we give them both the recognition of their talent and the confirmation that we want to develop it even further. In short, the Women Talent Pool programme allows our employees to gain confidence and expand their horizons by learning from peers from different backgrounds. One member of my team has been selected to attend this program, and I have seen some concrete progress throughout the programme: she gained in confidence, improved her ability to speak up, and developed her leadership skills. I am very pleased to have the opportunity to support this initiative, which has been a great success.
The holiday season is quickly approaching, and you may already have some New Year wishes. Do you have any wishes you want to share with our readers?
My wish is to increase access to technology for everyone. Technology can help solve a lot of gender-related problems. Let me give you two examples: women find it more difficult than men to speak up in public. However, they tend to be more active on social media than men. In other words, giving them access to technology enables them to participate more in the public sphere. Technology has also made it easier for women to work from home. Freedom and flexibility allow women to attain a better work-life balance.
Finally, I hope that the young generations will have the skills and the persistence to eliminate sexism. I have three daughters myself and I wish to ensure that we create the world in which girls can pursue their dreams.
There is still a lot of work to do… but we are moving in the right direction!
Technology can help solve a lot of gender-related problems.
To learn more about Catherine, have a look at her biography!
Cristiana Falcone Sorrell is a global leader in media, business, and social development. Throughout her career, she has worked directly with leading executives of multinationals, international organizations, and the media globally. She talked to us about the implications of technology-enabled disruption for the media industry, the importance of international experience, and her ways of giving back to the society. Looking for some inspiration? Read the interview to find our more!
You have extensive experience in the media industry. What are the most exciting trends in the industry?
I am especially interested in the implications of technology-enabled disruption for the media industry. Content production and distribution have both been transformed by digital technologies and this transformation has resulted in new challenges and new opportunities. Contemporary journalism is facing two major problems, notably collapsing advertising models that supported journalism in the past and declining public trust in media institutions. The traditional advertising-based revenue model that has for long been used in this industry has not successfully adapted to the digital economy. Besides that, people have also lost faith in institutions and traditional media outlets and are increasingly looking for alternative sources of information.
Blockchain could resolve many of these challenges by encouraging new forms of journalism that guarantee transparency and provide a viable revenue model. I am interested in exploring how this technology can be applied in journalism and in the media industry at large. Blockchain has the capacity to enforce payment for content, ensure greater transparency and simplify a more reliable supply chain. If you are interested in the latest developments in this field, you should check out CIVIL, a new initiative that helps power sustainable journalism throughout the world by employing a decentralized model based on blockchain and introducing a new funding model.
Beside journalism, it might help the media and entertainment industry at large to manage its assets from the digital rights management to distribution, micropayment, and royalty management. Both Accenture and Deloitte published on this subject, while MIT and Cambridge offer online classes. It could be all a hype, or it could be the future. As always, the key is in the hands of the industry leaders who have the courage to explore, the power to adapt their old business models, and the ability to challenge current mindsets.
Blockchain could encourage new forms of journalism that guarantee transparencyand provide a viable revenue model.
You are also a passionate art collector. What barriers do women face in the arts and how can we support the next generation of female artists?
I am trying to support female artists by investing in female entrepreneurs and artists. Women face more challenges than men when it comes to fundraising. This is why it is crucial to invest in female entrepreneurs and equip them with adequate marketing tools. Even artists need to know how to manage their business!
My support is based on trust! I always try to learn as much as possible about the person I am working with. If you want to truly empower an emerging artist, you have to trust him or her. The role of an artist is to create and not to report. Micromanaging can take away the time and confidence of the artist!
If you want to truly empower an emerging artist, you have to trust him or her.Micromanaging can take away the time and confidence of the artist!
An Italian now living in New York, you have studied and worked in several countries. How has your international background and career helped you master leadership skills?
For the past decade I have been living between New York and London and traveling a lot. Due to globalization, the internet, and falling transport costs, people expect to have more face-to-face interactions than they used to. Despite all the opportunities that the digital world is providing, the need for intimacy still exists. When you meet someone in person, you can get things done faster and with a longer-term impact than if you only had a digital conversation. Face-to-face interactions allow you to build meaningful relationships and engage in conversations that are not purely transactional. I hope that women will not be penalized for that and will have the same opportunities as men in this kind of face-to-face interactions.
My international experience has certainly shaped my identity. Despite working and living abroad, I have always kept parts of my original culture. My Italian cultural background has helped me immensely in my career, especially when working in non-Western countries. It has equipped me with positivity, flexibility, empathy, creative yet efficient problem solving. On top of this Italian layer, I have also built my global (I call it ‘Gypsy’) identity. The two layers complement each other and co-exist together. Had I stay in one country all my life, I would not have the same understanding of the world as I do today. Working and living abroad in continent very different from each other: from Latin America to Africa to the Middle East, Far East Asia and of course Europe and the US, gave me the opportunity to meet such a diversity of human beings who have all drastically influenced my way of thinking and inspired me. This made me realize that the more I learn, the less I know. We are one humanity and I think when the astronauts go to space and look down on Earth, they immediately understand that. Even when you build a wall, the wall is useless.
You also serve as CEO of the Sorrells' charitable foundation, a non-profit that develops pioneering educational models. Why is it important for leaders to engage in philanthropic projects?
The JMCMRJ Sorrell Foundation was set up a decade ago thanks to a donation from my husband and focuses on health, education, and interfaith dialogue with the overarching goal of poverty eradication. Our approach is more “charitable” and aimed at forging partnerships rather than philanthropic. We give grants instead of launching and managing our own projects. Initially, we supported people, ideas, and institutions we were familiar with, mainly in the fields of education and cancer treatment. As we grow, we learn how to be more effective and efficient, we evolve and sharpen our focus!
Our projects are based on trust and the most difficult part of the process is identifying the right people and building long lasting relationships. It is important to trust the people who have committed their lives to improve this world and not micromanage their projects. Constant reporting and supervision are time and resource consuming! However, in several cases, we are directly involved with the management of the organization we have decided to support. Regardless of the size of the grant, we always encourage our beneficiaries to be bold, innovative, creative, and risk-prone!
We recently started a partnership with Tufts University. We set up a research fund for applied research on humanitarian assistance. Our money is used for research and scholarships. For example, we financially supported a professor who had been studying violence in Uganda for about 20 years. She wanted to systemize her research and thank to a grant from the Dignitas Fund she was able to hire a research assistant. Their work was used during the proceeding of the International Court of Justice when they were asked to testify against one of the generals who perpetuated genocide in the region. Her team was able for the first time ever to provide impartial evidence that clearly showed how the second and third generations had been affected by the genocide.
We always encourage our beneficiariesto be bold, innovative, creative, and risk-prone!
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