Meet our Members
WIL Member Serena La Torre has over 20 years experience working in the financial sector and began her work at the UniCredit Group in 2008. She presently heads the Rome Central Area of UniCredit SpA which is comprised of i) a corporate division ii) a retail division iii) a business development unit. WIL was thrilled to have the opportunity to discuss with Ms. La Torre her career in finance, the challenges to the sector during the crisis, women in finance and much more!
WIL Europe (WIL): You have 20 years of experience in Finance, more specifically Real Estate Finance, Shipping Finance and Acquisition Finance. What was your motivation to become an expert in these fields? What do you like most in your job?
Serena La Torre (ST): To opt for the major Finance at University has been pivotal and groundbreaking for my professional life. I am very lucky to have made this choice, which allowed me to acquire skills and prepare well for structured finance positions. The decision to further concentrate on Shipping and Real Estate Finance, was due to my passion for complexity in general and more specifically complex structured transactions. In my current position, I manage Rome Central Area of UniCredit Group (comprised of corporate and retail divisions) and keep multiple items under control at the same time, which requires high legal and financial background and a deep knowledge on cash-flow mechanisms. I really enjoy having a busy day and keeping my brain function active.
WIL: Has the financial crisis starting in 2008 had an impact on your work or professional routines?
ST: Yes very much so. We strongly felt the financial market crisis in 2008 and it changed and determined strategies for banks. The activities in financing divisions were very slow at that time because there was no liquidity to support financing. It appeared to be very difficult for the creditor side to commit stability to anyone, so transactions and business dropped heavily. During 2008 and 2010 however, I had the opportunity to be involved in the setup of the Investment Banking Real Estate division, aimed at supporting real estate Italian players and SGR. In this role I was also involved in the setup of the UniCredit Real Estate Closed end Funds for implementing the spin-off of real estate assets
WIL: According to your expert opinion, which European initiatives aiming at the stabilisation of the financial sector prove to be most efficient and meaningful?
ST: I think that it is very important to focus on interest rate politics, to ensure a flat level of interest rate. This helps to stimulate investment, boost the economy and grow out the crisis. On the other side, I also want to underline the usefulness of European state grants. Focusing on specific areas, particular market niches or regional markets, it determined the betterment of many states’ financial situation. Usually state grants are a very good driver for the local economy.
WIL: In what way do financial institutes, like the UniCredit Group, contribute to stabilisation and growth in Europe and more specifically Italy?
ST: UniCredit took several actions to ensure stability in Europe and Italy. In fact UniCredit Group has signed a loan agreement with the European Investment Bank (EIB) in support of Italian businesses. The project launched March 2014 provides a total of €700 million to be lent at competitive price to businesses in the Italian economy. Other credit lines are aimed at boosting the agricultural industry, €300 million are administered to reconstitute the tourist industry and we recently launched a 400 million bond issuance secured by Italian guarantor fund aimed at supporting SME working capital. The credit lines are usually also supported through state guarantees.
WIL: How do you perceive promotion prospects for women in your sector? Is there a level playing field between the sexes?
ST: I believe that prospects for women in the financial sector are not yet as good as one would wish. It is a very competitive field of work and it is challenging and hard to assert oneself, specifically for women, because they are often dismissed and underestimated. But this is evolving: strong attention is currently paid to women and their managerial skills. Special projects and corporate policies are put in place to balance gender diversity. In UniCredit Group the Senior Management is entrusted with a gender diversity mandate and there is a pipeline for the women in our company, which holds overall 120 women. However, I think that I am lucky to work in an international company, because the diversity of culture is different compared to many Italian companies. In Italy cultural stereotypes between the sexes remain. There are various organisations and campaigns in Italy working to reform deadlocked views on gender roles, but it will probably take long time and big effort to overcome.
WIL: UniCredit operates in various countries across Europe and Central Asia and has acquired several international financial institutes: What impact does it have on the divisions you lead?
ST: Currently I lead also a corporate division which is comprised of many Italian companies that want to internationalise or are already working internationally. In this division I largely benefit from the international network of UniCredit. If I am supporting clients who want to expand abroad or find corporate solutions in e.g. Turkey, the Eastern Europe, or Russia, I can refer them to the local country chief of UniCredit, who has all the specific expertise and experience in the area. This way, I don’t even have to travel a lot, but can simply profit from the knowledge of our teams abroad.
It is a great opportunity to have an international team, because we have a wide range of partners that we can provide our clients with funding and it helps to increase creativity and new ideas. The challenge is to get acquainted with the flow-chart of our group, but once you have deeper knowledge of it, you can benefit from all the services and products it provides.
WIL: What piece of advice would you give to women undertaking a career in finance, and seeking leadership positions?
ST: As a woman in the financial sector, it can be hard to prove oneself. Sometimes clients do not recognise you as the leader because you are a woman and it is complicated to gain their full respect and be the authority. In my opinion, a woman in the financial sector needs to make a bigger effort to conquer the customers trust. My advice to women, is to be strong, dignified and very balanced, since women get evaluated a lot more in regards to their attitude and humour than men.
WIL Europe: Where did your motivation stem from to build your business in senior care? Do you believe that business has any sort of obligation to make the world a better place?
Catalina Hoffmann (CH): To work with the elderly is my passion. I started my business with the goal to improve the elderly’s quality of life, and I also want to demonstrate to society that improving the quality of senior citizen’s life is very much possible. I think it is crucial, that in some way every business has a minimal obligation to improve society or the world.
WIL: The Hoffmann Group is composed of three companies: Vitalia, Hoffmann Elderly and Hoffmann Healthcare Innovation. How do these branches complement each other?
CH: The core of my companies is the Hoffmann method. Basically, I am a scientist working in the health area, but the creation and success of the Hoffmann methodology gave me an incentive to start a business, to apply my method and make a difference in elderly care. I began by investigating the method and auditing my rehabilitation program. With the success of my techniques came the idea to have a share in the elderly caring system and I decided to found Vitalia day care centres. In the beginning, my business model struggled to get recognition: people in Spain were sceptic about placing relatives in day care centres and it took three years to gain recognition in the public. But once Vitalia was established, many hospitals and nursing homes began to show interest in the Hoffmann treatment methods. The overwhelming demand required a business expansion and I therefore founded Hoffmann Elderly, which allows me to implement the Hoffmann methodology all over the world (as for example Israel, Mexico and Brazil). While expanding and growing, I created Hoffmann Healthcare Innovation, to take up the new trends in e-learning and work with robots and computers to create new methods of treatment.
WIL: What were the incentives and occasions to expand your business in this impressive form? What factors, besides your great entrepreneurial spirit and expertise, contributed to your success?
CH: Besides the opportunity to build complimentary businesses from the Hoffmann Method, I think what lies at the base of my businesses success is the diversity of support and care needed by the elderly and their relatives. The innovation necessary to cover those needs is immense: every life transition asks for new solutions. Seeking and translating these solutions, is what boosted the expansion of my enterprise.
The Hoffmann Group also benefitted from a self-magnifying effect of its success through exportation. Taking small steps, rooting and establishing my company thoroughly in Spain before looking for other markets, has been key to my expansion strategy.
WIL: You mentioned that you created a specific scientific method for working with the elderly: The Hoffmann method, can you briefly elaborate the key components of this highly effective method?
CH: The Hoffmann methodology is a rehabilitation program for the elderly. We work in 4 areas: physical, cognitive, neuropsychological and social. The first step consists in assessing the healthiness of the patient’s brain areas. How good is the persons’ attention, concentration, calculus? The treatment then works to stimulate and reconnect the healthy or not severely damaged areas through physical, cognitive and neuropsychological therapies. Of course this therapy cannot reverse a severe illness but it helps to slow degeneration and improves the functioning of the brain. Besides ameliorating the brain functions, psychological supervision and the allocation of appropriate facilities accompany the treatment. Furthermore, prevention and early detection are an important aspect of the Hoffmann method. All in all, the method aims at prolonging capacities and independence of the elderly as long as possible.
WIL: You are also the founder of the Catalina Hoffmann Foundation. What are the foundation’s main activities?
CH: The foundation’s creation was very close to my heart. The foundation enables us to help elderly who are isolated and in financial difficulty. We try to cover their basic needs in housing and facilities, and give support and companionship for hospitalized people. The aim is to allow the elderly to stay independent through little services and adjustments, as well as to provide moral support. Another pillar of the foundation consists of collaborating with universities for research to invent new technologies and treatments for seniors.
WIL: According to your expertise and experience, what status is currently given to the senior citizens in European society? Are there aspects of elderly care in Europe that you feel need be addressed, or can be improved upon? How?
CH: Demography and the aging process are changing in great terms in our society. The dilemma is that modern medicine keeps people alive much longer, but sometimes in very bad health conditions, which leaves us with an immense demand for care and support. Therefore, it is crucial to train people and families in elderly care. On the other hand, the talent of retired people is not leveraged and we miss out on a lot of expertise and mentoring potential. I am honoured to be the chairman of an non-profit organization called SECOT- our seniors are mentors, who volunteer their expertise to young entrepreneurs all over Spain. We also have schools where retirees/seniors give entrepreneurial advice to young entrepreneurs and graduates. It´s incredible to see how they share their knowledge, and experience. It´s really fantastic. We need to prepare society for the coming shift in demography. Why do entrepreneurs and companies lack initiative to address these issues? We are not helpless vis-à-vis those developments, but we have to act now and create new services, technologies, reinforce hospitals and insurances, to cope with the expected changes. Investment in preventative care will really pay off in the end.
WIL: Catalina, you have three companies, a foundation, and you have recently published a book, Starting A Dream (Spanish: Emprender Soñando), you are regularly invited to speak on various media channels and at events to contribute your expertise on entrepreneurship, senior care, inspiration and innovation. I could go on about the other activities you pursue, but please share with us your secret to balancing it all!
CH: The secret is knowing that my work fulfils a purpose in life, and fulfils me. Truly, my agenda is very busy, but what I do makes me happy. Additionally to the commitments in my company, I often participate in television programs, giving advice about issues in elderly care as well as entrepreneurship in general. I want to demonstrate that aging does not exclude a good quality of life. Also, in regards to the crisis in Europe and especially in Spain, I want to encourage people to not lose hope, to fight for their dreams, because they can come true. Like everyone else, I also struggled sometimes, but if you like what you do and follow your goals, it will fulfil you.
WIL: Looking back on your remarkable career so far: What pieces of advice would you offer female entrepreneurs starting out today?
CH: If you want to be an entrepreneur listen to yourself! Don’t let other people discourage or frighten you. Maybe it will be difficult, maybe you will fail, but you have to try. Don’t be scared to try and regret it 20 years later, start now. In fact, we find ourselves at a critical juncture with the global financial crisis. The market is open for new innovations, craving for new ideas! Look for help and assistance to make your dream come true. One of the most important supports as a start-up entrepreneur is a mentor, a person to talk to, who listens, understands and guides, because she has made the same experiences.
Paulina Dejmek is responsible for financial services and a member of the Cabinet of EU Commissioner Michael Barnier. During the Swedish EU Presidency in 2009, Paulina was seconded to the Swedish Permanent Representation as financial attaché.
Paulina is a Swedish and Czech citizen, she holds a Master of Laws degree from the University of Lund, Sweden, and a PhD from the University of Heidelberg
WIL Europe: You have been working for the European Commission for almost 10 years, and prior to this you worked at the EFTA Surveillance Authority. What was your motivation to work at an international level in Europe?
Paulina Dejmek-Hack (PDH): The interest in European issues is something that came quite naturally to me. Being a citizen of both Sweden and the Czech Republic, I always felt European rather than affiliated to one specific country. The fact of pursuing studies in two European countries, Sweden and Germany, built my awareness of the European identity and cause. At the beginning of my career, I was not too knowledgeable about how Europe worked in practice, but an internship at the European Commission in 2001 granted me a first insight into the work of the European institutions. This experience made me realise that I wanted to pursue my career in the European environment. At that point, I decided to stay in Brussels and participate in the written and oral tests to become an EU civil servant. I have never regretted that choice. What makes this work so rewarding is the permanent balancing of interests, trying to serve the general European public interest and the fact of working with international colleagues, all bringing different points of views.
WIL: As an employee at the European Commission as well as a European citizen, what do you consider the most beneficial asset of the European Single Market?
PDH: I believe that the free movement is where the European Single Market is at its very best. The free movement of capital, individuals, services and goods is a great advantage for all European citizens. Notably the free movement of people, the right to study, work and travel without having to comply with visa requirements or follow burdensome administrative procedures is a fantastic advantage of the single market. It is also something that I believe is truly unique in the international context: No other regional cooperation across the globe is even close to disposing of an internal market without borders between 28 countries.
WIL: What positive impacts does the free movement have on Europe?
PDH: For the citizens, it is the freedom to be able to choose to study, work, or travel wherever they want in the European Union. But also for companies the European Single Market brings interesting opportunities. Companies can sell their products cross- border, provide services in and out of a member state without much restrictions. Of course some national rules remain, for example as regards taxes and social legislation, but the general principle of free movement within the European member states is there – for the EU’s 22 million companies and approximately 500 million consumers.
WIL: In your opinion, what impact does the European Single Market have on the European financial sector?
PDH: It has an absolutely crucial impact on the financial sector. If we look back in history, it all started thirty years ago with the introduction of the principle of single licence and home-state control. This principle implies that a financial service operator is licensed and supervised in one EU Member State (its home Member State) and is then allowed to provide its services throughout the European Union. If we look at the grand names in the European financial sector, many of them operate in several European member states – just think about names like BNP Paribas, Deutsche Bank, Generali, AXA and many others. The internal market allows for useful economies of scale and more possibilities to reach out to potential customers. The consumers on the other side benefit from a wider choice and lower prices.
WIL: Having considerable expertise in the European financial services and financial market, what instruments of the European Stability Mechanism (ESM) that entered into force on September 19 2012 do you regard as most crucial and efficient?
PDH: The ESM is one important element in re-establishing the confidence in the Euro-zone following the global financial crisis that evolved into a debt crisis in certain countries. The ESM is one piece of the puzzle. However, it has to be seen together with the important reforms that are undertaken to strengthen and improve the economic governance of the Euro-zone. Another fundamental part of this reform package consists of the financial sector legislation which we are in the process of implementing in Europe, rendering banks and other financial institutions much more solid, stable and less susceptible to crisis.
WIL: As we all know, the financial crisis has been cause of economic erosion in Europe and all over the world. In the aftermath of the crisis, many citizens felt insecure, which also affected the image of the European Union. How do you view this and do you see remedies for such issues?
PDH: It is true that we see tendencies all over Europe that citizens feel far away from national politicians and even further away from the European level and the decision-making process in Brussels. What I think has to be our priority now is to rebuild the confidence in the financial sector. This is what the Commission has tried to accomplish in recent years by proposing new, stronger rules for banks, for hedge funds, for credit rating agencies, insurance companies and many other actors. These rules are now largely agreed and in force. Of course, what people care about is not financial regulation but growth and jobs. However, in order to start the growth-generating process, we need a stable economic environment in Europe, creating that stability which companies need to expand and create jobs and consumers need to invest and consume.
WIL: What do you think the future of the financial service sector will look like, given that economic crisis and the 2014 European Parliament elections and change of the European Commission?
PDH: We are at a point where we see some positive signs of recovery, including in Southern Europe. Nevertheless, the general situation remains fragile and the path to recovery is not straight forward. What is important now is to continue with the reforms that have already been started. Of course, I cannot in any way pre-empt the choices and policy orientations of the incoming European Parliament and the next European Commission. However, as far as financial services are concerned, I think some efforts will be put on the enforcement of the new legal framework and the correct implementation of the new rules on the ground. Making sure that there is legal certainty and continuity for all the players in the market will contribute to European stability and prosperity in the longer term.
Ourania Ekaterinari, is Deputy CEO of Public Power Corporation S.A., the leading Greek electricity utility and one of the largest industrial groups in Greece. Ourania is also a member of the Supervisory Board of the Independent Power Transmission Operator and has 10 year experience in corporate & investment banking. She is the first Greek woman to be announced member of the global Rising Talents Network of the Women’s Forum for the Economy and the Society in 2010.
WIL Europe: You have considerable experience working in the energy sector. What made you decide to work in this field?
Ourania Ekaterinari (OE): I worked for several years in corporate & investment banking, focusing on the energy sector, due to my electrical engineering academic background. This was very valuable for stepping into the industry, having gained considerable experience in terms of energy projects financing, in assessing investments and in risk management. Experience in advisory and M&A work was also very helpful. Particularly at times of great uncertainty, the ability to combine technical knowledge with actual understanding of markets and the view of different stakeholders (including shareholders, creditors, regulatory /supervisory bodies, equity analysts, rating agencies, etc.), is crucial.
WIL: Considering the current state of the European economy, the emergence of powerful economic actors in the developing world and the continuing issue of climate change and sustainability, where do you see the future of the energy sector?
OE: Because of the increasing requirement for competitiveness in European regions, which is directly linked to the cost of energy, a critical discussion is taking place concerning the medium to long term European Energy policy. Up until recently, the EU energy landscape was characterised by rising consumption, dependency on imported fuels and intense environmental debates, resulting to certain actions for renewables penetration and reduction of carbon footprint. Following the economic slowdown, a Low Cost Energy Strategy has started to emerge, which aims to address ‘from scratch’ all critical parameters of energy planning towards achieving competitive, sustainable and clean energy sources. Climate change issues remain very important, but many policies have to be re-assessed together with the funding issue and cost of capital. Take for example the renewables sector: apart from re-assessing the level and type of subsidies for each renewable source, we also need to assess in parallel all the other necessary supportive long term investments i.e. in network infrastructure, flexible power plants for the provision of ancillary services, electricity storage investments etc. We are talking about a new power system model, that everything is interrelated in terms of operation and should be combined towards calculating the ‘’all-in’’ cost. Risk – reward appetite of all active players also needs to be taken into account. I am afraid that the ‘’happy medium’’ between the three basic concerns of ‘security of supply’, ‘low cost’ and ‘low environmental impact’ still needs to be found.
WIL: In 2012 the European Commission issued the Energy Efficiency Directive, which changed the established premise from “consuming energy” to “saving energy”. How has this change affected the sector?
OE: Well, there are two ways to look at the problem of energy sustainability: from the generation side - through achieving the right ‘energy mix’ at a sustainable cost – but also from the consumption side. Demand management and requirement for energy efficiency measures is gaining momentum and it is crucial for consumers, industries and the environment. That’s why the Energy Efficiency Directive is so important; because we desperately need a framework to become more active on the demand side: starting from the consumer who is trying to change daily consumption patterns (especially if there are associated benefits on tariffs), to energy efficiency initiatives in the building sector where there is tremendous potential, to energy efficiency investments in the industry. Energy companies can also introduce such measures, starting from power plants & network upgrades to promotion of smart metering. Energy saving is win-win and for that, Europe needs to introduce specific targets and timelines, while providing sufficient tools to support financing (ie mobilisation of regional funds, public – private partnerships, support from European organisations like EIB, etc). Obviously, the energy companies need to support it as well: though it may lead to ‘’less energy sales’’, energy efficiency also means less capex requirements and more efficient use of the available capital for new infrastructure.
WIL: How can innovation in the energy sector increase economic competitiveness and social cohesion?
OE: Innovation by itself has the meaning of better utilisation of resources & cost optimisation, while improving quality of products & services. In this respect, consumers enjoy a better product at a lower cost while less natural resources are ‘spent’ for the benefit of the environment. This is also good for consumers, companies and the economy overall, thus contributes to social cohesion. However, I can’t see at the moment a major technological breakthrough which in the short to medium term can change the landscape to this direction. There are many things ongoing, starting from renewable technologies, smart metering, electric cars potentially, but it will take time, while funding remains crucial for research and/or commercialisation of respective technologies in large scale.
WIL: In the energy debate, what should have priority over the other: economic or environmental concerns?
OE: It depends when exactly you look at it: At times of economic growth, there is increased environmental awareness. At times of economic slowdown or even worse, within a recessionary environment, ‘’affordable’’ energy becomes the main concern. Electricity bills do have a direct impact on households and today in ‘’troubled’’ economies, increasing energy poverty is being witnessed and this can no longer be neglected. Take Greece as an example: cost of energy is increasing not only because of commodity prices but also because of increased taxes on fuels & energy, increased green levies and additional CO2 related costs while less & less consumers, at such high levels of unemployment, are able to pay their energy bills. Introduction of social tariffs to protect social cohesion becomes important, together with other potential measures that have to be examined at a European level, besides any actions that may be taken at a national level. Obviously, the question of concern is not which of the two should have priority, but how we can balance the two in an optimum way at good but also at bad times.
WIL: How important are ecological initiatives for company’s marketing strategies and market success?
OE: Environmental initiatives and investments, reducing the carbon footprint of energy companies are important and should be part of a company’s strategic planning. The energy companies need to demonstrate the necessary awareness and action plan in order to safeguard energy and environmental sustainability. Thus ecological initiatives are directly linked and must remain linked to long term market success. Environmental investments represent a major part of my Company’s, PPC, strategy and objectives, despite the current difficult economic environment.
WIL: How has business changed due to environmental aspirations?
OE: The electricity sector has changed substantially due to the relatively high penetration of renewables. Renewable energy, and especially wind parks and photovoltaic cells, have changed the way the energy market functions: they have contributed to the current decreasing need for peak capacity, which led to decreasing wholesale prices, but at the same time (because of their intermittent and stochastic characteristics), they have increased the need for electricity storage, provision of ancillary services, flexible back-up capacity, fast demand response, enhanced power grids etc. In my opinion an important next step in terms of energy technology will be smart metering and the ability for consumers to monitor their energy consumption and respective energy bills regularly ‘at their finger tips’.
Emanuela Palazzani, is the CEO and Strategic Planner of T-Immobil, a real estate business, and has received many prestigious awards for her commitment towards the advancement of women in leadership positions. She is also the coordinator of the new WIL Italy chapter.
WIL Europe: You have received several awards for your contributions to the advancement of women. According to you, why is it important to invest in this issue?
Emanuela Palazzani (EP): One of the most common aspects of leadership is the need for pursuit. Great women are never satisfied with traditional practices, static thinking, conventional wisdom, or mediocre performance. Investing in this issue means underscoring that women who want to advance are simply uncomfortable with anything that embraces the status quo. This attitude of stagnation is what we need to change.
WIL: Talking about Women in Leadership: what is your personal checklist for innovative and inspiring leadership?
EP: The principles of my checklist, I believe, should be applicable to most leaders and their endeavors, and under most circumstances:
A) Articulate a Vision. Formulate a clear and persuasive vision and communicate it convincingly.
B) Think and act strategically. Set forth a pragmatic strategy for achieving that vision, both short– and long-term, and ensure that it is widely understood. Consider all the players and anticipate reactions and resistance before they manifest.
C) Honor the room. Frequently express your confidence in and support for those who work with and for you.
D) Take charge. Embrace a tendency to take action, to take responsibility even if it is not formally delegated, particularly if you are well positioned to make a difference.
WIL: How could an Emerging Leader increase her influence?
EP: In order to be an effective influencer, one needs both substance and style. Without a solid foundation of credibility, even the most interpersonally adept leaders will fall short.
WIL: During the most recent WIL Biannual Meeting in Rome, the WIL Italy chapter was launched . Could you tell us more about this project?
EP: Thanks to the WIL President’s and the board members’ vision, WIL Italy is now a reality. Our project is to create a network of high profile candidates in Italy who can be selected as new WIL Europe members. Moreover, we shall provide support in organizing WIL Europe events, seminars and initiatives in Italy. By participating as speakers or moderators at conferences, we shall also increase WIL Europe’s visibility.
WIL: Will WIL Italy also act as a networking opportunity for excellent Italian women living in other European countries?
EP: Yes, we will also establish contacts and organize events to present successful Italian women living in other countries. They are valuable role models that we are proud of, and the time is right to establish strong partnership with them.
WIL: The Italian government has recently appointed seven women as ministers, a first in Italian politics. What do you think could this signal to the Italian people and, above all, to Italian women?
EP: By announcing this new team, the Prime Minister established the importance of the combination of passion with pragmatism, and that power must be exercised responsibly.
WIL board member Isabella de Michelis di Slonghello is Vice President of Public Policy and Government Affairs at Qualcomm EMEA. In this role, she leads the public affairs and regulatory agenda for the US giant semiconductor company in Europe, the Middle East and North Africa, including EU Affairs in Brussels.
WIL Europe: Originally from Italy, you are now based in Switzerland, where you lead the public affairs and regulatory agenda in EMEA countries, including EU affairs in Brussels, for a global US company. How do you integrate this international dimension into your daily work? What factors and qualities do you regard as crucial for success in a multicultural corporate environment?
Isabella de Michelis di Slonghello (IMS): It’s a constant challenge which I take on every day since I started back in 1990. Without a bit of humor, combined with meticulous planning and third party help, it would never work. Currently I’m an expat in Zurich, but I have also been based in Brussels and Rome for different companies.
Fluency in foreign languages and experience with multiple corporate cultures are important success factors, which allow you to constantly improve your adaptability, but it’s a never-ending process. I worked for large European and US companies with global offices and a very diverse workforce. Each one had its own management culture, gender culture and career development culture. You need to familiarize yourself with these alternatives to be able to extract the best from each. In doing so, you will develop your own approach to management and enrich your experience through diversity.
Developing strong analytical and communication skills is also an important factor for success. When you move up the career ladder and more people depend on your decisions, you need to be able to base these decisions on good analysis. You have to make sure to communicate well internally and externally to have your vision endorsed and not merely executed. I always stress the importance of knowing how to communicate and I have put extra effort into that, because I consider it an important leadership factor. Ultimately, the key is to passionately love what you do and dedicate a lot of your time and energy to putting it into action. Driving change, inspiring change – these are values I would like to pass on to others.
WIL: What are currently the main challenges for large technology companies in their dialogue with the European Union?
IMS: The single market, as defined by the treaties and the European Directives, is still in its infancy. We have made progress in Europe over the last decades, but the barriers to market access are still significant, especially the legal and regulatory ones. This constitutes a challenge, especially for technology companies seeking to scale their strategies and their products’ commercialization. US companies have understood that in order to be successful in Europe, they need to work in and with the Member States. I see a lot of companies initially finding it difficult to accept these circumstances, but this is the only way to operate successfully in Europe.
WIL: In your opinion, what directions will the EU follow in shaping its data protection and privacy policies?
IMS: This is a very controversial policy field, with important ramifications for other policies that the Union is considering, including consumer policy and competition policy. Our connected society is calling for new rules, but we need a proportionate approach as to who should comply with these new rules. Finding the right balance is not easy, as the value chain is a lot more complex than 15 years ago, when mass internet access started to kick off but was incommensurable with today. Taking into account that internet data is like a giant goldmine (yet to be explored and exploited), the new rules will have to be designed in a way that preserves horizontal policy goals and objectives, e.g. competition policy and consumers’ interests, while also preserving the neutrality of the net and its openness towards new business models. We are not there yet.
WIL: You have worked in the telecom and technology sector for more than twenty years, for companies such as Cisco Systems and Telecom Italia. From the perspective of a woman executive, how would you describe the dynamics of women’s presence in this area?
IMS: Unfortunately I would describe it as sporadic. Women are still a minority in tech companies, and executive positions are usually difficult for women to attain and to maintain. The pressure on private life is enormous, especially if your job responsibilities require covering multiple jurisdictions over multiple time-zones, and you are called upon to frequently travel internationally and to work late and over the weekends and holidays. Tech companies are fast-moving players in a highly competitive global market. They require managers that are capable of anticipating competitors’ moves and changes in external dynamics much faster than in other industrial sectors. Keeping up with such a rhythm can be very demanding.
WIL: Within the European Network for Women in Leadership you are not only a board member, but also a Role Model, supporting emerging women leaders in shaping their careers. What advice would you give to young women who begin their careers in technology?
IMS: My warmest advice is to keep being persistent. Find your own way and look for something intellectually rewarding rather than career rewarding. Recognition will come at a later stage, but meanwhile you will have the advantage of not feeling frustrated or demotivated. Avoid depending on someone else for the development of your career. Avoid staying in the same company too long, unless you change roles and titles, in order to gain a broader experience. If offered, accept foreign and new assignments. Don’t be afraid to challenge internal decisions/projects/processes/policies if you find them to be non-constructive. Never give up on a good idea. And finally, when you are the one hiring, always hire the best and don’t be afraid to hire excellent people – even those more skilled than you are. Your team and the company will ultimately benefit from that.
WIL: You are a member of three different networks: WIL, the European Women’s Competition Network and the Alumni Association of IUHEI – “Graduate Institute of International Studies”. What are the advantages of belonging to multiple networks, and how do you manage your involvement to make the most of it?
IMS: Networking is important and constitutes a serious engagement if you want to do it right. It’s also about passion and the desire to share with others your ideas, thoughts and experiences. You never expect others to be interested, until you realize they actually are. By making yourself available, you learn, develop ideas, and mature new projects. Human interaction is one area we should not forget to continue developing, especially in a world where virtual life and experiences are gaining traction over real life. I’m not a big fan of social networking, but I certainly believe in professional networking.
WIL member Viktorija Šmatko-Abaza joined the European Commission's Directorate General for Employment, Social Affairs and Equal Opportunities in March 2007 as Director responsible for audit, controls and evaluation. She is now the Directorate’s Principal Adviser.
European Network for Women in Leadership (WIL): You grew up in Lithuania while it was still part of the Soviet Union. How is Lithuania doing today in comparison to the rest of European? What was it like for you during the transition period and how did it impact your career?
Viktorija Šmatko-Abaza (VSA): Lithuania turned 1000 years old in 2009. In this millennium, my motherland has experienced times of glory and fame, and the centuries of occupation and disparity. My upbringing, education, career development, social and family life are related to Lithuania, its past, present and future.
On 11th March 1990, the year before the break-up of the Soviet Union, Lithuania became the first Soviet republic to declare independence. In 2004-2007, Lithuania became a part of the European Union (EU) and the Schengen area. Over the last 23 years, the Republic of Lithuania’s overall transition to greater economic freedom has been facilitated by structural reforms, an efficient regulatory system, fiscal and business freedom, competitive taxation - all contributing to a vibrant economy. Today, Lithuania is part of the common EU market, ensuring unrestricted movement of goods, services, capital, and dividends within the EU.
Lithuania is ranked 36th in the world based on nine different criteria: the cost of living, culture and leisure, economy, environment, freedom, health, infrastructure, safety, risk, and climate. Vilnius is acknowledged as the capital city breathing Europe’s cleanest air and the greenest among the new EU members. Our people are among the most multilingual and most educated in the EU, as Lithuania has the highest share of the EU population aged 25 — 64 that has completed at least upper secondary education - that's 92 percent! Lithuania possesses world leading information and communication technology (ICT) resources and infrastructure, registering the world’s fastest internet download speed and the world’s second fastest internet upload speed, Europe’s No. 1 fiber to the home (FTTH) optic communication penetration, highest fiber optic density, and Europe’s densest network of public Internet access points (875) in 2011.
WIL: On 17th May 2009, Dalia Grybauskaite was elected the first female Lithuanian president. How do you think that women in political leadership positions can inspire other women as role models?
VSA: That's an excellent question! Actually, my role model is Dalia Grybauskaite. When it comes to motivating young women and men, she leads by example. She is a role model for the success of the individual who works hard, who is an outstanding professional, wise politician, intelligent manager, and a beautiful and kind woman.
Her attitudes, ambitions, achievements have a powerful and inspirational effect on women leaders everywhere, and make a compelling case for enforcing female quotas on corporate boards and in politics. As of today, 11 European countries – Belgium, France, Italy, the Netherlands, Spain, Portugal, Denmark, Finland, Greece, Austria and Slovenia – have introduced legal instruments to promote gender quality on company boards. Lithuania is on its way as well.
WIL: As a Director of the European Social Fund (ESF) at the DG for Employment, Social Affairs and Equal Opportunities of the European Commission (DG EMPL) you have been responsible for the allocation of resources to projects and policies in the field of employment and social inclusion, such as the integration of women into the labor market. Does the funding of these projects correspond to the priorities among the different EU Member States or do they also function as incentives? More importantly, how successful are they?
VSA: For over 50 years, the European Social Fund (ESF) has made important contributions to improving the situation of women in the labor market, social protection and social inclusion. In the ESF programming for 2007-2013, funding is focused on a) gender mainstreaming, which incorporates the gender dimension into all ESF priorities; and b) specific actions aimed at getting women into work and sustaining them there.
To achieve these objectives, the ESF is supporting projects in Member States: promoting women's employment - access to, and participation in, all levels of the labor market; promoting women entrepreneurs and women's participation in science and technology - in particular in decision-making positions; combating gender stereotypes in career selection and the professions and promoting lifelong learning; and, reconciling work and family life and offering support for childcare facilities and careers of dependents.
To illustrate, I'd like to mention a number of successful projects: "Helping young mums overcome barriers to learning"; "‘Initiative’ is a female noun"; "Working for family welfare"; "Nurturing families, nurturing opportunities", "Creating chances for women, changing attitudes to women" and many other good projects in 27 EU Member States.
WIL: Can you recommend any new tools or strategies to ensure the effective use of resources in international organizations and administrations?
VSA: Good leadership and management are about providing direction to, and gaining commitment from staff and stakeholders, facilitating change and achieving better services through efficient, creative and responsible deployment of people and other resources. The use of internal temporary Task Forces to identify the main challenges, collect information, conduct an in-depth analysis and recommend improvements to one or several specific areas could lead to simplifying and increasing the efficiency and effectiveness of operations.
For example, from June – October 2012, I chaired a Task Force on financial management and execution in DG EMPL. The Task Force sought an increase in the efficiency and rationalization of tasks, ranking priorities and identifying possible savings. We focused on: financial circuits; roles of financial agents; internal procedures, manuals and forms; procurement and grants procedures, processes and management; financial monitoring and reporting for centralized and joint management; analytical reporting/statistics by budget line; good COM practices. Our recommendations for changes and improvements and an estimate of resource savings, where relevant and possible, were presented to and approved by the Board and the Director General.
Since November 2012, the implementation of our recommendations have already led to an increased efficiency of procurement and contracting supported by experienced financial professionals; have ensured business continuity and presence of institutional memory; have increased motivation of staff on board; and have decreased time and money investment when recruiting and retraining newcomers.
Therefore, better leadership and management are the keys to ensure the effective use of resources and achieve measurable results in international organizations and administrations.
WIL: Among your duties as Director at DG EMPL was the overview of the process of accreditation for EU candidate and pre-accession countries. What will be the consequences of the expansion of the EU to new Member States?
VSA: The EU Enlargement Strategy provides for mutual benefits of deeper trade integration, a larger internal market, economies of scale and expanded investment and job opportunities. The two main objectives of financial Instrument for Pre-Accession Assistance (IPA) are to support the accession process and the socio-economic development of the beneficiaries. Strengthening the rule of law and democratic governance is central to the enlargement process. The key challenges for the new Member States would be putting the rule of law at the center of enlargement policy: judicial system, anti-corruption, fight against organized crime, public administration reform, fundamental rights, etc. Another main challenge is economic and social recovery.
WIL: You also hold a certification in retirement plans. With Europe facing an ageing population/demography, what will be the consequences of that development? How does the Directorate for Employment, Social Affairs and Equal Opportunities support the inclusion of older people into the labor market?
VSA: The European Union is facing unprecedented demographic changes (an ageing population, low birth rates, changing family structures and migration). In light of these challenges it is important, both at the EU and the national level, to review and adapt existing policies. On 20th February 2013, the European Commission presented a Communication on a Social Investment Package (SIP) that addresses five priorities, namely: 1) Increasing the sustainability and adequacy of budgets for social policies; 2) Pursuing activating and enabling policies and providing adequate livelihoods; 3) Intervening across the life course, starting with children and youth; 4) Innovating and reforming social policy based on evidence; and 5) Promoting a strong social investment approach within the EU funds allocation. The SIP is based on the thinking that we need to modernize the European social model so that it mobilizes a larger share of Europe's human capital and raises its productivity, while at the same time ensuring social inclusion of disadvantaged people and an adequate level of social protection.
WIL: The European targets for 2020 also include the goal to have 75% of the EU population in employment. What are the biggest challenges for reaching this goal?
VSA: The main challenge is youth unemployment in the EU. The youth unemployment rate is more than twice as high as the rate for adults (22.8 % versus 9.2 % in the third quarter of 2012) and has dramatically increased over the last four years. Certain groups of the young population (including women, young people with disabilities, and youth with migrant background) are particularly exposed to the risks of unemployment, long-term unemployment, early school leaving or inactivity. Young people are over-represented in temporary and part-time work. This can lead to segmented labor markets. In 2010 and 2011, high unemployment levels co-existed with increased difficulties in filling vacancies. However, between now and 2020, it is estimated that there will be 73 million job openings due to retirement of workers. These will need to be filled with appropriately qualified new staff, thus also creating new opportunities for young people.
Another challenge is inequality between women and men. Getting more women into the labor market helps counterbalance the effects of a shrinking working-age population, thereby reducing the strain on public finances and social protection systems, widening the human capital base and raising competitiveness. Measures to facilitate work-life balance can have a positive impact on fertility. To reach the Europe 2020 objective of a 75% employment rate for women and men, particular attention needs to be given to the labor market participation of older women, single parents, women with a disability, migrant women and women from ethnic minorities. The employment rates of these groups are still relatively low and remaining gender gaps need to be reduced in both quantitative and qualitative terms.
DG EMPL proposed a number of initiatives to address these challenges (see Communication from the Commission: Moving Youth into Employment (2012)): Youth Opportunities Initiative (YOI) - a stronger cooperation with Member States for the delivery of action tackling the very high youth unemployment rates; Youth Employment Package (YEP): Youth Guarantee; Quality Framework for Traineeships (QFT); The European Alliance for Apprenticeships - is meant to improve the supply and quality of apprenticeships across the EU as well as to promote national partnerships for dual vocational training systems, building on good practices existing in a number of Member States (e.g. AT, DE, DK); a revised European Job Mobility (EURES) portal, etc.
WIL: Which sectors are the most promising in terms of job creation? How can women's potential be effectively used in these areas?
VSA: ICT experts are an essential pillar of the modern workforce and the European economy as a whole. However, many open vacancies for ICT practitioners cannot be filled, despite the high level of unemployment in Europe. Forecasts predict that there may be between 400,000 - 800,000 open vacancies for ICT jobs by 2015 if no action is taken. While demand for ICT practitioners is growing by around 3% a year, the number of graduates from computing sciences is actually declining. The European Commission also wants more to be done across Europe to inspire young women to be interested in pursuing ICT careers, since they are currently underrepresented in the industry. Today, around 7 million people work in the information and communication (ICT) sector. However, out of the ICT workforce only 30% are women.
Employment structures in EU-27+ are changing. Technicians and associate professionals will be the most important occupational group in 2020 and will account for around 18.1% of total employment. It will also be the fastest growing, as its share of employment is likely to increase by about 1.5% between 2010 and 2020. This group covers highly-skilled occupations such as associate professionals in physical and engineering science, life science and health, teaching, finance and business sectors, as well as public administration (Kriechel, 2012).
WIL: Recent OECD data indicates that often skills learned in an academic setting do not correspond to the skills needed in the labor market. How can we bridge the gap between education and work?
VSA: EU Education Ministers met on 15th February 2013 to discuss relevant issues concerning education in the context of the 2013 Annual Growth Survey. The conclusions adopted are a response to the Commission communication "Rethinking Education" presented in November 2012 and highlighting priority areas for education and training reform with particular emphasis on improving overall skills and competence levels in order to boost employability and reduce youth unemployment.
The recent CEDEFOP demand and supply forecasts show considerable potential for skill mismatch in Europe in 2020. With rapid technological progress and lags in the education and training process, skill imbalances between sectors and in new or emerging occupations are likely to arise. At the same time, micro level skill mismatches are an inevitable consequence of the imperfect nature of the job search process in the labor market. This is likely to lead to a rapid increase in people with high-level qualifications employed in jobs traditionally requiring a lower skill level, certainly in the short term, and a sharp fall in jobs for people with low-level or no qualifications. In addition, an ageing labor force has to keep up with changing skill demands and new technology. Consequently, adult workers will need opportunities not just to retrain, but also to re-qualify for different occupations. Accordingly, policy-makers may need to ensure that improvements in qualification levels are realized and that investment in initial education, continuing training and adult education continues.
WIL Board member Claudine Schmuck is the founder and Associate Director of Global Contact, which provides management consulting services to CEOs and decision makers focusing on innovation, NTIC and change management. She is also an expert working with the European Commission.
European Network for Women in Leadership (WIL): After your Sciences Po studies in Paris, you decided to study marketing at Columbia University in New York. Did your stay in America change your business approach?
Claudine Schmuck (CS): As a matter of fact, just after Sciences Po, I joined the Ministry of Foreign Trade and Industry in France, and worked in the cabinet during 4 years. This experience convinced me of the importance of acquiring an “international” experience. I then decided to move abroad. Columbia University was a strong experience, combining intense work with teachings from some remarkable lecturer. Meeting and listening to Zbigniew Brzezinski, an impressive geostrategist and former advisor to the President of the USA, who himself is a Pole born in Warsaw, was a striking illustration of the ‘melting pot’.
I then joined McKinsey in New York, meeting personalities such as Richard N. Foster, a powerful thinker of innovation. So overall this American experience enabled me to gain insights on globalization, new technologies, innovation, and sci-tech issues. It also stimulated me to focus on efficiency and result-driven working methods.
WIL: Global Contact, the company you created in 1999, has recently launched the 2013 edition of the MutationnellesTM study, to analyze the dynamics of women's empowerment in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM). What factors will you focus on this year? What results are you expecting?
CS: I launched MutationnellesTM with the support of Orange 4 years ago, because there is a need for regular, detailed figures on gender issues. For the past 10 years DG Reseach has published the “She report” – a set of detailed data on women in research and science in European countries, but there is no equivalent data on women in high tech, and no equivalent data on women in innovation. Yet facts and figures are needed to understand the issues, and identify solutions.To give an example, it is well-known that in most European countries women are underrepresented in engineering.
Yet, what is the use of this data if it is not detailed, if we do not assess what it implies? One of the findings of our survey 4 years ago was that 40% of French young women graduating in engineering chose to specialize in such sectors as agronomy and chemistry, which generated only 15% of recruitments. The result? Young women graduate in engineering do not find jobs as quickly as men, which causes frustration and discourages younger ones from moving towards STEM.
Over the past years we have contributed to raise awareness on these issues and fostered actions to better inform young women at an earlier stage. Now we face a different challenge. The need for skilled women in high tech and innovation is growing strong, more CEOs and boards recognize that “women matter”. Yet, less and less young women choose to study STEM and work in sci-tech industries and services. In addition, these sectors are characterized by a high turnover and attrition rate of percentage of women working in those sectors. Both elements contribute to the shortage of skills. So today our challenge is to gather data that will enable us to assess and address these issues. The 2013 online survey is thus focused on benchmarking gender practices, and related levels of satisfaction and fulfillment at work.
WIL: What are currently the main barriers for women professionally engaged in STEM?
CS: The key obstacles preventing girls from choosing to study STEM and work in those sectors are stereotypes, and lack of information on working opportunities in the sci-tech field. However, it must be understood that this is only true of developed countries. In emerging and/or developing economies girls that have access to schools have a different perspective. Surveys conducted among 15-year-olds show that girls and boys from these countries have an equal interest in STEM, and are equally eager to work in these sectors.
WIL: You have been actively involved in various projects aimed at supporting women in STEM, such as a series of Women in IT conferences or the SciTechGirls program. How do you view the impact of such initiatives? What could be done to maximize it?
CS: I believe that the most efficient ways to attract and/or support women in STEM are those that open a real dialog. Actions such as the “shadowing” program launched by the European Commission, “speed meetings” between teenagers and role models, or creating connections between mentors and mentees are probably the most likely to build and secure interest of young generation. But to make it work we need a lasting commitment, and a close monitoring of results to measure to which extent the goals are reached. In my opinion the key to success is to constantly improve implementation on the basis of impact measurement.
To be more specific, I will focus on the issue of attracting girls to ICT. For the past 10 years, most of the programs have focused on metrics such as the reach, the number of girls attending an event, and their socio-demographic profile. Too few have been centered on assessing and measuring the level of motivation of young girls. What do they think about the event they have attended? Does the role model inspire them? If yes, in which way? So the net results of numerous actions that have been conducted so far have not been good.
In France, as in most developed countries today, less and less girls move into ICT. To change this and attempt to get better results we have been harnessing best practices and developed the first experiment for the Women Forum in 2009 with the SciTech girl program which connected 100 girls from various European countries with role models. The evaluation conducted with girls and role models enabled to identify “areas for improvement” and launch the Science Factor the following year. For instance, we identified the need to rely on social networks to engage teenagers more significantly. We also understood that fighting stereotypes would be more efficient if we stopped conducting actions only for girls, and try to involve boys as well. So we were the first in France to launch a program on Facebook for teenagers with the support of the Ministry of Education, and the Ministry of Research. We also focused on developing a process that would reveal and support young girls’ ability to be creative and lead projects. We launched a new type of contest. The Science Factor contest invites teams of teenagers to present a project of innovation and/or invention. But there is a pre-requisite, the team must be led by a girl. She is the one that represents the team before the jury. She is the one that media talk about. She is the new role model for other boys and girls. So far the qualitative evaluations have been positive, and our pilot has now acquired an audience of nearly 8000 fans, 80% of which are 13 to 17 years old with a high retention rate, confirming that we are on target. In my opinion, more than anything else what enables to maximize the impact of such action is to constantly benchmark other practices, constantly evaluate the impact of our actions, monitor results to create and develop the right adjustments.
WIL: From the perspective of someone with rich experience in consulting and communications, how do you regard corporate diversity programs? How can they be integrated into the business model to become sources of competitive advantage?
CS: To be precise, I have been focusing on how corporate diversity programs integrate gender issues. We have developed metrics on three factors: human resource management (for instance recruitment, mobility, high potential management), work-life balance (such as parental leaves, support to child care, flexibility) and development practices (leadership training, coaching, mentoring).
There has been a drastic change in 2012, boosted by the enactment of the July 2011 law by the French government. The 2011 regulation required that corporations sign corporate agreement on gender balance. Hence, by the end of 2012, 90% of the 40 top-rated companies in France had signed an agreement involving some measures on gender equality, reflected by their annual CRS report. The factor which has progressed most importantly last year is the development of policies regarding work-life balance. Some high tech corporations have leveraged this situation to develop comprehensive policies, and are now among the most advanced on this subject in France. This is particularly true of Orange, which excellence on this subject has been recognized and acclaimed by media. Their gender agreement is one of the few that include detailed measures on all three factors (HR, work-life balance, and development), with ambitious goals regarding the percentage of women in the executive committee (35% in 2015). It is also one of the few that specify how implementation is measured with a specific listing and definition of implementation indicators. Last but not least, the agreement also describes in detail the communication campaign aimed at informing all employees within the group.
Regarding your question about how such programs can be leveraged to become a source of competitive advantage, I think that it depends on COMEX’s determination to make it work and of course quality of implementation. From this standpoint it seems to me that to make further progress we must demonstrate more clearly the added value of gender balance to top decision makers. Then they will really make it happen.
It is true that it has been said that women matter, but it’s not enough. The demonstration of impact must be clearer. In other words, do gender balanced team make a difference? In which way do they contribute to a better performance? How do they sustain a competitive advantage? Is it by better understanding the evolution of consumers (50% of which are women)? Is it by being better at team-building and relying on trust to generate better results? Is it by challenging “hierarchical” work process to attract and retain highly skilled professionals? Is it by relying on new indicators, such as connecting customer satisfaction and retention rate with employee fulfillment? Or is it by being pragmatic and going for less ambitious, more achievable goals?
To move forward, women and men that have experienced the added value of gender-balanced teams must demonstrate it. This is actually one the reason for which we have launched the online survey this year. We want to document their achievements, their contributions to performance and innovation. Each single answer matters and I am looking forward to answers from members of Women in Leadership, so that we can indeed make the case.
Anne Houtman, Head of the European Commission Representation in Paris, speaks about the value of academic skills, different fields of expertise within the same European institution and some major challenges that today’s Europe faces in the domains of energy policies, economy and public debate.
In the course of your career you worked in the academic environment and in the private sector, to finally join the European Commission. What were the main factors that encouraged you to change your area of professional activity?
Mathematics was an easy option, it was fun, not too difficult and I loved teaching. But to go far in math, you need passion, a passion that does not allow you to think of anything else when facing a tough problem. And I’m just too eclectic for that. I love architecture, music, politics, literature, food, etc… Marketing research was a choice of curiosity. I learned a lot about business and markets but that world seemed rather limited. Europe was an emotional choice. 6 years in the US and 3 years in the private sector had made it clear I wanted to devote the rest of my career to the European public goal and I’ve never regretted that choice. Even reaching pension age will not stop me from working toward the completion of this exceptional construction.
In the European Union there is a lively debate on the value of academic skills for the labor market. You have a doctoral degree from Princeton University. How do you regard this academic experience in the wider perspective of your career? How can such qualifications help people achieve their professional goals?
Academic experience is what makes you confident that you will always be able to understand a problem if you think hard enough and to find a piece of information if you look for it hard enough. At the same time, it gave me the humility to realize that I never understand nor know it all. It gave me rigor, curiosity and a taste for intellectual risk taking. It taught me that you should always look outside of the box, that solutions often come from other fields.
Since the beginning of your cooperation with the European Commission you have worked as a Deputy Head of Cabinet of President Romano Prodi and in different directorates-general. How have you responded to the challenge of changing fields of expertise within the same institution? What has helped you succeed?
We live in a complex world where you need both "vertical" expertise and "horizontal" thinking. Changing fields of expertise is always a risk but as I said, I like it. I like to learn new things and really enjoy finding useful connections between issues, putting things into a broader perspective. The Commission's decisions are collegial and having worked in many different services helps a lot to build consensus around a proposal. It also helps me now in communicating to citizens around a theme rather than along the lines of a single DG.
You have been a part of the European Commission since 1985. How has this institution changed in the course of the years, what does this evolution look like from the perspective of a true European Commission insider?
Successive enlargements have increased diversity within the institution and changed the use of language from French to English. Just like young citizens now take Europe for granted, many new officials are less motivated by the "construction" aspect of European history than by the more pragmatic "better functioning aspects". The fall of the Santer Commission in 1999 was a turning point and reforms that followed have discouraged many as the administrative burden has drastically increased. There is also less knowledge of the "why" we do certain things.
The economic crisis in Europe has been a major challenge to the European Commission and to the whole European Union. What do you believe can strengthen the image of European institutions in the eyes of European citizens? What do you regard as the best remedies for the deficit of trust caused by the economic turmoil?
I think there is a huge deficit of information in and education by the media, European nations and local politicians. There should also be a better recognition of the mistakes and misjudgments of the past and at the same time we should not be so shy in explaining what we have built, a socio-economic model that is envied in many parts of the world.
As the Head of the EC Representation in France you are in charge of explaining European policies to citizens. Do you think there exists anything we could call a European public opinion? If yes, in what way is it different from national public opinions? Is there any French specificity in this regard that impacts your mission?
Such a European public opinion is still at an embryonic stage. The main obstacles are the absence of truly European political parties or media (Euronews is one, but its audience is extremely limited), which in turn is for a large part linked to language barriers. This being said, social partners have started to liaise at European level and mobility, mainly of young Europeans, though programs like Erasmus are positive factors though still too much limited to an elite. In France, there is a lot of ignorance on Europe and language is still too often seen as an obstacle to mobility and access to other cultures.
On October 25th, the new Energy Efficiency Directive was adopted by the European Union as a part of its updated energy policy 20/20/20. What are the most important challenges European countries need to overcome to attain EU objectives? How can the development of smart grids help achieve these goals?
Among the three 20/20/20 objectives to be reached by 2020, Europe is on track to reach the ones related to CO2 reduction and to the renewable share. We are not on track to reach the objectives of a 20% improvement of our energy efficiency. The new energy efficiency directive should help fill about 2/3rds of the gap. Energy efficiency is a strong priority as it directly contributes to the three objectives of European energy policy: developing competitive, sustainable and secure energy. Smart grids should give a tool to consumers to better monitor their consumption and to operators to manage the network in a more efficient way and improve security of supply.
Dunya Bouhacene is an independent private equity investor, Women Equity does not only generate market performance, it is also contributing to a better distribution of roles and economic power in society. To better serve this mission, in 2009 Dunya and her team launched the NGO Women Equity for Growth, which supports the development of a new kind of finance and entrepreneurial models.
What is the role of Women Equity?
Women Equity provides support to portfolio companies which are either women-led or have a gender balanced management. We are convinced that economic performance combined with social responsibility creates sustainable value for all stakeholders. To increase the visibility of these companies, our work is supported by the Women Equity for Growth not-for-profit platform, which facilitates the work of researchers in this domain, spreads know-how and nourishes a networking platform for women entrepreneurs.
What are the main outcomes of the work carried out by Women Equity for Growth?
Thanks to the Women Equity Scientific Council, an advisory board made up of 10 leading researchers from the USA, UK, France, Denmark, Italy and Finland, we succeeded in designing the Women-Equity Index, among others. This index is a database which gathers financial data over series of three years, on 40K SMES with revenues ranging from €4mil to €100mil, and having between 20 and 250 employees. Thanks to it, we can measure what we call the ‘over-performance’ of women-led growth companies in France. Given that these companies are much less visible among traditional business networks, it is quite impressive that they can still manage to generate more revenues.
The platform plays two other important roles: communication and networking. The work carried is disseminated through a dedicated portal and through a variety of other types of initiatives set out with media partners or other networks.
Furthermore, an Advisory Committee comprising directors and well-known executives of large groups from various sectors serves as a valuable resource for the investment team during its due diligence phase and enables the sharing of contacts, expertise and experience among the management teams of our portfolio companies.
What differences can you see between women-led and men-led businesses?
Differences can be seen in terms of results, which can be better than those of traditional businesses, but also in terms of access to finance, for which women-led businesses may need some extra help.
First, Library House – Dow Jones shows that, out of 600 Private Equity backed European companies, those led by women demonstrated higher capital efficiency, requiring 35% less capital to generate 12% more revenues.
Our own research on 40,000 French SMEs with revenues above €4mil has shown that the 5,000 women-led companies (Chairpersons and CEOs) were more resilient during the crisis. A majority of them even maintained growth. Moreover, their revenues and their profitability declined less than their sector competitors.
Second, access to private equity financing is very limited for these companies. As an illustration, the proportion of private equity backed women-led companies is significantly inferior to the proportion of women-led companies in the economy: they represented less than 4% of small and mid-market transactions in the past ten years.
As such, women SMEs private equity gap occurs not because of their attractiveness, but because obstacles still remain in many Western countries, including France. Women-led growth companies are less visible, their leaders are less integrated in traditional business networks, and the prevailing socio-economic models work less in their favour.
What solutions do you see to increase investments in these high-growth businesses?
There are a number of actions to support these businesses which can be set in motion at different levels.
As a tier 1 stakeholder, Women Equity works on two directions. First, we aim at raising awareness among investors re the high performance of enterprises with a higher gender mix. Second, our concerns include developing women’s understanding of and familiarity with private equity.
At general public level, it is key to promote success stories to all types of audiences. Each year we cooperate for instance with the French financial newspaper La Tribune for the Women’s Awards with the objective of identifying, selecting, and promoting exceptional female CEOs and executives. Finalists benefit from strong media coverage.
The public authorities could also jump in by adopting incentives to encourage the development of socially responsible investment (SRI) funds. Inserting SRI criteria in the asset allocations of public institutions, and notably gender balance assessments, would accelerate the emergence of these new business models. This should be a key concern for governments, particularly in the current economic and financial context.
Can you share an example of a women-led company that succeeded through Women Equity?
In October 2011, Women Equity Partners announced the closing of the Management Buy-Out of Lefebvre Software in partnership with CIC LBO. Viviane Chaine-Ribeiro took over the management of the company at a crisis time. She succeeded in growing revenues, which stood at €16m in 2007, to more than €40m in 2011 and in transforming the company into one of the leading enterprise software providers on the French mid-market. The fruitful partnership between the CEO and shareholders enabled the company to grow faster, with a series of acquisitions being considered, the latest occurring a few months ago. Thanks to the visibility gained through the Women Equity Program, Lefebvre Software is a growing company led by a woman with very high ambitions for 2017.
© European Network for Women in Leadership 2018