Interviewed by Hanna MULLER & Nadège SERRERO
Meet our Talent, Andreea Ionescu, Technical Lead at Orange Services Romania. In this interview, Andreea talks about being a women in a male-dominated industry, the evolution of the IT sector in the last ten years, and she shares with us the powerful advice that her father once gave her.
You are an experienced iOS Developer with a PhD focused on Image Processing. Can you give us some background information on your role as Technical Lead at Orange Services and what set you off on your current career path?
My main role is to ensure the success of my team and our projects. As a technical leader at Orange Services Romania, I develop mobile applications and undertake administrative activities and projects for our mobile team. In the Orange Labs department, we are working on activities around our OKRs (Objectives and Key Results). I am responsible for setting the objectives and key results for each employee in my team. On the software side, my team and I are working on the “My Orange” Romanian application to create a better experience for our customers. We always take into account our customers’ feedback and develop products accordingly.
As well as this, I spend part of my working time on innovation activities in my capacity as Innovation Manager for our Orange Labs Romania department. At Orange innovation activities are strongly supported, for instance we organise internal challenges to motivate our employees, because we believe that everyone can have great ideas. I really enjoy this part of my job because I can pursue my great passion: image processing.
To your question about what set me off on this current path, I believe that it’s related to the fact that I spent many hours working in the IOS environment. I have been an IOS developer since 2011 and since then I haven’t wanted to do anything else. I feel privileged to be able to contribute in the development of key applications used by hundreds of thousands of iOS users. With every application, I believe that I am helping people to access what they need directly from their mobile phones, in the best way possible.
If I had to describe myself in a nutshell, I would say that I'm a people's person; that I ensure that my ideas are heard loud and clear; and that I do everything I can for my team and our projects.
At Orange innovation activities are
strongly supported, for instance we
organise internal challenges to motivate
our employees, because we believe
that everyone can have great ideas.
Drawing on your experience in the IT industry, what would you say is the greatest transformation in technology seen in the last ten years and where do you think the digital revolution will take us next?
In the last 10 years, companies have started to invest more in research and innovation activities. Artificial Neural Networks were first invented in the 1980s, but Artificial Intelligence (AI) only became famous in 2012 because of the appearance of deep learning.
Before 2012, the main issue with these algorithms was the lack of big datasets and computational resources. The first deep learning applications based on big data sets were developed for speech (sound) in 2010 and then images, in 2012. The big image dataset used in 2012 was ImageNet, a well-known dataset containing over 14 million images. As big datasets become widely available, AI become better and better at finding more domains of application.
In the mobile area, the last ten years has seen mobile devices become more and more powerful in terms of computing and hardware functionalities. Nowadays, the development process is easier and faster than it was 10 years ago. I remember developing my first mobile application using Augmented Reality back in 2011 when the framework was not as permissive as it is today. I had to write many lines of code to do what I can do today using a framework and just a few instructions. Things have become much simpler.
In my opinion, the digital revolution will take us towards a more virtual connection between customers, products and services using Virtual Reality and Augmented Reality. I'm sure we will see it increasingly, as a result of the pandemic, in the marketing industry and it will become better in mobile gaming applications. This will happen because of the 5G connectivity that has started to cover metropolitan areas. In my city, for example, Orange already offers 5G connectivity to clients: you just need a compatible mobile device to benefit from an amazing speed connectivity.
In addition, people will start to receive better services according to their preferences and history. Machine Learning is already present in some applications that we are using daily, even if we don’t always notice it. For example, the search engine from Google and all those chatbots we are talking to instead of human agents.
AI algorithms are becoming a must-have to survive in the competitive marketplace we have today. Not just for advertising but also to create customised offers according to people’s needs. It sounds scary to know that a computer can predict your next move, but it shouldn’t, because everything is made for you to have the best experience possible on the internet.
I do believe in a strong collaboration between IT and Psychology!
In my opinion, the digital revolution will take
us towards a more virtual connection between customers,
products and services using Virtual Reality and Augmented Reality.
Despite the world’s first computer programmer being a woman, Ada Lovelace, according to the European Commission, women represent only 34% of STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) graduates worldwide. What do you think are the major barriers for women to pursue a career in one of these fields and what do you think we should be doing to encourage more young girls to consider a career in the software industry specifically?
In my view, women are better at multitasking than men. But in the IT field you must concentrate all your attention on a single task: the code you are writing. I would compare this field to a continuous chess game in which you must constantly think about your next move in order to build a successful strategy.
I think women have been performing as well, if not better, than men throughout history. The problem is that women don't have enough time to invest in this field. You need to be available more than eight hours per day in order to continuously learn new frameworks, since things change very fast in the IT field. The major barrier for women is having more tasks to do in their personal lives, like looking after the house, raising kids and taking care of other people. If we want to have more women in the IT field, we must support them to dedicate more time to their education, and to create interactive workshops to show them that developing software is not as difficult as it might seem.
Nowadays, you can create basic webpages using apps and drag and drop functionalities, and a website may be completed in a couple of hours. There is a great deal of focus on theory at university. In order to attract anyone (men or women) into the IT domain, we have to start by showing students that it can be easy and fun. We must teach them to develop easy applications with many visual elements and then go deeper in algorithms and data structures. Nobody uses heavy algorithms in their daily tasks: only researchers or those working on Machine Learning tasks.
I would compare this field to a continuouschess game in which you must constantly
think about your next move in order
to build a successful strategy.
What challenges have you yourself faced within in male-dominated spaces and what advice would you give to women looking to break into the field of computer technology?
It was very hard for me to find my first job as a software developer. Ten years ago, it wasn't very popular to find internships and jobs in tech companies, and they were searching for experienced developers, which was impossible for me because, at university, I attended all my classes and didn’t have time to gain experience on the side.
My advice for girls is to invest their time in education: go to workshops, go to private IT classes if you feel your teacher is not explaining things well enough, go to university and, if you can, do a PhD. During a PhD, you have the opportunity to do what you love and meet other people who are passionate about the same topic.
The only way you can pass the technical interviews in IT companies is to be prepared technically as well. I'm 100% convinced that if your interview test is perfect, you won't have any issues simply because you are a woman. Nowadays, tech companies have really evolved and are simply looking for the best skills. Being a woman or a man isn’t relevant for them.
My father used to tell me: “Out there are hundreds of beautiful women; why not try to be one of the smartest too.” I was lucky to have him as a role model and I tried to make him proud. So, girls, find what motivates you, prove to yourself you are better than yesterday, and never stop learning!
So, girls, find what motivates you, prove to yourself you are better than yesterday,
and never stop learning!
You are part of our Women Talent Pool Programme this year. In a few words, can you tell us why you wanted to participate and what you expect from it?
This initiative is a great opportunity for me to develop myself and my leadership skills. I'm interested in following the trainings organised by WIL and to participate in the networking events. I know that women from top positions get invited to WTP events, and their experience and advice for me are priceless. I find them very inspiring. I want to learn from the best!
On the WTP Programme are other talented women from different domains and I'm curious to learn how they managed and progressed in their careers. There is a real challenge in figuring out how to succeed when you’re competing with those with similar skills and capabilities.
We always conclude our interviews with a question from the Proust questionnaire: What do you consider your greatest achievement?
My greatest achievement is that I'm an independent woman in every aspect. I'm working in a dynamic environment, which is very desirable and, despite what people say, I'm pretty sure that software developers won’t be replaced by "robots" anytime soon! I am living a happy life and I think that that is what people should be seeking.
Interviewed by Hajar EL BARAKA & Nadège SERRERO
Meet our Talent, Martina Kavanova, Marketing manager at Lenovo Czech. In this interview, Martina shares her passion for managing teams, the positive impact for her of an international personal and professional life, and why she wishes she had learnt German!
Prior to embarking on a career in marketing, you obtained a bachelor’s degree in psychology with a business certificate and a master’s degree in work and organisational psychology. What inspired you to study Psychology, and how has it been useful in your current role as Marketing Manager at Lenovo Czech?
People have often come to me asking for my advice. So, I concluded that psychology might be a good area for me. I chose a Psychology major during my bachelor’s studies because I wanted to understand how people think and how can I help them out. Later on, I realised that, although it is interesting, this was not the path for me and so I chose marketing instead. However, I use psychology every day. It is a great tool to understand people, to assist them and it also gives you a new perspective on how people might think or react in different situations and to different topics. I use it when I manage, when I talk to my peers, and when I interact with my bosses. You can use psychology to help you go in the direction you want to and to shape your perspective.
“I use psychology every day. It is a great tool to understand
people, to assist them and it also gives you
a new perspective on how people might think
or react in different situations and to different topics”
You worked briefly in HR before taking up your first marketing role. What motivated you to make this career change?
The first time I worked in HR was during my bachelor’s studies in Psychology. I thought it would be interesting to see how business and psychology fit together. While I was working as an HR professional, I decided that this area was not creative enough for me, even though I really love working with, helping and managing people. Marketing is much wider and more varied and allows me to be creative; at the same time, I still get to use the HR part as a manager. It is the perfect work combination.
A recent webinar by Deloitte explored how the current health crisis is changing consumer behavior and marketing approaches and highlighted the importance of marketing technologies in this context. In your opinion, what are the benefits of digital marketing technologies, and how do they impact your work?
I believe you have to look at it from two perspectives. The first is the professional perspective, which is marketing based; the second one is personal, which is management based.
When it comes to the professional perspective, these days everything has changed. We have moved from meeting each other face-to-face to online conversations and events; we are now targeting our customers online only, which is much better because you can learn more them and track their interests. On the other hand, you have to be more sensitive about what people are saying and how they are saying it because you cannot interact directly with them. You have to be much more observant. This is why I tend to prefer to make sure people’s cameras are turned on as I want to see their expressions and how they are reacting, something which you cannot tell just from their voice.
This way of living and interacting is becoming the “new normal”, but I don’t wish for it to continue forever. I believe the right way is to have a mix: some part-time working from home, and some part-time working from the office to give people the chance to interact.
Coming back to the personal perspective, online interaction and working makes our lives easier because we don’t have to travel as much. Therefore, although I would say that “new normal” shouldn’t be forever, there is a need to accommodate new ways of doing things.
What I miss the most in the way we worked before is definitely the face-to-face interaction. Having calls is not the same. I really miss the team I work with because my management approach is to have a personal connection with them and that’s much better-established face to face.
Currently, I am bringing two new employees to my team and I wonder how I can do it most effectively. It is not an easy task, since you need to give them the same attention as you would in normal times!
“This way of living and interacting is becoming the “new normal”, but I don’t wish for it to continue forever. I believe the right way is to have a mix: some part-time working from home, and some part-time working from the office to give people the chance to interact.”
You have experience not only working in international environments but also studying in both the Czech Republic and Germany. What have you gained from working and studying in different locations around the world and what has been the biggest challenge?
My family and I moved around a lot. In the beginning, I had a limited English vocabulary. Then we moved to Germany because my mother was offered a job there. It was difficult at first and people did not really understand me! Later, however, because I used English so much during my high school studies, I decided to pursue a bachelor’s degree at an American University in Prague. Afterwards, I moved to the Netherlands for a master’s degree in work and organisational psychology. This experience taught me a great deal. For starters, it taught me to be self-sufficient because I had no one else to reach out to. I am also still in touch with many of the people I met even 15 years ago. We have a group with people from the master’s degree in Maastricht where we discuss work-related issues. If someone needs help, wherever they are, we are there for them. That’s something I learned from having an international experience and mindset: if you ask different people who have different opinions for their advice, this gives you a new perspective.
As for work, I started in a Korean company which was a shock for me because I was used to the American style of management. Koreans are quite strict and have a completely different cultural background and they expected me to abide by the same rules even though I was based at the time in the Czech Republic. Then, I started working at Lenovo, which is a Chinese company originally, even though I am part of the EMEA team. So, I switched from a typical Czech background to a typical American culture, to a Korean company and now I am in a team with people from across Europe, the Middle East and Africa. My current situation is the best for me because I already have enough experience to manage it well.
You are taking part in the 6th edition of WIL’s Women Talent Pool Programme. How do you think such programmes can encourage more women to take on leadership roles in Europe and what do you expect to learn from being in this year’s WTP?
I think the WTP programme is going to encourage me and the other participants not to be afraid; show us that it is ok to think a certain way. Just because your opinion is not shared by everyone, you can speak up. As was mentioned a few times at the programme kick off, without engagement, it is difficult to learn - information goes in and goes out. It is so important not to skip over things when we’re trying to develop ourselves, but to go deeper into certain topics. I hope I will learn a great deal within this programme. My goal is to be more comfortable in a man’s world because at Lenovo, the management team is composed of more men. Moreover, I am the youngest there. I want to be perceived on the same level as them. I do not think that I am any less competent, but I need to make them realise that as well.
“I think the WTP programme is going
to encourage me and the other participants
not to be afraid; show us that it is
ok to think a certain way. Just because your opinion
is not shared by everyone, you can speak up.”
We always end the interview with a question from the Proust Questionnaire: If there is one thing you could say to your younger self, what would it be?
Study German! I moved to Germany when I was 16 years old and went to an American school there. I didn’t need to learn German, though, even though we stayed there for three years, it would have been the perfect chance to learn it. I think learning German would have been great and it was a missed opportunity for my development. It would have been easier to learn while living there. I would have used it when I travel, work and talk to my friends in German.
I would like to add something regarding to my management role. I used to be in the student body, and I learned how to manage people there. Then I moved forward in my work life and at Lenovo, after a year working there, they gave me the possibility to become a manager. I really appreciated it because that has always been a dream of mine to lead a team. I think I am good at it: I am empathetic, I listen to people and enjoy helping them. I am still young, and, since I have no prior management training, this is an opportunity to learn on the go. I think every company should take a leap of faith. So far, I have had only positive reviews from my team and I definitely want to thank my Lenovo general manager for CZSK, who gave me this opportunity.
Interviewed by Maria Luiza MENEZES DE OLIVEIRA
Meet our Talent, Paola Brucker-Dhont, Government Relations and Policy Director France at VMware. In this interview, Paola talks about how she has found the transition to the private sector, her admiration for Christine Lagarde, and she shares with us her advice on how to choose a meaningful career path.
You recently joined VMWare as Government Relations and Policy Director France, after spending five years at Alstom, where you were Public Affairs Director France and Export. What does your role entail, and what skills are required for you to be successful in your job?
That is quite an easy question to answer, even though it is always quite difficult to explain government relations and public affairs. It’s a fairly rare job, and it's not the sort of thing you think about going into as soon as you leave school. Public affairs consist of reaching out to public stakeholders or policymakers and creating a channel for your company to connect with them as well as reaching out and explaining to them what you're doing. It's about raising brand awareness, of course, but it's also about having an impact on the policy landscape. When a government is thinking about building a future metro network or the impact of the move to cloud for the public administration, you need to talk to experts and companies who sell solutions, be it trains or cloud technology, or infrastructure, are experts. I strongly believe in discussing and talking to bring to decision-makers the points they need to be aware of. What's the landscape? What are the stakes? What are the challenges?
In this sense, the area of public affairs is about teaching, it's about diplomacy, and it's about not being afraid of reaching out to other people who might sometimes be in quite high places. You need to be confident in reaching out and building a channel. You need the confidence to keep it open, to maintain it and to build a long-term relationship of trust. So, that's it! There's a bit of strategy, a bit of tactic, and a need to be able to take current affairs into account. What are the trends? What is the political situation? What is the impact of the geopolitical situation? When dealing with large companies, often it's not just the local policy that's important but also geopolitics. It's interesting, it's really an amazing job, but it's something I would never have imagined doing when I came out of school.
When dealing with large companies,
often it's not just the local policy that's important,
but also geopolitics.
Prior to entering the business world, you spent several years working in the French Ministry of Economy and the Foreign Trade department specialised in trade policy and exports. How have you found the transition from the public to private sector?
It wasn't actually as difficult as one might imagine. I moved to a big company: a traditional, long-standing and very well-known one here in France. It sometimes felt like being in the administration again. There was so much red-tape, hierarchy, structure, and processes to be validated, that I felt like it wasn't so different. I think French and global companies should keep in mind that they should not lose their agility and flexibility by becoming too heavy-handed bureaucratically.
However, it also felt quite liberating because the work in a company feels more purposeful. Sometimes you win a deal, sometimes you lose a deal. Everyone has to pull their weight. Everyone in the team needs to contribute. When you win, you celebrate together and build team spirit. When you lose, well, you're sad together too, and you need to pick yourself up again and get motivated again with the team. It's challenging to be result-oriented, but it's also stimulating because often it goes hand in hand with recognition. A job well done will be celebrated, a victory won will be fought for the whole team, and it will be shared. In the administration, there is a great deal of effort made by intelligent people spending lots of hours trying to come up with solutions that will improve citizens' lives. Often, they work very late, and the meeting that they had been working so hard for gets cancelled for some political reason, and all the hard work goes to waste. A negotiation that didn't come to fruition, well, the next day, you start on something else… The point is that there's no result, and there's no business that will drown or be closed down if you don't meet the target. It's frustrating because there are many smart people there. Yet there's not enough recognition: of the effort and of the good work being done. Because, done well or not done well, it doesn't change anything: tomorrow you just have another task to do, and that's a pity.
The work in a company feels more purposeful.
Sometimes you win a deal, sometimes you lose a deal.
Everyone has to pull their weight. Everyone in the
team needs to contribute. When you win, you celebrate
together and build team spirit.
Both companies for which you have worked specialise in male-dominated fields: VMWare is a virtualisation and cloud computing software provider and Alstom is a leader in the transportation sector. What, in your view, can be done to encourage more women into the fields of technology and transportation?
This is a good question because, in both companies, I have seen that it is not only about women not being present enough in the company. It is also about these companies not being able to recruit enough women. And that's not because they aren’t attractive: it's because there are not enough women in this field of the market. We should start by getting rid of stereotypical thinking when we finish school. And that is not something dictated by men or women: it's really a question of society and culture. When we think about what we want to do next in our lives, we often question our strengths. If our strength is biology, we think, "Maybe I should do something in the field of medicine". If we're good with children, we think "Maybe I should become a teacher". So, we start with something we think we're good at. However, first of all, we do not know all the jobs that are out there. There are so many jobs that we don't even suspect exist. Second, we don't usually consider where we'd like to go with these jobs. It's not just about making money. For example, when you bring a train to a country where there hasn't ever been a train or people have commuting times of 2-3 hours, renovating the railways improves people's lives. People do not take 2-3 hours to commute anymore. People can get out of their faraway villages and connect to big cities. It's about creating an environment where you can choose to take the train over your car because you have access to comfortable train rides. So, instead, you should ask yourself: Where do I want to make a change? What are my fields of interest? I would like to see the world changing for the better, and that’s what technology is all about. It's not about "Should I be studying engineering or coding?" or "Am I good at maths?". Artificial intelligence can help detect cancers before any doctor can because it's been trained to recognise cancers where the naked eye can't. It's about a genuine interest in a particular field where you think you can make a change. Then, you can think about how to get there and choose your studies accordingly. Maybe we should change our way of thinking and encourage students, be it boys or girls, to change their way of thinking when asked to choose what they want to do next.
Maybe we should change our way of thinking
and encourage students, be it boys or girls,
to change their way of thinking when asked to
choose what they want to do next.
You have studied in both France and Germany and speak three languages fluently. How has multilingualism and an international education have added value in your career?
That’s not such an easy one to answer. By now, it feels very natural to me to be multilingual, so I don't even think about it anymore. However, it's a real benefit; it's opening yourself to something broader. Learning languages means opening your mind to the culture that goes with it, because you can't learn a language fluently when you're just studying in your home country. You want to learn when you are in a foreign country and want to order the dish that the person next to you is eating. Being able to do that is just delightful, and of course, the work aspect comes in too. VMWare is an American company. Every day, I work with colleagues from all over the world, which was the same as in Alstom. People are so pleased when you can communicate efficiently with them in their language. Multilingualism and having an international outset also means having the capacity to adapt to your partner. It's not just about speaking their language but also about connecting with them and being culturally sensitive. That is what languages are about. It is not just about academic achievement.
You are one of 49 talents participating in the 6th edition of WIL's Women Talent Pool leadership programme this year. In a few words could you tell us why you wanted to join the WTP6 and what do you hope to gain from this experience?
I really wanted to join because I became interested in Women in Leadership in 2015 when they did a presentation at the French Treasury. They talked about the idea that, generally, women need to do more to achieve and have to sacrifice more than men to get to the same place. When they talked about feeling like an imposter and not feeling good enough compared to our male colleagues, it resonated with me a lot. I really wanted to join a place where we could talk about these things, and people could help each other by sharing their experiences. WIL seemed like a place where women could connect and reassure each other that we've all felt the same way at some point. A network where women are recognised and encouraged to be strong, without copying their male counterparts, is really inspiring to me.
WIL seemed like a place where women
could connect and reassure each other
that we've all felt the same way at some point.
We usually end our interviews with a question from the Proust questionnaire. Your chosen question is: Which living person do you most admire and why?
I really admire Christine Lagarde, who is currently the President of the European Central Bank and was Managing Director of the International Monetary Fund. Christine was also the Minister of Finance in France when I was working in the Ministry. I had the privilege to travel with her on an economic delegation trip to Indonesia and Singapore. I was very impressed by this cool-headed woman who had such a stark impact on her female counterparts in Indonesia and Singapore. I found it very inspiring that she was able to talk in such a confident and competent way about topics of such high importance, including that of economic diplomacy. I believe that if there were more women like her, it could make a real difference. It would encourage other governments to have female members and female leaders working at the international level. Having people like her, people who are strong and competent, is so important. Being competent and having integrity is a challenge for some. In Singapore I saw Christine Lagarde shaking hands with the piano player in the lobby. Her feet are really firmly on the ground and I found that really admirable. I wish we had more leaders like Christine Lagarde.
Interviewed by Hanna Müller
Time to be bossy, girls: As part of our Women Talent Pool programme, Elizabeth Villa Covarrubias, Global Learning & Talent Development Manager at Rexel, discusses her career path in digital learning and shares her advice on how women can achieve success in male-dominated workplaces.
You have been working for Rexel for the last six years, including three in your current position as Global Learning & Talent Development Manager. Can you describe us your role at Rexel, and explain how you got to where you are today in your professional career?
Being born and raised in Mexico City, I had the opportunity to study abroad in the US where I developed a keen interest in international affairs and foreign cultures. Upon my return, I began working as an organisational psychologist in Training and Development at Yves Rocher where I was responsible for about 400 employees. At that moment I fell in love with French culture and started to study the language. For me, French society embodies female empowerment and freedom of speech. That is why I decided to complete my Master’s degree here in France. I finally stayed. That was eight years ago.
After working in digital learning at L’Oréal, I joined Rexel, an international supplier of electrical parts and services. My current role as Global Learning and Talent Development Manager includes connecting our Learning Managers around the world, implementing the Learning Management Systems at global and local levels, and developing our leadership programme.
During your career you have had several roles related to digital learning. How would you define “digital transformation” and what does it really mean for today’s business leaders?
Digital transformation is an experience; I keep in contact with my friends online, I celebrate birthdays with my family online, and I do my shopping online. In this way digital transformation is not about technology, but an opportunity to be more human in our personal and professional lives.
For the last six years I have been working in a complete virtual way. I start my day at 8 AM connecting with teams based in Australia and in the evening, I have calls with collaborators from the US or Canada. Digital transformation connects us, brings us together, and helps us to be more human.
Digital transformation is not about technology,
but an opportunity to be more human in
our personal and professional lives.
COVID-19 seems to have suddenly pushed digital transformation much further ahead. How are companies like Rexel coping with this?
What is certain is that the future of digital learning must be human-centred and it is directly related to employee development. Thankfully, at Rexel we did not start our digital transformation journey last year but about five years ago when we started to implement our global digital learning strategy. When the COVID-10 crisis started, our collaborators were already prepared. Today, digitalisation has become a way of life at Rexel. The current pandemic has just confirmed our way of working for the last few years. We had the opportunity develop our digital skills early enough.
What is certain is that the future
of digital learning must be human-centred
and it is directly related to employee development.
Considering your experience in Talent Management, what in your view are some strategies that can help women achieve the success they want in their workplaces, especially in male-dominated roles or industries? And what has helped you build confidence?
Building confidence is a life-long process. I have been doing a great deal of introspection, questioning myself about my personality, my self-concept, and the role I have as a woman in our society. Here is some advice I would like to share with other women:
For me it is not only a pleasure being selected for the Women Talent Pool Programme, but it also is a responsibility. I expect to develop my personal leadership skills and build a network of women who support each other. I would love to share my own experiences and try to be an inspiration for other women of younger generations.
We always conclude our interviews with a question from the Proust questionnaire: Who are your heroes in real life?
I am glad to have a lot of people around me who inspire me every day. The first hero is my Dad who is an incredibly intelligent man. He has been working on digitalisation for almost 40 years. My second hero is my Mom because of her empathy and kindness. And the third hero I choose is my brother, who taught me how to communicate and to build strong relationships with others. Then, there is my partner: his professional values push and empower me hugely as a woman. And my last hero is my female network: my friends, my former managers, and my colleagues who are there to support me every day.
Interviewed by Alison Oates
Meet our Talent Natalia Melniciuc, an IT Mediation Manager for Orange Moldova, and a member of the WIL Talent Programme 5th Edition. In this interview, we discuss how inclusivity in the IT sector has improved in recent years, as well as the impact that being part of different women-led professional communities has had on her perspectives.
You are currently an IT Mediation Manager at Orange. What does your job entail and what do you enjoy most about it?
In my current role I lead a team of IT experts, providing IT services in implementation Telco Mediation solutions for our international clients in Belgium, Luxembourg and Moldova. I am responsible for ensuring productive collaboration between the clients and the teams, as well as organising internal delivery processes and driving continuous improvement activities.
I am always on the lookout for new projects that can take my team to another level. This is what I enjoy most about my job: driving growth, taking on new responsibilities and developing new skills and team maturity. As a leader, I am always focused on both processes and people. I really love when team members proactively bring new ideas, and I always ensure that we have a safe environment for people to give and receive feedback. Trust, openness, and mutual respect are key to the success of our team. This helped us to transform in a strong Competence Centre of Mediation domain during the last years.
“As a leader, I am always focused
on processes and people”
Prior to this experience you studied for a PhD analysing the economic impact of the IT sector in Moldova. How has this study helped you in your different roles?
Studying a PhD, for me, required maximum levels of self-discipline and concentration because I was working full-time alongside my degree. I spent long hours researching and investigating, which helped boost the analytical skills I still use today.
Throughout my PhD, I was analyzing the relationship between different sectors and trying to understand the impact of IT over Economics. I used this knowledge in my subsequent job roles, where I had to reveal non-obvious dependencies between different disciplines and create bigger picture over the topic. For me, my PhD was a marathon. It taught me to be patient and consistent, and I consider it to be one of my biggest personal achievements.
The IT sector remains a very male-dominated field today. What have been your experiences as a woman working in this sector and what can be done to make the IT sector more inclusive to women?
I have dedicated my entire professional career, more than 15 years, to the IT sector; thus I have seen considerable progress being made for women in this field. When I started in the sector, IT was not promoted to women, and as a result women rarely chose this area for their careers. I can think of a very clear example of discriminatory attitudes towards women in my own personal experience: one of my male teachers once began his lesson saying, “Today I will solve problems with the boys, and the girls can do anything else they want, but quietly!”
Years later, at the 2018 Summit for Women in Technology, the Head of IT solutions for Siemens (Germany) gave her inspirational speech with a story similar to mine. I was blown away, and for the first I realised that this story did not have a geographical component but instead represented a global, deep-rooted issue in our society.
Today, more and more women are choosing IT and we are fortunate to have many different events, conferences and webinars, aimed at promoting inclusion and diversity in the IT sector. However, men still need to work harder by promoting and accepting women in senior positions. It is time for them to accept, support and promote women. The idea of diversity and talents despite the gender in our society is actual than ever before.
“It is time for society to accept,
support, and promote women.”
2020 has been a year of unprecedented turmoil and change. How can the IT sector better meet our needs both during and after the COVID-19 pandemic?
The pandemic has launched a new era for IT. The speed of the economy already required fast IT development; however, COVID-19 has accelerated this need even more. The IT sector has to be dynamic since it is a partner for many other economic sectors. For example, IT provides online tools and digital services which enable the economy to adapt to our new reality. Everything we are seeing at the moment – with recent developments such as working from home, online entertainment services, online health, and education activities - requires integration between IT and other sectors..
These changes have placed a great deal of pressure on IT companies. This is not only because of the demand COVID-19 has brought, but also because there are increasing questions regarding security, privacy, and agility.
I feel that IT should reinvent itself quickly. This reinvention applies not only to technologies, but also to the people who work and develop IT. People have to be ready to adapt to the changes we have seen in 2020, and be more open and agile.
“People have to be ready to adapt
to the changes we’ve seen in 2020,
and be more open and agile.”
You are a strong advocate for personal and professional development and have taken part in different management and talent programmes, including WIL Talent Pool Programme 5th Edition. What attracts you to such programmes and what have you learned from being in WIL’s WTP?
What I love most about these programmes, other than gaining knowledge, is that you meet people you would never usually meet in your day-to-day life. These people often have a similar energy and a hunger to grow, and I have found that networking in this way often has a long-lasting impact, which for me is a great achievement. WTP, in particular, is a great community of women who are willing to share their experiences without competition (as is often the case with male-dominated spaces); it is an opportunity to expand your perspective and way of thinking.
As well as your extensive work in IT Mediation Management, you seem to enjoy working in international environments. What have you gained from working with different nationalities and what has been the biggest challenge?
Working with different nationalities is about tolerance and the ability to accept different views. When we work with people of different backgrounds, we all bring diverse approaches. This is both a great advantage, and a substantial challenge. However, working in these environments in incredibly beneficial; it encourages continuous self-development, always retaining a “beginner’s mind”, the ability to listen, to accept and strong communication skills.
We usually finish our interview with a question from the Proust questionnaire. What do you consider your greatest achievement?
My greatest achievement would have to be gaining understanding of key life principles, which for me are the following:
Happiness is a process and not a result. Focus on the process and doing what makes you happy and the result will come.
There are times for action and times for patience, and you should be grateful for both.
Human relationships are always the most important aspect.
“Happiness is a process and not a result…
There are times for action and times for patience.”
Interview by Aurélie Doré
For this month’s interview, we had the pleasure to meet WTP Participant Marion Serpantié, Head of Strategy and Supplier relationships at Orange France Network and Services Operations. Shortly after this interview, Marion returned from her maternity leave and undertook a new role at Orange as Deputy of Field Operations, “Paris- Ile de France”, in charge of Performance. We discussed gender equality in the scientific world, as well as 5G deployment and its risks. Learn More about Marion in this interview.
Can you describe your role as Head of Strategy and Supplier relationships at Orange France Network and Services Operations?
I joined Orange 12 years ago as network engineer on the IPTV domain, and I never left! I have been Head of Strategy and Supplier relationships for three years now. There are two key parts to this role. The first part focuses on anticipation and strategy; I define what the Networks Operations at Orange France in 2025 will be, and then I strategise how our actions can lead to social, economic, and operational performance. To define my role more precisely, at Orange France Network and Services Operations we oversee all of the maintenance of the equipment which delivers services to our mass Market and Pros customers. We must guarantee a high quality of service for our customers, but also make sure our teams have the tools and skills required to operate the networks, and finally we must also guarantee that our profitability is sustainable.
The second part of my role surrounds supplier relationships. My team oversees all the suppliers (Network, Services, and subcontractors) to make sure they respect their engagements in terms of operational and economical objectives, all whilst reaching a sustainable working relationship.
Wireless carriers around the world are beginning to deploy 5G. Indeed, in France, auctions have just started. This technology is the subject of much controversy, as many are afraid of the environmental and health effects of it. What is your position on this matter?
As I am on maternity leave for now, I can give my personal position on this topic. However, my personal position is actually quite aligned with Orange’s position, and specifically that of Stéphane Richard - Orange’s CEO.
Firstly, we need to be well-balanced. Being late on the deployment would penalise France, specifically for its role in business. 5G will enable new applications such as ‘Internet of Things’ (IoT) or extremely low latency, therefore being a lever for competitiveness.
On the other hand, not considering civil society's expectations could be a trap. The “stop and go” strategy on these topics is quite difficult to manage, therefore if we need a debate, it needs to be based on scientific data and not on fake news, as this has the potential to be deeply destructive. Confidence in 5G has been shaken by misinformation preying on the fears of the public. This misinformation has been spread via the internet and has been presented as facts. We cannot force French people to accept something they do not want, but 5G is more an opportunity than a risk for the environment.
What challenges did you encounter during your career in terms of gender inequalities and lack of diversity and how did you overcome them?
Gender inequalities and lack of diversity start way sooner that you would think. Even from as early as my high school studies, there were only 20% women versus 80% men in my courses in science. Choosing to study science is still unusual for a girl. I remember my Physics teacher explaining me that there is a good reason why “ingenieur” is a masculine noun in French, therefore suggesting that as a woman I had no seat at the ‘engineer’ table. Countering this inequality starts with educational choices, but gender biases are still strong: we must highlight female role models in the scientific world to help pave the way for future generations.
Fortunately, Orange understands that gender equality and diversity is a strategic asset to nurture future business growth. I have had a lot of managers who believe in diversity, and three out of seven of these managers were women.
Yet, besides all of this, gender inequality and lack of diversity remains an issue. Take for example between 30 and 40, when your career as a woman is accelerating, you might want children - and you cannot handle this all at the same time. You cannot have equality at work if you do not have equality at home. I am lucky enough to have a partner who is invested in our family life, I can rely on him.
Choosing to study science is still unusual for a girl.We must highlight female role models in the scientific world
to help pave the way for future generation
What skills are the most useful in your professional life and which were the most needed for your success?
Agility in complex environments is my most useful skill. This means being able to work in different environments with different people who all have their respective objectives. Succeeding to find an “end-to-end” solution with all the counterparts is really rewarding! You know it is a success when people feel concerned and motivated - and in the end, the solution is always stronger.
You know it is a success when people feel concerned and motivated,as a result, the solution is always stronger.
What is the biggest career lesson you have learnt?
Do not plan everything and know your priorities! To be efficient, I need to both enjoy what I am doing as well as feel useful; I also need to know where I want to go next. But being able to go off path is what makes it fun. Don’t always stick to the plan - if an opportunity comes up, take it! Life is full of surprises, so enjoy it while you can.
Don’t always stick to the plan -
if an opportunity comes up, take it!
We usually end our questionnaire with a question from the Proust questionnaire. We picked this one for you: which talent would you like to have and why?
Some people are gifted with the talent of creating stories. I am extremely impressed by the ability to transmit emotions and feelings through writing - and of course I love to read them! If you are looking for your next novel, I would recommend reading Marie-Antoinette’s biography by Stefan Zweig.
You cannot have equality at work
if you do not have equality at home.
For this month’s interview, we had the pleasure of interviewing Michelle Gulrajani of Lenovo. Michelle discussed with us her transition from working as a Territory Manager and Account Director at Triangle, to opening her own consultancy firm. Michelle also shared with us some valuable advice to women wishing to endeavour to be entrepreneurs.
Interviewed by Hajar El Baraka
You have an extensive experience, having worked in sales before opening your own consultancy firm, “Signature Consultancy”, which was later sold to a competitor. How did your interest in the tech industry start and what inspired you to launch your own consultancy firm?
At a young age, I was never shy; I loved meeting new people and making new friends. It was actually a family member who initially guided me into sales, as she noted that this sector drew upon pre-existing skills that I had.
My position at Triangle was that of Senior Account Manager, where I was responsible for some of our biggest customers in the UK. It was in this position that I started looking at the business more strategically; even though I was a senior salesperson, I proactively worked with the business to tailor multiple off-the-shelf workshops and services based on what I was hearing from my customers. I was also involved in retraining existing employees in my team, from different backgrounds, into sales roles. Unfortunately, after many years, the company went into administration and that’s what led me to start my own business. I initially launched Signature Consultancy and set myself a goal of three months to start building a successful business.
To cut a long story short, I had a successful business for over eight years and that period was incredibly rewarding. After that time, with so much time in my career selling to end-users, I decided to sell the business to start a new challenge. I was keen to start a new adventure utilising some of the many skills I had acquired in my career and this brought me to Lenovo, working at a large corporate vendor.
Can you tell us more about how your prior experience helped you as an entrepreneur?
Running your own company is a tremendous experience. If anyone is reading this and thinking about starting a business, I would say: don’t hesitate; don’t live with the regret of not doing it!
Every day I draw from my prior experience as a reseller and business owner. I can genuinely relate to sitting on the other side of the fence as a reseller, and this perspective is important for me, our partners and customers at Lenovo. For the past 25 years, I have been selling to end-users and Managed Services Providers, so I can also draw on those experiences.
My biggest lesson is to not fear failing. I have made many mistakes. I was so busy when I started my business that I decided to employ another salesperson. It was the first person I had recruited. While that was a great success in terms of additional revenues and profit, I subsequently realised that what I really needed was someone to support me in the areas that were time-consuming, such as the invoicing and taking payments. Taking a step back and focusing on what would free up the right people, with the right processes to do the right job and maximise productivity, was a valuable lesson.
If anyone is reading this and is thinking about starting a business,
I would say: don’t hesitate;
don’t live with the regret of not doing it!
Another challenge that you must have faced is the coronavirus outbreak and its impact on the global tech industry, particularly as China is a major manufacturing centre. Has this crisis impacted your work and how have you tackled these challenges?
Inevitably, Covid-19 impacted our business in terms of both supply and demand. However, I feel we did better than many in our industry, thanks to our excellent operations and supply chain. As a global organisation , we do have multiple factories around the world, and we are currently opening a new factory in Budapest. Looking ahead, as more and more people work and study from home; not only in terms of devices, but also data centre and infrastructure technology to power that increase is required in digital consumption and the requirement for faster networks.
Obviously, we have had to adapt the way that we work with our teams. In terms of managing my team, I conduct team calls multiple times a week. Often, they are more informal to try and recapture those missed chats around the coffee machine. This month we even have one of the team who is going to teach us how to make sourdough pizzas on a video call, a great team building exercise that we are looking forward too. As a business, we have regular calls with our UK and Ireland team to ensure that everyone is kept up to speed with our strategy.
Having held management and leadership positions throughout your career, what do you consider to be the key leadership skills necessary to succeed in such positions?
Adapting your style based on the individual and your company or team is incredibly important. By doing this, rather than adopting a broad management style, you get the best out every team member. This also helps them to develop as individuals throughout their careers.
People follow by example. I have always been passionate and enthusiastic in any role that I have done. That energy does transfer to my team and, as a result, it has created a good team work ethic with everyone caring about our vision and striving for success.
Never assume that you have all the answers. Being confident is essential, but being keen to learn from others around and above you means that you develop every day, which will result in you becoming a stronger leader.
Being keen to learn from others around and above you means
that you develop every day,
which will result in you becoming a stronger leader
There is still a long way to go before women are no longer considered a minority in tech. Statistics from tech Nation suggest that only 19% of the tech workforce are women. In your view, what do you think should be done to encourage more women to enter the tech industry and to attract them into senior and leadership positions?
There are so many young women who aren’t aware that the skills they possess could lead them to a career in tech. It is not all about being technical and in fact there are a wide variety of jobs available. Developing closer working relationships between businesses and academic institutions is the way forward so women can develop a greater understanding of the variety of jobs that are offered when choosing to pursue a career in tech.
The same applies to women returning to work. Women who are further on in their career often choose to make changes to their career path. Their prior experience could strengthen the tech industry, yet they too might not be aware of this.
I am a big advocate of organisations providing mentoring and support for all women in any workplace. I am lucky that at Lenovo, we have an extremely strong Woman in Lenovo Leadership Programme. By providing this type of platform, women together can grow their network, develop their leadership skills and encourage each other to progress within an organisation. I would certainly say that from my personal point of view that has been a great thing to be part of.
Closer working relationships between businesses
and academic institutions is the way forward so women
could develop a greater understanding of the variety of jobs
that are offered when pursuing a career in tech
We usually end the interview with a question from our Proust Questionnaire. Therefore, which talent would you most like to have? Why?
I would love to learn to fly and get my private pilot licence. The ability to jump into a plane and take a trip anywhere in the UK or France for the day or the weekend is really appealing!
For this month’s interview, we have had the pleasure to meet WIL Talent Viola Zazzera, Chief Marketing Officer at Jacobacci & Partners. We discussed the company’s actions to reassure clients and colleagues in the face of the Coronavirus crisis, but also the importance of gender education both at the home with her children and in the workplace, as well as the successful response to her 4T-Tech Transfer Think Tank.
The Covid 19 crisis is unprecedented. The speed with which it has spread, and its effect on families and daily lives, have led to a deep sense of fear, anxiety and confusion. How did you work and support your teams and colleagues across the business?
The second half of February 2020 was, for me, a period of huge changes that turned me upside down - sometimes even now I wonder how I survived!
In fact, more or less in the same few days, I began to actively participate in the meetings of the Executive Committee of Jacobacci & Partners (the company in which I have been working for 7 years in the role of Marketing and Communication Manager), and then the situation in Italy worsened and we entered into lockdown. It was a bit like finally having a sedan available, but without fuel for refuelling: I had been promoted to the company's management team, but in one of the darkest and most uncertain times possible.
I remember the first meetings we had on the COVID emergency, where we were evaluating possible scenarios, only for the most catastrophic of these to come true a few days later. Thankfully, due to our daily contacts with China, we knew where all this was going to lead. Then, on March 13, the company entered lockdown, with accelerated widespread smart working for all employees of the company. We were scared, distanced and worried about the future. Indeed, we had in mind that, as Executive Committee, we had to protect both the health of people and that of our company, to guarantee a future for all of us.
There have been many initiatives aimed at our people to reassure, motivate and involve our teams and our colleagues. We have written over 40 newsletters (one a day) to keep the sense of belonging alive, organized aperitifs with art to tell the strategic and artistic aspects of our corporate collection, offered mindfulness breaks for adults and yoga for children, and launched other initiatives to bring people closer such as asking our people to send a photo of themselves working from home or to share a story. The memory of these actions will be remembered with a book delivered to each of us, to be kept and reread in the future. Our colleagues have greatly appreciated these initiatives, and we have created the basis for transforming ourselves from a professional legal services company of the advanced tertiary sector, to a real community which puts people at the centre.
We have created the basis for transforming ourselvesfrom a professional legal services companyof the advanced tertiary sector to a real community, which puts people at the centre.
With so much changing so fast during this difficult time, you have a critical role to play as companies shape their response. What actions do you advise brands to take to serve and grow their customer base, mitigate risk and take care of their people?
The situation that arose during the pandemic has changed our order of priorities and has put communication at the centre of our actions, whether they are directed inside or outside the company. While internally we had the aim of informing and reassuring, externally we had to make our clients feel that they could trust us with their strategic assets, that we were operational and that we continued to work with our usual standards as market leaders. Even though we were distant, we were reachable, because the first thing we did when we saw each other on a video call or heard each other on the phone, was reassure each other. Our clients knew that whilst we were present to assist them with their business needs, we could also be there for them simply to just listen to their fears, which differed depending on their sector.
The lockdown, for better or for worse, has given a great boost to all digital communication activities, both inside the company and outside for clients. We have launched several projects to stay close to both our regular clients and to approach new clients. There have been - and still are - many initiatives in progress: sending regular newsletters, launching a detailed and well-structured editorial plan on our social channels, webinars on in-depth topics, and various collaborations.
What is your opinion on the widely spread argument “use the lockdown to…”? Is it a good marketing strategy or a mistake that shows a lack of empathy and transparency from companies?
I really love the words of Domenico De Masi, sociology professor at "La Sapienza" University of Rome, about Covid-19. In short, he interprets it as an extreme attempt by nature to remind and teach humans that they are mortal beings and that homo sapiens are not as wise as it is believed. It is an attempt to teach and remind us that health comes before democracy, and democracy comes before economics. To teach us that planet's resources have an end; instead of fighting each other, we would better to be united against three common enemies: viruses, global warming and inequalities.
In fact, in Jacobacci we have not limited ourselves to managing contingencies, but have launched many new projects, all with an eye to the environment. Personally, the attention to the environment was a theme that we had been pursuing for some years together with Enrica; from the plastic free and paperless, through to the carpooling company, we have relaunched these issues together with others in our communication and integrated them into company strategies.
If the lockdown is a big jolt to warn us that we need to change course, that we don't need to go back to life as before, it's a great opportunity to review our values and reconsider our goals. It was a hideous jolt, but we can rebirth our ideas and leave our children with a better world.
If the lockdown is a big jolt to warn us that we need to change course,
that we don't need to go back to life as before,
it's a great opportunity to review our values
and reconsider our goals.
The crisis also brings a lot of uncertainty about the future and will likely influence how consumers behave for years to come. What actions did you take at Jacobacci & Partners and how are you preparing for a post Covid-19 world?
Firstly, we established a commitment to maintaining and safeguarding jobs. I believe that we are a rarity amongst Italian companies as we have used this period not as a layoff, but rather to hire people as a more concrete way to support society. Then, we created special packages to support services which had declined in various sectors – for example, in the design sector or related to innovated start-ups. During this period, we have undertaken many actions at the company-level, and we have several more in mind for the autumn months to come. All our actions aim to take the most advanced digital world power, which is even more important following the most recent boost of the COVID-19 emergency.
One of these actions we are taking to support the brand is Jambassador - a pilot program devoted to the selection of colleagues. This project aims to create a group of company value "ambassadors", who can provide an authoritative voice on Intellectual Property issues via the social channel Linkedin. After all, who would be a better candidate than ourselves to speak well of our company! With the right tools, you can see the results. In fact just last month our page on Linkedin reached 10,000 followers and continues to grow!
You have recently been promoted to the company board at Jacobacci & Partners which makes you one of the three women holding a management position. How does your companypromote shared leadership? Could you tell us more about this concept and why is it important?
The founder of the shared leadership in the company is our CEO, Enrica Acuto Jacobacci; among other things Enrica is also the Italian representative in WIL. In a company that represents the evolution of a renowned professional firm, Enrica has adopted the governance of a large company. Enrica has established an Executive Committee (composed of the chiefs of various company functions) who interact to: create a value chain; to share responsibilities and guidance together; and to amalgamate and respect each other's skills. Eight people actively involved in the management of corporate strategies who easily put into practice all the actions necessary to run the company.
Shared leadership is not just an organizational issue, but it is a management culture and a mentality which is more easily found in a female leadership. It is this approach to management that helps to overcome the obstacles that traditionally separate company employees, especially when it comes with highly professional business. This more collaborative and sharing climate is truly fantastic: a leadership approach that gives the managing team a wide responsibility for the management of the company, whilst attracting talents and retaining people. Paradoxically, having worked in a crisis like the current one, it united us even more and increased mutual trust.
Decision making and responsibilities are distributed, but of course our CEO maintains a unique role in the entrepreneurial and strategic management that cannot be delegated. She has an exceptional vision and the business acumen to help us frame issues accurately, putting them in the right perspective, helping us decide together a course of action and then implementing it.
Shared leadership is not just an organisational issue,but it is a management culture
and a mentality which is
more easily found in a female leadership.
On a more personal level, you are also a mother of a boy and a girl aged 12 and 8. How do you educate your children for gender equality? How do you prevent your children from acquiring strong gender biases and stereotypes?
It was a great stroke of luck to give birth to representatives both of the male and the female world, to be able to educate them in the same way, without any gender disparity. All children should have the freedom and the opportunity to discover and explore their own gender identity, without conditioning and without feeling judged. I have read them non-stereotyped stories, without princesses to save and courageous princes, from an early age. I let them play with what they preferred, and not with dolls and pots or tractors and bolts. I have always avoided repeating certain phrases that were said to me: “don’t behave like a tomboy” or “crying like a girl”. This behaviour perpetuates and strengthens a rigid and distorted vision of reality, in which there is no room for the child’s own experience; if we perpetuate these ideas, these children end up growing up with the belief that they are wrong.
Gender education is useful to create a freer and more balanced society, to create more tolerant individuals and to prevent others from experiencing their condition with difficulty, as something problematic, just because they do not correspond to what is accepted and considered as "normal in the society". Now that my children are older, as soon as they see a gender disparity they are the first to point it out to me with disappointment. This is a great satisfaction as a parent!
Of course, we try to maintain this approach also in Jacobacci & Partners, for example by using an inclusive language, which values diversity, or by creating transversal teams that enhance people's skills.
What do you consider your greatest achievement?
In general, the balance that I have reached between work and family life - certainly made possible also by the Jacobacci & Partners’ company policies which are attentive to these aspects, in particular in support of women and mothers who represent 80% of our human capital. This attention was certainly inspired by our CEO who has made ‘Work-Life Balance’ her personal and professional mantra.
But my "child" at work is certainly 4T-Tech Transfer Think Tank, the event on innovation and technology transfer that we have been organizing for seven years now. It is a great challenge every year to make it grow and evolve in content, format and interaction with the public, whilst remaining faithful to its original formula. And we see the fruit of our labours reflected in our turnout: more than 500 participants every year, and the success of an event that has now become the main in Italy.
For those who want to learn more about this event: https://techtransferthinktank.jacobacci.com
Gender education is useful to create a freer and more balanced society,
to create more tolerant individuals
and to prevent others from experiencing their condition with difficulty
as something problematic,
just because they do not correspond to what is accepted
and considered as "normal in the society"
13 years ago, Rebeca De Sancho Mayoral moved to Brussels to pursue the European dream: a continent of peace, solidarity, tolerance, and economic prosperity. Today she is a Business Advisor at EASME European Agency for Small and Medium Enterprises adhered to the European Commission. An interview about women without bank accounts and economic independence for female entrepreneurs!
For the past 13 years you have been working in Brussels on international projects at the European Commission. Why have you chosen a career in European policies?
I moved to Brussels 13 years ago to work for the European Commission. Coming from Spain, I looked up to Europe as the place where I wanted to live. I was passionate about the idea of one united Europe: a continent of peace, solidarity, tolerance, and economic prosperity. As a Spaniard, I was grateful when we joined the European Union in 1986 as one of the first countries. Joining Europe has had a positive impact on Spain, even in such areas as gender equality. In Spain, 30 years ago, women were not even allowed to open a bank account without their husband's permission!
Obviously, this personal perspective motivated me to support the European project so that not only Europeans, but also citizens in other nations partnering with the European Union, could benefit from it. Today, I am proud of being a European ambassador wherever I go.
Joining Europe has had a positive impact on Spain,
even in such areas as gender equality.
You have also worked with multiple neighbouring countries on an array of topics, ranging from internal markets and home affairs, to innovation and digital policy. How did your career develop to encompass policies and initiatives with these focuses?
When I was a child, my mom had a newspaper shop where I had access to many magazines and books. It was like a public library back in a time when we could not just google. I remember always reading the international section on the first pages of the newspapers. From a young age, I also longed to travel and explore the world.
Later, my first work experience was in Chile at the Spanish Commercial Office. That was the moment when I became more intrigued by the diplomatic European world. It felt like a dream that had come true when I finally came to Brussels to join the Enlargement project of the European Commission.
From there on, I understood diplomacy in a new and different way. For me, it means building up relations with other countries, long-term collaboration, and implementing meaningful projects together.
You are a current participant in the 5th Edition of the WIL Europe Talent Pool Program (WTP). How has leadership and personal development been important to you?
In preparation for this interview, I checked when I last paid for a coaching session. It was in 2014 with a private coach who seemed quite expensive to me compared to the salary that I earned at that time. However, I considered it a long-term investment. Sometimes we realize that we cannot grow the way we want, and we need help to overcome our inner barriers.
The journey of personal development starts in yourself. You need to find out who you are, accept yourself, set goals and follow them. Everyone you will meet in your career contributes to this inner journey, either in a positive or a negative way. Throughout my career, I was lucky to have unofficial mentors at my side. Today, I mentor younger women in Brussels at “Women in International Security”, and I am also part of the female leadership programme at the University of California.
The most important part of all these programmes and networks is the community that I created around myself, and the support of other women. We check up on each other and share where we are going in our professional and personal lives. Connecting with others is a way to build and expand your career network.
The journey of personal development starts in yourself.
You need to find out who you are, accept yourself,
set goals and follow them.
Do you have any inspiration and motivation for other women?
We all have inner doubts that hold us back in our careers; even Michelle Obama discussed this. It also happens to men, although they talk less about it. I believe whatever happens in your professional or personal life, it will teach you something. Stay true to yourself and believe in yourself.
Life is not linear, and your career path will have ups and downs with bumps, but if you trust the process and believe in yourself, you will make it to the finish line with integrity, courage, and passion.
You are a relentless advocate for gender equality, and even wrote your master’s thesis on the topic. You are also a founding member of "Women in International Security Brussels". Where does this passion come from?
Ever since I was a child, I noticed the differences between girls and boys. At that time, I just could not name or frame it because the awareness of gender issues did not exist. There are many rules for being a woman and society set a standard of rules, and, dos and don’ts. Even though all women in my family were working outside the home, they were still doing most of the housework and, carrying more of the burden than men.
There has always been an internal battle in me, trying to understand why women do not live the same way as men. The definitive eye-opener was the economic aspect: financial inequalities between men and women manifest themselves as not only unequal pay, but women are also promoted less often than men and fear asking to be paid what they are worth. When we look at single parents in Europe, we see that 80% of them are female. Consequently, the risk of poverty is much more dramatic for women. These gender injustices triggered me to support women and fight for equality. If we want to close gender gaps, it requires policy interventions that enhance women's economic opportunities and outcomes.
If we want to close gender gaps, it requires policy interventions
that enhance women's economic opportunities and outcomes.
What has the European Commission done for women’s independence, and women in finance and entrepreneurship?
We have a clear-cut objective: economic independence for female entrepreneurs. There are a lot of factors, such as reconciling business and family that make entrepreneurship a less attractive option for women than for men. The European Commission is working with EU countries to overcome these barriers and encourage more women to start their own companies.
Concretely, we are trying to build a community of female entrepreneurs around Europe, connect organizations, and raise awareness on this topic. There is funding available and we host events, workshops, and webinars. We deliver training and provide mentoring sessions to promote success stories.
Additionally, we created several tools such as networks and the e-platform called WEgate to help women become entrepreneurs and run successful businesses. Every year we award the EU Prize for Women Innovators and, obviously, we work to maintain gender parity on the European Innovation Council Board as well as the funding granted.
Reconciling business and family makes entrepreneurship a less attractive option for women than for men.
Which talent would you like to have and why?
I admire tennis players because of their capacity to focus and keep concentration during important moments of their performances. Although some of them are extroverted and very active, they know how to maintain control under high pressure.
In his book “The Inner Game of Tennis,” Gallwey discusses personal development and inner blockages. He describes the constant conflict of the two players we have in ourselves: the conscious one who knows all the techniques and the unconscious mind. To truly play at your best, you need to quiet your conscious mind by letting go of judgment. Then trust your unconscious mind to do what it does best.
Tennis teaches invaluable life lessons that will apply to just about anything you pursue for the rest of your life.
To truly play at your best,
you need to quiet your conscious mind by letting go of judgment.
We had the pleasure of interviewing Siham Soulaimani, Legal Counsellor and Diplomat at the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs. She discussed with us her views on diplomacy in a post-pandemic world, the challenges of diversity and inclusion, and the value of connecting with women from different careers and backgrounds through networks such as WIL Europe.
Since 2017, you work at the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs. What reasons made you choose this path?
As a European jurist, I had my first experience in the diplomatic field through European institutions, in particular during my internship in the European Court of Justice and my one-year experience in The Hague. I quickly understood I wanted to become a civil servant and represent my country at an international level.
Working in a multicultural and cosmopolitan environment, carrying the voice of my country, and having an impact on transnational issues have led me to choose this career.
As Board Member of the association La Cordée, what do you think is the main problem that needs to be fixed in order to achieve more diversity and equal opportunity in the public service?
In the past months, the question of more diversity, equality, and inclusion in France has been in the center of the debate. Both the public and private sectors face the challenges of inclusion and representativeness of translation.
Despite its principles and the development of measures on these themes, the public sector has still not managed to obtain concrete results: the example of equality is relevant: the trend that senior positions are reserved for the male elite. Our society tends to think of men as a legitimate source of authority. After years of continuous professional learning and teachings, the situation is certainly evolving but unfortunately not as quickly as it should. An example that we can find in practice nowadays in many institutions and companies is the existence of pools of experts.
The pool of experts consists of people from different backgrounds while achieving the diversity of genders, regions, academic background and disciplines and in this way you create a diverse balance of candidates.
Awareness seems to be emerging and I think that to really change things, there are first of all the psychological barriers of the actors that must be removed. For example, we have to question the recruitment criteria and profiles sought by the public sector: we have to recruit talents who are representative of our society.
We have to recruit talents who are representative of our society.
What challenges did you encounter during your career in terms of gender inequalities and lack of diversity and how did you overcome them? Did you have any role models or figures that inspired you to pursue your career?
I was never directly confronted with anti-feminist or anti-diversity discourse. However, indirectly I did face some situations in which I felt that I was not treated like my colleagues equally when yet I had the same qualification and experiences.
An example from such indirect confrontation was that I received excuses for not inviting me for important meetings or that I was expected to argue more to make an objective statement. In both situations, I felt excluded and I learned from my experiences for instance to be more proactive in asking to be associated in all the meetings, as I believe that this is a way to tackle issues of inclusion.
I have been fortunate to meet several women who have somehow motivated, helped, or inspired me. My role models are the women I met during my professional experiences: my colleagues in the administration, volunteers during my associative activities, former mentors, or even the women whom we have the opportunity to meet during events organized by the WIL for the talent pool program.
They inspire me with their determination, personality, expertise, and organizational skills. These women showed me that it is possible to lead a good career while having a rich personal life. With their different approach, they allowed me to learn and to think about my own career and the path I want to take in the future.
How has your experience with WIL inspired and encouraged you to create more opportunities for yourself and future women in your field?
Being in a program among women who are inspiring, experienced and have a genuine interest in giving advice has been helpful and refreshing. Working in the public sector, the WTP program gave me the opportunity to meet women with different careers, backgrounds, or approaches.
I never had this kind of opportunity before and I feel fortunate to be surrounded by positive energy.
I believe deeply in the concept of role model. As a volunteer, I already tried to connect people to help them fulfill their goals and to coach others to enter the public sector. It's a long-term job but the results are worth it. In a sense, it is to give back what I have been given.
The main qualities required in my profession are certainly thoroughness and the ability to adapt to different situations. This calls for being proactive and having a capacity for rapid analysis of issues and challenges. In order to be a good diplomat, you must also have a taste for diversity and project yourself into other cultures to understand them.
I think that being able to adapt has been my strength throughout the years. On a personal and professional level, I had the chance to experience different working environments, with different expectations and a renewed positioning. Each time, the beginnings represented a challenge, but learning strengthened my ability to be agile and to adjust.
How do you think diplomacy and international relations will be affected by the covid-19 pandemic?
Beyond the current situation, diplomacy has in recent years evolved by its means and its dimension. Immediacy has taken a prominent place in bilateral and multilateral relations thanks mostly to technologies, which led to adapt to a new tempo and learn to react to new emergencies.
Regarding global crises, they affect diplomatic relations because by their nature they question our system and the way it is run. Just like the crisis in 2008, the current crisis has revealed new fragilities and has been surprising.
In the short term, the covid-19 crisis has been indicative of certain underlying trends, exposing new ruptures and defining new challenges. In the future, the biggest challenge in international relations will be to adapt to the aftermath of consequences.
But in the long term, the new lines drawn after the crisis could prove to be only the continuity of current diplomatic relations with different intervention methods and tools.
In the short term, the covid-19 crisis has been indicative
of certain underlying trends, exposing new ruptures and defining new challenges.
What is your personal motto?
Be true to yourself. My experiences taught me that to meet the challenges you need to be passionate and work hard. I have learned that despite your best efforts sometimes you will never be what people expect. But your difference can become your strength, it depends just on how you present it to the others.
Your difference can become your strength,
it depends just on how you present it to the others.
© European Network for Women in Leadership 2018