Aurélie Feld moved from the corporate world two years ago to become the Deputy Managing Director of a growing microfinance NGO, PlaNet Finance. While the two environments have quite a lot in common, there is something about microfinance that makes professionals surpass their field expertise and delve into issues such as education, environment or health.
What made you transfer from working for a management consulting firm to an NGO?
PlaNet Finance was my pro bono client when I was a project manager at McKinsey. I led a team of consultants working on PlaNet Finance’s strategic planning in 2008, and kept in touch with the management team thereafter. Early 2010, as I was deciding to leave McKinsey, I helped PlaNet Finance put together a transformation plan, to further professionalize and structure the NGO. Eventually, they asked me to come on board to implement it as Deputy CEO, and I accepted. The rest, as they say, is history…
What is your experience of the differences between these two work environments?
The development world has professionalized a lot lately, in line with the development of more professional Social Responsibility within private funders and the stronger focus of public funders on aid efficacy & efficiency. Moreover, since PlaNet Finance is a consulting & finance-oriented NGO, probably has a bit of a different DNA & work environment than other NGOs…
In short, there is not that much of a difference in terms of work environment between McKinsey & PlaNet Finance, as strange as it may seem. Both places have teams of incredibly driven professionals who are fully dedicated to impact – even if the nature of the impact greatly differs. McKinsey might be a bit more of a well-oiled machine & PlaNet Finance has a bit of an “artisan” touch, but part of that difference could be age (PlaNet Finance is only 13 years old), and not only means…
Both organizations have a rather young age average, are very diverse in terms of the cultures, nationalities, backgrounds, languages, etc... Both organizations have an international footprint (even if PlaNet Finance’s network is smaller and mostly in the developing world). If I had to pinpoint a strong difference, the only thing that comes to mind is the dress code, and that’s not exactly major.
In what ways does PlaNet Finance carry out its mission of “alleviating poverty around the world by enabling the access to financial services to those who are excluded therefrom”?
PlaNet Finance has two main activities:
(1) Microfinance+ targets micro-entrepreneurs more directly, in order to help them start & grow their revenue-generating activity. We provide micro entrepreneurs with the necessary tools, including training & access to finance. We also help them organize in groups, cooperatives, so as to enable them to share best practices. We structure value chains, such as the Shea butter value chain in Ghana, so as to enable the initial producers to maximize their share of the value chain revenues.
(2) Microfinance & Consulting advises the entire microfinance ecosystem (microfinance institutions, banks, governments, funders, etc…). We help build capacity in microfinance institutions so as to enable them to better serve more clients, especially in rural areas. We use technology (mobile, geolocation) to increase financial inclusion, and give poor unbanked people access to financial products & services.
How does microfinance play a role in areas such as health, education and environmental protection?
In access to health, microfinance plays a dual role. First, through microinsurance, it is possible to offer affordable health insurance schemes to the bottom of the pyramid, even if adoption is still problematic today. Second, people with diseases also need access to finance, and specific loan & other financial products that are compatible with their affliction/their risk profile. For example, PlaNet Finance is involved in a project in Niger, which aims at enabling people with sickle cell disease to create & grow their revenue-generating activity. We also work with people with AIDS in Senegal & Benin.
Education: in developing countries, a lot of youth, especially females don’t have access to education, which in turn makes it difficult for them to gain employment opportunities. Their only chance at a better future is to create and grow their own revenue-generating activity. We give them trainings in accounting/business development services, and, in partnership with other NGOs/vocational schools, technical training. We accompany them in the creation of their activity and in gaining access to finance through partner microfinance institutions.
Environmental protection: the bottom of the pyramid also needs access to energy, clean/renewable energy if possible. In partnership with microfinance institutions and clean energy solutions manufacturers, PlaNet Finance develops programs that substitute solar panels, solar ovens, energy-efficient ovens, etc… to fossil fuels. Usually, the loan product is structured as follows: monthly repayment = monthly fossil fuel bill, which means that once the loan is paid back, the family or the business saves the equivalent. For example, a recent project, Rendev, which won an EU prize in 2009, aimed at equipping rural villages with solar panels, thus enabling children to study and women to have a revenue-generating activity at home after sunset. It also created microenterprises (assembly, installation & maintenance of solar panels), and extra revenue for small local shops (energy-efficient light bulbs).
Which of the projects you work on are you the most passionate about?
I am passionate about PlaNet Finance in general, but if I had to choose three projects, they would be the following:
Internally, professionalizing the NGO and growing its people, which was my initial mandate when I joined. I strongly believe it is our duty as an NGO to be as efficient and professional as possible in using the funds that are granted to us, towards maximum impact.
In our project portfolio, I would mention two emblematic projects.
First, financial transparency: this is one of the themes that we are pushing in our Microfinance & Consulting activity, for which we recently published a best practice guide. It all started with a project in 4 countries in West Africa on which we worked with 10 microfinance institutions. It aimed at enabling them to produce good quality financial statements, periodic reports & dashboards, leverage them in their decision-making, etc... We will replicate it in Cape Verde soon and hopefully in other countries.
Second, the Star Shea network: this is a project that we started with our partner SAP, in rural areas in Northern Ghana. The objective is to structure the Shea value chain to maximize revenue for women gatherers. We started with production & drying techniques, added price transparency to enable women to negotiate at arm’s length with intermediaries. The next step was to deal with seasonality of prices, which are low when the women need the revenue in April and much higher in September. A microfinance institution now grants a loan to the women in April, which they pay back in September when they actually sell their Shea production. The next step, which is access to international markets, is the one we are currently adding to the project through the creation of a social business – a commercialization platform. The final step, which we’ll get to next, will involve helping the women equip themselves with machines that transform the nuts into Shea butter, thus adding the transformation premium to their share of revenues.
On the 15th of June we held the first Women Talent Pool online meeting, during which the Emerging Leaders were offered a session on using the WIL Website to network, by Bertrand Salord, and a training on self-branding through writing delivered by Role Models Elena Bonfiglioli, Microsoft, Pinuccia Contino, Head of Unit Multilingualism and Translation of the European Commission and Katherine Corich, CEO of Sysdoc.
During the session, the Emerging Leaders have learnt about possible ways of using the social media to brand themselves, as well as the "Do's” and “Don'ts” in writing bios, motivation letters and email communications, as well as online presence on Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter.
More details on the meeting to be given soon.
What are your sources of motivation?
I deeply care about having a positive impact in people’s lives; this is a great source of motivation for me. I pursue this by creating products and services that provide meaningful experiences, and make a difference for customers. This can be a real source of value and differentiation for a company, and one of the pillars on which I think Europe should grow. Creativity and entrepreneurship motivated by this type of value creation are in my opinion essential, and the area I want to invest my work in.
How did you manage to combine your passion for design with engineering?
With a lot of determination and resourcefulness, because it wasn’t a typical career orientation in my environment. One of the keys has been to continuously nurture my skills, cultivating a solid point of view about what I do and how it can contribute to the business.
Throughout my engineering studies I made sure I learnt as much as possible about design and carefully sought internships that combined both disciplines. After graduating, my first roles were in innovation, but purely technical, however I strived to infuse them with the value of design skills and practices at every chance I got. I often re-invented my roles and stretched my responsibilities. I also made sure to first attend, and later speak at international design conferences. This allowed me to connect with the design community and learn from them. I was also part of the organization’s scattered design network, through which we sought to collaborate and align ourselves. By that time I had already evolved my job into applying innovation-by-design techniques to our research programs, so when Orange decided to consolidate an in-house Design & User Experience division, I was asked to join them in this adventure.
Working as a Design Lead, do you use your engineering skills?
Yes, my engineering skills are a real asset in many ways. They have been precious in helping me deal with complexity and shape initiatives in unstructured environments. Also, when designing digital products and services, it is an advantage to understand the potential behind new technologies, which helps you create more imaginative solutions. Not to mention how helpful they have proven to collaborate with other stakeholders, specially the ones responsible for building our solutions, since I understand what it takes to make things happen.
Which of the strategic innovation projects you’re involved in are you the most passionate about?
I’m very excited about working on improving how we provide digital customer care. It is a very complex challenge but one that really matters in Orange’s 2015 strategy.
The company has set up anticipation programs which are built with a Marketing, a Design and a Technical lead, who run them in close collaboration. This is a very interesting way of working as we bring together our different expertise and points of view to create a strong vision for the program. It has been a fantastic opportunity to consolidate our best practices, going out to see our clients and gaining precious insights on their experience of care, which has inspired much of our new service concepts. I’m really proud that we’ve tackled our challenge through user-centered design and come up with new ways of thinking about care and delivering it through our digital interfaces.
Could you elaborate on your philosophy of 'advocating through results', which you mention in your biography?
Advocating through results is a philosophy of having influence by being humble and constructive. And it’s about walking the talk.
If you believe in something and want to make it happen, you need others to believe in it and integrate it, and for this they need to be convinced of its value. Therefore the best way to achieve results is to engage with stakeholders, understand the problems at hand, what their priorities are and what they need to deliver on. Then help them succeed as quickly as you can, deliver excellent work on whatever is key to them. There is no such thing as a small project, because it will earn you credibility and their trust. Once you have a seat at the table and are part of making things happen, over-deliver; show them new things that your team can do, and gradually engage in more strategically important conversations. It’s very much about delivering results, excellence and conciliating multiple priorities.
On 31 January 2012, at Microsoft’s premises in Brussels, WIL had the pleasure to host a pre-launch Women Talent Pool gathering.
After a warm welcome and explaining to the gathered Emerging Leaders the criteria, based on which they were selected for the pilot programme, Elena Bonfiglioli, Senior Health Director EMEA, Microsoft, WTP coordinator, presented the programme objectives and the aim of the pre-launch gathering: getting to know the Pool, brainstorming to get feedback and set expectations.
She also spoke about the learning opportunities Emerging Leaders are going to be able to benefit from by engaging with more senior women to discuss their future career paths, work experiences, leadership issues, business topics, as well as their aspirations and ambitions. Most importantly, participants will learn by sharing personal perspectives and discussing how to set the foundations for new models of leadership.
Several WIL members, who joined the program as Role Models, shared among the WTP participants their perceptions of and expectations from the programme.
Through the WTP, Nathalie Wright, Director of the Division Large Enterprises & Alliances, Microsoft, would like to push younger women into taking initiatives and responsibilities. She joined the programme, because she meets a lot of young women, who have a lot of ideas and energy, but are unsure whether they ‘can do it’. She would be happy to help them build their trajectories. Ms Wright is interested in sharing her experiences in various fields, including: IT, telecomm, finance, marketing and sales.
Claudine Schmuck, Global Contact, Director, noted that for the Emerging Leaders, being able to work the programme from the beginning gives them a chance to voice out their expectations, express ideas and have a real influence on its final shape. WTP is structured in a way to address the needs of the EL; the Role Models know what they want to transmit and convey to the younger women, but would like to take on board Emerging Leaders’ feedback to determine the right way to help them in their future progression.
Pinuccia Contino, Head of Unit Multilingualism and Translation Studies, DG Translations, European Commission, expressed her desire to give back by helping the younger generation. In her view, the whole point of the WTP is to help Emerging Leaders understand what they want to do in their professional lives and help them go for it; the first step they need to take is to build a reaching, personal relationship with the Role Models.
As some of the most important elements of the WTP, Thaima Samman, WIL President, listed the opportunity for the EL to get access and nurture a very diverse network, along with learning about ways to position themselves in relation to what they want to achieve. She noted that the women, whom the Emerging Leaders are going to meet in this programme are going to follow them for the rest of their lives.
Katherine Corich, CEO, Sysdoc, would like to see the EL set a clear direction of their careers: learn that they want to get from A to Z, believe they can achieve it and build support networks around themselves, based on trust and honesty so they can eventually achieve these goals, without having to compromise, particularly if they start to change things in life. She also stressed the importance of learning how to build teams, knowing whom to be honest with and whom to be professional with.
Mrs Bonfiglioli shared with the gathered WTP members her belief, that in the pursuit of happiness we become happy. In her view, it is through the way we regard opportunities, job, daily life that we transmit and echo to the others the potential that is around us and the potential of what we can do.
During the gathering, Emerging Leaders were given the opportunity to express their expectations from the WTP. They would like to broaden their horizons and learn through both training opportunities and exchanges with diverse members of WIL’s international network. EL also expressed their interest in learning about the impact of culture on leadership style. Many of them felt they could use help in improving their communication and negotiation skills. Among issues that they would like to see discussed, they mentioned work/life balance, sociological aspects of leadership and the idea of femininity. By the end of the 18 months’ programme, they would also like the WTP to come up with a single position on the issue of Women in Leadership.
In the context of the World Economic Forum Davos, Mr Dan Bross, Senior Director of Corporate Citizenship, Microsoft, drew on the example of its Young Global Leaders and Young Global Shapers programmes and spoke about identifying, developing and nurturing young leaders.
He stressed, that identifying talents early on and including them into the discussion helps bring the dialogue to a new level of awareness and inclusiveness.
Mr Bross noted, that when Prof Schwab formed the World Economic Forum, he probably didn’t have sense, hopes or dreams that it would become an international platform, where global leaders gather on an annual basis. The guest speaker turned to WIL Members advising them to think about the network in terms of what it can become for women leaders and in terms of helping develop talent among women.
He also stressed, that one sector of society is not going to address our global challenges: ”if we are going to address the crisis, it is going to require governments, NGOs, corporations to be engaged”.
Following the introductions, brainstorm and the inspirational speech of Mr Bross, the WTP members were given the chance to get to know each other better during a speed dating session, as well as invited to WIL’s official meeting, on the topic of Women in Culture.
The gathering turned out to be a success; the Emerging Leaders and Role Models had an opportunity to gain a deeper understanding of the ways in which they are going to cooperate during the course of the 18 months programme, learning both from the WTP Program Coordinator and from each other. Due to WTP’s structure, designed to respond to the needs of the young Women Pool, the meeting was a significant contribution towards determining the shape of the programme, which will be officially launched on the 6th of March.
The European Commission for Economy, Employment and Social Affairs launched an initiative that brings forth to girls and young women role models that broke through the traditional career paths to lead their own companies. No less than 130 business women from 10 EU Member States have been appointed as Ambassadors of female entrepreneurship.
Throughout the year, they will be speaking directly to their counterparts in schools, universities, community groups, nurturing their self-confidence and giving concrete entrepreneurial knowledge, and also use media channels to dispel stereotypes about women in business. They have proven outstanding leadership in sectors such as technology, pharmacy, management consultancy and coaching or even wood industry. Some of them, such as Runhild Gammelsæter, the owner of a Norwegian biotechnology company, have taken further steps ahead, transforming their scientific research into a successful business.
In an environment where women's enterprises are concentrated in retailing, catering or community services, exchanging practices are meant to bring a shift in attitudes and allow women to be better represented in the knowledge economy. This action is part of those foreseen in the Commission's 2008 ∧ top
Jehanne Savi has built a career in the telecommunications industry, where she now heads the IT Delivery division for France within the Group IT executive committee for France Telecom Group. She holds a degree in telecommunications management and a PhD. She is one of the first WiL members who supported the concept of a mentoring program for young women and has agreed to share her views on the benefits it brings to organizations and what societal issues can be worked out through mentoring.
From a business perspective, Jehanne considers that an organization whose leaders support diversity frameworks can derive considerable economic benefits. In the short term, programs such as mentoring allow business leaders to assess the skills held by young people as well as to guide them on the path to becoming competitive junior-level management. In the long run, such initiatives attract, through a snowball effect, performance-driven talent and foster reliable customer-oriented operation. Ultimately, it contributes to the company’s cooperation and collective intelligence.
As the latest She Figures of the EU Commission show, there is a need for skilled people in technical fields. One solution is to attract more young women to follow technical studies. “Without doubt, such actions need to start early in the education of young girls, but we are also responsible to showing to young people in general what a technical career really means. Once you enter a company, you will dedicate your time to various issues, on the marketing, economic or even the legal side” says Jehanne. Showing all the sides of a technical career, through a mentor - mentee relationship, increases the chances of reversing the current trend in downsized skills.
“From a personal view, my mentor has strongly influenced me to reach the level of self-confidence I needed for developing my career” explains Jehanne. As a recently released study of the Research Institute LH2 and Equilibres network shows, 55% of women in management positions in France are not optimistic about their career evolution mostly because of the chances they are offered. Mentoring programs are meant to dispel such attitudes and to raise motivation and performance levels. They should therefore lead to a higher number of self-confident women in top positions who have understood early in their career how to develop professionally in diverse roles, companies and sectors, by leveraging their technical background.
WiL has provided its members with a strong added value at European level, by enabling discussions with EU Commissioners or members of the EU parliament. In 2009, we are launching the Mentoring program, which reflects the overall positioning of the WiL network since it is: Open (both specific and diversified target groups of mentees), Transversal (mentors with different and complementary backgrounds) and Focused on enabling young women to step up in leadership in the information society.
In 2009, the mentoring program is launched experimentally, with the objective to form 10 pairs of mentors/mentees, within 2 distinct groups, one with mentees who are students, the other one with mentees who have entrepreneurial projects. Mentors include senior executive women, both from the public and the private sector who all share the will to enable young women to move forward. On June 3rd, mentees will be able to meet their mentors.
Claudine, as project coordinator, is developing, assessing and adjusting the processes based on regular contacts with mentors and mentees. So far. this has involved supplying both mentors and mentees with information such as guidelines, sketching out of the type of agreement that can be developed between both. It will later on involve monitoring progresses and gathering feedback from participants to determine how to move from an experimental pilot program to a fully fledged program as of 2010.
During the working sessions on December 11th, I felt very happy to having received this very nice Christmas present from my network (JADE). The passionate manner in which Ms Samman and Ms Bonfiglioli conducted the event and the wise contributions of the participants made me feel that this is going to be a unique experience for everybody. I began reflecting on how to make also other JADE members benefit from it and while leaving the event I already had an idea in my mind, which I will shortly present as follows.
The JADE representatives in this mentoring program in cooperation with leaders and mentors, as well as with JADE Executive Board organize a workshop series about the New Working Environments where gender diversity has brought to successful developments.
Participants of this workshop would be young men and women of our JADE network who should have the possibility to learn about the impact that the inclusion of women in the decision making process has had in business, political and academic world.
The rationale for this workshop series would be: Trends in the entrepreneurial and management world show that in the middle and long run we all will be living in a society in which feeling comfortable in working together with women in the course of decision making processes, will be a competitive advantage in the job market. JADE network delivers a good example on how naturally young women have been integrated in the decision making process at local, national and international level. And it is reasonable to predict that many of these young women and young men, who have working with them, will be leaders of tomorrow. They all have now experiences that they can share with colleagues and outsiders. The results of this workshop series can be brought together in a booklet that can be distributed to enterprises, not-for-profit organizations, governments, international institutions with the aim to support their gender diversity programs.
This mentoring program has the chance to help shaping this future and I think this initial proposal on which can be further built upon, would represent an interesting extension for this mentoring program. I would be glad to deal with this topic also in future; therefore I hope that this first proposal will be welcomed.
I would like to conclude this feedback letter with special thanks to the initiators of this mentoring program, to the mentors and the mentees.
Looking forward to meeting you soon,
JADE (Know&How JE Graz, President)
© European Network for Women in Leadership 2018