Our female students and alumni are confident, vocal and ambitious. Equipped with the right skills and tools, they go on to lead successful, meaningful careers. Read some of their stories here.
If Marieke Desmet (MFA2017) could change one thing about the way that women do business, it would be to have women stop apologising for their success. The Belgium native, an investment banking analyst with Morgan Stanley and a Masters in Financial Analysis alumna from London Business School (LBS), wishes women would take more time to celebrate their abilities.
“I believe it’s so important to take your moment to shine, whether you’re an intern, an analyst or a senior professional. Women should share their success, speak up more and have their voices heard.”
And she speaks from experience.
Marieke has long wanted to pursue a career in finance. An early internship with ING in commercial banking consolidated a sense of passion for the sector and, in 2015, brought her from Belgium to London.
“I wanted to move into strategic financial planning with companies and business organisations and that meant getting closer to the action – and there’s no better place than London for that. There was also no better school than LBS. The Masters in Financial Analysis (MFA) was recommended by friends as the ideal programme to pick up the strategy skills and tools to move my career forward. When I visited the LBS campus and discovered how unique and innovative the MFA programme was, I instantly knew I’d found the perfect platform for my personal and professional development. ”
Speaking up as a woman
Joining the MFA, Marieke and her fellow female classmates resolved to make their presence – and contribution – felt.
“Something that we believed and that I still believe is that it’s only when you speak up that you see change and progress. This is part of the core philosophy at LBS, and it completely informed our modus operandi as a cohort. I have no doubt that this culture of speaking out has helped me become a more confident person.”
At LBS, Marieke built a tight network of fellow MFA and other students, including MBAs and students on the Masters in Management, and faculty – bonds that have endured and form the basis of what she today calls her “London family.”
“For everyone it’s important to have a strong network, but for women in particular having female role models to relate to at every level of experience is really helpful in your career path. When you have a connection or a mentor who is further down the line you can appreciate the challenges of things like family priorities and seeing your own career 10 or 20 years from now.”
And the challenges for women are plentiful, says Marieke. Especially in her sector.
Overcoming the hurdles
“It can be tough. In finance there’s more parity early on in your career, but female representation in senior ranks remains an issue. And while many key players are making efforts to resolve this, the reality is that most jobs could be more flexible, and both women and men would benefit from this.”
Speaking up on issues like gender representation is very much a part of Marieke’s experience and philosophy. And it’s an approach she wants to communicate to other women coming up behind her. Recently she was invited by Morgan Stanley to take part in graduate recruitment events to share her perspective.
“At these events I have noticed that some women can come across as self-doubting and lacking in confidence. I would love to see more young women realise how smart they are and show it.”
Part of this means opening herself up to other young women who reach out for advice. Contacts she makes at recruitment and other events, she says, are welcome to come to her with questions and doubts. “At Morgan Stanley women support each other, regardless of hierarchy or superiority,” says Marieke. “We have a Women’s Business Alliance which enables us to gain advice and to ask for feedback from a broad network of employees. Young women considering getting into finance or business should be proactive in reaching out to other women and build up their networks. I always respond to women I’ve met who need advice. It’s time we supported each other more at every level.”
Eva-Maria Olbers (MiM2012) wants you to imagine a kit that enables girls to code and build their own wearable apps. Imagine that the kit also allows girls to connect to an online programming community, to customise their device to their own social channels, and configure it to their sporting or health needs. Now imagine that the same kit could boost girls’ confidence in their own tech skills by a staggering 45% in as little as two hours of exposure. This is the impact reported by users of STEMgem, a smart device toolkit that is empowering young girls between the ages of 11 and 14 to create their own bespoke technology.
Stemming the gender gap
Brainchild of co-founders Eva-Maria, Larissa Nietner and Scott Nill, STEMgem is on a mission to drive diversity in tech – targetting the STEM pipeline at the critical early point before it starts to leak women in tertiary education.
By her own admission, STEMgem is not something that Eva imagined she would be doing when she started as a management consultant. “I did not think I would end up becoming an entrepreneur. I did consider making the transition to the tech sector as a long-term goal, but I thought I lacked the skills to realistically make a significant career change – let alone taking on the stress and difficulties of becoming an entrepreneur.”
A Masters in Management at London Business School (LBS) made a significant impact on Eva in 2011. Eager to develop what she calls a “practical lens” on management, Eva came to the School to build an applied skillset, better negotiating competencies and a useful business network. What she also took away after her 12 months at LBS was an affinity for entrepreneurship that paved the way for a series of demanding roles with startups, and in 2017, the job of Success Manager with the Microsoft startup accelerator.
“I owe a lot to LBS in terms of the practical and negotiating skills the programme helped me develop. Through my courses, the LBS network and the entrepreneurship classes on the programme I got a real feel for the entrepreneurial landscape, as well as the personal aptitudes and the mindset I’d need to move forward. My switch from management consultancy to the startup world happened serendipitously because employers liked the affinity for social impact and analytical skills that blossomed within me at LBS.”
Transition to the tech sector complete, the decision to put her experience and skills to work by founding a startup herself felt like a natural next step. But it wasn’t easy.
Starting up in tech
“I know from first-hand experience about the deficit of women in tech – and in STEM subjects and careers in general. The lack of diversity is disheartening. For me, working in the sector, there were obstacles to overcome that male colleagues didn’t face. I wanted to do something to change that.”
Getting their venture off the ground, Eva, Larissa and Scott encountered many of the very issues they were determined to address. “The tech scene is still male-dominated. There are usually few women in the room. When you are a woman pitching a female- focused product to male VCs, you often have to build a sense of empathy and get them to see the potential. You need to have the confidence in yourself and your knowledge to get them on board.”
What’s holding women back?
A major challenge facing women in general, says Eva, is overcoming issues with self-doubt. “There are plenty of factors out there in the business or tech environment that already make it more difficult to succeed, but sometimes women don’t make it easier for themselves by having a higher level of self-doubt than men do. For example, we have a tendency to take failure more to heart and can be more risk-averse at times. Women need to understand that failure is normal.” STEMgem is already playing its part in addressing this by encouraging girls to experiment, prototype and design their own creations using real-world tools and coding.
Another way of encouraging self-belief among women is through mentorship, says Eva. “I believe that women should hold together, giving and receiving support from each other. My LBS network works this way. We support each other in a way that is bi-directional so that everyone prospers.”
Female role models are of critical importance, she says. And she speaks from experience. In December 2017, Eva founded Bridge to Afghanistan, a mentorship programme that connects young women in Kabul to female mentors via Skype. The goal is to help Afghan girls broaden their exposure, improve their employability skills, and cultivate the confidence to “go for it.”
“I’d like to see a world in which women feel the confidence to dream big, to go for their goals, to fail and learn from failure and to be true to their authentic selves.”
Brynne Kennedy MBA2012 is a recognised game changer. The recipient of numerous awards and honours, including the Stevie Award for Entrepreneur of the Year, Women of the Future Awards, Women in IT Awards and Management Today’s 35 Under 35, she is also a London Business School (LBS) Distinguished Alumna.
And while Brynne is grateful for all the recognition she has received since launching her company, Topia, in 2010, LBS has a special place in her heart because of the “debt of gratitude” she owes the school.
“Topia began as an idea during my MBA at LBS. I had a vision for a company that could address the issue of international employee mobility. Mobility was something close to my own experience working in different locations around Asia prior to taking the programme, and the School gave me the perfect platform to sound out different ideas and approaches to tackling the domain.”
What began as an idea quickly blossomed into a very real opportunity. Under the banner “Work Everywhere,” Topia today is the world’s first end-to-end global mobility management software suite, servicing more than 100 multinationals in the US$32bn+ technology category. The company harnesses technology to respond to mega-shifts in future of work trends: globalisation, demographic changes and AI-led disruption that are driving massive increases in remote working and employee mobility around the planet. Offering administration, data management and compliance solutions to HR teams, while managing the physical relocation needs of employees, Topia picked up the award of Workforce Game Changer in 2017.
Pitching for success
“I founded the original company as an MBA at LBS. The initial impetus came from first-hand knowledge of how cumbersome it is to have to relocate for work. During my time at the School I started looking at the market to see if anything was out there tackling this and the idea to start something up began to take hold. I took courses with Professor John Mullins, one of the world’s foremost authorities in entrepreneurship, and slowly we began to codify the hypothesis into an actual business. LBS professors were also instrumental in helping me shape my pitch to secure funding.”
Before graduating, Brynne had secured an initial grant of GBP£400,000 and “Move Guides,” the predecessor to Topia, was launched. She was well on her way to disrupting the industry. But it wasn’t all plain sailing.
“Being a female entrepreneur is really tough. And breaking into the tech sector is tougher still. The majority of venture capitalists are male and you have to work really hard to get your ideas over. It’s well known that substantially fewer VC dollars go to women, and there are a range of additional obstacles, from unconscious bias to overt harassment.”
Building the resilience
Brynne found motivation in the company’s mission to remove barriers between people and connect us as a single human race, and to be an example for other women to follow – she is passionate about playing her part in opening up the pathways for other female entrepreneurs. “When you’re starting a company, running it and taking risks, you need to believe deeply in what you are doing, and in the core values of your mission. Then you need to find a real sense of resilience in all areas.”
Brynne drew strength from a support network that included many of the ties and bonds she had made at LBS among fellow MBAs and faculty; a network that she credits with helping her find the confidence to take the first leap, and that has continued to support her in her decision-making, company financing and personal health.
“LBS gave me an incredibly strong network of friends and colleagues who have brainstormed with me out of the goodness of their hearts over the years. And a number of our investors have come from the LBS alumni network.”
Support is something that Brynne is very grateful to have received and she acknowledges the important role that help and guidance have played in her career. “Female leaders start behind in the race, so it’s hugely important to get backing and assistance where you can find it. Something that I would love to see is greater equality in things like parental leave, so that you have more equality in the home. Gender stereotypes still endure and I do believe that companies and policy-makers could do much more to address this.”
All of that being said, Brynne is incredibly passionate about entrepreneurship as a career. “Building a company is an incredible career and privilege. I recommend it to everyone – regardless of background. With hard work, you can make it a reality.”
The courage of your convictions
For aspiring female entrepreneurs looking to break into the startup space, set up their own business or even disrupt an industry, Brynne stresses the importance of building – and retaining – self-confidence.
“There will be plenty of people who will tell you that you can’t do it. When you’re a first-time entrepreneur, the majority won’t see you as being poised for success. And that’s amplified when you belong to a gender, race or any other kind of minority group. What you have to do is figure out a way of protecting and sustaining your core values and convictions.”
Brynne’s mission to connect people and places has not been limited to her work with Topia. In 2017 she founded Mobility4All, a philanthropic initiative that supports those impacted by poverty, conflict and climate change, initially refugees.
“I’ve worked with large enterprises over the last decade focusing on the 1% who have the privilege of moving around the globe for work opportunities. I also wanted to give something back to the other 1% of the population who are mobile for different reasons; people who have been displaced by war or climate change or poverty.”
In 1960, Eleanor Roosevelt shared a rather singular piece of advice. In Eleven Keys for a More Fulfilling Life, the First Lady of the United States wrote: “You must do the thing that you think you cannot do.” As a philosophy, this might very usefully describe the approach taken by Dieu Anh Khuat (MIFFT2014).
Anh arrived in the UK at the age of 16, without her family or friends, to pursue the chance of an overseas education. Driven by a desire to prove her potential and build on her life experiences, she worked with the British Council to identify a state school where she would be surrounded by UK students, be able to get first hand exposure to the British culture and polish her English language skills.
“Mine was the first generation in my family not to experience war and poverty. I wanted the opportunity to learn and prove myself. My mind was open to the challenges of being the only Vietnamese person in the room, and facing up to the linguistic and cultural obstacles this entailed.”
Fast forward to 2018 and Anh is still not averse to pushing the boundaries of her comfort zone. As Vice President in the EMEA Public Sector Group at Citigroup, she is sometimes the only woman in the room in a sector that is still predominated by men in positions of leadership. Thriving and attaining success as a woman in this competitive and fast-paced world, she says, hinges on an ability to empower yourself. That, and a willingness to keep learning.
“In a big organisation you need to find a kind of resilience to stand up for yourself and your ideas, and to keep on learning every day.”
Hungry for knowledge
The desire to learn that took Anh to the UK in the first place also brought her to London Business School (LBS) in 2013, when she secured sponsorship from Citi to pursue the full-time Masters in Finance. Eager to accelerate her career, she wanted to build on a strong foundation in economics from her degree at LSE, and consolidate the technical skills that would help her move on and upwards. What she found at LBS exceeded her expectations.
“I was at a point of transition. The skills and knowledge I had were things I’d picked up on the job, but now I needed a framework to really develop that kind of expertise in finance that would take me to the next stage in my career. LBS was a natural choice. First there was the London location, at the centre of this major finance hub, and the access to the School’s organisational ecosystem. Then there was the School’s reputation for being the foremost business school in Europe – a reputation that in my experience is completely deserved.”
Then there was the network.
“I made some of my closest friendships among my classmates and faculty – even writing case studies with one of the professors. These are relationships that really sustain me and continue to help me overcome challenges both professionally and personally. I’d say the network is the biggest thing I took away from LBS.”
The challenges facing anyone – man or woman – looking to excel in finance can be acute, says Anh. Working life is fast-paced, competitive and the hours can be very long. For women particularly, the obstacles can be hard to overcome in juggling a family life with the kind of work and travel commitments that come with responsibility. Her network has had a major role in boosting her confidence and empowering her to “find her voice.”
“Being a working mother means getting good at balancing and prioritising. There are times when I am travelling to remote parts of the world and I have to leave my young family behind. The challenges are real and they are personal, and you do have to dig deep to find the persistence. This is where I draw support and at times key advice from my network, my family and my friends.”
Women in business have a “duty” to support each other, she believes. “Whether you are at the top of your career or coming up, women understand women better. There will always be issues or problems that you are going to feel more comfortable sharing with another woman. And successful women can provide a kind of mentorship to others – as you progress up through your career you appreciate what women coming up behind you are experiencing. You’ve been in their shoes and you can empathise.”
Ask for more
For women looking to progress their career, be it in banking or in business, Anh has her own singular words of advice to share. “Surround yourself by people you aspire to become. Proactively ask for feedback. Take criticism seriously, but not personally – don’t let it get you down, sort it out and move on. And most importantly, don’t be afraid to ask.”
You have nothing to lose, she says, whether you’re asking for greater flexibility after maternity leave, or to get out to the field to visit clients. “Earlier in my career I worried about things like costs to my company if I asked to meet with clients in Europe and Africa. When I finally picked up the courage to make these requests, to my huge surprise, there was no hesitation whatsoever from senior management.”
Having the courage to ask is key. Whether it’s for advice, for support, for equality in opportunity, in access to education, or whether it’s asking more from yourself, don’t be afraid to do it, says Anh. “In most cases, if you don’t ask, you don’t get.”
Margarita Economides (MIFPT2016) has two jobs. By day she is Engagement Manager at leading management consulting firm, Oliver Wyman, while in her extracurricular hours she serves as the Global Co-Chair and London Lead of Oliver Wyman’s Women’s Network. The latter sees her create networking events; build sponsorship and mentoring opportunities; and design resources and tools that empower women at all stages of their career.
Empowering women is an important and long-held goal for Margarita. “It’s something I have always felt passionate about. We’re not yet at a time where there is equality of opportunity for men and women. Throughout my own career in financial services I’ve seen first-hand how the gender imbalance plays out and very often you are the only woman in the room. It can be daunting or difficult to feel empowered to do your best in these situations.”
Margarita’s drive to play her part in eradicating gender inequality stems from her experience at school. Attending North London Collegiate School, an all-girls school, she felt deeply empowered by staff and classmates to realise her full potential, whatever the context.
“The gender gap didn’t exist for me until I left school. We were simply unaware of it. My teachers inspired me to believe wholly in my ability and to achieve any goals I set myself. It wasn’t until I entered the world of work that I discovered things like the gender pay gap actually existed.”
Margarita knew at university that she wanted to work in finance, and secured her first job as an analyst with Morgan Stanley shortly after graduating. A few years later she transitioned to Client Solutions with BlackRock, before joining Oliver Wyman in 2016. Keen to expand beyond pure finance and into strategy, Margarita applied to join the part-time Masters in Finance degree programme at London Business School (LBS).
“I’d always been passionate about finance, but to progress I needed the business angle. LBS offered it all. There was the reputation for academic excellence and in particular, the focus on strategy that I needed to build out my skillset. LBS also offered really unique access to the kind of diversity of network that I was looking for in order to broaden my own thinking. In my cohort, in the faculty, and in other programmes there was a breadth of cultures, geographies, and industries. Everything in the School is built around an openness and willingness to engage and exchange ideas, and this extends into the alumni community, too.”
It was at LBS that Margarita’s interest and involvement in women’s empowerment took serious root. “I joined the Women in Business Club as treasurer, using my finance background to allocate budget and award sponsorships. The club was an integral part of my time at LBS and mirrored the School’s pervasive culture of engaging with others and being open to help and advise. I’ve put together a powerful network of support that I still draw from. As a consultant, I often have to start from scratch to solve businesses’ toughest problems, and so I regularly speak to members of the LBS faculty to discuss ideas and receive input.”
Defining the challenges
Margarita’s roles as Engagement Manager and as a leader of women’s issues brings her into daily contact with the kinds of challenges that women routinely face in their jobs and lives. “When you look at what women have to overcome in the workplace, I’d say the biggest hurdles are unconscious biases – those hard-wired, unspoken assumptions help by both genders that can make women more prone to doubt their skills than men.”
And then there’s the topic of sponsorship. “Sponsorship really matters for everyone, men and women alike. It works best when it’s a natural, organic process. For the people at the top of organisations, it’s usually easier or more comfortable to sponsor profiles similar to their own. The problem, of course, is that most of the senior people are men.”
Challenging stereotypes and negative thinking
At Oliver Wyman, Margarita’s work has removed many barriers to women fulfilling their full potential. She has launched training initiatives that help women self-evaluate in order to overcome stereotypes and embed confidence. Additionally, she is a passionate advocate of cross-gender sponsorship: “There’s a lot of pressure on senior women to support women coming up behind them. I believe we all have a duty to encourage others, but we need to engage with men too. Men have got to be involved in closing these gender gaps, it can’t just be down to the minority of women in positions of influence.” Margarita is now preparing to launch a new network at Oliver Wyman called “Men Matter,” which aims to engage men in conversations around gender equality.
Margarita also organises regular coaching sessions and larger panel events to explore issues like the gender pay gap. “I recently heard a great piece of advice from Alison Temperley, a career coach who spoke at an event organized by Oliver Wyman’s Women’s Network. When someone asks you how you are, instead of simply saying ‘fine’ or ‘great,’ take it as an opportunity to let that person know what you’re doing. So say something like: “I’m great! I’m working on achieving this specific goal and it’s really fascinating for these reasons...’ Use your answer to celebrate your work.”
Building self-awareness of self-limiting, negative thoughts and taking actions to counteract them should be part of every professional woman’s toolkit, says Margarita.
“If you don’t believe you have the right experience or aptitudes, be aware that this may not actually be true, nor the way others see you. You may need to reshape your thinking to believe in yourself more and rise up to the challenge.”
“I’ve been very lucky, having had strong female role models from a very early age. At school, our headteacher Bernice McCabe, taught us all to believe we could do whatever we wanted. For anyone out there who ever doubts themselves, regardless of gender, it is my purpose and pleasure to pay this support forward to you and help you achieve your full potential.”
Do women hold other women to higher account than they do men? Do female leaders expect more from women than men in their teams? Might this stem from their own experience of pushing themselves harder to achieve success than their male counterparts?
Reem Althawadi (EMBA Dubai 2016) ponders issues like these in her position as Senior Manager with PwC for Hong Kong and China, giving her yet another perspective to culture and gender issues. Based in Shanghai, Reem manages and works with a diverse team of men and women. And while challenging her team members to achieve more is a positive thing as a leader, she wonders if women in seniority ought to stop and think about what they expect from other women a little more.
“Women are slower to be promoted than men in business. Sadly that’s still the reality. And because higher standards are expected of women, I think it’s reasonable to assume that women who’ve made it to leadership positions are in some ways conditioned to demand more from other women. And whether this just perpetuates the problem.”
The problem, says Reem, stems from unconscious biases held by both genders.
Women are not innately more risk-averse than their male counterparts, more afraid of making mistakes or less inclined to believe in their ability. These behaviours come from a kind of gender-stereotyped conditioned that not only hampers women’s ascent of the career ladder, but can impair their judgment (of other women) when they make it to the top.
“Senior women need to challenge these attitudes. We need to share strong messages about how it’s OK to make mistakes, and how it’s not necessary to have everything lined up all the time. We’re conditioned to believe that we have to outperform men and ourselves to succeed, but for women in leadership I think there’s a duty to question these mindsets and open up the pathways to other women – to believe a bit more in women full-stop.”
Reem’s own pathway to leadership has taken her through both for-profit and not-for-profit sectors, by way of a degree in architecture from the American University of Sharjah, Dubai and a diverse range of roles spanning communications, media, consulting and training. Prior to joining PwC, she headed up communications for the World Wide Fund for Nature in the United Arab Emirates. She is, by her own admission, a “Jack of all trades.”
“I’ve done many different things but what pulls it all together, I suppose, is a passion for change – creating and realising intentional change – and a love of learning.”
And it’s a love of learning that brought to her to the Executive MBA at London Business School (LBS) in Dubai in 2015.
The support network “I was very keen to expand my knowledge in change management and the EMBA at LBS in Dubai delivered that. We spent a lot of time together within my cohort exploring new concepts and sharing perspectives, but we also had broadened access to very diverse groups of business practitioners across other programmes in the School – a wider network. So there was a really interesting knowledge-sharing dynamic that pushes your learning forward but also broadens out the way you approach ideas, challenges and opportunities.”
It was this wide LBS network that Reem contacted when she relocated to China. “I can’t overstate the value of this network. The first thing I did on arrival in Shanghai was reach out to the LBS network for advice and support.”
Support is key in managing change and achieving professional goals, Reem says, and particularly for women who continue to face the unique obstacles of social conditioning and inherent bias as they attempt to progress in their careers.
“It’s still pretty hard to reach the top if you are not white and male. At a junior level it’s more straightforward. Women perform well and work harder to prove themselves at university so they’re coming into their careers well qualified. This falls apart the higher you go, as you encounter unconscious biases and then things like gender-selective mentorship. The support isn’t there uniformly for women or people from marginalised backgrounds.”
For Reem, part of the answer could come in the form of a paradigm shift in how people see leadership itself.
Rethinking leadership itself
There’s a stereotype of success, she says, that prioritises a certain narcissism or a tendency to over-achieve; and it’s a standard that is not only difficult to achieve but that hinders the progress of others. “People who conform to this stereotype are less likely to help the processes of diversity or greater authenticity in leadership – they’re not going to help nurture people from marginalised backgrounds.”
Reem would welcome more “altruism” in leadership.
“I think it should be incumbent on good leaders to think responsibly about the communities their business touches – about how they impact those communities or move capital around them, and what they can do to help develop greater openness in this respect. There’s a long-held understanding of how leaders should be and act. Sharing emotions or being altruistic in your leadership can be seen as ‘fluffy’ or weak in some way. And I believe this idea is dangerous. I think that in stifling these human qualities you can do more harm than good. If we’re serious about addressing some of the big issues we face in our organisations and our societies, I think it’s time we rethink what it means to be a leader.”
“Women are expected to dress a certain way,” says Melinda Roylett (EMBAG2014). “They are judged on their appearance – how they look and what they wear – far more than their male counterparts. It’s just an example of the different challenges facing women and men, but it’s key and it’s visible.”
Head of Europe at payment service provider Square, Melinda has had a standout career in tech, which includes a 10-year tenure at PayPal. There she spearheaded a number of first-to-market and strategic initiatives, including the integration of Braintree payments business unit into PayPal Europe – a move that facilitated the company’s transition from a single product to a multi-product salesforce. At Square she leads a team that seeks to empower small and medium sized businesses with technology solutions to help them start, run and grow.
Management Times magazine dubbed her one of their “35 women to watch under 35” in 2014, and in 2017, she was nominated as one of the 50 Most Influential Women in U.K. Technology. She also holds an EMBA-Global (EMBAG) from London Business School (LBS).
Making it as a woman in business – and especially in a sector as male-dominated as the tech industry – is very much down to doing things your own way, she says.
Going your own way
“I’ve always been drawn to doing something ‘different’ and opportunities to change things. I left my job as a product manager at Lloyds TSB in London to pursue something completely new with PayPal. When I joined, the company was growing very fast, so it was an exciting time to be there with new products to bring to market and new initiatives to launch.”
The suggestion to do the EMBA-Global at LBS came from Melinda’s boss at PayPal and dovetailed with her own desire to consolidate an academic background in finance with a more nuanced understanding of international business and leadership.
“Everything about my time at the School exceeded my expectations, from the interplay between academic analysis and business focus, to the quality of the teaching, to the strength of the connections I made with incredibly talented people from every walk of life. The friends and networks I made at LBS are the strongest in my life. I still see my classmates every two months and we act as a support network to help each other out with life’s challenges.”
She has maintained close ties too with LBS faculty, whom she now invites regularly to Square offices to help her team learn. “I had amazing professors, like Richard Jolly, who give you the full benefit not only of their academic insights and perspectives but also their real-world expertise in consulting and advising many of the world’s leading business organisations. We take our teams off-site and invite LBS professors in to support our professional development and help us learn.”
You cannot be what you cannot see
Helping others – especially women – to move their career forward is something Melinda feels passionately about, so much so that during her time at PayPal she championed a number of diversity and inclusion initiatives that earned her the title of PayPal “Culture Champion” across the company.
Formally and informally she remains a mentor and sponsor of a range of people at different stages in their career. It is “incumbent on women,” she feels, to support each other, quoting Oracle’s Melissa Di Donato’s call for greater alignment and mentorship between women: “you cannot be what you cannot see.”
Equal roles, equal benefits
Melinda urges women to make a more conscious effort to break out of the pattern of self-abnegation by stepping out of their comfort zones. Taking on the jobs or projects that others deem to difficult to do, for instance, and making the effort to do them well.
“It’s about having more faith in your ability and developing the resilience to be yourself more authentically. And as women, we need to help each other do this more or things won’t change.”
Change is something that Melinda would like to see, not only in her own sector, but across the business panorama as a whole. And if there were one specific that she could change to empower women (and men) to achieve meaningful goals it would be to instigate the same parental leave regulations for all.
“I’d like there to be a six-month statutory break for women and men following the birth of a baby. I think we need to send out positive messages about the importance of home and work life balance. And we need to stress how men and women have equal roles and equal responsibilities both in the professional and personal spheres. To me that would be an excellent start and solid step forward.”
Don’t listen. If there’s one piece of advice that Silvana Oliva (SLN2017) would share with other aspiring female business leaders it would be this. “Don’t listen to other people. Focus on your own goals and aims, and foster an inner stubbornness. If others try to dissuade you from doing what you want, or discourage you from pursuing your dream, don’t listen. Anything is possible, so be ambitious.”
Silvana speaks from the heart. Her own ambition to achieve success in business took her from her native Spain to the UK to pursue a degree at the University of Hull. On graduating she progressed rapidly through a number of senior positions in telecommunications, including commercial and strategy roles with Nokia and BT respectively.
In 2017, Silvana reached an inflection point. Looking to unlock the next level in her career, she identified some critical professional development areas to develop and decided on a business qualification. It was a decision that brought her to the LBS Sloan Masters in Leadership and Strategy and to London Business School (LBS).
Overcoming the obstacles
“I’ve always been very ambitious for myself and for my career. I see my own trajectory leading to C-suite and board-level roles and so I wanted to develop greater business acumen and knowledge and the leadership skills to accelerate my progress. The Sloan MBA at LBS was an excellent choice as it’s aimed at senior decision-makers – people who have already acquired a good deal of experience and who have expertise and insights to share. And being a full-time programme, it meant I could really immerse myself in the learning journey and maximise the experience at the School.”
The programme has had a profound effect on Silvana’s capacity to identify and rationalise the different obstacles that stand between women and the most senior levels of leadership in organisations.
“It’s difficult for women to ascend right to the very top in big companies, particularly in spaces like telecoms that are notoriously male-dominated. There are a lot of unconscious biases at play that put women at a disadvantage. Part of my experience at LBS covered this: the obstacles that stand in the way of women who aspire to reach key positions. The programme made me more aware of the kinds of problems that we face and helped me develop a raft of leadership and negotiating skills that are going to be helpful to me as I advance.”
Asking for the support
Networking also has a critical role in overcoming the barriers to leadership, says Silvana. And in choosing LBS she has benefitted from a diverse and expanded network that spans different industries and has the potential to open doors to different opportunities.
“You build connections within the organisations that employ you, but to construct a really dynamic network you need to step out of your job and, ideally, your industry. The odds are more highly stacked against you as a woman, and this is where the power of the network can come in, giving you the role models, the facilitators, the references and the mentors – the people who can give you advice and make introductions when you ask for support.”
Asking for support when it’s needed is something that Silvana passionately believes in. But doesn’t this sit at odds with the notion of “not listening to other people?”
“They are two different things. I am a firm believer in listening to your inner leader and developing your own, intrinsic motivation. But I also believe in looking around you to identify the people that are really willing and able to genuinely support you where they can – in looking in the right places for the right people. And it’s equally important to overcome shyness and to be really proactive about asking for that support. I’ve had support in my life, but I’ve always had to get out there and ask for it.”
The importance of education
She also believes in allowing aspirations to take root and blossom, and in coating them in a protective layer of “stubbornness.” In this regard, she acknowledges that she has been lucky.
“Believing in yourself and aspiring to achieve things is something that starts young. And for that reason it needs to be ingrained in our childhood, and in our education. Unfortunately a lot of women around the world don’t have access to the kind of education that allows them to aspire, let alone to reach their goals. I’ve been very lucky in this regard to have had an education that enabled me to give my intellectual curiosity full rein and that has not penalised me for being stubborn about my goals.”
If she could change one thing in the world that would help level the playing field for women and men, she says, it’s this.
“Equality starts at an early age. Schooling and more importantly, parenting, should be equal for both girls and boys. Girls should be encouraged to believe in themselves just as much as their male counterparts. If there’s one thing I could do to redress the gender balance, it would be to have more women trust in themselves and their ability to figure things out from an early age – small changes that lead inevitably to bigger change. I’d welcome that.”