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I walked into the entryway of the Casino de Montbenon, still not 100% sure I was in the right place, as I usually do. I was greeted by smiling people and a warm atmosphere. The lady who checked my ticket had drawing supplies on her desk for the children present. I walked into the auditorium to take my seat and, as people started coming in, I was struck by the diverse audience. Men and women of all ages and ethnicities were there to attend. Before sitting down next to me, a woman introduced herself. I felt welcome and eager to listen to the talks.

Keynote: Role Models and record breaking

Sylvia poll

Sylvia Poll, the first olympic medal holder for Costa Rica, came onto the stage to talk about her experience of being a swimmer in a country where swimming wasn’t all that popular, which meant that, even as she got better and better, she didn’t get much support from the government. She talked about how the pool she trained in wasn’t heated, and how she still had to go to school during normal hours, which meant she woke up at 3am each day to train before class. She talked about what she did in her life after she decided to retire from swimming at 24 - which is to say, many things (now, she works at the ITU).

Here are some lessons Sylvia Poll learned from sports that she thinks we can (and should) all apply to ourselves:

  • There’s value and wining, and there’s value in losing. Show enough humility to appreciate losing and use it as a way to get better.
  • It’s good to have clear and planned out goals to strive for.
  • Discipline is not something you are born with, it’s a process. Poll trained for 8 years for her 1:57.68 performance at the Olympics. She wasn’t working for money, but for something she wanted and was passionate about.
  • Every success is a team success. She couldn’t have made it without her mother driving her to the pool to train, without her coach, without her fellow swimmers, even without her schoolmates who took notes for her during the classes she had to miss. Acknowledge each member of your team.
  • If you want to be a good leader, you have to lead by example. You can’t expect your team to do something you don’t. Being a role model is a 24/7 job and you never know who’s looking at you and learning from you.

Sylvia’s role models include her mother (that was something many of the speakers shared), and the first woman president of Costa Rica, Laura Chinchilla Miranda.

Panel: great women leaders and resilience

Biliana Vassileva, Floriza Gennari, Katherine Schlinder, Nikia Brown, Lelia Weyrich

Biliana Vassileva is the founder of the Swiss Failure Academy, aiming to help people use failure to grow and to stop seeing it as a catastrophe. The five women on the panel each shared a story from their life that exemplified how they were resilient in the face of difficulties and what helped them be. Here are their tips:

  • Leila: Work as a team and push each other. Rely on your family (specifically, she talked about her mother). Put your difficulty in perspective.
  • Nikia: Your expectations and plans won’t always become true. Pivot, try different approaches. Put your situation in perspective. Be present where you are.
  • Katy: Don’t question yourself too much if you want to convince people. Have supporters (seek them out!). Learn which parts of feedback you should listen to, and learn not to take feedback personally.
  • Floriza: Even if you are a privileged position, you still have the right to not feel good. Show yourself kindness and compassion. Don’t be scared or ashamed to seek help if you need it. Have a vision of your goal that you can use to motivate yourself. Take baby steps. Find or create your own space.
  • Biliana: Say no when you need to. Don’t try to be everywhere at once. For Biliana, times when she said yes to everything were happy but she felt she lost herself in them. Times when she said no were hard but helped her grow.

One thing Biliana asked the audience to do during this panel seemed strange at first but ended up really enhancing the experience for me, and it stuck with me. She asked us to snap our fingers if someone on the panel said something we connected to. It’s a great non-disruptive way to signal agreement and encourage the speakers.

Keynote: My leadership story: what I learned along the way

Jana Walker

One thing about Jana that really stood out throughout her keynote was the great sense of self-confidence she exuded. She told us of very unpleasant comments and situations she had to overcome during her career, all with a smile and no waver in her tone.

Jana Walker is now the CEO of SwissPrimePack, and she mentioned a few factors that she believes shaped her career path: She first studied in Slovakia, where the mothers around her were fully employed. When she got married and came to Switzerland, she got a second degree from the university of St.-Gallen. She also stressed the fact that she became a mother quite early, and so started her career when her daughters were 3 and 5 years old. In situations of discrimination, she always stood her ground and pointed out objective facts that played in her favour.

She closed her keynote by pointing out that “none of these stories would have happened if [she] were a man”. She believes certain things need to be enforced by law (specifically, equal pay), and that culture still needs to change.

Short films: Antonia, Mare Advertencia Lirika

Maria Fernanda Galindo

Two portraits of Mexican women exploring typically male careers and life paths. Antonia decided the typical married life her family had wanted her to have wasn’t for her, and she left it behind to become a pilot. Mare Advertencia is a rapper who writes to make women’s voices heard and give courage.

Panel: Unsung hero(in)es

Mary Mayenfisch, Adam Polka, Marthe Dehli, Agota Balai, Angela Steck, Ruby Bakshi Kurdi

Mary Mayenfisch was the moderator for this panel, and asked a couple of questions for the other speakers to answer. Before that, she explained how she’d asked each participant who they were in order to introduce them in their own words, and many of them had included their age and/or number of children. She said that was something she would never have done for fear of being stereotyped, and added that she thought it was good that the panelists decided to include those factors, because we all needed to stop being afraid of bringing up some aspects of our lives.

The first question Mary asked was “Why would you say you are a hero or a heroine?”. One thing came forward many times during the discussion: it’s very difficult to call yourself something like a hero·ine. Here are some interesting points that were brought up:

  • Agota: She comes from Hungary, where mothers work. In Switzerland, she had to stay at home for five years. She started an initiative to help mothers get back into the job market.
  • Ruby: It’s hard for women to consider themselves as number one priority, especially in Switzerland, where you easily feel the guilt of “neglecting” your children.
  • Angela: Heroes in the real world are vulnerable, sensitive and empathic. They take big or small actions to maintain the balance of the world and they have a clear picture of why they’re doing it.
  • Marthe: She is very proud of never having answered anyone’s expectations. Her life path is unexpected and unconventional.
  • Adam: A hero is in the eye of the beholder. He is proud of having had to be the “trailing spouse” to his wife when she got a job opportunity in Switzerland and of being a stay-at-home dad.

Then, the speakers were asked what the biggest challenge they had faced was. Here are some points:

  • Agota: Making mothers understand that a change in society requires common action.
  • Ruby: Coming from India, everyone around her was convinced that life in Switzerland would be a fairytale for Ruby. When she felt trapped and confused, when she regretted not having a job, she couldn’t share and had to power through on her own.
  • Angela: Giving herself permission to make a living from something that she loves. She was a life coach as a volunteer for ten years, and now owns her own coaching business.
  • Marthe: Being unemployed for the first time and not having a clear reason to get up early and be active.
  • Adam: Having to juggle between his different roles and, on his worst days, feeling like he’s failing at all of them. He also mentioned how underestimated the work-relevant skills gained from parenting are.

Keynote: Pursue your dream career

Prof. Anna Fontcuberta i Morral

Anna Fotcuberta i Morral is a professor at EPFL and the president of the Wish Foundation. She talked about the road she followed to get where she was, and gave tips for anyone wanting to pursue a dream.

Her tips:

  • Look for role models, inspirations, mentors (for five minutes or your whole life).
  • Have goals that are attainable (which means they’ll build your confidence in yourself) and that will teach you about yourself.
  • Work hard in fulfilment.
  • Take baby steps. Slow progress is still progress.
  • View failure as necessary and learn to advance from it.

She also mentioned that she was thankful for her naïve view of things, which means she didn’t keep herself from following what she loved.

What difficulties she sees often in her work with the Wish foundation:

  • You may have unconscious biases about yourself that could hinder your progress.
  • Female students often suffer from impostor syndrome and find excuses for their own success.

Panel: Modern pioneers

Nicole Schwab, Bettina Palazzo, Alma Moya Losada, Daniel Eisenhut

Daniel Eisenhut is an artist that has worked on marginalised groups multiple times and is now working on the “1000 Leaders” project. He started by asking some women leaders in his network if he could draw their portraits at their work. The project grew, and now there are around 100 portraits. He talked about the fact that when he asked women leaders to tell him about their successes, what he wanted, what he expected, as a man, was individual successes, but they told him about team successes. Rather than speaking of male leaders and female leaders, he believes we should think in terms masculine or feminine leadership styles. To him, we’ve “used up” masculine leadership, and we need to shift the balance.

Bettina Palazzo is a researcher, consultant, and teacher in Business Ethics and Corporate Social Responsibility. She explained that the problem with more ethical (or more vulnerable, feminine) leadership comes with the lack of understanding of business ethics in society at large (for example the belief that to change the way a company works, you need to change out a few people at the top, without looking at the context) and even in companies themselves (they agree to put measures into place to make leadership ethical but do not change the incentive system in their business, so people experience the same kind of pressure and make the same mistakes over and over again).

Alma Moya Losada is the founder of Aequaland, a start-up developing an application with interactive stories to teach children that the outcomes of their life and their character are not determined by their gender (for examples, they use shapes as characters to show very young kids that diversity is important because it allows for complementarity). Many points that she brought up touched on the importance of language and communication, and the fact that words can mean different things for different people. One example that was discussed was the word “feminine”, which is linked to many stereotypes but can be used in different ways.

Nicole Schwab, an author and social entrepreneur, concluded by asking each panelist what they thought being a modern pioneer meant. Here are their answers:

Daniel: Confronting the fear.
Bettina: You get to discover new things, it’s a good experience.
Alma: The future isn’t a place you go, it’s a place you get to create.

Panel: Find your own leadership style

Petya Barraud, Ann Wood, audience participation

Petya and Ann asked the audience two questions about our own experience with leadership, and we answered them in pairs. First, they asked us to come up with a situation where we demonstrated leadership, and where our idea was accepted over some others. Then, they asked us to revisit that situation and established which leadership style we had used. Here are the five leadership styles that were presented to us:

  • Authoritarian - Tells others what to do.
  • Democratic - Discusses, listens to everyone’s opinions, holds a vote.
  • Laisser-faire - Delegates and is present to encourage the already competent group.
  • Transformative - Uses charisma, motivates others, is authentic, focuses on the big picture.
  • Situational - Mixes different leadership styles.

They also asked us to keep in mind that leadership is a process, and that even great leaders keep learning about it every day, that most decisions are made in small groups (as opposed to by a single person), and that each day, we are all a part of decisions where leadership is being demonstrated.

Finale

Sara Mayenfisch, Robin Bartholini, Aubane Guex, Joachim Guex, Lorie Guillod, Dylan Monnard, Rafael Loretan

The group of students from the Conservatoire de Lausanne concluded the event by performing a few songs they feel can inspire us to work together and help each other more.

Take-aways and conclusion

Many of the experiences people shared during the afternoon highlighted the still traditional view of family structure in Switzerland. Hearing it made me look around me at the families I know and realise that more often than not, the mother stayed at home for a very long time after having children, or still is, even though the children are now adults.

The choices in panelists were refreshingly diverse, but no matter the person’s background, age, gender, origins, etc, I managed to connect to at least one of the things each speaker said. Beyond how words define each of these people, there was always a desire to share an experience to enable others to learn from it, or to help them feel less alone.

The discussion often emphasised the fact that stereotypically female-associated traits were often seen as negative, but that this fact needs to change and we need to allow our leaders to be more "feminine", no matter their gender.

The talks also reminded me of the importance of working together. Be it in a couple, in a family, at work, or with people who share your vision. Of course, there is a lot of work still to be done but I couldn’t help but come out of the event feeling positive and motivated.