CRISTINA VICINI, born in Bologna, is an International Director, accredited by IFA (France, Québec) and Guberna (Belgium), and active in Europe and North America. She worked 25 years in the technology and innovation sector (ICT services, engineering, new and green technologies and media, advisory services). Cristina was Director of Sales Europe for the International Organizations with T-Systems; Global Business Development Manager with Microsoft; and Strategic Marketing Manager with Siemens Business Services, in Germany.
Moreover, her experience as an entrepreneur includes the international development of the family-owned company (electro-mechanical engineering and manufacturing for the medical sector) as a COO for international operations, international development, and innovation, leading a.o. to the award of a new technology patent in the USA in September 2010. In the non-profit sector, Cristina served as Chair of Boston University MET’s Advisory Board for International Programs, in Brussels, and as 2nd Vice President of The International Alliance for Women, a global NGO based in the USA. Cristina, fluent in five languages, holds a Masters of International Management from Boston University and a Masters with honors in Computer Science from the University of Brussels (ULB). Since January 2006, she is Managing Director and Founder of her own Management Consulting practice: VICINI STRATEGY & CONSULTING, which advises companies and NGOs to grow internationally and in a sustainable way.
EPN is delighted to interview such a remarkable woman with such an ample background as a professional. You are actually the first woman we interview and we are very curious about your life, career path and core values. We would like to know more about your experience. How did you reach your current position? What did you study?
I entered university in the 80s and chose to study Computer Science for two reasons; first of all for the strong scientific content of the curriculum, which was my preferred area of interest. Secondly, but not the least, because at the time Computer Science was a new area and advertised as the future of the economy and the labor market. I was looking for a profession which would allow me to sustain myself and at the same time that would challenge me intellectually. For me, it was very important to reach and build economic independence.
When I look back, after many years, I realise how much my parents influenced my interests and choices. My father being a telecommunications engineer and my mother having a financial background, I was fortunate to be exposed to a good mix of complementary experiences. While I arrived in university with an idea of what I liked, it is only during the studies that I started to discover other disciplines, also thanks to the feedback of other fellow students and professors. They would tell me that I was good at marketing and communicating about new technology applications, which was a real surprise to me; or that I was really good at finding new business ideas based on technology.
That is when I understood that those skills would really help me to make the difference in my job. So, I drifted more and more towards what my mother had studied, starting from what my father had inspired me with, combining both models. Anyone you meet in your life has an impact, you don’t realise it straightway but you do later.
What kind of challenges did you meet on the way and how did you overcome them – as a woman and as an entrepreneur?
I was actually very lucky. I studied here in Brussels in ULB, and while in my cursus we were from the start a very limited number of women, I never saw that as a challenge. I was used to that ratio since highschool and I never felt any discrimination at all; to the contrary. People behaved really well around me and I thought all I was hearing about discrimination to women in the professional environment was something that had already disappeared with my generation.
Only afterwards, in the business life, away from the engineering and scientific environment, I started sensing that the fact that I was a female had an impact on the career options I was given, which I really did not understand. For me the challenges came when I started to discover different cultures and countries in which women were perceived in different ways, when I had to learn to deal with – not necessarily the prejudices – but at least the expectations. I had always valued myself as an individual and not as part of a category, so business life was a true “reality check” in that sense. Becoming part and then President of a business women organisation, I discovered first of all that I was not the only one in that situation.
At the same time, it has been an opportunity for deeper reflection on what motivates and drives people in business and if and where there are really differences in behaviours and expectations between genders, generations and cultures, learn how to generate positive and creative energy from that instead of frustration. The point is really about learning about and respecting each other; understanding the stakes; listening and really seeing how we can bring our brain together to achieve a better goal. This makes the quality in leadership.
When you are in a business environment, you are under a lot of pressure to deliver and to stay focused, but the day you invest the time to really know your team and the people around you, it is true that the collective performance improves dramatically.
I would like to ask you a more personal question. Are you married? If yes, how do you manage to combine your private life with your (we assume very busy) work schedule? In fact, we interviewed Mr. Baldinato, Member of the Cabinet of Antonio Tajani, Vice-President of the European Commission, responsible for Industry and Entrepreneurship. Whilst speaking about women entrepreneurship, he stated that when we specifically address the issue of women entrepreneurship we face a basic problem: women’s lack of time. He said and we quote that: “At the end of the day, a woman is confronted with her motherhood role and finds it difficult to combine good quality work with family, to be fully committed to business activities and caring responsibilities altogether. Do you agree with his point of view or everything is possible?
By definition everything is possible. I believe that entrepreneurship is not incompatible with a family life. Today we see many examples and testimonials of very successful entrepreneurs and professional women. It is true that in our society there is still more pressure on women especially around child care and education. However, the phenomenon is less pronounced in the new generations and the sharing of traditionally more “home-related” chores is more and more balanced between the man and the woman in the family. And there is a very pragmatic reason for that.
Our economies and social security systems expect each single individual to contribute financially, no matter if man or woman, no matter if they compose a family or not. This is a huge change c compared to the way our parents lived. Since men and women must both be active in the workforce to contribute in our economy, accepting to share parental duties and responsibilities is the natural evolution of this century and quite common in the new generations. Once again, it is Scandinavia that has shown that such a lifestyle is possible and not demeaning for anyone in the couple.
To the contrary: children benefit immensely from seeing both their parents more often and learning from both parents about values, family history and education, especially today that the “multi-generational” family nuclei (with parents and grand-parents geographically close), are more and more rare. Denying this is denying the evidence.. So it is possible for women to make the time for an entrepreneurial career or at least to make more time! In this sense companies have a role to play in allowing both men and women employees to take family time off and in encouraging mentalities to change and adapt to the new realities of our century. Women networks are also extremely important today, because of the experiences exchange new entrepreneurs can have with women that are already successful and that can “mentor” them, advise them, or even only encourage them. It’s very important to keep on learning and remain inspired. More experienced women also learn a lot from the mentoring exercise – sometimes even creating new business opportunities.
We visited your website and we have seen that the VICINI STRATEGY deals with international management. Your company supports enterprises to develop internationally and executives in different domains (to mention a few ones: International Business Development, Strategic Alliances, Enterprise Development, Strategic Marketing and Sales, Multi-cultural teams’ Management, Information and Communication Technologies and Services – Software and Telecommunications, Lobbying, CSR and Government Relations with International Organizations). How did you start-up your own business?
I must say I had always wanted to start as an entrepreneur even when I was in computer science at university. At that time however, there were so many opportunities coming from international technology groups – which by the way were also leaders in research and innovation – that it was hard not to join them as an employee. Vicini Strategy started therefore much later, when two things happened at the same time.
On the one hand the rapid shift of innovation potential from multinational groups to SMEs and on the other my desire to apply all I had learned to the fullest, while remaining close to my dear ones. So when my family company – a small medium business working for large multinationals in the electronics sector – needed to internationalise, my experience of how multinational clients operate became very handy. In addition, I was asked to become the President of a very interesting non-profit association, which had a lot of potential, but needed to be revitalized. I have to say it was a fantastic journey. So I started with these very challenging entrepreneurial projects and got hooked… What has been very important are both the building of something new and useful from the business side, as well as the sharing and transmission of experience with really great people.
We would like to know more about your work. What is the Vicini Strategy about in practice?
What I do basically is to help organisations to grow in a sustainable way. Sustainable for me means internationally, because there is no market that it is local anymore. Especially with the new technologies, every business needs new technologies and through that you have immediately access to the global market. I also help businesses to be competitive because they have to follow the beat and to think strategically on how they want to invest the resources they have. I also work with larger companies – as an independent non-executive director or as an advisor to CEOs, to find and implement a winning strategy in the global economy. It’s all about innovation, strategy, creativity and most of all people! Making the most of everyone’s talent. It is fun and I am really passionate about it, taking into account all the experience I accumulated in the past.
How did you make contacts to start your business?
Well, I had built many contacts before through my past careers. In fact, I now know that with everything you do, you build for your future; this is something that even if you don’t want to, it comes back to you every time. Especially in Brussels! It’s such a small world that you can always meet someone again. Brussels is a bubble ! You can also meet people in other countries that where in Brussels before, because there is so much transition. Brussels gave me the opportunity to reach out and learn a lot about networking. With new technologies now, it’s all exponentially fast.
EPN is a lot about networking and you cannot afford to take it for granted because it’s not easy…
Indeed it is not. One of the purposes of the network I was leading was to favor cultural exchange and also business exchange. A lot of people here in Brussels are international, staying a bit of time and then leave; when they arrive they don’t have necessarily someone to talk to. In my case, it was a network of women in business, mostly executive and at mid-management level who would have to deal with the new environment of the company without knowing anyone in their division because they were new here – or because they were the only women in a responsibility position.
So it was a great opportunity for them to meet other people with the same challenges, to learn from each other, share expertise, find role models and together learn how to cope with a society that was unknown to them as well as with diversity at all levels. It was not only a network for women though; I brought in corporations as well. So, both men and women were part of it because we are a mixed society and it has to be a normal environment.I am fortunate to do what I am passionate about and it’s also interesting how leadership styles have changed in the companies, what people expect from leadership and entrepreneurship developments; motivation and performance have been adopted also in large or small corporations as much as in the public sector. I think that now “it’s the right time”.
We first met at the ACCA Conference (Fighting inequality and supporting diversity: Europe’s big challenge?) where you presented the Global Board-Ready Women initiative. We already know that it is a great initiative consisting of a searchable database where companies can find women who already serve on a board or who are ready to take on a new mandate and have to meet a clear set of criteria of competences and qualifications. How everything started?
Basically, the point was that there was this recurrent theme or excuse to justify that there were not many women on Boards of Directors because there are not enough qualified women, which was really odd, because when I was young, I was involved in a leadership program in a fantastic multinational group which was really engaged in preparing women to leadership positions. So, it was really happening! And surprisingly, 20 years later, we are still saying that women are not prepared and it doesn’t make much sense. I was also chair of the Advisory Board of Boston University here in Brussels and when meeting other people from the academic world I was hearing: << Look! Among our alumnae there are many qualified women with 20/25 years of experience and at very high-level position or top business owners. So, how come people still say that there not enough qualified women?!
Thus, we joined forces with other Business Schools through the European Business Schools/Women on Board initiative, lead by Candace Johnson (Advisory board of Sabanci University) and supported by EU Commissioner Viviane Reding, bringing together all the profiles that responded to the criteria, and we found out 2000 profiles in a few weeks. Now, they are 8000! We have made the initiative global, because the objective of this initiative is not only to find women that are qualified but also qualified women beyond national borders. Again our economy is international now, it’s global.
We cannot expect companies having people with one single nationality if they want to thrive worldwide. A lot of women here in Europe come from other countries, being them the United States, Africa or India; and if they are qualified, if they have the experience, of course they can be on boards and they should be absolutely considered as an asset by the companies.
Were you one of the founders of the GBRW?
It was indeed founded by Candace Johnson, who also is the founder of SES Astra satellite corporation, and after a lunch in 2010 with Viviane reading andMcKinsey, we then joined forces to launch it globally in 2012. We launched it as the EU business School – Women on Board initiative at first, and after, the 12December 2012, it became the Global Board-Ready Women initiative on LinkedIn, in partnership with the Financial Times Non-Executive Directors’ Club and the Forté Foundation in the USA.
What are the reasons for creating such a great initiative?
On one side you have this talented workforce and qualified people, and on the other, you all this talent is not reaching its full potential and seems invisible to corporation that could need them. When you are in the business sector and you see such a gap… there is something wrong! It would be unthinkable in such hard times to see that nothing is being done to break the barriers to the growth of the economy. With the GBRW, it is clear that there are qualified women: qualification is not really the issue! If someone wants qualified women for their boards they can check the database and see why there are strict criteria of governance, it can serve as a big incentive. We have a lot of adhering entities: business associations, chambers of commerce, universities and now also big executive search firms, and it is still growing. In the GBRW database, entrepreneurial women who could build a sizeable or very innovative business play a very important role.
It shouldn’t be about numbers but this issue is deeply linked to quotas. What is your sincere opinion about quotas?
Quotas are – of course – a sad thing, but they represent an instrument to accelerate change. It also depends on how quotas are being applied; every instrument can be used in a good or a bad way. In the case of women on boards when you look at the numbers of the members on boards, it would be sufficient to add one or maybe two women to reach the target ratio, so honestly it is not a big deal to find one woman out of 8000. If you are a creative leader, you can organise your team putting together the talents you need in a very mixed way, also by creating new positions and by using all the tools you need to bring the right talents around you.
That is one of the powers of leadership; leaders are there to make changes and give the opportunity to everyone who can make a contribution. The result today is that we have a big discrepancy between a talented pool of women and how they are asked to contribute. When you are in a leadership position you have the full potential to make a change and use these unexploited talents in the best way.
How would you attract more women to male dominated work fields like yours (i.e: entrepreneurship, science, technology, engineering… )?
I truly believe role models are very important and I was very fortunate to have role models in my family; but it doesn’t necessarily have to be a family member. Role models can also be around us like teachers, entrepreneurs, today we hear about entrepreneurship ambassadors. A lot is being written about entrepreneurship in the press and that is very positive. It is really important to give the perception that entrepreneurship is good, that it can change the world to the better and that anyone of us can bring an added value and succeed. It is important to know that in our economy we can create new opportunities. You must be able to dream and see that your dreams can be fulfilled.
Do you have a role model?
I have many role models, men and women, inspiring from various walks of life or professions. Interestingly enough, some of these role models are in full contradiction with the usual stereotypes about men and women. Some men for instance can be more empathetic then women in average. It is not a gender issue: it is really about the person and how he or she can inspire by being exceptional at what they do.
EPN in collaboration with UNITEE, have organised an event for the 2nd of March based on NEW TALENTs, with this term we mean young talented professionals with migrant background. At the ACCA committee you mentioned “Companies have to stretch themselves not only by looking for new talents, but also by redefining what kind of talent they really need to build the company of the future”. How would you define a young talent?
You need the appropriate criteria to look for talents and these criteria evolve in time. We have to think about the company of tomorrow and it has to be in line with what the world is today. An example is for the selection of supervisory board members: the talent pool has expanded, so why are companies using old criteria to find their directors? For me the real challenge is being in line with our times and use the full range of opportunities. We need to have a clear vision about what kind of talents we need – technical and professional but also personal talents, experiences and skills and look everywhere for those. It can be men, it can be women, young or old … but the point is how they are going to help the company fulfill its current and future mission and create value in a consistent and ethical way.
Do you have any suggestion for young people wishing to start-up their own business? Any particular tip for our young professionals?
Here in Europe nowadays there are a huge amount of tools and organisations that can help you. But the most important thing: never stop being curious, educate yourself and surround yourself with the right people: people who are competent and that you trust – which is not easy and requires a lot of investment in time. Moreover, you can find today many networks of entrepreneurs who can help you with their experience. The most difficult thing could be access to finance at the beginning but if you have a good network and if you build a solid business case, it is possible. PHDs are also always valuable, because they give you more credibility and help to create a network you can start with. If you have the chance and means, go for it!