Women mean business!

I had the opportunity to attend the Women in Asian Business Conference themed Inspire, Challenge and Change (organized by Deutsche Bank) yesterday. I had been waiting for this since the last few weeks as the speaker line-up looked amazing. Well the wait was worth it! There were some amazing conversations and I left the conference totally inspired, challenged and ready to bring some change!

I was hoping to do live-blogging from the conference, however, due to no Wi-Fi, got down to note taking.

“You really cannot be what you cannot see!” What a bang on statement to begin one’s speech. Jennifer Siebel Newsom was the first featured speaker and she spoke about the impact that media has in our lives. I was astonished to find out that an average American kid consumes more than 10 hours of media a day! She mentioned about how media is consumed and how it dictates our culture. For more information, check out her documentary Miss Representation. She highlighted to the audience that it is we who are in the driver’s seat. And our lives are about not just our external physical appearances, but about our brain, about who we are inside and about our contribution to this world.

It was then time for the panel session with panelists, both male and female, ranging from different industries, each with their own impressive stories.

Reshaping workplaces differently and breaking stereotypes were the common answers for the ways women can take leadership roles without sacrificing their roles as mothers and wives. Surprisingly (well may be not that surprising!) it was found that when entry level professionals are asked if they would be willing to take a job anywhere around the world, majority of women say no and almost all men say yes.

The questions then came to having women quotas – one of my favorite topics when it comes to gender diversity. I liked how most of the panel agreed that they did not believe in having a deliberate quota policy, but rather hiring the best person for the job. But there is a catch to that! Claire Chiang emphasized how important it is for CEOs to be able to spot talent, to walk the talk when it comes to mentoring women and to have women in their succession plans – in other words, to make a ‘voluntary commitment’ to supporting women. She mentioned that when the boardroom has more women, by default a woman would be heard better and share better insights. I loved how she mentioned that the ‘supposed’ glass ceiling is cracky and the only thing needed now is to have a tool to shatter that ceiling allowing women to fly high up in the sky!

Another reflective quote from the panel was that it is only when you stand on the shoulders of giants, that you can see very far, which very well sums up the importance of having sponsors and mentors in your career. It was also emphasized that it is not enough to just be a sponsor, but also important to tag your best people along while you climb the stairs (just like men tend to do), enabling them to climb the stairs of their career simultaneously.  Georges Desvaux noted how there are not enough women in the workforce to sponsor all other women down the chain, therefore, it is absolutely necessary that men also raise their hands to mentor women.

Next came the most awaited section! The Q&A with Kiran Bedi – one of the women I look up to ever since I was a kid – Yes, Madam. Sir! When asked how did she come about to being called Sir – she said simply – She was just being herself. The people did not know there was a sir in that girl.

She said how it was through “performance” that she shut the mouths of her critics; the performance that comes without trying hard to be someone else, by being naturally, authentically yourself. She said we should take as much comes our way and more and be ready for challenges and taking risks. The goal should be “not to beat the best, but to be the best”.  She emphasized how important it is for girls (in addition to their academics) to play competitive sports from a young age as it teaches them how to win and lose very early in life (she herself was an Asian tennis champion who used to head to the court straight from school for tennis practice everyday). They should not be mere spectators; because if they learn to compete early, they will reach the boardroom too. There is a need for girls to have a strong sense of self-confidence and one has to desire to get what she desires.

She then spoke about her experiences at the Tihar Jail; how she made it into an ashram sorts from a prison through collective, corrective, community based action. One thing she said which really resonated with me was “You must be trustworthy; if people know what you are doing is for their good, not your own selfish good, then they will follow you.” She was the highlight of the evening for me – left me totally spellbound with her authenticity, her energy and her candidness. And guess what, she was so approachable and friendly at the end after the conference when people were lining up to talk to her.

Next came the closing speaker for the evening – Mrs. Moneypenny – a charming lady with a nice sense of humor. Those of you who read the Financial Times must know her. She gave 10 tips for women to be successful in their careers from her recent book. Here you go:

1)   Accumulate human capital. Success is like a deodorant, which helps to ward off the smell of failures.

2)   Acquire social capital – if they trust you, they will help you. You should have someone who can pick the phone for you.

3)   There is no such thing I can’t do. What do you want to do? What experience do you need to go and get it?

4)   Learn to say No. Prioritize.

5)   You can’t have it all – understand your own ambitions. You can’t have it in parallel, though you can have it one after the other. Therefore, plan your career breaks and make sure to upgrade your skills during those breaks.

6)   You can’t have it all, but have to do it all – so outsource, multitask.

7)   Financial literacy is very important – you have to know your finances. Have a number end line in mind for your life. Work hard to understand the metrics of annual reporting of your company.

8)   Have a third dimension (my favorite!) – Run home, work but have something in addition e.g. volunteer, charity, sports, etc. It helps to build your CV and makes you interesting.

9)   Get noticed – spend 5% of your time on self-publicity. Do your own PR, present yourself well, have fun and laugh at yourself. She gave an example of how she carries the FT in her purse every single day.

10)   Build a team you don’t pay, you don’t control. To get someone to support us, do something for them (ties in with third dimension).

And to end it, she said take trophies as they come. Inspire and get inspired. There exists a special place in Hell for those women who did not help other women.

That sums up the WAB 2012. I really enjoyed being at the conference and feel lucky that I was able to attend. Now over to start implementing some of the advice from above and looking forward to WAB 2013!