Circular Economy and Women Leadership

There’s plenty of talking these days about corporate responsibility and business interests in sustainable development. Women leadership and gender empowerment are drivers for more sustainable business practices and profitable impact creation. Yesterday I had the pleasure of attending an event at the Singapore Sustainability Academy that combined these two – women leadership and responsible, sustainable business.

The Singapore Sustainability Academy (SSA), which was opened on World Environment Day on June 5 this year, is a training and networking facility on sustainability, “promoting low carbon economy, resource efficiency and sustainable practices among businesses and the community.”

The SSA further serves as a platform for the Women4Green initiative that the property owner and developer CDL has kick-started. Sustainability at the Singapore’s own private sector property developer has been led by a power-woman Esther An for a long time, and she has served as a role model for many women in sustainability. It is no wonder that CDL then has taken up the challenge of leading sustainable development not only in their own comfort zone but much beyond.

Yesterday, the topic of the panel discussion and event was thought-leadership in circular economy, featuring and promoting successful circular economy business models. Four companies were represented in this sharing and learning panel; CDL, Accenture, Interface and Ikea. And I doubt it being a coincidence all representatives were women: Experienced, smart and passionate business practitioners and leaders in their different industries.

Interface’s Chief Sustainability Office Erin Meezan obviously has a lot to share, as the company could righteously be called the world’s leading sustainability company. They have been incorporating sustainability into their core operations for decades, and currently are advocating for “Climate Take Back” – a vision of reversing climate change through collaborative action of all stakeholders. Pretty bold. “Take back” models are common circular economy opportunities and now a company is saying let’s use this for taking back our climate, work together to not only stop climate change but change it to positive.

Interface is not a consumer-facing company and in that a lesser known brand for a wider audience. A company that reaches consumers and has an impact on their consumption and awareness, is Ikea. I mean, who hasn’t heard of Ikea? And they are luckily using their reach and visibility to advocate for sustainability as well, and with amazing initiatives at that. At the event their SEA sustainability chief Hui Mien Lee shared how Ikea has taken sustainability into their core operations; they have a democratic design committee for new product development, meaning that all product design is weighed against their five principles of form, function, quality, sustainability and low price. And all five have to be met in order for the product to go into production and sales. They also use an internal sustainability scorecard for each of their products and measure sales against it.

Circular economy is the future of business and a way for more sustainable future. Yesterday’s discussion provided examples of successful circular economy models that are profitable and responsible. And as shared by inspiring women leaders in such different industries (and often male-dominated), the event achieved great energy for pushing for more collaboration. By learning from each other and working with each other we truly can achieve positive impact through creation of sustainable business models that follow the Triple Bottom Line framework and add purpose to the mix. And women leadership.








Are You Working for Free?

Are NGOs the new interns of the workforce?

Recently I had a discussion on this with a friend who leads a women empowerment NGO, and who’s been frustrated on the lack of financial support commitments from the private sector in honor of their work together. Companies are increasingly interested in hiring them to work together, but paying in pennies. As if an NGO didn’t deserve to be paid for the expertise work they do?

I’m a keen advocate and believer of NGO – private sector partnerships. There’s great potential for the private sector to make their operations more sustainable, to boost responsible and profit-creating business practices through partnerships with different NGOs, who have ground-level connections and expertise for example for sustainable supply chain development or community engagement. Interest and understanding for the opportunities have been growing steadily.

But do the partnerships create value for those doing the work? Are the NGOs benefiting from all the work they do for the private sector, fairly?

During my university years, one of the most common topics among students was unpaid internships. Great work experience, CV development, connections were often offered – but no paycheck. This applies from private sector to government bodies. Students, and worst even fresh graduates, have for longest time been expected to be working for free. And typically also without a hope of an employment within the said workplace, leaving them with nothing but experiences to pay their debts.

The internship problem has not faded away, but it has clearly escalated. Beyond recruiting young graduates to work for free, employers are now turning to NGOs with similar expectations. It seems common to engage an NGO for a partnership with potentially a nominal fee, to do work that otherwise would likely have been undertaken by a consultant charging a much higher amount.

NGOs or small businesses further face a dilemma of being expected to finish a major part of the job before getting a guarantee of any kind of payment. This applies to project funding applications which often require days, weeks, months even planning and preparation and have no guarantee of success. Service contracts, where half the work needs to be completed before agreement is even signed. Designers being asked for the design to prove the expected quality, before contracting or paying. Translators needing to do part of the translation to show their capacity. These are just a few samples I’ve come across, with huge risks and uncertain payments for individuals or small operators and full power for the bigger “partner” to determine the terms and whether agreement will be granted or honored.

Why do young fresh graduates work for free? Why do NGOs accept lowly paid partnership services? Why do individuals and small businesses do half the work without a formal appointment and hence without a security to get covered for the work done?

Big players nominate the field and create the rules. These can be companies just as well as governments. It’s modern exploitation. Big ones have the power over the small ones.

I’ve experienced this conduct even from typically ethical, responsible actors – such as multinational companies ranking high on sustainability indexes or embassies of western countries. Often I’ve in my mind questioned the practices but never been in the position to stand up for it – for the certainty of losing the job, the deal, the partner.

We talk a lot about responsible business, sustainability, environment protection, community engagement etc, even about looking after the own staff. But what about those who are giving a critical contribution, but being left hanging half-way in, half-way out? The interns, NGOs, small businesses – those whose services can be invaluable but not (adequately) paid for?

How can we break the circle of using free workforce?






Women and Men, Be Bold for Change

I was about to send a Happy International Women’s Day post in Facebook and tag those women from my friends list who have had the greatest impact on me, or whom I admire the most. But the more women I tagged, the more names popped into my mind and I noticed I admire almost all the women I know!

The power of women to break through the glass ceilings, to keep pushing through and conquer countless obstacles in a world that is still vastly run and made for men, is astonishing. Women hold the power to change the world. For better, for all. And we need men to take our side on this.

I’m in love with an amazing man, have a great dad and brother for family role models and been blessed with many male friends throughout my life. Many male government and business leaders and celebrities have also proven worthy of admiration in their quests to use their power for the better of all. I firmly believe in the greatness of men – but equally to that of the women. And there’s definitely space for more men to take more action to support a more equal world.

Despite many positive developments, women are still being oppressed all around the world. I’m not just referring to the obvious human rights violations but to the oppression women generally face, everywhere. In EU, a Polish MEP recently said “Of course women must earn less than men because they are weaker, they are smaller, they are less intelligent”. That’s 2017 for you. And Hillary’s loss in the US elections was widely quoted as a perfect sample of a much more qualified woman losing a job to a much less qualified male. Simplified, but speaks the reality. In the company I work for, 75% of employees are women – but 75% of BOD men. Statistics that are actually on the positive side if compared globally, as most businesses are run by men, even if with a women-heavy workforce.

In our next forum, we will have a panel focusing on gender empowerment in food and agriculture sectors, where closing the gender gap would generate significant increase in yield and strengthen the socio-economic status of households of smallholder farmers. Typically we’ve found it difficult to find a man to speak about gender empowerment. I was pleased this year to be able to quickly find a business leader, a man, eager to speak about how they advance gender empowerment, along with the non-profits and women rights advocates to provide inputs and tools for the how to.

In social media a video is spreading about a girl on a bicycle, who rips off the side mirror of a van, after having had enough of the driver’s “cat-talk” – talking down on her and treating her as a sex-object. All the respect for her for having the balls to stand up for herself – many of us would be too shocked, scared or otherwise not ready to take action in such situation. Last week I also read a piece of news about a man who had harassed a woman in a bus by asking her to sit on his lap. She herself had been too overwhelmed in the situation to take action, but was lucky to find a supporter from among the other passengers. After hearing this man call for the woman repeatedly to take a seat on his lap, another guy stood up and “accepted” the invitation and sat on his lap, taking a humorous but protective action to help a woman in need.

It’s crucial for gender empowerment, to have more men advocating on women’s rights. That’s why UN Women are running their HeForShe campaign, and why all women rights’ organizations are looking for men advocates. Paul Polman from Unilever has tapped into an enormous business opportunity on the same, becoming in just a few years a world’s best known business leader speaking about women empowerment and showing how being a responsible business is good for the business.

The world is divided, not just between genders but between privileged and under-privileged. From transgender toilets, public mocking of disabled people, weakening of laws protecting women’s rights to their own bodies to the vast spread of hate-speeches, the world is increasingly forgetting why and how to love and appreciate differences.

The international women’s days theme for 2017, “Be bold for change”, reminds everyone to take action and stand up for those who need help and support, in which ever way they can. One doesn’t need to stand in front of a tank or take a bullet for someone else. Literally standing up, showing support begins with small everyday gestures. Whether a man or woman or other or a prefer-not-to-define – gender, be bold to support a positive change in the world.



All-Male Panels and the Gender goals

“Congratulations on an all-male panel”- is a satiric expression used in social media to bring attention to the lack of female speakers in international conferences. Having attended many and organized quite a few, I definitely acknowledge this problem and feel a pain in my chest every time I see one. Whether it’s one I just attend or one I’m organizing.

A colleague from a partner organization, a well-credited women’s right advocate, recently told me she attended a forum where all speakers were men. All. Mostly middle aged white men. When this was pointed out by an audience member in the Q&A, the facilitator’s response was to ask questions from only female members of the audience. “You are a woman, how do you think about the discussed issue”. You can imagine this made the already awkward and uncomfortable situation even worse. Ask a question from a woman just because of her gender?

Maybe the organizer of that event had just made an unintentional mistake, overlooked the gender balance or been extremely unlucky with last minute speaker changes. I don’t know.

Having organized events myself, I know just too well how difficult it is to achieve a gender balance in the speakers. I can’t speak for other organizations, but I know our team is 100% committed to aiming at full gender balance and that every member of the team is dedicated and eager to achieve it. We haven’t succeeded yet, but we try our very best. Every time we discuss a speaker, we discuss gender. There’s a huge cheer in the office each time we identify and confirm a female speaker, and we keep listing excellent women we hear of to add to our dream lists for speakers.

So why do we not achieve a 50-50 gender balance in the speaker line-up?

It should be obvious. There are relatively many more men in senior leadership and expert positions as there are women. Most (Asian) Ministers and senior government representatives are men. Even in the international developmental organizations a majority of leaders are men. And these are the people we target to speak in our forums. Decision makers, leaders, senior experts.

We try to tap into any and every opportunity to invite and confirm women speakers to all our panels. Sometimes we even need to be a little flexible with a level of seniority, or proven speaking skills, just to avoid an all-male panel. I can’t imagine any event organizer wanting an all-male panel and I know we work very hard to avoid them. That’s because we support gender equality. We support women rights and we believe women should have equal chances, equal pay, equal recognition. We want to do our part, but it isn’t easy. The world is still failing this, and so do we.

With our last forum, organized this week in Singapore, we pushed our team even harder than ever. Our internal ambition was to achieve a gender balance across the full forum, and at the minimum have at least 1 woman speaker in every panel. We organized 4 plenary level panels and 17 workshops, with over 100 speakers in the course of the 2 days, so it was a huge task to achieve. We also had to confirm a senior government representative for each workshop panel, and take notice of the balanced regional representation and level of seniority and speaking eloquence, in addition to the gender question.

We did not achieve a full gender balance, but 1/3 of our speakers were women. Two out of the 17 organized workshop panels were all-male – though in one of these, we had a brilliant woman confirmed but last minute the company made a change and sent a man instead due to her sudden unavailability. Still, we did not achieve our aim but we tried extremely hard and are proud of the efforts.

The issue of gender inequality has to be raised at every level, has to be fought with collaborative efforts at homes, in schools, in companies and organizations and in the governments. As Michelle Yeoh, actress and UN Goodwill Ambassador stated in her powerful speech at our forum, when gender equality is achieved, “everyone wins”. Gender equality doesn’t only bring benefits for women but it supports communities, boosts economic progress and improves company performance. These are proven facts yet we are far from achieving gender equality.

I don’t ever want to organize an all-male panel and neither does our team, but we need the governments, companies and organizations to appoint more women in senior positions and we need the women to agree and speak in our forums. We need collaboration to achieve full gender equality. Conferences give a good glimpse into the problems and level gender status, they can give a face to where the societies, governments and companies stand with achieving the gender goals. Hopefully in the near future the male-dominance turns into gender equality. Everywhere.




How Do You Like to Work?

How do you like to work? How do you like to be managed at work? What do you need at work to perform at your best, to fulfill your potential?

These should be standard questions when recruiting a person and in staff development and management meetings. A good employee, a good manager wants to ensure they are getting the best out of their people. And that means accepting that people need different working environments and management styles. A good boss doesn’t try to apply his or her style to all the staff but adapts his/her own management style to bring out the best in the people. Not an easy task to do but one that’s essential if employees are wanted to keep happy, motivated and enabled.

The key word in that is enabled. All people are different and whereas many are neutral and can easily adapt to many different types of work environments, there are a whole lot of others who get the best out of themselves only in a certain type of environment. Some need to talk to themselves while typing or thinking, some like music on the background, others need peace and quiet. Needless to say, when such people are put into one and same open room, not everyone will get their optimal working environment. In fact, none might if all are asked to compromise.

I’m of the latter type. I need peace and quiet to perform at my best – when I’m thinking and writing. And big part of my job requires both. I get distracted by a lot of sounds around me. I’m a highly-sensitive person which in my case typically means that “distractions” which for many others would be minor and insignificant, are intensified in my feelings and thoughts. I get distracted, and there’s nothing minor about it. Listening to a colleague mumbling to herself, having a phone beeping for all messages, typing loudly and even eating a crunchy apple trigger a major headache for me. For a “normal person” I understand this sounding crazy and something that I should just learn to “adapt to and compromise with”. I get that. But what if I just can’t. Because I just can’t. It’s not something I can control or change – it’s not a mere preference or liking. It’s a trait. Now, I can control the consequences, or my reaction to these external disturbances. But it requires a lot of energy. If I were to try and control it completely, not letting the anxiety caused to show at all, I would not be able to do anything else but focus on the control. Which would obviously not enable me to get any work done.

That’s where the problems come in. I’m forced to choose between being completely controlled in my reactions (not showing being disturbed) and not getting any work done, or get my work done as much as possible but with the cost of letting the anxiety “out” at peak times. Neither is optimal. All this could be avoided if I were able to work in a quiet(er) environment. I can thrive, I can be great at my work, I can be a nice and supporting colleague – I can be the best me. But only if I’m given the space for it.

This is my story, and I know there are many similar ones out there. Some might never have thought of it – unintentionally suppressing their anxieties at the office with great energy and wondering why they are always so tired, why they snap at seemingly small things and why their moods alter so much. Some know of their special requirements and have succeeded in defining a way to work and handle it that let’s them thrive and excel at what they do. Some have needed a career change, become entrepreneurs, or those with excellent supervisors have been able to identify a suitable working environment.

I’ve had many kinds of bosses and gotten along with them all. All have required a specific approach from me to succeed in the friendly and efficient work relations. What I’ve learned is how important it is to put the employees benefits first, to know your staff and understand how to get the best out of each of them. Not in terms of working hours or quantity of work but in terms of the quality of the work and their potential. A happy, motivated, enabled employee contributes in so many more ways to their employer than does one who needs to use part of their energy to something irrelevant to the business. This all is rather simple and must be clear to the employers – but why is it then so difficult to implement? Why are so many managers thinking of themselves, managing with their style, asking the employees to do things their way? (I’m not referring to my manager/s here, just a clarification).

As in personal life, equally at work we are all responsible for our own happiness. It won’t ever come given from outside, we have to know who we are, what we want and take the needed steps to get there. Our struggles and obstacles can be solved, one way or another. But if you are a manager, I’d encourage you to think what you expect from your staff – and how you expect it. I’d encourage you to ask whether you should be the one compromising? If you want the best out of your employees – why not ask them how they can give that to you? And if you are an employee without an optimal work environment, consider what could make it better, and how that can be done. No one’s energy should be wasted on something irrelevant and avoidable. We need to define what can be compromised, where compromises are possible – and what and where improvements and changes are required.




Role modeling

I had a business lunch today which quickly became a friendly chat over all things possible in the world. What a fascinating woman I had the pleasure of dining with! Covering communications for a huge, reputable multinational company, for Asia and Middle East (not a tiny market, and not an easy one to manage as a woman), being a mom and wife, I’m at awe of all of her achievements. They’re not unheard of, and I’m always proud and pleased when I meet such people – women, who are letting no glass-ceilings get on their way, women who won’t allow themselves to be “boxed” but do what feels right for them. Like work with middle eastern men on renewable energy projects.

She told me she’s writing a blog about being an expat, a working mother, a woman of Asian heritage but with no single identity. There are so many stereotypes to fight in that combination and so many struggles to make it all work. Yet, from her you’d hear no complaints, just challenges to find solutions for. And appraisal to her own mother, who managed a demanding job while bringing up 4 kids, not “just” 2 as her.

Mothers. I’m not one but I have one, and she’s been my inspiration and role model always too. I have the highest appreciation and respect to my mom, in addition to the bottomless love. Fighting her rheumatism, she showed nothing but love and tender to me and my brother, and managed to not just work and build a great career but also continuously study and do volunteer work. Mothers – where on earth do these people get their energy and determination?

Political opinions aside, another excellent woman role model has just made history, strongly on her way of becoming the first even woman to be nominated a candidate for US presidency. No matter what you think of Hillary Clinton’s politics and views, she’s shown that every girl has a fighting chance. Women can achieve anything, the world is not for men to dominate. Women like her are paving the way for the rest of us, for generations to come. Proving, that there are no men’s only – jobs. It’s up to us. Do we have to fight harder than men to get to where we want? Yep, unfortunately often that’s the case. But can we get to where we want? Yes, we can. My mom, my business partner, Hillary and countless other women – they are all proving this to be true.

It’s extremely valuable to have role models in our lives, near and far. Parents in best cases serve as such, as do teachers, colleagues, friends and others close to us. Celebrities, business leaders, NGO advocates, smallholders and others who we might not be acquainted with but who provide inspiration to us add to that. We should all have a collection of role models in our lives, from whom to derive energy, inspiration and amusement from. Our role models don’t define our lives but they can help shape the pathway. They can remind us to realize our potential and fulfill our dreams. To be the best we can be.

Being Spontaneous

“I love how spontaneous you are” said a friend of mine yesterday, after I had agreed to our dinner with a day’s notice. Another friend from Bangkok was pleased that I had for once planned my trip with some lead time –  booking the tickets a full week in advance. My parents get anxious as every year I keep postponing my flight tickets to Finland until month or two prior the trip – their trips get fully booked and planned at least half a year in advance (actually that would be considered spontaneous for them!)

Spontaneous. Yes, I would consider myself spontaneous – being capable of it, enjoying and cherishing it. But “being spontaneous” obviously means very different things for many, reflecting a variety of time spans and level of planning.

To me, I felt well planned with my weekend get-a-way to Bangkok being booked nearly a week in advance and extremely planned as I confirmed my Finland-holiday more than 2 months prior the travel dates. Equally, I thought making dinner plans for the next day was definitely planning, not being spontaneous. In the everyday living, spontaneity to me means living in the spur of the moment. Hopping out of the bus at an unplanned stop just to explore an interesting sight that caught my attention. Getting a new haircut in a place I happen to be strolling by. Skipping a training to have an ad hoc date with a friend.

I’ve made many spontaneous trips as well, hopping on a plane in a day’s notice or event less. Many of my moves have been rather spontaneous as well – I moved to Singapore with roughly 2 weeks prep time, to Vietnam 3 weeks after having accepted a job offer, but that time included a first work trip to Cambodia and a very spontaneous 2 week holiday in Finland. That was a move I could call stressful, as I actually ended up having less than 24 hours altogether for packing up, saying goodbyes etc. My first move to Asia was quite spontaneous as well, with 3 weeks lead time but including a move out of Berlin and holiday and work related training in Finland.

It could be said, I’m not much of a planner – in my free time. Although I don’t mind doing spontaneous work tasks and meetings, at work I give high value for advanced planning and being organized. I’m absolutely always on time for any meeting and I list my daily, weekly and monthly priorities to stay focused and planned. Perhaps, because of this need for efficiency at work, I like to keep my private life unplanned-for. It’s the part of my life that doesn’t require planning, schedules or efficiency. I’m never stressed with tight schedules at work but even a specific time for sports training can get me agitated in my leisure time. It’s an interesting balance that nourishes both of my sides – the organized and efficient, and the “free as a bird”.

As one might suspect, these blog texts are written quite spontaneously as well. A topic pops up in my mind and gets written out here. Now, having satisfied this spontaneous text about my spontaneously-balanced lifestyle, it’s time to respect the schedules again and head to my favorite yoga class to practice standing on my head. That’s unbalancing enough for tonight!