Cisco Women’s Professional Development Day: My Career Journey as a Woman

Cisco Women's Professional Development Day

Cisco Women’s Professional Development Day

On the morning of August 25, I presented to the Cisco Chief Strategy Office, Women’s Professional Development Day.  I thought I would share the notes I used to prepare for the presentation. If you have any questions, feel free to ask in a comment!

Watch the video of my presentation:

Cisco Women’s Professional Development Day Overview of Talk

You have in front of you someone that many people would categorize as a rare specimen. You could think that this is because there is something a bit odd about a French women, working for a British corporation dedicated to helping people learn English. Actually, unfortunately, I am rare because I  am the CEO of a 300 person subsidiary of a public company.

When I started my career at 22, I believed I could do anything, get any job. I did not believe that women needed any special attention to have successful career.

Today, as a CEO, I am now acutely aware of the challenges women face in the workplace, and strongly believe we need to proactively help women to succeed at every level in the workplace.

What life experiences changed my mind? What lessons could I give to my 22 year old self?

My career journey as a woman

Work Before kids

My mother has always been, and continues to be, the greatest influence on my life. She was always a working mother (and a hard working mother) and despite difficult moments she always managed to get back on track and succeed, giving me a sense that she (and women in general) are invincible.

I started realizing there were differences when I got closer to motherhood. In Europe, around 28 years old people expect you to have a baby sometime soon.

I was working at Oracle at that time. I decided to make my first real-estate investment to build a house for my mother who, after she retired, did not have high income.

While planning for it, it was clear my current job would not allow me to do everything I wanted. Deep inside me I knew I was worth more, that I could bring more value. I felt I was under-valued.

I had the choice to accept the status quo and delay my life projects, or to take a risk and leave a comfortable position to join another company.

I decided to prepare my resume and post it online. It also helped that a head hunter called me with an offer to join an innovative startup. I jumped on it immediately.

When I announced to my boss I was leaving for a new opportunity, he tried to convince me to stay.  He told me that I was a great talent for the company. Then he played with my womanly fears: “We appreciate you. You have a very stable environment here to have your first child. You are welcome to stay in your current role.” I was shocked, to say the least. This was the first time someone said out loud that motherhood would keep my career as a status quo, and that men were more likely to get promotions than someone who wanted to have a child.  I realized that, my boss and still friend, while not wanting to harm me in anyway, could negatively impact my career. Sheryl Sandberg, in Lean In, put a name on it: Cultural bias.

What I would tell my 22 year old self or my daughter? Believe yourself. Do everything you can to continue to grow, and when you believe you are underutilized, make a move.

Work After Having Children

Later in my career, when I gave birth to my first child, I was fortunate to be living in France with the benefits afforded to working mothers in the French healthcare system, and funded daycare.  When I had my second child in the U.S., I had the chance to work for Microsoft which offered great maternity leave. I was advanced enough in my career to be financially independent. I did not have to ask myself the question: “Shall I quit my job because the economics don’t make sense?”

While most people cannot choose the country of their choice to have kids, they can select states, or companies to work for in the US.

What I would tell my 22 years old self?  Work for a company that cares and that has favorable benefits regarding flexibility, maternity and childcare. It could make or break a career.

However, right about that time my family expressed a desire to relocate from Seattle to California to pursue one of our dreams. As I was having my second child, California seemed like the right place to raise him. With clear a clear goal in mind, I came to my boss to announce to him that not only was I pregnant– you can imagine how happy he was–but also that I was moving to California.

I did not know if I could stay in my job working remotely, but in any case, I believed I could always find a solution. 3 months after moving to Silicon Valley, and after many hours of negotiation, I ended up bringing my family to California.

About a year later, I decided that going back-and-forth to Seattle was costing my family too much, so I started to search for a more local role. While Microsoft had my heart, most of their commercial leadership roles where in Seattle. So I started to look at what could be next. It was clear to me that it needed to be in a field where I could have social impact. When I came across the opportunity to work for Pearson, leading the team designated to deliver digital technology designed to increase access and efficacy of education, I jumped in. I started as a general manager, and 2 months after I was offered the CEO role, at 37 years old.

What I would tell my 22 year old self? Have a clear goal and go get it. Don’t always plan for everything–and align your passion to your work. You can make wonders happen.

But how can we accelerate?
As the leader of my company, I am now more empowered, and can act in my sphere of influence: I can work on the benefits for new mothers, build in flexibility for both male and female employees, and recruit a more diverse leadership team– however, there are unfortunately way too few other female executives to create the perfect storm.

As it will takes time to bring more women to the top of our public companies, I started to take a look at how else I could help move the needle. I decided to invest outside of my day job. Life does not stop when the work day ends.

First, I engaged in a support group, or what we call a “Lean In Circle.” We started by having a theme around transitions in our career. We listen to each other, we challenge each other, we offer support and most importantly, we offer a safe environment where we discuss the un-discussable. In the last three years all members changed roles to a better one, and we keep transitioning!

Second, I looked at the private companies, and specifically entrepreneurs, to work with. I was shocked by the low number of women who successfully received funding. Studies have shown that a more gender-diverse angel network encourages more women entrepreneurs to pitch.

So without any investment banking background I looked at how I could get engaged with investing. About a year ago I found Pipeline Fellowship, a program where you learn how to be angel investor, and where members fund women-lead social startups. In two days I will have another three companies presenting their projects, and probably will close some new investments.

For those of you in interested in becoming angel investors, keep in mind that this is a long-term, relational process. The investor generally plays a role in the development of the company, whether that means an opening, or a rolodex, or actual hands-on advising. If you are ready to apply your capabilities or your assets to a start-up,  you too can become an investor and help push the envelope.

I look forward to meeting, connecting and learning from this new community.

Thank you!