Strength, Courage AND Ambition: the Women of Solvay
AND is the Future podcast
Season 2, Episode 5
Saying yes to opportunities, overcoming barriers, following their passions
Ilham has a conversation with five incredible Solvay women – Daniela Manique, Bijal Mathkar, Natalia Baran, Seung-eun Lee, and Cheryl Staton – who will all be featured in a book soon to be published called Adèle and the Women of Solvay. They talk about the importance of saying yes to opportunities, their passion for education, achieving a good balance between work and their personal lives (including motherhood), their recipe for success and much more.
Adèle and the Women of Solvay, which will be published later this month, is about the women whose contributions and achievements, largely unrecognized until now, have shaped Solvay throughout its history. But importantly, it’s also about the amazing women at Solvay today who are paving the way to make the company more inclusive, diverse and prosperous. The proceeds from book sales will go to girls' education in less privileged locations around the world.
2:36 - Early childhood experiences and saying yes to opportunities
13:56 - Passion for education
30:57 - Work life balance / imbalance and becoming mothers
48:53 - Personal questions from their individual stories
59:45 - Recipe for success
Meet the Women of Solvay
The women featured in this podcast are all top leaders at Solvay. Daniela Manique is the President of the Global Business Unit Coatis and Head of Latin America. Bijal Mathkar, is the Research & Innovation Director in Vadodara in India. Natalia Baran is a Production Manager/Chemical Engineer at our site in Eindhoven, in the Netherlands. Seung-eun Lee is the Director of the Research and Innovation Center in Seoul in Korea. Cheryl Staton is the Rewards Partner in Princeton, New Jersey, in the United States of America.
Ilham Kadri: Hello everyone. Today is a very special day because I'm joined by five incredible Solvay women who are all featured in a book that we are about to publish called Adele and the Women of Solvay. So let me quickly explain the title. Adele was the wife of our founder, Ernest Solvay, and in fact, one of his strongest allies. So we decided it was a choice that she will be the very first woman of Solvay. And this book is about the women in Solvay’s history whose contributions and achievements largely and recognized until now have shaped our company. It's also about the amazing women at Solvay today who are paving the way to make the company more inclusive, diverse, and prosperous. And we have five of them here today with us. Let me quickly introduce our special guests.
Daniela Manique is the President of our Global Business Unit Coatis and our Head of Latin America. Bijal Mathkar, is our Research & Innovation Director in Vadodara in India. Natalia Baran, is our Production Manager/Chemical Engineer at our site in Eindhoven, in the Netherlands. Seung-eun Lee is the Director of our Research and Innovation Center in Seoul in Korea. And Cheryl Staton is our Rewards Partner in Princeton, New Jersey, in the United States of America.
I'm so excited to learn from and be inspired by these women who are truly inspirational and shaping our company and its innovation.
Early childhood experiences and saying yes to opportunities
Daniela, Bijal, Natalia, Seung-eun and Cheryl, thank you for being here. So one thing that really struck me from your stories in the book is how much early childhood experiences really put you on the path to your incredible careers. And some of these stories are quite moving. So can you tell us about those important early moments and a common thread in all your stories is that you said yes to opportunities, whether these opportunities were created through your own initiative and persistence, or you embrace the chance to try something new. And I would love to hear about these important early moments in your childhood and that you tell us more about a time in your life when you did that, when you took these opportunities on. So let me start, who is here, Cheryl?
Cheryl: Hi, Ilham, thank you for having us. Really a privilege to be here and thanks for your question. So my story may be a little bit different than everyone else's. I grew up in my early childhood years as what we call an army brat in the US. So my father was an army officer, and so we did quite a bit of traveling and certainly that shaped my life, shaped my outlook. For example, at age five I was attending kindergarten in Germany. And so early on, exposed to different cultures, different languages, it shaped me. Another thing that kind of sticks out for me, and I talk about this in the book, is that there was a point in my later years of high school where I had an opportunity to take things into my own hands, and I took that opportunity because it was the right choice for me, even though my parents may have thought it wasn't such a bright idea. And so what I did is in one of our last moves within the US from Virginia to New Jersey, as a matter of fact, this was right in the middle of my high school years. And when we all reflect back on that time, we know how difficult it is. So that was a big move for me. It actually led to me choosing and taking action to graduate one year early. And that was so that I could move on to my college career and also satisfy my own desire to move out of the schooling atmosphere that I was in in New Jersey. It was very different. It was very tough.
Ilham Kadri: Wow. So from Germany to New Jersey to, you know, getting educated in this military world, but yet advancing quickly and graduating one year earlier. Right. So that's fantastic. You are already a global citizen, right? From your youth time. Maybe can we move to Daniella
Daniela: So my father was an engineer, so I already had a lot of information about the career and usually during the vacations we would use it to go to the city that he was visiting some customers, some plants, et cetera. And, I was always fascinated by what he was doing. I would say that I think that he was more trying to impact my brother than myself, but by the end of the day, I decided to also be a chemical engineer. I love it mainly to do all kinds of experiments at home. So my mother was a little bit crazy with me, but I think that it was already in my blood, right? But, I think that it was very, very good to always have the support of my parents saying that education was the most important thing in my life. nothing was more important than our school, our priorities to study, to learn. And this is something that I took as an example for my entire life.
Ilham Kadri: So let's move from the Americas and we're gonna engage a bit more in a dynamic way later to probably India. Shall we go to you, Bijal?
Bijal: You know, when we are a child, we have this, we call it like childlike enthusiasm. So it's like you are very imaginative. You take inspiration from small things and you are not afraid of doing things. So it's like the do not do word doesn't exist in you know, probably that's the reason it shaped my childhood. I was brought up in northern and western part of India and my father was also an engineer. He used to travel, so, you know, we used to travel with him. Like a family all together. And I was really, really inspired and actually fascinated by these big, huge industrial complexes and, you know, with shimmering lights from there. And I used to be like, okay, some sort of magic happens inside and one fine day I want to go inside and I want to find out what they really do. So, when I came of age, I was very inspired by my teachers, by my school. One of the schools which I attended for my longest period, it said, you know, the motto was, I will and I can. So it just stayed with me that, yeah, you can. And I wasn't even thinking in terms of what challenges this would bring for me down the line. It was just like, yes, you finish your 12 standard and you are going to be a chemical engineer. So there was no other choice, you know, nothing else. Kind of a story like Daniela's in terms of inspiration. So yeah, it was always this fire the belly and when the right time came, Just go and grab the opportunity and get into engineering.
Ilham Kadri: That's what I wanted to do. I love that. The magic inside walls and just opening the walls and understanding what's behind it. And it's chemical engineering. So let's make the tour of the world right, and go to Korea. So Seung-eun, you know, obviously I visited Korea many times and you are one of our few female directors of our research and innovation center in Seoul. Tell me more about your early childhood experiences and obviously what brought you to science and yes to opportunities as well.
Seung-eun: When I was growing up, many girls in Korea actually were encouraged to study, for example, humanities and social science or arts instead of natural science or engineering. And I suppose I was no exception by the way. So as a young girl, I spent much of my childhood religiously practicing and playing my piano and following the music curriculum from the music school I attended. And of course in my school I learned other subjects, but the music was my school's specialism. But as I grew older, I really began to think what really I wanted to do. And there were a few science classes of course, but I found them quite exciting and challenging. And I think it was at this moment in my early teens looking towards high school that I broached the subject with my parents about becoming a scientist instead of a musician. My parents, of course, were very surprised at the beginning because it was a big change in direction. But my parents luckily supported my decision and they could see how motivated I was. And I was really lucky that my parents put their trust in me and I think from, and then I don't play piano much and I have not looked back.
Ilham Kadri: Well, that's pitiful for the piano, right? I mean, we would have to have style and artists.
Seung-eun: Great loss in the music industry that I moved to Science.
Ilham Kadri: And, and we're so glad, and I know you are, you know, you studied in EWHA University, which is one of the most famous female universities in the world And I feel all the women coming out from such universities, right, where they really develop female leaders and scientists, you know, engineers, chemical engineers, but also PhD doctors, industry people, you know, it's just amazing. So thank you. So let's finish the world tour with Natalia in the Netherlands.
Natalia: I think a big impact in my career or in my childhood that later had an impact on my career was the moment when the Soviet Union crashed because yeah, I was born in the Soviet Union and being raised and afterwards in the country that came after the Soviet Union. So when the Soviet Union crashed, everything became very volatile and the importance of having a profession was critical for keeping or supporting your family. That was the moment when my parents had to make a critical decision. Either we stay and live in the city or we move to the countryside. We build a small farm and we try to support ourselves. So the second thing that I have was the respect that you can give to nature that you have to give to nature and what you can collect from nature. So later, of course I don't want to say I don't give many details, but all the experience you have cooking with your mother, with your grandma playing with all the tomatoes or making a soup in the end transform me or make me choose to have a chemical engineering path. And then the second, part of what was really important and yeah, the same as special thought you, when you are young and, and child, you go bold, you don't think too much. You just know what your objective is and you go bold for that was the moment when it arrived, the opportunity to go and study abroad, and I was only 16, my parents told me, well, you are too young lady to go abroad by yourself. But then, yeah, I presented my business case, let's put it that way, on where I see the opportunities and the advantages of moving abroad and studying. And luckily they agreed with me and they always supported me on following my dreams. So this is how I ended up in chemical engineering.
Passion for education
Ilham Kadri: Yeah, which is amazing. So there is a thread here, a common thing you all talked about parents, your upbringing, the faith, the trust, and then, you know, let the girls do what they want, right. And you all talked in a way about the importance of education. And you've probably heard me say there was a saying in Morocco that a woman only has two exits. One to her husband's house and the other one to the grave. And my grandma didn't find it very sexy and encouraged me to find my third exit, which was education and it changed everything for me. And I know several of you came up against challenges getting the education you wanted and you really had to fight due to cultural, maybe unconscious biases, as you said about what women study, et cetera. So can you tell us about your passion in education and gimme that, you know, educational journey? I mean, I know that you are all passionate about what you do to stick in an industry like ours. So, let me start as I have Natalia, you just finished. Let's start with you again.
Natalia: I think it started with my math, I think classes I was really fascinated about math, and then I was growing up. Then of course in the education it was introduced physics and then chemistry at a later stage and in a certain way, I followed the same logical path and I was attracted by this, by these classes. It was just giving me energy instead of consuming that energy. So indeed, that was the moment when I realized, yes, I will not follow any languages or any psychology, but I will go for science indeed and for, yeah, some, an engineering school. My parents, in fact, they didn't have any problem with that. And nobody actually in the family, they always told me, you need to follow your dreams and as long as you work hard, you will reach the point where you want to be. And so this is how I actually studied, decided to go for, for chemical engineering. In the beginning for my high school. I chose math computer science profile. But then again, I received again those chemistry classes and physics classes and I realized I was more attracted to that. Even now, the trend were saying, okay, you need to go for computer science. In the end, I chose chemical engineering. And I was inspired always by those classes. And I decided to continue studying when I finished my study, I remember it was the crisis in 2008. And again, the jobs in the industry were not that popular or not that many. The opportunity was not there. And after graduating, I started again with the software engineering position just to keep busy and keep developing myself. And after one year and one and a half years, I realized, no, I really want to continue my dream of working in chemistry, in chemical engineering. And this is how I moved, in fact, to the Netherlands, studied in the University, and then later on started working in Solvay.
Ilham Kadri: And we are so happy and, and proud and honored that you've chosen chemical engineering and chemistries rather than computer sciences. That's why we have the chance to have Natalia on board. Um, let's go to Seung-eun.
Seung-eun: Sure. So actually, luckily for me, South Korea is a country with a very high enthusiasm for education. So thankfully, I actually didn't need to fight any gender bias in receiving education. And the Korean parents are pretty unique. They live for their children. They spend lots of money for children. They will spare no expense financially and also mentally in ensuring that their children receive and experience many great things in education. And, probably my parents were no exception in this regard. And I am always thankful to my parents and they are without their sacrifice, I wouldn't not be here. And I personally think there's such a high enthusiasm for education is the reason why South Korea could be able to achieve such a economic growth after the Korean War in 1950, I think, and my passion for chemistry and science began to seriously blossom after being accepted and studying at EWHA which Ilham mentioned. So EWHA Womens University is the largest female institute in the world, as well as pretty famous in South Korea.. And I actually had the bachelor degree for chemistry. And I stayed on at EWHA to complete my masters at EWHA. And after that, actually, I began working for Merck, the German chemical and pharmaceutical company and learning lots of new things about liquid, liquid crystal displays and liquid crystal materials. And this was early nineties and still very early stage in the development of this new material in liquid crystal. And my curiosity really drew me to these fascinating materials. So I decided to leave the company Merck and my family, and I packed up my belongings and I headed to the United Kingdom to study liquid crystal materials under a very famous professor whom I knew already, and I gained my doctorate in four years after arrival. And, you know, in the early nineties, the world was not as connected as it is now. And, for me as a little Korean girl, it was quite a bold and challenging decision. And, yeah, I mean, there were many, many difficulties ahead. Some things I expected, but the others completely unexpected. But anyhow, you know, through studying and living in other country, I think I developed inner strength to navigate my life independently for the first time. And I really enjoyed my life and I really enjoyed the learning, different ways of thinking and cultures, you know, everything was very curious. So I think it was quite right decision to pack my things and just to fly over to the UK.
Ilham Kadri: Wow. So follow your passion, there to pack without connectivity and be away from your loved ones because you follow your passion.
Seung-eun: It's pretty naive. You know, I was pretty focused on studying. Put the all fears behind, you know.
Ilham Kadri: Absolutely, absolutely. And that's what the strength of naivety and boldness is that you dare being in your uncomfort zone and make it happen and succeed. Let's turn to Bijal.
Bijal: Thank you. I was brought up in a family of people had already science orientation, so there were engineers, architects, bankers, government jobs. You know, this was considered to be the norm of the day when I was growing up. And, my parents really appreciated, my family appreciated the grades I used to get and the focus I had for studies. And I was inherently attracted to sciences, just naturally, you know, as I just mentioned, it was, it is still magical for me to study sciences and I'm a very big, I would say advocate of STEM subjects even in my local community. So, growing up. Yeah, okay. You reach your 12 standard, you graduate and you take up a nice government job, right? This is how you live your life. So when I started to think of taking engineering, there were a lot of questions which were raised in terms of why go out of your comfort zone. You know, chemical engineering is not a stream where you would find a lot of women. What about your career opportunities after that? Are you choosing the right path? Take up something which is more soft, et cetera, et cetera. And, they were not wrong because, in my graduation, they were like less than 12 -15% female in the class. And, my post-graduation, there were like three of us, you know, just three of us, and only two of us actually took up a career or a job after completing that. I actually got introduced to Solvay because I did my internship with a plant, which was being taken over by Solvay in 2006 and I was the only one in a population of more than 500 people in that plant, you know, who was a female. So, education for me, obviously the science degree, but also these experiences that my peers are sharing here in terms of a greater education of knowing yourself, coming out of your naivety, learning more about you how resilient you are, how passionate you are, and what you are ready to kind of put down on shelf to be where you want to reach. I think this is all the holistic education for me. And after being like a women woman, female women at various stages in the education, from high school to college, to working, internship and then working, I think I have finally graduated to be a professional. So yes, I'm a woman and a very proud one, but you know, and now I see myself more as a professional.
Ilham Kadri: Wow. Thank you, Bijal, and we have something new in common. I did also an internship in my twenties in Solvay in France. Not knowing that one day I will work in this beautiful company. But it's amazing what you said about choosing your paths. Experiencing, knowing yourself. So finding your resilience, getting out of naivety, as you said, but then following just your passion, amazing. Let's go to Cheryl. Any insights?
Cheryl: Thanks, Ilham, yes absolutely. So, the barriers maybe, or the challenges I'll say were a bit different for me, but again, the common thread that I'm hearing is that we are all so thankful for our parents and, and my parents really set the example for all of us. I have two sisters and a brother. There was never a question as to whether or not we were going to college. And my parents were fortunate enough to have done that even in the 1950s. That was unusual for blacks to go to a college, let alone, you know, graduate with a degree. They did that. They went to a historically black college, or university. That's a term that hopefully more and more people are becoming aware of. It's HBCU. And those colleges were created at a time when blacks were denied access to learning. So they set that example for us. And in my situation, it was about what experience am I going to look for? I was always good at math and so I chose accounting. I chose the business path. That was more or less an easy decision and I knew I could always change it. But it was more about the environment. I had through elementary and high school, I had been typically in predominantly white schools. So I had grown comfortable with being uncomfortable in maybe being the only person of color in my classroom. And so the question for me was, do I want to continue or do I want another experience? And how can that help me to become a better person? And so I chose, as my parents did, a historically black college. I went to Hampton University and my sisters did the same thing, but my brother chose James Madison University. And so we even had that difference within the family. I would say it was one of the best life decisions that I've made. And, you make that decision as a young person. I think it's made me more well rounded. More open to perspectives of different cultures, different races. And this is something that I think more and more people are becoming aware of. We have so many important figures in the US. Our vice president, Kamala Harris attended Howard University, which is an HBCU, Oprah Winfrey, Thurgood Marshall, so many names have done that. And so these colleges and universities are really important, not only in American history, but they're important to the black community.
Ilham Kadri: Yeah, absolutely. And, I think having lived in the US, I have been, you know, a lot of my friends as well have been going to these HBCU, which sent for historically black colleges and universities, which are institutions of higher education. And I'm so proud to hear that your parents, in a way, were role models, right? And, they and they pushed it hard to get education and therefore transmit to their children, right? That, beautiful gift in a life, which is education, right? Let's go to Daniela.
Daniela: So as you probably know, Brazil, it's not a rich country. So only 5% of our population is really able to finish to complete the college. So, if you are able to complete the engineering school, it's a rather kind of a great achievement that you have done. But for me it was never enough. So I continue. As soon as I finished chemical engineer, I went to business administration. Then I was able to get a scholarship in Oxford to go to the petroleum college. What was great because I always love organic chemistry. And then when I returned to Brazil, I started an MBA. And then Solvay gave me the opportunity to study strategy. So I always love her to study. And I remember my grandmother, she was a little bit different than your grandmother because usually I will used to leave Sunday lunch a little bit earlier, to be able to study, to continue. I usually study the entire weekend and she said, okay, how would you expect to find a husband if she stays at home the entire weekend, the study, she'll never get married, this was her big concern. But my parents always supported me. And, by the end of the day, I found my husband taking some classes, some special classes., but I think that this is the important okay, to always overcome and to always try to learn more and more and more about what you love. And then it's not really hard work. It's pleasure. It's a fun time that you have and that you can't share with your friends what you're learning. You can share with your company what you are learning. It's a continuous way to grow.
Work life balance / imbalance and becoming mothers
Ilham Kadri: Yeah, that's amazing. So let's move on something a bit different before I ask you some more personal questions, right, from your stories. Most of you also talk about the work life balance or imbalance. But some of you address this in terms of becoming mothers. How you managed to find the balance and push back against unconscious biases work. And I can completely relate because in one of my previous jobs when I was on maternity leave, a new organization chart was made. And, they forgot me because I was in maternity leave when I was in marketing and they thought, I'm not gonna travel anymore, but nobody asked me. Right. So I remember how I felt about that, right. As, even if it was, you know, lovely taking care of my baby and loving it. But definitely my dream was not to stay at home. I knew I will come back. So some colleagues called to say are you coming back? What's going on? I said, of course, I'm coming back. And I took my four months on behalf of maternity and then I wanted to enjoy the time with the baby. And I was highly performing colleague. But the management, yeah, don't worry. You can take it slow. You are not going to travel a lot. They didn't ask the question again, which made me leave that company and find something else. But coming back to you, can you tell our listeners about any experience even sobering, whether mother or not, whether, you know, going to work and taking time off or having, you know, really some sovereign experiences which touch you, impact you, but at the same time made you who you are today. So let's start with Daniela.
Daniela: I think that to be back from maternity leave for me was a little bit difficult. I had the full support of my mother, which was, it was great. I know that not a lot of people would have the support, but my internal feeling was, oh my God, I am leaving my baby. And one day I had a conversation with a gentleman that was great cause he said, do you love what you do? I said, yes, I love. He said, okay you would be happy if you don't have this career? I said no. It's part of me. Okay. So you have to explain to your daughter, That you love what you are doing. If you are not doing what you love, you'll be a very bad person at home. You'll be like Malevolent the big witch from the movies. So it's better that you are happy, that you are able to teach her how to have a career, how to be a professional, then to stay at home, taking care of her, but with a very bad behavior, being unhappy. And then that day I said, okay, it's true. I need to be happy and I need my career. I studied so hard to be here. I need my career to be happy and to be able to give the best for my daughter. And I think that this was really a very good conversation that I had to open my mind.
Ilham Kadri: Wow. And I think you are saying something very powerful, which I feel still very actual and you know, existing with a lot of young women, around us, about the feel of guilt. Right. And I think this is an important one, I think, Madeleine Albright used to say that when girls were growing up, a lot of other women made them or made her feel guilty, and specifically when welcoming a baby and deciding to go back to work. And she used to say that guilt is the middle name of woman. And I think the ecosystem also makes you feel, and I think you were lucky to find that person asking you the right question it's okay. You can do both, is the power of the AND. And, that's what this podcast is about is AND is the future. So you can be a good mother, a mother, AND a working, you know, business person, or scientist, et cetera. So it's very powerful. Thank you for sharing. Next, Cheryl?
Cheryl: Yeah, so, I have to acknowledge what Daniela said and on a lot of levels at the time when I had my kids, we did not have 16 weeks of paid leave, so I wish I could do it over again.
And, let's face it, I mean, that's the biggest thing that you're, you know, after the child and everyone's healthy, you think about whether you're going back to work or not. And everyone makes the decision that is right for them and for me, you know, my career and continuing to work on that was certainly important. But that guilt is something that I think all mothers feel. And if there were a solution for that I'd love to capture it in a bottle and sell it. For me personally, I was fortunate enough to have a manager who was also a mom. And so I had the support at work. I had the support at home with my husband, and we worked as a team and we had the support of our parents. And so when you add all of that up, you say, wow, that must have been easy. But no, it's not. Every time you make the choice to focus on work, you feel that in your heart that you're neglecting your other role and vice versa. So I think as women, we need to remember the AND. And that it's okay to make that choice and to prioritize as you need to.
Ilham Kadri: Yeah. And you say this beautifully, and this is, again, a commonality. And I see it with a lot of my mentees about having that same feeling, and I tell them it's universal. I felt it. You felt it. Right. And it's gonna probably continue through generation, but hopefully we have mentors and we have people who are relating to that and helping to go beyond that and experience the joy of being balanced and being happy and say to our children, right, because what, what Daniela said and what you are seeing Cheryl is you need an ecosystem around you and you need the support, you talked about your spouse. So it's important. Uh, there are great, for the greatness I see here behind you. There are great women, but also great men who are there to support and to allow you to live your passion and be the person you are. So it's beautiful. Thank you. Seung-eun, what's about you in maybe more on the life balance, right? You don't have children, but what about the rest? The life balance, the pressure. Is there something like this when you get to meritocracy and hard work in terms of balance?
Seung-eun: Yeah, actually, you know, as Ilham mentioned, I myself am not a mother, so in this way I don't have any direct experience of the challenges that you ladies faced. But probably, I suppose I could share my indirect experience through my observations. So anyway, this healthy, work-life balance is important to everyone. But, in Korea, I think this could be pretty challenging for many people because last year the birth rate in Korea was the lowest ever measured at around 0.78. It's pretty low, isn't it? So if this tendency continues, I feel that Korea will be disappearing in some years. So we need more and more babies to be born. But I think that this very low figure is an indirect indicator of how difficult it is being a mother and working at the same time. So, of course, the Korean government support is improving. But, still in Korea, the number of child care facilities are still low and the cost is pretty high. And historically, the burden of childcare is with mother more, maybe Europe or America could be better than Korea, although, you know, young Korean guys are changing. But you know, actually, you know, superwoman syndrome, actually I'm not a big fan of the word, superwoman because too much pressure for woman. And I think, the notion that women are meant to, you know, shoulder, the majority of childcare is an outdated idea, I think. So we need more system make support and also social consideration, like what, you know, company Solvay is doing to us as well as the family support at home. So we need to change our mindset more. And that this could improve the situation in Korea in general, and we can see more beautiful babies to be born.
Ilham Kadri: Absolutely. And you said something very interesting and profound. So, there is no superwoman. I don't like the syndrome, neither. We have our vulnerabilities and we deserve to bring them at work and at home, right? Because vulnerabilities can be turned into strength. The other piece you say people are changing. There are two parents or co-parents, right,around the baby, be it your baby, adopted, et cetera. So, and that's why, I'm very proud of Solvay launching in January 2021 this co-parental leave, right, regardless of your origin and location and or, you know, orientation. Cuz I truly believe if you wanna help women to get to the top, you need to help them in very critical periods in their lives including maternity. Right? And for me personally it was a really tough time. I think I've never thought I would quit or leave my job till the day I got the baby. And it was in Europe, by the way. It was in Switzerland and it was expensive to go to the childcare. We had the dual career at that time with my supportive husband and we couldn't just find a solution till we found the light in the tunnel and we found a solution because we didn't have parents, no ecosystem affordability was not there. And I always remember that sentiment, so that's why I'm proud. I mean, if you want to help women to get at the top, help their spouses to help them in critical periods of their lives. And so I'm happy that we are bringing that stone to the edifice. Bijal?
Bijal: Thank you for sharing that story. Very nice. Very sweet. You are very right, like motherhood is a beautiful experience in our lives and we go through a lot of emotional and physical changes and, all of us at one point in our time, rethink the career versus, you know, the beautiful baby that you have in your hand. I'm a very proud mother of a young lady. She just turned a teenager and one of the private moments in my life was when I was offered the job at Solvay 2011. She was only one and a half years old and I was expected to travel and work inside a manufacturing plant. And so the question came in, why would I leave that job and, you know, come to infield kind of a setup. And, trust me, at that time, we still have this gentleman working with us for Solvay, the manufacturing plant manager, 12 years before now he offered me a partial home office because I had a young child at home and there was, obviously a lot of uproar. I'm sure that he must have had to answer a lot of questions, but he trusted in me. And this was like, you know, a temporary setup for a couple of months till we came through the project. During that time I had to leave my child at my parents' place. So I saw her only during the weekends and it was emotionally very, very tough period for me in terms of not being able to hold her every time I go back home. So that kind of, you know, showed me the importance of relationships in our lives. And I really thank my spouse and my parents for, you know, standing by me like a wall and just seeing me through those tough times. And today when I talked to her, you know, I have these discussions with her and she's like so proud and she's like, mom, you cannot even think of, you know, quitting job because you bring so many experiences with you and there are so many good things you talk about when you come back home and so many good things that science does for the humanity. And she's very passionate about sustainability and areas like that. So I think, yeah, there are always these cyclic tough periods, but once we overcome them with the right support system and you know, managers like the one I had in 2011, it becomes an easy journey for us. And interestingly, I'll just put in one more point. I just realized that throughout my journey at Solvay, I've always had male managers. You know, I've never had a female manager. Yeah, they challenged me, they coached me, but they stood by me in my time, in my tough times that's the reason I am there today. So I'm really thankful to the culture for this.
Ilham Kadri: Yeah. Thank you. Thank you, Bijal. Amazing, yeah, behind us there are great managers and main managers, and thank you for sharing that vulnerability. We all felt at one point of time, emotionally, very fragile. And, but again, the ecosystem is there and if it's not there, you have to create it right around you to be able to live the passion and the joy of the AND. Natalia, let's finish with you.
Natalia: Yes. I am a happy mother of two kids. My son is pretty young compared to yours, so four years old. My son and my daughter is turning two, coming Friday. So, to be honest, I have always been encouraged by Solvay to continue my career and advance in my career, no matter what my parenthood aspirations were. So, I remember my first managing position came nine months after my son was born. I was working 80% back then. And, the question came, they didn't think about, okay, you, you have a child home, maybe you have sick days. That question never came. And they all also knew that I wished to have a second child. So everyone was aware of that, but the question still came. So, yeah, in the end, indeed, my daughter was born, but I was able to push through in the end my career. That as, as mentioned, that journey was made easier by our mentors and our managers, that they were able to show empathy and understand what we are facing as mothers. It's not easy to have a baby of five months old living in the daycare, seeing, crying and going to work and being fully focused. So in my career, in fact, I have this struggle sometimes feeling a bad mother because I felt my kids may be suffering. They were suffering probably for five minutes and then it was over, and then feeling maybe bad that I have to leave a meeting just because I had a phone call. Okay, your kids is sick, please come to pick it up. And so this feeling is always there. You cannot ignore it. But as someone wise sometimes told me is: It's important to keep your passion alive because you can give up maybe of your hobbies, but when your job is your hobby and it gives you energy, you cannot give up on that because the job doesn't offer you only a career, but it offers you a social life. And that is also an important balance. So it gives you an intellectual status and that's unique as a scientist and it gives you a spiritual development. So those are also balances that we need to keep in account and actually do your job brings them to you. So, I have moments when I hesitate, okay, do I need to stop working and focus on my kids or do I continue? And I remember reading a study saying that people coming late at home would not have an impact on the child's development, but people being continuously sad or unhappy about what they're doing will have a big impact on your child. And if you are happy with what you're doing every day and that brings you energy, you'll come home and you'll appreciate even more the time you have with your child.
Personal questions from their individual stories
Ilham Kadri: Yeah. No, thank you again. Thank you for your authenticity, ladies. I think, it's amazing what you just shared with us. And the takeaway is those managers with us and behind us, we are showing empathy and support. So I think it, it takes, and even with that, we all struggle like leaving, you know, the baby, I see mine in the daycare crying. You know, I think we all live this. But it's very interesting to find that balance and be grounded and be in the moments when you are back. I would like you to get this maybe with shorter questions on the few personal questions from your stories. Let’s start with Natalia. I really enjoy hearing about that empathy attribute, which might not have suited you in a career in medicine, turned out to make you an extremely effective production manager. Can you tell us about that empathetic leadership and why it's so important?
Natalia: I believe that empathy can make the difference between being a manager and a leader. So, empathy means you are listening to people who are talking to you and you are caring about what you're saying. So I, and that my experience is that creates a certain level of trust of a person being comfortable and being able to communicate about how they feel. And that creates an environment where people can be the best version of themselves. If they can open, come to you and say, look, I have a bad day today and I don't feel good. Or, look, my, I'm facing an issue in production. I don't know what I'm doing. Please help me. Or, we did a stupid mistake. Can you please help us solving that? And I would not have been able to reach that point of trust and communication with my team without showing empathy. And that's why I think it's really critical in our leadership and in our managing position to show empathy. Because some, it might take one minute from our life to stop and ask, oh, your mother had the surgery. How did the surgery go? How are you feeling about that? And that could change the whole day of how a person feels. And also the impact that it'll have on the, on that working day. That is my experience about empathy.
Ilham Kadri: And empathy is one of the greatest attributes for leadership right. It's important. Bijal, one thing I really loved about your story is how you mentioned the influence of your grandmother, which of course we have that in common. Can you tell our listeners more about how she inspired you?
Bijal: Sure Ilham, this is about my maternal grandmother. So she was a very, very passionate lady and enunciated education, you know, as her go-to word. When she was growing up, this is in 1930s and forties, we were still under the British rules. There was very less infrastructure, if you will, in terms of education for a female. And she was so passionate about education that, you know, when she was questioned for going to school, she worked so hard. So what so much was her grade that she started winning scholarships and the amount of these scholarships were actually equal or more than the earning member, like the male members of the family. So obviously the question started to dwindle down when, you know, at a very young age, still in school, she became like an earning member of the family. She could not complete her graduation and, you know, started a family. But throughout her 92 years of life, she was a passionate learner. She continued her journey. She was very passionate about English poems and she used to spend time explaining them to us, you know, and, get involved in her children and grandchildren's education. So, from my mom to me, to my daughter now, I think we will keep her spirit alive in terms of education. As you mentioned, education is the third, you know, gate for women. And she said that education is something nobody can take away from you. It's like the money will go away, the beauty will fade, but education and experience is something that will always stay.
Ilham Kadri: Yeah. No, it's beautiful and it resonates so much with me, so thank you for that. Daniela, you made an interesting point that a lot of women in leadership positions have had men as a reference. And it's true. I mean, I had only one woman leader in my career, but I've seen many around who are good friends, by the way, by now. But if we try to act like men and emulate our male predecessors, we lose the beauty of diversity and the different behaviors inside any company. I just love the way you put this in your profile. Can you expand on this?
Daniela: Yeah, because I think that as a reference, we usually have men. I always have men. Ilham was my first female leader and I’m very proud. And we try to copy their behaviors and sometimes we go to the very extreme of their behaviors, and then we transform, we lose out the beauty of the diversity. To be a woman there, to be the worst man that is possible in that position. Okay. Trying to be very severe. No feelings, no empathy, nothing. So this is what I think that we have to take care. And I think that we should be the examples that empathy is needed, that female behavior is needed, that this is the diversity and inclusion that will bring very powerful skills to our teams. And not to try to copy a man and copy sometimes the very severe behaviors that we saw, some men acting in the past.
Ilham Kadri: Yeah, so bring the whole self, right? Like at home, at work, be yourself, bring the whole self. I think it's something I'm pushing at Solvay, right? Because I think the more we are who we are, including at work, the more we enjoy what we do and I think, more people, they also appreciate who we are. Seung-eun, one of my favorite parts of your story is how you refined your negotiation skills. I really loved it, not only by taking several business courses, but also by taking up golf. I didn't expect that. We've never talked about it together. And which you say greatly assisted you as the only woman in a largely male dominated space. Obviously it sounds like you were not sure at first, but now you love it. So tell us more about it.
Seung-eun: Yeah, I mean let me share about my negotiation skills, which I performed regularly, with my important customers Negotiations not only useful for the business, but I think in daily life as well. And I understand that people do not like to negotiate because it may be a source of tension and stress and the pressure, and of course, I am not different really, and the negotiation is not easy for me, but I love the sense of achievement, accomplishment after, you know, this tough big negotiation, you know, were completed. So I enjoy that moment. Just so, may I, you know, share my little tip, how to be successful in negotiation. The first thing, the key is to understanding, your partner. You know what they want and what they need from you. Then, team play is important with clear role and responsibility. You know, negotiation is not done by yourself. So, you know, team play is very important and, never let go of the first deal very easily. So setting a very strong anchor initially, shows your power. This is important and, you know, maintain you to keep the leadership position and, you know, during the negotiation process. And, uh, never be afraid of conflict. You have to have your gut. And, planning is also very important. Always try to ensure the door is open, door should remain open, never be closed, and, never push your people to the corner. And, successful negotiation always ends with a big, big smile and a nice handshake. And, this is the beauty of a negotiation.
Ilham Kadri: Yeah. It's amazing. Thank you for that. Cheryl, your story is particularly moving. And, one thing you said that really resonated and stood out to me was that black women often see themselves as a double minority. So they have that double pain. And so we have to be strong in the face of challenges and it's how we should move forward. Can you tell us about this experience?
Cheryl: Yeah. Thank you for bringing that up. I mean, I do want to make sure that it's clear, you know, when I acknowledge my own duality as a female, and I happen to be a woman of color, so I have that duality. I'm proud of that. I am not a victim in any way. I think when women of color use that phrase double minority, we are, on the contrary, we're talking about the things that we can't control, which are the biases. Whether they're unconscious or not, that other people may associate with being a woman of color. It's about acknowledging what's beyond my control, you know, we simply have in that duality, a different experience in life, a different experience in the workplace. And during Citizens Week last year, we heard about that, from a Dartmouth professor, Dr. Ella Smith. And, her book studies 120 black and white women, and how their experiences differed, the differences were you know, clearly connected to gender, race, class and things like that. The book is called Our Separate Ways.
Recipe for success
Ilham Kadri: Thank you for holding the torch and leading the way. One last question for the whole group and, we'll do it quick, right? And crisp. So many women at Solvay and beyond will be inspired by you and see you as a role model. What advice would you give to the young women listening to you looking to move up in their careers? Let's start with you, Cheryl.
Cheryl: Okay, great. Yes, be a team player. Make sure that you choose an area to focus on that makes you happy. Because work is such a big part of our lives and we've heard others comment on that. Another thing that's important, please, you know, be open to critical feedback. You know, feedback is a gift. It's often, it's the piece of feedback that stings the most that we really need to reflect on and maybe that's our greatest opportunity for excelling above and beyond, you know, what we think we're capable of.
Ilham Kadri: Feedback is a gift. I love it. Seung-eun?
Seung-eun: I would like to say to stick with research first. If, you know, they are in the area of STEM, of course, because, I believe that having technical or scientific, you know, skills and capability, could be a differentiator between you and other candidates. Apart from sticking to research, few things more I could give. So firstly, do grasp every opportunity. And secondly, don't stick cocooned in a position of comfort. And, thirdly, don't look back, you know, past this, past this. So always, you know, looking for the future. Yeah. And lastly, take a role model or mentor and try to learn a lot from them because they must have encountered the same problems before you and they overcame it. So you know, you know, take a role model, then you could have the shortcut to overcome your issues. And finally, do not forget that you could be somebody's role model in the future. So please keep in mind that you can resonate with somebody else.
Ilham Kadri: Bravo. Bravo. You gave us a recipe, right? I mean, Seung-eun, it's great for role models to actually take a role model, but be a role model, accept that you can mentor. I loved it. By the way, mentorship is great. Don't forget sponsorship. You know it, huh? Mentors talk to you, sponsors talk about you when you are not in the room. So let's move now to Bijal.
Bijal: Thank you. I just love this discussion with all you wonderful ladies. Parting word for me is to be your authentic self. You know, believe in yourself. There is only one of you. So, just remain that. There's no replacement for hard work. So whatever we discussed about, we still have to put in our best work together and make sure that we, whatever we want to achieve nothing is gonna replace hard work. Take people with you so when you grow and when you take your people with you, whether it's your community, your team members, your peers, your family, when they grow with you, you know, the beauty, beautiful harmony or, you know, the symphony that comes out of that music is just wonderful. It kind of gives you that wonderful feeling of being able to impact people's life and, you know, taking humanity together with you. And last, but not the least from my side, is to not forget to enjoy yourself. Life is tough, can be tough sometimes. Take a moment, you know, pat yourself on the back, pat somebody else on the back, you know, be open to good times, and then refill yourself and keep moving forward.
Ilham Kadri: Thank you. Well, fabulous, Bijal, thank you. Authenticity, hard work and have fun. Enjoy it. What a pleasure to be listening to you and engaging with you ladies. Natalia, what about, your insight, your recommendations?
Natalia: I would say never stop investing in yourself. Be your best version of yourself every day and or strive to be, to be that. And yeah, talk to people that are around you. Everyone is a page in your book, your book of life. And, get to know them beyond their professional skills, who they are, what they do. So build a network with the people you have around you.
Ilham Kadri: Wow. Each one around you. It's something close to my heart about being inspired by others. And each person can be a page in your book. That's a beautiful, you know, wording and language. I love it. I will see it from you. Daniela.
Daniela: So I believe that sometimes we believe that we are only able to apply to a position if we are super overqualified for that position. If we are superwoman. I think that we have to take some risk to believe in ourselves and to be open to assume the next challenge, right? Sometimes we say, oh, I don't have 100% of the skills for that position, so I will not apply. No, apply. You have to learn. It's a next step. Maybe you have people supporting you. So, I think that this is important for our young talents.
Ilham Kadri: Yeah. Thank you very much, thank you Daniela and indeed the self-confidence, the ambition and they reliving it and raising the hand for the next job. You are calling on some self-confidence and taking risk and go be bold a bit about that. You know, it's beautiful and we talk a lot about that. Daniela, Bijal, Natalia, Seung-eun and Cheryl, thank you so much for this fascinating conversation. I've been inspired and deeply moved by the stories reading them but listening to you is even better. Each of you exemplify the strengths, the courage, and the ambition. You overcame barriers and said yes. So didn't take no for an answer. You followed your passion, challenged the status quo, managed to bring your whole selves to work, and at home. And thank you for inspiring us and stay tuned on the publication date of our book. Thank you very much. Bye-bye ladies.