Meet the Board – Soraya Loerts

SORAYA LOERTS
WICT Europe Board Position:
President | VP of Product Quality, Liberty Global

Soraya, you have been a driving force of WICT (Women in Communication & Technology) Europe since the very beginning as you were involved in setting it up. What made you decide to take on this challenge and invest your time and experience in WICT?

Well, the main reason I wanted to be involved in setting up WICT’s European chapter was the fact that I thought the European context was completely missing a platform open to women but also to men to learn, to develop and to network; I think real achievements come when we really come together and get a better understanding of what our differences are, as well as our similarities. It is fundamental to voice the challenges that we face, and by that I am not referring only to the challenges faced by women, that is not what we want to achieve. We all have challenges in navigating our careers, with overcoming differences between men and women, and if we want to really drive level playing field and equality in the workplace, we need to address all those challenges together.


You mentioned achieving ‘a level playing field’, and we do talk about it a lot, but how does it translate in da-to-day situations? Could you give us an example of what it would mean in our actual work life?

I think that, very simplistically put, level playing field means that the companies we work for become a true reflection of our society; it means moving towards a 50/50 men and women representation in the workplace. And we know that technology companies have a skewed representation, especially in leadership positions, where we are so much behind.


As a member of WICT, what I really appreciate is that it provides a network of people who are in a similar situation, enabling members to learn from each other and build on each other’s strengths. Throughout your career, whether in telco or elsewhere, was there a moment where you think you would have benefited from a stronger network?

Yes, I think so. You know, I started my work life quite young as I worked full time jobs during university. I think especially in those early years of your career, when you are still trying to figure everything out, and you constantly feel like you are behind, then yes, I could have really benefited from a network to share that with, to understand that feeling insecure is normal and logical, and that it has nothing to do with your own ability. And I think that just the fact of having that sort of discussion and understanding that I did not have to solve it all by myself, would have probably made my early career years a lot easier than they were – and I am not saying they were incredibly hard, but I think we can all recognize that starting something new can be scary, but it does not need to be.


Yes, I am sure many people can relate to that and are going through the same right now! And you seem to have overcome all that and are now a successful figure in an industry that as you mentioned is typically male dominated. What were the main challenges that you had to face? And how did they change over time?

Oh, of course, there has have been plenty of challenges throughout my career! I have always been very ambitious, and especially at the beginning of my career, every time I would put myself out there and say ‘Yes, I will take that next opportunity’, that’s when my insecurity would creep in and make me question whether I was too quick to raise my hand. But then I would dive in, eyes and ears closed, and every time I would made it to the other side, look back and think ‘I made it, on to the next one!’.
From the very beginning of my career, I have always worked in big corporations, and that can be quite overwhelming especially when you are just starting: how can you differentiate yourself in a company with 90,000 employees, while staying close to who you are? How do you build up the confidence to raise your hand and convince yourself that you are ready, and you are better than the other 89,999 people there? Getting that confidence and boldness to always raise to the occasion has always been a challenge; and you know, that insecurity has always been there, but that ambitious part of me that was convinced that I could pull it off and that I would grow from it has always been bigger than that insecurity. So looking at how my career went, I think the biggest challenges I have overcome did not come from an external context, but rather from my own insecurities.


You mentioned how important it is to ‘not get lost’ and remain close to who we are, and we read in your intro on the WICT website that you live quite an active lifestyle outside the office. What impact do you think your approach to your private life has on your life at the office?

I am convinced that being (or trying to be) successful has everything to do with how you balance body and soul, if you want to put it that way. I realized quite early in my career that if I want to perform, if I want to excel, I really need time for myself, to remain fit, to live a healthy lifestyle, and that is why I am very disciplined when it comes to that. Some of you that know me may know that I don’t have children, and that was deliberate choice: I honestly don’t understand how people juggle all those these things, staying fit, eating healthy, having career and having children; I have a huge respect for men and women that can manage that, but it was very clear to me that I could never do that. But even without that, it takes discipline. If you expect excellence from yourself, and consequently from your team, you need to be fit, and be healthy, physically and mentally. I honestly believe that working  in a big corporation is top sport, and for top sport you need to train and be healthy, because it is true that I get a lot of energy from what I get to do on a daily basis – because I have the most amazing job in the whole company, maybe in the entire industry – but it is top sport: we get to work with so many people, all with different energies and challenges to solve, and we have so many opportunities, but in order to keep an open mind and fresh eyes we all need downtime. If I imagine not having an active life outside of work, not staying healthy and keeping my mind in check, and eating healthy, I have no idea how I would go through the day with enough energy. Because it is full on, from morning to evening, especially in these times when we spend way too many hours behind our laptops.


Closing with some advice: now that we are all locked inside with our laptops, do you have any words of wisdom to go through the coming lockdown?

Well, I would say, look back at one day before this period, when you wished you had more time. That phrase, that thought ‘oh, if only I had more time in a day, then I would…’ pick up piano lessons, or Spanish lessons, or do yoga, or run a marathon, or whatever it is… Make sure that whatever it is that you would have loved to do had you only had more time, you do it now. We got so much time back from not having to commute and not being able to meet up with friends and going to restaurants, and we need to be conscious of that, and use that time working on achieving one or two of those dreams, instead of filling it with even more work.


Bonus: heart-felt advice
There is one remark I think is very important to make. When I look back on my career and how it went, I notice I have always worked hard, focusing on my performance, letting the numbers speak for themselves, thinking that then the rest would come by itself, and probably I did not look up enough. And I don’t mean looking up to management, but to lift my eyes from what I was doing, and to look around a bit more, and realize where I was and where I was going next. I think sometimes we underestimate the importance of the time we spend with our network and investing into those relationships, because ultimately building those sponsors, having mentors, and so on, those things are key to build our career.

A new board, a deep commitment to our mission and some challenging questions from the audience: here’s a recap of what happened in WICT September Townhall

Who else has started to expect the worst when they hear the word ‘news’ this year? I definitely have. However, news can still be great news and this is one of those cases – even in these unprecedented times, the leadership team at WICT Europe are finding new ways of connecting with our members.

On September 16th, we held a virtual Townhall event to introduce the new Board chaired by Soraya Loerts who shared her vision and strategy for WICT Europe; it was also an opportunity for us to hear from members on their views and expectations of the Chapter for the coming months. This was our biggest event to date: over 100 people signed up, representing ~15 technology companies across Europe.

We decided to give you a quick recap of the great content covered with the help of WICT Europe’s Chief of Staff, Nadia, who acted as moderator of the event:

What was the purpose of having this Townhall?

Having this Townhall now was so appropriate, for two main reasons. As you know, we have just recently appointed a new board, and it was really important that our members could see us, speak with us, and share their thoughts on the direction of the Chapter for the coming year. We really want all members to play an active role in WICT, so we think creating that personal connection was a meaningful step in that direction.

In addition, we wanted to acknowledge that whilst events have been moving to digital formats, a trend likely to continue for the foreseeable future, we are still 100% committed to realizing our goals as a Chapter. If anything, pivoting towards digital events offers the exciting opportunity of really leveraging our central Chapter to expand to new geographies across Europe.

What main topics were addressed during the event?

We wanted to communicate the type of events we will be focusing on this year. There will be a greater emphasis on skill-based leadership training, paired with the launch of our mentoring program. This will be available to all levels through an application process.

Last year we were almost like a start-up, launching the Chapter and building a membership base. We have now moved into the phase where we want to focus on driving value for our members and providing them with development opportunities, as ultimately we believe this will attract wider diversity.

Some C-level guests also joined the event, what was their input to the conversation?

We were really lucky to have the support of so many people at the event! Among others, we were joined by Enrique Rodriguez, the Chief Technology Officer of Liberty Global and Thomas Mulder, the Chief People Officer of VodafoneZiggo, and this was a huge endorsement for WICT Europe. We are really serious about wanting to make a difference for our members through learning and development opportunities, but we also need to play an active role in guiding companies on how we can create measurable and attainable goals.

We were challenged by Enrique and some other members on how we will report our success. That was extremely valid feedback for us, and we are already hatching a plan as to how we will measure and communicate this in a more data driven way over the next year.

What kind of questions were raised by the audience?

It was great to see how eager attendees were to participate in the conversation, and the questions were many and diverse. One recurring theme was the complexity of diversity, and the need to acknowledge its intersectional nature. We have so far focused mostly on gender, but our members pointed out there are so many aspects that can and need to be added to that: the challenges faced, for example, by a single mother will be only partly the same as those faced by a woman of color working in a white man dominated corporation. Some of our members have many of these overlapping social identities, and we need to acknowledge and address the diversity that they add to our cause. How can we look at other verticals beyond just gender, and bring that into the conversation? Perhaps focusing on diversity as a broader topic we can bring light to other movement and strive for equality together. As a first step in this direction, we are hosting an event on LGBTQI+ plus inclusion in the workplace this October; we are also planning an event inspired by the Black Lives Matter movement, which has deeply characterized this last year, and from which we can for sure learn.

If you could pick one takeaway that you would like attendees to remember from this Townhall, what would it be?

The central word for us is ‘together’. It is important for our members to know that we are driven to create a programming calendar that is relevant to them but ultimately if we want to achieve our mission of creating a level playing field for both men and women in technology, we need to do it together. Funnily enough while we were talking about this, we realized that the word ‘together’ can be split in to-get-her, which is so representative of our mission: we want to get her to her next steps, to get her to a leading role, to get a level playing field for her… So, yes: together is the word.

Well, what is left to say, if not that we were so excited to see the engagement from members and we cannot wait to see what next year has in store for WICT Europe!