Daring to make a difference

Four women, four career tracks, one network

A French opera director, a Danish business leader, a Saudi Arabian TV presenter and an American scientist originally from Libya – an illustrious line-up that might be expanded to include many other eminent women besides. Because Juliette Deschamps, Marianne Dahl Steensen, Muna AbuSulayman and Sema Sgaier, who are presented here, are just four “Rising Talents” from the network of the same name, which was founded five years ago as part of the Women’s Forum for the Economy and Society and has since expanded to include more than 80 members. This forum in Deauville has long been regarded as the women’s equivalent of the – predominantly male – World Economic Forum in Davos. The key factor uniting all these women is their ability to change the world – far beyond their personal specialist fields.

THE CRITERIA for receiving an invitation to the annual Women’s Forum are exacting – candidates must already have proven both their abilities and their courage, and they must not be more than 40 years old. They must also have the potential to achieve even greater things in the near future and to take up key positions in the economy and in society as a whole.

In many cases these young women’s CVs reveal little about the huge obstacles they have already overcome. The much-debated “glass ceiling” – the invisible barrier that continues to prevent women from rising to the top leadership positions in their chosen careers – is still firmly in place in many countries. It was only in July of this year that Anne-Marie Slaughter, Hillary Clinton’s leading advisor, published an essay in the monthly magazine ‘Atlantic’ titled “Why Women Still Can’t Have It All,” in which she vividly describes how difficult, if not downright impossible, it still is for a woman and mother to hold office at the helm of a nation, or a business, or in science or the arts. The article unleashed discussions around the world.

The women of the Rising Talents program will exert an even greater influence in the future, just as they have already overcome many obstacles to rise to the top in their respective fields. As they do so, they will be able to utilize the synergy effects that can arise from sharing knowledge and experience within an international and interdisciplinary network.

Juliette Deschamps

Opera – Juliette Deschamps is convinced – is a core element of our culture. Because it was once a mass medium it still possesses the power to captivate a mass audience today. Deschamps knew from an early age that one day she would work in opera.

She grew up in Paris in the 1980s. Her parents both worked as directors, in theater and television. Jacques Tati – probably France’s most famous comic actor and director – was her great-uncle. Even as a child Deschamps wanted to follow in the family tradition and become a director – though opera exerted a greater fascination for her than film and theater. She had fallen in love with what is arguably the most prestigious dramatic form of all. Staging operas is a phenomenally expensive business.

The first obstacle, though, was that no officially recognized training program for stage directors was available in France, so Juliette Deschamps decided to take an indirect route to her goal. She started working as an actor, earned a degree in classical music and studied German and Italian so that she could understand the great opera libretti. Soon she was acting in films – in order to learn how film directors worked.

As a young assistant director, Deschamps met the Italian opera diva Anna Caterina Antonacci. She persuaded the soprano to take the stage in her first show, Claudio Monteverdi’s “Era La Notte,” and invited Dominique Meyer – then director of the Théâtre des Champs-Elysées – to the official opening. Meyer was enthralled and acquired the production. So it was that Deschamps’s career as an opera director began in the 2006 season.

Since this debut she has staged operas in Paris, Lyon, Venice, Vienna, Amsterdam and Taipei, and will debut next year in New York’s Lincoln Center. She has arranged concerts for the stage, directed video clips and produced a short film in conjunction with John Lennon’s son Sean. Yet opera remains her abiding passion – and when she talks about it her enthusiasm is palpable: “We can reach a mass audience if we cast off this art form’s clichés. In the past, opera houses were the epicenters of our cities – people of all classes went to the opera. It told stories that were relevant to everyone. And the emotional impact of the voices and orchestras in these magnificent arenas was something quite unique.” Juliette Deschamps is determined to win over a new, as yet unreceptive generation to the opera, because: “The reason for this can’t be to do with opera itself – it’s about how we communicate it.”

Marianne Dahl Steensen

Few markets are more fiercely contested than the Scandinavian telecommunications sector. So starting out in this field was no easy matter. Marianne Dahl Steensen well remembers the time when telecommunications in her home market, Denmark, were subject to a state monopoly – as was the case in most of the countries currently spearheading the digital revolution. Steensen was one of the managers leading the industry’s renaissance, with an intuitive ability to break through the entrenched paradigms of an industry emerging from the anachronism of state-ownership and facing the fastest pace of technological change since the industrial revolution.

By the time Steensen moved into the telecoms sector, however, the technology shift had given way to a new top priority. Now the primary aim was no longer recruiting new users but retaining customers through customer service and building lifelong brand loyalty.

Steensen received the highest endorsement of her success to date last year, when she was headhunted by a company operating in a sector that was entirely unfamiliar to her. Insurance multinational RSA appointed her its country director for Personal Lines Denmark. Now she’s being asked to challenge entrenched ways of thinking all over again.

A fire insurance policy is a fire insurance policy – you can’t change that, explains Steensen. And making your customers into your allies, helping to ensure that they behave in ways that prevent incidents occurring, probably wouldn’t be seen as part of an insurance company’s brief – according to the traditional mindset. “Yet it’s precisely here that an insurance company can achieve a win-win outcome,” says Steensen. “If you get your customers to install a smoke alarm then you are protecting them from serious harm or even fatality – and protecting yourself against losses at the same time.”

The 38-year-old is now applying her paradigm-busting methods in her mentoring programs for young women. She started working as a mentor at an early stage. As a mother of twins she is all too aware of the demands her dual role as a mother and a professional woman brings with it. In Denmark, she says, the situation is not greatly different than in other countries. “We do,” she concedes, “have a fantastic social network, good childcare and a progressive family policy.” And yet, she says, the obstacles women face in Scandinavia are still very significant. “No man asks himself if he can have a career and a family at the same time. Women almost always do. But it doesn’t have to be like this. Really it’s all about dreaming – if you can dream it, you can do it.” The choice of partner is key, says Steensen: with the right partner, the work of family life can be divided up in a very pragmatic way. “Sharing the work within the marriage and a combination of childcare and au-pairs create enough space for you to concentrate on your career – men have done it for centuries.”

Muna AbuSulayman

There are few countries in which women are so obviously the victims of a misogynist mentality as in Saudi Arabia. Muna AbuSulayman was well aware of the burden of responsibility she was taking on when she became the first Saudi woman to hold a prominent position with an international TV channel. In 2002, at the age of 29, she became one of four female hosts of the talk show “Kalam Nawaem” broadcast by the pan-Arabian satellite channel MBC. “Large parts of the world share a stereotyped view of Saudi women,” she says. “But the decisive thing is not whether we’re allowed to drive cars or not. What really counts is that a majority of Saudi women are exceptionally well educated and becoming more and more successful.” She knew that if she could break down the clichés she would achieve far more than just high audience ratings – she would become a role model for thousands, if not millions, of Arab women for whom there are very few such models from their own cultural background.

For her own role models, AbuSulayman turned to literature: “My idols,” she says, “are Helen Keller and her teacher Anne Sullivan. Without Sullivan, Keller would never have found her voice and the world would have been robbed of an important author, inspiration and role model.” Her love of literature runs through her multifaceted CV like a golden thread. Born in Philadelphia and raised in the US, Malaysia and Saudi Arabia, she concluded her studies at George Mason University in Virginia with an M.A. in Literature.

As a talk show host she was soon being referred to as the Oprah Winfrey of the Arab world. In 2004 the World Economic Forum in Davos named her a Young Global Leader. Then, in 2007, she decided to quit her TV role. She had already been appointed a Goodwill Ambassador by the United Nations development aid program; now she also became Managing Director of the Saudi-based but globally oriented Alwaleed Bin Talal Foundation. In both of these roles she was an active advocate of Islam-West dialogue and remains a sought-after speaker on this topic on the worldwide university circuit.

For the past year now she has reduced this activity to some extent, preferring to concentrate on promoting young female entrepreneurs in Saudi Arabia. AbuSulayman has also founded a fashion company with its own collection – brightly colored and elegant, and maybe a touch too opulent and conservative for western tastes. But here too she is pursuing goals of her own, above and beyond any glamour factor. “Young women will only gain a real foothold in Saudi society if they can attain financial independence,” says Muna AbuSulayman. And the biggest obstacle here is not a conservative Islamic society but Saudi bureaucracy. “To give just one example,” she says, “most of the jobs for women are in local and central government. But anyone who works for the government is prohibited from owning a business. And even if you do want to found a business, permits can take anything up to one year to obtain. During this time, the would-be women founders are left without an income.”

As an entrepreneur, AbuSulayman has experienced this first-hand. But it did not stop her from making the conscious decision to become self-employed. The main reason why she founded a fashion company, she says, was to acquire the necessary experience and pass it on to young women. That in itself, however, is not enough for her and so she is aiming to push for changes in the law and in regulatory and bureaucratic practices in her home country. These are essential if young women like her two daughters, who will soon be embarking on a career, are to have a real future.

Sema Sgaier

To gaze at the photographs that Sema Sgaier produces with high-powered cameras – photographs of proteins, brain cells and embryonic stages of human life – is to realize that here the spirit of research that inhabits a brilliant scientific mind has mated with the innate sense of form and beauty of a gifted artist. Two driving forces with the same prime mover – curiosity – have combined within an exceptional biography to generate fascinating photographs that are steeped in an impressive body of scientific work. And four years ago that biography was given a whole new twist.

Sema Sgaier grew up on the Mediterranean coast in Libya. As a child she loved being in the water and dreamed of becoming a marine biologist. Her hero was Jacques Cousteau, whose underwater adventures she followed on TV. But it was not to be. She and her family moved quite frequently – to Italy and Egypt, to Turkey and the US. Growing up at a time when scientific headlines all over the world were full of the revolutionary progress being made in genetic engineering, she soon felt the magnetic pull of this new field of research that was revealing so much about the development and properties of various life forms and of human beings in particular.

Sgaier studied neuroscience, molecular biology and genomics at Brown University, NYU and Harvard. Soon she was making discoveries that captured wider attention. Using the technique of Fate Mapping, she studied the cerebellum and discovered how the centers for language and memory develop. She also identified the gene that is responsible for causing microencephaly.

In New York she also had a chance to pursue her lifelong love of documentary photography. She enrolled at the world’s foremost school in this field, the International Center of Photography. It was here that she learned to tell her stories through pictures. She traveled the world shooting photos for illustrated articles, all the while maintaining her intense scientific research. Above all though, she created a visual language through which to illustrate her chosen subject. With the aid of high-resolution Zeiss cameras she photographed activities in animal and human cell structures. Her series of shots showing the motion of brain cells are reminiscent of images from outer space, depicting distant galaxies and supernovae.

Then, four years ago, Sema Sgaier’s career took a whole new direction. When she entered science, her intention had always been to work towards the cause of saving lives. However, she realized that this was a slow process and that she really wanted to be closer to the people who were affected. She therefore decided to take her scientific skills and apply them to public problems directly in the field. Since 2008 she has been working for the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. Here she is one of the program officers managing an HIV/AIDS prevention program in India. In six Indian states where the rate of infection is particularly high, the campaign is looking after over 300,000 members of a high-risk group. With some success. The battle against HIV/AIDS in India is an encouraging example. In large parts of the country both new infection rates and numbers infected are falling. This, of course, answers some of the questions that Sgaier’s work to date has thrown up. But above all it shows just where curiosity can lead.

As the biographies of women from countries around the globe confirm, talent alone is not enough to enable them to fully realize their potential. Events like the Women’s Forum for the Economy and Society and programs like “Rising Talents,” which is supported by Egon Zehnder and Eurazeo in partnership, act as vital catalysts.

To learn more about the Rising Talents network, please visit www.womens-forum.com