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Interview

Female Tech Heroes role models #14 – Stella van der Sluis and Marie-Claire Spencer: “We help young women secure their career from an early age”

Sep 21, 2020 11:48:27 AM. By: Anna Mazur

“Different backgrounds but one vision.” Stella van der Sluis is the specialist in hospitality management and Marie-Claire Spencer is the expert in business administration and digital innovation. When the two met, they realised they had the same vision – to pass their knowledge to the younger generation and help young female talent thrive in their career. That’s when the seed for a digital platform Lead Your Future was planted. Since January 2020, the platform has grown to a community of over 500 women and girls. "They can learn, build a network and connect directly to companies and role models.”

Stella, how was the idea of the young female network born?
I’ve always wanted to empower and support young women in their career, but five years ago I decided to focus a lot of my time and energy on it. One of the triggering moments, many years ago, was discovering that I was one of the few directors who led a team with an equal number of men and women. Something I thought was very normal wasn’t normal for others.

I think our team was successful because it’s diverse. Men and women are different, and we have to use that in the right way. Some women are too shy and lacking confidence, but if we give them just a little push in the right direction, they will flourish. So, I wanted to do something, but I was not quite sure what to focus on. When I started to research on the subject, I discovered that there is a huge gap between how girls performed at school and what their career looks like. Which is contrasting when you look at boys.

I got introduced to Marie-Claire, who shared the same vision with me, and together we came up with the idea of a digital platform.

Marie-Claire, what was your motivation to start this platform?
With my background in Business & Administration, I´ve worked in different industries, including public and private sectors. I love to analyse and solve difficult digital and innovative questions where I mostly work with men. I really like working with men because the conversations are straightforward and short which makes fast and quick steps together possible.

The strong feminine features like being pragmatic, creative, can-do mentality and the ability to see the bigger picture I experienced as valuable features. So, for a long time, I have been thinking: we need more women in tech, policy and many other fields with those skills. That was my reason to step into Lead Your Future. Not only to help these young women, but also to challenge ourselves and young women to build a digital platform together. For me, this initiative means creating my social footprint by giving back and sharing my experience, knowledge and tips & tricks to the next generation.

We want to help young women secure their career, trust their instincts, step up to make great presentations and do the right things from an early age. Stella and I have big social networks, so we wanted to open them up.

What can we find on the platform?
Marie-Claire: The Lead Your Future platform is a personal environment where young women, starting from the age of 15, can create resumes, timeline of tasks and achievements, list of interests, and communicate directly with role models. On the other side, it is a space for companies to experiment with their employer branding, connect their role models with young women and their stories and promote various events.

What usually happens is that universities and schools organize job fairs for students, but struggle to keep the connection sustainable. After attendance, students go home and rarely keep contact with the company. We create a database of student profiles and companies, with all the contact details, so they can connect at anytime.

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Stella: With the thought that one talent should inspire another, we made it really easy for girls on our platform to create their own network. We found that LinkedIn may seem too big and impersonal for young talents. On a small and personal platform like ours it feels easier and safer to connect to the role models.

We started at the end of January and now have around 500 girls in the network. The companies that joined the platform are from various sectors: IT, Finance, Insurance and Banking. They are interested in connecting young female talent and are often seeking advice on how to appeal to young generations in a modern way.

Why is it important to support the females in the age group of 15-24 years old?
Marie-Claire: We divide it into different target groups. 15-18 is the age when girls are starting to orientate and choose their current and next education. Young women at age 22-24 start to look for a job, internship or network and experience other needs. We connect these two groups with one another, and the older group - with companies. This way we create a sustainable network chain for everybody, because at the end young women will later be role models for the next generation.

Why focus on one gender only?
Stella: Young women are lagging behind when it comes to being successful in their careers, if you compare it to young men. The research shows that young girls are much better at school than guys. But guys who are between 15 and 18 know better how to bluff to get better grades. So, the surprising outcome is that guys reach more at the beginning of their career than those girls with better grades, because of some other skills.

We also believe that focusing on one group gives better results than trying to appeal to everybody. So, we wanted to start with girls, and maybe in a couple of years, we will do it for all young people.

What were the inspirations for you in your early career?
Stella: My manager has always empowered me by inviting to different kind of meetings and projects. He believed in me even more than I did in myself sometimes. Also, my grandmother was a very wise woman. She always used to say: “Make sure you can take care of yourself. Never depend on anyone else.” I think throughout your career you meet people that you can learn from. The most important thing is to never stop learning. Also, learning from your own mistakes. It can really hurt. But it is very inspiring to make better decisions afterwards.

Marie-Claire: I am very hungry for new things and I had an opportunity to create an environment where I could continue learning. As for the role model, I have a totally different one. She is an architect who passed away a couple of years ago, Zaha Hadid. She designed a lot of beautiful modern buildings in the world. I saw her exhibition in Guggenheim, New York. What is significant about her work is that she makes her designs on paper, so on a 2-dimensional object. But if you look closer, the drawings actually have three dimensions. Her approach reminds and inspires me to always look deeper in the things we see. And that is the mindset that I try to always carry with me in life. This mindset also encouraged me to step in this initiative with Stella, and to see where it can bring us to.

Congratulations on being nominated for Dutch Interactive Award 2020! What is the secret of success in running a talent community?
Stella: Making it with the target group and for the target group. All the aspects of the platform, including design, topics are co-created by us and the youngsters. We have conducted a thorough research about what their needs and preferences are, but also those of the companies who join the platform. Also, we used a design sprint approach to create a prototype of the platform in one week.

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Marie-Claire: I think it is really important to be genuine and really convinced about its mission. We truly believe in this community! That’s why we wanted to invest our own money and spare time to help to make a difference.

What are the key skills and competencies do the youngsters need to really ‘lead their future’?
Marie-Claire: If you look at our platform, you see that we emphasize on 21st-century skills, like tech-savvy, creative and leadership skills. But we also work on developing personal skills. Joining our platform starts with the quest to find out what your talents are.

Stella: I think that asking for help is one of the most important competencies to develop. If you can learn to ask for help and build a community of people around you from a young age that can really benefit you. Besides, you have to be really honest with yourself.

What is the most valuable lesson the members can learn on the platform?
Marie-Claire: One of the most important lessons is learning to understand how a career works. Realizing that career paths are dynamic and that you do not always end up working in the same field that you studied for is a very important insight. Especially when girls feel stuck. Therefore, having a direct contact with the role models, and hearing about their diverse career stories is very powerful.

What are the next plans of Lead Your Future in 2020?
Marie-Claire: We have been doing a lot of things online, like Q&A’s on Instagram. Now, in November, we are organizing live events in Rotterdam, Amsterdam, The Hague, Maastricht and other big cities. We are also working on design & built the Lead Your Future Academy, where companies can offer their own workshops and seminars for talents and young talent their own talent and wisdom in special (online & offline) talent colleges. So it’s all about learning and stepping into the world of talent.

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