As part of our support for International Women’s Day “Choose to Challenge” and Women’s History Month, we invited women in leadership to discuss their views on gender inequality and related issues. Besides hearing from some of our own female leaders, we also reached out to inspiring women from other businesses. For this #IWD2021 Ringside, we listened to Alina Vandenberghe, CPO and Co-Founder at Chili Piper.
Can you tell us a few things about yourself?
I am the lucky mum of two boys and have founded two tech start-ups worth hundreds of millions of dollars. My oldest “baby” is Chili Piper, a SaaS company that makes customer meetings happen seamlessly.
What barriers have you encountered throughout your life?
Building a massive business is hard enough, and getting here hasn’t been easy. But I’ve had to overcome additional obstacles that have nothing to do with our product, competitors, or capabilities. These challenges hinge entirely on my status as a female executive because (big surprise) I’ve encountered my fair share of sexism and discrimination along this journey.
I was born in a communist country. And I picked a career path that was not at all encouraged for a “girl” at that time, computer science. In fact, when I told my dad what college I wanted to go to, his face whitened, and he expressed grave concern. He is an engineer himself and saw the kind of hardships women face in the workplace first-hand.
How about before work? What was your experience of education as a female like in a communist country?
School was tough, and I faced my fair share of sexism and discrimination. Classes were never just about academics.
I loved math, but my math teacher would often send me out of his class for absurd reasons, like wearing makeup or nail polish. I loved science, but my science teacher would throw me out of class for having bare shoulders. I was often first in my class, but teachers would always doubt my test scores and accuse me of copying my male colleagues’ answers.
But I got lucky with one female teacher who would encourage me whenever I was sad and disheartened. She would always say, “Alina, it’s not you. It’s on them. They are the ones who are making a mistake.” Whenever things would get tough, I could find comfort in her words.
I had a unique perspective in a sea of white men on engineering teams, but that didn't matter when coupled with the bias that came along with it. Click To Tweet
Can you describe what it was like to work your way up to executive leadership?
After school, my corporate experience was no walk in the park either.
I had a unique perspective in a sea of white men on engineering teams, but that didn’t matter when coupled with the bias that came along with it. I was often stereotyped and mistaken for other “female-friendly” departments. I was often asked to bring coffee or write notes in meetings. I became used to being underestimated, but it didn’t make it sting any less.
However, I managed to push through all the stereotyping, and I was promoted quickly by traditional standards, from intern to SVP in six years. For any woman in any industry, this is huge. But in a male-dominated industry like mine? I recognise that it’s even more monumental.
What advice would you pass on to women looking to push past stereotypes in this industry?
From childhood onwards, women are taught that there’s a power difference between men and women. When they grow up and go to work, they see that struggle in the workforce. Therefore, my best advice would be to learn to have crucial conversations that help shift that power in their favour. They have more power than they can imagine, and they can bring life to the world – all while doing a job that would stereotypically be associated with men. Two great books on having tough conversations that I recommend are “Nonviolent Communication” by Marshall Rosenberg and “Crucial conversations when stakes are high” by Patterson and Greeny.