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Next generation women leaders for a sustainable economy

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By Arvea Marieni

· 8 min read

In June, I was grateful for the opportunity to join the journey to the European Innovation Area. I owed this chance to Knowledge 4 Innovation (K4I) and Jara Pascual, that I thank for the invitation.

The K4I Forum Governing Board consists of Members of the European Parliament (political members) and members of the K4I Management Board.

What follows is the text of my speech.

We all need a chance to present ourselves, to assert our ideas. To prove ourselves. Women are less likely to be given this opportunity than men.

Women are often not given it at all. Leadership, it is commonly thought, is not a feminine quality.

Instead, as an old boss and real mentor of mine - a great innovation sage, long-time head of the Fiat Research Centre - used to say: 'when the going gets tough, the toughs get going. And more often than not, they are women'.

For women, more than men, having someone to count on, and share the burden of work is fundamental to thrive and to be successful. To be successful, as women, we need to believe in ourselves.

Often, we need to be reminded by trusted friends, business partners, mentors, that we can do it. That we are capable. I had the chance to meet, along my journey, some amazing mentors. I owe them for all I am. I love them deeply for that. These were men who were never afraid of promoting women; men who never felt they would be overshadowed by a capable woman. These are true leaders.

True leaders are not afraid of change. True leaders are not afraid of excellent collaborators who challenge their ways. Because they are self-confident. True leaders use the qualities of their co-workers because they know that the team is always stronger than the individual.

Today I wouldn’t be able to say what I have to say if I didn’t have a trusted friend and business partner who is here, to read to you, my thoughts.

Thierry is a French entrepreneur and the treasurer of BuildingSMART MEDIACONSTRUCT, the French chapter of Building Smart International. BuildingSMART is the industry body driving the digital transformation of the building asset industry. I work as an advisor for them. Together, we promote solutions to accelerate the ecological transition in the building and construction sector, which is one of the most carbon intensive. The building and infrastructure sector generate 39% of GHG emissions and cause 50% of global resource consumption.

Bold leaders enable innovation. Today, more than ever, innovation germinates best in open ecosystems. We need to cross the boundaries of sectors, work across regions, connecting the dots of solutions. Trans germination, and miscegenation of cultures, technologies, nature-based solutions, traditional knowledge, and practices. We need openness. These are feminine qualities. We also need concreteness.

Today is indeed a time for concrete solutions. Everyone must do their part. There are many things we can do to make a change. For women, and for the challenges of the energy and ecological transition, the possible solutions lie in cooperation, co-creation, and the actions of SMEs, which are the backbone of European industry.

One example of a concrete, bottom-up innovation is provided by the RED II Directive, which introduced the renewable energy communities. This term refers to an association of citizens, businesses, local public administrations, or small and medium-sized enterprises that decide to join forces to equip themselves with one or more shared facilities for the production and self-consumption of energy from renewable sources.

In my country, Italy, the Directive has been transposed. But unfortunately, the necessary implementing decrees have not yet been adopted. This slows down the deployment of renewables! while we need them so urgently to decrease gas consumption.

The Directive is an important step towards an energy scenario based on distributed generation, which will favour the development of zero-kilometre energy and smart grids. It will make it possible for individual citizens and groups of companies to join forces and co-finance the installation of renewable capacity that supply energy to multiple users. This is the kind of system innovation that we need. In the Nordics, energy communities have produced tangible economic advantages to consumers. Sweden enjoys the lowest electricity prices in Europe. Consumers became prosumers. The post fossil economy needs a new organisational paradigm.

At the Regenerative Society Foundation, for which I serve as Technical Director, we are applying the concept of energy communities to a new agricultural regeneration project we are developing in Kenya.

“Sustainable ecosystems of connected and prosperous communities” aims at improving the livelihoods of rural populations in Kenya through implementing innovative, regenerative supply-chain agriculture and direct access to market. The project brings nature positive consequences in terms of climate mitigation and consumption habits. This is a key enabler for the transition to a regenerative socio-economic model in Low Income Countries as well as in Europe. This project is built upon an existing platform of 25000 farmers. More than the half of the payments made through the platform go to women. Women are key to social wellbeing and sustainable development in Africa. The project seeks also to establish a carbon accounting pilot, on the way to the implementation of the Paris Rulebook, finally agreed upon at COP26 in Glasgow. We are seeking investors.

This summer, the second Summer School for Female Leadership in the Digital Age – jointly organised by Huawei and the European Training Foundation - is being held in Prague. The aim of the school is to enhance the immense untapped potential of female talent, empowering girls to lead the tech revolution.

High-level representatives from business, politics, and science, will share their experience and knowledge with the 29 participants. Among them, there are many leading members of K4I. You and I, Jara, will also be there.

Today, only one in five ICT specialists are female. More women are needed at all stages of the tech product and policy development process to prepare for a digital future that works for all.

And today I bring an example of another bottom-up, concrete action. A step towards engaging more women in traditionally male sectors.

Many companies today are looking for female professionals to hire, especially in technical areas. The French company BEAM CUBE, a highly innovative SME is one of them. BEAM CUBE has two vacancies for a project manager engineer and a technical designer. We will make them available after this panel.

Together, we propose building a network to match supply and demand for female professionals within an EU-wide network of companies, vis the important network of K4I, Collabwith, and any other partner.

We speak on behalf of buildingSMART MEDIACONSTRUCT France. We also speak on behalf of FNTP (Fédération Nationale des Travaux Publics), the French National Federation of Public Works, who is committed to actively support the proposal.

FNTP represents 8,000 public works companies of all sizes. The companies that make up the FNTP have 0.4% women! FNTP, and its members, are aware that this must change, and they are open to do so. They have recognised that there is a need for training and for strengthening a pipeline. This is especially so on construction sites.

More than 5,000 of the companies are also small, local, and agile, so they can be fabulous accelerators for the evolution of the shift in mentalities and culture needed. I have the pleasure to work with them to accelerate the ecological transition So, I asked them, why not work together and try to find a solution to attract more women?

They embraced the proposal. Together with BEAM CUBE and buildingSMART, they have made it their own.

Beyond the French Federation of Public Works, small companies are the ones who make innovation and push for change.

In France, and in Italy, we find more and more women in these companies, often family-owned businesses, who bring their imagination, their pragmatism, their logic, their persistence. Much more than many men, women bring diplomacy and listening skills that are so essential to the complex process of change. Women break barriers and are agents for change. They normally look at a bigger picture, at a more comprehensive understanding of “result”, profit and welfare. This is a shift we need for a more ecological economy. We need to redefine “value” for a more sober economy. In France, the CEOs of EDF, Engie, Total are calling to save energy. Female economists are revolutionising their field by questioning the meaning of everything from 'value,' and 'debt,' to 'growth' and “consumption”.

Far from old masculine reflexes that often cling to their habits to assert their powers and territories, women will bring voluntary and innovative visions and explain them.

In our societies, the professions of social work, support, and people management are mostly female. In a context like ours today, where we have to innovate and transform ourselves, including technologically, to save our planet, we have to rely on all the traditionally recognised female qualities and skills. Above all we need to make people aware that women are also excellent technicians, excellent project leaders, excellent company managers. As my friend Thierry says, in his experience, women excel in running a small business, which is often organised like a family. Women have nothing to prove as managers.

But they also have nothing to prove in terms of their technical skills, their natural qualities in logic and science. Having women in a design office, project managers supervising men and women, often assures the application of bright ideas and common sense, of peaceful, constructive and serene dialogue within a team.

Unfortunately, women often do not dare enough, because of a largely male environment concerned with its usual prerogatives. And this regularly starts in primary and secondary school. This is a handicap – we need to change this type of stereotyping.

It is necessary to go to the heads of companies, including small companies dominated by males, because these men can at least be facilitators, or provide additional driver to give women all the places they deserve in recognition of their qualities.

This article was first published in Brussels Morning. Illuminem Voices is a democratic space presenting the thoughts and opinions of leading Sustainability & Energy writers, their opinions do not necessarily represent those of illuminem.

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About the author

Arvea Marieni is the Director of the Regenerative Society Foundation, the leading alliance for a regenerative economy. She is also member of the board and Partner at Brainscapital Benefit Company and a Principal Consultant at GcM Consulting Srl. Previously, she was Head of the Energy Transition Programme at the Strasbourg Policy Centre.

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