By Joan Runnheim Olson
Below is an interview with Anja White, founder of albaviso and a pioneer for women in nontraditional careers. Anja shares her journey working in the manufacturing industry and how she has leveraged that experience to now coach women working in that same male-dominated industry.
Could you provide a little background on your career path?
I don't have a typical, well-planned career path--which in many ways is testament to my belief that opportunities present themselves when one is open and curious. Never could I have imagined to rise to executive roles in global companies, ultimately leading a multi-million dollar high tech manufacturing subsidiary of a $16 billion global conglomerate. My parents were small business owners, entrepreneurs who raised us to be independent very early. I remember my father valuing education and pushed us hard to achieve in school. He believed that with a solid knowledge base one will always have options and choices. Whenever we said “I can’t” he would reply: “You can’t or you don’t want to?” In those years, I did not give this question much credence. Today I know that it fundamentally shaped my drive to not let potential obstacles get in the way of exploring what else is possible. In the late 1980s I left Germany for a life in the US. I quickly learned that my education was not understood well here and I decided to study, first at Minnesota School of Business with the idea to become an executive assistant. Little did I know that this very choice would set me on a path to understanding business, people, processes and systems from the ground up. As I progressed from a support role into leadership, attaining my BA and MBA, each step of the way shaped who I became as an executive and now an executive coach to leaders in manufacturing.
How did you decide on your career choice? Did someone in high school encourage you to pursue a nontraditional career?
Actually, my father encouraged me to think about taking over his painting and design business. Women were extremely rare at construction sites, but I became an apprentice in a small company with 19 men. In the interview, the owner told me straight up that no concessions will be made because I was “a girl” and he expected that I would pull my weight regardless of my gender. And the “guys” did clearly not subscribe to cutting me any slack; nothing was too heavy or too dirty. My mother was an integral part in the family business and we were raised believing that gender was not to be an obstacle whatsoever. She worked side by side with my father; at the construction site as well as in the office. I chose not to take over the business for a variety of reasons, but not for reasons of gender. It just never crossed my mind that there was anything I could not do because of being a woman.
What challenges have you encountered being in a male-dominated field?
Once I was in the US and started as an executive assistant, I was clearly in a very woman dominated field. Not until I stepped into leadership did I realize that the landscape was quite different. The cliche that there never was a line at the ladies’ restroom when attending corporate management events held certainly true for me. But never once did I get up in the morning thinking about being a woman and whether that would be a disadvantage for me. Of course I experienced remarks such as “so what is the female perspective on this” or “you are the token woman on this team.” I was then, and am still today, puzzled why anyone would say that. And here another one of my father’s mantras kept me going; he told me to never sink to “their” level--meaning those people who are closed-minded and critical.
What have you done to help overcome those challenges?
My upbringing ingrained in me the belief that solid performance, continuous learning, and being competent would always bring me forward. That I would be able to decide; whether that was true or not was never a question I thought much about. I just kept moving forward. What was more important then, and still is today, is my desire to deliver on commitments, take responsibility seriously, be of service to the people, hold true to my values, always learn, be curious and above all: love what I do. I also had great leaders who truly were engaged in my career and wanted to see me succeed. Even though all my mentors were men, they believed in my abilities. Always. In many ways, I was very fortunate to have been surrounded by “gender neutral” mentors.
Describe a typical day on the job.
Today, as coach, my days are very different from the executive days in industry. I no longer work 80-hour weeks and get on airplanes 6 times a month. As a leader, you are “always on” -- every minute of the day people are relying on you to be fully present. Whether there are tough decisions to make, significant quality problems to be resolved, new products to be introduced--you are responsible. The buck stops with you. But it is so rewarding and exhilarating when you see your team be successful, when the company achieves its goals, when customers are happy, employees are engaged. Ten bad moments are instantly wiped clean with one success. And because of all trials and tributes while I was in industry allow me today to be of service to my clients. I get it, I understand what it is like to be in leadership.
What is the salary range for work such as yours?
While in industry, the salaries vary greatly depending on company size and industry. There is no reason why you could not make $200,000 a year.
How do you use math, science and computer skills in your job?
This is an interesting question; I was General Manager of high tech businesses even though I am not an engineer or scientist. But the solid education I had in math and science clearly had an impact understanding how all the pieces fit together. Not being afraid of these subjects but rather intrigued and interested helped me learn the technologies of the organizations I worked at.
How did you move up in your career?
When I look back at my career, each position I held was new; it did not exist and I was drawn to the “new.” My entrepreneurial spirit guided me from role to role. The intense curiosity to see what is possible, what could be created, moved me forward. I focused always on a need that could be solved for the benefit of the organization, not on my resume. The positions, titles and salaries came as a result, but were not my focus.
What advice would you give to females who may be considering a nontraditional career?
Be clear on your motivation: do you love it? Does it excite you to learn? Then do it. Put aside the thought that you are a woman. Believe in your competence, there is no reason whatsoever that you cannot achieve if you are curious, open, know your values and engage in the kind of work that makes you want to get up in the morning. There are always critics. It is their choice to be critical, you have the choice how you react to it.