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Leading Women: a journey from poverty to empowerment
As part of our Leading Women series, we want to highlight the professional challenges and career aspirations of the women we work with here in Asia.
In this story, Teresa Condicion, Founder & CEO of Shoplinks, shares what it was like to grow up in abject poverty and how embracing her roots has given her a newfound sense of confidence and leadership.
Q: What’s one thing that you’ve had to sacrifice for your career?
I think most of us can only do a few things really well at any point in time. Like everyone else, even though I have multiple priorities, I have only 24 hours in a day. So being a mother, being an entrepreneur, being a wife, being a friend and keeping fit, it’s impossible to do them all while trying to achieve something in business. I love playing the guitar, for example, and I love writing. I have many of these hobbies that I’ve had to let go of. I just didn’t have time for them.
One thing I regretted the most was when I spent a lot of time travelling across Southeast Asia and Brazil, because we had operations there. I had a three-year-old son at the time, and I missed a lot of time in that part of his life during that period, and that was a huge loss. What I learnt from that was less about what you do sacrifice, but what you shouldn’t sacrifice. For me, it was family, health, friendships and relationships. I realised that if I sacrificed any of those things, I became less productive as a leader. It occurred to me that being a good leader is about being a happy leader. Only when you’re happy, then you can really be effective.
Q: What kind of barriers did you experience prior to your success?
So many! Here’s one example. I’ve had the privilege of having a very diverse experience. I’ve lived in the Philippines, Singapore and China, and I’ve worked in a corporate startup and have both technical and leadership experience. Coming from a fishing village in the Philippines, I was hesitant to speak up when I first started working. I had a lot of self doubts. One time, when I was invited by my alma mater to speak about my experiences, I just froze. I couldn’t say a word. That experience stayed with me, and I really avoided that kind of speaking engagements.
At some point, because of my corporate role, I knew that I couldn’t avoid it anymore. As an entrepreneur, I had to pitch to hundreds of investors, and I had to speak for an organisation that was rapidly growing in size. I also had to speak to reporters, join interviews, appear on television and be seen by millions of people.
At first I was incapacitated, but I knew that I just had to get through it. I realised that it was just a muscle that I had to build. Public speaking was something that I had to do again and again until I felt confident about it, and it became more second nature. I learnt that a lot of it had to do with my mindset. It’s something that I still struggle with from time to time. It takes practise.
Q: What are the traits you admire the most in a leader?
There are two types of leaders I really look up to. The first are those who lead with purpose. The second are those who lead with humility. I’ve always loved how Gandhi led the nation, how Mother Teresa led with humility and purpose. Both of them were able to galvanise a huge number of people to achieve what they wanted to achieve. Of course, Jeff Weiner, the CEO of LinkedIn, is very capable yet compassionate as well.
Q: What is the best advice you’ve ever received?
One time, when I just got promoted to a leadership position at Procter & Gamble, there was an executive who congratulated me and told me, “Now that you are a leader, your whispers can sometimes sound like thunders”. What she meant was that anything I said could move the entire organisation in directions that I didn’t even anticipate. Words take on a lot more meaning and can make or break a person’s day. So I learnt how to be careful with my words and to be a lot more deliberate about it.
For example, sometimes, an engineer comes and develops a complex feature that’s 99% correct. Our first tendency is to find that 1% that’s wrong. If I followed that instinct, I would not meet my objective, which was to motivate and drive the team to that 100%. So, being more deliberate, I would acknowledge that 99% first. That’s just one small example. Ultimately, it’s about being clear on what you want to achieve and knowing how to speak it.
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Q: Before your current role, have you ever thought of yourself as a future leader?
Not at all. When I was 10 years old, I imagined myself to be a scientist. I dreamt of beakers and test tubes and blue smoke all over. That’s why I took chemical engineering. I loved mathematics. Those were my passions. When I moved to Procter & Gamble, I learnt about analytics. I kept receiving feedback about how, even though I was good at what I did, my skills were too technical for me to be a leader, and that I didn’t have enough leadership presence. Besides, I grew up in poverty, in a small fishing village in the Philippines. I just couldn’t imagine myself telling others what to do, let alone an executive from an Ivy League school.
However, I couldn’t have been more wrong. As a child, I had to grow up very fast because my sister was born with cerebral palsy. My parents had to focus their attention on her, and I was in charge of taking care of my other siblings. We were all so poor, so it was up to me to take my family out of poverty. So I got myself educated, helped my siblings get educated with the single-minded purpose of helping the entire family succeed. Perhaps that’s why, when I entered the corporate world, I didn’t feel entitled to be a leader. I realised that, aside from the right mindset, I needed a purpose. In my personal life, my purpose was to take my family out of poverty, which in turn made me a leader.
I realised that a leader was somebody who had a purpose, who knew how to communicate that purpose, who could find others who shared the same purpose. As long as you had that, it didn’t matter who you were, you would be able to become a leader. For me, it began with bringing my family out of poverty. Now, it is about bringing a broader economic impact towards even the smallest retailers out there, to have the capabilities of data and technology to compete in an increasingly digitised world. Aside from that, we also send 100 children to school every year. I grew up with very little resources, and I wanted to help others in ways that I knew how.
Q: As a female leader, what are the biases and assumptions you’ve experienced from others?
That’s a very interesting question because I grew up with the privilege of not knowing the difference between a man and a woman. The Philippines has one of the smallest gender gaps in the world. When I worked for Procter & Gamble, diversity was a big focus for them, so again there was no real difference between men and women. It wasn’t until I went into entrepreneurship that I started seeing or hearing a lot of questions about gender biases. At first I ignored questions like, “Who’s taking your children home?”, “Do you understand machine learning?”, or “Do you understand mathematics?” At first I would answer these questions but, during this conference I attended, I was asked the same questions 10 times. The first questions were often not what I was doing, but who’s taking care of my children. I got very upset about it and replied, “My father and grandparents — how about your children?” That’s the main difference that I see as a female leader.
Q: How’ve you managed to build confidence over the years?
Self care! As I said, a person who is happy and well is able to better lead. You’re relied upon for decisions and motivation for the entire team. What you do is very contagious and can impact everybody. So caring for yourself, ensuring that you exercise and sleep well, that’s probably the most important thing. So when it comes to self doubt and self criticism, just being aware of these thought processes allowed me to understand that they are just that — thoughts. They are not real.
Q: What’s one thing you learnt recently that you would not have believed in just six months ago?
I think most of us were very surprised about the things that happened in the last six months, especially because of Covid-19. One example, for me, is remote work. I’ve always loved the flexibility of remote work. I have worked from home for many years, and I’ve even led teams remotely. What I didn’t expect, though, was that it could even be more productive. Overall, there are always things that are not perfect, but in our line of work, where we’re building software, I think we’ve been more productive overall.
I learnt that it was not about being together per se, but it’s about communication and being able to trust each other. The reason why teams are productive is because they communicate well, and they can do that without being together. For example, we learnt how to build a synchronous communication in the context of remote work, and that was a very interesting learning for me.
Q: Where is your hometown and why is it so important to you?
I grew up in a small fishing village in Batangas, a province in the Philippines. My father was a farmer who started selling small items in a Mom and Pop store in front of our house. There, I learnt a lot of things. I grew up with crime, extreme poverty and hopelessness. I see that as an integral part of me because it taught me to develop a purpose. It’s kept me grounded and what’s possible in life despite limited resources. It has also taught me how to do my duties and pave the way for others struggling like me. So yes, I will always look back at my village life and see it as part of my identity.
Q: What is the best advice you have for someone to differentiate themselves?
To me, it’s about being authentic, being yourself and acknowledging that you are good. I’ve seen a lot of female leaders try to behave like men, and I think that’s wrong. I think each of us has different strengths that can be brought to the table. I think being true to yourself is super important.
This is one of the many stories in our Leading Women series. For more inspiring stories of women breaking conventions and taking the lead in Asia Pacific, visit the official Page Executive blog below: