In our newest blog post of WOMEN WHO INSPIRE US, we have met with agile leader Valentina Ricupero who has worked in the tech industry for almost 15 years. She has worked all around the world, leading teams in start-ups and corporates, and is now starting her own business consulting company. In this interview, she shares her inspiring career path, her experiences as being the only woman in meetings, and also plenty of life advice with us.
Tell us about your personal and professional background, and what your current role is.
My name is Valentina. I am Italian and I studied intercultural communication and political science in Milan. Already in high school, I studied languages – German, Spanish, and English. Especially my knowledge of German turned out to be crucial for my career and opened many doors for me.
Political science gave me the tools to understand, compare and analyze power structures, processes and behaviors, and to learn how to implement a strategy within an organization.
The multi-cultural aspect of my studies gave me the tools to thrive in an international environment. Over the years, I have worked in different countries and this has contributed immensely to my personal and professional development.
Originally, my goal was to start a diplomatic career. However, my international law professor at the time brought me back to earth. She was a very supportive woman, but she told me that a diplomatic career would have meant a significant financial investment, for example in terms of unpaid internships. Coming from a working-class family, I did not have the financial resources to pursue such a career, so I shifted my focus to business, namely sales in international companies. There I could use my analytical and strategic thinking as well as my negotiation skills while also being financially supported.
Right now, I am in the process of starting my own business consulting and coaching company.
How did you become interested in tech?
Technology has always been a very dynamic and forward-looking sector, which also aligned well with my approach to life and my career.
In the beginning, I was mainly focused on jobs that would allow me to work in an international environment and support myself financially. My first job offer happened to be in a hardware manufacturing company in Italy. I was working as a sales representative for the German-speaking and Spanish markets.
After two years there, I was offered a job at IBM in Ireland. That was a dream come true to me: working at a large, influential company, plus it was abroad, so I could also gain more international experience. At IBM, I was selling into the Swiss & Austrian markets, so it was a perfect match!
Joining IBM first and Oracle afterward, I had the opportunity to get a lot of technical and management training. I also taught myself a lot about technology and product development. Today, this is probably more obvious, but 15 years ago, when I started gaining all these insights about technology, I got super excited about the impact technology had on almost every aspect of our lives.
Did you ever sit down and sketch out your career?
I did not have a concrete plan at the beginning. But I was very determined and focused on my career. Every time I had the chance, I invested resources into expanding my knowledge, e.g. in terms of languages, and into becoming better at what I was doing.
I reached success very fast in my career. After only 6 months at IBM Switzerland, I was awarded as the best sales representative for the Swiss market and offered to join a talent development plan for people with C-level potential.
However, I realized very soon that I was missing something. I did not take the time to reflect and look back to assess whether I was feeling good about my success too. If I put this in agile terms, I was missing a retrospective.
It was a key moment in my career when I stopped and looked back and asked myself questions like: What do you want to do? What are the parts that you enjoy and the ones you do not enjoy about your job? I wish I would have done this earlier. This was the moment I started to plan my professional & personal development. Nowadays, I have a concrete plan for the next 12 months or so, and a clear but more flexible roadmap for the longer term.
I did not take the time to reflect and look back to assess whether I was feeling good about my success too. If I put this in agile terms, I was missing a retrospective.
What drives you at work?
It’s really all about people and growth. I think about this a lot. Are we getting better as a team? Is the product getting better because of what I do? Are my customers getting better at what they do? And of course, am I improving? This is my main drive.
My personality is quite self-focused & self-reflective. I sometimes have conversations with people about whether this is ego-centric but I strongly believe that it helped me a lot throughout my career. If you know what you want and you are happy with what you are achieving, this will reflect on the environment around you. I always made sure to cover my needs first, and then use this strength to support my team and my customers.
For me it’s like the safety instruction in an airplane: you put on your own mask first before you help your child. You have to make sure that you are doing well before you can support others to your full potential.
What one thing do you believe has been a major factor in your success?
Definitely being resilient. When I went to university, it would have been easy for me to choose Spanish as a subject which I was already good at. But I went for German instead. I wasn’t so good at German in high school and I wanted to get better at it.
There is a saying that it’s not about what you do when you’re successful – it’s about how you react when you aren’t at your best or have to face obstacles. What do you do then? I often embrace it as an opportunity to get better and I keep moving forward.
Another big part of success is being compassionate & empathetic. It is about focusing on the people and asking the right questions.
When I kick-off a collaboration with a team I spend at least one hour in a workshop to collect inputs such as: What management style do they like and don’t like? What are their hopes and fears about our collaboration as a team? What kind of projects were their highlight and lowlight in the past year? Understanding your team members will make collaboration smoother and more efficient. This is definitely something that helped me a lot in my career.
I am surprised by how much time is spent in organizations with strategies and tools but so little time is spent talking with and about the people. In the end, it is the people who work with the tools and execute the strategy. And they have a much larger impact on the final result.
At Girls in Tech we are all about diversity and inclusion in tech, why do you think this is important?
I started my career almost 15 years ago and the world was different back then. I experienced not one but many situations where I was the only woman in the room, sometimes the only woman at a conference & definitely the only woman in negotiations. I experienced a lot of built-in biases. Once we went to a meeting with a CEO of a big insurance company. I was managing a team and one of my team members was a man older than me. The CEO immediately started talking with my colleague and asked him questions about the project. My colleague looked at me puzzled. I just started to answer his questions and give my presentation. The CEO quickly realized that I was in the lead and he falsely assumed that my colleague was in charge.
In the beginning, I got angry about situations like these. I thought that it was my fault, that I didn’t appear as if I was in charge. But it was not about me. We all have biases and we are accountable for that.
I also had to fight my own biases. I would say I am very independent and even declare myself a feminist. But when I started my career, I thought that I have to act or speak like a man. I tried to emulate men, dress like men, never show any emotions, do all the things that you would typically associate with men in business.
I believe this helped me at the beginning of my career, 15 years ago. But we shouldn’t have to do this anymore. Only in my retrospectives, I realized that I wasn’t comfortable with the situation. I did keep some of these characteristics that I developed early on because they belong to me, but I also added new facets of my personality. All of a sudden, I was able to bring all my skills to the table and the organization actually benefited from that.
Today I am positive because I see that times are changing. There are more women in tech leading teams, leading projects, leading organizations. This changes the landscape and the experience for everybody.
Valentina & her greatest role model.
What experiences or people have shaped you in your childhood?
There are two things that shaped me: the first one was reading books. I was reading a lot when I was a child. In those books, I found a lot of life advice and got exposed to all the opportunities in the world.
The second one was my mom. She was a single mother, raising me and my siblings all by herself while working in housekeeping full time. That was in the ‘80s in Italy when this was definitely a difficult thing to do for a woman. She always stood up for herself and for others and empowered them. I learned a lot from her example. She has always trusted me to make my own decisions and take responsibility for them. We enjoyed a lot of freedom as kids due to her trust. To this day, she is my greatest role model for being so incredibly resilient.
What changes are you observing in the tech industry that you admire?
I am seeing many people that share the success of others with a lot of excitement. The way they do that is selfless. They open up spaces and create opportunities, and they share it at the right moment so that it is relevant to people. This blog post series that you are doing at Girls in Tech Switzerland is a great example. I believe it is very important that leadership and career stories are shared and made visible.
I also see that in the younger generations, women are already more empowered – at least in western countries. It’s the first time in history that women have their own money and can spend it. My mom was a rebel in her time being a single mother. We have much more freedom today, we can focus solely on our careers if we want.
Now a lot of women are shaping the tech industry, and there are more female role models in tech but still not so many at the top. We will need more time for this to happen. The younger generation has to push through. We are in the process of building up from the bottom.
The first step is to make diversity, or the lack of it, more visible to the whole organization. If you say you want diversity, you have to start the conversation. It is a transformation that requires time. But I am super excited about what’s to come. I have female and male colleagues that stand at the beginning of their careers and they expose these topics publicly. This is mind-blowing to me. I wish I had done that 10 years ago.
I am always trying to diversify my surroundings and I realize that there is so much potential. I am sad about all of those missed opportunities around us. Fantastic people are stopped from doing great things because of biases. For me, that’s the biggest motivation for diversity and it’s sitting right there waiting for us to make change happen.
If you say you want diversity, you have to start the conversation.
What is your next challenge and what are you hoping to achieve in the future?
I want to help organizations and leaders to build sustainable growth and accelerate value delivery. Every company needs to be able to adapt, grow and innovate fast if they want to stay relevant in the market but many companies struggle with how to do that.
Often the processes they have in place are even preventing this from happening.
I start my collaborations with a reality check to clearly align on what is possible. My aim is that organizations can learn to transform and take control to build agility, innovation and speed into their company’s DNA.
This can only happen if you apply human-centered methodologies that focus on what really shapes and defines companies: the people. Learning to collaborate and strategically leverage diversity within the organization brings those new ideas and insights that many companies are so much longing for. As a result you can accelerate and increase value delivery to your customers and not only stay competitive, but lead the game.
For myself, I am hoping to create opportunities that allow me to keep growing in the future. I want to surround myself with people that I can learn from. A piece of advice at the end: find mentors to guide you and a coach to support your personal growth. Reach out to people and ask them to help you. There are so many skilled people willing to support others and great results always come from a team effort.
We would like to thank Valentina for her time and the great set of advice that she shared with us based on her experiences. We wish her all the best for the future, especially for the start of her own company Valentina Ricupero Business Consulting, and that we will soon be seeing the change that we are aiming for together. Thank you, Valentina, for being a woman who inspires us! 💜
Author: Lisa Staehli
Our Women Who Inspire Us series has already featured: