Each month we have the honor of interviewing WOMEN WHO INSPIRE US. This month we talked to Vanessa Gentile from Salesforce who gave us inspiring insights into her career path from being a child of immigrants climbing her way up to being a leader at global tech companies. You will find lots of great advice in Vanessa’s career path and also learn about the Bring Women Back to Work program that she has founded.
Tell us about where you’re from – let us know different perspectives: geography, academic or professional background, and industry and how you made it to your current position.
I was born in Frauenfeld, Switzerland as the only child in my family. My mother is originally from Brazil and my father from Italy. As my parents were immigrants and needed to work hard to earn their living, I was staying with a Spanish family who took care of me while my parents were working. This meant that already as a child, I spoke four languages.
At School, I then learned French and English, which now adds up to a total of six languages. When I was in primary school – one of a few immigrant kids in my class – my teacher didn’t really have faith in me and wasn’t supporting me at all. Luckily for me, my dad got a job in Valencia (Spain), where we lived for two years and where I visited a public school. As I already knew Spanish, this helped me a lot to succeed in school and gave me back my confidence.
After I moved back to Switzerland, I finished high school and started a commercial apprenticeship. During my studies and in parallel I worked for the criminal police department as a simultaneous translator. This was quite a tough time as the cases were very severe. I have asked for a transition to the court where I stayed for another 2 years.
After my apprenticeship, I then took the opportunity to apply for an international position at an insurance company, where my language skills came in very handy. After a few years, I then moved to the tech industry and joined Microsoft.
I had the chance to work at several departments, trying out different things like Sales, Marketing and also becoming a manager of a team. For 13 years I stayed within this company and it really became the school of my life. I had many ups and downs and that was exactly what I needed to grow.
When I started to work in the tech industry, I had no clue about technology, but with my attitude, my passion, and my perseverance, I got the chance to learn so many new things. I certainly grew with the job and with the opportunities I received during the years. And this all lead me to where I am today, working as a Director at Salesforce here in Zurich.
Vanessa at the age of 4 in the garden in Frauenfeld.
Did you ever sit down and plan your career?
I always went with the opportunities that crossed my way. I jumped into the water and learned how to swim. In this process, I failed a lot of times because I tried many new things. Eventually, this attitude changed me and my way. It’s like a game, the more superpower you gain out of your experience the better you get for your next opportunity in your life.
“If you go with the flow, you will need to learn how to swim in order to not drown.”
And that led me to a place where I’ve never believed or dreamt to be. So the question is more, would I be here if I had planned my career, or is it really all the opportunities and experiences I’ve accumulated that brought me here? Probably both as I don’t believe in coincidences.
What drives you at work?
I love my work. The passion for my job is what drives me and motivates me every day. To love what you do is a right and not a privilege. The more you love what you do, the more successful you will be in what you do.
What has been your toughest challenge you faced while working in tech? What did you learn from it?
I’ve experienced challenges quite a lot as I always tried out new things even though I had no clue about them. I went from being a master in one discipline to being a complete newbie in another discipline.
I had no fear to lose or fail because I received the trust and the space to fail without major consequences. With every failure, we can learn, we can adapt, we can change and we get better and better at what we are and who we are. We are in constant evolution – sometimes we win, sometimes we learn – but the important thing is that your surrounding (your company, your leaders) gives you that space to fail and the trust to retry.
“Sometimes you win, sometimes you learn and in both cases it’s a WIN-WIN.”
And when you love what you do, you really don’t have anything to lose. If you succeed, that is great and you gain more confidence. If you fail, you learn from it and it will allow you to succeed next time. So it’s in any case a WIN-WIN.
How does digitization impact your and other women’s career opportunities?
Tech is a great place to work for everyone. There are so many areas and opportunities to work in tech. It’s also mostly driven by commitment and not by working hours. And that gives you the freedom to choose and accommodate your work with your private life without losing your track of record.
And once you’re in tech, you can choose to work in different departments and grow your experiences as I did. You have huge opportunities to work in a flexible work environment. Especially for me, as a working mom with two kids, I can always combine my work with my family without having to explain myself all the time.
For example, I put blockers in my agenda to clearly communicate when I’m working and when I’m with my kids. Being transparent is key to having the freedom to do it. Everybody will respect your time and agenda if you give them transparency about your schedule in advance.
It’s not a regular 8 to 5 job where you go home after working and forget about it until the next day. You’re always on until you really decide to shut down. So there is more discipline asked from yourself. You have to stick more to your agenda and your rules, rather than waiting for the company or for the boss to do it for you.
I see the tech industry at the forefront of new and innovative working styles. The industry is showing us the path on how we could be working. But of course now with the pandemic, a lot of other industries are following and adapting to the new world of work through digitalization too. And in this new world of work, you need discipline, focus, and planning as the most important skills.
What valuable advice did you get from your parents or the people closest to you during childhood?
I always have been educated to try out new things and learn and evolve from my failures. This should be in our DNA right from the beginning as from the moment we are born we are learning. We start to walk, eat, drive a car and these are all things we did not know before.
I didn’t understand the importance of failure as a kid as I loved to win in competitions. I never really saw the value of losing. It took a while until I was mature enough to actually understand my parent’s point. Today I love to fail and learn from it.
“Failure is part of our evolution and personal growth, make mistakes as much as you can to gain the superpower you need for your next challenge in life.”
I also ask regularly for feedback, which is another great tool. Feedback is a great gift. You can always ask for feedback to improve yourself, but you have to be sure to ask the right person. It needs to be someone who truly cares about you.
The third point I’ve learned from my family is to help and support others whenever you can. Create opportunities for others, whenever you have the chance to.
I think this is also one of the things that drove me lately to create the Bring Women Back to Work program, where we enable 72 women per year to re-enter the workplace after an extended career break from the tech industry.
What advice would you give other women in tech?
This advice is actually for everybody, not just for women: You have to trust yourself and love yourself. If you do, others will follow and do the same. You have to be the change you want to see around you.
Make mistakes as much as you can and choose people that care about you to empower you and support your personal growth.
Love what you do, whatever it is, and try things out as long as you have nothing to lose.
We would like to thank Vanessa for her time and for sharing her inspiring career path. There is certainly something to learn from her path for all of us. Thank you, Vanessa, for being a woman who inspires us! 💛
Author: Corinne Ruckstuhl
Our Women Who Inspire Us series has already featured: