Chiara founded Led By HER (www.ledbyher.org), a social incubator created in partnership with two business schools, the IESEG School of Management and ESCP in Paris, France to support women who have suffered from all forms of violence build their entrepreneurial projects. Through the support of over 200 volunteers Led By HER offers a yearlong program of courses and workshops, an individual mentoring, as well as monthly conferences and events (including hackathons) to thirty women each year. Led By HER also collaborates with numerous companies (BNP Paribas, AXA, Orange, Google, DELL) supporting women entrepreneurs in the ecosystem. Today Axelle Lemaire, Minister for Digital Affairs and Innovation, Ministry of the Economy is the sponsor of Led By HER.
Chiara began her career at the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development, where she worked to integrate gender concerns into the bank’s investment activities. Chiara graduated magna cum laude with highest honors from Harvard in 2008, where she won the Hoopes prize for research, as well as the Neil J. Houston and Ames awards for individual leadership and change to the community. An activist at heart she created her own program to provide the homeless with direct access to resources in the only student-run shelter in the country. Chiara also received her Masters in International Political Economy from Sciences Po and the London School of Economics. Eager to encourage women to bring on their entrepreneurial dreams, Chiara regularly participates in initiatives, conferences, and hackathons including TEDx women Barcelona in June 2015 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=U5oImP0fvMQ and blogs on the Huffington Post on issues related to women entrepreneurs.
CC: I prefer to put everything that is most important earliest in the day, so the night before I fix one goal and the morning I tackle the day’s priority first, whether that is writing or creating content, whatever requires the most of my brain’s undivided attention, which is why I like to start around 5 or 6am. The fact that other people are still sleeping and it will be a good 3 hours until they start asking me for things gives me a productive peace of mind. Around 7:30 I take a little break and walk to the bakery to get my breakfast, often in the company of my dog.I have to say that what I love most about being an entrepreneur is that no two days are alike and that I will be doing many different things during the day. There is also an unpredictable element to every day that makes life exciting. On any given day you may find yourself handling something you could have never imagined possible before. On the whole, however, my work days are mostly filled with meetings to meet new partners, sponsors, and coordination calls with everyone else working on the project. As time progresses I try to organize more and more full days in the week without meetings, it gives me the time to finish my work, respond to people, and fix objectives. I learned that if you are always running you forget to think about where you are going. Now I try to reserve at least 30% of the week, whether that is in projects or meetings, to what I like to call “future thinking,” stuff that won’t see the light of day at least in the next six months. It is important for me to always feel that I am building.Given that my day starts early, I also try to end it early. I am increasingly trying to carve in an hour between when I let go of my computer and the time that I fall asleep.At least that’s what works for me now; however in a few months I may decide it no longer suits me. I believe you should never set into a single routine your whole life, but rather always listen to yourself and do what is best for you at any given moment in time—developing that intuition is key!
CC: I try to be more mindful when I book my own agenda and not put meetings in the evening or give myself a full day of concentration and work if I have a full day of meetings. I try to think a little more in advance of what my needs will be and try to be a little more considerate towards my future self. I try to feel a little less guilty if I have to cancel something to give myself a little more time.But probably what has helped the most in keeping me mentally healthy is that I’ve learned not to kill myself over my mistakes. Letting go is probably the most challenging skill to learn as an entrepreneur.I have been through enough bumps of all sizes to know that obstacles and mistakes are inevitable. I learn that the longer you linger in them, the more you get bruised. Success is about how quickly you get up and how much you learn along the way, as well as how well you transform that learning. So I try not to linger and focus on solutions. I also know that entrepreneurship is about the journey with all of the steps, which means that inevitably there will be storms. But I’ve also learned that all storms pass and that a good thing will follow at some point. Being a forgiving optimist has greatly improved my life.
CC: I believe that I made the mistake of not starting with enough strategy. At least it got me going and started (because the opposite too much idea and not enough action can be bad too), but now I am forced to go back on what I grew and do the work of understanding what I have done and where I wish to go. A lot of things have changed in the project as we have had more resources, visibility and ideas, but most importantly I have changed in the process.What has changed the most for me is that I’ve learned to share my projects and to give people ownership. What has been most challenging is that the more you do and the more you grow, inevitably the more problems you have. You learn to linger less on each one. Another thing that I’ve learned is that more people working effectively also demands more coordination time and that if you don’t take that time and make the investment of your own time it is impossible to use other people’s time and talent well.RB: What are some of the challenges you are facing or have faced this year?
CC: I think that one of the greatest challenges at the moment is how do we make our work evolve. And when you think about it that way it puts a lot of pressure, because you feel that everything, all the work you’ve put all these years hinges on that one decision, which is why I no longer think of things that way. I like to think of it as we’re experimenting with new things and pulling ourselves in new directions, if those things work out, we will grow more in those directions. We are also doing a lot of collective brainstorming activities to see where things can go and to force ourselves and push the limits of our creativity to think about our future.
RB: Describe what innovation means in your business and how do you go about it.
CC: Innovation in my point of view means finding new solutions to old problems. There have always been too few women entrepreneurs in the world, just like there have always been issues around women’s rights. Maybe those problems are not inherent to our society, maybe they are created by our society, and just like they are created by us they can be fixed by us. The innovation part is finding that how, by putting together resources that people have never put together to solve that problem, which is where the creativity part comes in. But for all that to happen you must really believe at the core that those problems can be solved and that those problems exist because they have not been fully understood at their core. Innovation is there to bring that solution.
We try to innovate by being good listeners and observers and time and a growing sample size have helped us a lot in this sense. We try to decipher what people need and where we can be helpful in proposing new ideas, and then we test them ! One thing I can promise is that no idea has ever dropped from the sky. Everything has come from observation.
RB: How do you balance being a “big dreamer” vs setting realistic goals for your business?
CC: This is probably one of the most difficult aspects for any entrepreneur to master. By definition if you are an entrepreneur you are probably a visionary risk taker, and you see things a long time before others see them. You have to be that way because otherwise you would never create. The hardest part is accepting the distance between the dream and current reality, seeing things as they should be and as they are (and the often unexciting path between here and there, as well as all the tedious yet necessary aspects). So the most challenging part is not getting discouraged in the process of getting there. I’ve learned that what works best for me is to put work out there as soon as possible. It makes me feel reassured and then I take my time to add to an idea.
Now that I trust myself more I feel like I can test my limits a little more and use goals as a way of getting myself to achieve things. I will decide that I will hold an event day X and then I will push myself to find a solution to find the means and resources to make it happen. I keep trying to push myself to put on the show ready or not and often when I do pull through I amaze myself by how much I can get done. Obviously I couldn’t do that at the beginning, it’s a self-challenge and flexibility that I’ve grown into because I’m more aware of myself.
RB: Who or what motivates you to keep going with your business? And Why?
CC: I think that the first motivator for anything you do should always be your own self. If you do not wake up every day knowing why you do what you do, you will find it hard to push yourself, to find the stamina to endure and finally to convince others. What matters most and so much more than anything else is that you are 150% motivated because what people don’t tell you at the start is that it will be so hard.
What motivates me internally is the fact that if I truly believe that if more women entrepreneurs have projects that see the light of day, the world will be a much better place. I believe that women entrepreneurs can have a multiplier effect on changing the world. Maybe deep down what I want to give them is what I would have wanted and never had. If that’s what gets me started, what keeps me motivated is seeing results, it means that people are responding to the message that you are putting out there, that your work is relevant.
RB: Has your definition of success changed since you have started your business? If so, how?
CC: I think that we tend to externalize success much more than we would like to admit. Success for many of us is a lot more about how other people see us than how we see ourselves. For me success is about narrowing that gap and working on the best version of myself and therefore the work that I put forward so that I am proud of what other people see.
RB: What would you say is the most important skill required to run a business?
CC: I think that the most important skills for running a business are being open and persistent. I think that the easiest trap to fall into, because running a business is so hard, is being discouraged (there are always a million reasons to be discouraged). What is difficult is building the strength to get regularly past those moments. And I say building the strength explicitly because it’s a process, that’s why a lot of people fail, because they don’t fail and learn and take the time to become stronger. I think the most successful entrepreneurs are the most persistent because they find a solution and learn to go on no matter what.
The other element is openness and by openness I mean always knowing that you could be wrong, or that there could be something better out there, or that there is a better direction to follow. Let things in real life prove you right, not your own mind. The more open you are, the more opportunities you never even thought of possible before will present themselves on your path, but in order for that to happen you always have to be ready and listening. If you are willing to listen to them you will go ways you could have never imagined.
RB: There are a lot of myths about entrepreneurs. Now that you have started and are successfully running your own business what would you say is the biggest myth? What have you learned most from it.
CC: I think that being an entrepreneur has been really glamorized recently, because what we see is obviously only the sugar coating of everyone’s life. I think we tend to simplify the process and idealize entrepreneurship as a lifestyle of purpose and give the impression that someone just went from an idea to being successful or raising millions just like that. But execution is much harder than it appears. It is messy and complicated, which is why it probably always gets cut out of the stories. And yes everything that you never imagined could happen does happen and unfortunately there is no way to prepare or predict. You just do your best and that process repeated over and over again every day somehow takes you to a success. Only that it’s so hard to go through in daily life. That’s why I if I had another project I would never do it alone, because pulling yourself out of the hole each time and only relying on yourself can become very exhausting.