Interview: Kristin Engvig, Founder and CEO, Women’s International Networking (WIN)

Founder and CEO of Women’s International Networking (WIN), Kristin Engvig cuts an assured figure when we meet in Lausanne, possessing an easy and authentic charm.

Frustrated that the multinational corporate sector she was working in was set up for men to thrive and did not serve women well, she determined to do something to promote a more feminine approach in the workplace, for the benefit of both women and men.

And so she established WIN, to promote a new and transformational feminine-infused leadership, marked by such watchwords as collaboration, receptivity, empathy, intuition, integrity, resilience, sensory awareness, beauty and grace, to remedy the likes of goal setting, profit-chasing and control that had held sway for so long.

Ahead of its time two decades ago, WIN now embodies the corporate zeitgeist promoted by the holistically-oriented Silicon Valley culture.

In those early days, she explains, no one took her seriously, gravitas being lost on account of her tender years and classic Norwegian looks, while that which she was peddling was viewed as decidedly niche and fringe. As she herself says, ‘20 years ago, no one was even talking about women, or diversity and inclusion, so people looked at me like I was from Mars!’

Thankfully, that is no longer the case. The world – or at least part of it – has moved on, with the corporate fraternity coming to recognise it makes little business sense to discount the contributions of those that represent half the world’s population. Moreover, research from the likes of McKinsey and Mercer show that when women thrive, so do businesses, and that a more equal gender balance leads to enhanced performance.

Ahead of its time two decades ago, WIN now embodies the corporate zeitgeist promoted by the holistically-oriented Silicon Valley culture. And with the likes of high-profile celebrity-endorsed initiatives like #MeToo, women’s empowerment has now made it right to the top of the agenda.

Yet, while supportive and appreciative of such profile-raising developments, the WIN head sounds a note of caution that you can’t change things overnight and must also ensure everyone is included in the ride, for in what way is a future landscape that sees men as inherently untrustworthy any better than the one it seeks to replace? To evidence her point, she references a recent survey that saw 35% of US corporate males sampled not wanting to sit in a meeting alone with a female for fear of what may be levelled at them thereafter. ‘When this is happening, things have gone too far’, she warns.

She also reminds us that as recently as a generation ago, business life was predicated on all things masculine, which was why she started WIN. Yet, she stresses WIN is not a crusade against men, but rather aimed at balancing the masculine with the feminine, the problem being with what she describes as ‘shadow masculinity’, marked by domination and manipulation.

WIN’s work is centred upon its Global Conference, which takes place annually in a city of global renown with excellent international transport links. Featuring 40 forums and sessions, including eight plenaries over three days, this flagship event always kicks off with a global overview, moves on to conscious business, leadership, professional and career development, and concludes by focusing on personal growth and wholeness. In addition, each gathering also loosely collects around the overarching theme for that year.

The event is a truly unique affair and takes on an energy all its own, with the WIN CEO explaining that, ‘While you can’t control how people act, we do encourage certain behaviours from the stage at the outset, and it typically takes off.’

Many attendees put its enduring charm down to the fact that it is neither solely about personal growth, nor professional networking, but a combination of both that says there is nothing inconsistent between being a responsible, aware human being and global citizen, and at the same time a successful businessperson.

Furthermore, Kristin explains that while the Conference acts as a useful platform from which to secure benefaction, or to seal commitments to attend other conferences or Corporate Networking Groups that WIN administers or hosts over the year, these are never pushed. Rather, interested parties need to actively seek out such opportunities, thereby ensuring a more peaceful, less disingenuous atmosphere, and one firmly in keeping with the authentic aspirations of the WIN movement. In fact, a number of WIN supporters hailing from the United States have urged her to take WIN’s message there, since it would constitute a significantly different proposition to the frenzied selling and almost evangelical air to the events currently on offer.

WIN’s financial backers come from a broad church.

The WIN model has proved to be an enduring success, with Kristin Engvig due the day after our interview to travel to Athens to determine whether or not the Greek capital amounts to a suitable host city for WIN’s 22nd annual global conference later in 2019.

As to the make-up of those attending, some 35% attend in a private capacity, though, naturally, these individuals will be keen to apply what they encounter back at their respective workplaces. Meanwhile, for those companies bringing a team, WIN recommends they organise a mix of senior, middle and even junior managers, such that all stratas of an organisation are exposed to the message and can action that which inspired them when returning to work. Currently, on average, men make up about 15 percent of those parties, though WIN would like to see that figure increase.

Meanwhile, the impassioned younger element attending the Global Conference constitute an invaluable driving force behind the event, since their enthusiasm is contagious, while they are the ones charged with the task of taking WIN’s message forwards, such that it is imperative they are exposed to it. So important does Kristin Engvig believe the next generation to be, she worked to establish the WIN Development Fund which helps pay for young folk of limited resources from developing countries to attend the annual event.

Essentially, however, regardless of age, Kristin believes the most successful events WIN puts on to have been those where attendees come ready and willing to align themselves with the network’s values that will see them open to being global, authentic, holistic, practical, innovative, interconnected and focusing on possibilities, rather than using the time solely as a networking opportunity. In other words, it matters to WIN’s founder that they are there for the right reasons.

When it comes to benchmarking the success of the events WIN puts on, while there are KPIs that need to be looked at to ensure the organisation remains operationally robust, beyond the finances, Kristin says it is very much about the extent to which attendees feel transformed or become aligned with WIN’s values, and the productive relationships that are generated.

To illustrate her point, she uses the example of an IBM employee who attended a WIN Conference some years back and got talking to a Ugandan woman with a seed business. The two of them subsequently forged a working relationship by way of a foundation, bringing to bear their respective knowhow. Fast forward to the present day, and the success of this collaboration has just been recognised in the form of a very high-profile entrepreneurial award. While claiming no ownership over this, WIN was unquestionably the facilitator of this happy union, which is the sort of measure it looks at when determining whether what it is doing is right, worthwhile and successful.

It is important to note that in-person exposure to the WIN movement is by no means restricted to those able to come to Europe, where the Global Conference is usually held, for over the last decade WIN has taken its message far and wide, establishing regular conferences in Japan, India and Nigeria. Japan because, although highly educated, women exercise little real power there. Moreover, despite the Japanese being paragons of collective responsibility, there are so many demands on the women’s time, they cannot craft the requisite window to travel to Europe, such that WIN instead brought the conference to them, with relevant Japanese sponsors to boot.

Meanwhile, India and Nigeria were chosen because they are hugely important democracies with massive populations offering up all the ingredients for meaningful change, yet lacking direction. Low pay packets by Western standards and visa issues, meanwhile, mean that here too it is problematic to get interested parties to come to Europe. Thus, again, WIN determined to bring its message to them, cognisant that despite the need for some level of subsidisation, these must nonetheless be relationships built between equals, ready to listen to and learn from each other, for otherwise, it is little more than paternalism.

Never once has she doubted things would get better for women.

WIN’s financial backers come from a broad church and this is how Kristin Engvig likes it. New blood mixes with that which has been there virtually from WIN’s inception; companies that have journeyed on the path to empowerment along with the organisation and its CEO. A quick namecheck of WIN’s most loyal flag flyers counts The New York Times, IBM, HP and Shell among its number, while there are also those who donate several thousand dollars to the cause in a personal capacity.

Kristin Engvig also talks fondly of the Head of Shell’s UK division who originally attended the Global Conference many years ago as a junior team member and now brings to it a party of 30. Through attending the WIN Global Conference first time around, the woman in question realised she didn’t need to behave like a man to thrive in oil and gas, and that it was possible to be assertive and prosper whilst retaining her female values. She has it that the experience was such an important factor in helping her believe in herself and in setting the stage for her own future success, she now wants her own team to have the opportunity to be similarly inspired.

Meanwhile, others make all the right noises, but struggle to commit.

It is fair to say Kristin has heard all the excuses before about why it is not the right time for this or that company. However, she remains steadfastly sanguine that those peddling the empty rhetoric will come to see the light in time, given that the business case for a more feminine approach to business is so compelling, recognising there are trailblazing early adopters and others more laggard-like. That said, she supports limited period quotas as a way to set things off in the right direction until the progressive thinking embeds within an organisation. Specifically, minimum 40% representation in the workforce of the minority gender for ten years. She knows such an approach works, for she has seen it in action in liberal, egalitarian Norway: her homeland.

Always ready to surprise you with her answers, WIN’s guiding light is as close to non-judgemental as it gets. Where others immediately rail against any mention of involving interests such as tobacco, she looks instead at the impressive credentials of those and other industries deemed unsavoury, in areas such as equal pay and staff satisfaction. Ever the optimist, she prefers to focus on the positives, pointing to the fact that such interests are often extremely responsive to WIN’s message, supportive and keen to help.

Her approach has it that judgementalism only serves to isolate and entrench division, and that if the aim is to inspire folk to go in a healthier direction, all parties must be prepared to come together and hold open conversations. Only this way can we encourage controversial interests to think more deeply about the type of legacy they wish to leave, for if you’re not at the table, you won’t have the opportunity to work with the offending party to address unacceptable behaviour or set new boundaries.

The fires of justice burn just as brightly within this global visionary activist as they ever have done, and she still passionately wants to make a difference. Yet, she is also realistic, recognising through experience that momentous change rarely happens overnight. Thus, she is focused on being the most productive she can be.

Looking to the future, while WIN was all Kristin in the early days, now she feels more comfortable delegating, and believes the organisation to possess sufficient strength in depth, profile and resilience to withstand her departure when that time eventually comes. For now, however, her hands remain firmly on the tiller, for she has built up an extraordinary competence over 20 years, while admitting to enjoying the creative side of the role most.

WIN is not about bashing men, but rather about new ways of living, working and leading that have in common a more feminine approach.

Never once has she doubted things would get better for women, feeling such progress has been made on the female empowerment front in the years since WIN’s inception, it could be said the first chapter of its story has now drawn to a close. The WIN CEO finds that the business case for women’s empowerment no longer needs to be made to potential sponsors in the developed world as it once did, for they understand and support the concept. Rather, what needs to happen now is for the corporate fraternity, in concert with public policymakers, to make manifest that empowerment in the workplace and across society, to achieve quantifiable gains.

Further, for WIN, it means taking the message to those frontier markets in the developing world where the fight is still to be won. These are places that currently lack the platform WIN can provide for consciousness-raising, and for that to happen, additional resources are needed. Meanwhile, strategic partnerships need to be struck with appropriate institutions in those countries where doors are particularly hard to push open, to ensure maximum impact and resonance. She also sees merit in more aftercare: follow-up meetings, groups and coaching programs to ensure the determination to implement real change engendered by WIN does not lose its intensity once events conclude.

Also, Kristin is adamant that more men need to be involved, despite this not always sitting comfortably with some of those female WIN loyalists who enjoy the female-only zone they believe WIN to constitute. However, she is keen to point out that WIN is not about bashing men, but rather about new ways of living, working and leading that have in common a more feminine approach. These are authentic solutions for humans, no matter their gender.

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