“If women and girls are not seeing images of powerful women and girls who are leaders, then they may not aspire to become that.”

We believe women need to see more strong, interesting, female protagonists in the stories we share, because that helps us create our own narratives and see ourselves as the strong, interesting protagonists of our own lives.

“You can’t be what you can’t see” is a series of articles through which we turn the lights on the stories of women that inspire us. We are starting the series with an interview with Melania Galea, co-founder of the Lean in Cluj Circle.

Oana: Jessica Bennett, contributor at LeanIn.org, said that “You can’t be what you can’t see, so if women and girls are not seeing images of powerful women and girls who are leaders, then they may not aspire to become that”.

Who were the first women that inspired your path in life, In the workplace or outside of it?

Mela: When I was a child, I always looked up to my mother and how fearless she was in tackling any struggles she had. She is a doer, not afraid of change and risks. She brought me up in the same spirit of action and positivity. In my adulthood, the woman having the biggest impact on my career was Sheryl Sandberg and her book Lean in. That book changed my life and the way I tackle opportunities and made me aware of my shortcomings and personal blockers. It triggered a snowball effect in my career path.

Oana: I am going to ask you about the blockers a little bit later, after the warm-up. The Lean in book was very inspiring for me as well, because I read it at a moment when I realized that I really need a mentor to guide me in pursuing my goals, and the advice I read there was very helpful.

I am curious in which stages or moments in your development was this inspiration the most helpful.

“My lifetime goal is to leave something of my own behind and so my heart was always into building my own products and changing the society around for the better.”

Mela: I’ve always been a science oriented person, I loved math from a small age and grew up going to mathematical and physics competitions. I then went to university and continued to satisfy my mind with coding and algorithms. I worked in some great programming companies which offered me amazing growth opportunities. My lifetime goal is to leave something of my own behind and so my heart was always into building my own products and changing the society around for the better. I was however afraid of trying, of failing, of giving up on a life that was satisfying enough for the uncertainty of a startup. And then I read Lean in and there was one particular conversation that really triggered a mind shift for me: former Google CEO Eric Schmidt told Sheryl this: If you’re offered a seat on a rocket ship, get on, don’t ask what seat.’ I tell people in their careers, ‘look for growth.’

Oana: As a software engineer. did you lack any role models when you chose this path or during your studies? Have you ever had the impostor syndrome? If you did, do you have any tips and tricks for getting over it?

Mela: I have to say I lacked role models in the area until I met the Anita Borg scholars last year. The Anita Borg Scholarship is a grant Google gives every year to 30 women in technology in the EMEA area for proven excellency in tech and leadership. I was one of those women last year and I was fortunate to participate at the scholars retreat in the Google office in London. I met there some of the greatest women in technology I know. Regarding the impostor syndrome, it comes and goes. Just like confidence, you have to build it constantly. Being aware that you still have things to learn and putting yourself in situations that are hard to handle and surrounding yourself by people that are better than you is in my opinion the best way to grow. When I feel as an impostor, I know I did the right move and I am pushing myself harder. For me the only way of getting over it is through work and dedication for my work. When you get experience in an area, your confidence rises and hence you feel integrated. Sometimes that’s a sign you need to try another challenge.

Oana: That is a good perspective. The next time I feel like an impostor, I will remind myself that it means I am in the right place for growing.

In your medium article called “I am my own muse”, you say that you have role models, but the only one you can change and perfect is yourself. I also know that you co-founded a startup a few years ago. What did that experience teach you about perfecting yourself?

“A person’s success in life can usually be measured by the number of uncomfortable conversations he or she is willing to have.” (Tim Ferris)

Mela: I have people I admire and I try to use that inspiration to fuel my drive to do things. Building a startup is hard, it is probably the most complex context I have ever been into. Tim Ferris, an entrepreneur I look up to said: “A person’s success in life can usually be measured by the number of uncomfortable conversations he or she is willing to have”. After all my entrepreneurial initiatives I learned two things: the team is the most important, they need to have the right skills and dedication for what you are building and if things don’t go well, dare to have that tough conversation. I want to believe I am now a better professional because of these two.

Oana: The perception of women has slowly shifted in the right direction over the past few years. For example, the top selling Getty image of a female in 2007 was a naked woman lying in bed covered only by a sheet. Today, the top downloaded image depicts a woman riding a train, looking ahead, being the protagonist of her own story.

Also, “Woman” is the most searched term on Getty, the popular stock images platform.

What do you think we should change in the way media tells the women narrative?

Mela: We have come a long way. I am always so happy to see more and more movies portraying powerful, assertive women who are in control of their own lives and can make their own decisions towards their minds and bodies. A woman is a presidential candidate in the US and probably one of the most influential political figures in Europe is a woman as well. The rise of digital media offered the new generations a quick way to express themselves and equal changes for both genders. But there is still a lot to go. Just yesterday I read some unconsciously sexist tweets about women athletes in Rio. A big harm is being done by those unaware of their biases. Talking about them, calling them out in our circles, educating men and women we know into this will slowly, but thoroughly get us to the finish line. One of the aims with Lean in Cluj is to put things in perspective, make us think about situations when we witnessed sexism and shift us from a bystander state to a mindset changer.

Oana: You anticipated my next question a little bit. I was going to ask you what is your mission as a co-founder of Lean in Cluj, And also, what myths do you hope to demolish for those to whom you are an inspiration yourself?

Mela: After reading Lean in and witnessing its effects on my life I started spreading the word about it to all men and women I knew. The only scalable way to continue to do that was building a circle that meets regularly, networks and hopefully spawns new initiatives. My personal mission is to empower and encourage women with great potential to take more risks, be more confident, make them aware of their social syndromes and help them overcome those blockers. My whole life is based on working hard and believing I can do anything I want given enough time. With age I learned to value less immediate gratitude and put in the work for a greater goal. I debunked all myths I had about myself and I want to help other great women do the same. One of the biggest myths I overcame was that you need to have a clear vision, an innovative idea, a perfect context to start doing anything. All my entrepreneurial adventures were actually the ways for me to perfect the vision for an idea that changed lives for a core group of people helped by those willing to join in.

Oana: This is something I appreciate a lot about Lean In — that it has a strong support group and that it promotes women around us, their projects, initiatives and ideas, so that they become inspiration for others.

Speaking of inspiration, can you tell me three things that you saw in people around you and inspired you in the last month? What are you looking for in people that you join forces with? And what do you have to see to start running fast in the opposite direction?

“Those who make it to the top are the resilient ones, who learn to incorporate failures into life lessons.”

Mela: In the last month I have been in Switzerland at Google. I can tell you three characteristics that I noticed in people here and will take with me further on: 1. when doing your job, whether that is building a product in Google or starting a company, you shouldn’t wait around for appraisals to do it well. 2. there is always someone who knows something better than you, listen and learn 3. those who make it to the top are the resilient ones, who learn to incorporate failures into life lessons.

When joining forces with someone, I am looking into people who have the right skills for the job or are flexible to learn something new, people who are self-aware and acknowledge what they need to learn, people who believe in the cause as much as I do.

I don’t get along with people who are not data oriented and cannot walk their talk. it’s a deal breaker for me.

Oana: This also answered my question about the lessons you are learning at Google that you’re thinking to apply further on.

I told you in the beginning of the interview that we’ll get to personal blockers as well. Here we are.

When strategy professors studied the top management of the Standard & Poor’s 1,500 companies over 20 years, they found that when one woman reached senior management, it was 51 percent less likely that a second woman would make it. On the other hand, when a woman was made chief executive, the opposite was true. In those companies, a woman had a better chance of joining senior management than when the chief executive was a man.

What lessons did you learn from taking leadership roles? Did you have any self-imposed barriers that you had to cross?

Mela: My personal blockers reiterate back to “You cannot be what you cannot see”. I didn’t consider myself fit to start a company because the most well-known image of a business person is a middle-aged man dressed in a suit. The times evolved with the rise of the tech startups, but the only things that changed were the age and the suit. There is still a big gap in leadership and decision-making roles between genders, but women like Sheryl Sandberg made me believe we can be part of the change. One other syndrome I suffered from was to always wait until I was fully prepared to take on a responsibility, which in many cases meant missing it out. If I didn’t fulfill 100% the requirements of the job, I wouldn’t take it or even apply for it. In what regards lessons from taking leadership roles, I learned that assertiveness can be many times seen as aggressiveness, that relying on data as a woman can be seen as cold, that as you grow in your role your likeability index tends to decrease. At the same time, I think that especially when we reach a role with power we should use that power to speak about these issues and educate the people we lead into creating a fairer world.

Oana: Can you name some projects that inspire you by reflecting positive images of women and girls in their communities?

Mela: Systers is the organization Anita Borg founded for women in technology and besides being a portal for us to connect online and offline, it has several open source tools and applications targeted towards social good. Lean in circles all over the world showcase women and their career paths to become an inspiration for others in the community. The Grace Hopper conference is dedicated to bringing women all over the world together for three days of networking, knowledge sharing and inspiration. There are many more communities that spotlight women. To create a real change, I believe we need to continue to do so even in our personal lives, shaking off the girl-on-girl hate and using the inspiration to strive more. We can then change our lives and the image of women in general, hence creating a better world for the generations to come.

(our take on) The Proust Questionnaire with Mela

The first 3 jobs you had: I was a software engineer all my life, but I had different roles in different companies, from developer to CTO.

Do you have a 10 year plan? No, I have ambitions that I want to fulfill and when I reach those I will think forward.

One snack that can return you to sanity: Cheesecake or just plain cheese. On everything.

Music that can return you to sanity: Esperanza Spalding’s jazz

Your idea of a perfect day: Work hard, party hard.

Your favorite working spot: These days on Zurich’s lakeshore, sunbathing.

Your favorite book: Too hard, but I can tell you the book I am currently reading and enjoying: Thinking fast and slow by Daniel Kahneman.

A superstition you believe in: When I was younger, I used to write with the same pen in my math competitions, but rethinking that, it had more to do with not wasting brain power on anything else than solving the problems than superstitions.

Let us know who inspires you! “You can’t be what you can’t see” is all about turning the lights on the great women around us. If you have a friend, a colleague, a neighbor, a boss, a mentor or someone else that has a story worth sharing, drop us a message on Facebook or write us here.

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