WEI Champion Spotlight: Stephanie Trpkov

Can you tell us a little about your work?

I am a business strategist who has worked in management consulting in the SEE region for over a dozen years. I am currently a strategy consultant with the World Bank in the Energy and Extractives Global Practice, and also serving as an adviser to the European Commission on digitization and adaptation of future strategies in targeted sectors of the economy. I mentor companies in the technology park and CleanTech accelerator in Croatia, developing strong business models, securing funding, and generally providing access to the kind of expert advice they can’t really afford in the early stages. Read more about Stephanie’s work here and here.

What challenges would you say women in the Croatian workforce face?

Croatia is a country best known for its tourism, beaches, and relaxing views. Like other countries that feature a strong tourism sector, there are productivity issues, whether real or imagined. Women in particular face challenges of having to start a career at a certain point, having it interrupted when they want to raise a family, and then not being able to pick up where they started because the child-raising infrastructure is just not there. The only options are either willing relatives or hiring help, which I think holds women back. Many of my female coworkers face the choice of “Do I continue? Or do I stop, go have a family, and then continue?” The problem therein is that most women have to make that choice whereas men don’t. And the reality is that women lose even more time when you factor in the fact that they don’t get to come back and pick up right where they left off. You lose more time because you either have to re-qualify or relearn certain dynamics, or you are considered less of an expert. You end up doing what we call office housework, which costs you chances of a promotion. So if you take a break of 2 years it could very well end up being 5 years even if you return to work immediately after the fact.

In your opinion, what are the most pressing challenges facing women entrepreneurs today?

Notions of motherhood aside, a more insidious issue that I’ve encountered is that women entrepreneurs have no access to capital. When I looked into the numbers, it is evident that there are fewer women getting venture capital funding than their male counterparts, even for the same ideas. It’s not because they are incompetent, but because the prevalent attitude of investors towards these women – even from female angel investors – towards women entrepreneurs is inherently sexist. What I have found while sitting in on these pitch sessions on behalf of investors is that the language and tone used to address women entrepreneurs is quite different from the ones used to address men. When boys come out to pitch, the starting notion is positive. The questions that are posed to them are actually growth focused questions in terms of how do you grow this company. When women pitch the questions that are usually directed at them 9/10 are about survival. It’s all about constraining and surviving rather than growth oriented.

What policies would you like to see enacted in Croatia to help combat gender inequality?

When I design strategies as a policy adviser – either in smart cities or locally driven – I focus on integration. There are many groups and programs that are designed for women, but in my experience I find that those policies tend to be very ostracizing. What I have been fighting for is integrating women better in a society that we are already a part of. Rather than designing special programs specifically for women it’s more beneficial to improve existing infrastructures and making them women-friendly. I think the way forward lies in creating a space where everyone could be heard and industries are open to voices of expertise rather than just the tokenization of women. By tokenization I mean there has been strong drive for women in boards: “We need to have X  number of women in board positions” across Europe and here in Croatia. In Croatia we have a female president and women at the head of boards of companies, but those companies are few and far between. People look at these women-led businesses and say “how could there be a problem, look at all these women in senior positions.” The issue that we’re talking about lies in the middle part of the organizations, where you have this scenario where women are just put there because “you have to have a woman in there by some criteria,” thereby destroying the integrity of her qualifications. What I think we should focus on is proper egalitarianism, gender equality, and highlighting the actual achievements and capacity of individuals irrespective of their gender.

Which women do you draw your inspiration from?

The classic would be Oprah Winfrey – she’s inspirational not because of what she is today but because of the tenacity she exhibits to stand and to make her voice heard. She carved out a space for herself where there was none before. The other woman that I would say inspires me would be Angela Merkel herself for very similar reasons. She carried out her duties as chancellor irrespective of the scenario and regardless of mistakes. These women showcase a particular view of what women are and what they are capable of. On every continent everyone knows who those 2 women are. However, the women that inspire me the most are the day to day women that I encounter. There’s a particular woman I know that runs a business alongside raising a child with special needs. Every day she will get up, go to work, nurse her babies and take care of her children, take care of her parents, and still find time every day to smile at strangers. Women like her inspire me because they make me want to be better. You have these high profile women, but you also have these “everyday grind” women I draw my inspiration from: those who have the courage to get up and just put one foot in front of the other.