I had not met Stefania prior to this interview and I know nothing about her; I bumped into an interesting article of hers on Linkedin and as Moonshot News is about discovering women stories, I reached out and asked for an interview, not really knowing what to expect.
As it turned out, it was the best way to be surprised and dive into a journey across the world and across a woman’s personal journey covering ten countries, a UN mission in Africa and a career in big IT.
So, Stefania, many thanks for doing this interview with Moonshot. Can you start by telling us a bit about who you are and what you do?
My name Stefania Montagna and I am originally from Italy. I live in Spain, close to Santiago de Compostela, overlooking the ocean, facing all the way out towards the US…
I am about to start my own business called ‘The Crowned Mountain’ – which is actually the literal translation of my archetypical name – Stefania means “crown”, like Saint Stephen, the first martyr, and Montagna means mountain. So, I thought of putting these two together as my tagline, to inspire people to reach their “height”, their highest level, based on the standards they’ve set for themselves and not the standards others set for them.
I am also writing a memoir – have been working on this project for a year and now I am ready with the first draft.
I really love the use of your name, it is a brilliant way of putting yourself in the centre of your life. (I cannot resist the temptation of adding that ‘stefanos’ is actually an ancient Greek word). And what is the memoir about?
Well, in the beginning, I had this idea of retracing the Odyssey.
I intended to use my life and where I have lived as a metaphor for the Odyssey: I have never been a digital nomad as such, but I have lived in ten different countries. I speak five different languages and there came a time where I was moving so much I wasn’t staying more than a few weeks or months – sometimes maximum a year – in the same place. So, I started with the idea: Where is home if not returning to one’s self?
I soon figured out though, that I do not feel that I have reached my destination yet, so I could not write a full story.
As my ambition was for my memoir to be feministic, I realised that I could turn the book into a story about what does it mean to let things go and to own your story through the lens of the relationships we pursue. The Crowned Mountain is also about that, about what we need to let go in order to fully own our story.
You called yourself a feminist. How do you define that?
Well, nowadays differently than I did before. Fundamentally, I think that in mainstream culture there’s a very antagonistic definition of feminism: it’s a rebellion against men’s authority, and a way to define how as women we are going to fit in this society run by men. Especially in the context of business, feminism seems to me to be rarely about changing the system. Rather, there’s a lot of discussion about how women can perform better in a system that was built by men and for men.
For me feminism means to be in touch with my needs and my boundaries and letting myself be who I am; finding a way of embracing my vulnerability and feminine side; it’s about embracing the cycles.
It’s also about finding balance: we all face this inner battle of our ego wanting to succeed and our heart longing for us to feel humble at the same time. While these two extremes might look irreconcilable, for me feminism is to accept these two opposite sides and put ourselves in the center, in the middle of that. I cannot change the whole system but I can at all time change my own choices.
I can change the way I behave, I can change my expectations, I can change how I treat other people. And by doing so, I can actually change the culture.
Of course, there are measures that I believe are necessary, like quota for women and minorities, but unless we also start from ourselves, we cannot change this system that does not serve everybody, it doesn’t even serve men…
I also believe in the effectiveness of measures like quotas, but it is true that the change starts with everyone of us, because if we do not change the way we interact, no legislation can change everyone at a personal level.
I will give an example of how we can start changing things ourselves: When I was at Google we had this ongoing discussion about how not enough women were usually on stage. At the time, I had just finished running an event. And in that occasion, just as in many others, as it turned out, it was women who had been running the event. And because to organise an event is already a of a lot of work, to have to be on stage to speak as well would have been double work.
And this is just an example, but we should learn to challenge things further up the chain – in this example, looking at how we distribute the workload of organising an event — instead of only worrying about the last thing down the ladder.
This is an approach I have actually learnt when I was working for the UN, at a training on project management with system change in mind. The gist of it was the following question: are we looking at the distribution of roles and responsibility ahead of making a certain change? And if we do, how will the system react to that? Who will benefit? Who will suffer? For instance, people often think of “development aid” as bringing infrastructure, for example, building a road. But once that road is built, the usual outcome is that, for any given community along that road, that innovation creates jobs, for the men. Suddenly, most of them leave every day to go and work at a nearby village. What does this mean for the women? Does it mean that they are suddenly left alone to, for instance, take care of the fields (Previously, a job that the men would carry out). What does the absence of men mean for the women the next time there’s a conflict with a nearby tribe? One implication is that when the neighbouring tribe storms the village, the women might be raped or violated. The question, when looked at in this way, really turns the idea that to build a road fosters development on its head.
And this reasoning applies to any kind of system change, including at work. We really have to be mindful from where to start the change, and stop looking only at the tip of the iceberg.
You have worked in approximately ten different countries. Have you noticed differences in the way women are treated in the work environment and in the society, or did you have more or less the same experience?
No, it was definitely not the same experience. And partly I am saying that because the countries where I worked include Benin, which is next to Nigeria. When I was there, it took me about nine months to notice that every time I would talk, all the men would look down. Literally no one was listening to me. But it wasn’t just me. I then realised other women were, as a general rule, not speaking, unless they were in really high positions of power, such as Director or VP level.
But I have also worked all over Europe, and being from Italy, I could speak for hours about the differences between say, working in Norway or Ireland, vs in southern Europe. There are subtle and not so subtle differences, like for example what is acceptable to say at the office? What is expected of you?
This is not to say by any means that sexism exist in some places and does not exist in others: it means that it definitely does take different connotations in the different countries.
The differences between countries are there, but you were the same person in all these cases. Did you find yourself reacting differently according to the environment? I am not talking about obvious common sense adjustments, but subconsciously changing the way you behave?
That’s a good question. Ι am not the self-censoring type, I have actually been told that I am saying uncomfortable things too often. But there are definitely different levels of sexification at work in different countries and there were definitely environments where I felt more comfortable than others. This all goes back to the feeling: “Am I first and foremost a woman in this situation?” vs. “Am I first and foremost a professional?” In different environments I have definitely felt that I was seen first like a woman, and only after as a professional. I am not sure this happens to men at work. And this did condition how I felt and behaved, from the way I dressed to how I related to others.
And in terms of consciously change the way I behave, there did come a time when I realised I wasn’t following some unwritten rules that, of course, nobody phrased out. That’s when I went looking for a book at the library, which spoke about the man’s brain vs. the female’s brain. And I started following the rules: don’t speak in circle, address one item at a time, and things like that. That framing was not my preference, but it definitely helped with my manager at the time, and with I was perceived at work more broadly.
You have also worked, apart from different places, also in different environments. From UN to Google and now a self-starter entrepreneur. Same person making three very different choices. What is the common driver behind all this? What are you trying to find in your professional life?
If only I knew… I was the same person, yes, but in very different stages of my life.
I was always the good girl, following the rules and doing well: which I guess in my world meant to get a good job in your hometown and never move from there. But I wanted to explore the world. And I was passionate about having a mission.
When I was 16 I went on a student exchange to the US for a year, and at orientation camps there were 100 of us, teenagers from all over the world… I was amazed at how at peace we were among ourselves. That inspired me to try to bring peace to the rest of the world. So, I started with the UN, first in Geneva and then with the UNV in Benin. But I soon realised that I was not bringing peace. I was mainly helping keeping bureaucracy alive!
In order to help myself decide what I wanted to do next, I made a list of what I really liked doing, and that included companies I admired: that’s what brought me to Google, where I first worked with customer support (and told myself that I was helping small advertisers) and then with publishers (That’s when I rephrased my mission as “contributing to democracy and journalism”).
All along, I was motivated by this question, “What is my mission?” — until I understood that the point was not having a mission, and definitely not saving anything or anyone but myself. And the question became ‘How am I going to make myself happen?’
Let’s change me – let’s not try to change anything else. What do I like? Do I want to be this, do I want to be that?
I started to look at all the things I wanted to do and I was not courageous enough to do. I started exploring with baby steps to do the things that meant more to me, like teaching yoga classes, mindfulness courses, writing, giving speeches. I put myself out there and that made me dare to take the leap, to decide to take a year to write my book and make myself happen.
Through the journey, I also realised that by working for a company, you partly embrace someone else’s culture or vision, and there came a point where I wanted to embrace my own vision, not someone else’s.
I do not want to make this sound easy, because it is not. My salary is not by far what it used to be. But, by working all these years, I have put myself in a privileged position. I have created this safety net for myself, where now I can try this.
If this doesn’t go well, there is always my experience, there is my knowledge to fall back on.
So that is my message: Do not close the doors that are opening. You just have to sit down and start doing. And by doing, you learn more. So, start before you are ready, there is a lot of truth in that.