PwC’s Liesbeth van der Zee Discusses How Diversity Solves Real-World Problems

Originally published on by PwC Nederland’s Senior Consultant Liesbeth van der Zee.

The other day I watched an episode of My Next Guest Needs No Introduction on Netflix. In it, David Letterman interviewed Melinda Gates about the biggest global challenges, and she explained why it’s vital to get more women into technology roles.

It was a truly inspiring programme. And, as I start in a new role at PwC Netherlands, it got me thinking about my own career as a woman working in technology, including leading innovative product development programmes in PwC’s Global New Ventures team.

How did I get to do that?

Focus on your personal skills and experience.

Looking back at my time as a schoolgirl growing up in the Netherlands, I was always fascinated by innovation and how to create a better world. I wasn’t a “techie” by nature, I wasn’t even very good at maths. But I loved the people side of change and innovation, and always wanted to be involved in it.

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Fast-forward a couple of decades, and I was living and working in Hong Kong, with PwC New Ventures leading the development of Connected Shield a software as a service (SaaS) cyber security solution for local small and medium sized businesses.

The product was a finalist in PwC’s annual Global Innovation Challenge. While I understood enough about the technology behind the solution to lead its development, my focus – echoing my aspirations as a child, was on the business and people side of innovation, supported and complemented by great input from the more technical members of the team.

Diversity matters

For me, the experience clearly underlined the importance of balance and diversity to any successful technology innovation effort. And I don’t mean just gender diversity. True, the New Ventures team in Hong Kong had a good level of female representation. However the team behind Connected Shield was also well-balanced in many other ways, including nationality, skillsets, background and qualifications.

As the results showed, this diversity made for more rounded discussions and challenge, and great decisions. In an era when many people find technology’s speed and impact relentless, if not slightly overwhelming, having a strong focus on the people aspects of technology – it’s development, use and application – is especially vital.

Amid the diversity of the Connected Shield team, I didn’t really think of myself as a woman, just another team member. There is great work underway in many countries to encourage more women into STEM roles and let’s be honest, a proactive approach is needed.

The opportunity for women in technology innovation was brought home to me when our product reached the latter stages of the Global Innovation Challenge. While across PwC, and in the Innovation Challenge programme, there are 1000s of women involved, and we’re led globally by tech role model in Vicki Huff, I was the primary woman presenting in the finals to the judges. It highlights how, while great strides have been made towards gender balance in many areas of business, there is always more to do.

What’s needed to drive faster progress? Melinda Gates had some great ideas on this, and I do recommend you watch her interview. But for me, the key is starting early, by encouraging girls at school to get into STEM (science, technology, engineering and maths) disciplines, and follow them through to university and careers.

Know enough about tech to ask the right questions

As my own experience confirms, even if a girl isn’t great at “techie” subjects, that doesn’t mean she can’t become a pioneering innovator. The fact is, when you’re leading an innovation programme you don’t have to understand everything about the technology, you just need to start with what problem you are trying to solve. A firm grasp of the basic principles and great input from technical experts on the team will see you through.

Be open minded about experience

So, what’s the biggest thing I’ve learned developing my career in innovation? Find organizations and situations that help you try new things. Keeping your skills refreshed and taking opportunities to learn and develop not just in classrooms is critical as I’ve found, whether moving to Hong Kong early in my career, or taking on new roles. Technology means jobs are changing but to me, Upskilling presents another layer of opportunity for women to transform not just skills, but roles too.

I see this happening around me all the time. And what I’ve learned is that if you give people the opportunity to do something new, there’s a good chance they’ll end up doing something amazing.

Starting out in my new role at PwC Netherlands, my message is clear. Any of us can be innovation leaders, no matter what our gender, background or areas of expertise.

PwC’s Global Innovation Challenge showcases technology enabled products and services developed by PwC employees and partners. Find out more here


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