As the Founder and CEO of education-tech start-up SharpAlice, Brenda Van Camp helps women take the reigns on their professional development to become stronger leaders. Read on to hear Brenda’s story and advice on what it takes to excel in leadership today.
Also be sure to check out Brenda’s actionable advice in 5 Things Women Should Do To Become Stronger Leaders.
How did you get to where you are today?
Ballerina, Strategic Management Consultant, Venture Capitalist, Global Head of Marketing, CMO, Founder & CEO. That is the ultra-short summary of my career thus far, and as you can see there is no clear trend-line running through it that suggests I was going to end up as the founder & CEO of a start-up in EdTech, focused on helping women to lead. However, each and every experience has added to the person and business leader I am.
What pivotal moments did you face along the way and what has inspired you?
My six years at the Royal Ballet School in The Hague instilled in me a ridiculous sense of discipline, focus and search for continuous improvement - traits which have greatly helped me in my career. Working as a strategic management consultant at Booz Allen & Hamilton provided me with a great foundation in strategic thinking and analysis - two skills that are central to my leadership to this day. 5 years working at two venture capital funds in London taught me that everyone can put great ideas on paper, but that only very few people actually have the skills to execute them successfully. As a result, I’ve become a leader who is always very focused on enabling successful strategy execution.
As the Global Head of Marketing Strategy, I spend 8 years on a huge change initiative to modernize Christie’s (the global auction house) marketing systems and processes, which taught me, through trial and error, what it means to drive change through a global organization.
I guess through it all, I was always looking for the next learning experience, and most of all, I always took charge of my own career. I was never waiting for things to happen. Instead, I’ve always held a firm belief that, just as in business, we have to work hard to create our own “preferred futures.”
What are the major opportunities and challenges for women today, and what can they do about it?
Events over the last 12 months highlighted how unequal women still are in the workplace and how much change is still needed to fix this. This has been disheartening but has strengthened me in my resolve to give women the tools and knowledge they need to succeed.
There are thousands of blog posts out there with advice for women. However, one size does not fit all. Every woman faces her own leadership development challenges. Based on my experience in working with aspiring and existing female leaders, I’ve listed 5 bits of advice to help any woman who is willing to step up and lead.
Who helped you in your journey and what advice did they give you that really shaped your thinking?
I’ve been influenced and helped by many amazing professionals who I’ve encountered throughout my career. However, there’s one person who crossed my path very early on, who, without knowing it, has had a lasting influence on how I approach my career and life in general. His name was Tom Bosma and he was one of my ballet teachers at the Royal Ballet School in The Hague. He used to shout, “No one else is going to lift that leg for you" while we were doing our développés, a move whereby you extend your leg either high up to the front, to the side or to the back. It is a phrase that has stuck with me throughout my life as a mantra to remind me, that if I truly want something, then I alone can achieve it. Believe me, there have been plenty of times throughout my career journey that I have thought “ugh, this is too hard!”, but again and again, this phrase has popped back into my mind as a reminder to just get on with it, as “no one else is going to lift that leg for you, Brenda.”
What one thing would you have done differently early in your career if you had the right bit of advice?
I wish someone had pointed out to me early in my career that experience in a line management role, which oversees a core corporate function such as operations or sales, is seen as a critical step on the path to becoming a corporate leader.
Instead, I, like so many other women, ended up in a staff function (communications, human resources, accounting, and legal). Why does a disproportionate number of women end up in staff functions? Many organizations still operate on stereotypical norms that women’s communal qualities best match staff positions, while men’s agentic qualities best match line positions. To counteract this bias, women who aspire to a job in line management or are already in line management, need to specifically focus on honing key traits that are perceived as critical to success in a line position:
Assertiveness: Ability to make your case, rationally and not emotionally
Bias for action: Can-do attitude and drive to constantly move things forward
Self-assurance: Confidence in your own abilities to deliver
Resilience: The capacity to recover quickly from difficulties
Grit: A sense of resolve, courage to take on challenging goals and situations
Calm under pressure: The ability to appear and act effectively under pressure
If you weren’t doing what you’re doing now, money or talent would be no object, what would you be doing?
I would be a writer. Ever since I was little, I’ve had a passion for reading and writing. I’m a total bookworm and read about 2-3 work-related books per week and on top of that I always listen to a fiction book via Audible whenever I walk our 1-year-old Labrador or whenever I’m traveling somewhere. So for me, it would be total bliss to be allowed to geek out and just research a certain interesting topic for a year and then write a book about it! Basically, I would love to be the female version of Daniel Pink or Malcolm Gladwell!