Can you imagine a world where your voice is not heard? And products and services are not designed for you?
Today, we’re speaking with Alfia Ilicheva, co-founder of WIN, a nonprofit organization on a mission to close the gender gap and innovation. Alfia has held senior roles at leading innovation firms, advising C suite executives of Fortune 500 companies. She’s a frequent speaker at industry conferences, including Fast Company, Grace Hopper and South by Southwest. In addition to her many accolades and accomplishments, Alfia is also Rothschild Fellow and a Presidential Leadership Scholar. In this episode Alfia talks about why gender inclusion matters and how when is creating global impact.
Alfia also shares her personal journey of transformation, from an immigrant with no fluency in English to becoming an influential leader for global movement while holding a full-time corporate job and being a mom to three children. Alfia discloses exactly how she integrates work life and community service and how you too can manage competing priorities, achieve your goals and live your best life. Visit https://www.iambeyondbarriers.com/ where you will find show notes and links to all the resources in this episode, including the best way to get in touch with Alfia. (Listen to the podcast below.)
Nikki Barua: Welcome Alfia, so great to have you on the show!
Alfia Ilicheva: Thank you so much was opportunity, really looking forward to it.
Nikki Barua: Awesome. Well, you have this very, very impressive resume. You’ve done things that most people only dream about. So, I’m curious to know, what is your formation story? Tell us how you even started in your journey and what has inspired you all along?
Alfia Ilicheva: Thank you for those kind words. I would never say this about myself, that I have an impressive resume, but thank you for those kind words. I would say that, in a nutshell, I would synthesize my story as a woman on a perpetual journey to find her purpose. So, I would never pretend that I have it all figured out. So, the things that I do for work, professionally, personally, through nonprofit work, it’s all been a perpetual ride trying to figure things out. On my personal side, I’m a mother, probably the most important, most rewarding job. I have three children, ages three, five and seven. Professionally, I work with corporate organizations, mostly the C-suite teams to help them innovate their products, services and experiences. And then the other part of my life that’s really, really important to me is around civic engagement. So ever since I was very young, my parents have instilled in me these, this really big love and belief that it’s important to give back to communities that I’m part of. So, growing up in Russia, we were very involved in volunteering and so on. And then here in the US, I co-founded a nonprofit called WIN, Women In Innovation, with a mission to help women close the gender gap in the innovation field. So, we provide training, resources, programming, to equip the next generation of women with the skills that they need to thrive as innovators across very different professions from innovation jobs inside corporations, design firms, consulting firms, as well as the broader startup ecosystem.
Nikki Barua: So, in short, you’re changing the world while raising three beautiful kids, right?
Alfia Ilicheva: Or I’m helping create the next generation of children that will change the world.
Nikki Barua: There you go. So, I’m curious, you mentioned growing up in Russia. What age did you come to the United States? And what was that experience like?
Alfia Ilicheva: Yeah, you know, as I grow older and become more American, I realized how meaningful and life changing the immigration, the immigrant story has been in my life. So, you can probably tell by my accent that I’m from Eastern Europe. So, I was born in Moscow, Russia, moved here when I was 12 years old. When we moved, I barely spoke English. We had learned British English in Russia, but really learning words like cats, dogs, and a few verbs really, versus being able to communicate. That experience, you know, in many ways, taught me, probably what’s most important thing that I learned my entire life is, is that you’re never fully formed, that life is truly flexible. Because as an immigrant, you’re basically transplanted out of your comfort zone, right? Your friends, family, community culture, then just dropped into a whole new environment. And that experience was really hard. I mean, it was hard not understanding the language, the culture, the values, feeling eerily alone. I moved here with my mother and my sister without anyone on this continent. And it was really, really hard, but it taught me that you know, even from ground zero, and almost nothing, you can rebuild your entire new life, which in many ways showed me that when you have a flexible mindset, when you believe that you’re not fully formed, that you can always become better, learning a new language, learning new skills, even make a new family, you know, here I found my husband, now I have three kids, that if you have that belief, that mindset, you know truly, sky’s the limit.
Nikki Barua: There’s no end point, you know, perfection is almost the lowest bar because you’re already done and what you’re saying is, you’re always in formation, you’re constantly learning and growing.
Alfia Ilicheva: Totally yes. And you know, it’s the beautiful side of the American dream, I would say is that, is that core belief that we can, you know, shape change, and we can shape our own dreams. So that’s been, you know, really inspiring to me. Living here and kind of seeing that we can always evolve. And I think it’s especially important for women in our age. I’ve seen back in my Russian upbringing, this pursuit of perfection, right, trying to be just the perfect wife, the mother, the professional, the expert, but what’s been exciting about having that dual side to my life, both as a European American is just seeing the beauty and the imperfections and how they can actually help me grow.
Nikki Barua: That’s really well put, and it’s no wonder that you’re in the innovation space, because that’s what innovation is about, constantly, you know, evolving and with no end point, it’s, it’s sort of this infinite level that you can achieve.
Alfia Ilicheva: Totally, yes. You know, it’s the exciting part about innovation, to your point, is that it’s constantly evolving. And I think there’s an inherent vulnerability, right in the innovation field, that you create a new product, a new service, new experience, a completely new opportunity for business or for frankly, anything, but you never really know what the answer is, right? So, you have to constantly test things, and then actively listen, be vulnerable, be humble. But then also at the same time be very ambitious, right? So that’s the dual side that I really enjoy in my day job, as well as with WIN, we’re innovating the way, we’re innovating a solution to the gender gap in the world, in that we really believe that it’s about bringing people along. It’s about engaging men. It’s about really giving women the skills to become very, very good at innovation versus just increasing awareness, right? Obviously, awareness is really important, but how do you actually innovate some of these root causes of some of these gender issues? That’s been super fascinating, innovating innovation, I call it.
Nikki Barua: So, speaking of skill, what do you consider your unique competency or skill?
Alfia Ilicheva: My unique skill? I would say probably good intuition. I think my entire life, that’s been the interesting balancing act and the tension is that, my upbringing, my parents, the different schools I went to really focus on logic, right? Robust synthesis, analyzing things, creating recommendations. And I think I’ve grown to embrace my own superpower is that sometimes you have to trust your heart, not just your mind. And I think I’ve, I’ve been proven wrong in some cases where I refer to analysis on what my team should do, how I should create an organization. But it really ignored my heart. And I think if you really want to build change in the world, if you want to bring people along and create something beautiful, that your heart has to be there, and I think in your heart is this intuitive sense, that hunch? And you know, to be honest, my superpower, I never thought it was superpower to be honest. Because I would get a lot of pushback that you shouldn’t trust your hunches. Who cares about your intuition? Those are all emotional, irrational things, trust the logic side. And I think part of a superpower is actually realizing you have one right. I always think about Batman, and how you know his superpower being a Batman actually spawned and was inspired by his fear, like his biggest weakness, which was being afraid of bats. So, in many ways, I think in my life, it’s also just being comfortable with your own authentic self.
Nikki Barua: That’s fascinating, especially for someone who has a whole history and a track record of being in core innovation space, which tends to be fairly analytical and data driven. To hear you describe your superpower as your intuition and leading with heart. Give us an example of where that played in, perhaps, either in personal choices or even at work.
Alfia Ilicheva: Wow, that’s a fascinating question. So, when it comes to my work, I probably can’t share the specifics because most of my work is very confidential and involves some of the most high-profile projects of the companies, but I’ll share the framework that I’ve actually used a lot. So, many companies today, right? They’re hungry for innovation, to create something new and everyone’s focused on data. What are our clients’ needs? Let’s look at research and something that I brought to the table is actually great. Let’s use an embrace disruptive thinking, let’s look at data on what your core clients consume, what do your competitors do? What are your core assets? Let’s analyze all those things and put them on a whiteboard and leave them there alone. And then concurrently, let’s embrace your intuition. Let’s embrace intuitive inductive thinking, by talking to your core clients, and quite literally asking them what do they want? What are their emotional needs? What are they trying to achieve? Right? So if you look at a life insurance company that’s selling life insurance, I mean, life insurance, an insurance company, it’s a product, it’s a financial services product, but to somebody who’s a mother of three kids, like myself, when I bought life insurance, I’m really buying a sense of security. It’s a security blanket, right? So, in case I die, and my children are by themselves, that there is a cushion to protect them. And so that emotional side, that intuitive side of, you know, how to end users consume your product, what are they? You know, what are they worried about? What are their fears? What are their intuitive, sort of behaviors, is something that I try to bring to every research phase of any client work that I do. That’s a lot more focus on the irrational, emotional, you know, what are those deep fears that clients have? Does that answer your question?
Nikki Barua: Yes. And oftentimes those get overlooked, right? We get caught up in, you know, that one certain way of doing things that we lose touch with the humanity of ii all. You’ve advised C-suite clients from across different industries. Some of the most blue-chip brands, done all kinds of incredible things. You’re also a Presidential Leadership Scholar, you lead a nonprofit that has created so much impact and is growing exponentially. What is your proudest accomplishment?
Alfia Ilicheva: Proudest accomplishment? I think my proudest accomplishment is actually fulfilling a promise that I made when I was very young. So, when I was 11 years old, my father, he passed away tragically in, in Russia, and I remember when he died. I mean, I was a child, I was young, but I remember that moment, that evening on a Friday night 10pm, we got a phone call that he died suddenly, tragically, that I felt a sense of complete and utter loss that my life is not in my control. That I can’t control my life, my security, my happiness, that wow, the world’s ended, I don’t have a father. I’m about to become an orphan. Life just ended. And I remember that moment, I made myself a promise that I will never again in my life feel so vulnerable, that I’ll never feel so hopeless. And that I’ll never let my kids feel the same way if I ever have any children, that they should never feel the sense of hopelessness, this desperation of just, you know, becoming an orphan basically. Because after he passed, we had to basically move to the US. I mean, it was a, it was a pretty difficult time in my life. And I would say I’m most proud of, of actually fulfilling that, that promise I made, that naive promise I made to myself because, and it took me years to really learn the way to really be in control of my happiness. You know, the quote that I really love is by Catherine the Great, she was one of the most famous Serena’s of Russia. She was a German Princess, brought to Russia, dropped quite literally into a palace, doesn’t understand Russia, anything, that history and then rose to run Russia. And you know, she, she would say that no one can ever be in control of your happiness or unhappiness, get above it and control it yourself. You said the pace, you choose your happiness. So, let’s say you know, for me when I look at my childhood, and that night feeling, very vulnerable as a child, very lost and hopeless. That over the years I’ve actually found, you know, I found ways to control my happiness. In these micro moments is that when I feel that sense of desperation, when my body feels that sense of fear I felt as an 11 year old, I go back and I tell my brain, you, you promised yourself to not feel this way, you have to get out of it. And, you know, it took years, but I would say now I’m quite proud of just sort of controlling my own mind, you know, in small ways, as much as I can, but also teaching my children that, you know, they’re in their control, you know, their happiness is not tied to a candy bar or to what their teacher said, or to what their friends think about their paintings. But it’s really their own mind deciding that they’re happy.
Nikki Barua: Wow, that’s really incredible. And I’m sure our listeners are wondering, what is the secret? How do you actually do that? Because what you’re describing is essentially becoming bulletproof, where you’re not affected by what the world thinks of you. Or how someone is judging you or how your day goes. You are in total control of your emotions and your mind and having that level of emotional mastery is incredible. So, tell us some specific things you do that someone else can adopt from you.
Alfia Ilicheva: So I wish I had all the answers and I knew how to do this really well. I would say what has worked for me, was changing my frame of mind. So, instead of saying don’t be afraid, don’t feel anxiety, it’s actually using those things as momentum. So, for me courage is not the absence of fear, it’s actually commitment to go past it and do things anyway. You know, I’m in a job that is, I mean, it has so few women, I’m mostly in rooms with no women, and mostly consulting on projects that are, that have no you know, it’s very male dominated, and sometimes you know, I’m afraid, but I sort of let that fear, that anxiety sort of, you know, take me forward, you know if I’m the only woman in the room and I’m intimidated, and sometimes people push me down, push me back, I sort of try to use it to push ahead. So that’s been, you know, helpful in my job. I would say, you know, in my personal life with when, probably this as well, but also just being more vulnerable. I’ve actually found that sometimes being open and vulnerable can also encourage courage in different ways. You know, like, those would be probably the two things. I think with women especially, and I found this with myself as well, as oftentimes, again, we want to be perfect at everything, and to excel at every task, every outcome, every project, and I found it helpful that, in those moments when you want to be perfect, and you’re afraid, you know, just sort of let that fear drive you forward, sort of take you, be that beautiful channel to sort of push you to your next goal.
Nikki Barua: That’s, that’s amazing. That’s exactly what makes you such an inspiring leader. And I, for one, couldn’t be more thrilled that I actually get to collaborate with you, as we are, as we serve on the Board of WIN. It’s been one of the highlights for me is being able to be part of this incredible movement. Tell us perhaps, you know, some, the initial inspiration that led to you founding WIN and what led to that and where you see it going?
Alfia Ilicheva: Yeah, well, first of all, thank you for being such a big, big part of WIN, supporting us, advancing us, leading us, I learn from you daily. So, all the thanks to you and your time commitment and loyalty. I would say, you know, with WIN, it’s really been a very personal story to me, as a woman working in the innovation field, I found myself in this very interesting paradigm, where myself and my really good friend colleague Maria, we were leading different transformational work for many different marquee companies around the globe. And we both said, if we zoom out and we look at ourselves, at our planet and what we’re doing, there’s really three things we’re seeing. One, the world is changing, right? So, innovation is really transforming the way we do business. I mean, from CPG company, financial services, education, even the public sector, digital transformation technology, they’re all changing the way we work and how we engage. So that’s all happening at a very macro level, and that’s big. And then women are not disproportionately engaged in that conversation. So, as we then think about right, just the evolution of humankind, there are these few marquee moments like the Stone Age, Industrial Revolution, the Renaissance and sort of change the way we are a society and the role that women play. And then we’ve all felt that wow, where we are right now, today is actually amazing opportunity to not only innovate industries, but actually innovate the role of women in these industries and different sectors, and also to innovate the way we as society work, and we said, well, how would we do this? Right? Well, if women are not in these conversations, to change how education works, how banks make money, how CPG companies sell their snacking products, we need to get those people in those rooms. And to us, it was really all about finding resources, giving women the skills, the training, different opportunities to both enter the innovation field, right, and then also to upskill. So that’s, you know, that was the inspiration behind WIN. On a very personal level, the gender gap in our fields, which is quite broad, right. So, in innovation, you have technologist, you have designers, you have strategists, product managers. It’s actually quite hard to capture data on the gender gap because it’s so broad and so massive, But one of the ways that the gender gap and the disproportionate involvement or the unequal involvement of women, how that became really obvious to me was when I was pregnant with my first child, I decided to collect, to create a book collection on books on in the innovation field. So, something that my mother did when I was born, that she, when I was born, she made me a book collection that I would read when I was older. So, I said, well, for Adriana, I’ll make her her future innovation library and when I lined up, when I lined up.
Nikki Barua: By the way, for all the listeners, that’s a really great insight into your personality. Because that’s what, you know, you think about while you’re pregnant.
Alfia Ilicheva: You know, people channel their hormones and nesting habits in different ways. I’m going to buy a bunch of books, I’m going to line them up and I’m going to feel great. You know, I, you know, I bought those 20 books on top Best Sellers on innovation, some on Amazon, some at bookstores and I lined them all up with a big belly and I’ve stared at all these books, and literally not a single book on my shelf was written by a woman. And I said huh, how’s that going to work? I’m going to have a child, she could, you know, and how would she ever connect to any of these writers? None of them are her. And you know, it became obvious to me in a very tangible way and then when I did the research and actually look at the numbers of how many Chief Innovation Officers are leading Fortune 100 companies, you know, only 18%. Amazon, the entire, you know, what’s their top innovation book list? I think 15% are books written by women. If you then look at the top innovation/design firms, four years ago, I believe all of them, all the top 100 companies, all of them were led by men. In the past four years, huge change has happened and you know, when I say huge, I’m probably, I’m being too, I’m exaggerating because you know changed from zero to a few percent. But you know, it’s the change is happening, but it’s happening slowly. But to me, you know those, that’s the focus of WIN. It’s really making sure that we create an equitable future where women are part of the tables that are making decisions on how we innovate the world. Because if we do that, then we’ll have a chance to actually innovate, you know, our own role within this world, right? In a way that kind of makes sense for us, not just for the other gender, that’s making decisions.
Nikki Barua: So, speaking of which, I want you to illustrate for our listeners that may not be connected to the innovation space at all. You know, it’s it sounds like a buzzword that happens in blue chip brands, in some lab somewhere far away. Humanize that for us and give us an example of what could the world look like if women’s voices and perspectives and skills were not part of innovation?
Alfia Ilicheva: Yeah. So, that’s a great, great question. Thank you for asking. I’m the first one, so completely great, innovation has become a total buzzword. And one of the things that I like to do both in my professional work as well as through WIN is actually explain what it means in a very simple language and the way that we can all understand. The way that we explain it when what innovation means, it’s the creation of a new product, new service or a new experience, right? So whether you’re a public sector team, working for the mayor or your school or you are selling ice cream, or you’re a consulting firm, if you want to create something new, net new, that your company’s offering, you have to innovate what you’re doing, right because it’s a new way of thinking. Now, your second question around sort of what would happen if women were not at the table? I would say you don’t have to look far. I would say the world we live in today. I mean, this is happening every day. So, as we look, a lot of the work that I’ve done was actually in financial services. So, helping pension funds, insurance companies, commercial banks think through, what is their future offering for different consumers. And historically, the way the sector has, has been framed and built, was really anchored in the traditional male dominated, one breadwinner paradigm, where a lot of the products were built for that ecosystem, right. So, if you look at, for example, life insurance, that even the pricing models, even the underwriting models, they actually bias men versus women because they have these inherent inputs and biases that that basically predispose that there’s only one breadwinners and it’s most likely a male.
Nikki Barua: It’ almost like the paradigm has evolved to reflect today’s reality or even tomorrow’s reality.
Alfia Ilicheva: Exactly, completely right. And you know, now we have, we have very, our households are very diverse in this country, but I will say also the world, we have same sex households, we have multi-generational households, we have the parents and the grandparents, everyone living together, we have two breadwinner families, you know, they’re all these different paradigms now. And then when we look at, let’s just say insurance, again, that those companies are not equipped appropriately to service the needs of those people. So, when I zoom out and think about, well, gosh, what you know, what’s, what’s the impact if women aren’t engaged? Well, if they aren’t engaged then we’re not actually servicing, protecting, enabling an entire part of the world, right? Because something like insurance is really important. If you’re again, going back to the example of, if I’m a working mother, I have three kids and something happens to me and I don’t have a product that can protect me. I mean, we’re creating a huge compounding impact to that household if I die because my kids will be exposed and left by themselves, that obviously creates more and more burn costs associated with other costs that have to be somehow funded through the government so on. So, you know, that’s one specific example. But I would say on the less morbid examples, you know, even a company like snacking, right, take Nestle take Mondelez companies, that are thinking about what frozen food offerings they provide. I’ve literally been in conversations with some of these management teams where I’m in a room with an all male management team and we are literally innovating what would working mothers want to serve their children at 6pm on a Tuesday, and then when I asked all them, do any of your wife’s, or do they work and none of them work, and you know, and they’re hypothesizing what would this woman need? And you know, what don’t have a single woman from her team in the room thinking through what she would need on a Tuesday night. And you know, that, to me is interesting, because as we get more women into the workforce, they need a whole slew of things, right? They need to have protection. They need to have a portfolio of products and services that can really understand who they are. And they’re layered identities.
Nikki Barua: So, especially in an age of AI, where AI, you know, mimics human behavior, human emotions that get incorporated into that, the absence of a female perspective can have an exponentially negative impact, where even today, I mean, if, if we’re using voice recognition, but they don’t recognize female voices as well or interpret that or a self-driving car that is not designed for a woman to drive it and may have safety issues there. I mean, there’s some real consequences of not having women as innovators innovating and create the product services of the future.
Alfia Ilicheva: Completely agree. Yes. And I’m glad that you brought that point. You know, to me again, if we zoom out, right, innovation is changing the way we live, how we live, what we do. And if we think about that future, that North Star, it’s being co-created today, right now, probably in this moment. And for me, it’s all about who are in those rooms? And how do we get, make sure that women are in those rooms at those tables? Because if they’re not there, then the future, that North Star that is being created isn’t actually going to be inclusive and catering for a whole population of people that are on this planet.
Nikki Barua: Well, kudos to you and your co-founder, Maria, for having the vision and the passion to create the WIN organization and the massive movement you’ve unleashed since then. One of the things that just blows my mind completely is what started as an idea in your minds has become such a huge movement with so many people volunteering their time and their expertise and the absolute sheer commitment to the cause is incredibly awe-inspiring. What I’m curious about is, that is a very inspiring skill to have. I mean, it’s true leadership. And tell me from your perspective as the leader of that movement as, in some ways the revolutionary, right, how have you brought people along? What helps you bring them along? How do you find them? How do you get them on board? How do you keep them inspired and motivated? And I asked that because every leader, every person and every woman who wants to be a leader, that’s an important skill and a mindset to develop.
Alfia Ilicheva: Yeah. You know, for me, WIN, truly has been a you know, such an amazing learning experience, a massive opportunity and a huge labor of love and in caps, love and labor because it is a lot of labor, and it is a lot of love. I would say, you know, one of the things that I again, learned by trying, failing and then reflecting was that leadership is not what you do with people. It’s what you do with, with people, right? So, it’s not, it’s not about telling people what my vision is, and then making them do it. But it’s about bringing them along and co-creating with them at the same time. So, you know, the story of WIN, you know, we had that idea, right? So we’re in these rooms, having these hunches again, and just seeing this massive gap in the innovation field through our own daily experience, you know, and then we said, well, we can’t be the only people thinking this way, that there’s a gender gap in our fields, that we’re both excited about innovation, but we’re also not excited about the gender gap. And we said, well, what if we invite all the women from our competitor firms? So back then we used to work at a global design firm called Fahrenheit 212, and we went to our CEO and said, well, how would you feel if we invited women from all of our top competitors for dinner at our office? And we had a conversation about how they feel about the gender gap innovation and what we should, what we should do about it together as it as a collective and I remember he said, well, is that like Pepsi inviting Coca Cola for drinks to change the world? And really, yeah, exactly on point and, you know, he thought we were completely crazy. But he said, look, I think it’s crazy, but I trust you, just cover the walls, because as any innovation firm, basically have rooms of whiteboards of inspiration and whiteboards, and drawings and doodles. He said just cover the work and do your dinner or drinks with all our competitors. And then come back to me and you know, to me, that’s really emblematic of what leadership is and be bringing people along. I mean, that example to me is testament to two things is that when you identify a problem, right, that people share. So, the first thing is just understanding where people are so you can actually get, even the competitors can be brought together for dinner and share their insights about a problem that they should, that they think is really important. And then you can also, then you can take those competitors and align them against a shared goal. So really diverse people, people with different backgrounds have opposing beliefs, you know, and we’ve proven this with WIN, I mean, we have people from different political parties, religious beliefs, sexual orientation, I mean, everything you need a geographic expansion, because we have people from, you know, from Israel to, to Saudi. I mean Brazil, we had, like, we have people around the globe that I think probably will feel, think completely differently, but they share one thing in common, which is our mission and our values, our belief. So I think we’ve proven that you can really, you can lead not by telling them what your vision is, but by seeing where they are, and then aligning with them that common vision and then bringing everybody along, you know, that’s been the model of WIN. Everything that we are, from the programming and how we train women, which is completely co-created by different Ambassador firms at every market, to the way our board meetings are run, you know, which you’re, you’re a part of. Everybody has a very equitable, equal, appropriate way to engage. And, you know, we, we really want to make sure that it’s everybody’s organization, you know, I could be one of the co-founders, but to me, it’s, it’s all about what do people think and feel? I, I oftentimes actually solicit the most feedback and I ask many questions from our interns and our fellows, right. We have college students that are volunteering for WIN, and I’m always curious what they have to say, how they feel I’m leading, how do they feel their relating because I think their voice as students, volunteering is just as important as one of our board members,
Nikki Barua: That’s incredible. What do you look for when you bring people along? And I’ve, you know, sort of had the privilege of observing you through a hiring process and so forth. There’s something to be said about the qualities and caliber that you look for. Could you illustrate that for us?
Alfia Ilicheva: Sure. So, I would say that, for me, hiring people, so you know, both hiring people for full-time professional paid positions at work, as well as recruiting volunteers for WIN, probably approach it the same way, is I believe in this framework of values, abilities and skills. So, values are things that you probably can’t teach or retrain, it’s quite hard. It’s the things that you know, that are nurtured, developed, come out of your childhood, most likely. Things like integrity, loyalty and the belief system that quite literally governs your life. So, some of these things from me are non-negotiables. So, you know, with WIN, one of them is generosity, you know, we just believe that it’s all about sharing, it’s about being active sharers. So, with ability, with values, you know, I try to screen for those first by asking for personal stories and anecdotes, then on abilities for me, you know, people are wired different ways, right? And what sparks joy for them probably is connected to what their equipped and good at doing easily. So, abilities are things like conceptual thinking, problem solving, and so on. So, I screen for those depending on what role expectations requirements are. And then the last thing is skills. So, I actually believe that, you know, skills are things you can train people, and especially people that have flexible mindset. So, it’s less important for me that somebody knows how to use an XYZ program or language or specific terminology application, but it’s more important about being excited and being open to learning it, right. So that’s sort of how I approach. And I would say I, I look for values and abilities the most, because I truly believe that if you find somebody who’s who really shares your belief system as an organization, and that has some innate abilities, that both spark joy for them to do and that are needed for your organization, you can you know, you can virtually teach almost anything, and especially in the innovation field, because what you learn today will be outdated tomorrow, so you have to basically retrain yourself anyway, on an ongoing basis.
Nikki Barua: Speaking of which, what do you see as the most important thing for women, especially to develop as we look forward, you know, with the pace of change and the pace of innovation and everything changing so quickly, what would you rather advice be to listeners to develop that one key skill?
Alfia Ilicheva: That one key skill. Something that will, there are two levels to it. I think at a high level just embracing humanity and not forgetting that we’re humans is very just important. So, I think as we think about innovation, technology and where we are in the world, I think there’s so much focus on automation and, and very tech enabled activities and outputs. And I think understanding the importance of humanity in what we do is really important, with the way it comes to light, a specific skill that I think is really important for women is collaboration skills. So virtually everything today is done collaboratively, whether you’re working in an in person, team environment, remote teams, hybrid teams, embedded teams. I mean, the beauty of technologies is that it’s broken many paradigms as well as barriers, and democratize how we work, we don’t have to physically come to the same place to do something, which means that we have to be very flexible, comfortable and fluid and different collaboration paradigms. So I would say with women, I would really and you know, that’s something that we have brought in different ways to them in programming is how do we effectively collaborate with different kinds of people, in different channels, in different markets and so on, in a way that not only focuses on diversity, because I think it’s one of the topics that everyone is obsessed which I completely, you know, obviously, WIN, we think about diversity, but it’s inclusivity, right? So, when you collaborate, how do you bring different people along, and especially those people that you don’t agree with, because oftentimes in those tensions, disagreements, debates are sparks and sort of exciting things that could change the way you might approach something. So, collaboration probably would be my number one thing to focus on.
Nikki Barua: Fantastic. So, Collaboration is something that you have done very effectively, not just within the organization, but also building incredible collaborative partnerships with, really creating an ecosystem that allows you to accomplish goals very effectively. What advice would you give to someone who’s just perhaps starting out in their career does not have this huge network, especially an influential network? How would you recommend them even beginning that process of building relationships where you have the support and advocacy of the people you need to accelerate your career?
Alfia Ilicheva: Yeah, so if I reflect back on my life, I would say that without the people that were there to support me, and continued to support me, I would not be where I am by any stretch of any imagination at all. And, you know, the mentors, advisors, sponsors I’ve had, you know, some of them have been with me for decades at this point, you know, I still, the person that taught me how to run track in high school, and then basically mentored me to be the track captain. I mean, he’s still one of my mentors. And, you know, he, you know, is a partner at a VC fund. And we have an amazing relationship, I would say, the, it’s really important for women to understand the value of relationships to grow and fuel their career, for sure. I think where many women, where they feel where they trip up, is in thinking about relationships as networking only, versus thinking about, what are things, you know, I’m starting out in my career, you know, in my example, actually, some of my mentors I’ve met in high school or even Middle School, and how did I meet them? It was it was not focused on networking. It was really first focused on me understanding what I’m interested in. So, let’s just use the example of track and running, I actually hated running, but I wanted to learn it. So that was interesting. So, I started running, I joined the track team. And then the captain of the team said, well, I think you have potential, I’ll teach you how to run faster, better, more effectively. But that conversation, those running practices and needs were anchored in a shared interest. Right. So, we had something in common. So, I think the advice I would give is, don’t focus on those, you know, on building big lofty networks or connections. Embrace your authentic self, what are your true interests, your passions, because if you find what you’re passionate about, and if you immerse yourself, embrace it, in those fields, you will find a constellation of people that also do the same thing in different various ways. And as you pull all these threads and pursue your passion, you’re going to get stuck on things. You will have to solve problems and you will naturally engage with different people in a way that’s really anchored in that shared conversation. And as life goes on, and you pursue your passions, you sort of you swim, you know, through life by deepening those relationships. You know, another example that I like to use is, I moved to the US and I was really bad, obviously in English. And I remember when I was in college, I got, I think, oh, I got a C on my English paper the same week that I basically got a huge rejection letter from the Georgetown journal international affairs. When I was in college, I had a dream of becoming either a foreign service officer or an editor in chief of a Foreign Service publication. And then same week, I basically almost failed an English paper and then also got this giant fat rejection letter that which said that I have no grammar, punctuation, understanding and skills of English language in bold. And, you know, I said, you know what, that’s okay. I then took more English classes and then reapplied the next year to basically check commas and periods for the Georgetown journal of International Affairs. And then you know, by year four, I rose to be the editor in chief of the entire publication. I was the first undergraduate editor in chief of a, I think it was a graduate school publication, and the founder of that publication was on that editorial committee. So, I emailed him, I said, hey, I want to tell you my story, that you guys first rejected me and then now I’m editor in chief, and I want to thank you for failing me so that I can learn English. And you know, he, to this day, you know, that email, then we had coffee and now I mean, he went to my wedding, I went to his wedding. We are amazing close friends, and he is also one of my mentors, but again, it was really sparked by my interest. And actually, in this case, failing really miserably and then learning how to add commas and periods.
Nikki Barua: I love the specificity of your recommendation, as you know, be authentic, like discover what you’re truly passionate about, engage in it, find the people you can learn from, put in the work. And then the relationships will naturally emerge because what you tapped into is something that a lot of women struggle with is networking as a bad word. You know, there’s this just this discomfort with networking or networking events and get this tremendous power in relationships. Or on the flip side, there’s a lot of women that have a lot of relationships but don’t know how to leverage those in terms of accomplishing a shared vision or mission.
Alfia Ilicheva: Completely and, you know, something that I’ve seen with myself is the word networking is so overwhelming and it’s and it implies a transaction versus, I think, with women, or what I found with myself, is that I’m more inclined to be authentic and to, and to focus more on building, and to your point, nurturing a relationship. So, when you embrace your interests, you pursue them. I mean, in those conversations, you sound more excited, because you are excited versus, you’re feigning excitement about something.
Nikki Barua: Yeah. Because when you combine authenticity and generosity, it comes naturally. And then you want to be around that person and you want to help them. And that’s really the foundation of any great relationship. So, speaking of relationships, you have managed a whole bunch of different things, including a great marriage and three kids. So, tell us a little bit about how do you manage work life balance, because anyone looking at your profile, the first question is, how does she even do it? And she would effortlessly so let’s give us a peek. You know, behind the scenes, what is a hack or a habit or some, you know, things you could advise us on?
Alfia Ilicheva: Yeah. You know, it’s, it’s funny because I would never say that it’s all put together. It’s probably from my perspective, all chaotic. Although people ask me a lot, how does this all look so seamless? I think the way it sort of, all comes together is, you know, it’s rooted in, in a solid foundation. I would say, you know, for me, it’s less of the marriage or like a marriage contract. But it’s more about a true genuine partnership. I’ve been lucky to find my husband who truly shares my values, system, my beliefs, my principles, and we have a very good understanding as partners. So, it’s less about asking him or expecting things from him, but it’s all about, we have a shared vision for our life, and then how do we make it work on a daily basis. So, I would say, number one, find a good partner, and make sure that you’re not going after the shiny distractful thing that are in movies and shiny magazines, that you’re going after what’s true in your heart and the values that you think are important to build a happy life for yourself. So, I think that’s probably, you know, advice one. Advice too that I actually got from my grandmother, who was a math teacher, she passed a few years ago, she was a math teacher in a village in Russia, and she had eight children. I don’t know how, one of them was my mother, but she would say, when I was growing up that remember that it’s never a good time to have children, like never ever in your life. Because just like, it’s not like, there’s going to be a moment that like, hey, Alfia, today is the day. And, you know, she said, have kids whenever you want, because life will mold itself to your changing needs. And I think I, you know, I took that advice to heart because I had my first child in graduate school, in Business School, specifically where I think literally, I was the first person in my business school to have had a child in business school, to the point where people had no idea how to process that information. Or, you know, I was in labor, finishing one of my exams because they didn’t know how to give me time anyway, long stories. But that was a fun experience. But you know, I sort of said, if children and having a big family is important to me that I will just do it. And then as long as I’m doing a good work at work, as long as I’m fulfilling my needs and partnerships to my partner, my husband, and you know, doing those things that life will sort of mold itself. I think a lot of women’s self- select themselves out of their dreams whether they’re getting married, finding children, and so on, really early versus thinking about life holistically, and then just having children and then that kind of sort of works. I think on a, you know, on a daily basis, what’s really worked well for me is actually ruthless prioritization, that it’s really important when you have many things happening to really distinguish noise from signal because content today’s really abundant, you know it’s just everywhere. So, on a daily basis, you know, something that I do, this is very tactical, but I create a vision every morning, actually, every night now, to save time. I create a vision for my next day. And I quite literally think of it as a movie. And I say, I’m going to wake up. And if it’s a movie, you know, what’s the first part where I’m going to be? So, you know, quite literally on a piece of paper, say it’s February 19. And I say, from eight to nine, I’ll be working out from nine to ten, I’m doing this and I lay out every single hour and where I’ll be, what I’ll be doing. And then at the bottom of the page, I create four boxes, where I can process my day and the priority. So, I have a box of top priorities for my work, my day job and my key goals, which is most important during the day. And I have a box that’s for WIN, which you know, it’s a volunteer position for me, but oftentimes I work on WIN things at night, a lot on weekends, but as things come up in my brain, I just put them in that other box. So, it’s all captured in that other section. And then I have a section of my family. And then I have a section, the fourth box, that’s called before I go. Big. Yeah. And that’s where I put things that I just have to accomplish before I go back from the office to home. Like, just keep priorities, I just send this email, I have to buy these flowers, I have to do this thing. I have to call this person I have to close my computer, whatever that is. But I put that there so that you know, there are things that are small, they’re super draining from a cognitive perspective, because you’re thinking about doing them, but you forget. So, you know, those four boxes are really good at prioritizing work, family, civic engagement, and things have to just get done. And then creating that movie for the day. I’ve been doing it for years, probably. Yeah, I think since high school probably or college. It just helps create the movie. Because then you’re in control of your the movie called your life, right? Because every episode is that a week, it’s a month, it’s a year, it’s your life.
Nikki Barua: Wow, I absolutely love that framework. And thank you for sharing that, because it’s, clearly I see the end result of that, of your ability to accomplish so many different things and have so many different areas of your life, you know, keep moving and yet have, you know, balance as well as integration between all of that so I can see how the framework would enable that. That’s incredible. One thing before we move on from that topic, I’m curious about, is there something that you would guide especially young moms, you know, that may have that, because we see a lot of drop off in mid-career level, where you’re at a manager level or middle management level, and then there’s life pressure that’s built up as well. And oftentimes, as you know, women will choose to opt out instead of continuing down that path. What guidance would you give to someone, you know, at that stage of the career that is perhaps struggling to keep it all together between, you know, home and being a mom and their careers, and it’s just wrought with guilt? How would you just frame that for them?
Alfia Ilicheva: Yeah, you know, it’s, there is so much in there. What’s been effective for me, I think, again, is it’s not the absence of guilt or trying to kill it, but it’s about recognizing that as a feeling and then moving past it. So right. I’ve in my, you know, one of the things that I also saw in my life growing up because I was basically raised by a single mother is that life is uncertain. That you just never know where, you know, things could happen to anybody or anything and that, for me, it’s really important that I work. So, if I know that I have to work, it’s important for me to work, then that’s just my reality. So, I should not feel guilty about work. I mean, it’s just one of the things that I have to do to sustain my family. So, one of the things that was helpful is, is knowing that I can never be just with the children or be just at work, that they will just always be compromised, or a balancing act, some days, you know, I’m more focused on my family and their needs. Other days, you know, we switch and then I’m more focused on my job and my husband’s for the children. So I think recognizing that, you know, the guilt is not going to go away, but then understanding that if you push the constraints, right, I have to work I have to have a family then becomes easier to digest it and, and, and sort of instead focus on the moment. What has been helpful for me is, I think one of my friends she she had this quote on her social media it’s keeping your heart where your feet are. So, you know, one of your work very focused on the job, but when you’re home, you’re really focused on the children. And again, and the same applies to WIN, if I’m volunteering, and if I’m focused on the nonprofit work that I’m only focused on WIN, and then treating them as a portfolio over time, versus trying to balance things on a very tiny, tiny, daily, hourly level. Because as a human being, you’ll never be able to do all things at once, but it’s about the longer term. Right? And, and just showing to your children that, you know, they that when you’re there with them, you can be truly present and mindful. And then the same applies to the other commitments, I think, you know, on the being a young mother and feeling that burden. I’ve definitely been there and you know, in a, I would think with every child, the self, exponentially the pressure of just trying to do to it all and just seeing, feeling very burnt out. And I’ve learned again, to be more vulnerable and to ask for help. I think it truly takes a village. So having the support network, your family, your friends, finding different communities and groups, local parenting groups has really been transformational for me. Because it’s given me a perspective, a lot of advice, and a lot of practical, just tangible support to get through the day. So, being a super woman does not mean that you are, you know, invincible and can do it all. It’s actually about recognizing what you can’t do and not saying no, but saying yes to yourself, and finding that balance, just, you know, being in control of that balance versus sort of letting things take over your own life.
Nikki Barua: That’s excellent advice. My gosh, you’ve been absolute fountain of wisdom. Thank you. So How much your perspectives on things as well as very specific tangible advice is going to serve so many women worldwide. So, I’m so grateful to have you on the show and to get your thoughts and perspectives and be able to share your story and your strategies with everyone. And what would be the best way for our listeners to connect with you, especially if they want to contribute their time and the resources to supporting Women In Innovation? Or even perhaps attending events and ways to get engaged? How can they connect with you or with WIN?
Alfia Ilicheva: Sure, well, first of all, thank you for this incredible opportunity. I hope some of this, or at least a tiny bit is helpful. I’ve shared mostly stories of how I failed and then reflected and learned something from it.
Nikki Barua: Like a true innovator.
Alfia Ilicheva: It’s all been pilots called my life and as I pilot things I learn. So, the best way to contact win would be our website, which is https://womenininnovation.co/. Or they could just google Women in Innovation and that shows up and then we welcome volunteers all the time. And they can join our network, our communities through the site. And then there should be contact information for how they can apply and gauge interest in different volunteer opportunities in our current markets, which are San Francisco, London, New York, we’re also expanding will be expanding into new markets around the globe, which is super exciting. So they could also include that information there. And if they wants to contact me, they could email me at firstname.lastname@example.org or also I believe, if they find my full name on the, on our website, they can contact me through my social media, which is LinkedIn and Instagram.
Nikki Barua: Excellent. Well, there you have it, folks. We’ve got credible advice and strategies from Alfia. Be sure to connect with her, follow her on social media as well as check out Women in Innovation and see, you know, be part of the movement, contribute your time and your resources if you’re interested in volunteering, and be part of changing the world. Thank you again, Alfia. And let’s get you back to the rest of your movie.
Alfia Ilicheva: Thank you so much. This is amazing. Thank you.