Belinda Esterhammer talks to Women to Watch Media on the sidelines of the Web Summit in Lisbon, where she was speaking at the “Panda Conf” and “Corporate Innovation Summit” stages.
An Austrian entrepreneur, a mentor, speaker and a tech enthusiast, Belinda Esterhammer is the Founder and CEO of Springboard Group – an integrated marketing and consulting agency crafting unique brands and helping them go digital. She is also the Head of APAC for SaaStock – a global community of software as a service (SaaS) founders, executives, and investors that runs conferences all over the world. Belinda just recently launched Fem Founded – the home base for females to thrive on their own terms and get the nudge to make things happen.
Earlier, Belinda started NextGen Network – a non-profit mentoring network for high school and university students in Hong Kong. She is the co-founder and member of the board of Women in Tech Hong Kong – a community of females supporting and enabling each other. She also sits on the committee of Asian University for Women (AUW) and TEDxTinHauWomen, and she’s the co-host of #impact – a podcast featuring people creating a social impact in their communities.
“When I moved to Hong Kong, I wanted to give back, so I started a mentoring network matching young girls with women under 40. The idea was for these young girls to have a big sister that they can turn to for advice. Generally speaking, what I saw in Hong Kong and Asia is that there’s immense pressure on young girls. It’s not only about getting good grades at school but also having to be skinny and look a certain way. Or having to find a husband when they become eighteen and go to college. So, I wanted to give these girls someone to talk to outside the family.”
Before starting her entrepreneurship ventures, Belinda worked in marketing and communications across many sectors, ranging from business consulting, startups, and integrated marketing to tourism development all around the world. She considers herself a global citizen. Belinda holds a Master’s degree in Entrepreneurship & Tourism and a Bachelor’s degree in Management and Economics.
How would you describe yourself?
Curious, ambitious, fierce and eccentric at times.
What’s something that guides your professional and personal development?
Having a sense of purpose and being able to give back. It allows me to go to bed happy and not dread waking up on a Monday morning.
Did you have a role model growing up?
Not really, but I had many people that inspired me in one way or another.
What’s your greatest professional accomplishment?
In terms of milestones, it’s leaving the corporate world and starting my own business. And not listening to the unsolicited advice I got from people when I took the leap. It’s not an easy decision to leave your job and start your own business, but once you embark on this journey, you need to keep yourself going.
How do you regain focus in challenging times?
It’s all about balance and not letting things affect your (mental) health. If I feel stuck or have trouble focusing, I take a (quick) break, go to the gym, or go out for a walk to clear my head and then get back to work. Having a journal helps and also, I try not to skimp on getting enough sleep as it affects focus and performance.
How do you manage fear and anxiety?
I created a support network of fellow entrepreneurs who I can turn to and vent if needed. The entrepreneurial journey can be a lonely one, so you need to have people you can talk to who can relate to the rollercoaster journey that you’re on. Also, boxing and CrossFit help me a lot to release my stress… and sometimes anger.
What do you think is the main reason women hesitate to step out and pursue leadership positions where they are?
One of the main reasons is culture and the way we are raised. Studies show that up until a certain age, girls perform the same as boys when it comes to science. But later on, their performance in science-related fields starts to drop. One reason is that they begin to conform to common stereotypes or societal expectations about how boys and girls should perform in math and science. Nowadays, leadership teams in most corporates consist mainly of men. So when men look up, they see people they can relate to and have many role models and mentors that will help them and make them feel part of a group. Take a woman, and we’re facing a different scenario.
Another reason is that a lot of women don’t support other women; this is something that I experienced myself. A lot of the women who are in leadership positions didn’t have anyone to help them get there, so they think why should they help someone when they had to struggle and fight to get there on their own. There needs to be a shift in this mindset. If you are up there, send the lift down and help others, there’s room for everyone.
And what do you think is the greatest benefit of having more women leaders in the world?
It’s not just women leaders that we need; we need a more diverse culture that includes all kinds of people from different age groups, cultures and backgrounds. We need to have all the colors of the rainbow – we need to create the united nations of the workplace.
What do you think is the role men should play in supporting more gender diversity?
I always say that the future is diversity. The future’s not female or male; it’s all of us. Men, especially the ones in senior management, need to set the guidelines that empower and train the employees to think diverse and embrace change. They also need to be aware of the “bro culture” in an organization and try to eliminate it. Men in senior positions need to hire the right people in HR to help them form more diverse teams. And if they look around and see only men they hire more women!
What’s your greatest personal challenge, and how did you achieve success despite it?
I think the challenge, especially when you start your own company, is to keep going and not stop. With social media and working in a field where I can’t avoid it, it’s inevitable to compare myself to others. As imposter syndrome is something that we all struggle with, sometimes we need to write down the things that we’re good at and the things we’ve achieved, and remind ourselves that we are worthy and we deserve a spot on the table. Also, after being in the industry for several years, I learnt that all that glitters is not gold.
How can we change the “self-doubt” mindset that many people have?
By not comparing ourselves to others. Doing things over and over again until we’re confident enough also helps – for example, when I started public speaking, I was mortified. Still, I kept on saying yes to engagements when I was asked, as I realized that there must be a reason why people kept on inviting me. It helps if you remind yourself that 80 to 90% of the audience knows less than you about the topic you’ll be speaking about. Finally, realize that you actually have ideas worth sharing.
What inspires you?
Activists and people who fight for their/our rights inspire me. I love Jameela Jamil, her #iweigh movement, and her calling out celebrities. Bill and Melinda Gates and their Foundations’ impact on global health is both impressive and inspiring.
Do you have a favorite book?
One of my favorite books that I finished reading last month is “The Hard Thing About Starting Things” by Ben Horowitz. It’s such a fantastic book; it’s about how you build a business when there are no easy answers.
What does life mean to you?
As basic as it sounds, life, to me, means to be happy and also to give back and help other people.
If there’s one thing you can change in the world right now, what would that be?
It would be poverty.
And what are your hopes for the future, for what you’re doing, for the world, or for yourself?
I hope that in terms of raising young people, girls and boys, we raise them more equally. We need to tell every girl that they can be a pilot or an engineer if they want. And we also need to say to every boy that if they want to be a ballet dancer, they can. I also hope that we make it easier for women who have kids to re-enter the workforce. Because especially in developing countries, there’s a very high dropout rate after women give birth.
What’s the best advice you’ve been you’ve ever been given?
This sentence that I live my life by: if you don’t like something or you’re not happy in a situation, move on, you’re not a tree.
What advice would you give to women out there?
Be brave and don’t listen to limiting voices. More than often, we come up with excuses, so we don’t even have to start with something new and unknown to us. We use these excuses to avoid getting uncomfortable – whether it’s changing profession or dedicating your time to a side hustle, you’re the only one that’s stopping you.