On Tuesday September 11th, dozens of female leaders across Yale’s faculty, College, Graduate and Professional schools gathered at the Yale School of Management to begin the second year of the Yale Women Innovators Breakfast Series, organized by Women Entrepreneurs at Yale (WE@Yale). Four of Yale’s 2018 World Fellows gathered to discuss government, society and innovation in a conversation moderated by Tsai CITY’s Innovator in Residence, Baljeet Sandhu. Panelists included former Sierra Leone country director of Oxfam International Thynn Thynn Hlaing, Cadena Ser investigative reporter Pilar Velasco, and Policy Briefing Officer of the Republic of Korea Army Major Dongyoun Cho.
Sandhu began the conversation by emphasizing the universal need for innovation, highlighting that new ways of thinking should not be limited to the private sector, and asked each of the World Fellows how they defined innovation in their respective lines of work.
“Innovation in the military as a female officer involves using different methods of leadership,” said Major Cho, who discussed her experience innovating in leadership approaches. “When I had 180 newly enlisted soldiers under my command, I didn’t want to use the traditional authoritative leadership methods I had been taught. I am a mother of two, and I found that new approaches to leadership can be useful. While this may not always get good feedback from seniors, after 18 years of experience in my field, it has become one of my characteristics,” she said, adding that innovation does not have to be groundbreaking and large, but can take the form of a small personal success.
“We’re taught how to lead large groups of people in the military, but I knew this wasn’t my approach to leading,” she said. She knew she could either leave to seek work elsewhere since she didn’t fit the mold of masculine leadership, or stay and find a new way to lead in a way that felt true to herself. “I chose the latter,” she said.
For Thynn Thynn Hlaing, innovation in the non-profit sector involves investing time, energy and resources into collaborations with other organizations who share similar objectives. “Large scale change must be viewed as a joint effort,” she said, emphasizing the importance of building trust in networks of non-profit leaders in areas like Sierra Leone. “From a donor’s perspective, they want to mobilize consortiums and allegiances of organizations to maximize impact, and these joint efforts are complex but often rewarding,” she said, in response to a question about Bbuilding sustainable public private partnerships and moving from an attitude of competition to one of collaboration.
Hlaing also described the importance of technological innovations in the humanitarian sector. “When I was working on flood response in Cambodia 10 years ago, we spent a long night counting out cash to distribute to flood victims,” she said. “With the innovation of mobile financial transfers, we can now reach our beneficiaries in the span of a day. Thanks to technology, our work has become more effective and we’ve reduced our operational costs.”
Hlaing also described the challenges of proving the added value of a new technological investment or strategic initiative to fellow team members when trying to implement a positive change in the organization. “Sierra Leone is a male dominated society, so naturally there is a fear when it comes to the work place and how to influence others. In my experience, it is important to bring knowledge, experience and evidence-based information to discussions, and really articulate the value of female empowerment in advancing our work.”
“Women have the least opportunity in this field, and addressing the issue of women empowers us to bring about more change, so it is important that my programs are run in a gender-sensitive way,” she added.
For Pilar Velasco, an investigative journalist in Spain with over two decades of experience exposing corruption in political parties and government organizations, innovation in her industry is what has kept her in journalism. “In some ways, journalism defines innovation: we want to connect people through releasing useful information and promoting accountability in a changing world,” she said, adding that when she began, there were no other women in the investigative unit.
Networks, she said, are essential to increase impact, bring justice and connect different parties both to produce big stories but also to protect journalists in vulnerable situations. “My investigations are a product of my networks, which allows us to merge different data, documents and sources, and achieve global and local impact with our stories,” she said of the organization of investigative journalists in Spain that she founded. “We need good networks to do good journalism, and these networks do not exist naturally: they need to be nurtured and cultivated.”
Innovation in the newsroom is also essential to keep channels open for everyone to propose themes for coverage, including junior reporters. “What’s the point of having a new generation in the newsroom if we don’t listen to them?” Pilar said of the editorial hierarchy in a newsroom.
Major Cho answered a question about how she achieves what she calls “motherly leadership” and tackles the uniquely female dilemma of wanting to be liked versus respected in her line of work. “As a woman, you often find yourself completely alone in the military,” she said. “Back in 2000, officers didn’t know how to teach female cadets, so they initially pushed us to do the same thing as men.” Major Cho became the first female military officer who worked in the policy planning bureau at the Republic of Korea army headquarters, despite the army having recruited female officers for the past 70 years. “Until now, female voices were not included in public policy and planning,” she said.
During the Q&A, an audience member summed up the morning’s discussion perfectly: “I’m sitting here feeling like I want to be a motherly leader but also a fighter.”
Veena McCoole is a senior English major at Yale who enjoys horse riding, traveling and eating croissants. Originally from Singapore, she loves hearing from entrepreneurs with game-changing ideas and companies, and is partial to the fashion-tech and wellness sector.