Strong Voices Interview #17: Stefanie Schröder - Chief Operations Officer at AMELI ZURICH
"Do what you love, find pleasure in it and the success will follow" - Stefanie Schröder
What did you do before you joined AMELI?
I will start at the beginning, in chronological order. When I was 18 year old, I just wanted to get out of my home town Salzburg and decided to move to Vienna to study International Business Administration. Not sure what I wanted to do in the future, I thought it would be a good starting point as this field of studies offered a broad set of opportunities and more importantly allowed me to gain international experience. And indeed, my exchange year in the US was decisive for my future. Moving abroad showed me how much I enjoy immersing myself into different cultures and I started to research options to integrate this newly found passion into my future career. Before that, I started studying with the pure goal to study something, then I studied to become something.
I started actively applying for internships, put more work into my academics and pursued a CEMS master’s degree in addition to my diploma. My studies proposed a career in banking and after I finished my degree, I was offered the opportunity to work in an inhouse consultancy from UniCredit in Milan, the city I fell in love with during my CEMS master.
I ended up spending more than three year working in finance to realize that this is not what I want for the rest of my life. I levered my MBA at INSEAD to recharge, refocus and ultimately getting to know myself again and who I was at that point in my life.
I have always been interested in the fashion industry and while I was clear that I would not return to the finance bubble - working inhouse for a fashion brand in a finance department was not an option either - the idea of consulting seemed rather appealing to me. Taking a detour mixing what I was already good at with a completely new industry and perspective seemed like the perfect milestone before venturing fully into fashion and a new career. So much for that: 2 years of consulting turned into 7.5 years.
And yes it was fun: the projects I got to work on, the companies I was involved with and in particular the interesting people I got to meet along the way. Although offers from different headhunters have been coming in, nothing felt like the right fit at this time. And that’s how, at least in retroperspective, projects flew by and so did the time.
Until reality hit me. I was happy but then I caught myself thinking: And now? What is next? Becoming a partner at the firm seemed still miles away and I felt like it was time to do something, to actually become a part of something bigger and to finally see the results of my work, including all the consequences. Simply taking a chance on the unknown, trusting in myself - simple things that I have been missing. I was not really sure what that “thing” was, but I knew, when Christina told me about her idea, that’s it. As cheesy as it may seem, I just knew it was the right fit for me.
What are you missing from working in consulting?
At first, nothing major came into my mind - I know the “people” and “tasks” are always valid as an answer here. But quite honestly, my daily tasks here at AMELI challenge me even more. They keep me on my toes - in a very positive way. It is different fully going for the things that you have decided on and not only being in an observing role from the outside, like it is the case in consulting. If we decide to do something, we are not only going fully for it: we go all the way and beyond. And that in itself is the most rewarding task I can imagine for myself.
The people, well our team is extremely cool. Only last week I realized how much fun we are having as a collective, but also individually with each other. Everyone is so special and unique, but somehow we all fit so well together. My heart is still full from the interesting talks we had in the evenings - like we would have always known each other.
In a start-up there are a lot of strategic options to consider, but there are just as many operative tasks that need to be done. How do you prioritize your workload?
It is tremendously helpful to structure projects within the team and I personally love organizational tools such as ASANA. Breaking bigger projects down into smaller tasks, having it all collectively together in one place, helps me to see the bigger picture while focusing daily on small activities to get closer to the overall goal. And this is much easier said than done - there are often days when this does not work 100%, operative problems are becoming burning fires and there is only little room to focus on larger scale projects and strategic positioning. Personally, I try to write down every day at least 2 to 3 tasks that I really want to get done and then I fill the rest of the day with urgent tasks and other subjects that might need my attention. Sometimes these are from an operative nature, or a strategic input that is required.
If you would have the chance to do it all over again: First start-up, then consulting? Or first consulting, then start-up?
I think I would do it all over again, in the same order. First consulting, then start-up. Working in consultancy has given me all the tools I need for my work in the start-up. The way I approach unknown subjects, the way I structure myself, the way I solve problems and even purely functional things: how I handle different stakeholders as well as how I present myself. Working in consulting teaches you those things. It might be tough sometimes, but it definitely prepares you for working in an often rather chaotic start-up environment.
How has your life changed since you first became a mother?
Only mentioning little things would be a huge understatement. We don’t need to fool ourselves: becoming a mother changes everything. If you want to have a family and a career you need to diligently plan everything (a task that I truly enjoy) and pro-actively put time for yourself aside, because otherwise there is no room left for you. Taking time for ourselves, doing sports, having a date night or even simply sitting on the sofa doing nothing, everything needs to be planned well in advance. Also I realized that there is no shame in accepting help: no matter if this might be hiring someone to help in the household or with the baby - we are all just trying to do our best and we can do this even better, if we accept help along the way.
How do you combine being a mother and COO? How do you organise yourself?
I do everything together with my husband, Julian, which is extremely helpful. He drops off our daughter at the nursery, which means I have time to properly get ready in the morning, prepare for the day and start working early. The time in the morning is my most productive time: I love spending my time between 8 and 9 for tasks I need a lot of brainpower for.
In the afternoon I pick her up and it is very important for me that we spend some proper quality time together. This might be going out on playdate, going to the playground, doing a bike tour - everything that means fun and movement. (Also for myself!)
Ideally, we are cooking together in the evening and we agreed on two set days during the week as well as the weekend for family dinners. After dinner I usually bring her to bed. Julian’s and my evening are afterwards usually pretty quiet, spending some time just us two together.
Do you think this concept is future-proof? Combining work and family?
I think you definitely might have to lower your own expectations of yourself and you absolutely have to stop comparing yourself with others - either other mothers or colleagues at work. Especially at the beginning it was hard for me not to compare myself with other women who are not working, not feeling like I would be a bad mom, letting my child down. It took some time to understand that you are definitely not a bad mom for returning to the job you love. Me going to work does not mean I never get to see my child: the time that we get to spend together I am fully focused on her, prioritizing her over everything else.
In summary: Lower your own expectations for yourself. Don’t get stressed out by other people, you know best what works for you and your family. Prioritize and accept help.
What challenges are you facing at the moment at AMELI?
At the moment, most of my capacity goes into moving warehouses as smoothly as possible. This goes from strategic decisions to very detailed, fragmented, operative tasks. One example for the strategic decisions: How will we be handling the return process for our customers in the different countries around the world? What costs are we facing? What will the environmental impact look like?
Then obviously fully operational subjects: Going to the old warehouse and actually preparing the physical move of our products.
What was the best advice that you have ever received and what advice would you give young women out there?
In retroperspective, what had a lasting impact was advice from my mother: Do what you love, find pleasure in it and the success will follow. And if I think about it now: that became true for what I did in school, in my studies and now at work. I doubt I would have ever stayed that long at Strategy& and become a Director if I did not have fun. And the same goes for AMELI, I genuinely love my work. And that might involve some days, when things are challenging and annoying - but overall, positivity should always dominate.
The best advice I can give to other women, one that I learned working in consulting myself, is the importance to market yourself and sell your skills. I believe we as women are often selling our skills for less and are not believing strong enough in our own abilities. “Do good things and talk about them” - that’s what I told all my mentees and especially in female-only trainings: Do not hide from the things that you do and do not take them for granted. If you do big things, be proud and show them to everyone.
By now, Steffi owns almost every AMELI model ;)