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Faces of slavefreetrade: An Interview with Susanne Fries-Palm, Chief Operating Officer

Faces of slavefreetrade: An Interview with Susanne Fries-Palm, Chief Operating Officer

Susanne Fries-Palm is the Chief Operating Officer at slavefreetrade, bringing more than 24 years of experience in the IT & telecommunications, manufacturing & production and medical devices sector. Having worked across corporate, SME and start-up organisations, she currently focuses on building up teams, defining operational processes as well as running change projects and transformation processes at slavefreetrade. In this interview, she shares with us her experience of being a female leader, and how workplaces can create a more gender-equal and inclusive culture.

Thank you for taking the time to speak with us! Could you tell us a little more about your background, and what led you to join slavefreetrade?

My background is actually wide, I have been leading teams and driving change projects in different areas, for example in customer service & technical service, administration (including finance, HR, IT, security, strategy), internal audit and quality management. One of the things that I’ve valued the most throughout my career is establishing the customer at the core of the business. I have been responsible for change projects, such as building a global customer service organisation in 24 countries. 

Last year my position was made redundant due to the COVID-19 pandemic. That gave me the time to think about how I would like to spend my time in the future. I joined slavefreetrade because I liked the idea behind its mission, which Brian Iselin our Founder and Chief Vision Officer shared with me. Working with slavefreetrade is probably the most meaningful professional experience of my life.

What is a typical day in the life of a Chief Operating Officer (COO) like at slavefreetrade? What are some of the projects or initiatives that you’re most excited about currently?

There is no typical day at slavefreetrade. As we are working with volunteers, the availability of our colleagues depends on the individual. What I usually do is to connect with our team members to understand what is important currently, where support is needed and so on. My role is to empower them. I am very proud that over the past month, we managed to strengthen the Operations Teams and to define the necessary processes guiding our work. With new members being on-boarded in the near future, we will position slavefreetrade as a well-known global brand, creating a world “Made in Freedom™” for every person, every product and every continent.

As a female executive at the C-suite level, were there any unique experiences that you faced? What were the most important takeaways or insights that you learned throughout your career progression?

I started my career as an underwriter in international credit insurance. Twice, I studied part-time in addition to holding a full-time job. That is indeed a challenging experience which requires structure and a lot of discipline. Nevertheless, it is also a learning experience that I am thankful for. Most of my career has been spent in male-dominated businesses. I had the opportunity to work for many inspirational and great bosses who helped me to develop my skills and personality. This is what I also try to do with my teams, to develop and empower people so that they can perform at their best.

Nevertheless, I also faced situations where my argument was not taken seriously, yet moments later a male colleague repeating the same statement was applauded. From my experience, I’ve also found that women sometimes have to act more strategically, because of gender expectations: a man speaking up and defending his argument may be appreciated, whereas a woman doing the same may be regarded as somehow aggressive or sensitive. Is that fair? I do not think so. I learned that you should never underestimate the existence of the glass ceiling, with men receiving more opportunities than women for promotions in spite of their level of qualifications and experience. Gender inequality still exists all over and we have to face that if we want to see change. We need a cultural shift in our society. It is not only about companies, this actually starts in our everyday life.  

What are the key elements that must be in place for creating a gender-equal and inclusive workplace? Through your role as COO, how do you believe you can contribute towards furthering this culture at slavefreetrade?

We need awareness. It is important to discuss [gender equality at the workplace] as people might sometimes take decisions with an unconscious bias. In those cases, it is important to speak up. This allows for more transparency about implicit bias or gender discrimination. We also have to question our assumptions in order to break old thought patterns. We need to be open-minded, and I think this is what we are at slavefreetrade. Our diverse and inclusive volunteer workforce with more than 50 nationalities is a great example. Of course, as COO I have a huge impact on creating this gender-equal workplace. Thus, I always try to be a role model and to lead by example.

In your opinion, what are the biggest challenges ahead for the next generation of female leaders, and how can we, as a society, better empower them?

The next generation of female leaders will have to handle a variety of challenges. The topic of gender diversity and inclusion will still exist. Meanwhile, subjects like sustainability, climate change and so on will grow in terms of importance. As a society, we can help young female leaders through giving different kinds of support. First, a sound self-confidence is important. Trust in yourself will always help to find the right way, be it to reflect and question your thoughts and actions or to define your strategy. Thus, supporting aspiring female leaders with building self-confidence is key. The list can be very long but some additional examples are listening, empowering, mentoring, and offering specific programmes or workshops. It is important to be present and “there” when needed.