World Woman Hour honors a female executive who says she has learned to lead in her own way, and who actually leads in multiple ways. Sophie Borgne manages a high-tech business that delivers environmental value as well as economic value, by cutting energy waste worldwide. And, having a strong background in engineering, she is active in encouraging more young women to enter the STEM fields.
Sophie is Senior Vice President for the Digital Power business at Schneider Electric. Her customers are big companies and organizations that use huge amounts of electricity—for example, to operate their factories, or to power the office buildings and apartment buildings they manage. For these customers, Sophie and her Schneider team design digital control systems, using technologies like artificial intelligence to assure that energy goes only where it’s needed and does not get burned up needlessly. This saves money for the customers while reducing the carbon footprint from energy generation.
Born and raised in France, with a degree in civil engineering from the prestigious École des Ponts ParisTech, Sophie is an “ambassador of technical professions” at Schneider. In this role and a similar one for the World Economic Forum, she helps school-age girls to learn how they might pursue careers in science and technology. She’s a dynamic role model, radiating enthusiasm for the work that she loves to do. Here are highlights of her interview with World Woman Hour.
Q: When you were a young girl, what put you on the path to a career in technology?
Sophie Borgne: I think what brought me to this field was curiosity. I’ve always been curious to understand how things work, and I grew up with inspirational people around me, especially my grandfather. After fighting in the Second World War and being a prisoner of war, he came home to France and studied to be an engineer himself. He made furniture out of wood and helped me learn how to build things, which became something that has really driven me. Even now, when he is turning 100 years old, my grandfather is still curious. He is super-interested to hear about what I’m doing; to understand artificial intelligence and all the digital models I’m talking about.
So, for me, he has been a great example of staying curious and trying to learn every day. This is how you develop yourself. And it has led me into engineering, because when you are an engineer, you can contribute in many different ways.
Q: Why, specifically, did you choose Schneider Electric?
Sophie: I’ve been at Schneider Electric for the past 20 years, pretty much since I graduated with my engineering degree. They offered me the chance to join a company that has a meaningful purpose. At Schneider we get to invent a greener future, with greener buildings and greener industry, which resonates with me.
And what has been really great is that these 20 years never felt like a long time. They’ve been full of new things to do and learn. I have worked in Africa, in China, in Italy and France, and now recently in the U.S. So there have been a lot of different cultures to embrace, while I also had the chance to work in different roles and learn about different facets of the business. It has never been boring at all. Those 20 years went by quickly. Now, when I look back, one thing I’m fully convinced of is: no regrets!
Q: Given the travels and the role-changing, you must have encountered many challenges and perhaps a few setbacks. How did you deal with those experiences?
Sophie: What has been driving me is to look forward. Yes, there have been some situations more difficult than others. Yes, of course you have to overcome your own shyness and uncomfortable moments. I did change a lot, and every time I went out of my comfort zone, I learned a lot.
But going out of your comfort zone is not comfortable! Every time you change your role or location, you arrive in an environment that you don’t understand. And when you don’t understand, it’s easy to completely misunderstand. What I decided pretty early is to trust myself. To trust my instincts, to follow the longer-term objectives, and learn from all the setbacks. I never let those setbacks completely unsettle me.
Now, what is not so easy is to find the balance between trusting yourself and staying humble. I’m always trying to be careful not to trust myself to the level of arrogance. I want to continue to doubt myself, because when you listen to other people’s opinions, this is how you learn. And this is how you enrich your own instincts.
Q: Is there something you wish you had known earlier, that you would tell to your younger self? Or tell other young women as career advice?
Sophie: It probably took me too long to understand that there are many different leadership styles. I started my career quite convinced that there was one model of a good leader and I was trying very hard to be like that model. And that model 20 years ago, in a male dominated environment, was to be very assertive and directive. Which is not my personality. So it took me time to dare to be myself, and to be comfortable with my own style.
It is very tiresome not to be yourself. And when you are not totally aligned with your core values, it’s not comfortable. It drains a lot of energy and it does not produce the best results either. So it took me probably 10 years to actually know myself better and to invent my own management style. Since then I feel ‘way more free—and lighter! And if you look at my career, that was probably when my career accelerated.
Q: When you work with young women and girls to encourage their inclusion in the STEM fields, many of us would agree that this is a valuable goal to pursue. But could you explain, in your own words, why you think it’s important?
Sophie: Two reasons are driving me. One, as an employer, I have a pretty big team, and every time we open a position it’s frustrating to see that 95% of the applicants are male. They are great, but we are missing the other half of the talent pool and we are right now in a war for talent. So if you only focus on half the potential, you don’t start on your best foot. The other reason is that I am the mother of three kids, including two daughters, and when we discuss career options, I don’t want them to think that some possibilities are closed to them because “No, that’s for boys.” That’s something really important for me, to be engaged with teenagers, to show them that nothing is closed to them.
Q: What type of world do you want for your children?
Sophie: Well, I kind of make a point of not wanting something for them. I want them to define what they want. I see my role as helping them to see possibilities. I want them to understand what’s driving them. We are all going to spend a lot of time working, and if you don’t have fun, if you’re not driven by passion for your work, it’s sad. So what I really hope for my children is that they will identify their own motivations and be well fulfilled doing something they love.