Exclusive interview: WeBridge founder Olivia Eijking

  • HC Insider
  • Exclusive interview: WeBridge founder Olivia Eijking
19 June 2019
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Workplace diversity and gender equality have been big issues for some years, but many feel that the energy and financial sectors have lagged behind when it comes to addressing them. WeBridge launched this year to provide professionals with a forum for the sharing of ideas around how to move forward.

HC Insider (HCI): How would you describe WeBridge and its aspirations?

Olivia Eijking (OE): WeBridge is a network we created last year from several observations and aspirations. Focused on infrastructure and with a strong emphasis on renewable energy and efficient innovative investments, it aims at reaching out to and connecting professionals with similar interests. We do incredibly interesting jobs, and we need a forum where we can exchange ideas and projects. I have been deeply involved in diversity for decades, but as I became more senior I realised how poor diversity was above a certain level. A lot of women’s networking groups already exist and I am a member of most of them, but I thought we should start supporting diversity without excluding anyone – whether they are junior, senior, women, men, interested in infrastructure or already experienced in the sector. Taylor Hopkinson, which has supported WeBridge from the start, came to the same conclusion from interactions with clients. Together we decided to create a group in which diversity is a matter of fact and a constant mindful pursuit, where intelligent voices that we would otherwise never hear can be heard.

HCI: What is WeBridge’s current membership and what is on the group’s events calendar?

OE: We have over 160 followers on our LinkedIn page and a balance of men and women at almost 50/50. We have members who used to work in Latin America and have just arrived in Europe, as well the opposite case of firms entering Latin markets. We also have members in Canada, in offshore wind, solar generation, storage, transportation and Blockchain industries. Our publications reach a few thousand readers beyond the group membership thanks to our sponsor. Our last event in May focused on the evolution of power-offtake offers in northern and western Europe. We are also preparing for an event in Hamburg after the summer on hydrogen applications in industry from energy to transportation, with a follow-up event in Paris. We are aiming for one networking event in London, Paris and Hamburg per quarter and are considering events in Milan and Madrid in the near future. Each location brings a different mix of professionals, as well as a particular approach. All of our events produce a short video recording, allowing anyone who could not be there to see a summary of what was discussed and to get to know the speakers. We recently published an interview with the authors of Living Iron, a beautiful art book about iron, which is one of the main materials used in infrastructure projects. We would like to encourage our members to publish write-ups and videos on any infrastructure-related theme or project they would like to communicate about. If you are interested in doing this, just reach out to me.

We have over 160 followers on our LinkedIn page and a balance of men and women at almost 50/50. We have members who used to work in Latin America and have just arrived in Europe, as well the opposite case of firms entering Latin markets.

HCI: What led you to create WeBridge?

OE: When I worked in oil, I sometimes felt a certain reserve about telling people what I did for a living. When I started working in renewable energy and the financing of wind farms, everyone I met wanted to talk about the future of energy, political choices, the cost to society and so on. I slowly realised that our ideas are truly worth spreading, to borrow the tagline of the TED speaking platform. I thought that we should make the extra effort to gather the views, ideas and voices of people who are not heard often enough. I came across the lack of diversity as I became more senior in organisations. When I became an MD in a firm that had 52 MDs, the HR manager and myself were the only women among them, and I was the only woman in an investment leadership role. That’s two out of 52 – do the math. I want to engage with all of the fantastic men and women of the infrastructure industry I know or don’t yet know and work with them to initiate positive change.

HCI: What is WeBridge’s development plan?

OE: First and foremost, we will continue to build up our membership and run more events, hosting experts on various important topics at different locations to share their ideas. We have several development ideas, such as opening ‘Pods’. A Pod is a virtual marketplace where any professional or company that has needs – equity, recruitment or expertise – related to a project can reach out to the community at large. They will be able to connect to the community through the Pod, exchanging NDAs and sharing information as they would in a deal data room. WeBridge has an economic model linked to this and will receive a fee based on transactions realised in the Pod. We have started discussions with a UK charity focused on developing energy infrastructure for communities. This could be the first Pod, as the charity needs access to professional skills on a decentralised basis.

When I became an MD in a firm that had 52 MDs, the HR manager and myself were the only women among them, and I was the only woman in an investment leadership role. That’s two out of 52 – do the math.

HCI: Your company Kreen facilitates the financing of renewable energy projects, but you started out in the oil trade. How would you describe your transition from oil to clean energy?

OE: I started my career as a bunker fuel trader with Mobil Oil. I had a fantastic time at Mobil and it was a wonderful company to work for. We had very good management and were truly empowered, but the culture changed through the consolidation of oil companies. The oil majors wanted to train general managers, and I preferred to deepen my knowledge and experience in finance. I met the founders of Global Advisors and worked with them for more than eight years. Looking back, I am amazed at how blessed the start of my career was. I made the choice to continue learning and moved to private equity in June 2008. Timing is everything, and in my case it was both extremely tough and a fantastic learning curve when our financial world collapsed in September 2008. I had also been an angel investor in innovative start-ups for years and had made several investments in renewable energy companies. After two years in general private equity, I refocused on large-scale renewable energy investments. One of my dear friends, who is also a former boss of mine, told me, “Do what you love, as you will be great at it.” I never received a better piece of professional advice.

HCI: What needs to happen to raise workplace equality and diversity?

OE: I think we need to decide that equality and diversity matter without trying to give complex justifications. For instance, does it really matter whether a team ‘functions better with more women’? This sort of approach is dangerous and unnecessary. I believe that we should work together on getting rid of the obstacles that stop professions finding their balance of the genders, origins and backgrounds of individuals who are interested in working there. If there really are only 5pc women in senior management in infrastructure, it must mean that strong barriers are still in place. I want to focus on making the candidate pool more diverse, without any need for justification. We support search firms on specific missions in this respect. Equal pay is crucial, as well as access to opportunities, and we support companies that choose to be transparent about these issues. This is an area where a lot of progress is still needed. On a more subtle and individual level, I have the feeling that we still need to address a lot of fears and misunderstandings. The only way this can be achieved is by working together and enlarging our networks. Get to know more people who are different to you and ask them what they need, how they would like to be rewarded and recognised, what works for them in an organisation. Don’t assume that you know the answers. Don’t dread the answers. Ask the questions, engage in dialogue, embrace what you hear. Reach out.

Olivia Eijking is the founder of WeBridge and Managing Director of Kreen. Before engaging in the two ventures, she was Managing Director at Ferrostaal Capital in Hamburg between 2013 and 2017, CFO Private Equity at Massena Capital Partners from 2008 to 2010, Partner and CFO at Global Advisors between 2000 and 2008 and a Marine Fuel Trader at Mobil Oil from 1995 to 1999.

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