Ten Questions

March 6, 2012 4:12 pm

Ten Questions - Valerie Keller

Valerie Keller is an EMBA graduate from Oxford University’s Saïd Business School. While studying for her MBA, she launched Veritas, a boutique consulting and advisory firm, which she is still running today. She also recently became an associate fellow of the school.

Ms Keller grew up in Louisiana, where she was home-schooled. In her early twenties, she left a career in banking to launch mixed-income housing developments and behavioural health treatment centres. She also worked with US Congress on solutions to poverty.

In her spare time, Ms Keller enjoys travelling and listening to jazz music. She was also co-producer of Womensphere Europe, a global community of leaders, networks, organisations and companies which aims to empower women and has recently been selected by the World Economic Forum as a Young Global Leader.

On Thursday, 8th March 2012, Ms Keller will be available for a live web chat. Post your questions now to ask@ft.com.

1. What inspires you?

People who overcome crazy obstacles and who show deep compassion: Ghandi, Nelson Mandela, my grandmother. Right now I am compiling a book of personal stories from women leaders around the world. These women are beautiful blends of grace and grit that inspire me and I’m excited to help their stories inspire others.

2. Who are your business heroes?

I admire successful businesswomen who are active socially or politically and who are also approachable. Christine Lagarde, the head of the International Monetary Fund, has influenced me greatly and I was delighted to find her to be warm and welcoming when I visited Davos last year. I think I almost toppled Ban Ki Moon and Bono in my haste, I was so determined to meet her!

Ambassador Melanne Verveer and Arianna Huffington are other examples – they are lionesses in business and politics and I have found them to be quite kind and generous.

3. What academic achievement are you most proud of?

Graduating with honours from Oxford. I never imagined I would even walk those hallowed halls, much less walk away with honours. I was also privileged to later be awarded an associate fellowship by the dean. It allows me to create value for the school engaging external partners and provides an academic platform for my research and writing.

4. Have you even been to any workshops/seminars that have helped you in your career?

A joint programme at Harvard Business School and the Kennedy School of Government I completed one summer was incredibly stimulating. So much knowledge was pouring out of those academic rock stars, it was like drinking from a fire hydrant with a thimble. That experience gave me the intellectual hunger for Oxford, which then shifted me into a global career.

5. What advice would you give to women in business education?

For one thing, I would advise women to GET a business education. I was stunned when I walked into my EMBA class and could count the women on one hand. I started digging and found woeful ratios are common in EMBA programmes globally.

This does not appear to be a clandestine “No Girls Allowed” conspiracy. The reality is that schools are looking for quality women candidates. And in my class, rather than failing, 50 per cent of the women graduated with honours, a higher percentage than the men.

6. How do you deal with male-dominated environment?

Personally, I think a male-dominated environment is not bad, but it is sad. Organisations or initiatives lacking diversity are handicapped; prone to groupthink disasters. Wherever I’ve been - in politics, NGOs, business or school - I just assumed equal respect and trust with my male counterparts. I believe we often get what we expect in life - and what we give.

7. What is your favourite business book?

The one my friend Caroline Webb, a McKinsey partner, is writing about how cognitive science findings can help business leaders make better decisions. It is quite clever and already my favourite. And Jacqueline Novogratz’s The Blue Sweater: Bridging the gap between the rich and the poor in an interconnected world is fantastic for practical idealists.

8. How do you deal with pressure?

Yoga. Stepping back to pause helps me remember that I can let go of fear, anger or anxiety and choose a more powerful response to whatever is stressing me. Plus, when I do yoga, watching my 6-foot self wobble on one leg while twisting into a silly pretzel makes me smile and reminds me to not take myself or situations too seriously.

9. What are your future plans?

I will serve on more boards of directors again. I stepped back while studying and starting my firm, but there are too few women on boards and I know that is another way I can contribute.

I’ve also been helping produce a film: Every Three Seconds , to inspire people to help end world hunger. That has been so fulfilling that I want to work on more impact films. Personal stories in films and books are such powerful ways to inspire people into action.

10. What is your plan B?

‘Senator Keller’ - Women hold only 16.8 per cent of the seats in the current US Congress. Since we are generally communicator-collaborators, I suspect the nation could move beyond much of the turf wars and gridlock if we had more women in office.

Compiled by Charlotte Clarke

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