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Cláudia Vassallo is chief executive of CDI, based in São Paulo and one of the largest public relations agencies in Brazil. For more than two decades, she worked as a journalist, rising to become editorial director at Exame, the business and economics magazine
I will never forget that part of my life: it was September 2014 and I had just cut my two-decades-old ties with business journalism and left a senior executive position at one of Brazil’s largest media companies. I loved that company. I felt I was part of it and of its values and objectives. I felt as if I had divorced a partner I admired, while recognising that the marriage had to come to an end.
By spring 2014 I knew I had to reinvent myself as a professional, to learn new things and feel challenged by unknown environments. Yet I felt scared and enfeebled. In this state of emotional turmoil, I left São Paulo, where I was living, and headed for Belo Horizonte.
After years dominated by work I was able to dedicate a week to studying and reflection at Fundação Dom Cabral, the business school, in the company of 31 professionals on the FDC-Smith Women’s Global Leaders Program, a partnership between FDC and Smith College in Massachusetts. I met women executives like me, from Brazil and beyond, each with her own competencies, history, career and way of regarding the challenges of work and life.
I was somewhat suspicious as I arrived at FDC. I had never believed being a woman had affected my career as a journalist and executive, and was afraid that this would be a week with a group of women’s rights activists discussing the unfairness of corporate environments created in the image of men. This had never been a concern for me. At least, this is what I imagined.
I became editorial director at Exame, the Brazilian business magazine, at 35, the first woman to occupy this position. Many of the editors reporting to me were men, as were my bosses and the executives I interviewed. I never felt uncomfortable with them. I loved being a mother and wife but mostly my world was the world of men.
When I arrived at FDC, my doubts were soon replaced by discoveries. During the course I came to appreciate that women are indeed different from men in work environments and that there is nothing wrong with that. The biggest revelation was that I would be a more complete, productive, secure and admired professional if I embraced my femininity and my roles as mother and wife. In lectures and conversations with participants, it became clear that I had been caught in a common trap: thinking professional success and competence meant denial of a life outside the office.
Motherhood, taking care of family issues, the home, health and my body and cultivation of old friendships — none of these would be regarded as hindrances to the second stage of my career. On the contrary, I would enjoy it more and find it easier to give my best when I felt like a complete being.
The other women pointed me in a new direction. What made many of them happy was not their jobs so much as the opportunity to perform new and great deeds. Change, when you are aware of it, is a very tranquil process.
These discoveries, almost an epiphany, would guide my decisions in the months to come. I decided to continue my career as a journalist and executive but somewhere where I could do my best and enjoy myself.
I had always liked to take the lead on big changes and to build new things. That is what I needed. Rather than taking a job that seemed more comfortable, I went for the most challenging one. I also decided my new role would not nullify the other aspects of my life. Throughout my career, I had always focused on external matters rather than myself. This had to be reversed.
Fortunately, life is full of opportunities of all kinds. Two months after the course, I took over as chief executive of one of the largest public relations companies in Brazil. The rhythm of the job is strenuous but does not stop me searching for a balance between being a professional and a woman. The sedentary executive I was until recently can now jog 8km a day. The mother who, in those critical periods at work, was only able to kiss her son goodnight, now drives him to school every morning and has dinner with the family almost every day.
I learnt a lot at FDC. Now, I am doing my homework. Sometimes it is difficult, but I sincerely believe I am doing fine.