Breaking Several Glass Ceilings

Valeriya Naumova talks with SHE Insight about growing up in Ukraine, the bridge between research and business and her personal experience about being a female, foreign CEO in Norway.

Written by: Victoria Wæthing

15.04.2021

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Photos provided by Valeriya Naumova.

Valeriya Naumova talks with SHE Insight about growing up in Ukraine, the bridge between research and business and her personal experience about being a female, foreign CEO in Norway.

“My mother has been a good example for me on how to combine work and family. She is leading a company, so I always observed how challenging—but at the same time rewarding—it could be to lead a company.”

Photo of Valeriya Naumova, CEO of Simula Consulting.

Valeriya Naumova is currently Director of Simula Consulting and Senior Researcher at Simula Metropolitan Center for Digital Engineering. Simula Consulting is a tech consultancy company that aims to redefine what is possible through digitalisation, bridging a gap between academic discoveries and real-world challenges. It is a daughter company from Simula Research Laboratory, a nationally leading ICT-research institution.

In 2012 Naumova completed a PhD in applied mathematics from the Austrian Academy of Science, with an undergraduate in Computer Science and Mathematics. So, how did a Ukrainian mathematician end up as a CEO in Norway?

How was it growing up in Ukraine, being a country that is not considered to be in the forefront of gender equality, rather the opposite?

— Gender equality was rarely a topic in Ukraine when I was growing up. In many more traditional families, females have been responsible for the household and have not focused on their careers. Just to give an example: a female is supposed to be on a maternity leave for three years and if you are not staying with a child for three years, you will most likely be judged by your family and society.

— I believe that the situation is changing right now, and a topic of gender equality has been raised in society, but it is definitely still far away from being properly addressed.

— During my schooling and university, we had around 15% females in the class, so I am used to being surrounded my males. Actually, I have not been working or collaborating with many females, but hopefully it will change over time.

Growing up with a single mother, could you elaborate a little bit more about how your mother influenced you on choice of career?

— My mother has been a good example for me on how to combine work and family. She is leading a company, so I always observed how challenging, but at the same time rewarding, it could be to lead a company.

— She has a logical and strategic mindset, so this most likely affected me when I was choosing natural science instead of social science or law at university. I have had a passion for understanding different challenges and ideally solving them, mathematics provides a deep and strong framework to do that.

What are the most significant differences, in your opinion and based on your own experience, for young women in Ukraine and Norway?

— The biggest difference is of course the work life balance that allow females in Norway to combine career and a family in a more efficient way than in Ukraine.

— Moreover, here in Norway there is no press from society to focus only on a family, as it could happen in Ukraine.

When and why did you come to Oslo?

— After I finished my master in Ukraine, I got an invitation to apply for a PhD position in Austria working on developing mathematical methods for diabetes therapy management. The whole project was funded by the EU and included a multidisciplinary team, consisting of engineers, mathematicians and clinicians—and sounded extremely interesting. It combined two things that are important for me: mathematics which I love, as well as a possibility to improve management of one of the fastest growing diseases worldwide, as diabetes is.

— After I finished my PhD, I was not sure which career path to choose, either academia or industry. So, when I saw a job ad from Simula which allowed to combine both scientific management and research activities, I was quite fascinated and decided to try. The job required more experience than I had, so I am really grateful that people at Simula believed in me at that moment. So, after seven years I am still thriving at Simula, having had different job positions throughout the past years and I believe will remain at the current one for a bit.

What do you do at Simula Consulting?

— Simula Consulting helps companies in public and private domain to tap the potential of deep tech by providing them advise on how they could use technology to empower digitalisation and efficiency, also assisting them in the process of technology development and implementation.

— For example, we have been working with wellness and the wellbeing industry to create more personalised diet and training recommendations, aquaculture to assist in fish feeding, and helped logistic companies to optimise their routes so that they use less cars while still delivering goods on time.

You came to Norway as a researcher, and during the last two years you have worked as the CEO of a consulting company. Could you explain a little bit about the difference in working with research and business? In the US, universities and their research departments are quite closely linked to start-ups and the business society, how do you consider the situation in Norway?

— It has been a steep learning curve for me to change from research to consulting business and start working with companies. I believe that Simula is much closer to industry than universities due to its organisational structure (it is organised as a private non-profit company), but still there are a lot of differences.

— The biggest difference is that as a researcher you very often would like to perfect your work, you could spend months or years on tiny little details. As a consultant, you have a limited amount of time to accomplish your task and accomplish it with 110% results, so a customer stays happy and comes back.

— Ensuring a feeling of urgency, being more result-oriented and understanding what actually makes a difference and what could be omitted for the time being or forever have been topics I have been working on a lot while transitioning to consulting from research.

Photo provided by Valerya Naumova, photoed here in her role as CEO.

Have you experienced discrimination as a woman in a male dominated industry? What are your personal thoughts on gender diversity within your industry?

— I would not say I have experienced discrimination as a woman. But there are times when I think I have been invited somewhere (like a conference or a committee) just because I am a woman and not because of my skills and knowledge. I know that women have these types of thoughts, and it is sad that we sometimes feel that we don’t deserve this due to our skills. I believe that this will change in the near future and we will stop thinking that we do belong somewhere only due to our gender.

How did you experience coming to Norway? Did you have problems not speaking Norwegian? How was the Norwegian business community and Norwegians in general? How was your imagination of Norwegians – and how did they differ from it?

— I came to Norway as a researcher, so it definitely helped a lot as Simula is a very international place and English is one of our workplace languages. As many employees at Simula are from abroad, there is a very friendly environment with a lot of social activities.

— Integrating in the Norwegian environment is definitely more complex, especially in private settings. My advice is to get a dog, as it definitely helps to socialise and meet new people. Having a dog also motivated me to focus more on learning Norwegian (not the deepest or most important motivation, but it worked for me).

As a CEO of Simula consulting, which goals or ambitions do you have for your company?

— To grow the company and become a trusted and preferred partner for various industries and companies.

Do you have any good advice or any experiences that you wish to share?

— I would like to see people taking more risks and not being afraid of a failure. One should always learn from it and continue to carry on.

Your favourite leader, idol or inspiration?

Inspirational leaders are changing throughout career and lifetime. In general, I like to observe and study a career path of successful and strong female leaders like Silvija Seres, CEO of Lørn.tech, for instance.

Book/good reads:
I enjoyed reading Brene Brown. She is researching vulnerability and shame. Her book Dare to Lead about brave leaders who are not afraid to rumble with vulnerabilities and open up to others.

J. Petriglieri book Couples That Work is fun to read, while simultaneously provides deep thoughts on how to thrive in a relationship and work as a dual-career couple. I would recommend this book to most couples, and specifically women who are considering sacrificing their career because of the family obligations.

Podcast:
In general, I prefer reading or watching, as it is easier to acquire information from me. But I enjoy podcasts by Harvard Business Reviews, e.g., Women at Work; or WorkLife podcast by Adam Grant. Right now I’m listening to a podcast with a former Google CEO Eric Schmidt “Reimagine”, where he talks with leaders in government, business, and science about how current challenges could be solved with technologies. •