During the afternoon keynote “Women in Technology Leadership” at the SoCal Women’s Leadership Summit 2022 on Nov. 4 in Los Angeles, Jana Vondran, SVP of Global Business Services at Ingram Micro, explained how her journey that started as an immigrant to the U.S. shaped her career.
The Summit was co-located with the Infinity Festival Hollywood event, and held as both a live, in-person event and online via the MESAverse virtual platform.
Vondran was able to build a successful career in technology and is now one of the top leaders within a $50 billion company.
She grew up in a small town in East Germany, about 65 miles south of Berlin, she recalled during her presentation. “And when I say small, I really mean small. I mean there were about 9,000 residents,” she noted.
“Growing up in East Germany during the Cold War and behind the Iron Curtain also meant that my world was quite small and predefined,” she said. “I was strongly encouraged to become a teacher…. I would also most likely live and work very closely to where I’d grown up. The only countries I would ever be able to visit” were Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Poland and maybe a handful of Balkan countries, she pointed out.
“I remember thinking, and I was probably 10, that I would never be able to see the world just because I was born here. And I can tell you it filled me with great sadness,” she recalled.
But all that changed on Nov. 9, 1989, when the Berlin War fell. “My world suddenly opened up,” she recalled. “But I also had to answer the question: What do I do with this newfound freedom?”
She entered the hospitality and tourism industry and, “after completing an apprenticeship in hotel management in Berlin, I moved shortly before my 21st birthday to London,” she said, noting that became her “gateway to the world.”
Vondran overcame challenges that included her limited fluency in English. “My limited vocabulary had made it very difficult for me to fully express my inner thoughts and my ideas, and what people heard was just the sliver of my true self,” she explained. “That realization was something I have never forgotten. And, to this day, when I meet people for the first time who aren’t native speakers, I remember and I try to go deeper [than] the usual first impression.”
She decided to leave the hotel business and go back to studying, getting a degree in international business that she said “could open new doors for another chapter in life.”
Coming to America
Vondran also had set her “eyes a little further, a little outside of Europe and wanted to see if I could make it in America,” she recalled. “I figured that building on my German roots, combined with the various years that I had now lived and worked” in the U.K. and learned English “would make me an asset to a company with a U.S.-German connection.”
She applied first for an internship that later turned into her first full-time role in the U.S. in September 2000, joining Siemens, a German multinational conglomerate and one of the largest industrial manufacturing and engineering companies. “I started in their consulting practice in New York City,” she noted.
“When I first started out, I made sure to build strong relationships with more experienced consultants in the organization, immersing myself into new topics [and] technologies to build proficiency and supporting different leaders,” she recalled. “But not only on the interesting parts of projects,” she said, explaining she also worked on “tedious activities” and got involved in strategic projects and was able to advance through the organization.
“When a new consulting branch was being built for the U.S. market, an offshoot with a focus on game and auction theory for enhanced negotiations, I volunteered knowing that it was a bit of a risky endeavor because we didn’t really know at that point if the market was ready [and] if anyone had really an interest in in those kinds of service offerings,” she recalled.
“But being at the forefront of something new, building this consulting practice and its respective customer base from scratch,” provided her with insights into
the formation and running of a business, she explained, adding: “We partnered with research at the universities developing business software as we were continuously searching for innovative ideas and solutions to everyday business problems.”
A few years and “many projects and initiatives later, I actually closed the loop” and became leader of the consultant organization she said “had allowed me to work and live in the U.S.”
She conceded that she was “anxious” but said she also felt she was ready to become a leader. “I remember struggling with the thought of suddenly leading people I had worked alongside of years [but] I was confident that I knew the job and I was also confident in my ability to learn whatever new things came along and what I didn’t know yet. And I think that’s a really important piece,” she said.
Female leaders “sometimes doubt ourselves too much,” she went on to say. “One of the challenges in the early days – [and] I hope that maybe young women don’t experience this as much anymore – was how to set boundaries. Being often the only woman in the room requires you to walk a tightrope between assertiveness and approachability. We’ve all been there, right? It’s the old tale of soft and nice versus bitchy but competent.”
As a result, “many women I’ve come across tend to adopt more masculine behaviors to be seen as leaders,” she said. What has instead helped her “throughout the years is to communicate directly,” she noted, adding that adopting a “required body language to get my point across while simultaneously doing it all with a smile and a sprinkle of humor” can help.
She shared a story from her early days as a female leader that helped to illustrate that point, recalling: “I had just started [as] the new head of consulting when we were visited [by] the global chief procurement officer, who had flown in from Munich in Germany. We were getting ready for our regional meeting and, with me being the only female in the room, he suddenly looked at me and asked if he could get a coffee. To which I smilingly replied that, of course I could show him to our kitchen. I let the way to the coffee machine, explained the various options on the coffee machine and let him work it out. I can tell you I was never by anyone else asked again such a question.”
Her years spent in consulting allowed her to work in medium- to high-tech manufacturing industries and across many business functions, she noted. “And, while I do not hold a technical degree, I’m so in awe of many of you who actually do. I’ve never shied away from working in industries that are technical in nature.”
She went on to be approached to lead the Siemens supply chain services division for the Americas – and that “was not because I had a background in operations,” she recalled. “What I brought to the table was a zest for innovation, for bringing new technologies and ideas to the organization that would help us to push the boundaries and the business forward to outperform the competition.”
She changed companies again and, “today I’m leading a team of 3,500 associates running business operations for Ingram Micro, a $50 billion technology distributor with operations in 60 countries,” she said. “By connecting an ecosystem of over 170,000 customers, with more than 50 to a hundred technology partners, we power over 34 million cloud seats around the world.”
Summing Up What She’s Learned
“Reflecting on my journey so far, here are a few things that I’ve learned and that have helped me along my path of becoming the person I am today,” said Vondran.
“Authenticity” – knowing “who you are and what is important to you” is important, she said. “Having a good understanding of yourself, your strengths, values, but also fears and joys and owning them is important.”
Additionally, “being clear about my true self enables me to be deliberate in setting priorities that are aligned with my personal value system,” she said. And when a leader shows up in a genuine way and lets people know the real you, believe me, they will respond with loyalty and trust.”
“When I first started out, female leaders often were masculine” and “assumed a very tough, aggressive demeanor,” she noted. “It’s sad when we felt we had to adjust and adapt” to be acceptable for business or what business leaders should look like, she added.
“In fact, only yesterday, I actually celebrated one of the women I’ve met along my journey and she changed her profile picture on LinkedIn to show her true color,” Vondran said. “She went from a very muted grayish blue that she had been wearing for most of her career and all of her pictures, I mean, you could see how she aged through the years, but she always wore that blue suit because that was the dominant color around her,” Vondram recalled, adding that person now wears pink.
“If we women only show up on paper instead of being proudly our true self, change will not happen,” she said.
“At the end of the day, diversity is not about checking a box. It’s about bringing a collection of different minds and approaches so we can all learn and grow,” she went on to say.
Also important is not saying yes to every invite, both professionally and personally, she said.
“We think every ask is maybe an opportunity, and so we jump on these things, but being clear about who you are and where you want to go allows you to manage your time and your resources and helps you really to prioritize on those things and your journey,” she said. “I’ll be honest, though, I am still a work in progress on that myself, and I still have to go a long way,” she conceded.
Another suggestion: “Don’t go overboard on the planning while you’ve missed the actual doing. In business, I apply a very similar mindset. While I do love taking chances and trying something new and novel, I do assess the accompanying risks and usually start on a smaller scale so that if things fall through and we fail hopefully fast.”
Meanwhile, “being courageous and taking risks also means that you must get comfortable with uncertainty,” she said, adding: “Uncertainty is just part of life, and the more we accept that we can’t have all the answers and we are not able to control everything., um, you will run out and your batteries will be on empty soon.
Also important is “perseverance,” she said, explaining: “Perseverance to me means to keep going and staying the course even when things get tough. It goes hand in hand with grit and resilience, or perhaps I can also call it stubbornness covered with optimism. We all experience pushback and failures in our life.
The question is how quickly can we recover, [lift] ourselves up and … look at the positive side? What can we learn from the situation?…. And then just adapt our approach and start again.”
However, “don’t get me wrong,” she admitted. “When things don’t go well, I, as many other people, can get frustrated and angry.” Her suggestion is to: “Go through your emotions, own your emotional response, and be okay with that. You’re angry. You’re frustrated. Let it all out. Once you get it out of your system, take a deep breath and start thinking about solutions.”
And, “last but not least, the thing that really ties it together for me is balance,” she said. “It’s also wellbeing to a certain extent: Knowing yourself and what gives you joy. Relaxation will help you to see the stress and energy needed in your day to day. I have seen too many people who think that by continuously pushing through without taking a break, they will succeed only to realize they’re actually running on empty.”
Vacations are important also, she said, adding: “I value time off as important and productive to my job and my performance as the time that I actually spend on the job. I live and die by my calendar, and so I schedule me time as diligently as I do work.”
Concluding, she said: “Remember, self-care is not selfish and only when you’re operating at your personal best can you also provide the proper care and support to the people around you. Thank you all for listening to my story and hope some of my learnings will resonate with you and help to shape the career you want for yourself.”
“I’d like to leave with this message. Don’t stay too long in your comfort zone. It’s an enjoyable place to be, but gets you nowhere. This sentence truly sums up to me my path so far and reminds me also to keep stretching myself, to continue to move and to explore everything life has to offer.”
The SoCal Women’s Leadership Summit was presented by Ateliere with sponsorship by Amazon Studios, Softtek, Fortinet, Prime Video, SHI, Amazon Web Services, PacketFabric and Presidio.