Laura Ortega Lamela is the Executive Director, International Business Council at Illinois Chamber of Commerce. a bi-lingual EU Counsel with cross-cultural communication skills, expertise in Government Relations and International Public Policy with an emphasis in Multi-jurisdiction, Consular Affairs, International Client Management and Strategic Partnerships with a working knowledge of Common Law and Civil Code systems. With the objective of increasing global trading opportunities for Illinois and bringing Foreign Direct Investment, jobs and revenue to Illinois, Laura recently accepted the role as Executive Director of International Business Council (IBC) at the Illinois Chamber of Commerce. Recently, we chatted with Laura to get her thoughts on women in business today, and what the future holds.
MSTS: What are some pivotal points that got you to where you are today in your career?
Laura Ortega Lamela: That’s such a great question because there have been so many different big moments in my career where I almost feel like a flower that’s being repotted and repositioned. I’m originally from Spain and my career started in the legal field where I was an attorney with a focus on international law. I’ve got a strong passion for international issues and civil service, which led me to wanting to work on behalf of the government because of the larger and greater impact it has on the community. After I completed a fellowship at Georgetown, I used the combination of law, business and policy and put together an international business council. I was asked to define the concept, create the program and run the membership as a result of talking with the president of the Illinois Chamber of Commerce and deciding we needed to focus on growing international business and increasing economic activity within the state. I believe that by focusing on and responding to pivotal moments like this one, you get the education and ability to adapt and reinvent yourself, which can often times be more important than the tools you would normally use. This situation allowed me to reach from situation into another, one country into another, one language into another and paved the way for me to adapt my skills and thrive.
MSTS: What changes have you seen for women in business in the past 5 years? What do you think we’ll see in the next 5 to 10 years?
Ortega Lamela: Drawing on my experience, maybe even from a few years ago, I think women were trying to accommodate practices that were unfair because of power at the time and the lack of group support. It was more of individuals trying to be practical and find clever ways to overcome obstacles in a way that would only accommodate structures that weren’t fair to begin with. We as women were only surviving, not changing. I believe now we are taking issues head on and trying to change the structures versus merely accommodating. I think we’ll continue to individuals going deeper into that change into the pre-existing structures. I also think next steps will be a policy that will make that actual change. It will take a long time to solidify until the next generation comes into being a part of the business, political and social structures.
MSTS: What struggles did you face the most as a woman at the start of your career?
Ortega Lamela: Coming up in the legal field I didn’t see very many women. I think in the beginning I saw an issue of paternalism and the expectations that were lower than everyone else. There was also this issue of other women trying to cut across each other versus working together. It’s interesting to try and discern where that comes from, but I think it comes from a place of not having the same opportunities as everyone else. It comes from a place of fear, not envy.
MSTS: What do you think is the biggest challenge women in business face today?
Ortega Lamela: I think it’s the different indicators of performance that are used to measure women versus men. We are creating this threshold of exceptionalism, where we are telling the next generation that in order to get to the same point as everyone else, they have to be exceptional all the time. I’ve met amazing individuals, both men and women, but most of the women were exceptional and I think it’s due in part to the societal structures that tell us that you, as a woman, must work doubly as hard in order to reach the same level of success. And even if a woman has the experience and education, there is still a chance she will fall short when it comes to garnering the recognition or earning the same title. If a woman is trying to raise capital as an entrepreneur, there is still a small stigma if not being reliable. She has to be doubly phenomenal in terms of pitching the business model to investors. And, I can see this the other way around, too. If a woman is an investor and a company is trying to raise money, sometimes those trying to raise capital will look at the men in the room because they believe them to be the decision makers. The way we as women can fight this being better and faster, even though it creates that much more of a threshold of expectation.
MSTS: In your opinion, what’s the best way women in business can make a substantial difference?
Ortega Lamela:We need to move away from being solo crusaders into being more group conscious and supporting one another. And, if the social structures don’t change, we need to create new ones. We also need to take more chances and continue to push. But without that communal support, we’ll never get to that place.
MSTS: Which women are you inspired by and why?
Ortega Lamela: In general, anyone that dares to change the status quo, full knowing that those decisions will have a profound impact on the personal and professional side of life. I used to volunteer at an organization called New Horizon, and it was an organization in a neighborhood that was made up of immigrants. In this organization we a legal clinic for immigration matters as well as other resources, such as teaching English as a second language and in some cases, reading and writing in native languages. We also taught the history needed to pass the United States Citizenship test. And I would see the faces of these women as they wrote their names for the first time, which was so incredibly inspirational. Prior to teaching them anything, I was just trying to convey a sense of purpose to them, which could be difficult because circumstances in life forced them to take a second seat and they didn’t think much about their own skills. They would say things like, “I can’t do this,” and I would say, “Look at everything you’ve accomplished. You came to this country 20 or 30 years ago with no education, raised 4 children and sent them off to college. You can do this!” Those experiences were the most amazing and inspiring. These are women that will never be in the history books, but they are all making us who we are right now.
MSTS: What advice would you give your 15-year old self, knowing what you know today and having the experiences you’ve had?
Ortega Lamela: You should ask my mother! I’d probably say, pick your battles and understand what matters and what doesn’t. There is so much white noise that we can get lost in sometimes. I think that sort of strategic understanding of where you are and where you want to be is crucial. Don’t get distracted and know that you’re going to make mistakes. You’ll go through the hoops of life, but you’ll get to that moment of clarity where you’ll appreciate all of your experiences.