Role Model Theresa Pham

Role Model:
Theresa Pham

Role Model:
Theresa Pham

Every month we ask one individual in our network a few questions about their way into tech, their motivation and their lessons learned.

Let us start from the beginning. Tell us about where you are from!

Born in cold Northern Germany I was raised in a warm Vietnamese family. I left Germany right after I obtained my university entrance diploma and embarked a journey of exciting adventures and was privileged to receive my diverse educational background in Belgium, Netherlands, Israel and now Switzerland.

I commenced my colourful journey in Brussels (BE) and got inspired by the European institutions to pursue a political career as a diplomat. Maastricht University (NL) offered a bachelor’s degree in European studies and the interdisciplinary education in politics, international relations, law, economics, and history deemed me as the right track.

After two years I realised I appreciate the speed of execution and impact of the private sector and decided to acquire business knowledge at the University of St. Gallen. I fell in love with this gorgeous country right away and since 2016 I can call Zurich my home.

What valuable advice did you get from your parents?

I grew up helping my mum in her restaurant, where I learned to provide customised experiences for each guest. We had a large customer base of regular visitors and my mother taught me early on that (almost) no wish is too weird, just because it is outside the norm. Thus, creating unique customised experiences for my customers today is what I enjoy the most. Also, I appreciate how chronic labour shortage forced us to always perform for 2-3 people in the most efficient way possible.

How did you become interested in tech?

During my internship at Unilever Switzerland, I was tasked with the migration project of moving the sales team’s on-prem data into the cloud. I collaborated with a great female consultant who adapted to new technical concepts. She forwarded my CV to the best Microsoft CRM partner company and they hired me shortly after. In collaboration with Microsoft Switzerland, I participated in a traineeship (1x weekly training led by Microsoft in technology know-how, SaaS sales & marketing skills) and applied it in the small company of 100 people.

You are an entrepreneur and are currently working on building your first company – what motivated you to build your own business?

My mother ventured out onto her own business and against all odds built a successful restaurant. Early on I have known the struggles but also rewards of the unknown risky terrain of entrepreneurship.

In each company I worked for, I learned early on that I felt comfortable with the unknown and acquiring new knowledge on the go, as needed for my customers and the company. I was comfortable picking up project management, more sales, sometimes consulting, HR and marketing fields. Working in Switzerland in tech my whole career I quantitatively hardly found inspiring female leaders. This year I decided it is time to pull the trigger and my closest friends have been my biggest supporters in this journey to just do it.

What are the main blockers to build a company coming from a successful big tech company?

Too many complex processes that keep people waiting instead of encouraging them to act. Or stringent rules that nobody ever questioned. Also, pressing employees early on into the expected boxes of how to solve problems “the big tech way” can hinder people’s creativity and critical thinking. The comfort of large salaries and huge specialised teams can make the individual too cosy in their critical thinking capabilities, which potentially blocks innovative quick problem solving.

How do you structure your private life to help achieve your professional goals? Do you have any routines you could share with our community?

As many of my friends, I like to be as active as possible and have learned different sports that I like to combine with socialising with my friends or even customers e.g. tennis, skiing, wakeboarding, kitesurfing, climbing, hiking and road cycling. I constantly seek out discomfort to stretch my learning opportunities so that seemingly uncomfortable situations do not seem like it anymore. Climbing mountains with my rope or riding up with my road bike also helps to put things into perspective and forces me to hyperfocus on what is in front of me at that moment. I make sure to be active daily in whatever form possible and would not compromise on the health + social component as it guarantees a happy and healthy brain.

Journaling as much as possible in difficult situations as the first thing in the morning with my “mindful coffee” is my favourite way to start my day. A “mindful coffee” is my first caffeinated coffee of the day, which I am only allowing myself to drink, if I do nothing else but drinking this coffee – so no music, no reading, no phone, maybe staring out of the window. I practice hyper presence and like to prepare my day like this. If I deem my day as too busy and want to have a coffee during my first call, I will have it only as decaf, which is often not as delicious and reminds me to clear some time for a caffeinated mindful coffee.

Also, I have learnt a lot about my hormonal cycle & energy levels (I am a night owl for productive & creative tasks). Thus, I will try to schedule high priority and mentally demanding tasks accordingly.

Have you ever had a role model that inspired you on your path?

Claire Hughes Johnson (Ex-Coo of Stripe) and Sheryl Sandberg have been inspiring role models as well as my mother with her persistence to keep delivering top results against all odds and never lose the joy, while doing it. Tanja Koch, one of my best friends who has been a very important female entrepreneur, gently pushed me towards my own entrepreneurial journey.

What aspects of your work are you proudest of?

The journey of building a tech career, where I could excel in a first +100 people, then +500 people and lastly +136.000 employees’ company and ensuring to be a role model for others who do not have a technical degree (reminder: mine are in politics, law, economics, and business).

What drives you at work?

The constant wheel of learning through exciting problems my customers have. Also, sometimes I take on the role of a teacher and I love breaking down smart tech solutions to easily digestible bites especially for my non-technical customers or junior peers.

Seeing how people learn and grow with me and see challenges as exciting learning opportunities. Help building and teaching solutions that let people work smart and more efficiently.

What has been the toughest challenge you faced while working in tech?

I built a consulting offer for our customers once to increase the adoption of a new collaboration suite for customers coming from the on-premise world. It was in high demand from the customer side and since only very few people believed in it, I had to go through a lot of internal political discussions to convince the older generation of the company to build, sell and invest into it (while I had already pitched it to a customer and sold it).

I managed to do so by recognising which skilled and quick to execute people within the company could help me, even though their regular job title might not hint at that. We have built a prototype within very few weeks, had Microsoft Switzerland help us to vet the solution and I could already sell it to customers before the official committee to allow new products to be created could ask me to go through the regular approval process. I delivered and had proven that concerns could be taken care of.

Do you have a favorite book or podcast?

I love interview podcasts from Stripe ex-COO Claire Hughes Johnson. Her book ”Scaling People” is also highly recommended.

Classic Huberman Lab podcast provides my weekly dose of science.

Amongst many others, I am currently reading “The Culture Map: Breaking Through the Invisible Boundaries of Global Business” by Erin Meyer, which helps me to understand doing business and just interacting with people from different cultures.

What advice would you give other women in tech?

Bond with other women but also get some male allies. My friendships with my male friends have helped me to have transparent conversations on the inequality that still persists in the workplace in terms of salary, task division and challenges.
Role Model Theresa Pham
Theresa Pham

E.g. my male friends have early on discussed how much they earned for similar/same positions and we found out about some inequalities that I could then approach.

Talk confidently early on about your aspirations and how these can also help the company to grow.

And what advice would you give women not yet working in tech that want to enter the field?

You can commence in non-technical roles, where all you need are just some online certifications e.g. via cloud guru (good online courses for Microsoft, AWS, Google Cloud etc. certifications), MIT Edu courses etc. Visit interesting meet-ups or webinars of other networks (WE SHAPE TECH of course 😉 , WIT Switzerland, contact other women working in tech companies, who are not in super technical positions (e.g. in Sales, Marketing, HR etc.), if you think you have transferable skills. Often people from expert domains are valuable employees in tech companies, if you have an interesting network and are a quick learner. Whenever possible I love to help minorities breaking into tech. Contact me 🙂


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