Where are the Women? we ask in the ar­ti­cle se­ries on women in lead­er­ship. We start with Vibeke Lys­sand Leirvåg who leads Feli­cia De­sign, a lead­ing Thai jew­ellery man­u­fac­turer.

Nor­way is con­sid­ered to be one of the most gen­der equal coun­tries in the world, but look­ing at Nor­we­gian busi­nesses abroad, this is not the case;

Norway-Asia Business Review - - Contents - MAR­GRETHE BEATE HAM­MOND ROSBACH

The num­ber of Nor­we­gian com­pa­nies in Asia have steadily in­creased over the last decade. Many coun­tries in East- and South­east Asia are now be­com­ing mid­dle-in­come coun­tries, pro­vid­ing fur­ther in­cen­tives, and a greater need for for­eign in­vest­ment, tech­no­log­i­cal in­no­va­tion and skilled labour.

In ad­di­tion, we see that coun­tries that used to be iso­lated from in­ter­na­tional trade, are grad­u­ally open­ing up to the out­side. We have for in­stance re­cently achieved the nor­mal­i­sa­tion of po­lit­i­cal ties be­tween Nor­way and Thai­land. This nor­mal­i­sa­tion will pre­sum­ably lead to a re­sump­tion of Free Trade Agree­ment ne­go­ti­a­tions be­tween EFTA and Thai­land, which in turn should lead to an in­crease in trade be­tween our two coun­tries, mean­ing greater Nor­we­gian in­vest­ment in Thai­land.

Although Nor­we­gian com­pa­nies are bring­ing their busi­ness to Asia, they are seem­ingly leav­ing fe­male lead­er­ship be­hind. Amongst Nor­we­gian com­pa­nies in Asia, very few have women in lead­er­ship po­si­tions. In an at­tempt to un­der­stand the rea­sons be­hind this gen­der dis­par­ity in Nor­we­gian Com­pa­nies in Asia, we have con­ducted in­ter­views am­bas­sadors and busi­ness lead­ers across the re­gion. Where are the Women? Nor­way is con­sid­ered to be one of the most gen­der equal coun­tries in the world. Par­tic­i­pa­tion of women in the labour force is amongst the high­est in the world. Nor­way has one of the great­est shares of higher ed­u­cated women in the world and boasts one of the high­est per­cent­age of women in min­is­te­rial po­si­tions. All this re­flect the ef­forts and pri­or­i­ties of the Nor­we­gian gov­ern­ment to en­sure equal op­por­tu­ni­ties for men and women. But in stark con­trast to the strong em­pha­sis on gen­der bal­ance at home, Nor­we­gian com­pa­nies abroad are per­form­ing ex­cep­tion­ally poor.

Com­pare this with Thai­land it­self: Over the past 20 years, the share of women in se­nior level po­si­tions in Thai­land have in­creased by 30%. Ac­cord­ing to the Grant Thorn­ton Busi­ness Re­port, 45% of CEO po­si­tions in Thai­land are now oc­cu­pied by women. This is sig­nif­i­cantly greater than the global av­er­age and bet­ter than other ASEAN coun­tries and China, where the num­bers are just above 30%.

Why is it then, that vir­tu­ally none of the reg­is­tered Nor­we­gian com­pa­nies in Thai­land have women in a CEO po­si­tion? Why do Nor­we­gian com­pa­nies ac­cept such a gen­der dis­par­ity, es­pe­cially when they are op­er­at­ing in a coun­try that has achieved gen­der bal­ance in the busi­ness sec­tor?

A study on the For­tune 500 com­pa­nies con­ducted by Cat­a­lyst Inc., a non-profit or­gan­i­sa­tion that pro­motes in­clu­sive work­places for women, pointed out the pos­i­tive link be­tween num­ber of women di­rec­tors and eco­nomic per­for­mance. Those com­pa­nies with the high­est num­ber of women di­rec­tors on their boards had a higher re­turn on sales and eq­uity than the rest. Although some crit­ics claim that there are method­olog­i­cal flaws in the re­search, fe­male rep­re­sen­ta­tion in de­ci­sion-mak­ing po­si­tions is nec­es­sary for ex­pand­ing per­spec­tives at a top level. In or­der to sus­tain per­for­mance in a rapidly chang­ing busi­ness en­vi­ron­ment, hav­ing a vast pool of opin­ions and a broad per­spec­tive at a man­age­ment level is un­de­ni­ably a great ad­van­tage.

We have in­ter­viewed one clear ex­am­ple of strong fe­male lead­er­ship in a Nor­we­gian busi­ness in Thai­land; founder and owner of the jew­ellery com­pany Feli­cia De­sign, Vibeke Lys­sand Leirvåg. Although, not be­long­ing to one of the main sec­tors where Nor­way is strongly rep­re­sented in Asia, Ms Leirvåg sets an im­por­tant ex­am­ple that we can learn from.

Ms Leirvåg came to Thai­land at the age of 19 to re­alise her dream of de­vel­op­ing her own jew­ellery com­pany. 28 years later she has es­tab­lished her­self as a suc­cess­ful busi­ness leader in Thai­land, own­ing a com­pany with over 150 em­ploy­ees and de­sign­ing jew­ellery

for world-renowned brands. “When I first was of­fered a job in Thai­land I asked; where is Thai­land?” Ms Leirvåg jok­ingly re­calls. Hav­ing spent al­most three decades in the coun­try Ms Leirvåg has in­te­grated well in her com­mu­nity, and although she hes­i­tates to ad­mit it she also speaks Thai very well, so well in fact that she was awarded the ‘For­eign­ers who speaks Thai like the Thais award’ this year.

In ad­di­tion to run­ning a high­end busi­ness, Ms Leirvåg was re­cently elected as the first fe­male Vice Chair of the Joint For­eign Cham­ber of Com­merce (JFCCT). The Joint For­eign Cham­ber of Com­merce is an um­brella body for 31 for­eign Cham­bers of Com­merce and busi­ness as­so­ci­a­tions op­er­at­ing in Thai­land. It is the pri­mary ve­hi­cle for for­eign busi­nesses di­a­logue with the Thai gov­ern­ment.

And it doesn’t stop there; The Thai-Nor­we­gian Cham­ber of Com­merce is an­other ex­am­ple where Nor­way has taken the fe­male lead; Ms Leirvåg as one of the two vice pres­i­dents of the cham­ber as well as the pres­i­dent, Ms Aina Eidsvik (Ai­bel), the ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor, Ms An­neKari Gul­lik­sen and the trea­surer, Ms Thi­tikul Op­dal (We­bOn) are all women.

The JFCCT is not new to Ms Leirvåg; through her pres­i­dency at the Thai-Nor­we­gian Cham­ber of Com­merce she has been in­volved with the JFCCT for many years. “When I was the pres­i­dent of the Thai-Nor­we­gian Cham­ber of Com­merce, I was mainly work­ing to pro­mote Nor­we­gian Busi­ness in­ter­ests. As the Vice Chair of the Joint For­eign Cham­ber of Com­merce I pro­mote the in­ter­ests of all mem­bers”.

Through­out her time at the ThaiNor­we­gian Cham­ber of Com­merce, Ms Leirvåg has also been par­tic­u­larly con­cerned with pro­mot­ing the in­ter­ests of Small and Medium Sized En­ter­prises, and en­cour­ag­ing fe­male en­trepreneur­ship and women in busi­ness.

Why was it im­por­tant for you to en­cour­age fe­male en­trepreneur­ship and women in busi­ness?

I think it is im­por­tant to share of your knowl­edge and your ex­pe­ri­ences re­gard­less. How­ever, since Thai­land has im­proved so much in terms of fe­male lead­er­ship in the busi­ness sec­tor the last few years, we need to make it a pri­or­ity to en­cour­age more fe­male lead­er­ship amongst for­eign com­pa­nies as well.

You say that Thai­land has im­proved over the years. How were you re­ceived as a fe­male busi­ness leader when you first ar­rived in Thai­land 28 years ago?

Dur­ing my first years in Thai­land, I un­doubt­edly re­ceived less re­spect than my male coun­ter­parts. This has changed tremen­dously. To­day, I feel peo­ple ad­mire that there is a woman in the driver seat.

In spite of the fact that there is a great im­prove­ment in the num­ber of fe­male lead­ers in the busi­ness sec­tor in Thai­land, there is a com­par­a­tively low num­ber of fe­male busi­ness lead­ers in for­eign com­pa­nies in Thai­land. What do you think is the rea­son be­hind this?

In my ex­pe­ri­ence Nor­way and Canada are al­ready do­ing rel­a­tively well in en­cour­ag­ing fe­male lead­er­ship in the re­gion. How­ever, it is true that over­all the num­ber of for­eign fe­male busi­ness lead­ers is low in Asia. One rea­son could be that women sim­ply choose to stay in their home coun­try out of com­fort. Due to longer work­ing days and less va­ca­tion, there is lim­ited time with fam­ily, which might af­fect their de­ci­sion of go­ing abroad. The other ev­i­dent rea­son is that many women are sim­ply not given the op­por­tu­nity to lead com­pa­nies abroad. They ex­pe­ri­ence the glass ceil­ing in their home coun­try be­fore they reach Asia. This is the ma­jor is­sue.

Do you think women are more suit­able for lead­er­ship po­si­tions in Thai­land com­pared with men in some cases?

I don’t think your lead­er­ship skills de­pends on your gen­der. Yet, I be­lieve women pos­sess cer­tain qual­i­ties that are greatly ap­pre­ci­ated in Thai­land, such as hu­mil­ity and pa­tience.

Is there any rea­son for women not to be­come busi­ness lead­ers in Thai­land?

Ab­so­lutely not. To­day for­eign com­pa­nies should send the one can­di­date that fits bet­ter, re­gard­less of gen­der. I ac­tu­ally think that women in many cases in­te­grate bet­ter than men. But again, in­te­gra­tion is all about char­ac­ter. If you look at Nor­we­gians in gen­eral, they are not sim­i­lar to Thais, but they have a men­tal­ity that match well with Thais. Busi­ness­wise I would there­fore claim that Nor­we­gians have an ad­van­tage in Thai­land.

How do Nor­we­gian busi­nesses have an ad­van­tage?

Our re­spect and our morals, the way we treat peo­ple and the way we treat our staff. At my com­pany, Feli­cia De­sign, I don’t have a big turnover of staff be­cause I re­spect my staff re­gard­less of po­si­tion, whether it is a man­ager po­si­tion or a maid. Some peo­ple are sim­ply more for­tu­nate than oth­ers in the sense that we have re­ceived bet­ter ed­u­ca­tion. A key fo­cus point for me is there­fore to give back to my com­mu­nity by ed­u­cat­ing my staff. I think as for­eign­ers liv­ing in Thai­land we shouldn’t just come here to take, we should come here to give back as well. In this re­gard, I think Nor­we­gian com­pa­nies are al­ready do­ing a lot.

You have re­ceived sev­eral awards for your jew­ellery de­sign. Your most re­cent award was the Swarovski GemVi­sion De­sign 2018?

Swarovski had a new blue-grey stone at the time and it re­minded me of the ocean. We were asked to make a sketch for a de­sign based on a theme we se­lected our­selves. I chose na­ture and made a piece in­spired by an ice­berg. My sketch was one out of three that won, so I was asked to make the piece. The com­pe­ti­tion was a col­lab­o­ra­tion be­tween Harpers Bazaar and Swarovski.

Through­out your 28 years in Thai­land, you have de­vel­oped a very suc­cess­ful busi­ness. Do you have any ad­vice for en­trepreneurs and com­pa­nies that wants to de­velop their busi­ness in Asia?

Firstly, make sure you have a good prod­uct. Se­condly, work hard and don’t ex­pect re­sults right away. Thirdly, man­age your cash flows. It is also im­por­tant to know that in Thai­land ev­ery­thing is about re­la­tions. With­out con­nec­tions ev­ery­thing is dif­fi­cult.

PHOTO: FELI­CIA DE­SIGN

PHOTO: FELI­CIA DE­SIGN

Above left: Feli­cia De­sign CEO Vibeke Lys­sand Leirvåg with her team match­ing colours and ma­te­ri­als for her conic bracelet line based on the Nordic aurora, an ele­ment of which has be­come the sym­bol of the brand. Above: One of Ms Leirvåg’s great-great-grand­fa­thers was a rose­ma­l­ing painter, draw­ing flo­ral de­tails on fur­ni­ture; one of her early col­lec­tions was in­spired by that her­itage.

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