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Celebrating 10 Years of the Business Women’s Network at SAP

Feature Article | July 24, 2017 by Sarah Buerkle

A grassroots initiative that supports women’s careers at SAP has turned the page on a decade.

Marleen Verhaag

SAP’s Business Women’s Network is celebrating its 10th anniversary. Developed from a grassroots employee initiative, the network aims to support women in pursuing a successful career path at SAP.

“Women play an important role in innovation at SAP,” says Marleen Verhaag, industry value engineer and global head of the Business Women’s Network — which also welcomes men!

She explains how the network’s efforts and expertise contribute to counteracting the skills gap, securing the best talents on the market for SAP, and positioning SAP as an employer of choice for potential applicants. The female perspective is also extremely important in being able to identify customer needs.

Approaching Diversity from Diverse Angles

With more than 10,000 members and 60 chapters, the Business Women’s Network is the largest SAP community to have emerged from a grassroots initiative. The network operates on an international level and focuses on specific matters relating to female SAP employees across the globe.

“The global Business Women’s Network works as an umbrella that brings the chapters together, provides strategic guidance and direction for the network, and helps chapters grow and exchange best practices,” says Marleen.

Every chapter has individual challenges to address, as the conditions vary depending on the country and culture. This is also something that the Business Women’s Network is working to tackle.

“We have to approach diversity from ‘diverse’ angles. There isn’t a one-size-fits-all solution,” explains Christine Regitz, founding member of the Business Women’s Network and a member of the SAP Supervisory Board. The chapters nevertheless work in close contact and support each other in their development, whether its sharing experiences or providing financial backing for startup ventures.

The Business Women’s Network Spirit in the United Arab Emirates

Faranak Farahmand Pour

In this year alone, 20 new chapters have been set up, including the United Arab Emirates, under the leadership of Faranak Farahmand Pour. The young Iranian woman joined SAP as an early talent in the Netherlands in 2013, and it was there she discovered the Business Woman’s Network. The network helped her become acquainted with her new role and establish new contacts. Faranak also participated in a 10-month program helping women advance into leadership positions, where she was confronted with many managerial-type situations.

“We were given mentors who support us in our development, help up better manage the difficulties, and rise to the challenges. It was the best program I have ever participated in,” says Faranak. “Thanks to the support of the network and the program, I have learned to step out of my comfort zone and explore previously uncharted territory.”

For Faranak, it was important to be surrounded by people who want to support the development of others, whether male or female.

When Faranak decided to relocate to Dubai, she was determined to bring the Business Women’s Network to life in her new working environment. She is now leading the chapter, and wants to instigate changes for women in UAE by sharing her experiences. Since the beginning of 2017, the network has already organized various workshops, trainings and events.

“Our current goal for UAE is to prepare women for leadership positions, and encourage them to apply for these sorts of roles. The international work environment in Dubai offers a lot of support in this regard, although the working environment in Dubai is still very much male-dominated.”

A Bold Move at the Time

Dr. Natalie Lotzmann

Fourteen years ago, the idea of launching a women’s network at SAP was unthinkable.

“The Business Women’s Network is down to women who dared to make the topic visible, and challenged the views of those in higher management who didn’t see the low percentage of women in leadership as a problem,” explains head of SAP Global Health, Dr. Natalie Lotzmann.

“I realized that many talented women were battling similar difficulties in their teams. And this began to interest me,” says Natalie. After gaining some scientific insights, Natalie came to the assumption that cultural differences were the underlying root cause, from which SAP could benefit.

In 2003, Natalie organized a large-scale event, bringing on board the former 10 most influential women in leadership positions from SAP in Germany. Contrary to her expectations, the event wasn’t quite the success she had hoped for. “The women were concerned that being associated with ‘women’s issues’ would perhaps compromise their relationship with their male colleagues,” she recalls.

To get the women on side, Natalie offered a private two-day workshop on the topic “Women in Leadership.” The women who participated in the workshop became the germ cell for the first SAP women’s network. They wrote a business case, proposed new measures, and continued to nominate other women to attend other “private” workshops, before finally their network numbers reached a critical high. This is when the movement made itself known. Workshops on the topic “Gender Differences in Business” were also offered to male managers. Among the participants were the former SAP CFO Dr. Werner Brandt and his team.

“In hindsight, it was precisely the right approach. But first we had to pave the way forward,” Natalie now observes. Since then, the topic and the trainings have taken on a momentum of their own.

Stagnation… and Persistent Hard Work

Christine Regitz

Christine also participated in one of the workshops. “I was always very interested in this topic,” she says. In the first workshops, before the Business Women’s Network even existed, Christine discovered the importance of self-reflection. “We learnt how we come across to other people, we talked about stereotypes, and examined how we ourselves are prone to think stereotypically. Receiving feedback from the other participants was also incredibly valuable for me.” Even today, Christine still carries these discoveries with her. “Women shouldn’t put each other down, but bring out the best in each other.”

In collaboration with Carolin Dieter, Christine launched the network in 2007 for all women at SAP. The organizers engaged in extensive discussions with the Executive Board, and put on events and workshops.

“At some point we realized that we weren’t making further progress,” recalls Christine. “So we decided to draw up list of our goals for the coming years. None of us believed that these goals were realistic, but we gave it a shot nevertheless. We set ourselves the goal of having at least one woman on the Executive Board by 2010. Somehow we managed to arrange an appointment with Hasso Plattner to discuss the topic women at SAP. This really set the wheels in motion.”

A Future of New Possibilities

“Today, the network is brimming with new opportunities,” ensures Marleen.

“We are in constant contact with other women, which facilitates decision-making. We talk to people who we would otherwise never encounter, and we have the chance to set real change into motion,” Christine says. But the influence is not only internal: “Our Network also touches customers and therefore brings valuable ideas and opinions into the company.”

“Many other companies reach out to our network to share and gain from our experiences.” And even though SAP had done a lot for diversity in recent years, Christine still sees room for improvement, but is encouraged by recent changes at Executive Board level. “Having Jennifer Morgan and Adaire Fox-Martin on the Executive Board is already a huge step in the right direction,” says Christine. “This is an indicator to other women that it is possible to achieve such a position – and this is really motivational!”

Looking back, Natalie draws a positive conclusion: “I am extremely proud of what this movement has become. The fact that we’ve managed to preserve this spirit is fantastic. It’s developed into a powerful dynamic, which has become part of our working culture.”

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