Interview I “Conversations with Women” Series with Helga Hernandez I Vera Kobalia, 2018 AsiaGlobal Fellow
January 26, 2019
Vera Kobalia, 2018 AsiaGlobal Fellow
"Conversations with Women" is a series of interviews conducted by Vera Kobalia, 2018 AsiaGlobal Fellow, with inspiring women from across the world. Here's an interview with Helga Hernandez, 2018 AsiaGlobal Fellow.
Helga Hernandez: Former Colombian Deputy Minister of National Education on a woman’s role in the land of magical realism.
She started her presentation about Colombia with the words of magical realism. Right then, I knew this former deputy Minister of Education of Colombia, one of the youngest women to be in that position, had something magical about her as well. Also, there might have been some bias. One of my favorite books is set in Colombia and I have wanted to know more about this land. Beyond newspaper headlines. Beyond Pablo and Shakira.
At some point, we were chatting about what a typical Latin American woman is like, and Helga replied, “like me!” Happy go lucky, always upbeat, loud laugh, big hugs. One thing that I learned to admire about her most is her positivity. About the world, about the future. She is a 35-year-old economist. Deputy Minister of Education, until recently, when she decided to take a sabbatical, a fellowship in Hong Kong, and travel with a backpack across SE Asia. She says it’s something she needed to do to reconnect with herself and think about the next steps in her life.
Helga began her career at the Ministry of Defense, fresh out of University. In the planning and budgeting department of the Ministry, when Colombia was still at the highest point of the armed conflict with the guerrillas and the majority of the state budget was directed to defense. There she met her mentor. A woman less than ten years her senior, managing the nation’s defense budget. “Yaneth Giha taught me not only about the public policy work but how to be a leader. Ten years on, I realized that I have become that woman. Same position, just in a different sector.”
Many of the readers might not know much about Colombia, beyond the headlines. When we met you described Colombia as the place of magical realism. Can you explain that?
Magical realism is an expression used in Latin America and particularly in Colombia in relation to Marquez’s Nobel winning work. Why do I refer to Colombia as a place of magical realism? Colombia has two faces of the same reality. The world knows us for the drugs, narco-trafficking problems, the war. But we also have a different face. One that the people living in Colombia know best.
The second face, and for me, the real Colombia, is the musicians — Shakira, Carlos Vives, Juanes; the artists, innovators. There is so much happening in the creative industries, in the academia, and just in the streets of Colombia. We understand that life is now. We create our own realities. Maybe, this is why we are known as one of the happiest nations.
It doesn’t mean we don’t have challenges. Our number one challenge is rebuilding a nation. An armed conflict that was going on for 60 years is finally over. We have managed to put together a peace agreement between FARC and the government. How do we empower six generations of people focused only on security, on conflict, to start thinking long-term? We need to rethink what is Colombia today and, what we want it to be 60 years from now.
Again, this doesn't mean the security challenges in Colombia have disappeared. But it’s a beginning.
Are relationships between women, between men and women in Colombia any different from what you are observing now while traveling in Asia?
Gender dynamics in Colombia are different from this part of the world. Women are in front of many institutions, not only in government. For example, if you are looking for a successful project in local communities, you will usually find a woman leading it. Historically women have been in front of a lot of change in Colombia. Policarpa Salavarrieta, also know as “La Pola”, is one example. The heroine of our independence movement from the Spanish in the 19th century. Adriana Ocampo, planetary geologist and NASA science program manager is a modern example.
I’m from Bucaramanga, the capital of Santander. And in Santander (a state in central northern part of Colombia, in Andes Mountains) the role women play is even more pronounced.
Why do you think women in Colombia have had more opportunities in leadership roles?
We are a different culture with different values. Maybe another explanation is that when you have a conflict that lasts decades, men have to go to the front lines, so to say. While women take on leadership roles — leading families, leading communities, leading projects. Also, historically, women have a central role in Latin American families. I must add though, we still need more women leaders and we need to do more to eliminate gender violence.
You rose through the ranks of the government and at the age of 35 were Deputy Minister responsible for Colombia’s policy on Primary and Middle Schools. Were you accepted as a young woman in such a position?
I find the biggest positive of working in the Colombian public sector is that women work together. We support each other. But being a woman leader is not easy. It is common to hear, “you are too young for all the responsibilities”, and even those that don’t say it, expect more from you than a man in a similar position. Somehow, they almost expect you to fail, so you need to work harder to reach your goals. There are others that believe women are weaker, that you won’t be able to handle the level of responsibility, especially during negotiations. For example, when I was negotiating with the biggest labor union in Colombia, at the beginning they had a problem negotiating with me, a young woman. For a young woman in government to survive, without doubt, you have to be stronger than your counterparts.
What was your approach when negotiating? How did you get your point across?
It differs between the types of negotiations. Each negotiation has its own model, but in every case, you have to begin by reading and understanding the actors first. Then you start building the bridge. A bridge between people. To build that trust it is not easy. Everything you say, everything you do, you need to be an example. Having a relationship based on trust is more important than any position that you might hold. In the end, you manage to complete negotiations only once people believe in you.
Do you think in some ways it was easier for you to negotiate because you’re a woman? Being a connector, building trust between people?
It’s easier for women to build and work with teams. Once you create strong teams you can build better institutions. And every negotiation needs a team behind the negotiator. A team that provides analysis on the go. Works behind the scenes. A team that believes in the same goals. And most importantly believes in you. If and only if you have a robust team you can be successful in negotiations and in your career.
How do you choose your team? What do you look for?
You have to read them and understand their strengths. You see that by seeing what people enjoy doing. They become good at something when they love doing it. It’s the skills and abilities and not the background and the CV that matter.
I also look at what they want to be in the future. If they have a big goal in their life that they’re trying to achieve, they are already, unconsciously or consciously, embodying that person.
What about personal relationships. Is it difficult to have a relationship or start a new relationship once you have reached such a high position in your career?
Yes, being more powerful or at a higher position, is a real problem for relationships. I see it with people around me. I don’t have a problem with it, but the men do. Maybe it’s a confidence issue. But power is nothing. It is relative.
At the same time, I don’t feel that I have lost out. I am proud of what I have achieved. I need a confident person next to me. If that person believes that we are not “equals”, working together for the same objective, then we probably won’t work as a team.
Who is Helga in a few years? what does the future hold for you?
I have many potential futures. I don’t want to be constrained to one. In the next few years, I want to complete another Master’s, a Ph.D. I want to continue working for my country. I plan to start a social business. Build a family. Travel and see other cultures, to better understand Colombia, Latin America and myself. To continue exploring what I can do to build a better world. There are no limits.
This article first appeared in Medium on January 26, 2019.
The views expressed in the reports featured are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Asia Global Institute’s editorial policy.
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