Alessandra Alonso is founder of the Women in Travel (CIC) initiative. With 20 years’ business experience, she is passionate about supporting women and diversity in business, and has mentored hundreds of women to help them fulfil their potential. More recently, she has developed Women in Travel as a gender focused social enterprise to empower women in the travel and tourism industry. The CIC is now working with Crisis UK to help unemployed women get back into travel, tourism and hospitality jobs.

1 What are the most common qualities in a successful businesswoman?

“I believe that resilience, together with emotional intelligence, is a critical attribute for success whether you’re male or female but this is often something that women do especially well. Business is all about people and developing relationships is critical in the longer term.”

2 What are your top three tips to help a woman succeed in her career?

“Firstly, follow your passion – this will allow you to do something that’s meaningful for you while making a profit. Two – find a mentor and, if necessary, a sponsor to support you at critical times of your career. And lastly, make sure you’re clear in your objectives and plan ahead to ensure you can achieve your goals.”

3 In your experience, what’s the main difference between the attitudes of men and women in business?

“In my experience, women work hard but often shy away from being political. This means that they can end up being overlooked because they keep their head below the parapet. Unfortunately, hard work alone is not enough. If promoting yourself is something you struggle with, a coach or mentor can give you helpful guidance and support to help you achieve what you want to.”

4 How can women earn respect without seeming bossy or “bitchy”?

“I hate being asked this question. Why would anyone think a woman is bossy when the same qualities make a man a leader?! Herein lies the problem!”

5 What’s the best way to deal with subtle sexism, such as being interrupted or overlooked in meetings?

“My own approach would be to remain firmly polite while ensuring I finish my point. Being assertive rather than aggressive (as the person interrupting may well be) is what earns you respect in the workplace.”

6 What advice would you have for a woman who wants to be seen as invaluable without being taken advantage of for not being able to say no to more work?

“I would say to understand yourself and be self aware. It’s about ensuring you understand your boundaries and non-negotiables and you don’t allow anyone to cross the line.  When that is clear, practicing assertiveness skills will come to you much more easily.”

7 What is most valuable for a successful career – qualifications, experience or connections?

“Possibly a combination of the three as they all contribute to make you a confident person who comes across as well prepared and can reach out to helpful supporters. Most of us, however, won’t have connections unless we have experience so I would put experience at number one. Connections are often critical, though, to make things happen better or faster so it is incredibly important to nurture them. The good news is that women tend to be particularly good at that.”

8 What are your top networking tips?

“Networking is critical for women (for everyone, for that matter) in business. Often, women are prevented from networking by the time and location of events, which make it harder for working mums or anyone with caring responsibilities to attend. However, as it’s such an important part of business, we need to ensure we build some help into our routines so we can network from time to time. In terms of tips I would say: chose carefully where you network, prepare in advance and ALWAYS follow up. Networking must be treated as a strategic marketing activity; it takes time and energy and should only be done if the objectives are clear. It needs to be a win-win for those involved but be aware that you’re unlikely to see immediate returns on investments. It’s a case of ‘what goes around comes around’ but it may take a while.”

9 How valuable is it to have an industry mentor?

“I’m a huge advocate of mentoring and am a qualified coach-mentor myself. I have had mentors too. I coach and mentor both commercially and non-commercially and work mostly in the sector I know best: the travel, tourism and hospitality industry. Having a coach coach make a huge difference to your career but, once again, it’s important to think about why you want one and who is best for you. Having industry expertise doesn’t always make you a good mentor – there are many other qualities involved too.”

10 It’s still rare to find a woman that has children on the board of a successful company. Is it possible to have a family and still succeed in your career?

“Nobody ever agrees on the answer to this question! My view is that nothing should stop you from dreaming big and pursuing your goals in full. Where there’s a will, often there is a way. But, undoubtedly, women have to be extremely resilient and hard working to make it happen!”

11 How can you speak out (particularly against male superiors) in a way that will be well received and can make positive change?

“Hopefully you won’t need to but it all depends what you’re speaking out about. Sexism? Biases?  It’s often not a company or a sector that has a problem but an individual. That individual must be singled out and asked to take accountability for it. Often they don’t even know they are doing it! If you work in a company where that behaviour is openly practiced and tolerated by the majority, you’re clearly in the wrong company. Find another job as you’re unlikely to be able to change it alone.”

12 What’s the one thing you wished you’d known when you were starting out in your career?

“The importance of planning ahead, setting clear goals and finding a mentor early on in your working life.”

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By Melissa Hobson