Female Heroes Interview: Gisel Hiscock

Every week we publish an interview with one of our female internet heroes.  MEET interesting women, READ about their WORK, THINK about how they PLAY the internet industry and see how you MATCH them. Be inspired!Thenextwomen is very pleased to share with you this week's interview with Gisel Hiscock (married name: Kordestani)

Gisel HiscockWhen you google Gisel Hiscock, you get 25,800 hits. (Update 2012: Gisel Hiscock is now named Gisel Kordestani, From those you find out that for a 34 year old, she has an impressive record in business, having worked for google for five years as its Finance Director, Global Compliance, and previously for companies such as Sony Pictures, start-up Brandfever.com, and financial consultancy Mitchell Madison Group.  This year, the year that she has lived 17 years in Europe and 17 years in the US, she became Google's Director of New Business Development for Europe, Middle East & Africa.

She told thenextwomen about that work, where her interest and experience with those countries lies and what the future holds for her.

  • Can you tell me a little about yourself?

My accent is quite American, but I am not at all. I was born in France. My parents are English, my mom is from the north (Sheffield), and my dad is from London. I lived in France until I was eight, and then moved to the States.  My mom stayed in France and remarried. So I spent summers in France and the school year in the US. Then I moved back to France at eighteen for university. After graduation, I spent time working in several companies in New York, Sao Paolo, Buenos Aires, Paris and London. I then went to business school at Harvard in Boston. I moved to California after Business school to join Google and now have moved with them back to London.  So I have had quite an international experience. My dad's side of the family moved to South Africa in the 70s and 80s, his sister moved there for work and my mom has family in Australia. My sister is in the US on the East Coast. Everyone is all over. It's fun, I always have someone to visit around the world.

  • How did you start out in business?

I went to undergrad school in France. I studied international affairs, politics and economics, I thought I wanted to save the world. I wanted to become an international lawyer and work for the UN.  But in time I realised that saving the world is not easy, but making smaller changes for the general good is entirely possible. And to achieve this, you need the power to be able to change things, the ability to make decisions. And that comes from having knowledge and an understanding of what drives the world, as well as access to the financial wherewithal to open doors.  And those things are mostly concentrated in businesses.  So I focused on education and business to get myself to a position where I could help effect positive change in the world.

The realisation that you can change people's lives by working more effectively at a grassroots level came pretty early, and that's one of the main reasons I chose to do an MBA, and then to join a company Google, a company with a really strong desire to do the right thing and do good in the world. And my view was - still is - that business is often fleeter of foot and more able to effect change than policy makers or government officials are. Google is very focused on the users, on providing people with access to the information and the tools that they need to make decisions and better their lives. Information should not just be for the wealthy or educated, and Google's objective is very much to democratise access to information for everyone.

  • How did you get to be picked to work on ‘new markets'?

I always wanted to have an international focus to my job. In my undergrad, I studied International Affairs and did my thesis on the Middle East, specifically about the reconstruction of Beirut. I was very passionate about the Middle East, I even had a Middle Eastern boyfriend at the time. When I worked at Mitchell Madison, in my first job out of University, I was involved in projects in other countries such as Brazil, Argentina, Mexico, France, etc.  Having family around the world also has permitted me to travel a lot; I definitely have the travel bug; I've been  in over 60 countries. I even went to China in the early 90s when no-one was going to China. I've travelled through Africa, South America, Asia, Europe and the US. After university, I continued to travel and have worked in both developing and developed countries. So I think it was very much a case of having built the right business experience and being passionate about working internationally.

  • Do you use those experiences in your work?

You draw on everything. When you think about the launch of products you think about those experiences.  I have seen products not work in international markets for obvious reasons such as being in English, but also because they were conceived for a western market and didn't take regional differences into account.  Or when you live in places where you cannot download a picture because the internet is just so unbelievably slow, your eyes are really opened to how a "mothership" model of building products - everything in one place - just isn't relevant any more.

  • Do you see differences in what people search for and expect from searches in the developing and developed world?

I don't have any statistics but of course people search for different things in different areas of the world. And we try to learn from that, to understand what people search for. For instance when people in the Netherlands search for Cote D'ôr, they are usually looking for chocolate, but when they search for it in France, they are probably looking for a place on the coast. That illustrates how different even developed Western European markets are.

When we launched Google News for mobile in France, we also saw usage spike in central Africa. So we realised that people in Africa and around the world really are looking for news from outside their country.  That's very interesting.  And the same goes the other way around, when a Kenyan TV channel launched on YouTube, it became really popular in the UK. This for me is one of the real wonders of the internet, it makes it possible for people to be much more in touch, not just in terms of email and so on, but also with news and information from other places that matter to them.  So when I look at the work Google does in Africa, it is not only about bringing the world to Africa, or bringing information to it, and making it accessible to Africa, but it is also about bringing Africa to the world.

  • So what activities are you developing in Africa?

There are two main aspects to what we do in Africa. Firstly, the work our foundation arm Google.org does, and secondly, the more commercial side of things with google.com. Both parts of Google work closely together in Africa.

Google.org runs a number of initiatives in they are focused on two areas mainly in Sub-Saharan Africa: the first is to inform and empower to improve public services. This initiative is about using information to empower citizens, providers, and policy makers to improve the delivery of essential public services such as education, water, and sanitation. The way we think about it is that there are a lot of resources that go into a very leaky pipe; what Google.org is focusing on is finding out exactly where the leaks are and disseminating this information so that they can be plugged. Through their work, they are leveraging the power to "know" to drive the power to "act" at scale. We fund research, because with more information, governments can use their scarce resources more wisely and it means people can ask things from their governments they did not know they could ask for.

The second initiative of Google.org is to fuel the growth of small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs): This is about increasing the flow of capital to SMEs and bolstering the private sector in the developing world. In many developing countries large businesses have access to formal, bank-based credit and capital markets while households and micro-entrepreneurs have access to micro-loans. This leaves a massive gap known as the "missing middle." In the middle are the small to middle business, and for them capital is almost non-existent, which makes it hard for those businesses to get to the next level.  So google.org is working on companies getting to the next level.

The second part is on the commercial side; where we have several initiatives.. One is, we would love to reduce latency of the internet in Africa. Eastern Africa has no physical connection to the web, there are no fiber-optic wires going into the region. They get online via satellite. And so on a rainy or cloudy day, they have no access to the internet.  So we are looking at how to  reduce latency in all kinds of projects, like funding satellite projects such as O3B.

As we work to increase the number of people with access to the internet, we are also looking at ways to make the content more relevant to local users. This has already begun with the localization of our products into different languages. We want to provide google in all African languages, because that gets more people online. Even though many people speak French and English, you see that through adding those languages you reach more people and they get more information. We are also working on ways to improve our products for local users, both in their search for information and for collaborating with others. A huge part of this includes making our services available in as many languages as possible, speaking to part of our broader mission to give everyone using Google the information they want, wherever they are, in whatever language they speak, and through whatever device they're using. We are also working with local universities to create content by sponsoring gadget competitions or by tapping into university talent to help build out map maker, whereby students can help build maps of certain cities from satellite images.

And finally in Egypt and South-Africa, where the markets are more developed, we have entered these markets with a similar approach as in Europe. We have created offices there, and we are starting to look into developing advertising online.

  • Surely you see Africa as a huge potential market?

Absolutely. By 2010 alone, there will be a billion people in Africa. And they need information.  A lot of companies pull out of Africa because they do not see the economic appeal. But we do; we are looking at the long-term.

  • How do you see the future for the (internet) business you are in?

Hopefully the internet will continue to be an open environment that enables further innovation and economic growth. This is certainly something that Google believes in very strongly, and with new ideas like our browser Chrome and the Android mobile platform, which are both open source, we want to enable third-party developers to continue defining the direction the web goes.

When I think about what I want, for me it is really about access to information, at any time, anywhere, on any device. I'd like to stop carrying my computer everywhere; I want to have the same access to the internet on a smaller device.  The future, I think revolves around cloud computing, where your documents, emails, photos and music are available to you regardless of the device you use to access them. Also, I don't want to lose my data if I lose that device. And so for me, it is about accessibility; access to the internet all the time, and the way I want it. And I think that is where we will go. Hopefully sooner rather than later.

  • What explains your success?

I don't necessarily consider myself successful; I think most women underestimate their success. I do think that one thing that has helped me get to where I am is that I am a risk taker. I have made a few jumps in my career, against the advice from colleagues, such as the switch from a financial background to a start-up. And I have a few failures on my resume, some risks that didn't pan out. However, I learned a lot from those. I see them as calculated risks because of all the things I learned.

  • What sort of failures are those?

The start-up Brandfever, in 1999.  It was a factory outlet online for sportswear, but it was set up a little too late. We were doing our second round of financing in 2000 when the bubble burst. It was a great idea; it just was not the right time.  I lived through the liquidation of that company. We had people come into our office and taking away computers we had just bought a month prior, to pay the creditors. That was the second bankruptcy on my resumé.  But it is an easy story to tell and to accept when you learn so much from it. I now know that it is much harder to be an entrepreneur that you think.

  • What do you consider your biggest failure?

My biggest failure is that I am constantly underestimating myself and what I can do.  I often think ‘can I actually do that? Am I good at this?' And I think a lot of women do this. We stop or limit ourselves by second guessing our abilities, whereas we should be fearless.  So I constantly try to push myself into those zones as a risk taker. I must admit though that I succumb to my own fear at times.

  • What is a female entrepreneur to you?

An entrepreneur is a visionary, a "do-er", someone who is fearless. But when I think about a female entrepreneur, there just haven't been many before us. So it makes it that much more amazing, and that much more difficult. Women do no have a clear path of successful female entrepreneurs ahead of them to follow. It's funny, but I don't think men question themselves as to whether they can be successful. They have more role models and thus probably are more fearless. Whereas, we ask ourselves all the time, can I do this?  So the way I look at female entrepreneurs today, I am more in awe and I am more impressed.

  • Who are the female entrepreneurs you admire?

There is one in particular. There is this woman called Heather Gorringe.  I read about her recently as she is an Adwords success story; she started a company called wigglywigglers.com. She sells earthworms to people who garden or who compost rubbish. When I read about her, I thought she sounded pretty "unusual", but she is not;  it turns out, she is just crazy about animals. She decided she wanted to do something with her passion. And so she created this website and became an incredible entrepreneur, who now blogs about her worms. People around the world buy worms from her, and she sustains herself this way. That is my ideal of an entrepreneur: a wacky idea, of which I am sure thousands of people said, "this will never work", and turned her passion into a sound business doing what she likes and doing some good in the world.

  • What advice would you give to aspiring entrepreneurs?

The advice I would take: Take risks, calculated risks. It is ok to fail as long as you learn from it. There is a big issue in Europe; I think we are afraid of failure. This fear stifles entrepreneurship. Let go of it. Be fearless.

  • Will you set up your own company at some point?

I don't know. I love the resources that I can leverage today and the impact I can have. I also get to be pretty entrepreneurial in my current role, and see a lot of entrepreneurial spirit in others. There is something so exciting about making your idea a reality, but something rather frightening too. I have not figured that one out yet.

FACTBOX:

What does web 2.0 mean to you?

I see it as part of your life. The way you communicate and how you stay in touch with your family and friends. When I think of web 2.0, I just think of what I want out of the web. What I want is access to it all the time. On the airplane over today I wanted to look something up on the internet and I could not, I wanted to call my dad, and I could not. I want to be connected all the time, and I want to have the choice when I disconnect.

What do you know about web technology?
Compared to our engineers, I know nothing. But having worked in the sector for a decade, I know a lot from a business perspective.

What online communities are you part of?
I am in about twenty different social communities. I think I use different social networks for different things. I use facebook and asmallworld.net for social interaction with friends and to look up ideas on things to do, places to visit. I used other networks like LinkedIn, Xing and The Forum for Women Entrepreneurs and Executives for business purposes. Ideally I would like to have access to all these social communities through one interface, but today that is not yet possible. I'm hoping with opensocial we will make strides in that direction.

No one inspired me in my life more than Gisel, so much to learn from here, how she creates hopes and help making dreams come true for people in this world, she does what is correct and never accepts no as an answer when she is doing the right and noble thing. Thanks Google for giving me and others the chance to know and meet Gisel. Thank you Gisel for being there

I went to university with Gisel and I can confirm that she has been worthy of a profile like this for a long time. One heck of a person, a hard worker and a great mind.

I beg to differ on the European attitudes though ("...There is a big issue in Europe; I think we are afraid of failure...").

Many European countries penalize the business owner personally if the business is a failure. If your company goes bust in France you personally get put on a banking black list for a number of years. It is hard to be fearless when you are betting with your home and your family's lives...

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