Women in Leadership 2: Alexandra Schless

Alexandra Schless has a long and distinguished track record in the datacenter industry. In the past two decades, she transformed a start-up business into a market leader and as a Vice President she led international sales teams. She is now CEO of NorthC Datacenters where she focuses on growing the business, while doing so in a sustainable and socially responsible way. “Sustainability is the key to future growth and constant technological innovation is the key to sustainability,” according to Schless.

NorthC Datacenters was founded in the first quarter of 2020 as a result of the integration of two existing datacenter companies: NLDC (owned by KPN) and The Datacenter Group. DWS Group, a German investment fund that acquired both companies in 2019, asked me to lead the combined group. I started on October 1, 2019 as the CEO of the company.

Being one of the few woman CEOs of a datacenter company, how has your journey been so far and what was the most challenging part?

I started my career in the telecoms industry after I graduated from university. From the start, I was used to the fact that there weren’t many women working in technical companies. But for me, it has never been a reason to believe that as a woman I could not have the same career aspirations as my male colleagues. My parents always motivated me and my sister to make our own choices and to give a 100% to achieve something. I set a clear goal of what I wanted to achieve professionally. If I felt that I was not taken seriously (which happened a couple of times during my career), I waited for the right moment and opportunity to show the opposite—I think that is my inner drive and conviction.

At the same time, I always appreciated being a woman. I never felt like I had to act like one of the guys. There are differences between genders, and that is okay. Men and women have different ways to contribute, say for instance, towards a discussion or solving a problem. The outcome of combining these varied approaches can benefit the result. The important thing is to respect the differences and not judge people because of it. I have experienced that if you stay close to yourself, as a professional and a person, people value you for being genuine.

In your opinion, how many years will it take to achieve gender parity in the boardroom?

It will differ per country due to differences in social and political circumstances. For example, it will depend on the possibilities given by a government to support women in combining the care for children and work. In the Western world, I think it will still take many years before we have a true parity (50-50%) in boardrooms. We see hopeful changes, like in the Netherlands, as the topics around diversity and inclusion are now on the strategic agenda of many companies. But we must also realize that we need more women who have the ambition and belief that they can be part of a senior management and can make a difference in an organization. Parents, schools, universities and companies play an important role in supporting and motivating girls and women so that they don’t focus on limitations and obstacles but on the opportunities and solutions.

You have held various positions in your career and had a progressive journey at TelecityGroup, from being Country Manager Sales & Marketing in Netherlands to MD Netherlands, to VP Western Europe. Tell us about those 16 years, and how did it prepare you for the CEO role today?

When I joined TelecityGroup, I had the task to start a new business in the Netherlands. At first, I primarily focused on Sales & Marketing. Shortly after, I was also involved in organizing the financial as well as the operational side of the business, together with the Finance Director and the Operations Director of the company. During my younger years, I learned the important aspects of running a business from my father, who was an entrepreneur. With TelecityGroup, we went from a start-up situation to becoming the market leader in The Netherlands.

Implementing the right culture with the right DNA within the organization has been instrumental to the company’s success. Having a team of experts that complement each other is integral. Nobody has all the knowledge, so you always have to do it together. I also believe in giving people true responsibility and accountability to accelerate in what they do best. It creates involvement, and people feel proud when they are a part of the journey to success. If people see that their individual actions and decisions contribute to the overall business strategy and results, you create a true winning team mentality. The opportunity to work closely with the CEO, Mike Tobin, and other members of the TelecityGroup Board has given me a wealth of knowledge and experience that further prepared me for my job today.

In your current management team, you are the only woman. Does that pose any challenges for you?

Honestly, no! I do not feel that this is an extra challenge for me. In my current management team, each colleague has a proven track record in a particular field, and we respect each other for that. As I mentioned before, being genuine is important for people to accept who you are. As a CEO, you can’t always be right but you help people in your organization to make the right decisions.

IoT, AI and 5G are boosting data gravity, the need to analyze and process data close to the end user. To ensure that the data generated from all different locations, whether a self-driving car, a home or a construction site, will help the end user, it will have to be analyzed and processed very rapidly. To do that fast, safely and responsibly, you need a datacenter that’s located close to the end user. NorthC has 10 datacenters throughout The Netherlands, offering customers a hub that connects them directly to cloud providers, carrier-networks and other customers. We support the digital transformation for businesses and help them implement a hybrid multi-cloud IT environment.

What’s your message for young women aspiring to be a part of this industry?

Our industry is part of the digital highway that has become the foundation for our economy worldwide. With all the technical developments, including IoT, AI and social media, we see today and the impact it has on our day-to-day lives, it is pretty cool to know that datacenters provide the infrastructure to make sure everybody around the world can use those applications 24/7. Our industry offers many opportunities for people with different educational backgrounds or skills, not only technical! We are a relatively young industry that encourages people to think differently, to be open to new ideas and to embrace diversity, making it the perfect place to start or continue your career!

What are your passions beyond work? How do you balance your professional and personal life?

When I am at home, I love spending time with my family. My partner loves to cook. So, our weekends include going to all kinds of shops to source different and fresh ingredients, and then spending time together in the kitchen. As he is an entrepreneur too, he understands my drive and busy work days. However, when I’m at home in the evening or weekends, I can really switch off from work and enjoy other activities, like gardening, cycling, golfing or drinks and dinner with friends. It is so important to keep the right balance and realize that happiness is not only about professional success. It is about having a true home where you can spend time with the people you love and care about.