“You have to be an optimist and believe that things will work out — but you can’t just believe it, you have to work hard” With Candice Georgiadis & Miriam Tuerk

You have to be an optimist and believe that things will work out — but you can’t just believe it, you have to work hard, every single day in order to make your vision a reality. You also have to abide by the mantra: “Never give up, never surrender!” As a part of our series […]

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You have to be an optimist and believe that things will work out — but you can’t just believe it, you have to work hard, every single day in order to make your vision a reality. You also have to abide by the mantra: “Never give up, never surrender!”

As a part of our series about strong women leaders, I had the pleasure of interviewing Miriam Tuerk.

Miriam Tuerk is the CEO and cofounder of Clear Blue Technologies Inc. (TSXV:CBLU). After 20 years of experience as tech entrepreneurs and leaders in the telecoms, software, and energy sectors, she co-founded Clear Blue in 2011 on the vision of delivering managed, “wireless power” to meet the global need for reliably powering infrastructure, including telecom systems. During Miriam’s career, she has served on the advisory boards for a leading private equity firm, an incubator, and numerous early-stage companies.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit more. Can you tell us a bit about your “backstory”? What led you to this particular career path?

I was born in Kitchener-Waterloo, Canada to immigrant parents while my dad was studying at Electrical Engineering at the University of Waterloo. I was an only child until I turned ten, so I helped my father build a cottage and as such, learned to use and utilize tools and technology. I grew up loving math and science, and from an early age I wanted to go into a field that allowed me to grow my passion into a career. I followed in my father’s footsteps and studied Electrical Engineering at University of Waterloo. Once I started working, I very quickly migrated to solutions and sales, eventually moving up the org chart from project, team, and business unit lead to CEO. As a female engineer, I constantly faced “glass ceilings”, so the entrepreneurial world was a natural migration — it was the only area that would give me the chance to truly lead.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?

It’s all about having the guts to take a risk and make a call. I find the biggest challenge is that many people don’t have the confidence to take that first bold step. When you are a startup, you have to ‘bet the business’ many times in the early days, in order for it to actually become a business. We have had one or two of those inflection point moments where we had to take a big risk in order to reach a critical milestone. It’s the most exciting time because that goal becomes a ‘common enemy’ and all of a sudden everyone is working together in ways no one thought possible. One case in particular was for our first large order to ship to Africa. We needed software that wasn’t ready and we had to decide to ship it anyway. The team pulled together and bet everything, and we did it!

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

I am actually famous for ‘foot-in-mouth’ moments, so I have quite a few stories to share. For example, I once drank from my customer’s wine glass at a formal dinner!

I think my funniest mistake, however, was the day I once asked Bill Gates a question at this big meeting. It definitely wasn’t funny at the time — however I was just so excited at the chance to ask him a question, I blurted out some gibberish that didn’t even make sense. He handled it with class, he but was definitely impatient with me (and rightly so!). I can laugh about it now.

In that moment I learned a major lesson — I’m known to be a very open and honest person — someone that will always speak up. In fact, if there is an elephant in the room, I am usually eager to grab it and put it on the middle of the boardroom table. In that moment I learned that it’s OK to ask the “stupid” questions, but it’s also OK to be silent sometimes — the loudest person in the room isn’t always the most powerful. Leading and being a CEO means combining both speaking up and listening.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?

My first CEO position was for an early-stage VC funded company. There were two CEO board members who gave me a great deal of guidance through that period. Even after I left my role at the company, those two board members have always been people who have been available to help me and their insight and guidance has been invaluable.

In my work, I often talk about how to release and relieve stress. As a busy leader, what do you do to prepare your mind and body before a stressful or high stakes meeting, talk, or decision? Can you share a story or some examples?

Being an executive is not for the faint of heart — the buck stops with you. That means oftentimes it comes down to you to make the tough decisions and the hard calls. And if things don’t go to plan, that’s on you as well. That certainly leads to a lot of stress, so it’s important to take time for yourself.

In order to be the best possible CEO, you first must be your best possible self. Of course, that doesn’t always mean turning your computer off at 5PM sharp, but by taking vacations, weekends, and some weeknights off, it gives you a change to recharge and refresh yourself! Oftentimes coming back to work with a clear mind will lead to many new innovations and projects for the team, too.

As you know, the United States is currently facing a very important self-reckoning about race, diversity, equality and inclusion. This may be obvious to you, but it will be helpful to spell this out. Can you articulate to our readers a few reasons why it is so important for a business or organization to have a diverse executive team?

Diversity, equality and inclusion are indeed critical to the success of a business, at all levels of the team. It takes a diverse group of people in order to be successful. The best leaders surround themselves with people who complete them — where you may be weak in some areas, they are strong, and vice versa.

In today’s highly competitive and tough business environment, the diversity of skills, backgrounds and viewpoints is an absolute necessity if you want to have a chance to succeed. Today, you need people from all cultures, all religions (including non-religious spirituality), all races and all sexes, etc, to get access to the diverse skillsets needed to prosper as a company. So, the competitive environment means that we need to up our game.

Additionally, in order to succeed globally you need to understand your customer. That means you need to begin with having that diversity in-house.

As a business leader, can you please share a few steps we must take to truly create an inclusive, representative, and equitable society? Kindly share a story or example for each.

Change comes from within. It’s easy to say “companies must be diverse” but it’s another thing to actually implement diversity in all aspects of life. The first step comes from education. It’s crucial to educate oneself, and the company, on diversity and inclusion. Hiring an outside consultant is one way of doing this — another way is by having all-team calls and anonymous surveys where it’s easy to report harassment, issues, etc, of any kind.

It’s also necessary to lead by example. As a female in a male-dominated industry, I had to work 10x harder than my male counterparts in order to be taken seriously. As such, I made sure that over half of my company’s engineering team is female. It’s one thing to talk the talk, but by actually walking the walk, I set an example for my colleagues, employees, but also my family members.

We, no doubt, as a society, are a long way off from having a truly inclusive, representative, and equitable society — however by continuing these conversations, it’s a start!

Ok, thank you for that. Let’s now jump to the primary focus of our interview. Most of our readers — in fact, most people — think they have a pretty good idea of what a CEO or executive does. But in just a few words can you explain what an executive does that is different from the responsibilities of the other leaders?

The thing I love most about being CEO is that the buck stops with you — there is no excuse that you can make to anyone else — if you succeed, it’s because of your team, customers, investors and stakeholders. However, if you fail — well you have to look in the mirror and see that you’re the only one to blame. Why the double standard? Because it’s the CEO’s job to build the team, customers, investors and stakeholders. So, if they don’t bring it over the line, that’s on you. I also love working with a team — building people, helping them to grow — seeing someone you hired advance and take leadership positions is extremely rewarding.

What are the “myths” that you would like to dispel about being a CEO or executive. Can you explain what you mean?

Being a CEO (or executive) doesn’t always give you total power and control. Being a leader of a company is a bit like being a parent — it’s your job to ensure your child doesn’t get hit by a car, which is easy when they are small. However, once they are big and grown up, you can guide them in the right direction, but you’re not always there to hold their hand. CEOs and executives are thought to be in positions of power — and we are — however that doesn’t mean I’ve never been powerless before. We experienced that most recently with Covid-19.

In your opinion, what are the biggest challenges faced by women executives that aren’t typically faced by their male counterparts?

Though the role of women has certainly changed in the past decade, the world is still less comfortable with women taking charge in a leadership setting.

In June of 2019, 33 of the companies on the ranking of the 500 highest-grossing firms were led by a female CEO. Though that’s an increase of 2% since 2018, that still means that only 6.6% of the highest grossing firms were run by women.

As a woman, one of the biggest challenges I had to face was raising my family, while also growing my business. Women are often expected to be the care giver in the home, and as such, are expected to put their work life on hold for their families. If a female gives up time with her kids to work, she is criticized, and if a woman decides to stay at home to take care of their kids, they are also looked down upon.

I remember speaking to a wonderful hardworking contractor electrician in the U.S in the run-up to the 2016 Presidential election. I asked him who he was going to vote for and he said Donald Trump. When I asked why he wasn’t going to vote for Hillary, he replied, “Because she is a liar.” I started to say that Trump was known to lie also, and he said: “I know what you are going to say — that Donald Trump lies too. But I am okay with a man lying, just not okay with a woman lying.” That, in a nutshell, is the biggest challenge for ambitious women trying to stretch to reach a goal.

What is the most striking difference between your actual job and how you thought the job would be?

It’s a lot harder than anyone can possibly imagine. When you’re just starting, you think that you’re doing all the grunt work to “pay your dues” however once you hit the “C-suite” level, work, and work-life balance would be easier. That couldn’t be further from the truth. To succeed as the CEO of a startup company, every day is a new challenge. The job has forced me to take a cold hard look at my personal shortcomings, and face the reality that in order to be successful, I’ll have to work on my own flaws every day — being a CEO means you both have to be a leader, educator and a forever student.

Certainly, not everyone is cut out to be an executive. In your opinion, which specific traits increase the likelihood that a person will be a successful executive and what type of person should avoid aspiring to be an executive? Can you explain what you mean?

You have to be an optimist and believe that things will work out — but you can’t just believe it, you have to work hard, every single day in order to make your vision a reality. You also have to abide by the mantra: “Never give up, never surrender!”

What advice would you give to other women leaders to help their team to thrive?

Be yourself — let people see the real you. Don’t filter yourself to make you appear “nicer” or more “approachable”, something that’s often expected of a female leader. Be blunt, honest, and open.

How have you used your success to make the world a better place?

The mission of my company, Clear Blue Technologies, is about bringing solar power to the world and half of our business takes place in underdeveloped areas around the globe. In the emerging market we are helping to bring internet and communications to Rural Africa, among other projects. It’s the first company I have been a part of, where I can confidently say that we are making a real difference and impact on the way the world communicates. On a personal note, I’m a big believer in always paying it forward. It’s important to take my position of power and use it to help others in their careers to move forward, whether it’s giving them a recommendation, chatting about my experiences, or giving advice!

What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started” and why? (Please share a story or example for each.)

  1. It will take 3 times longer than you think. Things that may seem simple and easy, frequently are not! I remember thinking that a project would only take a few months and wow, I was far off from that mark! It’s important not to lose focus and passion when projects run over the time allotted! But that’s life!
  2. You are the 1% of the 1%.
  3. You always have options and choices.
  4. Take vacations, weekends, and weeknights off. You’ll be better for it. I sacrificed a lot to make it as a CEO, and that includes time spent with my family. Taking a moment to recharge, take time off, and spend time with my family (and time for myself) is crucial in order to keep being the best possible CEO I can be.
  5. Being a teacher and a student is the true description of the job.

You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good for the greatest number of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.

Energy for all. I think the world will be a much better place once we, as a society, have achieved that. I’m proud that Clear Blue Technologies is a part of trying to make that a reality.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

Gene Kranz during Apollo 13 said “Failure is not an option.” That’s really something that has guided me both professionally and personally as a wife and mother.

We are very blessed that some very prominent names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them

Bill Gates because he has achieved success more than once and on a grander scale than I can ever imagine.

Thank you for these fantastic insights. We greatly appreciate the time you spent on this.

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