Helena Couto, a Laidlaw Scholar at London Business School, on breaking out of your pre-defined place in society, and larger than life goals.
I will never forget the day when I was 8 years old, and my mum broke down crying after coming home from work. Opening her wallet, she only had 20 euros to her name – bank savings included. She was worried about just putting food on the table for my little sister and me.
My mum raised us alone, with no help from our alcoholic, chronically unemployed father, the government, or even family. Seeing her work round the clock and still somehow always carry herself with a big smile and contagious positivity inspired me from a young age. I decided I owed it to her to work hard and go beyond my pre-determined “limits”.
Financial hardship and larger than life goals seem somewhat of an oxymoron. Still, I set my mind on being the first person in my family to go to university, doing it abroad to expand my horizons beyond national borders.
Naturally, I could not fully rely on financial back-up from my mum. During my first 2 years of university in the UK, I could be found either studying or working part-time to pay rent, as my university did not offer grants or scholarships. When money was tight, I would have to increase my working hours whilst keeping up with exams and coursework.
I always refused to see this as a hindrance to my academic experience. Still, the reality is that whilst my classmates were out networking, connecting, taking unpaid summer internships and building impressive resumes – I was waiting tables to make ends meet. This vicious cycle is sadly very familiar for people from lower-income backgrounds.
When I was admitted to study at LBS – a life-changing moment – I was determined to make the most of this experience. I knew it would be a launchpad for my career and a unique opportunity to ascend into leadership and inspire impact from the top – a lifelong dream. However, to take full advantage of that, I was once again going to have to be burdened with thousands of pounds of student debt. This led me to apply to the Laidlaw Scholarship. I am forever grateful to Lord Laidlaw for pursuing this cause, which has already changed not just my life but that of every other Laidlaw Scholar. I hope the Laidlaw Foundation will continue to support women leaders for many years to come.
What is the biggest life challenge you have overcome, and what did you learn from it?
First, being comfortable with not knowing where I am headed. Growing up with no connections or a clear career role model, I always had to figure things out as I went. I didn’t find out about business school (seems so silly now, writing this at LBS) until I happened to land an internship at HEC Paris MBA. Many things in life have always happened to me through this mix of serendipity and hard work. Now, I am beginning to understand that this is how life happens and that it is okay not to know exactly what you will be doing in 2, 5 or 10 years.
Second, dealing with imposter syndrome. Coming to a top business school from a low-income background, with no impressive big company names on my CV and a non-business degree (I did Languages and Politics), is a scary thing. I love my cohort and have made a lot of good friends at LBS. Still, in the beginning, I struggled a lot with feeling like I didn’t belong at LBS and felt slightly embarrassed about being different. I have since then learnt to embrace my background and, in fact, be vocal about it – people are curious and interested, and they appreciate meeting someone different. Being part of the Laidlaw network here at LBS really helped with this, as I feel incredibly inspired and supported by my fellow scholars.
What is the best piece of advice you have ever been given?
As cheesy as this may sound, it’s definitely to stay true to myself. Now, hear me out. That does not mean not growing or developing. It also does not mean staying in my small town in Portugal or forgetting about achieving more than I have so far.
During the lowest points in my adult life, most of the time when I was struggling, it was because I was trying to fit into a box that ”should” be right for me, but really it was at odds with my inner values, goals and motivations. Every time I was shining the most, putting out my best work, having the biggest impact, I was using my strengths and playing my weaknesses, and what I was doing was aligned with my values. Time after time, it comes back to this piece of advice for me.
What is the worst piece of advice you have ever been given?
I’m going to sound like I’m contradicting myself, but: “If you’re trying too hard, it’s probably not right for you.” No. F*** that. Hard stuff needs to get done. People are going to talk you down, close doors on you, not believe in you. The path is not going to be carved out for you, and you’re going to have to carve it yourself. It is not easy. But if your inner compass is aligned, and you believe in what you’re doing, it is certainly worth it.
Top 3 tips that will help someone become a better leader
⚡️ Be an enabler – for me, a leader is someone who inspires their team and organisation to best use their individual talents to contribute to the whole group.
⚡️ You are contagious, and so is your energy. Use that wisely.
⚡️ Stay grounded, humble and grateful.
Which leaders in the world inspire you the most and why?
Too many to list. But right now, I’m really inspired by Whitney Wolfe, the CEO of Bumble. She’s a badass self-made woman who rose to leadership in a male-dominated environment – Silicon Valley and tech in general. And she became a CEO with a baby by her side. More importantly, though, she is doing exactly what I aim to do – using her position to empower other women and create gender parity in the workplace.
Briefly describe a scene from the future you are striving to create.
A future where my colleagues who are women are celebrated for their performance and their leadership capacity rather than their gender. One where we don’t get promoted just to fill a quota, but because we are capable and recognised. One where I don’t have to scroll LinkedIn and read “Finland’s female prime minister just did XYZ” or ”Netflix just hired a black woman CMO” as if the fact that they’re women is somehow abnormal. Only in a world where women make up a good part of executive leadership will these labels no longer be necessary (we don’t go out and say the sky is blue, do we? It just is). And I intend to work for that to be a reality for me and for everyone around me.
What does it mean for you to be a Laidlaw Scholar?
To me, being a Laidlaw Scholar means freedom. Freedom to break out of my pre-defined place in society, to push onwards with my goals, and go beyond what I ever imagined I could achieve. It also means a great deal of responsibility, one that I am grateful and honoured to carry: the responsibility to make sure I leave this world in a better state than I found it. One where everyone (especially women, racial minorities and people from low-income families) is enabled to contribute their talents to the progress of technology, society and humankind in general.
📺 Currently binging: The Mentalist. I have a soft spot for crime dramas, especially when they involve mind-twisting fake-psychic hacks.
🎵 My quarantine anthem: September by Earth, Wind & Fire always gets me moving 💃🏻
📚 My top book recommendation: The Miracle of Mindfulness by Thich Nhat Hanh. It’s such a short and simple book, but I come back to it every year or so when I need a reminder to be mindful and grateful. ✨
🎧 Podcast obsession: Jay Shetty’s On Purpose. When things get intense, I always need a reminder to ground myself and focus on the big picture. Jay always has the most inspiring conversations with the most insightful guests, and this podcast is my go-to when I start getting too much “tunnel vision”.
🌈 Something that made me feel joy recently: A potluck dinner with friends – all coming from different countries. Food is love. Bonus points if it’s food from all corners of the globe 🌍
Helena is a Laidlaw Scholar at London Business School. The Laidlaw Women's Business Education Scholarship aims to help build a pipeline of future women leaders through access to best-in-class education, resources and global networks by providing full and half scholarships to women who would not otherwise be in a position to reap the benefits of attending an outstanding school.
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