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Rediscovering your purpose, and giving back

Alumna Corina Sommer aims to improve access to business education for women

GEMBA alumna Corina Sommer at the IESE Munich campus. Photo: Bernhard Schmidt

June 27, 2019

When we recently met Corina Sommer in Munich, she was en route to the Durham, North Carolina headquarters of IQVIA, the leading global provider of clinical research services, innovative technology solutions and consulting services to the healthcare sector. Sommer’s enthusiasm for her work at the “human data science company” resulting from the 2016 merger between Quintiles and IMS Health was immediately apparent. “Intellectual heft combined with international management! This is the job I’ve been striving toward for a very long time,” she said.

Sommer since 2017 has been a vice president of sales and global key account director at IQVIA. We spoke to the former elite triathlete and alumna of ETH Zurich (MSc, 2000) and IESE (GEMBA, 2014) about success, teamwork, values and her recent donation to IESE, which she earmarked for uses aimed at expanding opportunities for women in business. “There came a point in my career when I realized something was missing,” Sommer said. “More ease in dealing with management instruments and embracing leadership principles, perhaps. And I realized that an MBA was the right step to tackle this. I wouldn’t have been content with just any school or program. I was keen on IESE’s Global Executive MBA in particular.”

Indeed, IESE was uniquely tailored to what Sommer wanted from this experience intellectually, ethically and socially. “The values, the outstanding quality of the professors, the academic standards and the fascinating personalities of the participants all appealed to me,” she said. Sommer quickly found that an overarching sense of values and social responsibility propelled IESE.

“You discover that everyone, at every level, lives and breathes these values,” she said. “IESE employees are, quite simply, something special.” The school, Sommer discovered, inspires not only success in its students, but also asks them how their achievements can benefit the greater good.  “Of course, I want to win,” she said. “But what is winning? What is success? My definition of success has moved away from a one-dimensional, winner-takes-all attitude toward a longer-term view of achievement. Where and how does my company compete: today, next year, in five years’ time?”

Sommer’s ambition can be traced in part to her years as a top-notch athlete. The Swiss native was a junior world champion in duathlon and a world-class triathlete. Those formative years of competition instilled in her a sense that although people might fare all right when they work alone, it’s always best to function within a team. The interplay between individual and team performance also emerges in management situations where you alone have to make important decisions affecting your company and employees. “I never before experienced teamwork and a sense of belonging to the degree that I did at IESE,” she said. “It was fascinating to see the professors’ ability to create this. But most importantly,” Sommer added, “I have made real friends during my time at IESE.”

Success is more than winning

“IESE helped me become the person I am today,” Sommer said. “The school, the community, shaped me as a human being and in my professional life.” Success cannot be reduced to profits. It’s far more complex than that.  “That’s what I learned at IESE. For example, a good manager enables employees to tackle challenges on his or her own. It’s about motivating your employees to listen to you, rather than forcing them to do so.”

Sommer has some advice regarding career prospects for GEMBA participants and those considering the program: patience is key. Those who complete the GEMBA make a big sacrifice and at the same time lay the foundation for a career in top management. But they must always continue working on themselves and honing their abilities.

“An Executive MBA gives you tools needed throughout your life,” Sommer said. “It gives you a particular kind of self-confidence. I won’t rest, I’ll keep learning day by day. But I am satisfied with myself, I feel inner peace even in hectic phases. And it’s precisely this peace and quiet that I need in order to perform at my highest level.”

Donation to IESE benefits women

Sommer still sees a structural inequality when it comes to women in business. “There are enough women who can cope with the demands of top management,” she said. But there’s still vast improvement to be made when it comes to financing business studies. “We have to help women who have the potential, but not the financial means, to participate in a prestigious business school program,” she said. Her donation to IESE serves this exact purpose. “Women’s capacity for leadership is not inferior or superior to men’s, but we often lead in a different way.” For that reason, companies should think about how much diversity — not just of gender, but of management style — they want represented, not only in their boardrooms. Sommer advises women to “form your own style, be consistent, stay curious and always have an open mind. Men apply for all kinds of jobs, even if they’re underqualified. Women often think they have to be able to do everything perfectly and do not raise their hand in the case of even minor doubt.”

In any case, IESE attracts women: 35% of GEMBA participants are women. Who does Sommer suggest should apply to the GEMBA program? “Generally speaking, applicants with a degree in a field outside economics,” she says. “Those who have already achieved a good deal of professional success. Those who want to briefly pause and consider the question: Where do I want to go?” For those women still wondering if IESE is the right choice for them, Sommer proposes a test. Take a look at your address book, she says. Then ask yourself: Do I do the same thing as all of my contacts? Should I step outside my comfort zone? If yes, then IESE is an excellent first choice. “The selection of program participants is international, cross-sector and at eye level,” she said. “You can hit the ground running from the moment you arrive on the campus.”