Women’s History Month is an annual celebration that highlights the many contributions of women throughout history and contemporary society. In the United States, this celebration takes place in March, and in Canada, Women’s History Month is observed in October.
We chatted with the three women on Sylvan’s Executive Team, Susan Valverde, Amy Przywara and Monica Nicolau, to learn more about their journeys to becoming leaders, and to celebrate their contributions to Sylvan and their communities!
This powerful trio is comprised of three unique leaders who are each intelligent, passionate, poised, supportive of one another and inspiring.
Susan Valverde is Sylvan’s Chief Franchisee Operations Officer, and has been with Sylvan for 20 years, initially as a Sylvan Franchise owner in South Texas
Amy Przywara is Sylvan’s Chief Marketing Officer, and has been with Sylvan for 18 years
Monica Nicolau is Sylvan’s Chief Technology Officer, and has been with Sylvan for 10 years
What’s it like to be on a Leadership Team that is 75% women? How does being part of a team like this feel?
Monica: It’s quite remarkable being part of a majority women executive team. As a young software engineer, I was the only woman out of a team of 20, so to be at a company where gender differences are valued, where you don’t have to prove yourself more because you’re a woman, for me, is very liberating.
Susan: I’d have to echo that. Only 38% of higher-paying roles are held by women. I love the fact that within our company, that’s not how we operate. We actually have a lot of women business owners in our franchise system and to have a leadership team reflective of our audience, shows that Sylvan is a part of this positive change.
Amy: I love that the three of us worked our way up in our own unique way. We didn’t get hired in at senior level positions, it was years in the making. I also don’t think there was any conversation around, “Oh we’re going to have three women on our leadership team.” We earned it. And that’s a great feeling. We all bring a different perspective and have unique backgrounds, but we’re able to have open and frank conversations because we all want what’s best for our teams and have similar goals. It’s truly a team. We’re willing to put the work into this relationship.
Susan: Something that Amy just said really jumped out to me. I don’t think anyone sat at a table and said, “We need to make diverse hiring decisions.” It was a natural evolution. It says a lot about our company. We value good leadership, talent and in this case, women.
Monica: There’s a difference between having a program for inclusivity, and another to behave inclusively in an authentic way.
What challenges do you face at work? What challenges do you face outside of work? How do those two parts of your life come into play as a leader at work?
Monica: I tend to have a very specific way of thinking about how problems can be solved. I tend to think root-caused based. I often ask, “Why are we having this problem?” It’s the engineering side of my profession. But I often get feedback that I’m too direct, too inquisitive. I believe a lot of it has to do with expectations of a woman. Women are supposed to be kind, gentle and smiling. Figuring out the right way to balance getting to the root of the problem, without hurting anyone’s feelings is a challenge for me. That’s something I’ve always had to reflect on and an area of growth for me.
Amy: I agree, Monica, because when I’m being assertive, I’ve often been told to “calm down!” And I do feel that if a male counterpart answered the same way, they would never be told to calm down. I feel like I have to think through the way I answer and present myself a lot more. There’s a balance trying to make sure you’re coming across authoritative, without yelling or being emotional.
Susan: The challenge for me is balancing everything you both said, and then on top of that, having the involuntary reflex of thinking like an individual franchisee, while also doing what is best for the business collectively.
Monica: I also have to work just as hard at prioritizing my personal and professional life. Making time for self-care, reading, disconnecting. That’s harder for me than it should be. I think part of it is my personality. With the pandemic and working from home it’s even harder!
Susan: I definitely agree with Monica on the challenge of work-life balance. I’ve been struggling with this for decades! When you care about something so much, when it’s passion driven and you want it to succeed … it bleeds into who you are as a person. It’s very hard to separate yourself from that. For a while, it was synonymous for me, I WAS Sylvan in my community.
What’s the biggest obstacle you’ve had to overcome on your journey to becoming a leader?
Susan: Giving myself permission to ask for help, without feeling like it’s a sign of weakness has been a challenge. And, refining the network with who I surround myself with, in my personal and professional life, which changes in different stages of life, and knowing what kind of support I’m able to give and get from those folks.
Amy: I like that a lot. I think working at a franchisor for as long as a I have, the biggest challenge I have is making decisions that are best for the entire system. I want to help EVERYBODY who calls me, but I know there are only so many hours in the day. It’s something you have to learn as a leader, to focus on the things you think will have the biggest impact in the long run, for the biggest number of people.
Monica: Agree, Amy. Saying “yes” to every idea isn’t always what’s helpful. I never set out to be a chief technology officer, I set out to build good technology. And, going from being an individual contributor to leader was hard. Growing into someone who can build a team trusted to deliver on shared goals, and celebrating their successes was really hard. But if you get lucky enough to have a great team, like I do now at Sylvan, it feels like a huge accomplishment. And, of course, getting confident over time that I can grow and lead larger and larger teams.
Amy: And trusting people, right. For a long time, I thought, “I can just do it better myself.” But letting go and trusting people is important, because you’ll all be better off. That’s how teams work! But it’s hard.
In a time when glass ceilings are being shattered for women in the USA, what do you want to say to other girls and women? What advice do you want to give to them?
Susan: Oh my gosh, the list is so long! You gotta’ believe in what you’re doing. You gotta’ have a ton of passion. Life is hard, work is hard! You have to believe in the work you’re doing, if you don’t you might start to question if you’re in the right place It’s just I love what we do, I work really hard, I believe in it, I’m passionate and I am willing to do just about anything to make sure our system is successful. So, it’s believing in what you choose to invest your time in. And that really boils down to having a really clear set of things you value. What are your values? Let decisions and choices you make be driven by those foundational things instead of reacting to life.
Monica: Every year, the Economist publishes something called the Glass Ceiling Index. It’s not shattering everywhere for every subgroup. It’s unbelievable to me that women got the right to vote only 100 years ago in the United States. I think we’ve made lots of progress and we have lots of women to be thankful to for that progress. For young girls, I just wish every one of them would be told, “You can do whatever you’d like!”
I’m a technologist, so I’d like to see more women and girls in STEM, but I know not every girl will choose this path and that is okay. I think it’s about building the confidence that you should explore, understand yourself and figure out what YOU want to do. And then figuring out how to go about it, going back to Susan’s note about passion.
This is my advice: Believe you can do it, work hard at it and try to do something you enjoy doing, continue to learn and be patient. These are the things that made a difference in my professional life.
Amy: I think Mentoring and paying it forward is huge, and I think we all need to find more time to do that more, in general, as women.
I think there are lots of people, especially women of color, who don’t have easy networking opportunities. As I get older in my career, I sometimes think I don’t have a lot to offer people, like, “Oh, I just do what I do!” But those skills and life experience can be valuable to other people. So, it’s important to find a way to pay it forward and pay it back.
And also, like Monica said, glass ceilings are being shattered, but there are a lot of places where they’re not, and/or the environment is not right or just flat out wrong. The more willing we are to call those things out, the better. Fortunately, I haven’t been in a situation like that, but I know plenty of colleagues and friends who have been in this situation. And I think, “What is going on? We’re in 2021! That shouldn’t be happening.” We have to hold each other accountable, and empower people to know that talking about these things is good.
Susan: As women, we should probably be talking about this obligation that we share to help others, who don’t have these opportunities. Especially women of color. I’m going to say something that opens up a can of worms when I bring it up with my friends, but it’s the truth. My opportunities in my career, have all been given to me by white males. They were all my mentors. On one hand, I’m incredibly grateful. And on the other hand, I’m a little sad that while I’ve worked alongside women who could have opened doors, it just didn’t occur to them or it wasn’t possible. So, there’s this mentorship value that I think we should be thinking about for other women and helping them get ahead, like you said Amy. Because not everyone has those easy connections and pathways to open doors.
Monica: I agree. I couldn’t agree more! I’ve been in the same situation as Susan. Every single opportunity came while reporting to someone who didn’t look like me. Susan and I also happen to be immigrants, and in addition to that, I work in technology, which is a profession with fewer women. So, I try to hire women who are just as qualified. I think it’s really important. This year I am mentoring a young woman student at UMBC. As Amy said, it’s like, “What can I teach someone?” It’s the basics – how to format your resume, do you have a LinkedIn profile?, it’s how to show up on time, what kind of picture you use to present yourself professionally, clarity of thought, how you express yourself. Also sharing my experiences, successes and failures alike, to demystify the path to success. If every single one of us, beyond the three of us here, did that, then a lot more women would have those opportunities.
Where and how do each of you give back to help and empower others?
Susan: I have always been very, very active in nonprofit and fundraising, and supporting key groups who are making a difference and I feel very passionate about. So in 2016, myself and three other people started a nonprofit: Latinos for Education. It does serve women, but it does have a broader audience too, as we’re trying to help raise the numbers of Latinos in leadership opportunities in education. I think earlier in my 20s and 30s, I was raising my hand for everything. As my husband calls it, it was my “militant phase.” I wanted to just drive an army through the world and change it! Later in life, I’ve realized that quality versus quantity is the way to go. Focus is really important. I’ve picked three causes in recent years that grow nearer and dearer to me, and Latinos for Education happens to be one of them. But generally speaking, I’d say my focus is more along the lines of leadership development and mentorship in causes that impact kids.
Monica: I was fortunate enough to be a part of a civic leadership program in 2018, through which I got to meet lots of great people, and one of them is one of the founders of Project Pneuma. Recently our Sylvan corporate team has been thinking about how we can help more kids locally, and I shared that I had a connection to the founder of Project Pnuema. So, I was able to go back and create a relationship where we will be helping a group of kids who are served through this nonprofit. I think that’s what leadership is about, being able to network with people when there are opportunities to be able to help.
Susan: And the impact is going to be that this group of young men in Baltimore, will get our services and hopefully that will set them up for success. And for leadership journeys of their own.
Monica: Mentoring young women in technology, who are studying computer science at UMBC, actually also happened through one of my colleagues at the leadership program, who works at UMBC. She introduced me to the CWIT program at UMBC and it’s been a such rewarding experience.
Amy: We always try to hire interns in the summer. In the Marketing Department, we’ve typically hired female interns. Part of that is because there are a lot of women in marketing majors and that’s the majority of the applications we get. But when we meet and interview people for the internships, I do think it also naturally steers toward young women because we want to give them that mentorship. And to pay it forward and to give them experience in a professional organization, so they can see if it’s something they do like at a younger age.
But where I want to do better is to be more diverse. We could always do more in that area.
What and/or who inspires you?
Amy: Michelle Obama, Kamala Harris and the poet laureate, Amanda Gorman. Watching the whole inauguration gave me hope. And seeing how many women are part of the “right now,” I felt really inspired. There’s something about Michelle Obama, where it feels like she could be your friend, yet she’s so powerful.
Susan: It’s hard to narrow it down, but these two names slip to the top: Dolores Huerta, who was the driving force beyond National Farmworkers Association. I think everyone associates that with Cesar Chavez, because the union needed a face, and it needed to be a male face. So Dolores basically stepped aside. But she was the smart person behind that. She’s so under celebrated! There are stories of her from school, for example, where she would write these papers, and her teachers would come back to her and say, “There’s no way you wrote that paper. It’s too articulate to have come from you. You need to resubmit, and I need to watch you write it.” Just the stuff she endured and how well she carried herself. That’s someone I really admire for what’s she’d been through and the adversity. And the fact that she did not get credit for her contributions for a huge accomplishment because that’s how it had to be, for the cause.
And Malala Yousafzai. She’s so young and so smart, fought for women’s education to the point where she almost got killed. She’s the youngest Nobel Prize laureate, it’s amazing. Where’d someone that young get that kind of courage?
For me, those two both have qualities I love: humility and courage.
Monica: Grace Hopper, who invented some of the early computer programming languages that were a precursor to COBOL, an early widely used programming language. And as the story goes, she is said to have been one of the first to use the term “bug” in relation to the computers. This happened in the 40s, so at the time, it happened to actually be real, live bugs. She was a brilliant woman.
The woman leader I appreciate the most lately is Angela Merkel, the Chancellor of Germany . There’s something about her as a leader that is really appealing to me. She is a highly intelligent, humble, honest and empathetic leader.
And then, Greta Thunberg – the climate activist from Sweden. She is remarkable in so many ways – having that much poise and knowledge and passion for any subject is inspiring to me.
“What a great time to be alive! We’re making progress. Girls, go conquer the world!” – Susan
All three women are so different and complement each other’s strengths. But shared amongst them is unwavering mutual respect and a willingness to work together.
When asked what each has learned from the other two, their responses confirmed that Sylvan’s leadership team is built on women supporting women.
Monica: What I appreciate the most about working with Amy and Susan is the trust we share – we may not agree on everything but I always know our views are rooted in a shared desire to do what’s best for Sylvan and the franchisee community.
I think Amy is a people-focused leader, so what I’ve learned from her is to think more carefully about how my decisions, actions and words impact our teams.
Susan is an eternal optimist and her special power is soft influence. Working with Susan gave me a greater appreciation of these qualities as a leader.
Susan: I admire and continue to learn from Monica and Amy. Monica is focused and determined when it comes to reaching a goal and does not let many things deter her. Amy is raising children and setting a great example of how to do it all, balancing a demanding career, remaining involved in the community, and being there for her family.
Amy: I’ve really learned that having a strong team makes all the difference. Monica and Susan are my colleagues, peers and friends. We trust each other. I learn from them every day. We all have our own strengths and I love that we can divide and conquer but also learn from each other on how to be better. It makes all of it worthwhile.