I GREW up in Weinfelden, a Swiss village near Germany. We lived on a hillside, and I could hear cowbells and a neighbor’s alphorn. I walked to school and returned home for lunch. It was an idyllic, protected life, reminiscent of “The Sound of Music.”
My parents owned horses. When I was about 13, they suggested that I try voltige, or acrobatics on horses. I’d take an hour’s train ride for instruction. My team won the Swiss championship several times, and when I was 16 I represented Switzerland in the European competition. Then I tore a knee ligament, which ended my riding.
I didn’t know what I wanted to do after high school, so I was an au pair in London for a year. After that, I worked as an assistant for the financial firm Brown Brothers Harriman in Zurich and as an export credit specialist for a dental manufacturer. At night I took management courses.
My stepdad saw a newspaper want ad that offered world travel for a college graduate who was at least 25. I didn’t qualify, but I applied anyway and got the job, as an account underwriter at the reinsurance company Swiss Re. I found out that the hiring manager had had a stack of résumés on his balcony. A bird flew over and left a dropping on mine, which is how I got the interview and was hired.
I stayed at Swiss Re for 10 years, worked in Switzerland and Australia and rose to rating agency coordinator. During much of my tenure at the company, I studied at night. I eventually completed an M.B.A. and became a naturalized Australian citizen while working in Australia. Afterward, I became a chartered financial analyst.
I wanted to apply what I had learned and to be more entrepreneurial, so when a group of executives starting a bank contacted me about joining them as a founding partner, I was interested. In 2000, I helped start that bank, NZB Neue Zürcher Bank in Zurich, with 12 men.
In 2002, I was a financial analyst covering Zurich Insurance for the bank when a Zurich executive asked me about joining its investor relations and rating agency management group. I took the job and eventually led the group.
In 2006, while I was on maternity leave with my second child, the head of Zurich North America Commercial offered me the job of chief financial officer in the Zurich North America Specialties in New York. I accepted.
Within a year, my boss moved to a global role and said he’d like me to step in as president. I was not the obvious candidate. I was 38, relatively new to the United States, and seven months pregnant with my third child.
In Switzerland, I had returned to work after each of my first two children was born, which is unusual there. I felt an undertone of criticism, and some female friends even asked why I had children if I wanted to work, especially as an executive. But I liked working and believed I could do both. I was promoted to president of North America Specialties in 2007.
In 2010, the XL Group offered me the job of chief executive of its property and casualty group in North America. Initially, I was lukewarm because the business was smaller than the one I was running, but the C.E.O. of XL, Mike McGavick, convinced me to take the job. He gave me the freedom to bring change as I saw fit, and in three years I’ve doubled its size and returned it to profitability.
In 2009, I was appointed to the Young Global Leaders group of the World Economic Forum. An executive I met there, now a friend, is leading a project to help women in Congo build businesses and reduce infant mortality. While we’re at the start of the project, I text briefly with him almost every day. It’s fulfilling to be able to make a difference.
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