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Work with a far-reaching legacy

Brita discovered a love of teaching later in life.
Brita discovered a love of teaching later in life. / SUR
  • Brita Hetkoen, Professor of Managing People in Organizations

The money she made that winter, delivering the local newspaper by bicycle at 4am in the streets of Lillehammer (a town of 25,000 inhabitants in Norway) enabled her to take her first trip abroad. She was 13 years old, but already learning about far-off lands from the books she adored to read. “At the public library they asked me to advise other children on what to read,” she says. Reading (especially historical novels) is still a passion and she regrets that she has apparently not been able to pass it on to her own children.

“The trip was to the USA, with my uncle. We were there for six weeks and I always knew I would go back,” she says of her first globetrotting experience, which years later would lead her to do her Baccalaureate in a village in Michigan.

It is not uncommon for Norwegians to gain experience through occasional work abroad, but is still quite rare in Spain. That was one of the first north-south differences she noticed. Her children have just moved from their comfort zone in Seville to a Norwegian university, which makes them an exception.

“In life you are what you have done, and you can't wear medals you haven't earned,” says this businesswoman who always wanted to be independent and who believes success should be achieved on one's own merits and not related to family name or background.

Although she has spent more than half her life training executives, firstly in a management role and for the past ten years “teaching and learning from” students, when she was younger she had never envisaged this as a career. In fact, she toyed with the idea of being an opera singer, veterinary surgeon or architect:

“When I was young I never thought about teaching. I haven't taken a straightforward path and I have walked it slowly. I always saw myself working in managing people, within non-profitmaking organisations, dedicated to international cooperation, although I knew I would like work which would have a far-reaching legacy.”

Her first job was in tourism, spending a year and a half selling packages for incentive trips to Germany, with two colleagues. “It was fun, but I didn't feel that tourism was a very serious sector in my country,” she says.

She also worked as the protocol coordinator for the 1992 Olympic Paralympics, heading a team of 100 people.

Brita went on to take a Masters' degree in business management, and then studied for two years at the IESE business school in Barcelona, although she spent eight months travelling in different Asian countries, first.

Colombia

While studying for her Masters, Brita spent a year working on a development project about entrepreneurship in Cali, Colombia. This was in the 1990s. “The FARC, the drug cartels... I didn't think about the dangers at the time,” she says.

In her second year in Barcelona she met the man who would become her husband, a naval engineer who was born in El Puerto de Santa María. Their relationship proved more important than an offer of work for the UN in Geneva. Brita and Joaquín were able to get to know Catalonia better thanks to Oriol Pujol, the oldest son of the well-known former Catalan president, Jordi. She describes Oriol, who is currently in prison, as “a nice person, and full of restless energy.”

“He had a real entrepreneurial spirit. He always used to tell us that Catalonia couldn't ignore the existence of hundreds of foreign students without considering the fact that one day they might return,” she says. “He used to organise excursions by bus for everyone.”

After finishing her Masters, she was quite clear about what she didn't want. “I didn't want to work for a company. I didn't want my job to be about selling more detergent or increasing the size of the orange juice market, not that I'm criticising that type of work; many people find it satisfying, but it just wasn't for me,” she explains.

Brita became an executive director at the IESE Barcelona after spending six years at EADA, “a very Catalan business school at which I was a real rarity because I was the only foreigner, but I was happy.”

She made the move to the Seville school San Telmo in 2002, by which time she had begun to develop a love of teaching rather than management. “Coming from a school with 440 pupils from 60 countries and a major international focus, to another with 40 from Seville and the nearby area, I would have been bored [as a director] within five months,” she says.

In 2011 she took her PhD at the University of Seville, training in human behaviour in organisations and planning academic programmes, including case preparation and management techniques. Her thesis was about the impact of the presence of women directors on the results of companies.

She has been professor of Managing People in Organisations at San Telmo since 2007 and last year, in April, became the chair of 'Women, Business and Society'. The chair was something that took a long time to materialise.

“San Telmo is a benchmark business school in Andalucía, and 10,000 managers have studied there, the vast majority of them men. It cannot be on the margin of major social debates and one of those is the role of women,” she says, explaining the idea.

Brita says that companies “are asking for a forum for debate and analysis about the role of women in real companies, and a line of research and diffusion. The chair is not an association of women who get together to cry. It is a place of debate for men and women who seek a vision which is as wide as possible, and who want their reflections to reach the whole of society.”