“I was discouraged from studying math and engineering and I’m glad I didn’t listen to my school counselor!” Leslie Hielema, President of Orlando, Inc. said with a laugh. “I am thankful that I was stubborn enough to follow my inner voice.”
As Hielema reflected further on her “non-traditional” background, it is clear she created her own career path based on her interests. “I didn’t know any engineers and didn’t know anyone who understood my personal journey so I really didn’t have any mentors.” Instead, she says, “I did read a lot about other women who provided me with inspiration to pursue my own path.”
Following Her Interests … to Europe
Having earned a Bachelors degree (and a pilot’s license) from the Florida Institute of Technology, Leslie quickly impressed her AT&T supervisors and was nominated to participate in the company’s Leadership Development Program. By participating in this accelerated leadership program, Leslie was regularly moved throughout the company so she could learn and experience all aspects of the organization. While working at AT&T, Leslie earned a Masters of Science degree in Electrical Engineering from University of Michigan. “ It was hard and challenging to compete with bright minds from around the world. There were very few women and only a few Americans in my program. It was a tough experience, but it made me believe that if I could accomplish this, I could do anything,” she said.
With a strong desire to live overseas one day, Leslie pursued a position in Europe with AT&T.” My manager told me that it was a mistake to veer off of my current career path and move to Europe. But I knew I would regret it my whole life if I didn’t go,” Leslie explained.
Leslie did move to Europe to work as Director of New Product Development for Europe, Middle East and Africa. While in Europe, she also earned a Masters of Science in Management with an International focus from Boston University. “Living in Europe gave me new insights into my own beliefs about people and the way the world worked. It challenged me to expand my understanding of cultural values, societal norms, religious beliefs, and ideas about family and community.
I learned as I went- the language and the culture. I stumbled upon an opportunity to start my own company in Siena, Italy with local Italian artisans and musicians. I was enamored with Italian culture and just want to dive in and live it, so I did. I later moved to Aix-en-Provence in France with my 2 year old daughter and it was like living in heaven on earth – the natural beauty, the food, lovely people, the way of life, the simplicity and quality of daily life. I would not mind moving back one day!” she said.
After returning to the U.S., Leslie managed software development programs for the Navy Seals. She held a top secret security clearance and worked on technology that provided the war fighter with decision support tools to use on the battlefield. Leslie found it to be a “true honor to work with our military.”
Leslie encourages young women to be “intelligently oblivious” to roadblocks. Be aware that there are obstacles, but boldly move forward without letting them change your desire.”
Leading Orlando, Inc. and Supporting Entrepreneurs
Orlando, Inc. has earned a “Five-Star Chamber” rating, the highest level of achievement awarded by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, and focuses on “connecting entrepreneurs to success.” When she became President of Orlando, Inc. in 2008, Leslie was the first female president of this chamber in its 100 year history.
“I’ve always had an interest in entrepreneurship,” she said, and credits her education, experience in new product development and time abroad with making her a successful chamber president. Her experience starting and growing companies, developing technology, operating in a global marketplace all contribute to cultivating a rich environment for entrepreneurial ventures in Central Florida.
In her role, Leslie sees firsthand the challenges male and female entrepreneurs face. However, she notes “there is something holding women back from accessing the same capital, to winning the same recognition. Is it confidence? Is it not being connected to the entrepreneurial ecosystem? I’m not sure, but I see this happening and think perhaps this research could benefit female entrepreneurs.”
She encourages females to “develop thick skin, continually find ways to build your self confidence and recognize networking as a valuable tool. Developing strong personal relationships with your peers is key. Put yourself out there and be bold. Be transparent and genuine. Be comfortable telling your story. If you look for people that will push your thinking, you will find those breakthrough ideas.”
Leslie Hielema is the President of Orlando, Inc. (Orlando Regional Chamber of Commerce). She is recognized as a top expert in entrepreneurship and business development. She also developed curricula in entrepreneurship and e-commerce for Valparaiso University, where she has served as a visiting professor.