Despina seems restrained and rather muted, but behind that exterior, is a charismatic, determined, effective and compelling woman. We first met at a conference in Paphos, and I was immediately drawn to her warm and friendly personality. She has achieved what few others have in the shipping industry, but remains modest and unconceited.
How and why did you decide to become part of the maritime industry?
Growing up shipping was part of my life. My father is a Captain, who stopped sailing when I was born but remained in the shipping industry until he retired. Most of our family friends were involved in shipping and so, grew up thinking of it as any other industry. I realised much later, how many people are completely unfamiliar with it. Although I was initially hesitant, but I soon realised that I was always inspired by the industry and have a passion for it.
Can you tell us about your role as MD in the Tototheo Group?
Tototheo Group is a group of companies that specialises in the fields of maritime satellite and radio communication, automation and navigation systems. We also have an engineering company that focuses on ship repairs, spare parts and shipyard representation. Our headquarters are in Cyprus with offices in Dubai, Singapore and Greece.
My role as Joint Managing Director comes with various responsibilities including developing and executing the corporate strategy as well as overseeing financial and commercial matters. We are operating in a dynamic industry which provides new business opportunities for the future, therefore my aim is to work towards sustaining and growing our brand while maintaining excellent service levels.
As 90% of the world’s trade is carried by sea, there are so many job opportunities, and yet it seems to be very male dominated…has this changed at all in the last 10 years worldwide and how does Cyprus fare?
Shipping has historically been a male dominated field but that tradition is slowly changing. Many women are not only working in the industry but are moving up the ranks. It is certainly not easy and it’s true that women do not have the same opportunities as men, due to the fact that many shore positions require sea-going experience. However, things are changing and women in Cyprus constantly prove that they are professional, efficient and worthy of the positions they hold.
The first female captain, Captain Anna Schetinina was appointed in 1935 – how many more are there now and more particularly, in Cyprus?
Women seafarers represent less than two per cent of the global seafaring labour force. 94% of them are employed on cruise ships and ferries. Only 7% of women seafarers are officers and most women work as ratings service staff on passenger ships. However women seafarers’ role has gained attention, especially to address the global shortage of seafarers.
In 2011, you founded WISTA Cyprus – what led to this and how has the organisation developed?
WISTA International was founded 42 years ago and within a few years, took its form as an association supporting women in management positions in the maritime industry, and grew from strength to strength. Today WISTA is present in 35 countries and has over 2500 members worldwide. Cyprus is a country with a strong shipping industry and I believed it was the right time to establish a local WISTA. Women in the industry needed a common platform where they could network and exchange ideas and experiences. WISTA’s primary goal is business networking and the facilitation of exchanging contacts and information nationally as well as globally, and for that reason WISTA Cyprus quickly developed. We organise various events throughout the year, either updates on industry matters, educational events or social. While we are a women’s association we do not support discriminatory policies and for this reason, do not exclude men from our membership or from our events.
You’ve achieved great successes in your career and have not hit those proverbial ‘glass ceilings’ so often reached in middle management – what do you attribute these to?
Any success I may have had, I attribute to my ability to be disciplined and stay focused on my goals and ambitions. I am also not afraid to take risks and am competitive by nature. In shipping you have to be, as it is not an industry for the faint-hearted. Having said that, I believe that the more you succeed as a professional, the more you need to stay humble and keep your feet firmly on the ground.
What do you believe still needs to be done in this industry to further encourage woman’s participation?
The Maritime sector offers many options and opportunities. In the past, due to its reputation as a male dominated sector, young women did not see it as an obvious career choice. Things are changing though because of growing awareness. Organizations like the International Maritime Organization and the World Maritime University launch projects on the development of strategies to attract women to the industry and particularly in leadership roles. Associations like WISTA promote role-models for women aspiring for a career in the industry. In Cyprus, local universities include maritime studies in their curriculum thereby promoting the industry not only to women, but to young people in general. Women can have rewarding careers in shipping but it’s something that the industry needs to encourage and support.
Is there a lot of rivalry between women within the business?
There is competition among professionals but I believe that women do support each other once they realise that intentions are genuine.
Much of your time is spent travelling – how do you balance this with a home life? How important is it to have support from a spouse?
I travel extensively and give priority to whatever is most important. My husband also travels a lot so we are lucky that we understand each other’s obligations and responsibilities. Whenever possible, I travel with our young son who is young and doesn’t need to be at school yet. My parents are also very helpful – the most important for mothers who are career women, is to know that her child is safe and happy when she is away.
What is it about your job that you love most?
Each day is different and challenging which keeps me interested. I also love the global interaction with people, visiting different countries and learning about other cultures.
What are the greatest challenges?
Undoubtedly the long work-hours which became a greater challenge with motherhood. It comes with the territory so I just deal with it and don’t think about it too much.
How do you balance still continuing and furthering your studies? Why do you feel this to be important?
It’s another challenge but not impossible. I believe in continuous education and not becoming complacent with what you know and what you have achieved. I enjoy the interaction with my “classmates” who are all executives in their own fields, and I learn a lot from them too.
What about the ‘private’ Despina? How do you relax and take time out?
Time is so limited that I spend it with my son and family. I enjoy going out to dinner with my husband and our friends and also try to go on short breaks abroad as often as I can.
Interviewed by Saskia Constantinou