Passing the torch to the next generation of societal leaders

Silvia Steisel on Transforming Insights into Actions

How her Field Work "The 1000 First Days" paved her way to Harvard Kennedy School and beyond

In 2023, Silvia Steisel, 40u40 Alumna, began her studies at Harvard Kennedy School on Implementing Public Policy, with a focus on Family Policy. A topic she had the chance to explore during her one-year journey as a Fellow of Belgium’s 40 under 40. Together with other Fellows, they worked on “the 1000 First Days”, a reference to the 1000 first days after the birth of a child and the importance of supporting new parents in balancing parenthood and employment. As Silvia concludes her first year at Harvard, she emphasizes her new key learnings such as the importance of prioritizing understanding over quick solutions in tackling complex problems. As a next step, Silvia aims to apply these insights in Belgium within the frame of her role as the Managing Director of the Degroof Petercam Foundation.
40u40 Alumna Silvia Steisel

Can you tell us a bit about your background and how you developed a passion for public policy?

I am originally a historian, specialized in medieval history. After my studies, I went to Scotland to study art history and propaganda history. It was there that I discovered the importance of philanthropy in British culture while working in the world of artistic patronage. Upon my return to Belgium, I worked in classical music at Flagey and then joined the Degroof Petercam Foundation, where I am currently the Managing Director. When I reflect on my journey, I see that my common thread has been societal and cultural impact. By studying history, it is evident that history was made by people who had a vision for society and allowed people to project themselves into the society of tomorrow. Philanthropy is also part of this common thread. It is an extraordinary soft power that allows for action over the very long term, rather than the short term.

How did your journey lead you to develop an interest in public policy at Belgium’s 40 under 40?

At the Degroof Petercam Foundation, we mainly focus on employment, which is itself very transversal. Many of today’s issues are related to it: retirement, health, equal opportunities, and family life. Family life and employment are two themes that are very present in my Field Work at 40u40. It was important for me to work on these themes within the program because they are personal questions for many people: how to make family fulfilment and being young parents compatible with the world of work?

Ayoub Assabban, Bastien Van Wylick, Caroline Guyot, Mikael Wornoo, Sebastien Morvan, and I all cared deeply about that theme and formed a Field Work group. At the beginning of the Field Work, we did not have a specific outcome in mind. We came out of lockdowns and wanted to do something about young people’s mental health, which was very low at that time. By tracing back the causes and the source of this malaise, we came to the conclusion that it starts in early childhood. Therefore, we decided to work on the norms that support the new reality of two young working parents. Currently, the situation has many negative consequences on children, the potential lack of parental presence, and gender inequality between men and women. The latter often have to choose between a career and taking care of their children. The “1000 First Days” focus on early childhood by seeking what public policies could do to support young families.

Field Work group "The 1000 First Days" meeting with 40u40 Supporters

Can you tell us more about your program at Harvard Kennedy School, what are some of the key learnings you have gained so far?

I applied to Harvard Kennedy School (HKS) in ‘Implementing Public Policy,’ which is a reference for nonprofit organizations and civil servants with a focus on societal impact. In the program, each person must bring a theme or project, and I naturally decided to focus on public policies for young families.

I am closing my first year of the program in November 2023. Right now, I am in a course to learn a methodology called Problem-Driven Iterative Adaptation, a toolkit to address complex problems. One of the learnings that stuck with me was that you do not address a complex problem like you would address a simple problem. Simple problems have known solutions, tested in local contexts, often with the main hurdle being budget constraints. However, complex problems, such as poverty, employment, gender issues, involve multiple factors, effects, and contexts, making them resistant to conventional solutions. We try to address them like simple problems, which leads to nowhere. The crucial lesson is that we need a mindset shift where we emphasize understanding the problem before seeking solutions.

Understanding the context and root causes becomes paramount in dealing with complex problems. We need to let go of the need to find immediate solutions and concentrate on understanding the problem first; we need to find the root causes, what keeps the problem persisting. We need to understand the context to see what we need to change to then move the system and change the context towards solutions. This approach involves deconstructing the problem by engaging with others; complex issues require collaboration. At Harvard, we learned about active listening and how to mobilize people for a cause.

In summary, the key takeaways from my experience so far are to refrain from addressing a complex problem like a simple problem, to prioritize understanding over immediate solutions and to let go of the rush to find answers. These are also learnings that are very useful in the 40u40 Field Work: investing time in problem exploration instead of searching for quick solutions. We need to take time to deeply understand complex social issues before solving them.

Silvia Steisel at Harvard Kennedy School

What were some international approaches that stood out as particularly inspiring during your time at Harvard?

From working with a multicultural group in an international context, I came to the conclusion that the issues regarding family policy are more international than I initially thought. I gained insights from non-European countries, such as Brazil and the United Arab Emirates, where people are also affected by challenges such as the increasing unaffordability of parenthood or societal norms that pressure more women than men to stop working to raise their children. It made me realize that even though the context is different, the main questions about family are universal. When you start deconstructing a problem, you are left with issues that all people care about, you will find a common thread, no matter the context. Understanding what truly matters for everyone is a meaningful starting point to tackle complex issues.

The second insight I gained from working with people from all over the world revolves around the question of how we measure impact? How do you measure if a complex problem has been solved and whether or not public policies succeed in addressing issues? I learned that some countries are funded by institutions, and those also ask for concrete examples or results to see if their program works. They implement external authorities that address local players in policy making to find out if goals are reached. This aspect was very interesting to me, to see different methods to evaluate complex solutions and the positive contributions that external funders can bring to the table alongside financial support.

40u40 Alumni Emilie de Morteuil, Silvia Steisel, Amaury Timmermans

What are the next steps you would like to take after attending the program, did you learn any new key takeaways that inspired you for new effective policies?

The Harvard Kennedy School Program I am doing is spread out to be six years, but I will try to do it in three. The purpose of my project on parenthood is to make something real out of it that goes beyond the classroom. I thus proposed to the foundation I am leading to recycle these learnings to address the issue in the context of Belgium’s 2024 elections, and it was approved with a budget.

I want to explore how we can incubate solutions in Belgium, incorporating the insights from my time at Harvard into the Degroof Petercam Foundation. The focus is on creating an alliance of players in Belgium that care about the intersection of parenthood and employment, particularly through the lens of gender equality. Our challenges lie in giving parents a unified voice. Parents often feel like it is difficult for them to express themselves; they do not have a federation, a political party, they cannot go on the street and strike. One goal is to bring parents together and ensure everyone is heard. We thrive to deconstruct the complex problem, which is like a puzzle, made of small pieces like gender and employment issues, and we want to identify the smaller puzzle pieces by creating a unifying voice for the parents. It is an ambitious endeavor, but there is room to take risks, room for trial and error and a need to try fostering positive change in the landscape of parenthood and employment.

How might Belgium’s 40 under 40 make a meaningful impact on family policy or contribute to your project moving forward?

This project began with the proactive initiative of Belgium’s 40 under 40, where I joined forces with my peers to tackle the common challenge of balancing parenthood and employment. Now, looking ahead to the next steps, I want to invite the 40u40 Community to continue showing interest and care in the issues, and hopefully participate in the launch of new initiatives in 2024!


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