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Interview with Stefanie Kirwald

Photo: Renée del Missier

"„Connecting people for a common purpose“ is what drives me"

Our alumna, Stefanie Kirwald (graduated 1999, CEMS - Marketing), works for myAbility Social Enterprise GmbH dealing with inclusion in the world of work. A social enterprise, they are based in Vienna but work across the entire GSA region and beyond, consulting with and supporting businesses and running the largest inclusive jobs platform in the German-speaking world,

A matter very close to her heart is to make their vision of an accessible environment with fair job opportunities for people with disabilities or chronic illnesses a reality. The harsh truth is that 15% of the population here in Germany tend to have fewer prospects and fewer chances for promotion on the job market. A potential workforce that is unfairly overlooked.
We talked with Stefanie Kirwald about challanges and chances, which inclusion can give, and how her life's journey connects to these topics. Furthermore she gives valuable tips for students.

From our countless conversations with company representatives, we know that the term "accessibility" is most often associated with wheelchair ramps.

Stefanie Kirwald

Stefanie, you are an advocate of an accessible society with equal opportunities. What are the challenges in terms of moving towards an inclusive company culture?

From our countless conversations with company representatives, we know that the term "accessibility" is most often associated with wheelchair ramps. Yet, around 70% of all disabilities or chronic illnesses are invisible. Some of them progress over the course of a person's life, both physically and mentally, and limited mobility is just one of many potential aspects. Every single day, we are urging people not to focus solely on the medical background of a person, but to look instead at a person and the wealth of experience they have, their education, their strengths and talents. Quite simply, do you really want to miss out on such valuable specialists for the sole reason that because of a single attribute of a person you don't believe in their capabilities, are reluctant to interact, or don't know how to design your workplace to be inclusive?

Installing a ramp or an accessible toilet should certainly be high up on your "To Do" list but shouldn't be a "reject" criterion for not actually employing people with disabilities or chronic illnesses in the first place.

Stefanie Kirwald

Installing a ramp or an accessible toilet should certainly be high up on your "To Do" list but shouldn't be a "reject" criterion for not actually employing people with disabilities or chronic illnesses in the first place. While one person might benefit from a height-adjustable desk, another might find it helpful to have a large screen that allows them to adjust the contrast and font size to suit them. Accessibility needs and the possibilities that go with it are as unique and diverse as we all are as human beings.

At myAbility, we represent the "social model of disability": a person HAS a disability or chronic illness and get snagged on BY their environment on a day-to-day basis. There is a video by Aktion Mensch that really sums it up nicely (see below for link). The circumstances outlined are what cause unnecessary barriers, which in turn disables people. Which is exactly where we find the key to a successful inclusive company culture. People with disabilities or chronic illnesses are the ones best placed to know what tasks and responsibilities they feel they can take on, and what they need in order to work productively. So we quite simply pay attention and listen to these people, and put aside our "mental pigeon-holes" and prejudices! There are inclusion service specialists who provide funding for adapting individual workplaces. This funding can even cover costs for building works and subsidies for expenses. From my many years of experience, I can assure readers that in the long run everyone benefits from inclusion in the workplace – business, society and, not least of all, people.

Photo: Stefan Joham

Inclusion still has a long way to go in many areas of society – in schools, in the housing sector, in employment. How can we implement inclusion successfully?

We need to start communicating and demonstrating an inclusive attitude everywhere from early childhood. Are we managing to see and recognise the talents of each individual and to give these talents an ideal space to blossom? Are we as a community ready to respect individual needs and to establish an environment where people can properly realise their potential and grow with as few barriers as possible in their daily lives and in their free time, at school and at work?

After all, we're all just people. Maybe we shy away from things we're not familiar with. Are worried about making mistakes. Which is completely fine as long as we are open and truly see one another. Only then no-one will worry about having to pretend or to hide out of fear of discrimination or rejection because of a disability or chronic illness. Accessibility and inclusion are an on-going process and any genuine step towards that is a valuable step in the right direction! Plenty of companies could already be saving on the costs of compensatory payments if their employees all had faith that they could discuss their medical backgrounds openly without having to fear negative impacts.

I am of course also familiar with these moments of reservation. But now I address my own uncertainty, even if it might be difficult for me to do. I ask people for feedback so that I have the opportunity to learn. Ultimately, they’re the expert when it comes to what they do! We should all be learning together to try and engage in personal conversation openly and with confidence. If we can manage that, it will open up a world of new impressions, solutions and unique skills.

But I realised that "connecting people for a common purpose" is what drives me, and I began to convey this more and more in my roles.

Stefanie Kirwald

What experiences have particularly impacted you, both personally and professionally?

Health challenges have shaped me enormously.

A good year before I left school, my mother became so ill that she required proper care. So during my final years at school and later at university I was a "young carer", meaning I didn't move out of my parents' house. Coming from Rhineland-Palatinate, I only managed to secure my place at the University of Cologne through a Disadvantaged Students application because of my mother, even though I had the right grades. As a result, I spent every day sitting on the train between Remagen and Cologne-South and did a certain amount of studying for exams in waiting rooms while my mother was undergoing treatment. What really impacted me was her ability to accept what she could not change. While at the same time working with immense strength and effort on those things which she could still have a positive influence over. At other times, I was enraged that some people wouldn't take her seriously, would talk with us as family members over her head, even push her out of the way because she was too slow for them when she was able to walk with a Zimmer frame again or was using her wheelchair for longer distances. I was speechless and really angry at this obvious discrimination. If that's what I was going through, how must she have felt? I didn't have an appropriate response to those situations at the time, but I do now.

I myself have known about my chronic Crohn's diagnosis since my early 30s. At first, I didn't have a clue how to deal with it, I didn't want to accept it. Thankfully, my colleagues at the time were really open after this diagnosis. We had known each other for years, they supported me and they never questioned my willingness or my ability to do my work.
Then, my mother died in September 2005, in the middle of our family preparations for a first expat residency period in the Netherlands. The next year and a half was extremely tough. I just wanted to arrive, get to know society, learn the language, and eventually get back into work. But immediately after I moved at the start of 2006, my health started to deteriorate so much that I wasn't sure I would ever have a normal family life again, let alone a career. I'd hardly been there, and I found myself spending months in a clinic. Eventually, I underwent an operation to have a part of my intestine removed. That operation was the turning point for me. I was on a good prescription of medications and after my stay in the clinic I slowly regained my strength. I had regular check-ups and have largely been in an extended period of remission since.

In hospital, I had plenty of time to think about my life and my priorities. When there's not much else left, you turn your gaze inwards. It was painful and confrontational but looking back it was one of the most precious periods of my life. It was during this time that I managed to accept my Crohn's as a part of myself. It's a valuable early warning system for me in terms of my overall well-being. Oh, and I've been a fluent Dutch speaker since then too!

At my first job after my crisis, however, when they asked me in the interview about the "gap on my CV" I still didn't feel confident enough to tell them that I had been very ill because I was worried about being "filtered out" and getting the stamp of rejection.

Stefanie Kirwald
Photo: Renée del Missier

What impact did these experiences have on your life afterwards, and how do you see your future?

As a result of the time I spent in the clinic, I became more aware of my talents and my passions and left the career path I had set off on.
My first years in work were initially spent with a manufacturer of consumer goods, followed by a marketing services agency for publishers of business directories until we relocated to the Netherlands. I wouldn't ever trade those first years, though, I learned so much about valuable marketing and sales tools from a variety of industries which I still draw on today.
But I realised that "connecting people for a common purpose" is what drives me, and I began to convey this more and more in my roles.

At my first job after my crisis, however, when they asked me in the interview about the "gap on my CV" I still didn't feel confident enough to tell them that I had been very ill because I was worried about being "filtered out" and getting the stamp of rejection. Besides, I wasn't obliged to mention this, and my Crohn's wouldn’t have prevented me from working as a Marketing Consultant for an urban development foundation. I had just passed my probation, when I had to go back into hospital. I had to have an operation to remove an abscess. Soon after, I came back to work with a vacuum pump attached to me that was helping to heal the wound. I wore it day and night for weeks, and it didn't interfere with my daily life or my work in any way, quite the opposite. But soon after the pump was gone, my employer decided prematurely not to extend my contract. I was so shaken by this that from that point on I swore to always be open about my medical history in interviews. This, combined with my awareness of my talent and my passion, has meant that since then I have always met people, companies and organisations who are first and foremost interested in me, my wealth of experience and my abilities, and who have given me the space I need for my health concerns without so much as batting an eyelid.

So, I first took up the position of Alumni Marketing Manager for the international network of engineers at TU Delft. This was about systematically connecting stakeholders from academia and industry for relevant innovations based on the latest technologies.
Later, I worked as Legacy Fundraising Consultant for a consultancy which I set up in Berlin together with a Dutch colleague. In this role, I advised NGOs on how to identify and get in touch with potential legacy donors, and how to build up trusting relationships with them. The conversations I had with my mother about the end of her life and about her "last will" were a valuable foundation for me here.
After that, my family and I – by this time my husband and I were parents to two small children – lived in England where I volunteered at a hospice.

We've been living in Vienna for six years now and have left behind the expat life. I have been working for myAbility for three and a half years and am currently focused on "Inclusion Network Development", predominantly in my home country of Germany. My life story, my professional tools, all the experiences I have gained from different countries around Europe and the many encounters I have had with wonderful people, these all influence my work today. Based on my experiences, I can have an impact "out there" on the issue of "inclusion in the world of work". Which is a real gift in my eyes!

I am part of the team running the myAbility Talent® Programme. We offer students, graduates and experienced academics across the German-speaking world the opportunity to benefit from free career coaching sessions and workshops, networking them in a number of different ways with companies which are pursuing an inclusion strategy. Companies that want to meet young talents and established specialists, while making a conscious effort to welcome people with disabilities or chronic illnesses. Often, our programme opens up genuine job prospects for participants, and it's always a moment for celebration any time we learn about one of these opportunities! We are opening applications for the Germany-wide programme, which will be held during the first quarter of 2023, in October 2022. Go and check it out and submit an application, we'd love to hear from you!

As a born and bred Rhinelander, I like to look at my future with an article from the "Rhineland Constitution" which reads "Et hätt noch emmer joot jejange!", or "It's all gone well so far!" You can plan your life and it will throw challenges at your feet. But come what may, life is what I make of it! And if I can walk this path with others and can clearly rely on the support of amazing people I trust, how wonderful is that?! I am immensely grateful to my family, friends, neighbours and colleagues for standing by me in times of crisis.

How do you stay up-to-date with the latest goings-on in your field? What sources would you recommend to our readers? And what does myAbility offer? 

There are so many interesting articles, success stories, events, blogs, podcasts or social media channels, sources of info and advice centres focusing on "inclusion in professional life". I can only offer a few here:

  • REHADAT: Project run by the Institut der deutschen Wirtschaft Köln e.V., with 14 portals, countless publications, apps and seminars. A central, independent source of information on participation in employment and inclusion of people with disabilities for those affected and anyone advocating for their participation in work.
  • JOBinklusive der Sozialhelden e.V.: Long-running project on inclusion in professional life. Offers articles and publications (Guidelines for an Inclusive World of Work), portraits of role models, extensive awareness-raising etc.
  • Einheitliche Ansprechstellen für Arbeitgeber EEA der Integrations- bzw. Inklusionsämter: Nationwide advice centres for companies wishing to employ people with severe disabilities.
  • Aktion Mensch: Opportunities for companies through inclusion – info, tips and contacts. Offers material for download and Best Practices on 10 good reasons to employ people with disabilities.
  • Ergänzende unabhängige Teilhabeberatung (EUTB®): These agencies support and advise people with disabilities, people at risk of disability, and their relatives free of charge and nationwide on issues of rehabilitation and participation, including in working life.
  • Sag‘ ich’s – Chronisch krank im Job: This website was developed with and for employees with health issues as part of a University of Cologne project headed up by Prof Mathilde Niehaus and Dr Jana Bauer. By using a self-assessment, it supports people to find a way to deal with their health situation in the workplace that suits them best.
  • myAbility Job-Plattform: Companies from all over the German-speaking world with an inclusion strategy that want to help create a barrier-free workplace can use it to recruit qualified professionals. And professionals looking for jobs can find positions with interesting companies and organisations that are open to discussion.

To what extent did "networking" play a role while you were still studying?

I've always been a real people person. I'm interested in what drives people and I've always brought people together to encourage dialogue. It was just that until my health crisis I didn't realise that this was what drove me, that it was a particular talent of mine.

I spent a good deal of time during my studies working with MTP e. V., for example, where I canvassed for and coordinated workshops and seminars for companies, and was involved in running a national AGM held in Cologne at the end of the 90s. I also worked as a student assistant in the CEMS Office following my CEMS semester abroad at the Erasmus Universiteit Rotterdam in the Netherlands. There, I was also organising events, advising applicants to the programme and also exchange students, and helping out on day trips. And on top of all of that, I'm the one who's been organising class reunions every five years since we left school.

My focus at the time was marketing and market research, commerce and distribution, and economic and social geography. The tools those first two subjects gave me were my springboard into the consumer goods industry.

Stefanie Kirwald

What are the most important skills and knowledge you gained from your studies with regards to your current work?

My focus at the time was marketing and market research, commerce and distribution, and economic and social geography. The tools those first two subjects gave me were my springboard into the consumer goods industry. My knowledge on "two sides of the same coin" from the producer and retailer perspective, in particular, I found to be immeasurably valuable.

And while there are much broader possibilities for communication these days than there were during my time at university, I can still use that foundation even today. For me, marketing always hinges on satisfying customer needs. That means that I know my customers well and that I offer them something that will properly address their needs because that's the only way to make what I'm offering relevant to them.

Complete this statement: "When I think back to my time at Cologne, I think about..."

Togetherness, great people, working hard together and laughing a lot!
Since I wasn't living in Cologne, I didn't have the "classic student experience". If there was a big event to organise or if I just wanted to go to one of the parties, I could always stay the night somewhere. We "put our noses to the grindstone" together, as it were, learning from one another, laughing till we cried, celebrating our successes. But also sharing worries, crying and grieving with one another. Thank you, “my bunch of people”, wherever you are, for your support during those years! Those who know me from back then know who I'm talking about. I'm thinking of you!

Diverse teams are a treasure trove, let's uncover this treasure together!

Stefanie Kirwald

What would you like to offer our students to help them on their way? What are you three top tips?

1) Really listen to yourself and find out what it is that drives you. The answer might be abstract but it will help you identify what your passions are and will open up the career that's right for you. Try not to force yourself into a role or function that doesn't suit you.

2) Be open and honest with others, especially if they come with a back story that you don't know about. We're all "unconsciously biased" on some level. But that's blocking us from seeing unique, human potential. Open yourself up, create an environment of trust. And trust yourself to admit to insecurities and to make mistakes because mistakes are how we learn!

3) Don't pity people with disabilities/chronic illnesses but don't glorify them either. Meet them at eye level in the knowledge that you are dealing with an expert in their field, with a unique wealth of experience, with expertise, with a serious amount of resilience and solution-mindedness. If we can manage that, then "inclusion in working life" will be seen as THE standard, and not a "goodwill". Diverse teams are a treasure trove, let's uncover this treasure together!

Thank you for talking to us!