Felicitas Burgi – Head of Business and Sales Channels for Insurance – Switzerland
Felicitas was born in the US to a Swiss father and a German mother. They were in the country pursuing their higher education and met together at school. When they completed their degrees and had some work experience, the family knew they wanted to be in Europe. The family relocated back to Switzerland when Felícitas was just six months old, marking the beginning of a life filled with international adventures.
When Felicitas was five, her family, which now included a baby brother, moved to a small village within Switzerland, where Felícitas would go to public school. By the fourth grade, her parents determined she was not receiving adequate education and enrolled her in a private institution in the capital city of Bern.
Felicitas was not keen on the change. By her ninth-grade year, she was exhausted by the two-hour round-trip commute and the politics of private school. She took her education into her own hands. Felícitas put in a call to the headmaster at her village’s public high school and scheduled a meeting. As a local student, she was free to transfer, leaving the office with the application to formalize the process. And she did this all without her parent’s knowledge.
Upon arriving home, she presented her case: “I already filled everything out. You just need to sign here, please.” Her parents were perplexed but quickly came around. At her new high school, she fostered a passion for music and became a skilled clarinet player. She discovered her village’s wind ensemble and enrolled in their youth training program while receiving private lessons on the side. In Swiss high schools, it is common to major in and focuses on your studies. Therefore, leaving college work for the few who need more specific education in advanced careers. Felicitas was one of the few girls in her school who pursued math and physics as her high school major.
During her senior year of high school, Felícitas attended a regional music competition. She practiced with thorough dedication but was ultimately sabotaged by her nerves. This perceived failure came at an internal debate about whether she would pursue music as a career. Her result in the competition solidified this was not the path for her, as she understood the challenges and instability of becoming a professional instrumentalist and that it would most likely require her to work full-time as a music teacher to support her passion. Teaching, she already knew, was not for her.
Felícitas turned her focus toward a strategic plan for her collegiate future. She sought to take advantage of her US citizenship and use this as a means to receive an education while also experiencing a new country. She compiled a breakdown of colleges by state. She honed her search to the East Coast, an area she was most familiar with, having visited several times in her life, and for ease of travel back home.
If she liked the sound of the name of a school, she investigated further. If she knew the name, they were added to the list. “I applied to Harvard and Yale and Columbia just because I had heard of them. I had no concept of how easy or hard they were to get into or what I would have to do to make my chances better.”
As one might expect, she did not land admissions to any of these schools; her grades had suffered during the first years of high school, and she had regularly been placed on academic probation. She managed to turn them around during her senior year, but she’s unsure how to account for either end of her academic performance. Retrospectively, she attributes her strong quantitative reasoning scores on the SAT to opening the doors to a US collegiate career. Her English SAT score was above the 50th percentile, which she considered pretty good since most people taking it she assumed were native English speakers, and she was not.
The more ingenious part of her approach to the college admissions process was targeting women’s colleges, a non-entity in Switzerland historically. Plus, she needed a reprieve from the male-dominated classrooms she had found herself in while learning math and science. Attending a historically women’s college in the US was a justifiable reason to pass up the free university education she could receive back home. Beyond that reasoning, at the time, she didn’t consider the personal benefits of such a choice and the significance of the nature of such an institution.
She narrowed her search to schools offering reputable economics and Italian language programs. She understood the value of an economics degree for international career prospects and dreamt of visiting the Mediterranean peninsula. This criterion led her to Smith College, a small historically women’s college in Western Massachusetts.
The first semester at Smith was overwhelming, as she had never before lived in a predominantly English-speaking environment. A writing intensive course advanced her understanding of the language, and she found immediate joy in immersing herself in her Italian and economics studies.
Felícitas continued to look ahead. “Earning money and being independent, as such, was always important to me…in the sense that I’m not relying on other people to support me in life, but also I’m making a difference somehow.” For her, she was single-minded that the key to this path was through economics. She saw the value it held in the workforce, thus making it a reliable choice to widen future career opportunities.
A motivated Felícitas laid the stepping stones to independence by lining-up internships every summer of her collegiate years. And, in part, she was driven by fear: “I need to work. I need to get experience because if I don’t, then I’m never gonna get a job. Like that was really like in my head, like nobody will ever employ me.” As a rising sophomore, she landed a summer internship conducting economic research for a German consumer goods company.
There, she wrote a report on India’s accelerating economy and was fascinated by its dynamism. Felícitas was determined to travel there for the following summer’s internship. She found a global internship program online run by an Indian IT company. The company selected a
group of 100 students across three sectors of education: business, computer science, and liberal arts, to connect future industry leaders to their country’s market. As part of the liberal arts cohort, Felícitas and her peers managed the onboarding and implementation of the internship program itself.
Felícitas next fulfilled her Italian dreams by studying in Florence during her Junior Year Abroad. She was near fluent in the language upon her arrival and spent every weekend traveling, exploring every corner of the land. The Italian school year ended later than in the US, so she even permitted herself to forgo an internship that summer to take advantage of every remaining minute instead to soak in the culture, much of which included the food.
Felícitas graduated from Smith amidst the 2008 financial crisis, a nearly impossible time for most young professionals to find stable employment. She also longed to return to Europe, but a degree from Smith didn’t hold the same value as it did stateside. If she wanted to build a life in Europe, she determined she needed a graduate degree from an established European institution. Strategically, she selected a lengthier two-year program at Bocconi University in Milan, which allowed her to wait for the job market to settle productively. Grad school ended up being a very challenging time for Felicitas. While it was a very demanding program, it was made even more so by everything graded on a curve. You needed to be cutthroat with your peers while not over-extending yourself. It was wearing on Felicitas, and she was eager to get it over with.
The final semester of the program also consisted of a required internship. The work was so interesting; she even extended her role as an intern longer to just take advantage of the interesting growth and learning and postponed graduation. Here, she worked in the research and corporate development department studying megatrends and their impact on the insurance industry 20 to 30 years out. “The financial crisis was sort of driven by this shortsighted view. And now, I was in an environment where people cared about what will matter a long time from now and what do we need to do today to prepare for that farthest future? That just really resonated with me.”The internship eventually translated into a full-time placement upon graduation.
But the longer she stayed, the further she found herself from direct customer impact and core business functions. “I was technically working for an insurance company, but it could have been any company.” She reconnected with her mission to effect positive change and landed at the internal consulting unit of an insurance company in Switzerland. The company was in the midst of a major project merging their two customer service departments. Felícitas enjoyed the opportunity to shape the structure of its consumer experiences.
Six months into the job, her time there soured with developing a hostile work environment. A newly assigned project manager began scapegoating individuals to mask her incompetence. Felícitas became an inevitable target. The higher-ups denied her request to transfer projects, and after extended attempts to work through the distress, Felícitas reached her breaking point. She held on for one year, just long enough to qualify for a three-month notice period.
Felícitas’ supervisor was shocked at her decision, which was, to Felícitas’, a shocking response in itself, given the well-documented tensions. Fortuitously, the following day, a new hire in leadership was announced, who swiftly removed the antagonistic colleague as project manager. Felícitas approached him, offering her support during her remaining three months. They worked well together, and he formally hired her back as an Individual Contributor.
While Felícitas navigated the volatility of her full-time job, she was also pursuing a Ph.D. at The University of Sussex in England. The program recognized her credits from her master’s degree, so she strictly focused on research, which she was permitted to do remotely. She was intrigued by the economics of migration and sought to investigate the financial consequences of free movement among European Union member states, specifically analyzing how the separate pension schemes of each country had the potential to undermine the “free” aspect of the “free movement” policy pillar. Unfortunately for Felícitas, her goals and interests did not align with the department’s goals. With a nearly completed dissertation after three years, she abandoned her research. She was tired of the pushback, tired of justifying the value of her work. If she had stayed, she would have had to start anew to adapt to the desired angle of the department. It was not worth her time.
While frustrated, Felícitas was ultimately at peace walking away. A Ph.D. didn’t hold the same professional capital in Switzerland, and she pursued it mostly out of intellectual interest. Her focus returned to her career ambitions, and she was promoted to manager. With that, she took on a direct report for the first time and eventually grew her team. Together, they overhauled the operations processes, which included writing training manuals, running regular reports for quality control, and setting up proper communication tools among employees.
With the new stabilizing systems, Felícitas and her team could prioritize their existing consumer base. Felícitas personalized her approach to building customer loyalty, proposing the creation of a dedicated outbound team. Despite doubts surrounding the effectiveness of this plan, Felícitas proved the model to be a success and was allocated additional resources to implement it on a wider scale. For Felícitas, such a situation provides the most meaningful, real-life application of her education.
Being selected for a spot in the company’s talent program, Felicitas was encouraged to design her own stretch assignments. She chose to go to Brazil for three months, her first visit to South America. While being assured that the English would be sufficient to navigate the strategy-work she was assigned, she discovered quickly that English would take her only that far and focused on rapidly developing a working knowledge of Portuguese.
It seems only fitting that Felícitas found this program, as its tenets of personal and professional evolution are ones she has instinctively practiced her entire life, from steering her education since the 9th grade to commanding respect in the workplace and applying her fullest self to every interest. And along the way, she’s displayed extraordinary strategic and analytical foresight in carving her path while still serving her truest desires. “If I have set my mind to something, I’m gonna go for it…but it’s good to sort of have that learning as well – that there are different ways of doing great things.”
Oh, and along the way, she learned Chinese too. What an inspiration.