Filifotu Vaai-Tinitali just gave birth to her second daughter a few months ago, a few months later, she was appointed Country Manager of Blue Sky American Samoa. Two milestones within a matter of months. She’s young, barely past 30 (I mean, are you even 30?). If you pass her on the street, you will notice her, not just for her long frizzy hair that is unique to the descendants of the rugged Savaii volcanoes, but rather for her presence, that of great certainty and purpose, for one so young.
I can’t pin point the exact time or year I met her, for when you are from Savaii, you could have crossed paths as babies or simply while hauling a freshly baked basket of Sunday to’onai onto the shelves of the lady Samoas loading section as you return home for the weekend during high school. Ok, so maybe we didn’t cross paths in high school because she went to the RLS where apparently they ate food during lunch every day and I went to Samoa College, and stayed in the hostel where I starved for four years straight. No Joke.
But back to Fotu, I do however remember the first time I sat down at the same table with her, and that’s a few years after a few of us revived the Rotaract Club of Apia from a long inactive slumber. We were planning the first televised student quiz for Samoa, called Battle of the Minds, and Fotu overnight wrote the rules of the show, drafted contract agreement with sponsors and had envisioned all types of scenarios that could put RCA in a difficult position, and found ways to deal with it. The document would go on to protect our asses as the show proceeded and became quite a publically followed event every week.
Throughout the years I would see Fotus name pop up in various national telecommunication initiatives and programmes, and always admired how she was quietly but surely rising in the ranks of the telecommunication industry in the region. So when I saw on the front page of the Samoa Observer that she was just appointed the Country Manager of Blue Sky in American Samoa, I smiled just a little bit inside, well firstly I was not surprised that she had risen to the role because she is not only committed, intelligent but also hard working, but more than anything, I was impressed by the foresight and astuteness of the company to appoint an extremely capable and deserving young woman into this leadership role.
Whenever a young woman rises to leadership roles, I always want to pick their brain, because I know from experience that there are specific challenges that women go through as a result of raising a family while rising in their career of choice.
So I did what any curious person would do, asked and luckily Fotu answered. What really stood out about her reflections and answers was that woman or not, made no difference bad or good in her career. I like that, for we always say that women face challenges in the workplace, but in fact it’s not all workplaces, only some, as she duly notes. I did not want to mess with her answers so here’s the interview, verbatim!
Sefulu Ono Aso: What were your initial thoughts when you were offered the new role?
Filifotu Vaai-Tinitali: My first feeling was: Gratitude. I see it as a huge responsibility and I am humbled that I was chosen. A little nervous, but also extremely excited for the journey ahead.
Sefulu Ono Aso: What do you think the biggest challenges will be in running a company as a young woman?
Filifotu Vaai-Tinitali: The primary challenge for me as I see it is running the company well and delivering as a country manager to staff, customers, community, and various other stakeholders. Doing it as a young woman, I think the challenge is going to be dealing with people’s expectations. In the role, I will directly interact with many people and the public, some of whom find it surprising that I am a young woman. The challenge is going to be navigating people’s expectations and cutting through them to the heart of matters. The other challenge as a young woman, is maintaining work life balance having a young family, and ensuring I deliver on my (more important) role as a mother & wife.
Sefulu Ono Aso: What are you looking forward to the most?
Filifotu Vaai-Tinitali: I’m looking forward the most to working with my teams. One of my strengths is bringing teams together to achieve a common goal, and this role requires this of me on a whole new level. I’m fortunate that I am supported by a great team and CEO and I’m excited at what we’re going to be able to achieve together.
Sefulu Ono Aso: In your own personal experience career wise, even before you went into Bluesky, did you ever encounter situations where you were judged based on your age and gender?
Filifotu Vaai-Tinitali: I remember not long after I started at my first job, fresh out of university I was in a meeting where I and few other young colleagues were offering suggestions only to be told quite directly, “Sit down. You young people with your degrees you think you know everything. You better know your place.” It was an eye opener to say the least. I took it as a learning experience and chose to not let it discourage me, rather to learn more about the workplace culture so I could find other ways to achieve what I wanted, and to affect positive change within it.
Sefulu Ono Aso: There’s a general feeling that it’s hard for women to rise to leadership roles, but you are one of many who have proven, that even at a young age, you can rise to the top of your field, do you think there is merit to this notion?
Filifotu Vaai-Tinitali: This is an interesting question. I personally don’t believe that being a woman makes it more difficult for me or any other woman in Samoa or American Samoa to rise to Leadership. I think in general, some people have ideas (spoken and implied) that leadership in the workplace (and other places) is more a man’s role, but I believe that is changing, and to me they are just people’s ideas. Just because some people think it, it doesn’t make it true. The truth is, women can and do rise to leadership because they are leaders, not in spite of being women.
Sefulu Ono Aso: Can you list five key lessons you have learnt in your career, which has helped you advance?
- Surround yourself with good mentors that you believe in, who also believe in you. I’ve been fortunate to work with great personal and professional mentors who I respect and aspire to be like. Listening and learning from their advice and example has kept me encouraged and pushed me further than I could have ever gotten by myself.
- Be solutions focused. I think attitude is so important. When things get difficult at work, it’s too convenient and common for us to make excuses or lay blame, rather than looking past the difficulty and focusing on what can be done to turn things around. This is a mindset or an attitude that you can choose to adopt. The way you see a problem makes it a problem or an opportunity.
- Don’t dwell on your mistakes too long. I’ve made plenty of mistakes, and I’ve let some really get to me. I’ve learned that the funny thing about mistakes is that everybody makes them. Learn from them and then move on. Thinking too long about it allows fear and self doubt to fester and grow on your insides.
- Put good in, get good out. I’m a strong believer that you reap what you sow. What you put into anything is what you get out. Hard work will result in good rewards. This also goes for your relationships with coworkers, if you respect and trust others, it comes back around. Pray and practice gratitude.
- It’s okay to not know all the answers, nobody does. But always be willing to seek the answers (ask your coworkers or boss, research online or read books, reach out to someone you think might be able to help). We sometimes think if we don’t know something, that we aren’t as smart as other people who know the answers. But I think smart people are those that know their limitations and aren’t limited by them. They don’t know all the answers but they know how to seek them.
Sefulu Ono Aso: Lastly, amid your career successes you have had two children, what are some key reflections you have regarding being a young mother and still striving to succeed in the corporate world?
Filifotu Vaai-Tinitali: The most important job I have is being a mother. What greater responsibility is there? I do my best to keep the family first, to make time and just be present when I’m with them, but generally my life is pretty chaotic. Maintaining work life balance has been a tricky balancing act and I’ve definitely had to make some sacrifices (primarily being away from the kids) however, it’s only been with the love and support of my husband and family that I am able to pursue my career with the passion I have for it. I’m extremely lucky I have a great support system. My mother is also my greatest inspiration so I have a great example and advisor in her.
I think the reflection I always come back to is that as working mothers, it’s impossible to be all things, to all people, all the time. Today, I actually anticipate that I will be overwhelmed often, that not everything will go smoothly, and I won’t get it right all the time. And that’s okay. We’ll figure it out.
Congratulations once again Filifotu and here’s to wishing you all the best in your new role. Malo lava le tauivi. May Savaii chicks continue to rock the world in more ways than one.