Women in the COBCOE chamber network

Why are so many of the teams running chambers of commerce led by or comprised mainly of women? To mark International Women’s Day, Anne-Marie Martin, Chief Executive of COBCOE explores the phenomenon and shares the personal stories of some key women in the COBCOE chamber network. 

Anne-Marie Martin, COBCOE Chief ExecutivePaying tribute to the dominant female influence in the British chamber movement in our member network has been something I have wanted to do for some time. What better excuse than International Women’s Day to finally celebrate their invaluable contribution to the wellbeing and success of the chambers that they run and the success of the network that they are a part of.  

According to the United Nations, International Women’s Day which is celebrated in many countries around the world, is the one day when women are officially recognised for their achievements “without regard to divisions, whether national, ethnic, linguistic, cultural, economic or political.” Well, they certainly don’t come more culturally, nationally, linguistically, politically and professionally diverse then the group of incredible women I have the great pleasure to work with in the COBCOE chambers network. Please don’t misunderstand; my male colleagues are equally deserving, but it is the women I want to concentrate on today.

My involvement with the British chamber movement spans some 18 years, firstly as a founding Director and eventually CEO of one of the member chambers of COBCOE, then more actively in the COBCOE executive committee, and since 2012 as its Chief Executive. I have been wracking my brain to recall how many annual conferences and AGMs I have attended (there have been many) and each time I’m struck by the seemingly high level of female representation of the membership at this flagship annual get-together. I have often wondered why...  

So just how strongly are women represented in our network?  It’s a phenomenon I have wanted to explore for a long time and whilst I don’t profess to have carried out a rigorous piece of research, the figures do, I believe tell a story.  

So here are the key stats for our member chambers: 

·     Women running chambers in our membership – 57% 

·     Proportion of females in the support workforce – 80%  

·     Overall proportion of women in the workforce in our network – 70%

Interestingly though, the voluntary leadership of chambers, i.e. chairs/presidents of boards of chambers, is predominantly male and currently stands at a rate of 86%. I will not draw conclusions on this point – for now…

What is it about the business of chambers that is so clearly attractive to bright, dynamic, multi-talented professional women leaders? In a recent conversation with a male colleague, he suggested that perhaps it was the opportunity to organise events that often makes chambers so attractive to women leaders.

Now I am sure that the comment was not intended to be thoughtless, derogatory or flippant, because he will from his own experience appreciate the power of well organised, strategically considered, highly professional business events as a serious business development and networking tool. Such events position an organisation as a leading light in its domain, whereas we all know how a poorly conceived, badly delivered event can ruin reputations in seconds. He will also know that the skills base required to deliver successful events is paramount, and not everyone can boast the ability to be a ‘Jack of all trades’, much less a master of them.

The prerequisite multitasking abilities for successful event management include managing large numbers of moving parts, excellent organisation, quick and inspired problem solving abilities, people engagement at all levels, managing diverse teams, sales, marketing, communication, negotiation, sound financial and business management, to name just a few.  

As a network of chambers across Europe, our members have evolved into diverse, far-reaching organisations that are responding to the ever-growing demands and needs of the business communities that we serve. Renowned for punching above our weight, our annual awards have reflected this growing diversity for many years, celebrating the excellence in stakeholder engagement, events, international trade development, corporate responsibility, membership development and the newer world of digital transformation and communication. Perhaps this is why chambers are such attractive places to work, because they embrace change, flexibility, the ability to respond and transform on a daily basis. There are opportunities to shape, grow, develop and evolve, and to have a real stake in and ownership of what you create. 

British chambers foster an environment that is creative, warm, vibrant and innovative. They facilitate relationships and connections based on that very British ethos of fairness, and borne out by a sense of mutuality, camaraderie, respect, openness, trust, expertise and professionalism. 

A successful chamber is driven by people for people, and those attracted to driving the chamber often reflect those intrinsic values and aspirations. The people that run chambers are often themselves driven and passionate, with a deep-seated belief in what they, and therefore the chamber, is trying to achieve for its stakeholders.

In the words of one of my female colleagues, “there is always a story behind why we are”. I hope you enjoy the following personal stories that provide a snapshot into how some of our women leaders came to run chambers of commerce and why they’re still doing it!

Happy International Women’s Day to you all.  


A Western dream from Lithuania’s Soviet past

Sandra KundroteSandra Kundrote, Executive Director, British Chamber of Commerce in Lithuania 

In Soviet times, English language lessons were to me something very exotic – learning a language which you would never be able to use. It was also a very strong Western dream. So it was one of my favourite subjects.

A few years later, I entered the Lithuanian Music Academy (university level) and visited England during my first summer as an International Course Helper at CLAC (Cambridge Language and Activity Course in Surrey). With my accordion, I came to the London Royal Academy of Music (LRAM) in 2000 for an audition to take a postgraduate course with the only accordion professor at the academy, Owen Murray. I passed the exam and was accepted into the LRAM. However, prohibitively high fees saw an end to my Cinderella dreams.

In 2002, the British Chamber of Commerce in Lithuania was looking for someone to run the chamber. With some recommendations, I applied. Meeting the then chairman, I had to confess: “I am a musician, but I love England” and he said: “But we need a England-loving musician!” I later discovered he was a trained baritone. I was accepted and my career in the chamber began…

Through the years, I have found the British Chamber of Commerce in Lithuania to be such a unique organisation, where none of the days are the same, and none of the operations are the same. It’s a place where you can develop a great deal of knowledge in most of the professional areas – leadership, strategic planning, events management, people management, marketing, communications, sales, international trade and much more.

To me, it’s also a great way to grow personally and to keep on loving my country, because quite often, we are the first people to be met by the new or potential British businesses in the market and, therefore, we are like ambassadors. You always have to feel positive and see only positives around you to be able to express the best of what the market can offer for the British businesses, investors and everybody we meet in our daily job.

We are always at the heart of things, and therefore quite often see a much wider picture involving so many areas, which is just great!  I can’t imagine a more interesting job to provide you with such a great variety of things for your personal and leadership development.

Britain was, and will remain, my passion, with all its strengths and with all its weaknesses for the reasons described above.


The British Chamber of Commerce in Lithuania was named COBCOE Chamber of the Year in 2013.

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At the cultural crossroads in France

Catherine Le Youanc, Franco-British ChamberCatherine Le Yaouanc, General Manager, Franco-British Chamber of Commerce & Industry

I have now been at the Franco-British Chamber of Commerce and Industry for 24 years. I was recruited as an Administrative Assistant and being alone, I learned the ropes quickly, soon becoming General Manager.

My counterparts, who at the time were all men, quickly trusted me, and as a young woman, it was a pleasure to be in command of such an institution, and at the same time lead a business, participate in its development, have the pleasure of creating, exchanging, learning and helping enterprises. Most of all, I was lucky to work between two countries and two cultures that are so different, yet so close – especially since, at the time, the chamber was in great financial difficulties and everything had to be created and re-created.

Naturally, your counterparts change, and as an organisation becomes more professional, the administrators and presidents change, just as relationships do. I often asked myself if I shouldn’t find another job. However, every time the pleasure of working at the crossroads of two cultures in the business world is renewed, where one is constantly learning and which corresponds to the expectations I had and the objectives I had set myself as a student. This is what leads you to stay on and continue the work undertaken.

I have sometimes been discriminated because of my age. Once I was meeting a company and one of the men told me that based on my age, I couldn’t possibly be the contact they were due to meet.  I still hear myself telling him there was no one else around and that the meeting could only go ahead with me in the room!

The reason why I love this job and have stayed so long is because every day I know I will have new cultural challenges to take on, that I will meet new people with whom I will have interesting experiences, and that I will be able to grow by creating new products and work with a multicultural, dynamic and enthusiastic team.


The Franco-British Chamber won the COBCOE award for Excellence in Digital Communications in 2015 and Excellence in Events Management in 2016.

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A passion for perfection and the buzz of businesses growth in Romania

Agata Stefan, British Romanian ChamberAgata Stefan, Executive Director – Membership, British Romanian Chamber of Commerce

Eleven years ago I decided to take a major step and make a 180-degree change in my professional life. I didn’t know much about what activity meant in a chamber of commerce, apart from the glamour of events, high profile participants, meeting new people and things like that.

All of these are true, but the foundation for them all is simple as this: passion, passion, passion for what you do, and (it goes without saying) a lot of (hard) work! It’s like a fantastic, splendid show on ice – nobody knows, and only few suspect, the number of hours spent in making things look flawless, shining under strong lights, with happy and contented participants.

The fact that it is possible to help businesses grow is truly amazing – by helping people get in touch with each other, by offering suggestions for working together, by making things happen when you help them find partners, distributors or IT solution providers. All these made me feel that I was part of something; part of something important, part of a family, an important member whose role is acknowledged and, more than that, appreciated.

When an event, an important meeting, other big project are over, when the lights turn out and people leave the ‘scene’, happy and pleased that things turned out so well, there are just three little words that make me happy and make me feel that all the effort was worth it: “thank you, Agata.”


The British Romanian Chamber of Commerce was named COBCOE Chamber of the Year in 2009, and won the COBCOE Award for Corporate Social Responsibility in 2014.

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Making things happen in Hungary

Csilla Csurgai, British Chamber of Commerce in HungaryCsilla Csurgai, Executive Director, British Chamber of Commerce in Hungary

I joined the team of the British Chamber of Commerce in Hungary in May 2006 as Event and Services Manager, and became Executive Director from 2009 onwards.

When I took on this role, I stepped outside my comfort zone. It was a significant decision for me. I think I was quite ambitious, so this was – and still is – an exciting challenge, and I’m delighted with the changes and the achievements throughout the years.

Our chamber is built on people; those I work with (luckily I have an excellent team, an inspiring Chairman and a supportive Council), and those we do business with.

Over the years, my experience has shown that the more you are actively and practically engaged, the more successful you will feel. I witness developments in so many areas of our activities, this is exactly what keeps me here and still motivates/inspires me.

The BCCH doesn't make ‘products’; it makes things happen in our network in the city’s business community, across the country – and Europe!

In the near future, I’d like to see more knowledge-based business, more ideas and innovation coming from our members, and more co-operation with creative partners. I believe that we are experienced and well-connected bridge-builders, and therefore well positioned to support this trend.

Both on a professional and personal level, I think that balance, quality and flexibility are my ‘mantras’. Being a female leader, a wife and a mother can be challenging sometimes, but what's important for me is to share and discuss challenges and come up with solutions.

…and honestly, I just enjoy the journey and it’s fun.


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Promoting trade reaps many rewards in Sweden

Christina Liljestrom, British Chamber of Commerce in SwedenChristina Liljestrom, Secretary General, British-Swedish Chamber of Commerce.

I have been working in ‘the chamber world’ for 12 years. After three years working for the official publication of the World Economic Forum, I was recruited to the Swedish Chamber of Commerce for the UK in London, where I worked for eight years; three years as Communications Manager and then five years as  Managing Director. After having lived, studied and worked in London for 12 years, I moved back to Sweden to work in Private Banking – and to focus also on raising my family.

Running a chamber of commerce is, for me, really a way of life. Being dedicated to promoting trade between two countries through the members of the chamber is really rewarding in so many ways. I have always, from my 12 years in the ‘chamber world’, appreciated meeting all the people within the network. It always amazes me how broad the chamber networks really are, how much knowledge there is and how generous people always are in helping each other.

Looking back over my years within the chamber world, I am happy to have met so many amazing people – from all types of companies and positions, entrepreneurs, artists, politicians, ambassadors and royalty. One of the greatest experiences over the years must be organising the Centenary Celebrations for the Swedish Chamber of Commerce for the UK in 2016!

I really feel that despite small means, I have been able to achieve so much for the chamber, its members and, not least, for myself!


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Leading by example in Spain

Eva Prada, British Chamber of Commerce in SpainEva Prada, National Director, British Chamber of Commerce in Spain

I have been the National Director of the British Chamber of Commerce in Spain for four years now. After working for several years in British and Spanish government and private corporations, I was offered the opportunity to go back to the world of British-Spanish bilateral institutions.

I was attracted by the opportunity to join a chamber at a time of change. We have doubled our human and economic resources, and a strategic three-year plan has been defined to ensure that the chamber continues to grow in resources and influence. The chamber has become the ‘go-to’ place and the independent leading voice for issues relating to UK-Spain trade and Investment, as well as an advocacy platform for our members in one of the most critical political moments at the heart of Brexit negotiations.

The British Ambassador to Spain, Simon Manley CMG, has said that we are the Embassy´s number one partner in Spain, leading by example in terms of the way in which British chambers can work in close collaboration with the British Government, whilst still maintaining independence.


The British Chamber of Commerce in Spain won the COBCOE Award for Excellence in Trade Development in 2016.

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COBCOE Awards 2017

If you’d like to meet our network and find out which chambers win the Chamber of the Year and Excellence Awards this year, you’re welcome to join us at the COBCOE Awards Dinner on 27 April in London. Find out more



Below: Chamber teams from across Europe at the COBCOE Training Academy 2016  Read more 

Training Academy 2016




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