Women in Water: Dr. Mirka Wilderer, De Nora Technologies

March 4, 2022

Dr. Mirka Wilderer is the CEO of De Nora Water Technologies.

About the author:

Bob Crossen is the senior managing editor for Water & Wastes Digest. Crossen can be reached at [email protected].

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Why Water?

Water is the universal connection; we all rely on water. Helping to preserve one of the world’s most precious resources – water – is the difference between having a “job” and following a “calling.” It provides purpose, allowing me to contribute to something that truly matters.

My family jokes that water is in our DNA  – we have “water running in our veins”. Both my parents are scientists in the field, and dinner conversations growing up were all about the latest research in water treatment. In 2003, my father was awarded the Stockholm Water Prize – one of the world’s most prestigious awards for water. 

My personal mission is to create value and generate sustainable benefits for the greater good of society. I love scaling access to opportunity and find that when we leverage diversity of thought with unity of purpose, we can create disruptive solutions in the water space.  

What about your current position excites you?

In 2023, De Nora will celebrate its 100th anniversary. While we have this impressive legacy to build on, the company has preserved its entrepreneurial mindset. To shape the next phase of our journey I initiated our SURGE strategy in 2019, putting De Nora on a mission of accelerated, focused, and entrepreneurial growth to become a global powerhouse for everything related to water treatment technologies, such as disinfection and filtration solutions. We are doubling our reach into more applications, industries, and geographies and serve modern-day customers with innovative, reliable, and smart solutions to meet their needs and pave the way for others embarking on their own ESG journeys. Pretty exciting, right? 

Of course, right at the start of the upward SURGE trajectory, COVID-19 came along. Honestly, this unanticipated unknown was intimidating at first. Ultimately, though, it accelerated the SURGE program! We leveraged the pandemic as an opportunity to unlock our full potential, tapping into the cognitive diversity across all levels of our organization and fostering joint problem solving. As a result, we have seen an incredible boost to innovation in all aspects of our business. Just last year, we successfully pivoted beyond our core business in water to surface disinfection, hosted our first “hackathon” that reached more than 1 million people, completed to two major acquisitions, and launched over 15 new product releases. The momentum is invigorating. In 2022, the team will continue to drive the SURGE strategy supercharging our customer focus towards our vision of becoming partner of choice and recognized thought leader in the water space globally.

What is your moonshot idea for solving what you consider to be the most important water industry problem today?

Water professionals are acutely aware of the potential impact of our work: 1.2 billion people across the world are living in areas of water scarcity and 2.8 billion people are affected by water scarcity at least one month of the year. The UN estimates that by 2025, two-thirds of the world’s population will be living under water-stressed conditions and one out of nine people worldwide use drinking water from unsafe sources. More than 80% of the world’s wastewater flows back into the environment without being treated. Water pollutions cause globally more than 1.5 million death per year and continue to sicken more than 1 billion people annually. With these staggering statistics, setting sustainability targets has become en vogue. But in the water business, sustainability is what we’ve always done. 

But to address these daunting challenges for the benefit of future generations, we need a boost of innovation in all aspects of the water business. It’s time for a shake up and a wake up in our conservative, historically risk-averse industry. We need to harness our potential to improve the way we address these issues and serve our markets – especially with regards to digital technologies that can provide enhanced value to modern-day customers. 

Customers want quality products that meet their needs and demand while making operations as simple as possible. Digital integration is a theme that’s taking off and will become even more prevalent in the years to come – not only digital integration in product design, but throughout an organization’s business model and the way they serve customers.

 At De Nora, for example we launched DE NORA VIA™ - a visual assistance platform that allows us to be there for our customers in a new way, virtually looking over their shoulders to troubleshoot their equipment remotely. This increases our response time to help address customer equipment challenges, while reducing cost related to service tech travel while also maintaining the safest possible work environment. With technology enhancements like this, we are excited to offer our customers new and convenient ways of doing business. This is how De Nora is shaping the new normal in water.

What role has mentorship played in your career to date?

I have been fortunate to have several mentors over the course of my career – some through formal programs such as the Bavarian Elite Academy, the Generation CEO network in Germany and the Young Presidents Organization (YPO), others emerging from my professional network. Each in their own way has helped me look at work obstacles as opportunities and provided me insight on how to accomplish the necessary steps and confidence to continue moving forward. 

With a strong passion for advancing women in leadership and a personal appreciation for the power of mentorship, I have become an active mentor for young female professionals over the years. I proactively mentor female talent identified by the organizations that nurtured my own success and I’ve encouraged and mentored women aspiring to careers in the water space through a partnership with the startup accelerator, Imagine H2O. I encourage all my mentees to stay true to their own path and dreams despite the inevitable challenges, hurdles, and barriers. In each of these relationships, I value the deep trust created and take inspiration from the next generation of impressive leaders in the making.

In addition to these student-teacher relationships, I believe peer-to-peer mentoring is a unique opportunity to identify blind spots, gain clarity about vision and dreams, have a sounding board to stay true to one’s own path, serve each other, and strive to provide a greater benefit to society. There is the powerful saying, “Surround yourself with people who have dreams, desire and ambition; they’ll help you push and realize your own.” I am grateful that I have had the opportunity to surround myself with truly inspiring peers who have done just that.

What piece of media (books, TV shows, movies, games, podcasts, etc.) has had the greatest impact on you in the past 12 months? 

I strongly embrace and deploy a strength-based leadership approach. Tools such as the Clifton StrengthFinder and other personality assessment approaches help identify individual talents and strengths. I find that it’s much more fulfilling – and effective! – to engage my unique combination of skills and talents and maximize my strengths instead of striving to overcome my weaknesses to become mediocre at best.

One of the most influential books I have read this past year is Humanocracy by Gary Hamel and Michele Zanini. Building on my personal mission to create value and generate sustaible benefits for the great food of society by tapping into all available talents, this inspirational book offers practical tools and examples on how to build a humancentric organization that gives every employee the opportunity to thrive and harness their genius. At the Award Gala for the 2021 Most Admired CEOs hosted by the Philadelphia Business Journal, I was asked about the legacy I hope to leave as a CEO. For me, it’s all about creating an organization as amazing as the people inside. Thanks to the incredibly talented team at De Nora, we are well on our way!

What does it mean to you to be a woman who works in the water industry?

My career has been centered in a traditionally male dominated work environment. As one of the few female CEOs in the water industry that generally skews male I am “different” by definition. I have always viewed my unique female perspective as my superpower, never trying to become the best possible man in the room. Instead, I stay true to my authentic self and offer the best version of myself. Being “different” has allowed me to disrupt some of the more conventional approaches in the industry playbook.

However, looking at the water industry overall my observation is that we are still significantly lacking in all aspects of diversity and inclusion. I am proud that De Nora is a global water technology company – along with Veolia, and Suez – that feature women in CEO roles. While it is encouraging to see powerhouse companies beginning to make room at the table for women, it’s imperative that we continue the progress. We must ask why this isn’t true in more companies. And while we are slowly making strides with women in leadership, we are even further behind the curve on other diversity and inclusion aspects such disability, ethnicity, and LGBTIQ+.

More important than ever, as the new business-as-unusual is a dynamic, unexpected, and ever-evolving environment, I have realized that I need to look for leadership and inspiration in unconventional places. Given the new and disruptive challenges experienced in all levels of the economy in the past couple of years we need to tap into the cognitive diversity across all levels of our organizations and foster dialogue, collaboration and joint problem solving that inspire break-through innovation and novel approaches to serving our customers.

I encourage all leaders – women and men - to tap into their available talent and create opportunities for all. The leadership mandate of our generation is to establish an empowered culture where all employees are compelled to contribute with “out of the box” thinking to generate “out of the box” solutions. And we absolutely need those in water!

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