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Chitra Stern: The balance of women in leadership is gradually changing

Off the back of International Women's Day, which took place on March 8 2022, Property Investor Today hears from Chitra Stern, co-founder and chief executive of Martinhal Group and Edu Hub Lisbon. Here, Stern talks about her venture into property and the importance of diversity in the industry. 

My husband and I are from different parts of the world, I am Singaporean and he is Swiss. Growing up, I had the huge fortune that my mother received a university education in science, and although my father came from a village where girls stopped education at 12 or 13, both my parents believed in education and ambition, which was the top priority in our family.

I came from a family that had four girls and two boys. My father made us dream that the sky was the limit. There was no stereotyping, we all went to university in England. It was the ultimate mindset for equality in and through education.


Ever since I left school I have always been in male-dominated environments. In my undergraduate degree in Electronic Engineering at the University of London, only 10% of the students were women. At PwC UK where I later studied and worked to qualify in chartered accountancy, there was not a single female partner and most of the graduate intake and managers were men. It was a similar story when I took my MBA – only 25% of us were women at the time.

Growing up, several world figures have inspired me and continue to do so. Mahatma Gandhi and Nelson Mandela – how many years they endured with resilience before they achieved their goals through non-violence? Indhira Gandhi – had to take over in a country that was and still is quite male-driven. German Chancellor Helmut Kohl opened up Germany economically to the East overnight.

What a woman Angela Merkel has been, 16 years at the helm! Kamala Harris – whose mother is from a village in Tamil Nadu village, the same as my mother, is inspiring as the first woman of colour to make it to the White House. Ursula Von Der Leyen’s leadership has steered the EU through perhaps one of its most challenging eras in recent history.

As I write, the brave reporters on the front line, mothers and families divided across borders, and Ukraine's ambassador to the UN, Oksana Markarova are capturing our hearts and inspiring generations to come. 

I get up every morning full of passion and enthusiasm for what I do. I find motivation everywhere, in my children, my family. I believe in global unity. The school I co-founded in Lisbon is called United Lisbon International School. As entrepreneurs, I believed we have a responsibility for doing good for society.

Both as an individual and with Martinhal and ULIS I continue to do a lot of pro-bono work and currently head up the Portuguese chapter of EO (Entrepreneurs’ Organisation), as well as being an invited professor at Nova School of Business and Economics. I believe through education, we need to continue to shine a light on the possibilities for all sexes, colours, and creeds and go beyond looking at gender or 'classification' as a barrier.

Looking at our offering, it’s important to expand your market reach and not become reliant on a single market or guest demographic. Companies need to ensure their customers are well represented and have a sense of immediate belonging. In our case, it’s ensuring we’re connecting with families from all over the world and representative of all family models, including LGBTQ parents, single parents, and multi-generational units.

In the wake of the pandemic, across all our projects (and among our workforce) we are beginning to look deeper into working with professional experts whose focus is burn-out to help our guest families and residents onsite.

Europe is still lagging behind the US in terms of women in board positions of listed companies. However, it is encouraging to see the strides that are being made by corporates on calling time on outmoded attitudes and meaningfully upping the ante in terms of representation.

Recently, I was very honoured to be one of three women in business in Portugal from diverse backgrounds on the cover of Forbes (PT) magazine. With many more women emerging as strong leaders, the balance in women leadership is gradually changing, for the better.

*Chitra Stern is the co-founder and chief executive of Martinhal Group and Edu Hub Lisbon


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