Chelsie Kumar is the second winner of our AXA Great Global Adventure, a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to travel around the world while exploring life at AXA, meeting its people and taking part in a voluntary project. A 22-year-old student and entrepreneur, Chelsie reports to us from New York City, at the beginning of her adventure.
I confess. I’m a self-diagnosed travel addict.
Coming from the relatively small and laid-back city of Brisbane, I admit I’ve always been eager to stretch my legs and explore the world. Being from a family who on both sides immigrated to Australia (from Scotland and India) moving overseas was always a dream for me. In fact, as early as primary school I had aspirations to travel, study abroad and eventually live overseas. I also knew it would take a lot of hard work and dedication to get there.
So when I first spotted the call to enter the Great Global Adventure it seemed too good to be true; a year of work and travel around the world, a chance to learn and develop professionally, gain new skills and be able to share my experience in return. It was the chance of a lifetime and I knew I had to go for it.
While I was nervous about how much I would have to take on; completing my dual degrees, managing my travel website business and embarking on the Great Global Adventure at the same time – I was also eager to take up the challenge and knew it would be an experience that would push my career further.
It didn’t feel real at first. There I was, at my family home in Brisbane with my mum and two younger brothers, after spending a year studying abroad in London, when I got the video call from the team in Paris. After that, it took a few days for me to come to terms with the fact that only four weeks later I’d be leaving Australia again but this time for over a year.
Little did I know that only two months into my trip, my life would already be changed forever.
Feeling at home abroad.
If you’d told me a few months ago I’d be working for a finance or insurance company, I may have been more than a little surprised. At university, I’m studying a Bachelor of Laws (Honours) and a Bachelor of Media & Communications, so I hadn’t necessarily envisaged being a part of the finance sector.
My very first stop on the Great Global Adventure was AXA HQ Paris where I discovered a surprisingly entrepreneurial culture. There is the mind-set that if you have an idea you can justify and are willing to work hard for, it has the potential to be accepted, nurtured and applied at all levels of the organisation.
I witnessed this enterprising spirit first-hand throughout the company; from the willingness to explore new ways of working, such as the flexi-work systems which allow people to work from home, to digital innovation such as the ‘Working@AXA’ app in the US which helps early careers and graduates transition into the company with a personalised guide to their first days at work.
As an entrepreneur, I fit right in.
I’m used to thinking, and working, for myself as an online entrepreneur. I began my travel site, Suitcase and I, initially as a hobby. But although travelling started as a passion, it’s taken a lot of dedication and sacrifice to be able to achieve what I wanted. It hasn’t been easy, and I’ve had to make difficult decisions along the way. So with all the research, careful budgeting and planning I had to do to enable me to travel solo, I wanted to share my experiences in the hope that others would find it useful and empowering.
Turns out many people did - especially female travellers - as I’m open and honest about my experiences, including tips on how to travel solo, smart and safe. The interest grew, eventually attracting the attention of several sponsors, which in turn helped me to budget better and travel more often. It’s been a long journey, but worth it. Especially as it’s made me more aware of solo female travellers and the empowerment that comes from having a support network that has your back. Which is exactly what I also found at AXA.
A focus on empowering women.
It’s not just talk. When it comes to female professional development, I’ve found that for people across the organisation it’s not just about inclusion as a strategy, it’s all about empowering women daily, at all levels.
For example, I recently met with Marine De Boucaud, Chief Human Resources Officer at AXA US (and member of the Executive Committee) who had just attended the Women’s Conference in Paris. We discussed how everyone works hard to translate larger, strategic ideas about empowering women in the workforce into actionable work plans. I learnt how participants of the conference take the ideas they discussed back to their home countries and offices. They host their own events to quickly apply the lessons learned to their own culture, environment and workforce. From one large conference come a myriad of smaller ones that lead to clear, practical change. And it happens every year.
One of the many initiatives I encountered, and one of the most personally effective, was Women’s Outreach at Work (WOW), an AXA US Employee Resource Group that focuses specifically on female professional development.
As part of WOW, I attended a mentoring circle. It’s a kind of networking event where you get the opportunity to talk to and build relationships with other female colleagues in the company that might be at different levels of management or from different departments than you. The ideas shared and the connections made at this event really enhanced my experience, and I know the things I learned and contacts I made will stay with me for years to come as I move forward in my career.
During my time at AXA US I was lucky enough to interview a different female leader each week from either the executive committee or upper management. These women inspired and encouraged me to learn more about the industry, leadership and my role in all of it.
Just this week I chatted with Christine Nigro, Vice Chairman of AXA Advisors who gave me a rather unique piece of advice that I really treasure. Rather than professionally-centric advice she gave a more personal reflection. She said to make sure to do what is right for you at all stages of your career. If you have a gut feeling that something is not right for you anymore, even if that means letting go of a project or opportunity, you have to find the courage to act on it. She also encouraged me to keep thinking about how to use my entrepreneurial drive and skills to lead my own projects. I found her reflections to be incredibly insightful and a testament to her participation in the podcast series Fierce Feminine Leadership.
Changing places changes you.
Throughout these six weeks, I got to speak to many different people from many different business areas across AXA US. I’ve explored the New York, New Jersey and Charlotte offices and I’ve been involved in conversations and interviews, as well as internal projects assisting with photography, video, editing and production. I’ve even had the opportunity to introduce tools such as Facebook Live to the company (used in interviews with Executive Committee members such as Mark Pearson, CEO of AXA US). All of these projects made me realise that while I am still eager to complete my law degree so that I am qualified to practice, over the next few years I’d really love to pursue media and journalism further.
As I stare out the window of my 54th Street apartment I realise this is my last week here. Soon I’ll be changing continents once again, ready for my next challenge. But I’m leaving a piece of my heart in this large city that never sleeps, and I feel I may be back, perhaps in a few years (and maybe, for a few years).
My next destination is Africa, where I hope to take in the landscapes, cultures and native wildlife, as well as visit offices in cities where AXA has a presence, to learn more about the company, the world and myself.