"Having a dialogue with the private sector, understanding the latest trends in emerging and disruptive technologies, is vital for NATO to keep its edge. We partner with industry to bring innovation, but also highlight different practices in building a culture that fosters it," Simakova said.
We caught up with Simakova in advance of International Women's Day 2021, which celebrates the important contributions women make to many fields, including technology.
What do you do?
The core mission of the Industry Relations team is to maintain this dialogue with the private sector to expand the NATO-industry ecosystem. We run industry initiatives that are of a non-competitive character to support the NCI Agency's and NATO's strategic goals and objectives. This also means organizing the Agency's flagship events and supporting leadership when they engage NATO stakeholders.
I'm very interested in expanding our cooperative effort to continue to open NATO up to small and medium-sized enterprises and start-ups. Because, of course, there is a huge potential in this partnership with private sector, when it comes to innovation, but also the niche capabilities, skills and agility of the smaller companies.
One of the initiatives I have been deeply involved in is the Defence Innovation Challenge, teaming up the Service Strategy team at the Agency. Last year, it was quite successful in its revamped pilot phase. We tested adding a procurement stage after the usual innovation pitch session for the companies. Currently we have three companies that have a small contract with NATO thanks to this effort.
What drew you to apply for a position in NATO?
Before joining NATO, I worked in academia. I gained experience at the College of Europe as a researcher, and I worked a lot actually on EU-NATO relations, as well as gender equality in foreign policy. Combined with my international security background, I also did substantial research in the European security field. Then after one year, I thought it was time to come back to a sort of hands-on experience to really be able to test all of these theories in practice.
I applied for the Young Professionals Programme and that's how I joined the Office of NATO Secretary General's Special Representative for Women, Peace and Security. The main idea here for me was really to have this concrete experience. I think the Programme was an excellent opportunity to have the policy exposure and develop an interesting career path that contributes to NATO's mission.
How do you choose to challenge gender biases and inequalities?
As a volunteer, I have co-organized staff discussions at NATO, for example. They were thought-provoking occasions where we brought industry and EU speakers to discuss with NATO staff subjects like the ethical dimension of emerging and disruptive technologies, or how to build a culture of innovation. And that's definitely crucial. We need to have these perspectives integrated more and more.
Staff dialogue and engagement is something we pursued in parallel with more structural work. We built an Action Plan for the Agency and formed a dedicated network of gender, diversity and inclusion focal points.
But for me it's not just at the Agency level, but outside as well, so I do a lot of volunteering. One of the main approaches is to empower others through mentoring, be it mentoring an individual, group or an organization, in different parts of the world. For example, I'm joining a fellowship programme in support of young international affairs professionals from India. I will be mentoring them to help them a little bit in their careers. I am also advising a small start-up incubator in my free time.
Over the last three years, I have been responsible for an international non-profit organization, the Alumni Association of the Colleges of Europe, where my entry point was really to start a dedicated programme of work on gender equality. As President and CEO of the non-profit organization – it's a community of 15,000 international affairs professionals across the globe – I used every opportunity to promote an empathy and compassion-focused mindset. We even have a small professional network at NATO.
So there's a huge spectrum of things each and every one can do. One of the key messages I'd like to convey is the importance of mentoring and sponsoring, and supporting your colleagues. It's a little thing you can do, but it can have a huge impact on others' lives and on the organization.
How was an Action Plan created?
At NATO, there are two dedicated overarching policies: one is on diversity and inclusion and the other covers the women, peace and security agenda. All NATO bodies, entities and structures must implement these two policies, including the Agency.
I joined a colleague who started the effort. We took the actions that were applicable to the Agency and created an implementation matrix that also reflected the Agency's specific environment, which is characteristic of a technology organization. Many of the Agency staff members have contributed valuable insights. As a result of this collaborative effort, we now have this first Action Plan for the Agency to embed gender perspectives, diversity and inclusion into our culture and organization.