This month at #inspiredbywomen we sit down with Nina Cummins, accomplished telecoms regulatory lawyer who is truly passionate about all things tech and can discuss spectrum auctions for hours. Also dear colleague, friend and mentor. Currently working at Bahrain Telecommunications Regulatory Authority, but that’s only the beginning of her many adventures.
- Nina, you are now working at the Bahrain Telecommunications Regulatory Authority That’s far away from your home village, Dundrum, in Northern Ireland. Tell us what inspired you to look outside your immediate surroundings?
I always had an interest in international travel, and learning about new places and people. This is largely attributable to my parents, who were both very outward looking, thanks to their own personal experiences. They also put a lot of focus on good quality international-based education and encouraged my sister and I to explore opportunities beyond our immediate surroundings.
My mother comes from a small farming and fishing community but in her early twenties had travelled through her work, to the US on her own to take up a position in California. I like to think of her driving around in a fancy Cadillac! She returned home to bring that knowledge back to her community.
My father also comes from a small fishing village in Northern Ireland. He was originally a teacher but quite early on in his career, he spotted an opportunity to join the UK Merchant Navy as an engineer; at that time Northern Ireland was suffering economically and politically so for many it became necessary to look beyond for work. My father remained in the Merchant Navy for over 40 years, working himself up to Chief Engineer – which is the equivalent of the captain but for engineering side of the ship. That provided us with a great opportunity to travel. When he returned home, he would often put on evening slide shows in village hall – open to everyone – showing pictures of his travels. He was and remains very passionate about trying to open up horizons and showing people that there’s a great big world out there.
- What inspired you to pursue a legal career? What cases are you specializing in?
This was again thanks to my father! It is actually quite a story.
My mother, sister and I had joined my father on the ship over the Christmas period. There was a collision during the night with another ship. The next morning a gaggle of international lawyers had descended on our ship – each appointed by a different stakeholder (ship owner, agent, cargo owner, insurers etc). The common language was English but as each team was discussing among itself, I heard a variety of different languages: Dutch, Flemish, German, French.
I looked at this situation with my 11 year old eyes. And I said immediately to myself that’s what I want to be: an international lawyer…..and I have stuck firm ever since! Initially as an EU antitrust lawyer and then moveing into the telecoms regulatory space also.
I was always fortunate to have my parents’ unwavering support. This was the case right from when I chose to move outside Northern Ireland, to go to university in England and subsequently to study in Germany where I did my undergraduate and also my Masters degree in European competition law.
Again, later in life, my parents supported me in enabling me to go back to Germany to do my legal bar exams and become a Rechtsanwältin. I was married and working at the time, but due to the heavy study commitment required to pass the bar exams, I needed to take unpaid leave from work if I were to succeed. My parents supported me in moving to Germany – even though I left my husband in the UK – and loaned me the course fees to ensure I could go. I am very lucky to have that financial and emotional backing.
- Tell us more about your experiences in the corporate environment. You are a winner of multiple best legal professional awards and here just to name a few: (i) Regulatory Communications Lawyer of the Year – Women in Law – UK and 3 years in a row no less!, 2016, 2017, 2018; (ii) led your team to Regulatory Communications Law Firm of the Year UK (2017); (iii) Rising Star – Telecoms – Inaugural Edition of Euromoney PLC’s LMG (2015). You are also a frequent panel speaker on various antitrust and telco regulatory issues, most recently at International Institute of Communications Telecoms Media Forum in Washington DC (Dec 2018) where you spoke on 5G, and you’re speaking at the Capacity Middle East Conference on 6 March 2019 in Dubai, at the conference’s first Women in Telco panel.………was this all happening because you were in an environment that encouraged you to succeed? Or quite the opposite, you had to break many ceilings on your way to the top?
It was definitely a mixture of both!
I started my legal training in London back in the late nineties. Coming originally from N. Ireland was at that time not the normal demographic profile for a lawyer in the city. I remember in one interview the all-male partners interviewing me openly conferred in front of me as to whether they should give me a position – noting as a positive, that I didn’t sound ‘too regional’ so it was probably ok to put me in front of clients!
I was determined to prove them wrong and show them that not only did I have talent, but that being regional or different or however they wanted to call it, was actually a benefit. Clients are all very different and bring their own experiences to the table …..and especially today, (at least when I was in private practice) clients are placing real value on diversity in the teams being fielded.
Those that see this as a box ticking exercise do so at their peril…..it’s because clients genuinely want people that are like them!
But coming back to your question about whether corporations or law firms are natural man habitats….unfortunately, they are and we’re still a long way off getting the right mix of talent. To give an example, in the law firm where I was partner before coming to Bahrain, when I was made up to partner – which is in the last few years – I was the only female telco partner and in fact, the only female partner in the commercial team in the London office – which was the international HQ. When I left, we had another female data privacy partner. This isn’t to say that the existence of female lawyers in the workplace is in any way unique. For sure there is a lot of great female talent, but we lose them. Either because we don’t make it easy enough – or worse still – we create the impression that it’s not easy to progress as a woman, or simply don’t address it.
Being a female in a corporate environment – and in telco – can be challenging. The temptation can be to ‘fit in’. But I’ve been very passionate about embracing my authentic self and using that as a differentiating factor. Again, I’ve been fortunate to have some small but impactful tips from male colleagues over the years. As a trainee, one of our assessments was a video assessment, being given an object and having to talk about it for a few mins. Watching the video back I was very self-conscious – about my accent! The trainer told me that it was great I had an accent, as that makes me different and people immediately make more of an effort to listen. Many years later in life, when going for partnership, one of my male colleagues again told me to embrace my differences. The line-up was predominantly men – his comment was that I shouldn’t dress in black. My interview was at the end of the day. The panel would have been seeing a number of men, in black or navy worksuits all day. I should wear a bright colour! And it worked!
Now when I speak on a panel, I make a conscious effort to wear a bright colour – you’re all warned!
So coming back to how we can break the glass ceiling, or better still, remove the ceiling. We always hear folks say it’s not an easy win – yes, that’s right. But we need to be more ambitious about what we can achieve.
- How can we help each other succeed?
We often hear people say that women need to support each other, but what does it actually mean? It’s about small things e.g., ensuring all our women have a voice. In my daily work, I make a conscious effort to always ask in the meeting, if my team have any views. It’s about ensuring that they understand they have a voice; and ensuring that my male colleagues recognize that too!
Good habits should be passed on from those who have made an impact on us. Too often there is a tendency to pass on negative habits. One piece of advice I learned from one of my female mentors is simple but effective. I pass it on daily to my team. If you’re working on something for another department and team, step away from the temptation to hide behind email. Physically take the document to the relevant person yourself. Have a voice, be visible. And never mimic bad behavior – some women who have it difficult, then make it just as difficult for their successors. We cannot perpetuate bad behavior. But we also need to ensure that we promote ‘real’ talent – otherwise we devalue ourselves and do women a dis-service.
- What would you describe was a key moment in your career that catapulted you to the top?
I’m not sure about catapulting! It feels quite a long journey!
I’ve been blessed to work with a number of very talented women over the years. They have been very generous with their time and in passing on their experiences and lessons learned.
Already, as a trainee, I was fortunate to have the support and mentorship of an amazing Irish lady – a female partner who was Head of insolvency and restructuring. She was also head of the firm’s nascent German team. She recognized my passion, and talent for working with German clients and pushed me forward even though at that time I was on the bottom rung of the ladder. She involved me in lots of networking events and gave me responsibility for drafting business plans for the German group; she sent me on a secondment to establish the firm’s relationship with what would become our best friend law firm in Germany. She showed me that she had confidence in me, and importantly she showed others that too – even the partners and management of the firm we were partnering with.That particular German law firm needed an expert to work simultaneously on German and English documents for an international client bidding to purchase the former east German energy suppliers Veag, Laubag and Envia. The line-up for the client, and its technical experts, was all men. My firm sent me! I walked into the room and one of the client’s handed me some documents to photocopy. I immediately responded that I’d get one of the (male) students and admin assistants to help. But I’d be happy to walk through the legal sales and purchase agreement (SPA) with them!
Fast forward a number of years, and I had the opportunity of working with amazing – talented, bright, and impactful – ladies at Facebook and WhatsApp. Again, I was pushed to have a voice and be visible – and to bring my authentic person to work. At the same time, I was encouraged to be humble. I’m a great fan of Sheryl Sandberg and encourage my female colleagues to Lean In and Take A Seat At The Table. I find myself repeating these mantras to my own team of great ladies every day.
- You recently took a big leap and relocated with your husband to Bahrain. Can you share how this opportunity came about? What are you doing there?
A chance meeting! I was in Brussels with work and a client met some colleagues from TRA Bahrain at a telecoms masterclass conference. TRA were talking about all the exciting and challenging things they’re doing – splitting up their fixed telecoms incumbent into 2 separate legal entities, rewriting their Telecoms Law, updating competition law, introducing Data Privacy, launching 5G….and much more! They asked if my client knew anyone in this area that might help with the legal aspects. We were put in touch – initially I thought it was to act as external legal counsel – but that wasn’t the case. And within two weeks I had made a decision to move to Bahrain!
- How do you find your daily life in Bahrain? Do you feel restricted in any way by the customs you need to adhere in the country?
Everything is a little bit unpredictable – strategy and policy can change by the hour here! But I don’t see it as restrictive.While I am sensitive to local culture and adapting, I am still very much my own person and continue to lead an independent life. Naturally, there are cases of cultural clash. Let’s take a car hire example! My husband and I went to rent hire cars: 1 for me and 1 for my husband. We sat through a relatively long meeting with the guy from the hire car company who chose to only speak to my husband. And this was despite my husband pushing the legal agreement across the table for me to review. At the end, I interjected and pointed out that the hire company would need to take a copy of my driving licence also. Again he focused only on my husband. Finally, the guy remarked with some surprise to my husband: ”Sir, you want her to drive too?!!!”.
Bahrain is a small island with a small friendly community and that feels nice. I try to fit regular exercise in my routine and gym is in fact a very popular place for hang outs. We love eating out with our friends and there is a fantastic culture of a long Friday brunch. I also try to step out of my expat community and do things with locals – not too long time ago I took part in a night neon run. It was a lot of fun.
- How does a working life for women look like in Bahrain? Is there a difference between women from expat community and Bahraini citizens?
I’m very fortunate that Bahrain is one of the most progressive countries in the GCC region – this definitely made the move much easier. As regards differences between expat women and Bahraini women, I think the main difference is that many expat women don’t work but in fact followed their husbands’ work! It’s the opposite for me – I moved for work, and my husband followed me!
Bahraini women are very much part of the workforce. The majority of the legal team in TRA are Bahraini women! Most were educated in the British and international schools in Bahrain. Many studied overseas. And to dispel the myths – they all drive – and have very big personalities!
- Successful women often talk that there is a price to pay for having a career. Personal lives are often affected when their careers take off (be it relationships, but also friendships and family). Do you feel you missed out on some aspects of your life because you decided to pursue career opportunities?
To be sure – yes. Family – both having my own and spending more time with my family – these are the areas where I very much get a “D-“. Nature has dictated a number of day-to-day aspects of our life, but it does not have to define or restrict our destiny!
- Do you think starting a family ultimately slows down the career growth of women? Are you considering starting a family yourself one day?
It doesn’t necessarily slow it down – but it definitely does put it in a different lane. That’s not in a negative sense. I think many mothers will tell you that having children gives them a whole new perspective.
I have a male colleague back in the UK who heads up the competition team in the firm where I was a partner before coming to Bahrain. I’m pleased to say that the team is comprised mostly of great women. We talked often about how to ensure that as an organization we did not lose the fantastic talent that we had, due to the realities of having working mothers. He was a passionate supporter of enabling women to have flexible working. He used to say if you want something done well and efficiently, give it to a working mother!
Unfortunately, there are also women out there who do us sometimes more disservice than men do. We need to be careful whom we choose as our role models. Lots of successful women, who are also mothers, rarely want to talk about all the help they have to make it happen. For some they are supported by their husband who decides to stay home and care for the kids, and for others they are fortunate enough to live near parents who jump in and manage the child-care function. And for those super successful women, they can afford staff to care of the children full time! This isn’t to pre-judge these women or their choices. I applaud each one of them that can make it work. But the point is simply that we should be transparent about this and admit that it’s a challenge.
- What’s next for you Nina?
There is still a lot to conquer! I’m fascinated by the pace at which technology is evolving.
My goal is to find a way that I can combine this thirst for innovation, with my legal and policy skills and make a tangible difference in the communications sector. An international role with lots of travel is a must-have.
I love the strategic aspect of regulation and the challenge to find the proper mix of enabling new and innovative technologies to get to market (and watching these make a real difference to people’s lives) as against ensuring that the society in question has the right regulatory framework (for its own needs) to ensure this happens in a safe space.
I think it will be challenging in Europe over the next few years, and this excites me. There is so much legislation coming out of the EU institutions and there’s a great opportunity to influence that. Being on both sides of the fence, I see the importance of ensuring those regulating understand what they are regulating!
I saw a job add recently for a large tech company position in Mongolia…….My husband almost choked! Don’t worry….I think it was for engineering!