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Sneha Shah: What we do as an organization for Africa will impact the world

Sneha Shah

October 20 2016

 “As leaders, each of us need to take a stand and make our intentions clear to empower women and men in the workplace, which then enables talent in all forms to step up and shine.”

How do you create and grab opportunities? Working across multiple continents, with over 15 years experience in several global leadership roles across the Financial and Media business units within Thomson Reuters, Sneha Shah, Managing Director for the Thomson Reuters Africa business talks to us candidly about creating opportunities and the essential role leaders play. [6 minute read]

Thomson Reuters Sustainability: Could you tell us a bit about your journey and your role?

Sneha Shah: Born in Kenya and having worked in many African countries, I am particularly passionate about initiatives that help empower Africa’s success. Through my roles, I have initiated partnerships with leading international market development, media, and training providers; led regional and global mentoring programs; and worked in close collaboration with public and private sector organizations in each country.

I joined Thomson Reuters in 2001 in New York and held several global leadership roles across the financial and media business units in operations, product development, and technology. I then moved back to South Africa to lead the Africa Financial and Risk business in 2013 and subsequently, was appointed Managing Director across all of our Africa businesses in 2015. Prior to joining Thomson Reuters, I was a commodities trader for Cargill in South Africa and traded money markets and foreign exchange at CFC Bank in Kenya. 

TRS: How does your current work contribute to global sustainability?

SS: If you look at the global issues raised in the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), Africa touches every single one of them. Africa is the youngest continent in terms of demographics, with over 40% of the population under the age of 14, who will make up over half of the world’s working population by 2050.

What we do as an organization for Africa will impact the world. We can reduce poverty, end global inequality – all of the social impacts that are outlined in the SDGs. We can do so much by just empowering Africa.

As an organization, our focus on the continent is to boost prosperity and increase growth and profit, to make sure we are contributing to the economic growth of the continent. If we apply the assets and products we have as a company to the region, we can help transform and empower future generations and citizens. I am grateful to be in Africa at such a key time – and in a role that can help solve many of the challenges the continent faces.

TRS: Why does empowering women help make the planet more sustainable? And is economic empowerment the most crucial aspect?

SS: It’s easy and quite dangerous to generalize. However, it’s been proven by organizations such as Women’s World Banking that money they give to women goes back into the community – for example, women have a higher repayment record of financial loans than men. Therefore, empowering women within these communities can build sustainable communities.

I also do think it is the right thing to do, because women make up half the population of the world.

If you are missing out on half the population, you really aren’t empowering at scale. We need to ensure that men and women are equal partners in the success of our societies.

Economic empowerment is important, but there are many areas where you have to empower women. We cannot focus only on giving women jobs or helping them start businesses – factors such as education and support structures also need to come into play. Is the environment around them conducive to them working?

In South Africa, for instance, research shows that the ambition of women and the ability to go to work is very high, yet the number of women CEOs is still very low, which raises the question around what the barriers are – what’s preventing them from reaching that level, when they have the drive and ability?

By addressing all the factors holding women back from full participation, we can accelerate the empowerment of economies and societies.

TRS: What is the potential for your economic sector to contribute to global sustainability and why?

SS: There is tremendous potential. We are a global information company with data, trusted insights and intelligent information to make markets more transparent, to help governments raise revenue and to help address major issues like land rights, modern slavery, third party risk and more.

We are entering the Fourth Industrial Revolution, an interesting period with an emphasis on automation and systems. A company like ours can play a significant role in this new era in helping emerging economies leapfrog to knowledge economies. We are present in over 100 communities where we’ve had an active role for over 100 years. We truly understand the communities in which we operate and can work together to develop them, driving economic growth and sustainability at the same time.

TRS: How can men in particular lead on the empowerment of women?

SS: I will go back to purpose – if we all want to be equal partners in the journey to success, men need to lead on empowering women and all of us need to lead on the empowerment of younger generations of boys and girls.

Policies in the workplace may have to change. For example, in an office where maternity leave is very short, we can either seek to improve the maternity leave policy or perhaps build a nursing room, so that women are able to better manage a quicker return to work.

Men and women will never be equal partners unless the structures and policies are put in place.

The goal for any successful business should not be only about having a strong women’s network or saying they have more women in senior roles – it is about attracting, hiring and retaining the best people for any job, through diversity and driving higher performance. If it is done well, this can deepen the talent pool and accelerate business results, as well as social impact.

TRS: What’s the most important thing our leaders can do to empower women?

SS: There has to be an explicit statement from leaders – I think many leaders shy away from this.

Sometimes the understanding may be that if we talk about empowering women then we leave men behind – and this should not be the case.

The statement has to be about empowering everybody within our societies, whether it’s gender, ethnic minorities, or the LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, or trans) community.

As leaders, each of us need to take a stand and make our intentions clear to empower women and men in the workplace, which then enables talent in all forms to step up and shine.

TRS: What would you tell future generations?

SS: In my opinion, I think we need to listen to our future leaders more.

I’m so amazed by young people I meet. For instance, I learn so much from attending conferences such as One Young World – about millennials who have grown up in a different world, a world with more connectivity and less filters and internal barriers we had growing up.

I would like to see them embrace this openness and push past the fear and insular-closed thinking that seems to be driving so much national focus in Europe and the US right now.

I would love to see young leaders be the change they want to see in the world and get involved in finding solutions to our most complex sustainability challenges.

TRS: What gives you hope?

SS: I am extremely hopeful because I live on a continent that embodies how amazing our world could be if we embrace openness, transformation, and diversity.

Working for Thomson Reuters, the Answer Company, I have also seen firsthand how Africa has gone from being viewed as the ‘Dark Continent’ to a dynamic set of markets and economies, where technology is driving social change we would not have imagined 10 to 15 years ago. And the youth who are driving this change with innovative solutions we never thought possible in our lifetime. So, Africa and the youth are great reasons to be hopeful!

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