Global Justice Now reveals that around 78.5% (157 of 200) of the biggest economic entities worldwide are big business corporations. Larger than most governments and bigger than the majority of economies. Big businesses can and do make a big impact on nations, societies, and the world. There are good and bad actors in every sector. Some are stuck, and some are willing to transform and change. Today, we are joined by Sneha Shah to discuss why and how big business can be a powerful force for good. In her chat with host Anne Pratt, Sneha shares her multicultural identity and professional career in global finance, with global responsibility for revenue, profit, and loss, delivering strong financial results and sustainable impact. In her fast world of finance in the London Stock Exchange Group, Thompson Reuters, and others, and serving on UN and WEF initiatives, she shares how to fight corruption, hold businesses accountable, and transform organizations while delivering to multiple stakeholders. Tune in now to learn more about Learn about how Sneha Shah combines purpose, people, the planet, and profits.
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Big Business Makes Big Impact with Sneha Shah
Good Actors and Bad Actors – The Difference They Can Make
A bold leader joins us from the great state of New Jersey in the Northeastern part of the United States of America. She is a multicultural woman who has lived and worked on three continents, including Africa, Europe, and North America. She has held various positions with global responsibility for revenue and profit and loss. She is the former Managing Director and Group Head of the Business Accelerator for the London Stock Exchange Group, scaling high-impact businesses in the financial services sector. She is also the former Managing Director for Refinitiv Global Risk Management Services and former Managing Director for Africa for Thomson Reuters, a multinational financial media conglomerate.
She’s a formidable woman who combines purpose and global finance. She has helped stem and fight illicit financial flows. She has digitized land rights. She has developed financial and capital markets to empower women and youth. She has also served on various board and industry associations, including the African Leadership Foundation, and worked with the United Nations and the World Economic Forum on various initiatives to fight corruption and uphold global corporate governance. We warmly welcome Sneha Shah. Welcome to the show.
It’s such a joy to have you as part of this conversation. You’re a woman of the world. You’ve traveled the world. You’ve lived and worked in different parts of the world. I want to begin with your name. Tell me the origin. What does it mean?
It’s such a pleasure to be here. My name is Sneha. It means full of love in Gujarati. I am of Indian origin but grew up in Nairobi, Kenya, and have had more of an African identity than probably an Indian identity for much of my life. My name is representative of the Indian part of my heritage.
Could you share with us a story in your young life that was transformational? Take us back in time. What happened? How did you feel? How did you navigate out of that?
Growing up in Kenya, I mentioned that I grew up as an Indian in Africa. I never felt a sense of belonging when I was growing up in Kenya, primarily because I felt the sense of guilt of being part of a culture in Kenya that was better off because of historical reasons than most of the population in Kenya. I always felt, “Am I part of this country?” I would get questioned even by some of my Kenyan friends to say, “You’re not Kenyan. You’re Indian.” I always felt like I didn’t quite belong in Kenya, although I wanted to. I desperately wanted to belong in Kenya. It was all I knew. I never went to India until when I was doing my wedding shopping.
I felt this sense of straddling two cultures, and I don’t know which one I belong to. I went to a British school. My identity was even further complicated because, at the time, there was a sense that you needed to go overseas to school to achieve anything in your life. I thought, “I’m going to go to the UK for school. I’ll maybe learn how I fit in over there.” I got to a university in the UK and still didn’t feel a sense of identity or belonging.
Where in the UK did you go to school?
It’s Warwick University in Coventry in the UK. It was a wonderful university and an incredible experience. I met lots of people from around the world. That was truly enlightening and eye-opening for me and an amazing experience. I still didn’t feel like I belonged in the UK. When I finished university, I returned to Kenya reluctantly because I couldn’t get a job or a visa to stay in the UK. I also came back reluctantly because I didn’t feel like somehow this was my home. While looking for a job, I looked for ways out when I even got a job. I was looking for, “Could I do an MBA program? Could I get another job, maybe with an international company?”
I finally landed a job with Cargill. That was an international company that was set up in Africa. They were looking for people who wanted to move to South Africa. This was in the late ’90s. It was after Madiba had become president and South Africa was free. There was so much hope. I kept thinking, “This is an amazing opportunity for me to go to a new country with so much good press around it and going right now, and with an incredible leader that the world respects. That’s going to be where I belong.”
I landed in South Africa with a huge amount of optimism and hope, which was quickly shattered on my first day when I landed. My boss had lent me his wife’s car to drive. It was a different road system than Kenya. I got into a car accident on my first day there. This was before cell phones. I didn’t even have a landline. I was living in a temporary apartment. I felt alone. I was lucky I was not injured, but I felt alone in that moment.
Was this in Johannesburg?
It was in Johannesburg on my first day on the job, and it was my boss’s wife’s car. I decided to stay. A couple of things convinced me to stay. One was the country was going through so much. Watching things like the Truth and Reconciliation Commission on TV made me realize that things were much more complex than ‘the country does or does not accept certain people.’ Many layers of things happened to be worked through regarding the country’s identity. I was blown away at how transparently the country was working through its own identity and facing its problems. That gave me a little courage to say, “Maybe I can figure this out.”
I started leaning into asking people and meeting my African colleagues and saying, “Tell me about your experience. How do you feel about the country?” and learning instead of judging. Leaning into it made me feel like I understand what this country’s going through. I fell increasingly in love with the country as I understood what the country was going through. Also, I felt more accepted and understood.
I was there for three years. During those three years, I don’t even think I understood at the time how much I’d fallen in love with South Africa. When it came time for me to leave later, it became evident that it’s got a part of my heart that I don’t think will ever change. It’s a special country. Part of who I am is because of seeing how the country was able to come back from a traumatic time in its history.
That’s a compelling story. A story close to home, having been born and bred in South Africa myself. I was curious, and I know Madiba Nelson Mandela has been a powerful inspirational leader for you, as for so many of us. What has been your most significant Mandela Moment? I know you arrived during his presidency. Could you take us back to a moment that stands out for you? Again, what was the context? Tell us a bit about that.
When I was living in South Africa, I was on my own. My boyfriend, at the time, was living in Kenya. He came to visit me in December 1997. We went down the Garden Route between Cape Town and Port Elizabeth. We drove that whole route together. At the end of that trip, he proposed to me in Cape Town.
Where in Cape Town?
It was in Sea Point at a restaurant called La Perla, which I’m not sure if it still exists, but it’s a beautiful restaurant.
Right near the beach. I love it. I’ve been there. It’s stunning.
It was wonderful. He proposed to me. He lived in Kenya, and I was living in South Africa. We had a bunch of questions: “What do we do?” I immediately thought, “I’m going to have to move back to Kenya.” I didn’t even think it was an option for me to ask my husband to move to South Africa. I didn’t think that there would be an option for the company to want to keep me if I lived in Kenya. I thought, “I’m going to have to resign.” I put that in my head, and I was like, “I have to plan a wedding in Kenya while I’m in South Africa.” We set a date of December 1998. That year was stressful. Several things happened regarding the uncertainty of my job future and how to tell my boss that I wouldn’t be there anymore.
There was a tragic incident. In August 1998, the US Embassy in Kenya was bombed. Someone that I knew passed away. It was a tragic incident. It was probably the first time that something that severe had hit Kenya. That was a big dampener. There was a lot of uncertainty between my husband and me about how we will start our life together. How are we going to plan the wedding? I was under high stress and not having a great time.
In July of that year, Nelson Mandela got married to Graça Machel. I remember being in this moment of stress, this joyous moment of true love, and the fact that love can be timeless and that personal connection can happen at any time. It was such a moment of optimism that, at the time, I was like, “I’m going to invite them to my wedding,” which was a crazy idea. I decided to write to them with a wedding invite. I didn’t expect a reply. I thought it was one of those things that you do. I got an RSVP from his office. I don’t know if he was involved, but I got an RSVP from his office. It was very kind and said, “I’m sorry, they will not be able to attend, but we wish you the very best.”
That was meaningful for me. It touched me. It made me feel optimistic, and it made me feel hopeful. Also, it made me realize, now I can reflect and realize what a socially intelligent leader Madiba was. He understood the ability to make people feel something and how much of a difference those little touches make. It was around that time there were a few positive moments. I decided I was not going to lean into the stress. I’m going to lean into the positive. I’m going to not worry about the things I can’t control. I’m going to worry about the things I can. I was open with my boss and said, “I’m going to have to quit and move back to Kenya.”
He’s like, “Why wouldn’t you live in South Africa? We can help move your husband over? I was like, “I didn’t even think that was possible.” That worked out. We both moved to South Africa together, which was amazing. The wedding was okay. Lots of things went wrong, but the important things didn’t go wrong. The year worked out well. We started a new life together in Johannesburg, my husband and I, in 1999. The lesson for me that year was that when you are in those moments of stress where you’re not sure you have a lot of control, leaning into those positive moments, even if they’re small, and focusing on those and focusing on the things that matter can get you through them and ground you. Everything will be okay in the end. It always is (and if it is not, it is not yet the end). It was a little moment that meant a lot to me. It was my connection with Madiba.When you are in those moments of stress where you're not sure you have a lot of control, leaning into those positive moments, even if they're small, and focusing on the things that matter can get you through them. Click To Tweet
That’s such a wonderful heartwarming story. Around the issue of identity, I know you mentioned that being in South Africa was a pivotal moment. What was the realization of your identity? We often struggle with where our sense of belonging. What was the realization for you in that process? Having grown up in these different cultures and lived in different parts of the world, what was the realization around cultural identity? What mattered to you and why? When did it come together?
A lot of it was seeded from the time I was in South Africa because watching a country come to grips with its own identity raises many questions about whether I harbored things that I shouldn’t be harboring. Am I putting filters on myself that I shouldn’t be putting filters on? It started that process. It’s a continual process. Identity is something that you develop over your lifetime. I’m still not sure who I will be when I grow up. The sense of uniting people was strong for me in South Africa. No matter how different you are, building a country together became a big part of who I am as a leader and how I decided to lead.
When Madiba was uniting the country, he didn’t unite the country behind the majority. He didn’t unite the country for the people who had been oppressed. He united the country for the future of the country. That is difficult to do when you are oppressed or not feeling like you belong, and when you finally get power, to not make it all about your wishes and wants. That, for me, was a powerful lesson. There is so much more long-lasting power in trying to meet everyone’s needs and trying to bring the whole unit or country or team together and trying to make sure that everybody has something that’s invested than trying to meet 1 or 2 factions’ needs even if they match with your own needs.There is so much more long-lasting power in trying to meet everyone's needs and trying to bring the whole country or team together rather than trying to just meet one or two factions' needs, even if they match with your own. Click To Tweet
That’s something I’ve carried with me. Leaving South Africa, when I came to the US in 2000, I would consciously look for the most diverse team members. I would look for people that think differently and act differently. I would say, “How do we bring ourselves together? How do we unite ourselves? Where’s the common goal? How do we work together? How do we ensure that there’s something in it for everyone?” That’s been with me for a long time. In terms of who I am and my identity, I feel confident now that my identity is African.
Where do you belong? I feel most at home in South Africa of all the places in the world where I’ve lived. Although I’m American, I’m Kenyan, and my husband is British. We’ve lived in South Africa. We both were discovering our identities at the same time. I feel very strongly as an African. I embrace the Indian heritage and the British culture I’ve been part of. I embrace American history and the fact that my children are American. I embrace it all. I feel much more comfortable having all those different parts of me sit together and understand that they form something different.
That’s such a profound statement. When I look at some of your backgrounds, you’ve been involved in many of these global organizations. You’ve had global roles. You’ve been part of initiatives with the United Nations, the World Economic Forum, and One Young World. What comes to mind for me: I’m curious to hear your thoughts on this, given where the world is at. I know you are working on looking at some of the world’s most pressing problems. If we look at the most pressing problems of this pivotal moment, what are the big global issues in your mind? That would be one question, but following on from that, how do you think the world ought to be reorganized to deal with this different world with global problems and global challenges?
I was privileged to talk about One Young World. I was privileged to listen to Astronaut Ron Goran talk about his astronaut experience. When we think about the world, we often think it’s such a big, diverse place with many competing interests. His view of it was it was a blue marble. He said that when he left the Earth, he was first looking for his town, state, and country, and then he was looking for Earth.
He said that when he hit the perspective of being in space and could see the whole Earth as one, he had an emotional connection, not to “I miss home,” being his town, but “I miss home,” being Earth. He said that he wishes every human being on the planet could have that experience of stepping out and seeing the Earth as one. We’re floating around on this little blue marble in space. Although we think of ourselves as different, we’re not. We’re all inhabiting this little planet together.
Our future is collective. These last few years have shown us that clearly in a way that maybe we couldn’t see before. Whether it’s climate change, a global pandemic, the global economy and supply chains, or global inequality, poverty, human rights, and female rights, those issues are all huge but common. They’re not an issue for one part of the world. I hope we find leaders with a more global perspective who can see that we’re on a blue marble and not be self-understood. I fear that we have been electing leaders for the last several years that speak to our fears and not our hopes.
I hope that we’re now coming through this. I feel hopeful when I talk with the next generation of my children that they lead through hope, not fear. I hope we empower more of them to lead us through because they don’t see country boundaries. Our children have grown up in a digital world. They don’t see national or country or town or ethnic boundaries the way that maybe our generation does. I remain hopeful for that.
You’ve touched on such an important point and how radically the world has changed where sovereign states and national borders pale into relative insignificance when we look at cyber security attacks, global pandemics, and climate change issues. These issues don’t know borders between countries. The question is, in your mind, do you think the world is appropriately structured and organized? How would you envisage changing the structures of the world to deal with these big global issues?
What’s interesting for me is I don’t know that we even have to change anything. It’s being changed for us. If you look at today, corporations are more powerful than most governments, and citizens are more empowered to run things in their countries than most governments are. That’s becoming more and more apparent over time. If you look at the trend of decentralization and distributed ledger and digital assets, how that’s empowering people to own and transfer assets around the world, move money, be connected to information, and make decisions worldwide. We’re moving in a direction where power isn’t going to be held with a few old people that sit in ivory towers, not caring about the rest of us.
We are moving towards a world where structures will be decentralized naturally. Even corporations, which people argue, are becoming the new evil leaders of the world. Even they’re being held accountable by citizens in a way that hasn’t been done before. You can vote with your feet if you don’t like what a business is doing anymore. You choose not to buy from them.
It’s like the Great Resignation during the pandemic.
You have technical platforms. You have TikTok, where people can tell others not to buy from a certain company. They do it if it goes against social beliefs. There is more power in the community and society than ever before. I’m hopeful for what that means. I know it’s disruptive. You and I have discussed how disruptive innovation can sometimes be an opportunity, not just a threat. Disruption is a threat to the incumbent always. It’s always an opportunity for people who don’t have power. That’s true for global organizational structures as well.There is more power in the community and society than ever before. Click To Tweet
That leads me to a question, are governments still relevant? If they’re becoming less relevant, how would you imagine providing some of those services that we’ve typically relied on governments to do, whether health services or educational services?
Government can be relevant as it was initially intended, which is not a way to control the masses but to provide services for citizens. The government in that role is powerful because it can standardize things in a way that maybe private society cannot quickly do. Access to a standardized healthcare system, infrastructure, and roads are all proper functions of government. Access to free education is a useful function of government. We’re going to start seeing change when governments have stepped into places where it doesn’t necessarily make sense for private citizens.
In parts of Africa, for example, land ownership is complicated because of the corruption at the local government level. You don’t know if your title deed is your title deed. Putting all of that on the blockchain will make it extremely transparent and difficult for corruption to enter the system. You’ll be able to land transfers citizen to citizen in a genuinely transparent and empowering way. You’ll be able to do peer-to-peer transfers of different assets, whether cars. Those things won’t need to go through centralized agencies if this vision of decentralization comes true. I do think that there is a role for a social caretaker within society. I hope the government plays a bit more of that role.
You touched on this point of accountability. I know you’ve also done great work dealing with corruption and the illicit movement of funds. In this world where you talk about ordinary citizens holding big organizations and institutions more accountable, in your mind, what is the definition of accountability, and what are the different aspects of accountability that need to be fulfilled for citizens to have confidence in their institutions, whether they be corporations or governments? What are the elements that need to be in place?
To be clear, I know sometimes, when people talk about decentralization, there’s a feeling that that might sound like anarchy. I’m not talking about anarchy. I believe that institutions are important for the maintenance and sustainability of society. Both governments and corporations play a role in building those institutions. The piece that’s been missing is the ability of citizens to address ‘what is not working for me anymore’ and to quickly change that. It’s important to clarify that decentralization doesn’t mean anarchy, at least in my mind.
There’s a natural place for institutions, governments, civil society, and corporations. A well-functioning society needs all those things, especially if you want change to be long-lasting and sustainable ways of living over time. For me, governments play a pivotal role in laying down the long-term fabric of society. Corporations play a meaningful role in developing the economy and creating economic opportunity. Civil society plays a role in making sure that it’s well represented. If I look at today’s society, there is a Great Resignation because many employees feel that they’re not being treated well where they are.
They don’t feel a sense of purpose or connectedness to the corporation’s purpose. There is a lot of civil unrest worldwide because people do not feel like their governments are representing them. What decentralization allows is a better conversation between the institutions and the people they’re supposed to represent. Over time, if you can open up those conversations and allow for more real-time as opposed to four-year elections that require lots of lobbying, cut down some of that red tape, and allow for more real-time feedback and change when things aren’t working, you’ll build much more flexible and relevant societies over time.
Coming back to the issue of accountability in terms of how we define that and then what needs to be in place for citizens to feel that their needs are being served, what do you think those are?
Accountability has to start with the mission. If you don’t know what you are accountable for, it’s difficult to be accountable. Whether you are the leader of a corporation or a leader of a government, be clear on what that mission is. The mission of a corporation is never simply shareholder profit. It is part of the company’s job, but the mission is to serve a greater purpose. Whether you are trying to make sure that everybody has shoes on their feet or trying to make sure that everyone has access to education as a company, there has to be a mission. That’s one thing that Madiba was clear about. What was the country’s mission? If the mission is clear, it becomes clear what people need to do to achieve that mission. It becomes easy to hold people accountable for whether or not they’re doing that.
Is there an example where you could paint a specific picture of the mission that rings true and where it’s been acted on?
We built a mission when I was part of the Africa business at Thomson Reuters, where we said the Global Corporation’s mission was around making information more accessible around the world. Our mission in Africa had to be much more specific to Africa. We sat down as a leadership team. In over three weeks, we came up with this mission. Our mission was to empower Africa’s success. That sounds quite trite.
When you say to somebody, “I’m here to empower Africa’s success,” people say, “Whatever.” We’d broken it down to say, “What concretely does that mean we’re accountable for?” We were accountable for four different things. We were accountable for one thing because we had a business that was telling foreign investors what they could do in Africa. We said one accountability we had was making Africa more accessible to foreign investors. Putting a lot more transparency around data for foreign investors into countries in Africa and creating currency benchmarks so investors could know how to enter and exit a country.
The second is we wanted to make sure that Africa’s reputation of being seen as a dark continent was being evaporated. How could we put more transparency around who people are doing business with and make sure that KYC and anti-money laundering in Africa was much more transparent and that businesses didn’t see Africa as a place of lack of transparency? The third thing we were set on doing was land rights. We had a business that could digitize land records. Working with governments to make sure that you could digitize land records, but also make them accessible to people so that then you could start building mortgage markets.
That’s how you empower people and create a middle class by allowing people to borrow money to build a home and to own homes, and therefore step out of poverty. That was the third thing. The fourth thing we did was to help to empower legal systems across Africa by working with governments to update their legal systems, many of which had not been updated since the end of their colonial rule. We were clear on how that accountability that we had was empowering Africa’s success. Every individual in our business knew how what they did daily helped make a difference in those areas. That’s what I mean when I talk about vision, mission, and accountability.
In your experience, what are the critical ingredients in holding people accountable in ensuring that accountability was a strength of the organization? What had to be in place? What measures and systems had to be in place to ensure accountability, the measurement of that being that the various stakeholders you served appreciated the moral authority and performance and efficacy of your organization?
Anything that you do to somebody they don’t feel ownership of. If it’s done with them or by them, they do feel ownership of them. The first thing about accountability is that it must be led by the people you want to hold accountable. I mentioned how we came up with our mission together. It wasn’t my mission. It was our mission collectively. That builds buy-in, which then allows you to be accountable. The second element of accountability is transparency. We were clear about what success and failure looked like. One exercise we did every year with my team as we would sit and say, “Let’s look at our goals and say, ‘A year forward, we failed miserably. Why did we fail?'”The first thing about accountability is it must be led by the people that you want to hold accountable. Click To Tweet
We would plan, “What would’ve happened for us to fail and talk through those things?” We would each take action that would help us prevent failing. That built accountability and transparency about the risks and the opportunities ahead of us. Listening is a big part of accountability. As much as you’ve got a great plan, it is only as good as the first day you write it. After that, it’s all chaos because things change. We did a lot of listening to the team, our customers, the market, and feedback from senior executives for the global business. We adjusted accordingly to ensure we were still relevant to the environment.
That’s what accountability is all about. By doing all those things, we created an environment where if you did fail, we’d already discussed why you would fail. It was okay to come and say, “I didn’t do a great job here. What do we do about it?” instead of hiding it. We didn’t wait until the cliff was coming to find out that there was an issue. Also, we celebrated our successes because we were transparent about both the failure and the success piece. That motivates people to know that they’re on the journey with you for good and bad.
Where there is sometimes intentional and sometimes unintentional wrongdoing, how did you deal with that? What mechanisms did you put in place to communicate that people were appropriately rewarded with successes and appropriately dealt with if there was intentional or unintentional wrongdoing? Do you have an example of that?
We had a clear cultural statement as a team and the values we believed in. One of our core values was to assume positive intent. As a human being, I firmly believe you must assume positive intent. Not many people go out intentionally to do the wrong things. There are some, but it doesn’t generally happen. You get more good than bad with good leadership and holding people to their highest aspirations. Starting by saying, “I’m assuming positive intent.” When someone did make a mistake, we lost a sale, they forgot to tell us about a cancellation, or there was some money missing in some cases, we would first start saying, “Let’s be curious. Let’s understand what happened here.”
Not beating up the person because mistakes can happen to anyone, but genuinely trying to get to the bottom of what happened. At the end of it, if the person had intentionally misled us down a path where it wasn’t clear why they did this, and it was clear that it wasn’t for good intentions, then you have systems and processes to deal with that. You exit the person if you must or appropriately make sure you are dealing with that behavior. In most cases, especially in my experience, it was honest mistakes.
Probably over 99% of it was an honest mistake and a learning opportunity. That person will probably not make that mistake again if you show them that you support them through the journey and allow them to apply themselves and do better. For me, accountability is not about firing people. It’s about growing as individuals. Can we learn from the experiences that we’ve had? I’ve been fortunate to have leaders who do that for me. I want to keep doing that for other people as well.Accountability is not about firing people. It's about growing as individuals and learning from the experiences that we've had. Click To Tweet
That’s such an important point. It talks about the learning organization, the learning mindset, and the growth mindset. Let’s move out into the bigger world of finance. I know you’ve also been quite involved in dealing with global systems, looking at financial markets, and understanding that sometimes there are illicit financial flows, for example. Have you been dealing with those kinds of issues in the world? What do you think accountability looks like there? How important is it to hold people to those standards? What mechanisms would you put in place in those instances, so people have trust and faith in their financial systems?
There are always bad actors. There are always a few. That’s true for the global financial system. One of the things when we were studying the records of illicit trafficking, financial crime, wildlife crime, terrorism, and some of the other things that happen in the world that are bad, it’s interesting. Still, they’re pretty networked and quite connected. People are always surprised when I tell them that. You’ll find that they often will use the same routes to get people and money across borders.
Often, and this has been talked about quite a lot, drug trafficking money will often finance terrorism. Human trafficking will often finance terrorism. Money laundering is often a big cause of other crimes around the world. Specifically, the people they use to transport money and people and objects across borders are often the same. Whether you’re a drug trafficker, a terrorist, a human trafficker, or a financial criminal, you often use the same intermediaries to get things across borders. What we talk about when we talk to banks and try and encourage them to find better ways of stopping this is to say get your people to look out for those connection points because that’s a quick way to stop a mass of bad things happening.
If you can cut off the ability for them to move things across borders, you can reduce the impact that they can have. In terms of being able to address some of the bad things that are happening, looking for those, where are those connection points and those network points is a quick way to address them. In terms of accountability, we need to have systems that are punitive for people that continually break society’s laws and harm people. For a criminal, the system is the criminal system, the defense system where they get their case or be held accountable.
For corporations, accountability often means you don’t have a job or a company anymore. Suppose you are part of a human trafficking chain because you are getting supplies from a place knowingly that uses human trafficking, then besides that, is the criminal penalty. In that case, there should be an economic penalty; you no longer have your business reward. It can take many forms.
Is there a specific example that you have in terms of some of these international systems that you’ve worked on where you’ve been able to make those connections?
There was a time when I was working for Thomson Reuters. It wasn’t my team that worked on this, but it was a team within the company that I’m impressed with and proud of. This is one of many stories of things they’ve done. These journalists had done some investigation into the supply chain around vehicles. There’s a prominent vehicle manufacturer that was using Mica mines in India. Mica is a soft mineral. It can’t be mined cheaply. In some of these developing countries, they’ll often use children to go into the mines because it’s easier than building a mine properly. The investigation that our journalists had found that within six months, several children had died in one mine in India and that the company was buying from that mine.
As well as writing the story for the general public, they made the company aware of what was going on and said, “What is your reaction to this?” The company immediately took action and stopped purchasing from that mine. That’s the type of transparency and accountability. If the more we’ve got that we are making people aware that what they’re doing is not beneficial to society, they should be held accountable if they know about it. In this case, the car manufacturers weren’t aware of the child labor aspect of the mine. They stopped it immediately.
Can you share a little about what was the connection point?
The vehicle manufacturer was using a supplier that, at that time, I’m assuming they thought was fine, but they didn’t realize that the mine was using children to maximize their profits. That was a human trafficking angle of that. If you look into the mine, if they’re willing to traffic children, there’s probably a whole host of other things going on under the surface of the way that mine’s being operated that is questionable.
There’s that, and then there’s the sustainability part of the vehicle manufacturer, which has all these amazing statements about its commitment to sustainability on its website. There’s a question about how deeply in your supply chain you are looking when you talk about sustainability. It’s holding them accountable. You start to start to see the links between all of these different businesses.
That’s interesting. What are the critical links between being a purpose-driven business, disruption for social impact, inclusivity, and diversity? How does that fit together? Do you have an example of that? Where have you done that in your career?
They’re all linked intrinsically. What’s interesting is traditional business has tried to put them into buckets. If you look at the traditional ways, corporations lay themselves out, there’s often a foundation or a charitable arm that talks about the good social part. There’s the profit-making arm that cares about shareholder value. There’s generally an innovation arm that cares about disruption and bringing new things to market, but they’re not cohesive. People often assume you must not be profitable if you discuss purpose. They’re purposeful. They’re probably not on my list if they can’t make huge money. If you are innovative, there’s also the sense that maybe you’re not scalable. There are (mis)conceptions around how these things do or don’t fit together.
In my experience, and this has been true for me throughout my career and all the roles I’ve taken, those things brought together are incredibly more powerful than looking at them alone. I mentioned in Africa how I brought those things together. You can see. We innovated around land rights and putting land rights on the blockchain in Africa. It was a purposeful business. Also, it was profitable, and it spoke to our people. They felt connected and went home and said to their kids, “I’m working on land rights for my country.”
It was a virtuous circle because we could connect the dots across all those things. I’m working right now in the business accelerator for the London Stock Exchange Group. In my role, I create new businesses for the company. We create businesses with a purpose, mission, profitability, and people at the heart of those businesses. We’re creating an offering for the market built around human-centered AI. How can we use AI to take the noise away from people? It doesn’t add noise but still respects their privacy.
We’re about to launch in 3 to 4 weeks with a product coming to market around this. I’m excited about that because it’s a good example of something built for profitable financial services, but it’s built with people at the heart of it. You can bring them together, but you must consciously bring them together. For Thomson Reuters, our African business was the highest-performing business of all our emerging markets. The results are there. You have to lean into them.Purpose and mission and profitability. You can bring them together, but you have to consciously bring them together. Click To Tweet
That’s a beautiful example. How do you define human-centered AI?
A lot of the fear around disruptive technologies like AI is it’s listening to you. It’s learning about you without your knowledge. It’s going to go do something with that information. People get scared that their social media feed is listening to them and using that information to advertise and sell it. Human-centered AI is different. It is asking you for permission before it listens to you. In this case, it’s saying to you, “I want to make your life easier. Can I listen to your emails and listen to your calendar? I will only keep that information private to you, but I want to learn how you work and what matters to you.” It uses that information to bring you external information that will be relevant to you.
If you’ve got a client meeting, it’ll bring you information saying, “You’ve got a client meeting in an hour. Here’s some information about the client that might be helpful to you.” You control all of that, not your company and not the company providing you with the information. You are in charge of that. It’s being given to you in a way that’s useful for you. That’s what human-centered AI is. It respects and works with you, not against you, for profit for someone else.
That’s a powerful disruption for the market, considering your thoughts on how this product and innovation can generally change the perception of artificial intelligence and people’s fears around that. I have to be honest; I have some of those fears myself.
I do too. The product we’re launching is in partnership with a startup that has built this human-centered AI algorithm. They’ve done an amazing job. The founder of that is somebody who truly is a game-changer in the industry in the way that he’s thinking about AI and will be influential in how other companies think about AI. We’ve been lucky to partner with someone like that to bring an offering to market for financial services. For me, it’s exciting. As a company, when I think about innovation, often those types of things aren’t sitting within your company if they’re disruptive. You have to learn to partner with people thinking that way and then find how you can add value to that equation by working with them. That’s what we’ve tried to do.
Talking about partnering, the whole issue of developing allies, I know in your career, you’ve also been in several roles where you had to work with allies across institutions. Can you share a practical example where it became critical to strategically deliver on the purpose or mission through partnerships and allies? Can you share with us how you define that, an example of where that’s worked, and why that is so important from a leadership point of view?
The World Economic Forum is good because they naturally create convening points where you can start doing that. We’ve worked with the World Economic Forum to create a financial crime coalition. For example, we’ve taken people trying to stop financial crime worldwide, whether we, our competitors, regulators, or partners, and tried to bring them together for a conversation. I’ve been part of some of those conversations. That’s been powerful.
One of the examples that I did when I was in South Africa, it’s something that reminds me a lot of what Mandela talks about, I can’t remember the exact quote, but he talks a lot about the idea that you have to partner with your enemy. You have to understand what they’re thinking about and work to solve things together. That’s what makes a sustainable long-term solution. In South Africa, we had many clients that were banks and were natural competitors to each other. One of the country’s challenges was KYC or Know Your Clients, especially during our crisis.
There has been a big crisis around money laundering and corruption in South Africa in the last several years. The banks were at the heart of that question of how would you give these people money knowing who they are. A common problem they all had was how they better know their customers and know what their customers are already doing. They were all natural competitors. We took a role where we said, “We could be a facilitator between these groups.” The regulator to come up with, “Is there a better way of knowing who your customer is?” Ensuring that information is across each other so that you’re not all working in silos and that criminals can’t take advantage of the fact that one bank knows who they are, but the other bank doesn’t.
We built the first in the world of KYC solution across an industry in South Africa, working with the banks to develop common ways of looking at this problem. It’s quite a complex system because every bank has its requirement around “I need a passport or ID,” or “I need a driving license,” and trying to get people to work together for the common good. It was a challenge, but it was one that everyone with a common mission, realizing that the joint mission was to help to make the country better and to help to make each of us better. We were able to pull that off. That is an example of where we’ve come together.
Fun facts. When and how do you find time to chill out? You talk about leaning in. You lean in a lot. When and how do you chill out? What’s your favorite activity around that?
I used to be bad at this where I used to run hard until I was almost broken and then go, “I need a break,” and then go take a break, and then come back and run hard again. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve realized that it needs to be more sustainable. Someone sent me an article. The article said the best type of self-care is not a bubble bath or a spa trip. It’s building a life for yourself that you don’t have to escape from. That’s true. I try to build that in now into my every day. That could be time with the children. For me, it’s the things that give me energy and restore me. Nature is a big part of it.
When I lived in South Africa, going on a safari often was a big part of restoring myself. Even when I’m living in the States, being part of nature, camping, and visiting some beautiful natural spaces, beaches, and lakes is something that restores me. I try and do that. Reading is restorative for me. I find escaping into a good murder mystery. I love the 1920s mysteries and the old style. I love those. That’s an escape for me. I love cooking. I escape into cooking.
During the pandemic, I discovered that I like painting. Not professional in any way, but I do little rocks. I did little rocks outside our house for charity and raised some money for charity during the pandemic. That gives me joy. Painting the rocks with little messages of hope or little pictures. That became a hobby for me as well. I try and find those little moments during my day to do things that restore me and keep me going for the long term.
What’s your favorite meal?
Probably one that we make together as a family. Whether it’s pasta or an Indian dish. The act of cooking and eating together for me is very much because I grew up in a household where my mom was an amazing cook. It’s related to “love” for me. The cooking experience is more important to me than a particular type of food.
I know you read voraciously. What has been one of the greatest books you’ve read?
There are many good books. I’m one of these people that I’ll pick up a book, I’ll start getting some gems from it, but I’ll maybe skim-read lots of different business books. One of the ones I reread and reread is Daring Greatly by Brené Brown. It is even more appropriate now than it was when I first read it in 2018. It talks about how courage and vulnerability can shape the way that we lead, and we have an impact on people. It is probably one of my favorite books to go back to again and again.
Coming back to Nelson Mandela or Madiba, do you think his leadership example is still relevant today? If so, why?
More than ever for the moral courage that he exhibited. He’s an exciting leader for me for several reasons. Not only does he have moral courage and compassion, but he has strategic thinking in a way that people don’t always associate with nice people. That combination, he called it, having a good head and a good heart. He had both of those. That combination, for me, is formidable. Now more than ever, we need leaders that can lean into where people are.
Mental health is at an all-time crisis worldwide in our children, adults, the workplace, government, and society. We need people who can be empathetic and have a good heart. We need people with a good head who can make sensible decisions that aren’t grounded in extreme politics but in what’s right for a country, what’s right for society, what’s right for health, and what’s right for education.Mental health is at an all-time crisis worldwide. We need people who can be empathetic, have a good heart, good head, and can make sensible decisions that aren't grounded in extreme politics, but in what's right for a country, for society, for health,… Click To Tweet
That combination is needed more than ever. His selflessness in making solutions was not about what he wanted but about what the country needed and making sure that everybody in a society, not just the aggrieved people, was part of the solution. That’s more important than ever. If I look at what’s happening in America, the fact that we can’t get half the country to believe in what the other half believes in, even when it comes to something simple, is insane.
We must make the country work for everybody regardless of our beliefs. That leadership style would come in handy right now in our country. The other thing about Madiba was he was a global leader. He led South Africa, but he didn’t lead just South Africa; he led the world. Even now, when you ask any school child anywhere in the world for an example of a good leader, they will come up with Mandela, Gandhi, and Martin Luther King. There are a few leaders like that, been truly above their countries and national heritage and have truly led for the world. That’s what we need more than ever.
You touched on such an important point. What do you think Mandela would say to the US Congress now, firstly? Secondly, what words of wisdom would he have for somebody like President Joe Biden and other leaders in the Senate and the House in terms of how to navigate across this wide chasm and deep fears and deep divides?
I wish I could imagine what he would say. He would say something like, “Your responsibility is great.” One of his quotes was, “One climbs a great hill only to find that there are many other great hills to climb.” He would say something about the fact that we have a great hill to climb, and it’s our job to climb it. He would also say that there’s opportunity in that. He was hopeful, even in the darkest times of crisis in South Africa. He helped build that shining city on the hill where the country could go. He would build that vision of what America could be if it could come together and unite. He would also say that people should be more ambitious and less petty.
One of his other quotes that I love is there is no passion for being found in playing small in settling for a life that is less than the one that’s worth living. That’s true for the world. If we dream big and are willing to unite and come together and face the hills, there’s so much good ahead for us. He would try and hold people to that standard, I would hope.
How do you define hope?
For me, hope is very much about the next generation. I look at our future. That was probably true for Madiba too. He spent a lot of time with children, specifically because he believed they were the world’s future and the country. I look at them, and they have not yet been jaded. They have not yet discovered how the world will tell them what they can’t do. They are sitting with open possibility. They don’t believe in national boundaries. They don’t believe that anything is impossible. They have more access to technologies enabling them in ways we’ve never done before. What gives me hope is that our children will find solutions we’ve not even thought of. Our job is to get out of their way and empower them to do that faster. That’s hope for me.
Any final thoughts before we wrap up?
It’s been such a pleasure to have this conversation. It’s made me think a lot and reflect on what an important force Madiba has been in my life and many of our lives. Today I wore a necklace made of a part of the Robben Island fencing. It’s a company called the Legacy Collection. I wear it often to remind myself that you can have great vision under constraints. That, for me, is probably the last message. We’re living under great constraints in the world, but we can have equally great vision and get ourselves out of this.We're living under great constraints in the world, but we can have equally great vision and get ourselves out of this. Click To Tweet
This is remarkable. Like you, I have a piece of Madiba with me. I’ve got his bracelet on with his prison number and his hand. I wear this daily because it is a constant reminder of possibility. In his own words, it always seems impossible until it’s done. What a joy. I cannot wait for us to break bread together. Thank you so much for sharing your wisdom. Thank you for being a global champion of change. Thank you for being an ambassador for this wonderful initiative and movement. We will do more together.
Thank you so much.
Our conversation takes us into high finance, big corporations, and big business making a big impact. In this radically changing world, Global Justice Now revealed that 157 of the top 200 most powerful economic entities, 78.5%, are large business corporations, bigger than most governments worldwide. In the top ten organizations like Walmart, Apple, and Shell, several Chinese corporations each raked in around $3 trillion per annum. That is bigger than some of the biggest economies in the world, including the economies of the United Kingdom, India, and France. It stands to reason that big business often calls the shots. Through trade deals and investments, big corporations often demand that governments do their bidding. Yes, there are good actors in every sector. Up front, let me say I’m a passionate businesswoman. I believe in the power of business.
I’m a conscious capitalist. I grew up in the outstanding multinational consumer goods giant Unilever. I believe in the power of business and purposeful-led leadership that can transform these organizations. Still, most importantly, the role of business is to radically change the trajectory of our society and meet the demands of what the world needs now. Having said that, we can and must rebalance corporate power. We can and must reclaim some of the people’s power. We must stop impunity and bad actors from getting away with bad things.
A global poll surveyed over 5,000 corporations and multi-million and multi-billion revenue organizations worldwide. More than 85% of their employees had little or no confidence in their senior executive’s ability to meet this moment and lead. As we said, there are good and bad actors in every sector.
To rebalance this power, balance corporate power, and reclaim some of the people’s power, we can and must applaud and showcase big businesses making a positive impact. We can and must reveal and applaud those purpose-led organizations delivering shared value and sustainable impact for people, the planet, and profits. We can and must reclaim our voice as citizens, use our powerful platforms to applaud and praise, and perhaps publish and punish the good and bad actors using our platforms like TikTok, YouTube, Instagram, and WeChat in China. We need to remember that we, the people, deliver the revenue that drives those big corporations. We can vote with our dollars, our voices, and our feet.
Until next time, remember that leading boldly is about making clear, thoughtful choices. It’s bigger and better thinking. Bold leadership is about taking bold action, one small step at a time, one small step for you, but collectively together, a giant step for humanity. Come back soon. Share with your friends. Join this global leadership movement for change because the world needs you to lead boldly, take care, and take thoughtful bold action.
- African Leadership Foundation
- Daring Greatly
About Sneha Shah
Sneha Shah is passionate about the role purposeful business can play in helping to solve important global problems. In her most recent role as MD & Group Head, for the London Stock Exchange Group Business Accelerator, Sneha is responsible for identifying, developing, and scaling new high growth, impactful businesses for LSEG in the financial services sector.
Her prior global revenue and P&L roles include MD of the Refinitiv Business Accelerator, MD of the Global Risk Managed Services business for Refinitiv, and Managing Director of Africa for Thomson Reuters. In these businesses, Sneha drove significant growth through partnerships with leading international bodies, and developed solutions in close collaboration with public and private sector organizations’ to help fight illicit financial flows, digitize land rights, develop financial and capital markets and empower women and youth. Over her career, Sneha has also held business leadership, operational, product development, program management and trading roles with multinational organizations across the US, UK and Africa.
Sneha uses her platform to drive industry conversations and collaboration on digital innovation with social impact, disruption as a business opportunity, diversity as a competitive advantage, and the importance of purpose in the DNA of business. She serves on the Board of the African Leadership Foundation, as a Board Advisor for WomHub, and as a Board Observer at ModuleQ.
She has been actively involved in industry associations, including the Board of the US Chamber of Commerce US-Africa Business Center, YPO, 30% Southern Africa and One Young World (OYW) Africa. Sneha has also contributed to several initiatives of the UN (High-level Dialogue on Financing for Development 2019, UNGA 2019, UNEP 2017), World Economic Forum (WEF), including the Partnering Against Corruption Initiative (PACI) (2016-2018), and the Global Agenda Council on Governance (2014 to 2016).