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Inspiring Business Women: Muloongo Muchelemba

Muloongo is the Director of Selection at Rise, a new initiative of Schmidt Futures and the Rhodes Trust.

Tell us about yourself and what you do

I was born in Zambia and had a Third Culture Kid upbringing as a diplomat’s child. I lived in Belgium, Italy, Japan, Mozambique, and the UK before the age of 18. I was sent back home to Zambia to do my first degree in Economics and reconnect with my roots. After graduating at the top of my class from the University of Zambia, I won a Rhodes Scholarship to Oxford where I read Philosophy, Politics, and Economics (PPE). After university, I embarked on a 17-year long corporate career in London, Zambia, South Africa, United Arab Emirates, and Singapore. I returned to London in July 2021 to take up a new role in philanthropy.

Outside of work, I am the Founder and content creator of ONGOLO, a Pan-African blog launched in April 2020 with a mission to change the narrative about Africa. I post at least one article every day on consumer, business, economy, life, people, politics, sports, and travel news. My ambition is to grow ONGOLO, which is a registered business in the UK, into a fully-fledged business advisory, media, marketing, and PR company promoting Africa, its people, products, and services. I want to get people excited about Africa because there is a huge knowledge gap about the continent I am proud to call home. Hence my tagline #ProudlyAfrican

Can you tell us about your career progression into your current role?

I joined Shell International Limited as a finance graduate after Oxford and was based in London. My first role was in the Financial Management Consulting team where I worked on projects such as the divestment of the Liquefied Petroleum Gas (LPG) business in Belgium and the US. I also built large financial models for our manufacturing (covering all refineries) and lubricants businesses globally. I then joined the Supply business to work on the first-ever business interruption loss for Shell when the Buncefield depot blew up in December 2015. It was great to build a framework that was used again long after I had left the firm. I also worked as an analyst covering France and the UK and my financial modelling skills came in handy when we sold the three refineries in France. I won a CFO award for building a biofuels reporting tool with other finance grads - this award still hangs on my wall. My last role was in Retail Marketing providing Commercial Finance advice to the loyalty programme, payments, and global brands team.

I regrettably left Shell to diversify my work experience and joined KPMG’s Financial Management team in London. I worked on projects in London, South Africa, and Malaysia for FTSE100 clients. I enjoy consulting because it teaches you how to identify and solve problems and how to synthesise information. I was desperate to return to Zambia after a decade away and found a role with Standard Chartered in Zambia. I started as a Relationship Manager managing global corporate clients and switched to a Business Planning Manager (BPM) role which is similar to a Chief of Staff. I covered Zambia, Zimbabwe, and Botswana and then was transferred to South Africa to do a BPM role for Financial Institutions (FI) Africa. FI covers banks, insurance, investors, broker dealers, multilateral agencies, development finance institutions, and the public sector. It was very interesting as we had 15 presence markets and I had to develop a strategy for 22 non-presence countries in Africa. Less than a year later, our new Group CEO merged Africa and the Middle East (AME) and I was promoted to the BPM for Corporate Banking, AME. I relocated to Dubai and had an amazing two years combining two distinct regions and ensuring that we delivered on key projects such as cleaning up our correspondent banking portfolio and tightening controls around KYC, especially sanctions. I then moved to the global business head office in Singapore and spent nearly four years working in Group Strategy, Group Operations and Group Operational Risk, where I covered the Financial Crime Surveillance Unit which ensures that all clients and transactions are properly screened and monitored.

And what drove you to leave Banking and join philanthropy?

Push and pull factors. I had tried to take a sabbatical in 2020 to recharge and take a much-needed break from the corporate grind. The pull factor was that I had the opportunity to work on something different that needed my skills and experience more and was close to my heart.

To give you some context, I spent my free time volunteering throughout my corporate career. I was the Mentoring Lead for the Shell African Network and also participated in a Shell-sponsored undergraduate mentoring scheme for minorities at South Bank University. Standard Chartered Singapore also supported me when was I appointed National Secretary for the Zambia Rhodes Scholarships by allowing me to work from Zambia during the selection period. It was through the Rhodes Trust that I was introduced to Schmidt Futures, the New York-based philanthropy founded by Wendy and Eric Schmidt, the former Chairman and CEO of Google and Alphabet.

Schmidt Futures and Rhodes Trust have partnered on an exciting new initiative called Rise to find the most talented 15-17 year-olds around the world who have the capacity to lead and solve world problems. Each winner will receive a lifetime of educational and/or entrepreneurial support of up to $500k, depending on need. As the first Director of Selection for Rise, my mandate is to promote the programme to various stakeholders (students, parents, teachers, selectors) and to find those brilliant teens. Please look out for the announcement on our first cohort of winners in October 2021 and the opening of applications for year two. We also rely on volunteers to help us with the selection, so please sign up if you are passionate about finding talent!

As someone who has worked in many different roles, have you noticed any differences around diversity & inclusion initiatives or progressive workplace attitudes between these roles, industries, or locations?

D&I definitely plays out differently by location. When I worked in London, the challenge was how to give minorities a seat at the table through active promotion and mentoring. Many British firms are good at setting minority targets though there is no real consequence if they fail to meet them as is often the case. In South Africa, UAE, and Singapore, the governments have firm targets in place to ensure that black South Africans, Emiratis, and Singaporeans have jobs in the financial services and other sectors where they are underrepresented. Hiring a foreigner in these three markets is not easy as companies have to justify why there was no local qualified to do the job. The targets used to be set as a percentage of the total workforce but increasingly, governments are ensuring that locals are being promoted to senior roles, which I believe is fair.

The lack of diversity is more noticeable at the management and board level. I have been researching D&I at Fortune and FTSE 500 companies and found that while some progress has been made at the board level to have more women and some minorities represented, the gap is wide at the management level. Amazon publishes an annual D&I report which shows that over 70% of senior people in the US are white compared to 4% black and 20% Asian while the overall US workforce is 32% white, 26.5% black, and 13.6% Asian. That’s not a good picture!

Can you tell us about some of the best initiatives or programmes you’ve seen that have helped to improve D&I in the workplace? What is it that made these so successful?

The Shell African Network helped Shell incorporate culture into employee performance assessments. This was done by flagging to the senior leaders who supported our network, how the company’s internal practices were inadvertently hurting minorities. In Africa and some cultures in Asia and the Middle East, making eye contact with your superiors is considered rude as is jumping into a conversation during a meeting - you’re supposed to wait to be invited. Employees thought their mark of respect was understood and appreciated but instead that behaviour was being interpreted as lacking confidence and leadership qualities. In order for companies to truly become diverse and inclusive, they need to identify these barbed wires that are keeping people from progressing. What made this intervention successful was a willingness by management to acknowledge that there was a problem and a commitment to try to fix it.

What are the biggest challenges that we face in the Financial Services industry today when it comes to diversity & inclusion?

Financial Services remains an old, white, boys club so it is not convincing to say the sector is doing well on D&I when companies cannot walk the talk. Women around the world rejoiced when Jane Fraser was appointed CEO of Citi in March 2021 - she is such a breath of fresh air. And black people were fiercely proud of Tidjane Thiam when he was appointed CEO of Prudential and Credit Suisse and have been fiercely protective of his legacy after his unfortunate departure from CS. I wrote a feature about him on ONGOLO. Thiam and Jane cannot be the exceptions. The Financial Services sector needs to step up to drive some meaningful changes at the top otherwise future talent will shift to industries such as tech where Asians such as Satya Nadella and Sundar Pichai are getting top billing.

What are the most common mistakes in our thinking about diversity & inclusion?

There is a natural conflict between what D&I seeks to achieve and how human beings behave in practice. D&I is about increasing the representation of different groups within an organisation and inclusion is about how well the contributions and perspectives of those different groups of people are valued and integrated. So first of all the intent of D&I is a utopia because companies have a culture that employees are expected to adhere to and there is a limit to how many different perspectives can be integrated. Secondly, human beings by nature gravitate towards people who are like them and that’s how they build trust. Information and job opportunities are shared within those micro-groups. Many companies tick the quantitative aspect of having diverse staff but don’t measure the qualitative aspect about inclusion and how these groups work together because it is not immediately obvious that groups are divergent by nature.

Any advice to young people joining the Financial Services sector?

I love mentoring young people and wrote my first book, The Millennials Gaido to Work, as a guide to help young professionals navigate the workplace. The first piece of advice I would give to a young professional is not to worry if you don’t immediately know what you want to do with your career. Instead, focus on acquiring tangible skills and core competencies that you can build on. If you’re in banking, doing a regulatory role may sound boring but you will understand the forces that shape the financial services industry. Don’t dismiss that teller or operations role - my first boss could still recite UCP600 (the trade bible) three decades after he joined banking. Solid corporate bankers earned their stripes by getting their hands dirty early on in their careers.

The second thing I would advise is to spend time studying people’s LinkedIn profiles to understand the paths they took. It will give you some ideas and also help to answer that tricky (and increasingly redundant) interview question: where do you see yourself in five years? The third piece of advice is a cliche with a twist: network. Most people think of networking as interacting with people with ‘big titles’ in the hopes of getting a job. The truth is most of the ‘big titles’ will forget your name the second you say it so you are better off finding the people who actually do the work and have the ‘big titles’ ear. As BPM, I was far more influential than people realised and my own network included personal assistants, junior analysts, and different teams at our hubs in Chennai, whom I knew by name. These are the people who helped me get my job done and were my most important stakeholders. The fourth and last piece of advice is to understand office politics and know how to play the game. As one of my favourite books, Workplace Poker by Dan Rust, asks: are you playing the game or just getting played? Read this book!

For more Inspiring Business Women interviews, please click here.

Posted almost 2 years ago
About the author:
Daniel Bloom

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