Swetha Kola, who worked for Google and was revolutionising the non-profit sector in India, is now president of the Women in Business Club at the Sauder School of Business, University of British Columbia.
In this interview she explains why women are not proportionately represented in leadership roles – and how she is helping to change this. Swetha also tells us about one of Sauder’s most inspirational female alumni members, Belinda Wong, president of Starbucks China, who brought the brand into the country.
What are your club’s main aims this year?
To inspire women to aspire for leadership positions. We would like to normalize women’s leadership in business and other spheres.
Based in Sauder’s Robert H. Lee Graduate School, the UBC MBA Women in Business Club is building a network that includes members of the club, our classmates and alums, to support one another and be a source of strength throughout our lives and careers.
We are also hoping to reach out to younger women aspiring to careers in business to make them more comfortable with the notion of leadership, and support them with mentoring.
What proportion of women at Sauder are members of your club?
Every female student of our UBC MBA class is a member of the club. At the same time, we are happy that the men in the class also play an active role, contributing their ideas and support. I like that about our class. Everyone is progressive in their thoughts and actions.
What were you doing pre-MBA?
I had a leadership role in the non-profit sector, working to transform the concept of volunteering to make it more a mainstream value in India. I graduated in arts and humanities, started my career at Google in Hyderabad and then moved into the non-profit sector, leveraging the potential of youth to empower children at orphanages.
Who is your most successful alumnus from Sauder?
Personally, I have huge respect for people who are able to leverage their knowledge and experience on a global scale. One such alumnus is Belinda Wong, who is now the president of Starbucks China. She grew up in Hong Kong, moved to Canada, studied business at Sauder and transferred that management learning to launch one of North America’s most successful brands in her home market.
Who is the most exciting speaker you’ve had this year?
More broadly at Sauder, we were excited by quite a few great speakers who visited Sauder, including: Thom Lachman, president of Procter & Gamble; Dominic Barton, global managing director of McKinsey & Co; Anna Hazare, world-renowned Indian social activist; and Sir Roger Penrose, mathematical physicist and philosopher.
Another who inspired our members of the Women in Business Club was Shauna J. Wilton. At the time she visited us, she was HR director of CHC Helicopters. She spoke brilliantly about her foray into the business world, the challenges she faced in her male-dominated workplace in the 1990s, and the rich variety of work she has encountered.
She shared her experiences of being the only woman in a number of situations during her illustrious career, and gave advice on how to become the best at your job by introspecting – identifying and honing those unique things that set you apart.
Why do you think women are not proportionately represented 50/50 on company boards and in senior management teams?
There are many factors that are at play. However, the good news is that most of those factors can be overcome with effort.
It needs attention from grassroots-level monitoring – every step from academic training to professional life, right from the shift in the mind-set to opening up opportunities and requisite training. A lot of work is to be done.
Companies who are creating policies to provide flexibility to women and men for their family responsibilities are doing it right. I think the ongoing research that is bringing to light the direct and tangible advantage of having women on company boards and senior management is definitely one way to motivate more and more people to pause and consciously give this issue the attention it deserves.
Having senior managers be more proactive in mentoring younger women to nurture their talent is another positive step in the right direction.
At Sauder a new professorship has been created, which will be taken on by Jennifer Berdahl, an international leader in the study of gender and ethnicity in organizations. She will lead research and develop programming specifically to address the need for equity in the senior ranks of business and beyond. I see this as a very positive step forward.