Season 2, Episode 8: The Case for Diversity with Soula Proxenos

December 21, 2021
In the final episode of Season 2 of Creating Markets, we talk to professional board member Soula Proxenos about what it means to lead both from inside and outside of a company.

Subscribe & Listen


In the final episode of Season 2 of Creating Markets, we talk to professional board member Soula Proxenos about what it means to lead both from inside and outside of a company. We learn where she found her fighting spirit and why it is important to have not only women, but a diversity of people represented and listened to at the highest level of an organization. Proxenos tells us why diversity is very good for business.

Related Links:


Jasmin Bauomy (JB): Hello and welcome to Creating Markets, I'm your host Jasmin Bauomy. On today's episode, we're talking about sitting on boards, specifically, women on boards.

Soula Proxenos (SP): I have five board roles and they span companies that are head officed in Washington, DC, but that particular organization has a footprint of 20 subsidiary companies globally, to pan-African companies. Two are head officed out of Nigeria. One's out of Botswana and also an organization head officed out of Europe.

JB: This is Soula Proxenos and she's got tons of experience on boards and she’s got the insight of being one of very few women in these roles. But before we dive into that, let's get to know Soula just a little bit more.

JB: We'll start off with a few icebreaker questions. And so one of the first things I kind of have to ask is where are you from?

SP: Always a very complicated question for me. I was born and raised and educated in South Africa. Just a wonderful, wonderful country. And my parents were immigrants from Cyprus and I'm married to an American and have been living in the United States for a little over two decades, with doing huge amounts of travel to the continent and to Europe.

SP: So I sort of feel like I'm a little bit from everywhere.

JB: That sounds amazing. And where am I finding you right now?

SP: I happen to be in France, in a rural part of France, as we're speaking this morning.

JB: Wow. That sounds really lovely. It sounds like you're seeing the world. So since we are living through a pandemic, I have to ask you, because you’ve surely gone through one or two lockdowns so far, what's one of the hobbies that you picked up during the pandemic?

SP: I mean, I don't think I picked up any new hobbies during the pandemic. I think I had an opportunity to go back to some old hobbies and one of the things that I really enjoy working with is ceramic. And so I'm very lucky that I have a little studio in my garden. And I have been able to kind of go back and make things and that's been a lot of fun.

JB: That sounds great. All right, well then, we'll dive into the first part of this interview, which is where we'll look back at how you got to where you are and what was at stake back then, and maybe is at stake still. So, I want to start us off by asking, how did you become the Soula that we now are getting to know?

SP: I grew up with two older brothers in suburban Johannesburg. And we had a very privileged upbringing and I became very aware of the privilege that I had because I grew up in apartheid South Africa at a very young age. I don't know what made me politically aware because certainly I did not come from a politically aware family.

JB: Growing up in apartheid South Africa, and being the kind of kid who asks questions, it was almost impossible for Soula NOT to have a political awakening early in life. But what really put her on the road to the executive life and being on boards was finding her voice and speaking up. And that's something she started doing from a pretty young age.

SP: Yeah, I remember at a very young age, being in a small little strip shopping mall. And there was a gathering of people in the parking and I was getting curious and, you know, sort of curious child, and I sort of walked up to the gathering and it turned out there was a police van and somebody was being arrested.

SP: And back in those days was something called the pass. And if you were black, you had to have a pass that authorized you to be in ostensibly a white area. And there were about 30 adults surrounding this police van and there were two policemen and they were busy pulling somebody into the van and it was notoriously terribly corrupt because, you know, you always had to have pass money, which basically meant you bribed the police to let you go.

SP: And I remember looking around this group and I was the only child, so I sort of used to pushed to the front. And I remember saying “what's going on,” you know, out loud. And for a very brief moment it was like a movie, sort of everything stopped and everybody stopped and looked at me and I looked around and I thought, you know, what happened?

SP: Am I in a silent movie and I'm the only person with the voice? Because, I, it was like, just because I was there and I was white, even though the fact that I was probably about 10 or 11 again, I had a voice that all these adults around me didn't have. And I suppose all of those experiences and just my sort of base personality is kind of what led me into leadership positions in the executive sense.

SP: And I, you know, spent 30 years as an executive you know, really kind of in the doing side of things, but about I don't know, 15 or so years ago I started working on a board of a nonprofit in Washington, DC, working with women and girls who on the street were homeless and who needed help.

SP: And it was a wonderful organization that is still thriving. It's called N Street Village. And I then became, after a few years of being on the board, I got asked to be the board chair.

SP: So I started a parallel life of doing non-executive work and executive work, and then became an executive director on a couple of the boards that I was actually employed by in those companies. And decided that I really wanted the diversity and the challenge of multiple organizations, but also the personal abilities to have more flexibility.

JB: Hmm. Can you explain to me, what's the difference between being on a board and being an executive?

SP: Absolutely. So being an executive, you're responsible for doing things. You're responsible for the operations and you make things happen. Being on a board, you can describe a little bit more like standing outside the tent. And the tent is the, is the organization. And you're sticking your nose into, through the tent flap and you're looking inside and seeing what's going on, but your hands have to stay behind your back. You can't step into the tent and start doing things in the tent. But your job is to look into the tent and to say, you know, things are going well. So it's strategy, governance. Having a chance to have a little bit of distance, whereas executives are living and working day in and day out.

JB: Hmm. All right. So that's really helpful. Thank you. When you started to be in upper management and in executive roles and on boards, what was the landscape like in terms of gender distribution in leadership roles?

SP: That's funny you should ask that because if this was a video you would have seen my face just breaking into a smile. Unfortunately, it is not very different to what it is like now. My first senior role and I was in about my early towards mid-twenties, I was the only woman in the executive team and the management team. And on an average basis, significantly younger than anybody else. And unfortunately that's sort of been my experience all along. And now as I'm getting older, that's changing. But unfortunately the vast majority of my boards, I am the only woman. And I'm very often the first woman that's been on that board.

JB: I'm always a bit wary of people pointing out someone's gender, someone's ethnic background, because it shouldn't matter that much,right? At the same time it kind of does. So my question is, how does you being one of the very few or only women in your surroundings? How does that inform the way you work and the way that people sometimes respond to you?

SP: I think it's extremely important to have diversity and until we actually have diversity, I think we do have to keep asking those questions. I think that we ask the questions about gender. I think we ask the questions about ethnic diversity and I think we asked the questions about sexual orientation.

SP: Egon Zehnder in 2020 did a report on women on boards and 23.3 percent of all board roles were held by women. But only 6 percent of those board roles were women that were actually executives. So in other words, the C-suite, the senior management you know, the C suite, which is chief of everything, which is why it ends up being called C you know, chief executive officer, chief information officer, chief investment officer, chief finance officer.

SP: All those roles are typically held by men. I mean, I speak with my colleagues and I say, “Well, you know, why is it that we're making another male hire at the C-suite?” And they'll say, “We're hiring the best candidate.” And I say, “Okay, that's great. How did we go looking for the best candidate? How did we advertise? Are we hiring from the golf course? Or are we hiring people that look like us?” Because we're human, we all like people who think and look like we do.

SP: And so it's very natural that that's where we'll go to. The IFC did a study recently that showed that organizations that have diversity actually do better. They're more profitable, not just they do better things in the world for the world. And it's obvious if you're sitting in a room and everybody's like minded, then if you've got the wrong idea, it is going to reinforce the wrong idea. But if you've got different opinions in a room, they will start to infuse a discussion and a debate. It's the ability to hear other opinions. It's first of all, the ability to have another view in the room, and then it's the ability for the group to actually hear what those other opinions are saying and weigh them up.

JB: I so appreciate that. Yes, I totally agree. And you've already touched on a few things that I would have loved to ask in part two. So in part two I want to look at what the situation is like now. And you already said it's not that different from when you started. Has there really been hardly any improvements? What have you seen? Can you give us some positive news?

SP: I think we all as creatures want to see progress. I think that's the human condition. And yes, there has been positive news. Certainly some countries are really embracing diversity. There's definitely been a bigger acceptance of LBGTQ community. Although, we're not seeing that on boards yet in terms of our 5,000 board seats on fortune 500 companies, only 24 are held by openly LGBTQ people. So, you know, that's still an area that we've got a significant amount of work to do on. Having said that though, we are seeing, I mean, Black Lives Matter has really made an impact in corporate America, for example. We are seeing countries starting to look at gender pay parity with great deal of seriousness. We see this in the UK, for example, and I think this is really, really important. The fact that a woman gets paid 70 something percent of a man's salary doing the same job is completely unacceptable. And that's, again, somebody's role in the board, not necessarily the woman on the board, but you know, enlightened men have this obligation as well to actually look and say, “Do we need to do a pay parity audit?”

SP: And very often the answer is, “No, we don't need to do this because there isn't an intended bias.” It's the unintended bias that's in the system that needs to be teased out and examined, and if it's there, changed.

SP: I'm a great believer in quotas. I know this is highly controversial.

JB: I was going to ask you that as well. So what, what, what is your opinion on quotas because it's so controversial?

SP: You know, I think there's so much unintended and real bias that unless you sometimes force people to change their opinion and to move, they don't. So if you think Switzerland only what 20 something years ago allowed women to vote in all cantons. We are not that progressed as a society. So maybe it was 30 years ago in Switzerland, but nonetheless in our lifetimes.

JB TRACK: I checked it out and it's true. The last canton, oh, and a canton is like a state, in the U.S. So the last canton in Switzerland to allow women the right to vote did so in 1991.

SP: Even with the quota system, if you take a look at the numbers and the U.S. is, is, is a terrible laggard, there aren't any quotas, you only have a very small percentage of women holding board roles and an even smaller percentage of women in the C-suite and a miniscule percentage of those women actually running organizations or chairs of organizations. So you know, again, if you look at the Egon Zehnder report, only 2.1 percent of organizations listed in the United States have women as their chairs of the board.

SP: So there's something really wrong with that. If you think about almost half of the economically active population being female.

SP: Forcing people out of their comfort zone, I think is really very useful. I mean, I think it would be the same as if you said, “Well, you know, we've got a lot of, you know, racial discrimination, but I think everybody should get on. You know, we're going to just make this voluntary.” It really should just kind of get on and just realize that, you know, we're all, we're all equal. We're all good. Yeah. That's a great sentiment to have. But if you look at the world, that's not where we are in a reality. And so changing the reality sometimes requires a process that makes people a little bit uncomfortable, but if you don't have the discomfort, I don't know how you get to the change. Because simply asking people to change or showing people that it is good for their businesses to change, gets a nod. And they're back on the golf course and back hiring a buddy onto the board because that's who they're comfortable with.

SP: Right. So a pretty grim picture so far, but there's a shift starting to happen. So let's dive into part three of the interview, where we look at what the future holds. In the very near future, we're starting to see a handful of companies wake up to a problem that needs to be fixed. And they’re taking the steps to fix it.

SP: There's a movement called the 2X Challenge, and that's basically making it very consciously looking at where are women in the process? Are they in the companies making the investment decisions? Are they being served by the products of those companies? Are they sitting on the boards of those companies?

SP: And that's a movement that's been started by the development finance institutions, like the IFC, like CDC and others. There are 15 signatories to this movement and there's very significant money being focused on that because women are not making the investment decisions. For example, there are very, very few female-led private equity funds.

SP: If you can name four private equity firms that have raised over a hundred million dollars that are led by women globally, you'd have to really scratch your head hard to come up with that list. Whereas if you had to name 400 private equity firms that have raised over a hundred million dollars to invest, you would be able to come up with that list fairly quickly. So it just gives you a sense of there isn't the same access to capital for women starting firms, investing in firms, and all of these initiatives are incredibly important.

JB: So one last question I have for you, it's a little bit twofold is what is the one kind of lesson-slash-advice that somebody maybe has given you, or that you learned over the years that you would like to pass on to other women who would like to be in leadership roles or in the middle of taking on a leadership role?

JB: And then also what's the one thing that men should know when it's about, you know, getting women on board?

SP: Let me start with the last question, because I think that's so often overlooked. I think this is as much the responsibility of the men as it is of women. And I think that men who are progressive and are thoughtful really need to be the squeaky wheels because they've got a voice like me when I was a little girl standing by the side of the van, watching a man being arrested.

SP: My little, little ten-year-old voice was so much more powerful than anybody else standing around that van. And in the same way, a man's voice on these issues is so much more powerful than women's voices can ever be. So my message to men out there is just know you've got much more power in this than you realize.

SP: And you've got an obligation to use that power if you believe in these things. That I would say about men. In terms of advice to women I think one would be just, don't be your own limiter. Don't be the one who says, “I can't do this because they won't let me, they wouldn't give it to me. They’re looking for a man.” Let them tell you that you can't have it, but don't do your self-limitation. And I see this all the time and saying, “Well, you know, they've never hired a woman for this role, so why should I apply?”

SP: Let them tell you that they don't want you. Put yourself up for some rejection. And that's tough. That's really tough. None of us like being rejected.

JB: I think that’s very solid.

SP: And the other more generic advice I would say to everybody out there is if one could separate out one's achievements from one’s self identity, you just feel more robust and more calm.

SP: You are not your results. You are who you are, know who you are and your results are outside of that. So you don't become attached to your results. Or your failures as a result. So it gives you more confidence. It gives you more space. It gives you more humility because if you are successful, you are not that success.

SP: You are who you are and you have successes. You are who you are and you have failures. And trying to hold that central I think is a useful guiding process.

JB: And that's it for this episode of Creating Markets. Special thanks to Soula Proxenos for taking the time to talk with me!

This also brings us to the end of Season 2 of Creating Markets! If you enjoyed this episode or maybe some of the other episodes please like, and follow our podcast. And share your favorite episodes with your friends and colleagues. We really, really appreciate the support.

Once again, I'm your host, Jasmin Bauomy. This podcast is produced by Aida Holly-Nambi, Maeve Frances and me for the IFC Communications team.