Arabian Business Feature
Mon 29 Mar 2021 09:20 PM
People are the real asset, not capital
Belynda Lee, chief operating officer at Ascira, talks about writing her bestseller, C-Suite cultural differences between the Far East, West and Middle East, and offers advice to young women aiming to break the glass ceiling of the board room
Belynda Lee, COO of Ascira and bestselling author, says that while there has been progress, more work needs to be done to improve women representation in boardrooms.
You seem to have worn many hats in life as an immigrant, author, mother and public speaker who has lived and worked in the Far East, West and now the Middle East. What aspects of your rich experience are you building on to help develop Ascira to fulfil its true potential? The ability to wear many hats is when you have a choice on the hats you choose to wear. In my case, I survived my life challenges and have earned my stripes in dealing with adversity, which in turn made me who I am today.
I immigrated to Canada for higher education. I wanted to be an artist; however, I end up with an MBA in leadership, which I never regret earning. The purpose of my book, Five-Inch Heels, is to inspire women. I have never once thought I would be a writer, but my audience wanted to hear my story, so I fulfilled their wishes. As a result of fulfilling someone else’s wishes, my book was an Amazon bestseller in 2014 when it launched. Five-Inch Heels talks about my unexpected motherhood and then single parenting with close to no income. When one is poor and there is really nothing much at all, you start to dream of how you can have a better life. That means you do what you need to do to get to where you need to get to. This is when determination, tenacity, and focus develop. When I speak publicly, I teach. Public speaking is not an income generator for me; I speak to educate so I can empower people around the world to understand what their potential is, especially women. When I empower others, I also empower myself at the same time. Lastly, my corporate experiences come from years of working for billion-dollar private and public listed companies that have a global presence. When one works for a corporation with top-performing executives who are sharp, you get to learn a thing or two. At the end of the day, we learn to master our minds, emotions, and time to get the best out of ourselves and our team. Having academic excellence is never enough to develop any company to its fullest potential, though. You need a combination of experiences to understand the intricacy of human behaviour and organisational behaviour to maximise the fullest potential of any company. Your CEO, John Sachtouras, told me recently that he wants the platform to reach a billion people over the next seven to ten years. By any standards, that's quite an ambition. What kind of steps are you taking today to try and make this lofty goal a reality?
CEOs can tend to have big visions that a normal person may not understand. You are correct when you say it is ambitious but then again, what vision isn’t ambitious? When I first found out, I thought I heard wrong. Now I look at the goal as a goal that we like to reach, building a strong fundamental foundation is the key for a sustainable company, big or small. I like to overbuild the foundation, so the company has room to grow and expand. Capital is not the only resource to build a giant company. The most important factor is human resources, finding the right talent with the right skill set is most important to start a company, then bring in the next phase of talent to elevate the company to the following phase. The right talent base will take a while to find and when you do find them, you need to develop them to fit into the role you need them to work in. A strong foundation in any company comes from the people you hire. It is never the capital that is the asset, the real asset is the people. It is the people who will help bring this company to reach Beyond a Billion.
What attracted you to join the Ascira team? When John shared what Ascira was supposed to be, and how I was to put this company together. I was the first employee of the company. Since then, it has always been the vision of Ascira being a company for the people. We built this company for people to be part of, with no judgment and no stereotyping. If someone were to share this with me on day one, that would be the reason why I joined the Ascira team.
What are some key cultural differences you've noticed between Far East, West and the Middle East from a C-Suite executive's perspective? The cultural differences come from the upbringing of the individuals; the Far East and Middle East may tend to be traditional and conservative while the West tends to be bolder and more transparent when they do business. However, even with the most traditional companies there may come a time when they have to risk a little more to close a deal. I have had the privilege to work for companies that are structured and traditional when it comes to a time when we have to meet our quarterly numbers. In terms of business cultural differences, the world uses the same business cultures. However, when it comes to cultural differences derived from gender egalitarianism, it could be a different story altogether, especially at the C-suite level. Finding the right talent with the right skill set is most important to start a company, Lee said How did the pandemic affect operations at Ascira? What lessons did it offer you, professionally and personally? When the world shut down in 2020, the one question we asked ourselves was, 'Who do we work with now that no one is working?' It was fortunate that we were in the set-up phase and, because we are a digital and technology company, we were able to work remotely from anywhere around the world. We have global partners from the US, London, Asia, and the Middle East making our build manageable. 2020 showed us clearly that if we have to build a company, do not build it locally, build a global company. It is also key to have international business contacts - without these contacts, we wouldn’t have been able to build the Ascira you see today.
With an on-demand education academy, personality science-based sales training tools and a travel rewards platform, it seems like Ascira does a lot of things. What are some of the challenges that brings up for you as COO? Ascira is a personal development platform that will focus its product lines on education and knowledge-based products. The products do not deviate from one another; in fact, there are complementary lines that provide our members a variety of choices to learn and grow. As COO of Ascira, my role is to oversee business operations, which include marketing and sales, human resources, research and development of products, and other functions. If there is a need to call for higher quality control of products, I will develop plans that ensure policies and procedures for all to follow. My job is essentially problem-solving on a daily basis, however, setting performance and quality standards for all products and delivery of goods and services to elevate the company’s reputation is key. Hiring top talents to oversee projects and implementing strategies to meet both short-term and long-term objectives are my top priorities.
From a branding or marketing perspective, what are some challenges Ascira faces? Ascira is built on the grounds of bringing people together under one community platform. Our branding and marketing are done to reflect that and are created in-house by a team of highly skilled professionals who work closely with the CEO. Based on expectations, timelines and workload, I think they are doing a pretty good job at the moment.
As a highly experienced C-level executive, you've spoken a lot about how women can achieve their professional potential. What's changed on that front now compared to when you started your career two decades ago? In what ways do today's young women have an easier path to the top, and what are some hurdles they might be facing in 2021 that didn't exist at the turn of the millennium? Two decades have certainly made some changes, but again when we look at today’s numbers it is still not enough to make a difference. Let me share some stats from Editor’s Choice, Fortune, Catalyst, American Progress, and Investopedia:
29 percent of senior management is female
33 Fortune 500 Companies are led by female CEOs
31 percent of senior roles are held by women in USA
12 percent of women are CFO in Fortune 500 companies
Male vs female CEO stats show a big gap in salaries
As you can see, it is still a long way to parity, and these are only numbers from the US - the global figures show even lower numbers than this.
For the millennial women out there, you have to continue to work harder towards gaining a seat at the boardroom - and when you do reach there, make sure you sit at the table and not on the sidelines.