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Diversity in Business: Inspirational Female CEOs

The Gen Z generation have been brought up with the belief that equal opportunity and gender equality are achievable goals in arenas of education, work, family and much more. However, only one in 5 businesses in the UK has a female CEO, despite the findings of a 2019 report showing that the advancement of female entrepreneurs could increase UK economic growth by £250bn. With fewer female business leaders, other women face a lack of networks, mentors, and a significant finance gap in funding for their businesses.

Moreover, the pervasive atmosphere of sexism and psychological bias that is imbedded within our society should not be ignored. Its impact can be evidenced by the recent Telegraph survey of 750 female entrepreneurs, where two thirds felt they were treated differently and taken less seriously than their male counterparts, as many investing institutions tend to fund male-owned businesses. Personally, I am most inspired by the women from minority backgrounds who have broken the barriers of a male-centred business world after experiencing intersectionality. Coined by legal scholar Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw, this term insists on the indivisibility of someone’s identity and experience when they belong to more than one disadvantaged group. In a society as diverse as 2023, in order to break down patriarchal and discriminatory biases, it is important to celebrate women who have contended with stigma on multiple fronts and still been able to excel in their prospective business fields.

1. Huda Kattan – Founder of Huda Beauty, WISHFUL

Nationality: Huda Kattan was born in Oklahoma and is the daughter of immigrants from Iraq. She currently resides in Dubai, United Arab Emirates.

Net worth: $560 million

Business story: As of 2020, Kattan was ranked as one of America’s Richest Self-Made Women by Forbes, with her business empire valued at $1.2 billion. Declared as one of the "10 most powerful influencers in the world of beauty", she also has 48 million followers on Instagram and more than 4 million followers on YouTube. After being fired from a job in recruiting during the 2008 recession, she went to makeup school in Los Angeles and started the Huda Beauty blog in 2010. As she focused on building a career she would be genuinely invigorated by, she generated a following behind her makeup tutorials and launched a false eyelash line in 2013 after a $6000 loan from her sisters. At the time, Sephora Dubai expected to sell 7000 units of lashes annually but instead sold them in a week, with retail sales hitting $10 million the following year. As the brand expanded internationally, into the US in 2015, it also expanded its product lines, with over 140 products ranging from skincare, makeup, and perfume. Nevertheless, her entrepreneurship journey was not always smooth sailing as Huda used her personal credit card to buy $5 Facebook ads. One of the most admirable aspects of her career is her $10 million investment to create HB Angels, an early-stage investment fund for entrepreneurs, particularly women founders, starting companies in a range of industries.

As a female, Iraqi American business leader, Huda has spoken about the racial exclusivity and discrimination she has experienced in her career. She has revealed that a lack of representation as well as the racism she experienced as a child motivated her to create an inclusive business that would allow people of all skin tones (with over 30 foundation colours) to feel empowered. Particularly in the beauty sector, she has said that the industry is ‘absolutely still failing people of colour’ because discrimination is more discreet and nuanced than one might think. Recounting her own journey in starting her own business, she points out that ‘sexism exists and is oppression’. She believes that women are forced to be more forceful and ‘alpha’ than men to be taken seriously as her business was initially labelled a ‘hobby’ by her male peers. In terms of addressing sexism, she encourages women to be firm and passionate in their fields, but fundamentally highlights that there is still a ‘long way to go.’

2. Indra Nooyi

Net worth: $320M

Business story: Indra Nooyi was the first woman of colour and the first immigrant to head a Fortune 50 company. After growing up in a middle-class family in Chennai, India, she worked as a receptionist to make ends meet during her MBA at Yale. After graduating in 1980 with a master’s degree in Public and Private Management, she worked for six years at Boston Consulting Group. At the age of 38, she was offered an executive level post at two leading companies: PepsiCo and General Electric. During her time at PepsiCo, she earned a reputation as a strategic long-term thinker and a skilled communicator. During her 12-year tenure as CEO, she played a fundamental role in mergers, selling and acquiring subsidiary companies and navigating global strategy. She actualized PepsiCo’s potential through her ’Performance with a Purpose’ initiative which focused on environmental sustainability and retaining talent through paid parental leave for men and women alike. Crucially, whilst she was CEO, the company’s annual net profit more than doubled, growing from $2.7 billion to $6.5 billion.

How she has dealt with discrimination in the business world: As one of the only Indian women at such a senior level in the 1980s, Indra recounts that she ‘worked harder than anyone else ... so that people didn’t look at me as a woman, a woman of colour, an immigrant.’ She has revealed real life examples of male staff members dismissing female colleague’s comments and urges the need to call out and dismiss such behaviour in boardrooms, so that people do not ‘have a license to behave badly’ since discriminatory bias can ‘cascade down the company,’ infiltrating and poisoning office culture. She has also spoken candidly about the unrealistic juggling act that female executives grapple with when they also have families.

Overall, the challenges of gender equality are as endemic at the top of the corporate world as they are within our educational institutions, social circles, and local communities. As women are paid less than their male counterparts and make up less than 5% of CEOs, these figures are even lower for those who experience intersectionality. The year Nooyi resigned from PepsiCo, others followed this trend and there was twenty percent drop in the number of female CEOs. Until there are a greater number of women in high placed positions, the job of the female CEO will be one of the most challenging and lonely. However, women such as Indra and Huda are prominent aspirational figures that all ambitious young people should admire as role models.

Written by Priya Mahan


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