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We need to increase pipeline of young women rising through ranks of firms – Somuah

SHIRLEY SOMUAH is a Principal at Cardinalstone Capital Advisers. In this interview with Businessday’s ENDURANCE OKAFOR, she joins other tenacious women who have created the shared goals of closing the gender gaps in chosen professional fields and advocating for more female leadership.

Can you talk about your background and what informed your interest in choosing a career in Private Equity?

I have always been excited for the opportunity to make a transformational impact, and I couldn’t have found a better industry within which to do that than private equity. My educational background is in engineering, but my career has primarily been in various business facets. I worked first as a management consultant in New York and Dubai – serving clients across the Middle East and Africa, and then got into the private equity industry after pursuing an MBA. As my first professional experience, management consulting introduced me to provide advisory on impactful issues across a range of industries. Still, I was missing the chance to see the longer-term impact of my advice. I stumbled upon private equity through some advisory work for a Middle Eastern investment fund.

It was clear to me that this would offer the opportunity to continue to work and impact a broad range of sectors, and providing longer-term involvement was more fulfilling for me.

At Cardinalstone Capital Advisers, we invest $5 – $15m in the most promising entrepreneurs who are building businesses with the potential to be sector champions. Being from Ghana, the opportunity to do this work in West Africa and impacting scaling businesses and transforming industries in the communities closest to my heart is particularly fulfilling.

Read Also: Women in Business: Val Okaru-Bisant

What are your thoughts on the representation of women in Private Equity, especially in our region?

Globally, women continue to be under-represented in critical segments of the financial services industry, and the challenge is even starker in Africa. Over the last 10 – 15 years, there have been several exceptional female leaders in Private Equity, but we need to do more to build the pipeline and work towards a more balanced industry. As I think about increasing the representation of women in our industry, it needs to cut across all facets – we need to increase the pipeline of young women rising through the ranks of fund management firms, to take a gender lens to our investing and strive for balance in the leadership of our portfolio companies, as well as in key related roles such as Board directors.

For this year’s Choosetochallenge theme to celebrate women across the world, what are some of the opportunities for Women Leaders in private equity to challenge the status quo?

To achieve meaningful impact in our quest for a more equal, more inclusive world, my challenge is to both men and women leaders in our industry. We will only achieve inclusiveness if we all have this as a key objective. We can #choosetochallenge ourselves in the goals we set for our investments – one example is goals for portfolio diversity by industry or geography. If each of us had stated targets for gender diversity, this would start to have a measurable impact on changing the status quo

How does Cardinalstone Capital Advisers reflect gender-focus in its work?

While we are not strictly a genderlens fund, inclusiveness, focusing on gender is a key metric for us. As a leadership team, we are 33% female and closer to 40% for the team overall. We have started to focus on this across our portfolio and expect that what we have achieved within our team will be mirrored by our portfolio.

How would you describe the social impact-driven nature of the investment portfolio at CCA especially how it impacts women?

CCA invests alongside entrepreneurs seeking to have a transformational impact. As an SME investor, each business we back inherently have a long- lasting impact on its community and industry. As an example, one of our legacy businesses is the leading cassava-based agro-businesses in Nigeria today – Crest Agro (Crest). Crest sits on 13,000Ha of land and produces food- grade starch to supply Nigeria’s leading FMCG companies.

Through Crest, we have seen firsthand the scale of impact achievable through the economic empowerment of women. Over 30% of our out-grower farmers have historically been women, and our impact measurement, as well as testimonials from community leaders, have shown how our investment with the overwhelming support from these smallholder families continues to directly impact the livelihoods of their extended families and communities.

Do you think the private equity landscape in Africa has significantly evolved to fit more women investment managers?

Private equity in Africa has had seasoned professionals from its inception, and many of these professionals have been women. I do not see the landscape in Africa as less suited to women than anywhere else. We simply need to tackle the global problem of the under-representation of women in the industry. While prevailing disparities in professional and financial services may exacerbate this, there is no uniquely African disadvantage

How do you think more young female professionals can be involved in private equity and investments within the region?

The key to increasing representation is 2 pronged – A deliberate effort to grow the pipeline: The leadership of investment firms, both individually and as an industry, needs to set general representation goals. Measuring this – from the entry point to senior leadership will support tangible progress towards better representation

– Clear sponsorship of women within the industry: I have focused a lot on building and growing the pipeline at the entry level, but sponsorship (as distinct from mentorship) is a critical missing piece in retaining women and ensuring that they have the proper support to excel within the industry

As the Private Equity sector continues to thrive in the region, how do you think it can benefit women-owned SMES?

In Africa, and specifically in West Africa, small businesses are disproportionately led by women. The growth of private equity provides an opportunity for much-needed capital to support these businesses’ expansion. It has a positive knock-on effect on our economies.

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