• Wednesday, February 21, 2024
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‘We have a huge investment plan for Africa’


She is helping companies and women entrepreneurs scale and grow globally. CHARLES IKE-OKOH talks to MARIA PINELLI, the Global Vice Chair, Strategic Markets for Ernst & Young Global.


Let me start the conversation by asking what motivates you when you go to work every day, having felt your energy and presence on stage at this year’s (2015) Entrepreneur of The Year AWARD?

I must say that I really had the privileged of being able to run a global business for entrepreneurship. My work takes me around the world and I meet fabulous entrepreneurs who are driven by passion and purpose and always had eyes for new inventions, new technologies. I love to see companies scale and grow and ultimately that motivates me. Anything that I can do to help company scale and grow is always interesting because you are building something for the future.

There is a fair degree of latitude at E &Y. We can really be entrepreneurial in our own right. It is really not an organization that is filled with barriers. If you have a good idea, you are really empowered to implement it.

We do have a broader purpose of building a better working world, so being part of that is really motivating.


We have these challenges with the number of ‘women in the board’. It has been a struggle for women in Africa and, particularly Nigeria. What is your view on this issue?

It is interesting that you are raising this question. Shortly before we officially opened the E&Y Entrepreneur of the Year event, we held the Women in Leadership Summit. So I called together some of the most influential and respected women worldwide and invited them here (Monte Carlo, Monaco) to have a conversation on women in leadership-how do we accelerate the pace of change, what advice do we give? And actually, we came away with some very interesting facts or tips for success, which we codified as a group.

I felt that there were really some excellent messages in there. For example, they said, be extremely knowledgeable in your field- implying expertise and your knowledge which brings your expertize to the forefront, be conscious of your own diversity and embrace it.

I also thought of the mindset, in terms of changing the conversation, of turning it into a positive impact. It is actually preparing your mindset so the positive outcome will feed in there.

So, I really thought there were some terrific things like embracing fear, over coming fear, fear of failure and being courageous enough to put your point of view out there, really making a statement, being authentic in the advice you give and in the case of boards, I think it is very important to be extremely prepared, extremely knowledgeable, very transparent-Ensure that you are doing everything you can to leave up to the fiduciary obligations as opposed to just being there at the table as a token.

Maria Pinelli
Maria Pinelli

In your interactions with this array of entrepreneurs, what strikes you most about them?

They are interesting. We can go on and on. I have been taken aback by some of these entrepreneurs that built themselves from the place of adversity. But more particularly, I think they are purpose driven. They seem to have started a business for a purpose, to solve a problem, to create a better world and to leave a legacy. I also feel they are extremely passionate, they are persistent and I also feel they are motivated. So this is not something they just do when they get up every morning. They understand that it is part of the cause, being able to adapt quickly and make changes when things are not always as planned or as predicted.


You make things happen for companies when you engage them. Can you share your experiences and advice you give to these companies you have worked with and have done well in the past?

Yes absolutely. I have done quite a number of IPOs (Initial Public Offers), more than 20 in 4 different countries-in London, US, China and Canada. The one piece of advice I have for a growing, scaling company is that it is very difficult to have an entrepreneurial spirit, keep a culture of innovation and continue to sustain that growth, all while building infrastructure, process, technology and control. And you need both. As you scale you need both. But that inflection point is one of the most difficult parts of building an organization. It is even more difficult for the start up peers.

And what inevitably happens is sometimes your management team needs to change because from the start-up point you had the maverick that made it all happen on their own-but that changes along the way. You will now need a team. That person has to operate within a more controlled environment, particularly if you are public. And of course you will have the sales team, the finance team and other teams.

It is a very difficult dynamic and the role of the leader is to keep the team together and cohesive but it’s a very difficult transition because you are also in the public, you are raising capital, you are trying to attract outside investors, you are trying to raise the profile of the company in a way to put it on a global scale and in a global view and platform while trying to keep everyone one at home stable. It is extremely difficult.


There has been a lull in Global IPOs do you see some activities and possible good news between now and the end of year in the market?

Yes absolutely. If you are in the US, they have just had their best year in 2014 than we’ve had in more than 5 years. It has been an extremely robust year so we talk a lot about technology IPOs. The largest sector actually was the health and biotechnology. So we will continue to see momentum.

It is up and down this past quarter certainly because every time we get an economic indicator that indicates perhaps jobs might not be where we had planned or we get a data that reflects uncertainty or interest rate fluctuations, it slows the market.

But it seems to pick up again. So we do believe that 2015 will be a strong year and will be stronger than 2014, which will make it a record year.

But I think the difficulty for companies trying to navigate such a transaction is that the window is going to open and close very quickly. So any economic news that might be favourable news might open up the window and of course any economic news that creates some uncertainty would close the window quickly. So moving quickly is going to be very important.


E&Y and perhaps the team you lead do have a clear view on this, but if you are suddenly moved to Africa in similar position what will you do?

Yes, like I earlier told you, we have a huge investment plan for Africa-Phenomenal. I don’t know if it is already publicly announced but we are making huge investment and we are going to continue to do so. But what struck me today is the amount of the work we need to do with the media, government and other stakeholders to increase the importance, the positive impact and the societal benefits of entrepreneurship.

For example, Nigeria I still think we have quite a way to go to ensure entrepreneurs are respected, that it is a respected career path, that they do bring societal benefits and that it is quite a change, moving from a state owned, largely government controlled way of operating businesses, resources, infrastructure to be more entrepreneurial.

I think it behooves you to really focus on that to understand the benefits because if you look at China for example, they were in a very similar place. I mean what they have done is take financial institutions, the financial market, add the natural resources, transportation and infrastructure and those industries have all been privatized. And so China has began to move towards a more free capitalist society by selling some of the state owned government assets and bringing them into the hands of entrepreneurs and business leaders.

I really think that would be an interesting way for Nigeria to create an inflection point. I don’t think that has to be a negative experience. That can be very positive in a way. That is actually going put more transparency in the system. It is going to create jobs across the board. It will create, I believe, a level of fairness in the way people are employed, in the way they are educated and in the way they are trained.

That is what I will do. I will focus my time with all of the ecosystems to make that a positive message and a positive experience. Accepting entrepreneurial culture, encouraging education and training, making sure we have the right regulation and taxation, coordinated support and access to capital.


We don’t get to see many women entrepreneurs in the E &Y winners circle. How can that change?

Yes, you are correct. We have a long way to go. So to that point, 40 percent of all private businesses are owned by women, they just don’t scale, which is problematic. They need access to capital, they need access to networks, and they need access to mentors.

So we have looked at this programme for several years, and it is actually common in many of our country programmes but we have now created a programme called E & Y Entrepreneurial Women. It is a leadership development programme. We have one in South Africa and what we do is find women who want to scale their businesses and we help them do it.

For example, we have several of them now who are finding people to support their business, from some of the world’s best entrepreneurs who want to support these women. So they are doing business together, they are giving them customer contracts-you know, helping them grow their sales, some of them have joined their advisory boards, some of them are providing capital. So, helping to open up that ecosystem for them is going be helpful.


Let me finally ask you this. If you were to be born again after this life would you do this job?

Yes. I think I would. My daughter is an entrepreneur, my mother is an entrepreneur and my dad is an entrepreneur. Actually my daughter asked me the other day- she said, mummy if you could do it again what would you do and I said do the same thing all over again. I am having fun doing what I am doing. Perhaps if I was speaking to a younger woman I would say do not rush it. It is a marathon not a sprint. You cannot accomplish all over night, make sure you balance it.

I often coach a lot of young women in the office, they say to me, you work so hard, but I say to them, the demon is me. It is not the organization-make sure you find your own way of balancing your happiness and work.