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I Turned Gender Biases Into Opportunities – Ritjana Ceveli

Impassioned entreprenuer Ritjana Ceveli speaks with Savithri Rodrigo about what keeps her ticking and how she handles being a woman in a man’s world.

She can be described in three words – passionate, resourceful and an out-of-the-box thinker. Believing strongly in empowering young people, creating more women in leadership and honing talent, she began her career as an investment banker after qualifying with a Bachelors and Masters from the London School of Economics. But while keeping sights on her goals, she has shattered glass ceilings across the five countries and 15 markets she worked in. Keep in mind, that each of these countries has its language which also means that the success she’s enjoyed showcases her extraordinary communication abilities and language proficiency.

Ritjana Ceveli is the CEO and Founder of ERC International, a leading diversity and inclusion theme-focused executive search operator working across diversified industries which also serves over 50 start-ups across the MENA Region, Africa and the Balkans. Pushing women to the fore has gained her membership in the 30 Percent Club, a global campaign led by Chairs and CEOs taking action to increase gender diversity in leadership. It is her unwavering commitment to her mission that saw her become Chair for Strategic Alliances for EO Accelerate Programme, UAE and a Member of the Advisory Board for Youngship, an NGO focusing on the maritime industry in the UAE.

An incurable entrepreneur, a foray she began just six years ago, Ritjana is a dynamo, a woman for whom the path of entrepreneurship holds exciting challenges and a woman who uses every lesson she learns along the way, to her advantage.

Why did you hone in on diversity and inclusion when it came to your work?

In my two-decade journey through Emerging Markets, the profound impact of diverse perspectives became evident. ERC International’s dedication to diversity and inclusion is rooted in the belief that innovation thrives when leadership is a mosaic of backgrounds. I view diversity not merely as a checkbox but as the driving force behind sustainable success. Diversity of backgrounds, cultures and interests, will also bring diversity of thoughts and ultimately result in better teams and more successful results.

What have you observed in this space when it comes to working in various countries?

There is a universal thirst for diversity, yet nuances shape each region uniquely. While the common thread is a desire to bridge gaps, crafting tailored approaches is crucial. Cultural sensitivity underscores our commitment to authentic inclusion, recognising that a one-size-fits-all approach falls short in a world of rich diversity.

What’s your take when it comes to walking the talk on diversity and inclusion in boardrooms?

The goal for female representation at the board level is 20% for UAE-listed companies. However, female nominations remain low making this goal difficult to achieve. Our research and work with corporates have shown that board-ready women exist, yet gaining board-level experience and access to build networks with boards is challenging. We have partnered with organisations such as Aurora50 that advocate the promotion of Women in Boardroom in UAE, and as such we are strengthening the pipeline of female board talent.

However, the placement depends on quotas and allocations and often this is beyond our control. It’s invigorating to collaborate with leaders who understand that diversity is not just a virtue but a strategic imperative, fostering innovation and organisational resilience.

You started your career as an Investment Manager in London and then Dubai – a pretty challenging environment for a female. How did you succeed – being a woman in a man’s world?

Embarking on my finance journey demanded resilience and an unwavering pursuit of excellence. Being a woman became my unique edge, injecting diverse perspectives into strategic decisions. Challenges were stepping stones, not obstacles. I turned gender biases into opportunities, proving that capability knows no gender.

When I started in the asset management industry some 21 years ago, there were not many females but I was lucky to have a mentor and a boss who was a female. For a woman to succeed in a career path, she must have a healthy support system at her workplace, a sponsorship programme and a mentorship programme in which to rely.

Gathering knowledge from Indonesia to South Africa and Hungary, what skills did you amass in building talent pools across markets?

Navigating diverse markets honed a skill set beyond borders. Cultural agility, strategic vision, and an intimate understanding of industry dynamics became my toolkit. ERC’s talent pools are crafted not through a global lens but through a nuanced understanding of local nuances, ensuring the right talent fits seamlessly into diverse landscapes. It is crucial to understand cultures, ways of behaviour, and process thinking to see how that can be plugged and played when it comes to building teams. Often you realise that when you move beyond fear, you feel free. It is important to go beyond what seems and feels familiar to us, and that is often sitting beyond the borders.

What project has given you the most amount of satisfaction?

The Emiratisation campaigns with Dubai Parks and Resorts, Du Telecom and Cleveland Clinic stand as sources of immense satisfaction. As we move forward into the new era of embracing Emiratisation in the private sector, I am excited to see the acquisition of brilliant talents and their placement within global companies. There are many projects that I would like to highlight starting from building up teams for start-ups in India to placing executives in countries like Burundi, Nigeria and Thailand. The excitement that the challenge brings to the table, is the driving force in this journey. For us, it is never about just recruitement, it’s about empowering communities and reshaping destinies.