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Women in finance: Q and A with MindTribes CEO Div Pillay

Div Pillay is driving change on many fronts. As CEO of MindTribes, she works with Australian and multinational corporations to culturally align staff and improve operational efficiency. She is the co-founder of CDW (Culturally Diverse Women), a social enterprise helping culturally different corporate women to advance in their careers. Div is also an ambassador for Plan International’s Because I Am A Girl campaign. She was named as one of the AFR’s 100 Women of Influence 2018. Div spoke to Six Park head of communication Erika Jonsson about her experience with finance as a businesswoman and migrant.

Div Pillay Cropped

What are your earliest memories of money?

 My earliest memories come from my father – he was very much about living within your means and saving. My first big purchase was a Mini Golf in my 20s; it took every bit of saving from my first year of working and I bought it with cash; that mentality came from my dad. We never lived beyond our means and we didn’t have credit card debt, which we find very different in the Australian culture. I grew up in South Africa and it took us four or five generations to become middle-class and so we’re always looking to advance the next generation. Cash, savings, no debt meant stability.

How did your experiences as a migrant shape your attitude to money and finance?

My parents’ idea of success was rooted in education and excellence in an organisational career that provided for a family.  Coming to Australia has opened me up to calculated risk.  It does feel strange going against what we grew up with and even now there are family members and friends who feel being an entrepreneur is too risky.     

We came to Australia with that same South African attitude of getting a job and getting security. We had very little savings once we converted our money from South African Rand to Australian dollars; we had to work first to build up a reserve of cash to build our first home nine years ago – that was the stable thing to do as a family. We bought into the Australian lifestyle, navigating between our own norms and a newly forming norms and values.  We embraced the freedoms of Australia, the security, the ability to buy property anywhere, send our children to any school – we grew up in the apartheid era under the Group Areas Act, where all of these rights were restricted by race, so we grew up in an Indian area while ‘whites’ were allowed the privilege of being in the more affluent areas.   It opened us up to possibilities to choose a different life. 

At that point, we started thinking about what next. What would life look like in 10 years if we continued the way we were? While we were stable, both in good jobs, we had migrated in our early 30s and had taken stability in jobs over negotiating salaries commensurate with our skills and experience.  Our South African experience was somewhat discounted.  We trailed this salary gap/ethnic or migrant pay gap, being paid lower than Anglo-Celtic, Australian born professionals, even after 10 years of working in Australia. This impacted our investment opportunities and super contributions. 

When we projected 10 years out we knew we wouldn’t be in the position we wanted in Australia – to be able to give our kids the education we wanted, live the lifestyle we wanted or make a financial contribution to social good. We could see we’d be quite constrained financially.  It started the experimentation into entrepreneurial ideas to increase our opportunity to invest.  From 2009 to 2013 (when MindTribes was born), we had three business start-ups that failed because the ideas weren’t scalable or didn’t give us the margin we needed.  Failure was learning and we were doing it safely whilst still in roles.  We learnt about different business models and pricing models (my husband, who is the co-founder in MindTribes, comes from an executive financial career in mergers and acquisitions in some of Australia’s iconic firms).  This learning was invaluable when starting and now growing MindTribes.   

What are the hardest lessons you’ve learned about finance?

Probably the hardest thing has been learning about growing money – it goes right back to early childhood and saving, saving, saving. It’s a concept I’m still struggling with because we’ve changed the way we look at money – we don’t just earn a set amount each month and have an employer put money away for our super. Money in the bank is the safe option, but now we are experimental when it comes to growth.   

With the Royal Commission having the impact it has, we’re naturally cautious of the advice we get, but doing nothing and waiting for money to grow isn’t a great option. It’s easy to revert to a risk-averse position because it is comfortable. Once you understand how money works and the options available it is about making decisions.   We are now readdressing our super, as we took a hit at migration and then in going from corporate roles to a start-up business, which we boot-strapped. 

What I have valued the most about our decisions with money is my husband and my transparency and open communication about money.  In many cultures and between genders, conversations about money may not be as open.  Married for almost 19 years, we have always built a financial plan together and we are now planning for our retirement – money spans your life milestones, so this equality in our home has made money decisions, joint and trusted, together.

Your social enterprise, CDW, aims to help women of culturally and linguistically different women advance in their careers. What sort of additional barriers do CALD women experience in leadership?

ASX leadership is currently less than 2% of culturally and linguistically different women despite our multicultural society being made up of 48.6% born overseas or a parent born overseas. 

It’s been a dream of ours (my husband’s and mine) to create a community around changing that, given our personal experiences. We kept hearing the same stories from migrants we interacted with socially – feeling stuck in careers, stabilising lifestyles without personal networks and trying to navigate Australian business culture. We wanted to do something deliberate, especially for women, as the corporate attention was on gender – we wanted to bring in the intersectionality of gender and culture and add to the dialogue.  We formed CDW 18 months ago and now have 120 women in our group, spanning 20+ cultural heritages – most of them are lower in leadership than they should be, given their capability and earning lower. Anecdotally, migrants lose 5-8 years of salary in their transition into Australia.

We support these professional women, through Masterclasses to help them navigate their barriers to achieve their goals.  Over time, they improve their networks and branding and engage the right advocates and sponsors (often Anglo-Celtic males) to open doors.  We also work with organisations to address leader and organisational barriers.   We validated our learning from CDW in a collaborative study with The University of Melbourne, were we interviewed 18 senior CALD women in senior leader, executive and Board roles – they were difficult to find.  Despite their success, they still faced personal and external barriers from, not feeling confident, dealing with responses to their accents, quieter dispositions, perceived age; they lacked family support – having left family and support structures behind in other countries, and in addition they found the networking culture ‘blokey’ and were often pigeon-holed as technical specialists. 

The research has been well received and it is allowing us to have strategic conversations with the C-Suite in large corporates, from an evidence base and business position.  The ethnic pay gap from multicultural and First Peoples, is an economic and customer problem.  Employees are customers.  Big brands need to tune in their marketing, sales and service to include a diverse customer.   With net overseas migration and an increase in births from migrants, our future Australian customer, is not Anglo-Celtic.

You contribute up to 10% of MindTribes’ revenue to the Because I Am A Girl, Plan International’s campaign for addressing global issues of gender inequality. What drew you to this campaign over others?

When we came to Australia I was pregnant, and we supported three children through Plan International who were the same ages as our own children as a way of giving back. Some years ago, I had been in the Philippines for a key client and my daughter was asking me about the trip. I shared with her the conflict I felt seeing the poverty all around, but not in the business parks which is surrounded by luxury – where all the Australian and multinationals outsourced their staff.  She said, “Why don’t you help by giving some of the money you got from your client?”

So I acted on this sound advice from my daughter, and we decided to build our financial models to include a 10% of revenue share to Plan.  We and other SMEs have changed the narrative that CSR is for corporates only.  Our consistent giving has allowed an injection of funds to focused initiatives for girls in Australia and in developing countries.  One project we are proud of supporting was helping more girls get birth certificates – in developing countries, the percentage can be as high as 40% - where girls aren’t registered at birth.  This means  they can’t open bank accounts, get access to medical services or get driver’s licences; they are like ghosts. Plan identified this need and we, with others, supported it. We’re also supporting Safer Cities for Girls – this is a project in which girls are mapping their cities using apps or on butchers’ paper – they put happy faces or sad faces in places where they felt safe or where they were harassed. After mapping the cities, city councils can start changing the infrastructure and improving things like adding lighting or putting in seating or opening up cities to make women and young girls feel safer. Girls lead this with their cities. Five cities were included: Delhi, Kampala, Lima, Madrid and Sydney. What we love with PLAN is that when you see the visuals and imagery it’s always of a girl striving and empowered, not a girl in strife. We hope others back initiatives that allow girls to thrive and to change their worlds systemically rather than reactive funds to make short-term change that is not sustainable.

We are proud of our partnership with Plan, and that our giving is transparently managed.  It goes back to investing to grow. Our personal and business financial plan carries our giving contribution as a core element – it is part of our social impact and legacy.  Money can do good.  

To learn more about Because I Am A Girl, visit https://www.plan.org.au/becauseiamagirl

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