JOHANNESBURG - Coleen Larsen is changing the gender balance at many major JSE-listed corporations in South Africa.
She is determined to make her mark at the highest level of decision-making, the board of directors, thus re-calibrating the gender balance among some of the most pivotal companies in Southern and Eastern Africa.
To this end, Larsen founded Business Engage (BE), to ensure that the status quo of the under-representation of women is formulated. If she succeeds, she says, the South African boardroom will change forever.
“We are, to my knowledge, the only company that does this full time in the manner that we do it in South Africa, and probably one of only a few globally,” she says.
Seventy-five blue chip companies and a number of them global corporations have signed up with BE to contribute toward the acceleration of women participation in the corporate world.
The immediate goal is to improve women representation on JSE led companies from the current levels of about 10 percent.
Larsen refers to this as gender mainstreaming, which involves the inclusion of women at the centre of decision-making at the highest level of corporate strategy formulation, the board.
She believes that the greater representation on corporate boards will mean corporations will make more sustainable, long term decisions based on the greater good of society, of which women constitute more than half at about 52 percent.
Women leadership is a desirable change which corporate SA must embrace.
“Once the voice of women is 30% across the board, it is the level at which they can influence the conversation, the tipping point,” says Larsen.
A fellow of the Institute of Directors, Larsen is recognised for her experience and contribution to business.
She says the progressive change in gender balance occurring in the boardrooms of bourse-listed companies in Southern and Eastern Africa is a result of her work.
She describes her mission as a brisk trot. “It is not a revolution, it is quevolution (a quick evolution),” Larsen says.
Larsen says she started her company because she had a vision to create a platform for women to succeed at the highest level in corporate SA.
She says it took much courage and fortitude to keep going.
In 2017, when all JSE-listed companies were required to report on their gender policy at board level in their Integrated Annual Report (IAR), BE released the first Status of Gender in association with the Institute of Directors Southern Africa, the Women’s Development Bank Investment Holdings, organisational strategy consulting firm Korn Ferry and Brand South Africa.
BE, which has operational offices in Johannesburg, Cape Town, Durban and Nairobi, Kenya, has designed four programmes to prepare women for board participation and leadership: the board masterclass aeries to teach women corporate leaders to better be effective participants on corporate governance, board role insight, and knowledge of the Companies Act of 2008; boardwalk to nurture young and aspiring directors to acquire the skills and insights required at board level; cross-corporate mentorship and the connected workplace to which are advanced software programmes to share experience and lessons; and lean-in circles which puts together small seminars to look at experiences and practices.
“Our business is all about gender mainstreaming,” she says, “advancing the business case that having a gender balanced board makes business sense.”
Larsen says most companies are not yet ready to commit to a minimum of 30 percent women representation on the board.
“It can take between two and five years to bring a corporate member onboard,” she says.
Larsen says the market for transformation is slowly growing as some companies are signing up for the empowerment programmes.
As the chief executive and the defacto face of BE, Larsen says her role is to sell the company’s story to corporates and to get them to to buy into the vision.
Her plan for the next five years is to expand company operations further into the African continent. “Currently we operate in South Africa and Kenya. We want to take the company further into Africa.”
She says she is not afraid of the mistakes she may make in her foray further into the continent. “Mistakes are almost never catastrophic. Learn from it, don’t repeat it and get on with it,” says Larsen.
She is reading the global bestseller, Becoming, by former U.S. First Lady Michelle Obama. “I generally read about what various high profile women are doing, how they do it and why.”