Pearl Uzokwe is the Director for Governance and Sustainability at Sahara Group Limited. She is a qualified solicitor and member of the Law Society of England & Wales. She graduated with a LLB (Hons.) from the University of Bristol and is also a Chartered Secretary (ICSA). She has since experienced a remarkable professional growth in the last fifteen years whilst building her legal career within UK and Nigerian corporate structures.
In 2002, she began working at the Crown Agents UK who provides specialist and multidisciplinary services in institutional development, international trade & procurement and finance. Her role in the legal department of the organisation, saw her provide legal advice and support to the UK Department for International Development (DFID) in the development and administration of a number of notable funds including the Private Infrastructure Development Group – set up to facilitate private investment in the infrastructure needed to help alleviate poverty in developing countries and the International Finance Facility for Immunisation (IFFIM), a $4 billion investment facility designed to accelerate the availability of funds to be used for health and immunisation programs in 70 of the world’s poorest countries.
She built a strong working relationship with the donors which included country donors like the UK, French and South African governments and private NGOs like the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. These two funds in addition to her work on the Emerging African Infrastructure Fund (EAIF), influenced her decision to seek employment primarily with organisations who combined their corporate pursuits with a clear and effective social purpose.
After a period with City of London firms Denton Wilde, Sapte LLP and Stephenson Harwood LLP working within their corporate departments, she relocated to Lagos, Nigeria in 2009 and joined the Legal team at Sahara Group as the third member of the then budding department. She threw herself enthusiastically into the team work that was necessary to grow and nurture the unit’s human capital and widen the remit of its function to the international energy group as it spread inexorably across the energy value chain in Africa, Asia, Europe and the Middle East.
Pearl’s vast professional experience within the upstream, downstream and midstream sectors of the oil and gas industry, corporate law and international development culminated in her appointment as the Group’s Director for Governance and Sustainability, a role which her professional pursuits and private passions seemed to have been leading up to in the period before hand.
Her current role sees her spearheading sustainability and governance for Sahara Group worldwide and representing Sahara Group’s interests to a growing network of stakeholders. She is married with a daughter.
Influence of childhood memories till date
I have pleasant memories of growing up both in Nigeria and the UK. I feel it was the age of relative innocence back in the 80’s. I grew up as the first in family of 5 children so in some sense, I’ve had responsibility as part and parcel of my life from the very start. I attribute my interpersonal skills with having an extensive extended family that required skillful navigation as well as provided non-stop company and entertainment. At last count, I had about a 100 cousins! My parents were both entrepreneurial and disciplined. They certainly helped give structure and provide solid examples of the ingredients for success not forgetting of course the all important God factor. One thing they always stressed was the importance of simply “putting in the work” and how intelligence alone was never a guarantee for success as ill-discipline had been the downfall of many that they knew. I credit growing up in Nigeria with providing me with the “commonsense” and the UK with the exposure.
Experience working in the UK
It was incredibly eye-opening and necessary for my growth and path in life. It showed me what I wanted and at the same time, what I didn’t want for my life, all eventually leading to my decision to return to Nigeria and contribute my quota before I got stuck. Working both in the public and private sector gave me exposure to what was possible in my career and gave me the confidence boost and early tools required to navigate the work space in Nigeria. Working in the UK gave a measure of clarity as I moved across organisations quickly deciphering which roles gave me deep satisfaction and others which didn’t even in spite of heavier paychecks in some cases. These guided my decision to return to Nigeria. Working in the city in top law firms also meant I was often in the minority working on transactions in what I felt was the “wrong side of the negotiating table”. I did not want to be dealing with negotiations as the one black girl on the transaction with African counterparties but rather wanted to be an active part of the negotiations on the African counterpart side ensuring that we were ably represented and ensuring there was a balance of power.
When and why did you join Sahara Group?
I joined Sahara Group in 2009. So I’ve fortunately been there over an incredibly significant decade that brought in strategic growth and diversification.
What are your roles and how are you efficiently carrying it out?
I am presently the Director for Governance and Sustainability at Sahara Group worldwide. It requires a fair overview and understanding of our various and varied businesses to ensure that a robust and aligned sustainability strategy and governance framework is implemented. My role also requires representing Sahara Group’s interests to a growing network of stakeholders. To efficiently carry out this role’s cross functional support is critical as buy-in from internal and external stakeholders is necessary. Sustainability means continuity as it concerns certain parameters commonly broken into Economic, Environmental, Social and Governance. Any company that wants to outlive its founders would do well to pay great heed to ensuring the necessary work is put in place along those parameters to ensure the needs of the stakeholders as it concerns those parameters are regularly identified, modified as needs change and then most critically, met.
What remarkable feat has Sahara achieved that puts you ahead in what you do?
For the last 25 years, Sahara Group has actively been involved in bringing energy to life across Africa, Asia, Europe and the Middle East with innovation, visionary investments, professionalism, good governance and citizenship, diversity, resilience and the resolve never to be limited by failure and success. We pride ourselves in doing this all from our unique vantage point of being an African owned entity with multi national spread that gives us a unique perspective on surmounting challenges.
How has your organisation been weathering the storm in this Covid-19 season?
Sahara Group views every storm as an opportunity for a new approach to business navigation, strategy and performance. This continues to drive our response to the unfolding global disruptions, enhancing our capacity to innovate and operate optimally. Above all, we are finding fulfilment in our Saving a Million Lives project through which we have used as a channel for responding to the challenges posed by the pandemic, collaborating to establish and equip isolation centres and medical facilities such as the 300 bed Covid-19 Isolation and Treatment Centre in Abuja, sending relief materials to tens of thousands of beneficiaries and providing enabling opportunity for young people to pursue their dreams through various entrepreneurship platforms in despite the challenges posed by the pandemic.
How important is corporate governance in any organisation and yours in particular?
It is the bedrock to sustainability and longevity for any organisation that intends to remain in business for generations to come and retain its credibility. Simply put, it is the way in which a company is run and controlled using practices and procedures to ensure the company achieves its objectives. It becomes the internal moral compass for any organisation.
Our quest for good governance has led to us not only instituting strong internal frameworks, but our commitment to the global fight against corruption saw us become members of the World Economic Forum’s Partnering Against Corruption Initiative, championing the need for transparency and the eradication of corruption and adoption of good governance principles.
Your view on women on Boards
Vastly insufficient. The world is missing half of its representation on Boards.
Interestingly, in the private sector, Africa has more women in executive committee, CEO, and board roles in companies than the average worldwide. Numbers vary by industry and region, not surprisingly, and are much lower in industries that traditionally rely on men for their workforce (heavy industry, for example). Yet, women are still under-represented at every level of the corporate ladder, non-management and middle and senior management, and fall in number the higher they climb. Only 5 percent of women make it to Board level and there are myriad odd reasons for this.
Statistics have shown that we get a more robust mix of women at the tertiary institutions and even in traditionally male dominated careers. This mix remains at graduate recruitment level and for those first few years in the corporate world, up until you begin to get to middle management when you will begin to notice a significant reduction in those numbers. The most obvious reason is the conflict that the biological clock and challenges of raising a family introduce; alongside the time and dedication required to successfully build a corporate career.
First of all, without support from the home front (by this I mean for those married, spousal and or family support for those single), in filling the gaps that a corporate career requires, inevitably leaves this corporate climb dead on arrival. The other critical part of that support I refer to is an extended system that allows the woman delegate and effectively afford to outsource certain functions of daily life to others who will then enable the woman effectively bring her whole self to work with minimal disruptions.
Places of employment are starting to realise the unique challenges being female in the workplace present and are addressing them as sustainability and human resource issues, with initiatives that allow for flexible working, which naturally suits the multi-tasking nature of a lot of women. Extended maternity leave, paternity leaving nursing rooms, crèches and most importantly, equal pay for equal work among other things, will go some way in ensuring that women remain in the pipeline at middle management level thus leaving them with a chance of then getting to executive management level.
What has rising to the top of your career as a Woman taught you?
It has taught me that women have super powers! Seriously though, I think it’s the realisation that women and men can bring different perspectives to the table and that the corporate world is shortchanging itself where it intentionally does not allow for both sexes to actively contribute and remain in the workplace.
Take a look at just the recent response to the COVID 19 pandemic by women leaders across the world; it was refreshing to see the various successful perspectives and approaches offered by leaders such as Jacinda Arden in New Zealand, Tsai Ing-Wen in Taiwan, Angela Merkel in Germany. These are easily transferable in the corporate world.
I think climbing up the corporate ladder has taught me to trust in my abilities, silence the voices, and ensure that I also pull others up as there really is something incredibly powerful for us humans in seeing representations of ourselves in the rise to the top as motivators.
In providing legal advice and support to DFID, despite $4 billion investment facility designed to accelerate the availability of funds for health programs in 70 of the world’s poorest countries, would you say the countries involved are better for it?
Absolutely. International Finance Facility for Immunisation (IFFIm) is a role model for socially responsible investing in global development. It was founded on the idea that private investors and government donors can work together to have a greater, more immediate impact on global health.
To date, IFFIm has provided over 20% of Gavi’s, (the Vaccine Alliance, an organisation that improves access to vaccines for the world’s most vulnerable children) programme funding, disbursing approximately US$ 2.6 billion to support Gavi’s life-saving vaccination programmes. Thanks to Gavi’s work in the past two decades, staggering progress has been made. Child mortality is at its lowest, and today’s generation is set to be the healthiest yet. Since its inception, Gavi has protected a whole generation of children, 760 million of them, and saved over 13 million lives from potentially fatal infectious diseases.
That said, my greatest joy would be to see these recipient countries themselves comfortable, self-generate and ensure that the enabling environment is created to ensure that they themselves can adequately and sustainably prioritise diseases unique to their jurisdiction, strategically invest in the research and development required for the eradication of these diseases and have enough left over to collaboratively join the fight against other global health goals in other countries.
Sustainability of poverty alleviation programs intended for developing countries
I am a firm believer in collaborative work between the donors and the recipients. You can’t give what you don’t have, so it is critically important that before any programmes are instituted, a clear assessment and understanding of what exists on ground is ascertained before a launch into action using tools such as a NEEDS assessment. Presumption has been the bane of many white elephant projects. A lot of times, the intention behind these initiatives are good however, the modus operandi is faulty.
It is far more sustainable to introduce initiatives that first of all are required and then empower and are self-sustaining even with commercial viability as we have seen that in developing countries such as ours, a thriving private sector would go a long way in poverty alleviation. Current statistics put private sector contribution in Nigeria to the GDP at 90 percent. It becomes pretty clear which model is more sustainable. By all means create an enabling environment which can involve funding.
Between working for the upstream, downstream and midstream sectors of the oil and gas industry, which is your most preferred and why?
I think merely by virtue of the level of regulation and due process in the upstream sector in this clime, I am fascinated by the compliance and governance standards set in the industry. It will be interesting to observe its growth and necessary pivot.
What day in your life is it that you can never forget and why?
Easy, the day my daughter made me a mother will forever be indelibly etched in my memory! The miracle of life is one of my tops.
Balancing work and family
The support on the home front is critical and my husband is a great cheerleader. Effective delegation is then necessary as there is no such thing as the perfect balance by one human being. It is important to build good support systems whether with family or paid outsourced assistance and then finally being absolutely intentional and focused with the time that you have outside of work. Find ways to ensure that the time spent is memorable and meaningful; this is where I find even the simplest experiences outweighing just the superficial and materialistic. There is no such thing as perfection. We are all just trying to do the best we can with what we have.
Carpe Diem! Seize the day. Be intentional!
Credit: Kemi Ajumobi – Business Day