Thought Leader Spotlight: Shamina Singh

Fatimah Gilliam Founder, and CEO The Azara Group

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The Azara Group: What attracted you to your chosen field and profession?

Shamina Singh: My first job was at Dunkin Donuts, but my dream job growing up was to work at McDonald's. Eventually, my aspirations shifted to medicine or law, but after working on political campaigns in college, I became passionate about social justice causes.

I started my career working in the public and non-profit sectors—political campaigns, non-profits, government agencies, and Capitol Hill. When I worked for a labor union, I learned how much economic independence impacts people's lives and began focusing on economic empowerment.

Eventually, I transitioned to the private sector where I could learn about economic drivers and leverage private sector investment to address global challenges.

At Mastercard's Center for Inclusive Growth, I'm blessed with a unique opportunity to do good through my work. The Center's mission is to advance equitable economic growth and financial inclusion globally. We work at the intersection of financial technology and global challenges and use Mastercard's global reach, tech platform, data, and expertise to address issues of income and information inequality.

We understand that networks power the modern economy, and proximity to these networks determines how far and fast individuals, communities, and countries can grow. Networks can be social (mentoring and referrals), physical (water and transportation), and virtual (digital and financial services).

The work is innovative and not considered traditional philanthropy. Since Mastercard is a global payments company, we concentrate on issues closer to financial inclusion. We focus on how increased access to safe, secure, and stable income sources and financial services can maximize productivity and potential in communities.
We connect those striving for advancement to the formal economy and thus promote economic growth. A separate but related focus on "data philanthropy" is helping mitigate the increasing information inequality gap between those who don't have access to data and those who do.

People who have access to data understand how it can improve decision-making and bring efficiencies to complex processes. We want to make sure the information gap doesn't surpass income inequality gaps.

TAG: What person, opportunity, or game-changing moment had the biggest impact on your career?

SS: After the 2004 presidential election, I had an important conversation with my mentor, the former governor of Texas, Ann Richards. I had moved to Texas to work on her campaign and was fortunate enough to have her take me under her wing for most of my professional life.

She said that if I could learn how money moves around the world and impacts policy, business, real people's lives, and decision-making, then I would understand the world a lot better than most people. She and dear friends that I had served with in President Clinton's administration guided me to my job at Citi.

Ann was always great at providing advice, steering my decisions, and exposing me to new opportunities. For example, she told me about the Aspen Institute where she was on the board, and I'm now a fellow. She connected me to her network and helped me advance.

What I appreciated most were her candor and practical, pragmatic advice. Some mentors are theoretical, but Ann was frank and direct. She gave me what I needed.

I've found this same practical approach in my mentorship from Mastercard CEO Ajay Banga, who I met at Citi. He gives clear and direct guidance—something I really appreciate and value greatly.

I've learned that I'm great at taking in information, which is a key part of mentorship. When you ask for advice, you can't just listen to what people say. You have to be willing and able to act. If someone is taking time to help you, then you need to follow through.

TAG: What is the biggest challenge you faced professionally? How did you overcome it?

SS: One of my biggest challenges is finding a work-life balance. I haven't quite solved that challenge yet. I tend to "go go go" until I crash and get sick.

I struggle with balancing work, time with family, and taking care of myself. This struggle is the lingering impact of starting my career on political campaigns where you work 24/7 until you're exhausted. I still have this campaign mentality; it's hard on your body and relationships, which is why I work with my spouse to make decisions as a unit.

Making decisions this way is a great piece of advice that I've received from Ajay Banga. But I also recognize that I have a unique opportunity to do work that few others get to do. I see the work at the Center as a gift, so I tend to run with it.

I'm glad to see a set of CEOs with an ability to integrate social sensibilities with fiscal outcomes. I think more leaders need to have combined skill sets from both the public and private sectors. We need more bridge-builders and fewer bridge-burners.

I've also walked through tough times in my career, like losing campaigns, failing with projects, and being burned by people who I trusted and thought were friends. It never feels good to experience rocky moments, but those moments are when real learning takes place.

The roughest times have made me grow up and mature in ways that have helped my relationships and my career. I've developed resiliency and the ability to take hits and bounce back. You have to know how to cope with disappointment to move forward.

TAG: What tools or tactics do you rely on to help you become a more effective leader and team member?

SS: I rely on faith, meditation, and prayer to help ground me. I also look to surround myself with good, positive, and trustworthy people. In building my team at Mastercard, I looked for people with broad sets of skills. I appreciate the value of working with people who have diverse experiences and different opinions.

I gravitate toward people who have been through tough challenges because you need resiliency when trying to tackle some of the world's hardest problems and bring about change.

I look for people who are a combination of a Starbucks worker mixed with a diplomat. Starbucks employees can multitask and do 10 things at once while taking complex orders. But they also understand how to move in a team and maintain positive styles and demeanors.

It's a given that people need to be smart, creative, and curious, but I look beyond pedigree and like people who are a little scrappy.

TAG: What do you see as your unique value proposition, and how has your personal background prepared you to excel?

SS: When I was at Citi, a union asked us for help in a wage negotiation. It wasn't our place to get involved since Citi wasn't the direct employer—the property manager was. We were tenants in the building.

But I had a skill and experience with unions and cared about janitors and security guards making a living wage. It was new territory for Citi. Several lawyers said this wasn't our role and we shouldn't be involved directly.

I reached out to one of Citi's lead counsels, who had experience in labor law and is someone I respect greatly. He recommended we encourage both sides to get to their compromise position faster than usual.

Instead of the long, drawn-out posturing and roadblocks that can typically happen in negotiations, we encouraged both sides to find a resolution quickly. We nudged them to cut back on inefficient jockeying. Our approach to the dialogue was pragmatic and flexible.

We looked at the issue for what it was, considered what both sides were trying to solve, and took a common sense viewpoint. Ajay Banga calls this "DQ"—the decency quotient.

DQ takes things an additional step beyond, where many people evaluate how to best engage with others. Negotiations, business, and life have to involve IQ (intellect), EQ (emotion), and DQ (decency) for people to truly find sustainable and mutually- beneficial outcomes—the win-win for everyone. This philosophy applies in life and business.

I have a diverse background and a range of experiences. When I worked in the public sector and on political campaigns, I never kept a job longer than two years. The nature of the jobs required moving and learning new things quickly. My time at Citi was the first job I had that lasted five years. Five years felt like a lifetime.

I've worked across the country in the public sector, banking, community relations, social justice, and politics. I was even an assistant to a Grammy award-winning artist in my younger days. I've learned a lot about people and human nature and how to build bridges across industries, sectors, governments, and countries.
With all the networks I am a part of, it's a useful skill to be able to pull from the right experiences, know-how, and contacts at the right time to make a big difference.

Through my work, I've seen that the public and private sectors are more connected than disconnected, and I have a desire to bridge gaps between the two. The issues we're trying to tackle as a global community are too big to manage in isolation, and it's going to take both sectors to create a world we want to leave for the next generation.

TAG: What is your proudest achievement?

SS: My proudest achievements are my marriage and relationship with Ashley. We met on a political campaign in Texas in 2002 and have had the adventure of a lifetime. But we have also put in a significant amount of work to make sure we treat the relationship with the respect it deserves.

As a couple, we've had to make hard decisions together, like moving across the country for work and me having a career that's demanding with lots of international travel. We've worked as a team. We have a blast together, and I treasure the relationship.

The Azara Group (TAG) is a consulting firm that promotes the development of leaders in an increasingly competitive and diverse marketplace, providing strategy consulting services and leadership training services to advance professional and life success.

TAG leverages expertise in career strategy, diversity, negotiation skills, and business acumen to provide strategic advice and consulting services. We help people and organizations get what they want, achieve their goals, and advance their businesses and career objectives.

TAG also helps companies better attract, retain, and promote diverse talent and develop robust diversity platforms and strategies to create a more inclusive workplace.

The Azara Group welcomes your direct comments and feedback. We do not post comments on our site at this time, but we value hearing from our readers. We invite you to share your thoughts with us. You can contact us directly at [email protected].


This article was originally published by The Azara Group.

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