As the Head of Corporate Affairs for Unilever Bangladesh, Shamima Akhter looks after corporate affairs, partnerships for sustainability initiatives and company communications. She joined Unilever in 2019, with over 17 years of work experience under her belt, which included tenures at companies like Coca-Cola Bangladesh, Grameenphone, USAID, Qubee, and UNDP. As a woman who has been breaking barriers and challenging patriarchal norms in Bangladesh for almost two decades now, Shamima Akhter shares the journey of her career with ICE Business Times.
What made you decide to pursue a career in Public Relations? How have your experiences shaped your career?
As a student I was always involved in voluntary work with a couple of organizations. I worked as an interpreter for 4 years with the United Nations on their video documentation projects; a job that allowed me to travel to many parts of Bangladesh. My interest in the development sector deepened because around that time the sector was prioritizing women’s empowerment and gender equality. It was working on educating women and enhancing women’s rights, and I was inspired to do the same. I officially began work in 2004 after completing my honors from Dhaka University. I began my career as a communications professional at UNDP, and stayed there for a year. Following that, I worked for a U.S. government development organization. After 7 years of working in the development sector as a communications and program development professional, I shifted to the corporate world. The marketing and communications approach of the corporate sector appealed more to me than the communications methods practiced in the development sector.
Back then transferable skills were not highly appreciated. If you started in a sector, it was assumed that you would stay there permanently. Despite that, I entered the corporate world as a PR executive for a British tech company called Qubee. Qubee also had a vision and mission for CSR which they wanted to implement from the beginning. As a result, my role was a blend of PR, media relationship, government relationship, sustainability of CSR and a bit of marketing. So, that is how I got started, and gradually moved up to the role of Head of Corporate Affairs for a couple of multinational companies in the last 6 years.
How has the Public Relations sector evolved over the past couple of decades?
PR activities back in the day mostly dealt with relaying information to the press about different marketing initiatives implemented by companies. It was heavily geared towards maintaining press relationships. Apart from that, there was also a need for skilled personnel who could efficiently communicate with the government and ensure long term business growth.
However, the PR sector has evolved greatly in the last 15 years. PR on a larger scale is corporate affairs and these days the Corporate Affairs department is in charge of delivering business growth by ensuring a conducive business environment by working through the Multi stakeholder model and earning social license to operate in a country by gaining trust and earning reputation. These days Corporate Affairs leaders hold a critical position in a company and the activities of the department vary from strategizing to partnering with the government. Corporations are not just business entities; they are also a part of the community and the larger society. Therefore, it is a corporation’s responsibility to ensure the wellbeing of the society, community and the environment. It is important to inform the community of the details of its activities, it assures people that the company has the highest standards, critically takes care of the environment, promotes equality and human rights. Nowadays, the corporate affairs department is the revenue generator i.e. revenue is generated by creating a sustainable and trustworthy reputation for the business. Unilever is one of the reputed global business leaders and it’s Unilever’s reputation that creates trust amongst its stakeholders and builds collaboration.
How would you describe your journey in the corporate world as a woman?
If I look back, it has certainly been a long journey. When I started my career, there was a clear division between men and women’s roles and the nature of jobs. My generation of women had to overcome stigma, stress, home-career management, and bear through stereotype and uncomfortable conversations. I am a mother of a son who is almost 15 years old, and a 10-year-old daughter. When my son was born, the designated maternity leave I received was for 3 months, and there was no facility that supported lactating mothers. Only a handful of companies had policies in place, but a majority of the companies did not. And women in leadership was far and few in between. Going to government offices and having to hear – ‘I don’t want to talk to a woman’ was something very common for the women of our generation.
In my opinion, perseverance is very important. There have been many obstacles in our way, but having dignity, passion and dedication towards the work have helped overcome these obstacles. Nowadays, companies have great policies to support women which weren’t previously in place. By the time I had my second child, the maternity policy had changed, increasing the leave to 6 months. It made a significant difference in my life, as I didn’t have to leave my children behind and go back to work so soon. I was also able to raise my voice and state the need for a breast-feeding corner. When my request was implemented, I realized that my productivity had increased and I felt that my company was looking out for me. That in turn made me work more dedicatedly for the company. Our generation of women has witnessed and experienced these changes firsthand.
How women-friendly is the workplace at Unilever?
I will be very honest, ‘cross my heart and hope to die’ honest – Unilever is hands down the best company for women to work for. And I’ll say for men as well. About 40 percent of our employees are women. This shift happened in the past 4 years, prior to that only 10 percent of the workforce were women. I was just reading a policy my HR Director recently sent over regarding the company’s ‘care-giver policy’. This means that as an employee, I can request for care-giving support. Since now we are working from home, we might need support in taking care of our children, elderly in-laws or parents. The company has made arrangements with a couple of companies to send support for employees at home for a discounted and easily affordable rate.
We also have a Support Survivors of Abuse policy. With a policy in place that supports survivors of abuse, Unilever Bangladesh aims to be a haven to victims of both physical and emotional domestic mistreatments. Employees who are victims of such abuse can avail medical care and psychological counselling support for themselves and their families. Moreover, employees can avail up to 10 days of paid leave and have the flexibility of working from any Unilever site in the country during the period.
This is the kind of leadership that can be expected from companies like Unilever – a company that has a global commitment to uphold best practices from all around the world. I am lucky to be part of a company which takes care of its people and understands gender-based issues so well.
We hear that you are an avid cyclist and a climber. You also manage your own business, Dhaka Dough and volunteer your free time to help clean up the coastline. On top of that you have a very demanding job. In your opinion, how important is it to maintain work-life balance? How do you do it?
Being outdoors is like meditation to me. I feel that it makes me better. My father was a government official so I grew up in a government colony with lots of open space and a field. When I started cross-country cycling, I felt that I was able to experience the world differently. I believe that when you are cycling it’s important to be mindful as you are in a vulnerable state while having to maneuver yourself on two wheels. Since you’re minimally protected as a cyclist, you also have to rely on the community. I remember when I entered Rajasthan after cycling for 1000km, the truck drivers on the roads slowed down to let us pass. They did this because the speed of loris sometimes displaces the cyclist, and being aware of the risk, they slowed down. Can you imagine how kind they are? There’s this different sort of humanity I see when I cycle – it helps me come closer to people and experience the world around me intimately.
I learned and started climbing with my husband when I was 35 – we trained and received our certifications as climbers. We try to go cycling one year, and climbing the next. Climbing is a selfish passion I would say, because I have to leave my family behind and they stay worried. But I feel that climbing is the only way I can come close to my creator. Because high up in the mountains, where human existence appears so small, you can truly feel God’s kindness and I rather enjoy that feeling.
The idea for the business actually came about while climbing. My climbing partner and I were talking about the poor food-safety situation in Bangladesh and how we wanted to do something about it. One thing led to another and eventually, Dhaka Dough came into being. It’s a very small business – a three partner, friend and family joint venture, and through it we are trying to encourage the trend of naturally produced and responsibly packaged food consumption habits.
My philosophy is that since you have one life, it is important to live happily without regrets while being a responsible person. It is really important to figure out what makes you happy and do it. My passion for cycling, climbing and the business makes me who I am. When I joined Unilever, within a month I asked for 20 days of leave. I told my boss and he let me go. Good companies will always support a healthy work-life balance as it will make employees more productive. You need to put your priorities in order first, and do all your work diligently.
If you are given a chance to travel back in time, what advice would you give your 20-year-old self about career and life?
Honestly, I would advise myself to go for a sales job instead because I think learning how to sell a product is very important. Retailers and shop owners understand consumers a lot better – what their needs and demands are. Selling is not an easy task; you have to be persuasive without being pushy and make you pitch appealing and attractive. If I could go back in time, I would definitely try to work in sales for about 2 or 3 years.
Sustainable living and growth are the heart of Unilever’s core values and as such many of its campaigns beyond borders focus on acting on social and environmental issues plaguing the world. Could you tell us how Unilever Bangladesh relates those values here? What can we expect next from this region/country in terms of sustainable growth?
Most companies these days have a Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) policy. Unilever terms it differently, calling it sustainability – ‘sustainability of the whole world, community and society’ is the core of our business. We have a long tradition of being a responsible and pioneering business. It goes back to the days of our founders, including William Lever, who launched one of the world’s first purposeful brands, Sunlight Soap, more than 100 years ago. And it is at the heart of how we run our company today Unilever believes in responsible capitalism and sustainability fully integrated into our Unilever strategy. Our responsibility is to grow while mitigating the impact we make on the environment.
We aim to win with our brands as a force for good, powered by purpose and innovation. Each one of our brands has a social mission of taking action on social and environmental issues that our consumers care about. They are working to improve the health of the planet, improve people’s health and wellbeing, and contribute to a fairer, more socially inclusive world. For a purpose driven individual like me, it is important to work in a company that walks the walk. I have three responsibilities – corporate affairs, sustainability, and communications. I work with partners and ‘bring into reality’ the global commitment Unilever has made. And for me, this is the best part of my job.
Climate change is a daunting issue of our times. Given that plastic waste is a big environmental issue, Unilever Bangladesh is working with the government and partners to find ways to collect plastic from the environment and work with industries to recycle it. Plastic is not inherently bad – it is the way we discard it into the environment that has made it such a mammoth risk. We will also work with small and medium entrepreneurs so they can upskill themselves and earn more and contribute in shaping a better world. 10 years back Unilever launched its USLP (Unilever Sustainable Living Plan) with strong, big and bold commitment not knowing exactly how we would achieve all our goals.
But we believe that if you have a large goal and you share it with the entire world, you will invariably keep checking in to see how much you have accomplished, and in turn work further to restate that commitment. This year Unilever launched its Compass strategy – a single sustainable business strategy based on three core beliefs – brands with purpose grow, companies with purpose last and people with purpose thrive. Our Vision is to be the global leader in sustainable business. We will demonstrate how our purpose-led, future-fit business model drives superior performance, consistently delivering financial results in the top third of our industry.