#CareerFocus Savina Harrilall Chief People Officer of Mukuru

Savina Harrilall, Mukuru Chief People Officer
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1. Tell us a bit about yourself?

I am the wife of a super-supportive gentleman, and mum to two unique and amazing humans (and no, I am definitely not biassed). Academically, I have a Master’s Degree in Industrial/ Organisational Psychology and I am busy with my PhD in the same field. I am registered with the Health Professional Council of South Africa and the International Association for Applied Psychology as a Psychologist and Professional Psychologist respectively.

I am an experienced people and culture development architect and expert functional leader who leads the People Strategy in the execution of business strategies and steers cultural and organisational transformation.

My gratitude for life, amidst its challenges, and my desire to want to be an inspiration to my children and the people who surround me, is what motivates me everyday. I am a purpose-driven individual and I do believe that one of my purposes is to enable my children and people who connect with me to fulfil their purpose.

In my ‘spare’ time, I enjoy spending time with family and friends, tending to my little vegetable patch, watching F1, going fishing (someday, I will catch something!)  and travelling (although I have not travelled in a while).

2. What work do you do?

I believe I am a conduit that ensures the connection of people to business outcomes and the business to its people. As CPO, I see myself as an enabler and partner in the creation of an organisational culture in which people feel they belong and where they want to contribute their best.

My role as CPO necessitates that I be a people and culture development architect and an expert functional leader who pioneers and co-crafts the People Strategy in the execution of business strategies, while steering cultural and organisational transformation. At Mukuru, our focus is on developing high-performing teams and working with our leaders to develop long-range organisational development and people management strategies that impact and enable business performance. I have been recognised by my colleagues as a person who successfully drives the achievement of business outcomes from people, with a strong commitment to excellence and partnership.

It is important that the role of the CPO in any organisation, adapts to what is needed for the organisation to be successful immediately, and then crafts a plan for the longer term. Focusing on building a strong base with respect to the Human Capital function, ultimately serves as a great foundation for what will be built onto this, as our people’s needs are better understood and become more refined.

Currently, my role as the CPO is a foundation fabricator, an advisor to our leaders, a co-creator and driver of our People Strategy that focuses on the levers that will drive employee engagement; cultivate a motivating, fun, inclusive climate and culture; upskill, reskill and develop our people so they can deliver their role outcomes but also grow professionally and personally in their careers.

We ensure that we have the right strategies in place to deliver the right talent into the right roles; having a compelling value proposition (what we refer to as Mukuru Experience or Mx) that attracts and retains our talent; capacitates our leaders to be connectors with our people and ensure that they connect our people with our business outcomes.

We all recognise that having a robust people strategy with aligned strategic people levers, accompanied by well-executed plans will enable the business to deliver on its strategic outcomes, and this is our focus.

3. How long have you been in the industry?

I have over 20 years’ experience in HR, of which 15 have been in a leadership role, covering the spectrum of generalist HC (strategic and operational), organisational effectiveness, cultural transformation, transition management, employment relations, internal communications, mergers and acquisitions, and capability development.

I have applied my understanding of behavioural change and development in my partnerships, working closely with CEOs and executive teams to enable business strategy. My industry experience includes retail, manufacturing, petrochemical, financial services, and now fintech, each with its own nuances. This has served as a great career canvas.

4. Has your work always been your passion? Tell us why?

If I reflect on my journey growing up, for the majority of my teenage years, I have always been the person whom other teengagers navigated towards when they were dealing with challenges, be it emotional or academic. Without even realising it then, my demeanour has always been one of understanding, facilitating and bridging.

For my undergraduate degree, I majored in Psychology and Law. Psychology because it was what I wanted and law because it was what my parents wanted. At the end of my degree, the lack of funding to continue my postgraduate studies resulted in me seeking employment to save up. I got a bursary to study a short course, and I selected HR, which seemed like a good mix of people, processes, and policies, and still aligned with my degree. So, HR kind of happened to me.

My first role in HR was as a training coordinator, then in HR administration, transitioning later into a generalist role, and later as a consultant.

My resolve in unleashing the potential in people and helping them deliver, and in some cases, overcome, continued to energise and inspire me. I also enjoyed analysing, diagnosing, and implementing interventions that resulted in mutual benefit – for both people and the organisation. In the early years, I worked in the manufacturing and petrochemical industries and thoroughly enjoyed engaging with what is termed the semi- and unskilled workforce. It was humbling, and I believe that this deposited into my empathy bank. It contributed to my determination to make a valuable impact for people in the workplace where they spend a large portion of their lives.

In retrospect, if I had received funding to study immediately after my undergraduate degree, I may have been a clinical psychologist or a lawyer. I still think that HR would have found me eventually though!

5. Being a woman in the industry – what does it take?

Ten or fifteen years ago, I think the answer would have been different. In all of the industries that I have worked in, gender parity always manifested as a barrier. Words like the “old-boys club” or activities like late afternoon drinks and weekend golfing, used to be common terms and activities, and often resulted in, what i would like to believe, the unconscious exclusion of women who couldn’t participate in the social activities that often happened after hours or on weekends, because we had caregiver or other responsibilities. I must admit that it has been many years since I have heard or experienced that, as organisations are focussing on having a more inclusive approach.

According to Ernst and Young, women currently only hold around 10% of fintech board seats and Findexable’s 2021 Diversity for Growth Report, reflect that women holding only 11% of all finTech board seats; representing less than 20% of company executives, and only 40% of finTechs have appointed a woman to their boards. However, whilst the stats may seem dire, we are making some progress in the right direction: According to Deloitte’s estimates, women’s share in the overall global tech workforce has increased 6.9% from 2019 to 2022. Fortunately, the progression of females in financial services in general and in fintech specifically, has improved over the years.

Many large listed companies have appointed women to steer the business ship, which are wonderful strides. As a leading next generation African Fintech Platform, Mukuru is proud to be on the progressive end of the scale, with female representation in our senior management C-Suite level, as well as at Board level. Females represent 56% of our employee base across all of the territories in which we operate. Our tech team is led by our CIO Sandy Rheeder and, within tech specifically, women make up approximately 28% of our population. Additionally, a quick search will spotlight some of the amazing women pioneering change and driving success in fintech.

The challenge of a female battling to juggle demanding roles, parent-hood, preserving some of the cultural norms inherent to womanhood, studying and oftentime battling physical challenges, is actually not unique to me (albeit the nature and complexity may be). I believe that the many roles we play as females, and as human beings, should be worn as beautiful anklets, and not as shackles. Embracing this mindset is key because unfortunately life is never linear.

Personally, I am a driver and an achiever, and I believe that this is reflected in my personal experiences and what has contributed to my success in the industry. Grit and resilience has been a fulcrum to my success. In addition, faith and spiritually always served a fundamental basis for coping. The mindset is a powerful enabler towards success, and success is defined differently for different people.

The other success factor is surrounding yourself with what I refer to as ‘having your own personal board’ (in my case – The BoD for Savina). This is your support structure, made up of people from a variety of backgrounds who serve as your sounding board (coach/mentor), your mirror, someone who will hold your hand quietly, someone to support you when you need to fall apart, and someone who will be there at the drop of a hat. It is important to set up a structure around you that enables you psychologically and physically to achieve success in every single role that you fulfil.

Furthermore, building authenticity, having open relationships with my leader and my colleagues, has and continues to serve me well. After all, we are all people before any role title! And I have been and am privileged to work with some amazing people who acknowledge, genuinely care for, and see, the person behind the role. 

6. What has been the most difficult challenge of your career?

Managing the expectation, that as an experienced Human Capital professional, because you have done something before, you can simply copy and paste the same solution into a different environment.

Context matters and solutions must be contextually relevant. Oftentimes, even though the answer or solution is obvious, ensuring that the timing is appropriate can determine success or failure. I shudder to think of doing something as a tick-box exercise or showing a list of items that have been done without demonstrating to the business the value that has emanated as a result.

I think that this is an on-going challenge. First is to understand that work-life balance is a fallacy. Primarily, if your work is not deemed a part of your life, then you are in the wrong job! Understand that balance may mean lack of momentum, and life is not static. At any point, different things in life will need attention. It doesn’t mean that other things are less important, it just means that they sometimes need less attention (this doesn’t mean no attention).

This means letting go of the guilt when you have to sit for three hours in an emergency room and miss an important meeting; or not feeling guilty when you miss the piano recital because you had to travel for work. It is something that is a work in progress for me, and a constant challenge, as it is for many women, I think. I believe that I have gotten better at not feeling guilty for not being able to clone myself, though!

7. What advice do you have for other women in your industry?

Be willing to start from anywhere and never devalue experience in any form, because it may be deemed a menial job. It all deposits into your toolbox of skills.

Surround yourself with people who know more than you. This way you give them a canvas to grow and stretch, but also enable yourself to learn from others.  And give back to others, so that they can pay it forward. Over the years, I have been coach and mentor and supervisor to many females. We have the power to create a revolution towards change and elevating the female-agenda, even if it just means pouring from your cup into the cups of others.

Create your own board of directors. These should be people who will guide you, coach you, mentor you, hold up the mirror, and call you out when you are wrong. Understand that we are all a work in progress. These can be a mix of people, because diversity enriches the experience.

I believe that the many roles that we play as females, and as human beings should be worn as beautiful anklets, and not as shackles. Embracing this mindset is key because unfortunately life is never linear.

I frequently say to my children, why fit in, when you were born to stand out. Oftentimes standing out means swimming against the stream, and resistance does not bring comfort. Grit and resilience are great competencies to have in your tool-belt. Own your femininity, own your space and make your impact!!

8. Plans for the future?

My plans for the future is to continue living my purpose and contributing in ways that I am able of, at the different levels and forums that I have the privilege of participating in.

I am committed to continue depositing into the learning or knowledge banks of others; contributing to the wider community, owning my space in the many roles that I play and “dancing” so that my anklets jingle and feed my soul.

Savina Harrilall BIO

Savina Harrilall is the Chief People Officer of Mukuru, one of Africa’s leading Next Gen Financial Services Platforms that offers affordable and reliable financial services to a customer base of over 10 million people across Africa, Asia and Europe.

She joined Mukuru in April 2022 and leads the people-agenda and its aligned strategy. Savina is an experienced people and culture practitioner, with a Master’s degree in Organisational and Industrial Psychology. She is registered with the Health Professional Council of South Africa, and the International Association for Applied Psychology as a Psychologist and Professional Psychologist respectively. She is busy with her PhD in Industrial and Organisational Psychology.

She has more than 20 years of experience in Human Resources, of which 15 have been in a leadership role. Her experience covers the spectrum of generalist Human Capital, both strategic and operational; and prides herself on being a culture and people development architect. She has applied her understanding of behavioural change and development in her partnerships, working closely with CEOs to enable business strategy. Her industry experience includes 17 years in financial services, four years in manufacturing and a year in petro-chemical.

Savina grew in her career working as a Human Resources Consultant in petro-chemical and manufacturing. Prior to joining Mukuru, Savina was the Chief People Officer at a financial services provider; and before this, she spent almost 14 years of her career at a large Financial Services organisation, leading a variety of teams as the Human Capital Executive.