Gender equality remains an elusive aspiration, but individuals like Sandra D’Souza stand out as beacons of change. The Founder of Ellect – a purpose-driven consulting business – D’Souza has dedicated herself to advocating for a more inclusive society.
Her passion for the cause was cultivated in the halls of an all-girls school. But it was in the corporate landscape where she encountered the tough realities of gender disparities first-hand. Witnessing talented women being held back from leadership positions inspired her to create an environment where gender would not be a barrier to success.
D’Souza’s tireless advocacy has prompted individuals, organizations and policymakers to re-evaluate their own biases and create meaningful change.
Soon after the launch of her Amazon Best Seller, From Bias to Equality, she shares her story with The CEO Magazine, from her upbringing in an all-girls school to her ground-breaking achievements in the corporate world at a young age.
A transformational path
D’Souza’s journey began with a realization during her school years. "I grew up with my sisters most of my early life, and we always encouraged each other. There was no gender bias that I experienced then," she recalls.
However, when she moved to Australia and entered a co-ed school, she witnessed first-hand the disparities in opportunities and expectations placed on boys and girls. This experience ignited a passion within her to challenge the norm.
"It dawned on me that people were asking the right questions. There was a lack of awareness that transformed into some awareness."
At the young age of 21, D’Souza achieved a significant milestone in her career by being promoted to a senior management position. Sitting in male-dominated meetings, she became acutely aware of the lack of women in leadership roles. The trifecta of being a woman, a woman of color and a young professional presented her with additional challenges.
D’Souza’s involvement with an international non-governmental organization (NGO), the International Federation of Business and Professional Women, played a crucial role in shaping her understanding and vision. Attending events where remarkable women shared their journeys exposed her to the systemic barriers hindering women’s progress. It was through these experiences that she felt a deep calling to actively advocate for gender equality beyond her professional endeavors.
"They had these dinner events where they would invite some amazing women to come and talk about their journeys and experiences. Because of that, and from that point onward, I began to advocate more actively even outside my work," she recalls. "I had my day job and also volunteered at the NGO."
The activities fueled her passion for driving equality, inspiring her to found her own organization.
The birth of Ellect
D’Souza’s company, Ellect, came to fruition in 2019 on International Women’s Day. She launched the company with the intention to leverage the growing awareness generated by movements like #MeToo and address the pressing need for change.
"The #MeToo movement created a lot of awareness, especially in the business sector," she emphasizes. "Sometimes, at the end of a meeting, my male colleagues would ask me about the campaign. So it dawned on me that people were asking the right questions. There was a lack of awareness that transformed into some awareness. And I wanted to be in that space in terms of business, not just as a volunteer."
During the conceptualization of Ellect, D’Souza prioritized scalability and agility. She recognized the importance of adapting to an evolving landscape and being nimble and responsive in addressing the challenges faced in achieving gender equality.
With Ellect, the goal was to create a more inclusive business landscape through various initiatives such as a certification program for gender equality in leadership. Her mission was to empower companies to embrace diversity and foster equality.
"My team and I decided that we wanted to check publicly available information and rate each company on four criteria," D’Souza explains. "So, they would get a point if they had a female CEO or CFO, another point if they had a female board chair, a third point if the board had at least 25 percent women and a fourth point if at least 25 percent of people in the C-suite were women.
"If they got at least three points, they would qualify for Ellect Stars, which is a digital badge certifying that they’ve achieved gender equality in leadership."
"The #MeToo movement created a lot of awareness, especially in the business sector."
D’Souza’s initiative not only celebrates organizations making progress, but also serves as an annual certification that attracts investors, highlighting the positive correlation between diversity and financial performance.
Her new book, From Bias to Equality, draws valuable insights from interviews with CEOs around the world.
"All the CEOs I’ve interviewed for the book… it didn’t matter what industry they were from, the size of their company, whether they were a small or a large global company," she says. "It also didn’t matter if they were a founding CEO or recruited into the role, or which countries they were operating from – whether Singapore, Australia, Africa, India, Canada – they’re from all around the world.
"However, what was consistent was that all the CEOs we selected were absolutely committed to having women well-represented in C-suites."
Through their experiences and strategies, D’Souza has provided actionable guidance for leaders aiming to cultivate inclusive workplaces and drive meaningful change. Ellect’s training programs for organizations further reinforce the commitment of the CEOs to address gender diversity.
"We’ve developed training programs based on what we’ve learned, to train companies that are able to, but are struggling to change the culture," she says.
"It’s good to see your work validated."
The team has also developed an unconscious gender bias test, which challenges individuals to confront their unintentional biases, fostering self-reflection and personal growth.
"After the end of three months, when you achieve the milestones, the reward is that you get your photo on the NASDAQ tower in New York," she says. "It’s good to see your work validated."
D’Souza’s book, From Bias to Equality, was released in June and is available to buy here. Her work embodies the essence of progress, inspiring readers to question and challenge the status quo for a better and more equitable future.