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A Word with Kunal Shah

Posted 14 September 2021 in EMpower News   |   Share


Recently, Cynthia Steele, EMpower’s President & CEO, spoke with Kunal Shah, Global Head of Emerging Markets Trading in the Global Markets Division of Goldman Sachs and Chair of EMpower UK’s Board of Directors. They spoke about changes in the finance industry, our Journey Around the World campaign, and more.

COVID has been such a disrupter for all of us. I’m interested to hear how you think the finance sector might be different as a result of COVID?

There has been lots of change. Different offices and different regions of ours are already at a different point, even in terms of what that new normal is. We have got some offices where people are still often working from home or remotely with others. In London, the vast majority have fortunately actually been in the office now for some time.

I think the main difference for us in finance is, it has definitely helped us get our global teams much closer together. What used to be in-person trading floor discussions migrated to Zooms, which has meant that our colleagues from regional offices in emerging markets or colleagues from our hub offices in Asia and the Americas naturally could now join. The amount of information flow that we have, beyond just the confines of the trading floor, but actually within global teams, is now much more seamless. That’s also been true when it comes to our client base, and how we engage with them.

Working in emerging markets, most of us used to travel a lot. Now the traveling has switched effectively to zero; we have found other ways of engaging. What used to be multi-day country trips have become short Zooms allowing us to easily engage with clients and investors all over the world. I think some of that we will keep. We’ll take the best elements. Having people now back in offices, it will just be a balance and a mix. Right now, I’d say the same has also been true from what I’ve seen at EMpower. The way that we are now able to communicate with our country officers, with our teams, in the various jurisdictions, and also between the various boards, through the Joint Executive Committee is now much smoother and less rigid through these global communication channels. This has helped us to have much better collaboration and communication.

You’ve been so successful at being able to attract donations and new supporters to EMpower, especially with the Journey Around the World campaign last year. What do you think really drives people to give? What’s the most effective motivator?

I think people each have different reasons for why they may give philanthropically. But when it comes to why they may give to EMpower, I’ve always approached it with the mindset of an emerging markets trader. Firstly, EM has been the core of my professional career, so giving back to EM is naturally something that resonates with me. And likewise, that resonates with my colleagues, my clients, my friends, and the broader industry. So that is the key point I make when it comes to why they should give to EMpower, as opposed to the many other great causes that there are to choose from. And also linked to that emerging markets trader or investor mindset is the approach that EMpower takes when it comes to actually having impact in emerging markets. We’re very clearly focused and targeted when it comes to what we’re trying to do, which is different from many organisations. With the real diligence and rigor of the investment process that many of us would apply to what we do professionally, with the deep knowledge of our programme officers, the longer-term strategy that comes with that in terms of where we allocate, how we allocate, how we measure impact, and how that evolves over time.

The other thing, which is also very different about what we do, is that community that we have built. Not just the global community of the youth that we support, but broadly, the community in the sectors that we work in, that have come together to support something together. It’s been great to be able to get other friends and colleagues involved across the industry. Collectively the impact we’ve had has been huge. All of those reasons are why I’ve been trying to get more and more people involved to help us grow as an organisation.

Speaking specifically about Journey Around the World, I know you’re keen to try to get more banks involved, helping them understand how this is a way to also unlock potential for their team’s engagement. What’s your message to them, why should they participate? Why should they fundraise?

Last year’s pilot of Journey Around the World just proved to be a phenomenal way of getting teams within our bank and other institutions all together, collectively, doing something fun, something different, something exciting. Competing with each other, amongst each other, outside of the daily routine that people had just got stuck in, and all towards a fantastic cause. As much as things have to some degree opened up, and some things have evolved from where we were last summer—when we ran the programme—things are still not quite normal. People are still cautious, people are looking for other ways to break out of the current routine. And I think this year’s programme is another great way of getting people together. I definitely encourage all the banks and other institutions to put together a team. All these things naturally compound, the more people get involved, the more there are networks that we can bring together. It’s a great way as an industry to collaborate in different ways to have a real impact.

You’ve been UK Board Chair for just over a year. Through this experience, what is something that you’ve learned that you might not have known or that you’ve come to understand about the charity/nonprofit sector?

I’ve gotten to understand the rigor of the approach that we have to take, the very careful strategic planning. The key focus on how we budget, how we account, how we ensure that things are done properly and correctly, and in a sustainable way. All of which is impressive to see. Beyond that, the more time I spend with the actual EMpower team, what I’ve seen is the passion that each of these individuals has. The amount of time, energy, effort that they put in. In-depth thinking through how to support these different organisations, and these different people all over the world is extremely impressive. With that, it’s also amazing to see the way they approach it; the flexibility that they have when they think through how they should support people, which obviously has been key over the past 18 months. Even our own approach as an organisation has had to evolve in terms of the flexibility that we offer, the ways that we support our grantee partners. That’s really come down to understanding the needs of the grantee partners. Having spent a lot of time with them, they know how they need to react to such situations. That’s really what allowed us to be very nimble as an organisation last year, that allowed us to continue to help in what was a very unusual set of circumstances.

What’s key about us is trust. There’s a lot of trust amongst the team, with and from the board, with the grantee partners. (There’s also verification that trust is merited.) Is there anything else you would like to say in closing?

What I would like to elaborate on is the leverage that people get in terms of the contributions they make. It’s not just the approach we take, but the fact that with the underwriter model, the contributions people make really do go straight to grantmaking. Coupled with the support we have from the super matches and corporate gift matching, people are getting leverage. It’s multiplying the impact. It’s very efficient.

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