How One Female CEO Sees the Glass Ceiling - OZY | A Modern Media Company
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Looking back, Afsaneh Beschloss wouldn’t have tried quite so hard.

By Fiona Zublin

Iranian-born *Afsaneh Beschloss rose through the ranks at J.P. Morgan and the World Bank before becoming CEO of her own investment firm, RockCreek. A woman of boundless energy — no, really, she led the World Bank’s energy investments — Beschloss stopped by The Carlos Watson Show to discuss her life in business and the economic impact of the coronavirus on different countries. Read on for some of our favorite cuts from the conversation.

On Countries Getting the Jump on COVID-19

Carlos Watson: Here in the U.S., you’ve seen several companies not only not struggle but actually do better [during the pandemic]. Apple’s picked up probably a trillion dollars in market cap, literally. And Amazon and Tesla and others have done unusually well, in addition to DoorDash and Peloton and Zoom and the rest.

But what if we thought about it in terms of countries: Which countries at the end of this will likely end up being stronger economically, and which countries are going to be most impacted economically?

Afsaneh Beschloss: From what we’ve seen so far is basically if you go into the East Asian countries at the wealthier end, you have Korea, Taiwan and then you have a country like China. They were very fast. They have had pandemics before, and people did not think it’s a stigma to wear the masks. And so that mask wearing started pretty early compared to the West, right? And the governments were also up to speed in moving fast to put a stop to things, and have been much better with tracing and having the technology. 

And since the issues with private information is not a big deal in some other countries, the whole tracing part of having a better situation with COVID happened faster in those countries.

But even Vietnam has done really well, the cases of COVID in Vietnam are really low, and again, part of that was that they have an autocratic political system that worked. Now, Korea does not.… Each of these countries has different political systems, so obviously autocratic systems could in a positive way or a negative way do good or do bad. But a lot of the countries that have very good systems also have been much better and the kids are going to school. 

Right now in Korea they’re jumping ahead, they’re trying to see how should kids’ schoolbooks be delivered now that you have some kids learning from home, some kids coming to school.

Here we are in the U.S., reading that in certain states the whole education system came to a standstill and a lot of schools could not open the last two weeks because the technology was not there, the kids don’t have computers, but also the systems that we had were set up such that they were not sufficient. The other side is you look at East Asia, Singapore, Korea, and they are doing so much in terms of jumping ahead. So it’s almost like they are, I don’t want to say taking advantage, but they are going to come out, when you and I were talking a little earlier, in 12 months or whenever the time is, and be far ahead of other people.

On Being a Woman in Banking

CW: Was it challenging for you, as a woman and as an Iranian woman, to rise up [in banking]? Or was there something about that environment that actually was more welcoming, more inclusive? 

AB: I think finance became less and less inclusive, and now hopefully we have a very recent decision to have the first woman CEO be the head of the bank at Citigroup, as you know. So I think what I was not fully aware of was, while the World Bank environment was inclusive, how hard it was. Because, I think if I stopped and thought about it, I would have stopped doing what I’m doing. 

I think a lot of people who worked at the World Bank were born in the U.S., a lot of people were born in other countries. So the fact that it was diverse was a normal thing, so where you came from was a little bit less important, but certainly gender was an issue, and there were very few women who were reaching the higher levels at the World Bank. By coincidence, I told you that one of my first jobs was in energy. My boss was a woman, and now she’s on my board, Dame DeAnne Julius.

CW: It got a little tougher, after she was gone?

AB: Very different. Very, very different. And, I had bosses who were male who were very supportive and very helpful, and they treated everyone the same, and others who didn’t. So I’ve had both experiences. 

At different countries at different times — I think if you went into China and it was a woman now, it would be probably no different, absolutely fine. But I think having worked in these different countries at different points in time, I saw the change, and I saw how many women started becoming involved, let’s say, in the energy sector. Many more in some of these countries, especially in Asia, compared to the U.S. We do have women as ministers of energy, like secretary of energy, you have women running big energy companies. One of the biggest hydro companies in Brazil is run by a woman. We don’t have that as much in the U.S., so we might assume that they are behind in some of these ways, but in fact a lot has happened over the last 20 years, where women have risen in some emerging markets and are doing quite well.

On Advice to Her Younger Self

CW: You go back and talk to young Afsaneh. What are you going to tell her? You’re having tea with her, give her a little advice. 

AB: Life is about love and relationships, and love is about doing what you like doing. And the most important thing, which I did not necessarily do when I was younger, which I really believe in right now, is that sort of balance — because work always came first. And I think, all the other questions you asked me, if you’re a woman, you had to be really good at what you were doing to be taken seriously. And I think if I had done 20 percent less, it would have been equally good. So that extra 20 percent, that really puts a lot of stress and takes away from love and family and other things that we love doing, is really not necessary, I think in retrospect.

I don’t want to call it life-work balance. It’s really balance, and having some sort of balanced whatever’s right for you, not what other people tell you, but whatever’s right for you. I really believe in that now. 

* Disclosure: OZY is proud that Afsaneh Beschloss is a minor investor in OZY Media, Inc., the producer of The Carlos Watson Show.

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