As head of the Association of Chartered Certified Accountants (ACCA) in the Middle East, Fazeela Gopalani is responsible for leading operations in 11 countries and representing more than 20,000 students, affiliates and members across the region, who work in all sectors and all levels of business across the Middle East. She is committed to the development of a strong global accountancy profession and believes passionately in the many benefits that it brings to society and individuals.
She spoke to Gulf Business recently about the role of ACCA in the region, mentoring women in the field of finance, and the importance of networking.
Why did you decide to become an accountant?
When I was growing up in the UK, I had to suddenly take over my father’s accountancy business when he unexpectedly passed away. I was just 23 years old, grieving, but fiercely ambitious. I had been hugely encouraged and supported by him to study accountancy; as an immigrant to the UK he understood first-hand the huge power of having a professional qualification such as accountancy and this has remained a lifelong conviction of mine.
How did this early experience influence your career path?
The experience of coming into an established medium-sized business – we had 15 employees and hundreds of clients – was nothing short of life defining for me. The hard lessons I learned – about advocating for myself, being confident to ‘take up space in the room’ alongside men who dismissed me out of turn, and having the conviction that I was as able as anyone else – certainly didn’t come to me overnight, but these tough early lessons have informed and shaped my life’s work ever since and made me the strong leader I am today.
How do you define the role of ACCA in the region?
Since 1904, being a force for public good has been embedded in our purpose and that’s no different here in the Middle East. We believe that accountancy is a cornerstone profession and is vital helping economies, societies and individuals to grow and prosper. Our core mandate is to uphold the highest ethical and professional standards within accountancy and to promote accountancy as a rewarding profession. Our members and students are supported in many different ways, but we also work externally to promote accountancy to all. For example, we work closely with UAE government entities to encourage women into senior roles; this is definitely a big part of our role in promoting accountancy in the region, which also matches the UAE’s own goals to be a trailblazer when it comes to having equal numbers of men and women in government and private sector roles.
ACCA’s mandate is wide-ranging, but one of your recent initiatives focuses specifically on women – what are the reasons for this?
We recently launched a year-long initiative called ‘Women in Finance’. In the Middle East, just 25 per cent of the workforce is female compared to the global average of 50 per cent. Only 3 per cent of the CEOs in financial services are female. In the Middle East, just 8.9 per cent of board members are female. The lack of gender parity is not so much a gap, as a gulf.
We have seen many advances for women in the workplace, but the fact is that the representation of women in leadership roles and senior executive positions remains low. The gap is closing, and we see it as a crucial part of our mandate to actively support this.
I am still one of only a very few women who lead professional bodies and I believe this should not be the case at all. ‘Women in Finance’ will address the gap through actionable support for women at every stage of their career. Our launch featured a panel of business leaders sharing authentic, relatable stories about how they overcame challenges; we’ve got a library of content and articles tackling this issue for our members, and we will be holding networking events, seminars and groups throughout the year to support women to advance their careers. It’s a conversation everyone should be a part of – the world cannot negate the contribution and enormous of talent of half the world’s population.
Why is mentoring a powerful tool to empower women?
I’m so passionate about the role that mentoring and professional support plays in empowering people to seize opportunities! The lessons I learned in the UK and challenges I faced as a young woman are relatable to many men and women here. Jazla Hamad is the UAE’s first Emirati partner at Deloitte and credits her success to the fact that she was mentored from her first internship. Mentoring changes lives – I would say it is almost as important as your business plan to have a great mentor. As much as I mentor fledgling business owners and executives, I too am still mentored! Learning never stops.
Why is networking critical for female leaders?
Networking – and doing so in a way that feels organic, authentic and natural – is such a vital pillar of seizing and creating opportunities. When I was young, the only options were terrifying breakfast meetings, where stern older men in suits talked over bitter coffee about the weekend’s golf game while I stood nervously in a corner, feeling wildly out of place and being roundly ignored. Today in the Middle East, I can think of at least five women-centric networking organisations that cater specifically to female entrepreneurs. They facilitate fun, down-to-earth meetings where building strategic friendships and connections doesn’t require a working knowledge of golf.
Social media has also levelled the playing field when it comes to easily making connections – I don’t think we should be afraid to leverage our digital networks any more or less than our ‘real life’ ones – it’s certainly helped me connect with new clients in recent years. At the end of the day, we like to work with those we like – there’s no reason why networking should be feared, and we should all feel empowered in crafting, shaping and redefining the business ecosystems in which we want to thrive.