Shamina Singh has extensive experience creating and delivering strategies in both the private and public sectors to help grow the global economy in a sustainable way.
At Mastercard, she’s currently the Executive Vice President of Sustainability and the President of the Center for Inclusive Growth, where she works to advance financial inclusion around the world. Previously, she led Government and Public Affairs for Nike, spent five years with Citigroup’s Global Community Development Group, and held senior positions in the White House and the U.S. House of Representatives.
She credits her move into the private sector to advice she received from her mentor, former Texas Governor Ann Richards, who once told her to learn about how money moves around the world, and the impact it can have on stronger public policy.
Shamina has been deeply engaged with Out Leadership, and in particular our talent accelerator OutWOMEN. At our 2018 Summit, she said: “As out women, we’ve had to overcome challenges that our colleagues may not have had to deal with. We have a level of fearlessness, resilience and grit as a result. And those are attributes that add a lot of value to our workplaces.”
How has being openly gay at work influenced your leadership approach and style?
I am more open. Who you love and how you choose to spend your time outside of the office is a pretty big thing to hide, and the energy it takes to hide can be a huge distraction. Having come out to my family around age 21 and in the workplace early on, I’ve had a long time to integrate more parts of my life. I ’m unencumbered. It’s liberating, and it means I can bring more of myself to my work.
Who in your life would you describe as influences?
Urvashi Vaid is and was a huge inspiration, because she’s a little bit older, way wiser and has written extensively on equality that helped shape my thinking. She is also an Indian American which was really important for me to see early in my journey. There are many people I admire – my parents for their fearlessness in coming to the US and making a life for my sisters and me; teachers like the director of women’s studies at my alma mater – Anita Clair Fellman – who taught me how to think, not what to think; relatives, friends and neighbors like Polly McRae who would rock me in her recliner and taught me how to read, that I needed to put a napkin in my lap and also make a good gin and tonic; I would have to give a shout out to the Boston Women’s Health Collective and so many others.
What’s the most important thing that you’ve learned from a boss?
Time is your commodity, and you need to manage it well and always try to be constructive – don’t spend time complaining or talking badly about others.
How about the most important thing that you’ve learned from an employee.
How important it is to lead from your heart and tell them what works and what doesn’t.
There’s a saying: ‘It’s not necessarily what you say, it’s how you make people feel.’ That’s something I’ve learned over and over again. Obviously, what you say is important, but you also need to make sure that people can understand what you’re saying, and really take it to heart. When people are feeling nervous or scared, whatever is going on for them emotionally impacts how they can receive information. I think most colleagues know that I’m so invested in the work and their success – so whatever I say or do is coming from a place of sincerity.
If you could tell someone who’s graduating from college in 2018 one thing that you’ve learned in your life or in your career, what would it be?
What’s served me well is to focus on what I’m doing right now – what’s now, next versus 10 years from now. It has allowed me to take risks, try new things and learn a ton.
When I graduated from college, I wanted to be involved in social justice activities, do political campaigns, and I wanted to move to Texas to work for Ann Richards. So I did that. I wasn’t really thinking ten steps down the road, I was just thinking about making a difference.
My career has been built on being open to opportunity and saying ‘yes’ and trusting that it’s all leading to something. There’s no wrong decision, as long as you’re interested and engaged in your next step.
I think when people graduate from college they sometimes have a little bit of decision paralysis, like… ‘If I don’t follow this exact path going forward, I’ll never be a CEO someday.’ But I think that’s a false pressure. Just do something you’re excited about, and then find your next step.
Thinking back on your career, can you tell me a story maybe of a time that a mentor or a sponsor helped you take your next step?
I’ve been very blessed with really good mentors, with people who have given me really terrific advice.
I remember that at one point I was coming off of a political campaign, and I had it in my head that I wanted to get into fundraising. And I was talking to the late, great Governor Ann Richards, and she said, ‘Well, fundraising for what?’ And I said: ‘I think political fundraising would be interesting.’ And she said “Okay, well before you do that, make a list of ten friends and pick up the phone and ask them for anything. Ask them for a favor, ask to use their car, ask them to give you money. And if you can do that, come back to me and I’ll help you become a fundraiser.’
And in that moment, I realized that I hate asking for things – especially money -, so I would probably be a terrible fundraiser.
That was really valuable advice: picture yourself in the job, actually doing the job, instead of thinking about the title or whatever you think would come from being in that job.
Building on that, when I was moving from the public sector to the private sector in 2005, another mentor told me that I should go talk to a few people doing the work I thought I wanted to do – not to ask for a job or even for an informational interview, but just to ask them what they did every day, and if they liked it, and thought they were making the impact they wanted to make.
And so I looked throughout my network and I went and talked to a foundation, I went and talked to a person in city government, an elected official, someone in banking. It was really valuable in terms of helping me understand the tradeoffs involved in different roles – location, income, engagement of social passion – and what I wanted to do next.
What is your favorite interview question?
‘If I asked your friends what your best quality is, what would they say? And what would your friends say is an area that you have difficulty with?’
Giving people the opportunity to step outside of themselves to offer an external perspective deflects from directly asking what they’re like. But it can also give you a really insightful sense of who they are and how they work.
What was your first job?
I worked at the local Dunkin’ Donuts. It was a great job for a few reasons. One, I had to wear a uniform, so I never had to worry about what to wear. Two, it was walking distance from my house. And three… Well, at the time I lived in a small town in Virginia, and it was a 24/7 Dunkin’ Donuts, and so the local law enforcement would come in for free coffee and donuts. And so, when I was out with my friends in school and a cop pulled us over, they’d look in the car and they’d see me and recognize me from Dunkin’ Donuts, and it got us out of a fair amount of trouble. I had to quit when they promoted me to the job of filling the munchkins with jelly and cream – it was too messy.
What is the most tantalizing leadership opportunity that you see in the world?
I think private sector leaders who believe in and understand social impact have the opportunity to step into some of the spaces where governments are looking for help. To lead with authenticity, and provide some stability. When multinational companies understand the mutually beneficial relationship between profitability and sustainability, they have an opportunity to use important and powerful resources to solve big problems.
What do you think the next big thing for the LGBT+ community around the world is?
Running for office and leading companies.
If you were planning a dinner party and you could invite any five people from history, who would they be and why?
That’s a tough question. I love food, learning and smart and fun people – so dinner parties are huge for me.
I’d have Ann Richards, because I learned so much from her and she was really funny and really smart.
And then… Maya Angelou, Eleanor Roosevelt, Albert Einstein, Nelson Mandela… and maybe Adam Smith.
If there was a movie about your life, what would the opening song be?
“Hammer and Nail” by the Indigo Girls. It’s about getting out of bed and getting to work. For me, it’s about not sitting on the sidelines, taking agency, and being part of the solution.
There’s another Indigo Girls song, “Watershed,” about making decisions, which has been a real inspiration to me too. It’s about the importance of reflection, but also about how there’s really no wrong decision. Those two songs would probably bookend my movie. I feel like I’ve grown up with the Indigo Girls. They really captured my generation, and my journey through life.
What are the things that you could never live without?
My mother’s cooking, but specifically her chicken curry. I wouldn’t want to be without Ashley, my wife. Good friends and my faith.
What’s your favorite vacation destination?
My own bed and my parents’ kitchen table.
Three books that you would take to a desert island.
One Hundred Years of Solitude, by Gabriel Garcia Marquez. The Guru Granth Sahib, the Sikh holy book.
And then, when I was in college, I read a book called Pedagogy of the Oppressed, by Paulo Freire, which was enormously influential for me. It’s about how people learn, and how people think, but it’s about treating the person who is learning as the co-creator of knowledge, which was a way of teaching and learning that was so different from anything I’d experienced before. It opened my mind to critical thinking and gave me a frame for looking at the world that allowed me to question current events and notions of tradition. It helped me say: ‘Oh, things are not what they seem. There are economic reasons for things being the way they are, there are social reasons, there are genetic reasons. Things don’t just happen.’