2020 will forever be remembered as a year when the world changed dramatically and fundamentally, and global trade was no exception. For those in charge, a humanitarian and economic crisis offers up a true test to the principles of leadership as they help their teams and organisations survive, and thrive, in the so-called ‘new normal’. GTR and Mastercard brought together a panel of women from across the trade ecosystem to discuss what effective leadership has looked like over the course of the year, and what institutions can do to support the most vulnerable companies – including those owned and run by women – in their post-Covid recovery.


Roundtable participants

  • Frances Hinden, vice-president, treasury operations, Shell International
  • Leora Klapper, lead economist, World Bank
  • Shannon Manders, editorial director, GTR (chair)
  • Ebru Pakcan, global head of trade, Citi
  • Caroline Plumb, founder and CEO, Fluidly
  • Claire Thompson, head of trade, enterprise partnerships, Mastercard


GTR: We’re obviously living through some unprecedented times, which is driving a new way of thinking. As leaders within each of your organisations, what leadership principles have you adopted during the current crisis? What lessons have you learned? What will you adopt as the new normal going forward?

Thompson: 2020 was certainly a year for testing our leadership capabilities and building our resilience, and we continue to do that because the path going forward is not necessarily where we’ve been even over the last six months. Being adaptive and agile is critical. I think we’ve seen some fantastic examples of where leadership has had a meaningful impact during the pandemic, particularly if you look at countries led by women, such as Iceland, Norway, Denmark, Germany and New Zealand. The strength of their leadership and patterns of behaviour were as a result of decisive action. They took decisions in all those countries to lock down early, significantly reducing their mortality rates. They were also highly communicative.

If I then translate that into the workplace, and I’m sure it’s the same for all of us, our employees really were the number one priority. Clearly, we are all still trying to achieve our business goals, but leadership in doing so has had to be much more about looking at people’s individual circumstances. It necessitated empathy because many people were in different circumstances at home, some with young children, some looking after elderly relatives. It was about being a lot more aware of personal situations, which I don’t think would have necessarily been the case in the past because there was more of a divide between personal and work lives. They have now blurred a lot more because we’re all sharing a common crisis.

I see a lot more bonding, even though in many countries today we still can’t meet face to face. In some ways, even though we’re not physically together, we’ve gotten closer, because we’ve had to be much more personable.

Plumb: I would echo a lot of that. I’m an entrepreneur who started my first business when I was 21. One of the interesting things about launching a business when you’re really young is that you have two problems. Firstly, you don’t know anything. And secondly, you don’t know anyone. Not having a network is one of the biggest barriers when you first start out. But what you get good at doing is asking questions. One of my favourite quotes is a Peter Drucker one, which is: “The leader of the past knew how to tell. The leader of the future will know how to ask.” Out of necessity, really, I’ve kind of gotten really good at asking questions. It’s led to a very open style, leadership wise. That’s quite helpful in a time of uncertainty because, as a business, you get very good at constantly asking questions of the external market to try to get a sense of where we are, and then recalibrating internally. When the pandemic broke out, one of the early things that we did was take a view from the outset that this was going to be at least a 12 to 18-month state of affairs, and acted and set the team’s expectations accordingly. Way back in mid-March, we gave notice on the office, which at the time was quite a big surprise to many people, some of whom thought we could beat the virus in a matter of weeks.

Very early on I stated our assumptions to the team, around duration and market impact. Setting that context and then being able to articulate our strategy based upon those assumptions made it really clear for everybody, because they could understand why decisions were being taken, and we could have an open conversation around that. And then, because of our questioning style, we’ve been looking at what can we learn and how we can improve our next response.

Pakcan: For me, personally, I had just been appointed in a new role in the middle of February, right before the lockdown announcements. Ordinarily, I would have engaged in extensive travel to spend time with our country and regional teams and various other members of the global organisation to get to know people, as well as get to grips with the business. So it’s been a very interesting experience trying to build relationships with people who I have never met in person, and being the leader, as well as double-hatting for two or three months with my old position because a successor had yet to be identified. The first thing that you learn about yourself is how resilient you actually can be, and how much of a challenge you can tackle. That was an exercise in personal resilience.

I kept reminding myself that there is no better time than a crisis to learn things. It gave me an immediate and real insight into all the positives – but also where all the cracks are – which has allowed me now to chart the course, moving away from a short-term, firefighting mode into a more medium to long-term strategy.

The other thing that I would mention is around the way one thinks about risk when you have multiple risks – or multiple balls in the air, and one of those balls is bound to fall. How do you prioritise that one risk that absolutely has to be managed, and allow for some other things to fall? It was interesting to see how different leaders dealt with that challenge. Some were quite composed and thoughtful, while others were in some form of panic mode, giving a lot of orders and trying to stay in control of everything, knowing full well that it’s not going to work out. There are also those who, as leaders, choose to be followers, which is quite important because if everybody’s leading, and not enough people are following, in the wake of a crisis, it can create even more chaos. In a business-as-usual environment, when it’s all about the next big thing, people act and react very differently. But in a crisis, there are some surprises – both encouraging and disappointing.

Hinden: A lot of what has been said has resonated with me, particularly the blurring between work and personal lives. I think I’ve seen more children of people I work with in the last six months than in the previous 20 years, and catering for that flexibility between childcare and the boiler man and a number of people being ill – which is still a major challenge – has been key.

We have a three-word catchphrase in our company, which is ‘care, continuity, and cash’ – the main things to keep us going – leading with care because this is a health crisis, first and foremost, and caring about people’s health, both physical and mental, comes first.

This situation has also reminded us what we’ve known for a while, which is that face-to-face conversations – those chats by the coffee machine or with your boss in the pub – are the ‘glue’ that holds us together. We’re all consciously trying to recreate that. If you never see people, you don’t know if they’re working late into the night, you don’t know quite how stretched they are. So one thing that has emerged over the months is that we stopped doing audio calls, and now all our calls as far as possible are via video. It’s not the same as being in person, but at least you get some of the body language, and a better sense of how people are feeling.

Klapper: Another challenge of the lockdown that I’ve been dealing with is pivoting from face-to-face interviews or surveys, where people have trust in sharing their financial behaviour and worries with us, to phone-based interviews, where building that trust can be really difficult. And, especially now, it’s important to hear directly from women about their financial difficulties.

We’ve touched on a lot of issues that relate to women’s advancement within companies and the importance of interpersonal relationships. Even within my own organisation, I see women who have primary childcare responsibilities, particularly with day-care and schools being closed, falling behind. There was an academic paper published at the end of 2019 called ‘The Old Boys’ Club: Schmoozing and the Gender Gap’, which studied employees at a bank in Asia, and found that male employees who smoke, and have a male manager who smokes, are more likely to get promoted and get pay raises than women. It boils down to the ‘schmoozing’ opportunities of taking breaks together—and women who can’t do that get paid less and are promoted slower than their male colleagues. This might raise some interesting questions around the shift to video calls: could women now have more opportunities, in that sense, to interact with their managers, especially in countries where there are ordinarily cultural barriers preventing women from doing so?


GTR: Access to finance and financial services for SMEs has become a critical issue for responsible institutions, especially in the current turbulent economic environment in which these groups are especially vulnerable: in what ways are your companies opening up opportunities to support and finance small businesses? What more can be done to ensure we’re fostering growth in an inclusive manner?

Plumb: We work with around 30,000 small businesses. One of the things that we do is support these businesses with their cash flow across the board, from cash flow management through to access to finance. At the start of the crisis, cash flow forecasting and management became a hot topic for many small businesses. We saw an overnight doubling of Fluidly users, with more people looking to use our product to do scenario planning. These scenarios quickly moved from things like growth, hiring new people and investing in new equipment, to our most popular scenario overnight being keeping the business above water, which is all about managing costs and revenues and seeing the impact of those on your finances.

The immediate concern around SME finance was what lender provision there was going to be in the market, and we saw an initial absence of lenders willing to lend in the short term. The UK government stepped in with its two core schemes, the Bounce Back Loans and the CBIL scheme, both of which took a bit of time to get off the ground but have proven very popular. Without those initiatives there would have been very little lending – especially in the unsecured space.

One of the challenges for the market is whether or not there will be a supply of credit to the alternative lenders, or whether the only lending going forward is going to be balance sheet lenders, who may now have already exhausted their appetite, or into secured products, like asset finance, or property finance. It’s not clear who is going to be providing capital and funding to small businesses after the government schemes come to an end. The small business segment is awash with Bounce Back Loans. But it’s not clear if there’s going to be much of a lender appetite into that segment going forward. I think that most financial options for businesses are going to be in the more secured space.

Thompson: Where we at Mastercard have focused our strength is around helping companies get digital, whether that be through e-commerce, or by digitising their payments. One of the real barriers that small companies have had, and particularly the MSMEs, is they don’t really have a digital track record, such as a history of what they’re procuring from their suppliers, so there’s a lack of trust around lending decisions. We’ve really been thinking about the different ways of facilitating the lending decision. Getting companies to digitise their payments, for example, and in time using things like open banking, where you can go in and access data in different ways, creates an opportunity to build more trust in the credit decisions. It’s about harnessing technology and data so that we can create more trust, and ultimately more inclusion.

Working together with the Asian Development Bank and a number of other parties, we recently brought together a consortium of partners to do exactly that, working with FMCG companies and getting the digital record of what is going on between the distributors, the wholesalers, and, ultimately, the small retailers. Digitising that whole supply ecosystem brings more certainty about the flow of goods and gives lenders more confidence that their loans will be repaid.

Pakcan: In terms of trade finance, supply chain finance has always been an avenue used by global corporations when dealing with companies of all sizes, including SMEs. Clearly during the pandemic there has been a lot of disruption to global supply chains – due to a sudden drop, or indeed growth, in demand, depending on the industry. This has meant that many corporations have either been expanding supply chain finance programmes to suppliers that had not leveraged such programmes before, or rushing to set up new programmes to support their supply chains.

One of the other ways in which governments have helped, outside of all the various business interruption support schemes, and can continue to help, has been around creatively leveraging export credit agencies (ECAs). In the UK, UK Export Finance has been quite innovative in this regard, and we’ve seen other examples across Europe and the Nordic region and in some parts of Asia as well. Those ECAs, which typically offer long-term, large infrastructure financing propositions, came up with working capital-focused packages, some of which were domestically focused, while also being cross-border focused, in line with ECAs’ traditional mandates. We’ve done some transactions like that, wrapping the ECA financing around a supply chain finance programme. This kind of approach dramatically increases the kind of financing options we can provide for SMEs. Assuming that we can continue to think creatively and innovatively, which requires some flexibility from the agencies as well as the support of government, there is every possibility this approach can continue to be successful.

One of the areas where we need to encourage continued growth is in emerging markets SMEs, because they form a vital part of supply chains of many trade flows around the globe. If these supply chains are not supported, the growth of the global economy will suffer. Working with the IFC in 2020, Citi expanded our Global Trade Liquidity Program, which targets emerging market financial institutions, bringing the total to US$2bn of support. It’s given us a lot more capacity to commit to trade finance solutions for the financial institutions, which in turn allows them to be able to continue their lending into their domestic market.

We have to be aware that the solution will not always be about direct lending, or immediate direct cash flow, which has been a requirement up to now. Over the next 12 to 18 months we’re going to have to think differently about how do we actually make the economy work? How do we get the wheels to turn? And come up with more indirect and creative ways to do so.

Klapper: The impact of Covid on microenterprises in particular has been devastating. In Pakistan, income continues to plunge by about 90%. Women-owned microenterprises are more likely to see a drop in sales. In India, 70% of women entrepreneurs are reporting that they suffered a decline in revenue. And similarly, in Sub-Saharan Africa, we’re seeing that in Kenya and Ghana, women-owned microenterprises are being disproportionately hit. That’s because women are less likely to be formal business owners, and more likely to work in the service sectors, which were more adversely affected. Women also have less access to credit, generally speaking.

An initiative we’re seeing is around the opportunities of using fintechs and alternative data sources to extend credit to support microenterprises. Caroline mentioned the move towards more secured lending, but we’re also seeing take up of the use of alternative data sources like digital transaction histories, airtime purchases, internet browsing habits, payments, rent and utility bills, which can help micro-entrepreneurs trying to access credit. A great example is Jumo, a South African technology platform, which uses artificial intelligence and machine learning from mobile network operators across Africa and Asia to assess creditworthiness. This is especially important for women entrepreneurs as they often lack the physical collateral like land or vehicles, and are therefore more dependent on reputational collateral, such as these various payment histories. Even the giants like Amazon and Alibaba are analysing digital sales to gauge creditworthiness and offer invoice financing based on that information. This is an interesting avenue for women to access credit as e-commerce grows. Especially since the flexibility of operating an e-commerce business has been particularly beneficial for women who often have greater family responsibilities and time constraints.

The IFC also has a programme called the Global Trade Supplier Program, which links pricing to suppliers’ environmental and social scorings, providing financial incentives to suppliers for improvements in these areas. Increasingly, we’re seeing financing as a hook to help supply chains improve their sustainability standards around environmental factors, but also around labour, gender parity, and so on.


GTR: Within this vulnerable group, we know that women-owned businesses have been especially hard hit during this pandemic: Women-owned businesses also represent a vast untapped market for growth – globally, just one in five exporting companies is owned by a woman. Yet, there has been an overweight negative impact on women-owned and run businesses as a result of Covid-19. What do you see as the main barriers preventing the greater participation of women-owned businesses in global supply chains, and what can be done to address this?

Pakcan: At Citi, we’ve been looking at our own supply chains to see how we can prioritise or incentivise certain ESG targets. Those targets could range from environmental to diversity: in the US, for example, we are looking at how we support more black-owned businesses with some of the companies that we work with. We’re investigating how to create criteria so that the pricing, or the early payment opportunities, can be improved for a certain set of suppliers. Using the same methods, we are looking at how one could do the same thing for women-owned businesses.

Thompson: We can’t just observe the problem. I’m a big believer in goal setting. Mastercard reset its goals on inclusion at the start of the crisis: by 2025, our target is to bring 1 billion individuals and 50 million micro and small businesses into the digital economy, with a focus on reaching 25 million women-owned and run businesses by supporting their activities. You’ve got to incite action and be quite targeted about what you’re doing.

Klapper: It’s important to keep mind that in countries where social and legal norms often make it more difficult for women to operate businesses domestically, exporting could help women-owned firms get access to business opportunities and financing. According to the World Bank, there are still seven countries where women cannot open a bank account the same way as men, and 115 countries where women can’t run a business in the same way as men.

But according to a new WTO-World Bank report, global value chains are especially advantageous for women, because they offer women-owned small businesses opportunities to link up with lucrative markets abroad. For example, I met with women entrepreneurs in the Middle East who were selling on the web through e-commerce, exporting tiles and other home building materials, because there were challenges for them to work outside their homes. So not only did they have access to markets that they may not have been able to access domestically, they were also able to use the foreign currency payments via credit cards to secure credit from global lenders, as well as access invoice receivables financing.

Trade also brings better jobs. Exporters employ more women. In developing countries, women make up 33% of the workforce of exporting firms. Also, when women are employed in sectors with high levels of exports, they are more likely to be formally employed in a job with better benefits, training and security. And importantly, countries that increase their manufacturing exports see an increase in women’s wages.

Hinden: I agree with the principle that you need goals to break people out of the mindset that when times are difficult it’s best to just continue doing things the same way, rather than diversifying, whether it’s your supply chain, your customer chain, your leadership or your employees. Diversifying is just as relevant – if not more so – when you’re in trouble. If a side effect of that is to encourage more women-owned businesses, even if it’s not the goal explicitly, that’s even better.


GTR: For institutions to be able to tap the opportunities represented by women-led businesses, they must also focus on gender diversity within their companies. The finance and technology industries still have some work to do in that regard, but is there cause for optimism? What advice would you have for women who may be starting out in leadership roles in technology, trade or finance?

Plumb: I think there’s a definite reason to be optimistic. For a start, 2021 has got to be better than 2020! I think the ‘new normal’ style of remote working and some of the capabilities around tech adoption have all become embedded now. I’m optimistic that that will be really good for diversity and inclusion, not just gender, but also around geography, disability and culture. That’s going to lead to fewer barriers at workplaces that were less accessible to people, whether in terms of geographic location or physical access, for example. Some of the changes will make a more diverse and inclusive workforce.

In terms of career advice, I’ve also said to people to fall in love with problems, not your solution. I think trying to find new solutions is the best way to have an enjoyable career. It’s also important to work on these solutions with people that you can learn from, and maintain a kind of curiosity to keep asking questions. That’s the kind of skill that is relevant today: in a world where there’s a lot of uncertainty, you need to adapt, you need to keep asking questions, and you need to respond.

Thompson: This crisis has created a lot more unity. It’s a large-scale crisis that has threatened humanity, and that’s driven very different ways of thinking about how we relate to each other. It’s also created a much more open mindset around inclusion. There’s still some way to go if you look at the gender pay gap, for example, and we need to keep measuring that and being explicit about the progress that we’re making. We must continue to hold ourselves accountable and keep pushing within our organisations and across industries.

Hinden: It’s worth looking back to how far we’ve come in the last 25 years, which is how long I’ve been working, to show what changes are possible.

They take time, and maybe this will speed up some of them. My main advice for new female leaders is don’t try and be your boss but in a skirt. You have to be yourself; you have to believe in yourself and that you’ve been put in a leadership position for who you are, not just to replicate your predecessors. It’s results that matter, not how you get to them. And by results, I don’t mean money in the P&L, I mean your staff engagement, morale, development, succession – they all matter.

Klapper: There’s evidence that upstream firms along the supply chain not only benefit from technology adoption, but also gender-related labour outcomes. For example, a recent study of Bangladeshi garment factories shows that domestic firms connected with multinational firms have similar gender hiring practices to those of their global peers. That’s really intriguing. As technology like Zoom is making the world a lot smaller, there could be even greater transfer of better labour practices to developing countries, especially among upstream firms within the trade sector.

In terms of advice, I always offer the importance of data transparency, specifically around gender-disaggregated data, which helps us to better understand and measure the problems. So, for example, the World Bank gave researchers anonymised data for 27 years of personnel records, in which they found that the aggregate gender pay gap comes from historical differences in the types of positions which men and women were hired into, and the differences in pay increases between men and women over time. Really shining light on the data allows us to identify the problems, and both male and female leaders need to be more aware of these challenges to try to address them and narrow the gaps going forward.

Pakcan: We should feel good about some of the progress that has been made over the last decade or two. I’m proud to say we have just announced a new female CEO for Citi, which has created much positivity and motivation within the organisation.

But in addition to being optimistic, I am also quite realistic. It’s very important to keep at this in the sense that it’s all about pipelines, it’s all about who’s next in line, and who’s going to be able to grow and grab these opportunities. I personally feel that our focus has to be on the people going into and graduating from colleges, and looking at how do we help develop these individuals.

In terms of advice to women, I genuinely believe there is nothing that really replaces sheer hard work, passion and energy for what you’re doing. Sometimes people don’t realise how much work it really takes. Action is really important – even more so when you’re disappointed or frustrated, or you feel like you may have failed. You just can’t give up.