Sharmla Chetty | 40 Outstanding Global Women 2023
Overcoming adversity to build better organisations
Sharmla has served as President of Global Markets, North America, Europe & UK, Asia, and Africa, at Duke CE before being appointed CEO in 2019.
“Leadership is not a person or a position. It is a relationship of trust and a shared vision and purpose to bring your team along with you. Leading an organisation through change is not always easy, and you need to be prepared to push through times of adversity and develop resilience. You need a growth mindset”
Sharmla Chetty, CEO of Duke Corporate Education
She now leads the company, driving strategic alignment for the organisation globally, and operations for its regional practices around the world. For two decades, the Financial Times has consistently ranked Duke CE among the top global custom executive education providers. “When you start a new brand, or face a new challenge, you need tenacity, drive, resilience, agility and creativity,” says Sharmla/ “You also need to take risks and to own the consequences of your decisions, however they turn out.”
Adversity into Success
“The skills and discipline that I learned early in my career in banking, I now apply to my current role,” she says.
Having grown up in Durban, South Africa, during the apartheid regime, Sharmla developed a strong sense of social justice, and a desire for change and progress.
“I was shaped by adversity but also by the women around me, particularly my mother and grandmother” she says.
She recalls the keen sense of injustice she experienced as a child when banned from visiting “white” beaches in Durban, and how, at just five years old, she experienced discrimination when she and her grandmother were refused entry to a restaurant because of the colour of their skin.
“Although they were oppressed, my mother and grandmother were women of respect, dignity, and life-long learning. They instilled in me the importance of education as a path to opportunity, growth, and a way to escape poverty, particularly for girls and women.
From the age of 15, Sharmla was a student activist speaking up against the deep prejudice of apartheid in South Africa. This experience instilled in her a desire to work for social change and a single goal to transform organisations and society through leadership. Sharmla founded the South Africa office for Duke CE in 2007. Her areas of ongoing research include board leadership, the future of work, humanity and technology and people practices. She is now focussing on developing leaders to shape a sustainable and inclusive future and create a new mindset for an ESG world.
Prior to joining Duke CE, she was head of human capital development at Nedbank for over 19 years. She holds an MBA from Henley Management Business School in the UK and a Masters in Management and Executive Coaching from Wits Business School.
Putting a “W” into ESG
As businesses with global teams begin to adjust to demands from customers, stakeholders, investors and employees to demonstrate greater sustainability and diversity, Sharmla believes the contribution of more women in senior roles will enhance performance and reduce business risk.
“Women leaders have a more empathetic style: they build trust, they listen and they can bring diverse voices,” she says. This can have a positive impact on performance, and can also help de-risk the business and reduce the chance of poor board decisions being made as a result of group-think.
“Leadership is not a person or a position,” she says. “It is a relationship of trust and a shared vision and purpose to bring your team along with you. Leading an organisation through change is not always easy, and you need to be prepared to push through times of adversity and develop resilience. You need a growth mindset. Progress is not going to be linear, but women need to be part of the trend towards breaking that glass ceiling and playing their full part.”
Female role models inspire and nurture future leaders
She benefits from the support of her team, and her connections with other women who share her agenda for change.
“When I started out in my career and I was sitting on the board of a large engineering company, I felt very alone. I would have benefited from female role models around me. That is why I am very keen on supporting and promoting other women, and I founded the Mentorship Circle, a collaborative mentorship scheme which aims to equip, inspire and nurture future leaders so they can in turn run a mentorship project of their own.
”With her deep commitment to build leadership for a better world, she led Duke CE in hosting The Davos of Human Capital event in 2020, convening global CEOs and CHROs and thousands of participants to discuss how leadership can be the force multiplier for positive change in business and society.
“As we women leaders rise in seniority, we need to pay it forward and bring others with us,” she says. “For me, there’s the whole notion around being stronger together. Women can support each other and in that way make progress towards equality and social justice.
”Never one to sit still, Sharmla recently launched the Duke CE ESG Leadership Academy, which supports organizations across the globe in getting to grips with the changes required for a more sustainable and just world.
“Women executives are critical to the success of ESG too,” she says. “I often say the W is missing from ESG, and it is time to double down on women being equal partners in an ESG era.”