Fernanda Lopes Larsen is Executive Vice President for Africa, Asia, and Oceania at Yara International. The company is headquartered in Oslo and produces fertilizers and other crop nutrition solutions. Fernanda is based here in Yara’s Singapore regional headquarters, which also serves as one of five digital hubs, developing innovative agritech solutions for commercial and smallholder farmers around the world.
With the overall responsibility to lead business across three continents, Fernanda is responsible for 22 market economies and 2,000 employees across this vast region. Working in corporate environments globally for 22 years, Fernanda deeply understands organizations’ strengths, weaknesses and their improvement potential. Additionally, she was born and raised in Brazil, has a dual Brazilian and British citizenship and is married to a Norwegian. This has given her a rich cultural background.
Being a civil engineer, she has an atypical profile compared to other peers, who normally come from the commercial or agronomy part of the agri-food business. As a young engineer, she started manufacturing a plant with a thousand employees in Germany. Further, she moved into procurement, and developed an understanding for the customer’s side.
-My beginnings are different from what you would find in a typical MD with a career based on the sales track. I have always been on the operations side, and from this I developed similar skills like negotiation, relationship management, and so on.
Fernanda’s biggest advice to future female leaders is to not be ashamed of being ambitious, and she admires those who are open about their goals. She adds merrily:
–One of the things that makes me the happiest is when I ask people “What are your ambitions?” and they answer, “I want your job!”
How should women support other women in their workspace?
-Women have a sense of comfort in the presence of each other, and this should continue in the corporate world as well. (…) There are so many anecdotal stories around women being the opposite of supportive to each other, and people portray them as competitive and mean. This attitude comes from how we choose to raise our daughters and the stories we tell them. I raise my daughter to believe in the power of sisterhood, because women advance when they are together and lifting each other up.
Through her career, mentors and sponsors have shown their support and taken chances on her.
-They have believed in me, and given me opportunities and exposure to challenging situations, projects and jobs. If it’s too easy you won’t grow. Sometimes you just need to throw someone into a situation and say “Good luck! I’m here for you if you need it, but I believe in you.” I’ve had people in my career that did that for me, and I’m eternally grateful to them. It may not feel great in the heat of the moment, but it’s what makes you a good leader in the end.
How have you experienced being a female leader?
Fernanda claims that the corporate environment in general is still very male-dominated across the globe, and that it is harder to be a female leader than a male one.
-Our skills, results, accomplishments and abilities, they are most likely being measured through male lenses. (…) Black-, Asian- and Latino women stand against more difficulties than others, in terms of access to possibilities and opportunities. I am not just a woman, I am a Black woman, and these cannot be separated. Not seeing people that look like you, in the corporate environment, can make the leadership experience a bit lonely.
-As a leader, you are developing the next generation of leaders. I do not take this lightly. For me, this aspect of leadership is as important, if not more important than actually delivering the financial result of the business.
The goal is inclusion – when you dance like nobody’s watching
The gender equity drive is strong in Yara, and they strive to have over 40 percent of their senior leaders to be female by 2025. Fernanda reflects these values to her team, and she believes that they are on their way to reaching this goal.
She states that focusing on differences when it comes to gender is not enough. Further, she explains that discussions around – and policies in support of – diversity need to include people from all sorts of backgrounds, nationalities, ethnicities, those of different gender/sexual identities than they were given at birth, and people with disabilities.
Yara has a robust Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) Program which aims to help its staff achieve their professional and personal aspirations as best as possible.
-Equity is different from equality, because it recognizes that not all people are the same, and that we all have different starting points.
Fernanda describes diversity like being invited to the party, and the goal for the party is inclusion – when you dance like nobody’s watching:
-The inclusion goal implies that the employees feel like they belong and are a part of something. You perform your best when you feel like you belong. We have a lot of employee resource groups, where people can have the psychological safety to be who they are. We work to provide our employees with the resources, money and access to things that are necessary for these employee groups to thrive!
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