For 14 years, the Fortune / U.S. State Department Global Women’s Mentoring Partnership has been pairing women business leaders from a diverse range of countries, from Argentina to Zimbabwe, with some of the top female executives in the U.S. It’s a program with which New York Life Investments (NYLIM) CEO Yie-Hsin Hung was familiar.
“The program is sponsored by Fortune magazine, and whenever I attended Fortune’s ‘Most Powerful Women’ conference, these mentees from around the world would be featured,” she says. “It always captured my interest.”
Yie-Hsin brought the program up with Kathleen Navarro, our chief diversity officer, since it seemed to mirror New York Life’s focus on diversity and career development.
“Together, Yie-Hsin and I evaluated the program and decided to participate,” says Navarro. “This was a unique opportunity to ‘pay it forward’ through an international exchange program, and it extends the great work we’re doing internally to an external audience.”
Yie-Hsin would be a mentor.
It started off as any other day for Manohari Abeyesekera, the executive in charge of strategy and business development at Sri Lanka-based conglomerate Hayleys PLC. That is, until she received a call from the US embassy of Sri Lanka informing her that she had been selected to participate in a special global mentorship program for women. And she had only two days to give them an answer.
“Of course I said yes,” says Manohari. “This is a life time opportunity, I was invited by the US embassy in Sri Lanka to apply for the Fortune Dept of State exchange program in November 2018, and I was so excited to hear that Yie Hsin Hung has accepted to be a mentor to me.
Fortunately, her company and family fully supported her visit to the U.S. for the four weeks required.
“I wanted to further develop my soft skills, like communications, because these are the things that get you to the top—not merely an MBA.”—Manohari Abeyesekera
A Chartered Accountant by profession, Manohari has worked her way up the ranks at Hayley’s over her 17-years. The company has a balanced approach to women in the workplace, and she has always been given opportunities to grow and develop her career there. It’s also a company that aligns with her personal values in terms of sustainability and social responsibility. For example, many of the products they manufacture, such as rubber gloves and coir fibre based door mats, are made from fair trade or sustainably sourced materials—a differentiator for Hayley’s in a crowded market.
Part of Abeyesekera’s duties involve acquisitions and restructuring companies. “I don’t like to close businesses and would always try to save people’s jobs,” she says. “Restructuring a troubled business gives me real satisfaction. I think we have a social responsibility to take care of people.”
She recollects a time when Hayley’s flower seed export business went through hardships when its overseas flower seed joint venture company shifted its business from Sri Lanka to Kenya. The company’s board was contemplating a closure. However, they managed to restructure and diversify their operations, enabling 400 women to continue with their jobs.
And it’s with this background in mind that she came to New York Life to spread her wings.
Focus on soft skills.
Yie-Hsin wasn’t the only one to work closely with Manohari during her time here. The NYLIM team and Human Resources collaborated to create a development program for Manohari that emphasized skills like coaching, and offered courses on the human side of business relationships. She also wanted to improve on her negotiating skills and to share her opinions in a more diplomatic fashion.
“I am often very direct when I have something to say,” says Manohari. “I wanted to further develop my soft skills, like communications, because these are the things that get you to the top—not just an MBA.”
Hung says Manohari got right into the thick of things almost as soon as she arrived here. “I had invited her to some of my meetings and she jumped in and made some really good points. She was delightful.”
“I think we both had something to learn from each other,” says Hung. “The impression that people in her country have of women in the U.S. is informed mainly by the media—it’s that we’re only focused on our careers. She realized that we have to balance our families and lives too.”
It’s something that’s familiar to Manohari, who’s married and has a 13-year-old daughter. As the main breadwinner, she often doesn’t get home until 8:00pm.
“We received very positive feedback from Manohari,” says Navarro. “She had a full agenda, and the New York Life team was very enthusiastic and interested in making her time with us an amazing experience. And we all learned from her as well. She educated us on her country, the company she works for, and the issues important to working women in Sri Lanka.”
Photo from left to right: Kathleen Navarro, Yie Hsin Hung, Manohari Abeyesekera.