The call to #embraceequity: ABGF leaders share their perspectives on building a more diverse, equitable, and inclusive business

As children we are taught the Golden Rule; treat others as you would want to be treated. That distils down to treating everyone the same – affording the same rights, opportunities, and benefits to all – regardless of their differences.

While on the surface this sounds like a good thing, striving only for equality falls short of our vision to create a workplace (and a world for that matter), where people from all backgrounds and identities feel safe to be the fullest version of themselves at work. The reality is that we cannot achieve equality without equity.

An equal world sees that everyone receives the same resources. An equitable world, however, asks us to acknowledge that people are individuals, with different circumstances, backgrounds, experiences, cultures, privileges, abilities, and interests.

To achieve equity, we focus on understanding our people, and by asking them “what they need” to be successful; not by assuming everyone fits into the same small checkbox.

This requires a cultural and leadership shift away from binary, one-size-fits-all policies, from the time we start and end meetings, how we socialise together, and how we support new and working parents and caregivers. If we fail to recognise the nature of our differences, we miss out on their true power and strength.

As we celebrate International Women’s Day and this year’s theme, #embraceequity, it’s a time to reflect on how we can create more diverse, equitable, and inclusive businesses. To continue the conversation, we sat down with three of our senior women leaders to hear how their personal experiences shaped their careers and their perspectives on this complex and critical topic.

Stefanie Allen, General Counsel

For Stefanie Allen, who serves as General Counsel for ABGF, having the opportunity to interact with different types of people from an early age helped shape her views on diversity and leadership. She grew up in inner city Melbourne, where her mother rented out spare rooms in their home to support their family.

“I learned early on to be comfortable with difference and that there’s no ‘one way’ to be or to live,” says Stefanie.

However, as she entered the legal profession and started to rise through the legal ranks toward law firm partnership, Stefanie says she found firm leadership did not always share her opinion.

“At the time, I felt there was a lot of pressure to ‘fit the mould’ of what a successful Partner should be. The formula was driven by a traditional view of what worked. It didn’t match my personality or what I wanted in a successful career. I wasn’t prepared to compromise what was important to me to meet that expectation.”

What made the difference in her career development, she says, was having opportunities to interact with and learn from a wider diverse group of professionals outside the law firm environment with different strengths to hers.

“I recall one particularly valuable experience when I was already quite a senior lawyer but decided to take on greater responsibility in a particular field which I was inexperienced. One colleague, senior to me, had expertise in that area and always made the time to answer any and all questions I had. He never gave the impression he saw my inexperience in this one aspect of my role as a negative. He continually looked for opportunities for me to learn more and develop.”

“To me, it was a way of recognising that there’s more than one way to be successful, and a leader. Organisations that don’t fully embrace diversity in all its forms – including cognitive diversity and differences in personality – are missing out on a lot of talent.”

Rayna Toman, Chief Financial Officer

In contrast to Stefanie’s childhood in the city, Chief Financial Officer Rayna Toman grew up in a small community in Sydney’s Sutherland Shire. She says while the area wasn’t particularly diverse or progressive at the time, Rayna’s parents worked hard to ensure she would have the opportunity to achieve her full potential.

“For 20 years, my parents operated a small business– working six days a week from early in the morning until late at night. My parents hadn’t had the opportunity to attend university but they were adamant that I be able to support my family if ever I was the sole breadwinner. They believed in public education and they nurtured my skills and opportunities to prioritise education from an early age.”

As a mother of four who has worked in private equity and financial services for close to three decades, Rayna says one factor that has helped her maintain momentum in her career is the evolution of access to parental leave and flexible work arrangements.

“Parental leave used to only be for new mums but it’s good to see other carers now having access to it. My maternity leave differed with each child depending on what we needed and ranged anywhere from three to nine months. I was fortunate to have support from my family and employers as it enabled me to return to work on my own terms.”

“For me, taking leave and working part-time gave me a different focus and in a sense, a bit of a ‘break’ from my normal work. I credit it as helping me avoid the burnout one might experience working year after year for decades, which is often experienced by fathers who didn’t have access to parental leave.”

“Because I had the support I needed, I was able to continue with a rewarding career while raising a family. ”

Ghazaleh Lyari, Co-Head of Investments

Ghazaleh Lyari, Co-Head of Investments has always been a strong advocate for diversity and equity in the workplace. She grew up in Tehran, Iran and moved to Australia as a teenager before going on to build a career that took her from Wall Street to Silicon Valley and back.

With close to three decades of experience in traditionally male-dominated fields such as investment banking and private equity, she says many organisations fail to ‘walk the walk’ on diversity, equity and inclusion.

“Many organisations claim to value it, but if the leadership team lacks diversity, the culture is inherently set and controlled by the dominant group. Those cultural ‘norms’ inform everything from types of career opportunities offered to certain groups, to how people communicate and socialise.”

“Often, the challenge for women in male-dominated industries is navigating a behavioural framework that is not compatible with their own. Given the lack of adequate representation by women at every level, the need to conform overrides one’s natural state of being – and working in environments where there is disconnect between corporate and personal values is not in line with sustainable fulfilment or a rewarding career.”

“Leaders need to be proactive”

Ghazaleh, Stefanie, and Rayna all agreed organisations that are serious about achieving a diverse, equitable workforce must take practical steps to do so – starting with representation in their leadership.

“It comes from the top, and ABGF is a great example,” says Rayna.

“For instance, when it comes to recruiting, CEO Anthony Healy insists on having an equal number of men and women candidates for every role. And he hasn’t been deterred when it’s taken longer to identify women , particularly for senior positions. It’s an action that has resulted in us securing diverse talent at every level of the business,” she added.

“It’s not always easy to prioritise diversity, equity, and inclusion, particularly in a small business”, says Stefanie.

“Leaders need to be proactive – and it’s not just about ensuring gender equity but building a team that’s diverse on all fronts. ABGF has a lot of diversity in the types of personalities we have. While we share a belief in our purpose and mission, there is a broad range in how we work – we’re not carbon copies of each other,” she added.

“Having policies and practices that cater to the mindsets, priorities, and needs of different groups makes it possible to turn these differences into a source of strength,” says Ghazaleh.

“The diverse mix of professionals at the fund has created an environment where no particular group is considered dominant, and everyone is encouraged to bring their authentic self to work,” she added.

ABGF has been vocal about its commitment to diversity, the benefits that come from diverse teams, and how the private equity sector can become more inclusive. CEO Anthony Healy says the business’s focus on diversity, equity, and inclusion is already paying dividends.

“When you have professionals like Stefanie, Rayna, and Ghazaleh as leaders, you generate interest from other talented candidates.”

“But it’s more than that. Our commitment to diversity permeates through our business. It strengthens and deepens the culture.”

“When everyone’s contribution is valued, we get better decisions and drive stronger outcomes. And when team members have diverse backgrounds and experiences, people want to learn more about each other. It makes us more curious and more adaptive to new challenges and opportunities.”

“We consistently hear from our investee companies, advisors, and partners how our team is an outlier in the private equity world because we listen well, ask the right questions, and display a genuine interest in their success. I believe that culture is possible because of the depth and diversity of the team,” he added.

“I’m proud of the progress we’ve made at ABGF to date and also realistic about the fact that the push for equity is constantly evolving. By continuing to listen, we can always strive to do even better tomorrow than we did today.”

Can ABGF assist your business?

At the Australian Business Growth Fund™, we provide long-term growth capital to enable SMEs to scale without giving up control of their business. Start the conversation with us today.