Amali de Alwis MBE, is nothing short of kick-ass. Whether it’s swapping degrees from engineering to shoe design, to pivoting into the tech industry only to pivot again, or calling out an all-white, all-male lunch for CEOs, one thing is for sure: de Alwis is unafraid to take on a challenge. So much so that her LinkedIn profile lists no less than 30 roles she's held, including managing director at Microsoft for Startups UK, CEO at Code First: Girls and various board member roles which she commits to on top of the day job.
Now she’s taking on climate change as CEO of Subak, a not-for-profit accelerator which finds, funds, and scales organisations and individuals who are saving the planet.
ON PREPARING FOR THE ROLE
I've run companies before. So for me, it wasn't so much about preparing for the role as a chief executive, but more about understanding what type of chief executive I was going to be within this role.
This involved getting to understand the teams there, where the business was, how the finances were, the impact we were having and what the outcome was from what we had done so far.
I would hope I am the type of CEO who can balance the needs of the business, as far as our growth, raising revenue and keeping the lights on, with creating a working environment where people can grow and be supportive, kind and bright.
That’s what matters to me as the person running the company. I like to get to the bones of both the business and the people. So that always plays a part in my prep, when I'm moving into new roles.
ON THE INVISIBLE HIGH HORSE
I started off by doing an engineering degree and went on to study shoe design and manufacturing. I realised fairly promptly that I was doing the same degree twice, because whether you're manufacturing shoes or aeroplane propellers you go through a very similar process of research, prototyping, R&D, manufacturing, point of sale and all of that kind of stuff.
One of the biggest things I learned is how much we put weird artificial delineations between industries, which actually have a lot in common. It makes you think about why we segment certain workers and their pay. For example, fashion is a gigantic money making machine, it’s a huge industry with an awful lot of very smart and dedicated people, yet we dismiss it as being frivolous.
ON CHASING GROWTH
From a career perspective, you need different things at different times of your life. Sometimes it might be you need a different title, sometimes it might be you need more money. It's chasing growth.
The trick is to keep moving forward, if you’re not growing or you’re not happy with your work. There are loads of opportunities that can get the best out of you and where you can get the best out of them. Take them and move with it, because your skills are valued and appreciated.
ON CALLING THINGS OUT
We should be calling out bad behaviours in companies or when people are mistreating colleagues. To the point that they’re slightly triggered by such behaviour. So the next time they're doing it, they suddenly remember that that experience was not a good one and therefore think more carefully moving forward. But just making people feel bad isn't going to help anyone. So when pulling things up, you’ve got to provide answers and ways forward for people.
I've called out all-white panels a few times. Not because I’m trying to shame people - I will always try to help. I’ve lost count of the number of times that I have then shared women in tech lists with people or nominated women for board roles. But keeping silent has not helped anyone to move things along. So we need to call things out when we see them.
ON CAREER PIVOTING
When I got my job at Kantar TNS, I was coming into it with no research or economics background. Instead, I showed a recruiter my 18,000-word market segmentation study and told her why I thought I’d be good for the role.
She took a risk putting me forward for the role and then Kantar TNS took a risk on me. So there are people who will take risks on you and people who will be able to see what you're capable of. But as a candidate, think about how you can help them to understand what your journey is and why you're thinking about a career pivot. People will give you time and space, if you can show them that you can think in the way that they need to even if you haven't done exactly the “right” job before.
Female entrepreneurs still struggle with finding funding. Numerous grant providers don't take open interest. They only go through specific networks. It's kind of like, are you interested in solving the problems which matter or just solving the problems of people who are connected to you?
For someone who is new to an industry or doesn't have a background within the funding industry or in startups, they're not going to have those connections. So this is where the network's effect can be both incredibly beneficial, but also incredibly detrimental as far as actually making sure that we find people who are solving real problems.
ON THE ECONOMIC AND CLIMATE CRISIS
As the cost of living, fuel and house prices increase, so does inequality. And it's often the people who are least able to afford to adapt to changes who are going to be impacted the most. But the reality is that if we don't tackle climate change, everything we do - running businesses, having houses, feeding our families - will get harder.
It's a false economy. I know that it's really painful when, for most people, they're just looking at tomorrow. If it's a choice between feeding their family and putting it in a new air source boiler you know what's going to happen and you can’t blame them.
But the reality is that we can't continue the way that we are. There is no future if we do nothing. This is where the government, private and public sector have a real role to play; we have to make it easier for people to make those changes. Leaders could start by digging into pension policies, funding organisations working in the climate space and considering greener avenues for their future roles.