Equites CFO Laila Razack: Representation matters

Laila says it's important for young women of colour to take up significant positions in corporate SA.

Having seen the impact of Black Lives Matter and other social justice movements around the world, it has become more clear than ever that giving voice to diversity is very important. 

Equites CFO Laila Razack says:

“Having women of colour, such as myself, in a position of leadership is a powerful affirmation, not just for me but for others to see that it is possible.” 

Extremely passionate about education and the impact that it can make on lives, she relishes the opportunity that being a director on the board of the Michel Lanfranchi Foundation (NPC), which is funded by Equites, affords her. 

“This type of work is important for me because I think it’s the only way we will see structural change. Sustained transformation starts with empowering people at a grassroots level. I learned the value of education from a young age, with parents who insisted that we focus on our studies. I have seen in my own life how education allowed me to achieve my goals,” she explains.

Sitting on the board of the non-profit that coordinates all the company’s transformation and social initiatives offers her a chance to make a difference. The foundation’s activities include bursaries for students in tertiary, building schools, funding science and maths initiatives and continuously evaluating proposals from initiatives supporting Early Childhood Development and disabilities.

Laila grew up in Cape Town, in a conservative Indian family with grandparents who owned small businesses such as corner-shops and butcheries. This abiding entrepreneurial spirit influenced her from an early age. “It was a part of who we were,” she says

Helping out at her grandfather’s butchery on Saturday mornings provided powerful lessons in understanding the value of work. “He didn’t need us there but wanted us to see how business works.  Even though it was only a half day job, we used to pack groceries and he would also ‘hire’ us grandkids to clean his garden, purely to emphasise that you have to work for what you get,” she explains.

Exposure to the family business was for understanding its mechanics, rather than inheriting it. As teens, she and her siblings were pushed towards academics, and were told that focus on education was what would change the trajectory of their lives, as well as that of the entire family. She cut her teeth at leadership at a young age, becoming deputy head girl and a prefect in high school, while excelling academically. 

She graduated with a B.Sc in finance and accounting, along with a postgraduate diploma in accounting both at the University of Cape Town. After completing her articles at PwC she was admitted as a CA(SA) in 2014 and joined Equites the following year as head of finance.

Smart Pivots inspired by crisis

It wasn’t long after she took up the interim CFO role that the Covid-19 crisis came about. The team was embarking on its year-end audit but due to the lock-down, things were vastly different. “It was the first time we had done an audit completely virtually. Fortunately, very early on we had a discussion with our auditors to figure how to make it workable. Both sides collaborated to make it successful; through frequent catchup meetings, online folders and using technology to our advantage, and project managing incredibly well,” Laila says.  

Everyday business also had to operate successfully off site. For environmental reasons, the company has gone paperless last year, but now had to quickly migrate to doing everything online. Ensuring staff got access to high speed internet at home was a priority, followed by intensifying  communications. 

“Given that we were presented with a situation none of us had ever encountered, it was important that staff felt that there was stability and that their jobs were secure. We wanted to make sure they felt looked after to minimise stress internally because we rely on them heavily, being a small team of only 28. These measures went a long way in maintaining productivity, allowed us to complete our integrated report and keep up with routine monthly finance reporting.”

Externally, there had to be some shifts too. “Our priority is to look after the balance sheet, but with the tough times businesses have faced, some of our smaller tenants asked for relief. It’s been a balancing act of ensuring our stakeholders including clients and shareholders are happy, as are our staff.” 

In recent months she has leaned in heavily on her leadership style, which she says is one that empowers people to excel. “I don’t like to micromanage. I prefer to engage, set goals and when people achieve good results, recognise them for their efforts. I invite people to bring ideas for us to do better and be innovative; for instance our Financial Controller suggested using AI to capture invoices and it’s something we are piloting.”

Finding meaning in work, beyond the spreadsheet

Thus far, being a CA has surpassed her career expectations. “The influence finance can have on people’s lives; with this qualification you can positively impact how the economy works, you can make people’s lives better from an individual, a company society or even globally with things like operating with sustainability in mind, which benefits everyone on the planet.” She loves how she’s able to touch so many facets of life and living. “Being a CA develops a mindset of approaching problems and arriving at dynamic solutions. It’s a way of thinking that isn’t limited to finance or accounting but also applies to every part of life.”

The work with the foundation is the perfect arena for her to operate outside the box of finance. “I want to make it easier for kids to get access to high quality education. I have seen the impact first-hand through one of the first recipients of our bursary, who is doing an internship with us for six months before she starts her honours,” Laila says. “Working at Equites enabled the intern to grow from a shy, reserved young lady to someone who has found her voice and will be ready for the real working world. It is these changes that one by one, person by person, will lead to change on a larger scale.”

At 33 years old, she wants to be able to enjoy the journey and sees room for growth at Equites. “When I joined five years ago, we only had a footprint in South Africa, but have since grown to the UK. I am excited to see how the business evolves and want to grow with it.” 

Beyond the boardroom 

Outside of work Laila is passionate about sustainability, “not only in the choices made in a corporate environment, but in our own everyday choices. I am very passionate about the earth and think we should be conscious of our impact on the planet.” In addition to protecting it she loves to explore it. “I love to travel. I enjoy exploring big cities, such as London, New York, Hong Kong, Istanbul and going off the beaten track, exploring Egypt and visiting the pyramids was amazing and I want to go to Machu Picchu. I like a little bit of a mix and that’s what makes the experience so invigorating.”