By Frances Hedges
Sophie Chandauka’s career has taken her to almost every possible environment: from the corporate to the entrepreneurial, spanning finance, tech and science.
What connects all of these roles is her sheer determination to get the job done to the best of her ability, and to bring other talented women along with her. “I think success is about impact and delivery, but it’s also about knowing how to create high-performing teams,” she says.
Born and raised in Zimbabwe and South Africa – “a part of the world that was full of entrepreneurial spirit” – Chandauka was educated in Canada, the US and the UK.
She started her career as a corporate lawyer at Baker McKenzie’s London office, advising large companies such as Nike and the Body Shop – a role she loved, but ultimately found limiting as she wanted to hold the strategic reins of a business herself.
After meeting Jayne-Anne Gadhia, the then CEO of Virgin Money, she was recruited as part of the deal team that led the much-publicised Northern Rock acquisition, then worked on the company’s flotation on the London Stock Exchange.
“The experience confirmed to me that I feel happier and more fulfilled when I’m personally invested in a business,” she says.
Subsequent career moves saw her relocate to New York to become the global COO of shared services and banking operations at Morgan Stanley, where she dealt with the challenges of managing a distributed workforce in the midst of a global pandemic, and then to California to lead on risk management and intelligence for Meta.
Most recently, Chandauka has followed her entrepreneurial instincts by co-founding, together with her brother, a US-based biotechnology company, Nandi Life Sciences, to develop therapies for rare cancers and auto-immune diseases.
“Healthcare in the US is worth more than $4 trillion a year, and about 80 per cent of the workforce is female, yet when you look at the amount of funds invested in female-owned businesses, it’s something like two per cent,” she says.
“As a result, there’s significant under-investment in female issues.” She hopes that her new business, which has been accepted onto an accelerator for cancer therapeutics at the Texas Medical Center, will go some way to changing that.
This mission-driven approach also characterises Chandauka’s other recent professional venture: becoming the chair of Sentebale, the charity founded by Prince Seeiso of Lesotho and Prince Harry, the Duke of Sussex, to help children and young people who are affected by HIV or AIDS.
She has worked with the organisation for a number of years – its purpose, given her own upbringing in southern Africa, is close to her heart – but she sees the new role as an opportunity to safeguard the organisation’s long-term future.
But perhaps Chandauka’s proudest achievement is her ongoing involvement in the Black British Business Awards, which she founded in 2014 and continues to chair.
Endorsed by three prime ministers and the Mayor of London, the awards scheme recognises excellence among Black professionals and entrepreneurs across the UK. “When we started out, we were responding to the common refrain that the reason we didn’t have any Black CEOs in the FTSE 100 was down to lack of talent,” she recalls.
“So we decided to launch a showcase of talent on an annual basis.” The event has grown from a small-scale celebration to an established and in-demand programme (“We must have only had about 12 or 13 companies that bought a table in the first year, and now we work with 120”) whose prestigious roll-call of past winners includes leading names such as the journalist Trevor McDonald and the Globe chair Margaret Casely-Hayford.
Why workplace diversity matters
Crucial to Chandauka’s mission with the awards is to “focus on wealth creation” among the Black business community.
“Our issue is often not about lack of education, ambition or capacity – it’s that we don’t have access to capital,” she argues.
“Many of us continue to do these 9-to-5 jobs that come with a lot of security but don’t improve our standing – we need to be in spaces where we can’t be ignored.” That includes being represented at the highest echelons of business, such as in the FTSE 100.
“I really believe we have to define our destiny when it comes to participation in the global economy,” she adds.
Black people have to define our destiny when it comes to participation in the global economy
Chandauka recognises the need for the awards scheme to function as more than just a one-off annual event. As such, she has built a portfolio of products designed to help companies recruit and invest in Black talent, from leadership-development programmes for Black executives to inclusivity training for line managers and HR business partners.
“We’ve also been engaging with investors to help them understand what questions they should be asking companies about the work they’re doing on culture and inclusion, and how they plan to ensure long-term, sustained change,” she says.
It’s an ambitious goal, but with more than 450 people who have passed through the programme, nearly half of whom go on to secure a promotion or other opportunity, there is clear progress being made. “The party’s amazing,” says Chandauka, “but the real legacy work is in the people.” Long may she continue to make her mark.