From Combating Social Norms to Winning the Globe! – Hajar Alafifi, Chairperson and Managing Director of Unilever Sri Lanka Ltd

Hajar Alafifi now holds the prestigious position of Chairperson and Managing Director of Unilever Sri Lanka Ltd. She recounted the days of her successful academic journey, leading to where she is today with pride, sharing the memories of the days when she constantly topped her batch at university. Her hard work and dedication paved the way to her being elected as a Junior Manager at Unilever Morocco, a revolutionary first step of a wonderful journey. That seat she took 20 years ago has so far taken her all around the globe, leading brands such as Sunsilk, Domex, OMO, and Sunlight. Hajar has served as the Global Strategy Director of the Unilever Homecare business and Global Brand Vice President of the Unilever Global Dishwasher business before being elected as the Chairperson and Managing Director of Unilever Sri Lanka.

Significant Reminiscence from Childhood 

When talking about her family life, as the fourth daughter in the family, she recounts the social norms that challenged her and her family. Her method of successfully dealing with all these challenges was always to be excellent at what she did in response, with a steady and unwavering goal of making her dear parents proud. She finds herself a feminist at heart, devoted to changing causes that are by default formed to undermine women. She believes the best breakthrough is a successful education and career, which are already aspects that she has topped without failing.

The Importance of Diversity and Inclusion as a Woman Chairperson

Talking about the administration and work environment of Unilever, ‘all-inclusivity’ and ‘diversity’ are two of her top priorities. “To me, numbers are only KPIs. What matters on top of diversity is inclusion; not being seen as a woman but as a professional, no matter the gender, religion, or age. This is what fuels us as an executive board at Unilever Sri Lanka.” added the boss lady. On that note, she also shared that Unilever has managed to achieve 50/50 gender diversity on a global scale and she is further working tirelessly to achieve this goal within the country too. 

Speaking of the initiatives she took to combat social norms against women, Hajar elaborates on Unilever introducing their first female factory manager at the Agarapathana Ceytea – Instant Tea Factory and making history by introducing their first-ever female shop floor employees at their Horana manufacturing facility. These are some of the steps Unilever Sri Lanka (USL) has already taken towards empowering women. In addition to that, their Pears cologne manufacturing plant is 100% operated by females. According to Hajar, the management of USL has made ‘gender balance’, and ‘advocating for diversity and inclusion’ a definitive part of their agenda. Hajar proudly added that 55% of the USL Management Committee are now women and so are 31% of the overall staff. She further stated that the company as a whole always aims towards a 50:50 gender balance and gender diversity and hopes to achieve 100% success in its plans by the year 2023.

USL has already made its impact felt by being the first in the industry to introduce a unique fertility support and domestic violence policy. Their policies, procedures, and practices also involve childcare policies, flexible working hours, and maternity/paternity leave policies, making an equitable culture achievable by eliminating discrimination.

Inspirational Advice to Young Professionals

“Believe in yourself! Work hard! Don’t feel entitled to compare yourself to others. Be the best you can be, and your career will magically unfold; you will make great friends along the way.” added Hajar, as advice for young professionals. According to her, the most valued aspects of a relationship are 3-fold, namely ‘honesty’, the ‘exchange of ideas’ and the ‘chit-chat after a heavy business debate’.

USL’s Contribution to Enhancing the Livelihoods of its Partners and Communities

When it comes to uplifting the livelihoods of the USL community and the youth, Hajar had a lot to share regarding the topic. “Doing good is an idea that has always been at the heart of our brands.” she added. Hajar proudly states that they have impacted over 10 million people positively through their purpose driven brands by being a force for good. Saubhagya, an idea born from USL, gives a hand to rural Sri Lankan women to earn a sustainable livelihood by selling Unilever products within their communities. The initiative runs today with around 5,000 Saubhagya entrepreneurs. The Sunshine Retailer Development Programme is another that has over 2,700 small-scale retailers onboard that the company has equipped with on what they need to stay competitive in the market while serving their community. By channeling 60% of their locally manufactured products to USL’s local partnership network of third-party manufacturers, and with 90% of their packaging material requirements being sourced locally, the company plays an undeniable part in bettering the lives of Sri Lankans.

In Addition, USL also works on uplifting the skills of Sri Lankan youth and providing employment opportunities. With an average of 3 youth engagements per week, they have been able to impact over 8,000 young lives this year alone. USL’s Student Ambassadorship Programme initiative, SPARKS, connects with undergraduates from 9 universities. The company also hosts the Unilever Youth Forum, which is their largest undergraduate forum that covers timely topics such as ‘Holistic Wellbeing’ and ‘Diversity and Inclusion’. Their timeless efforts don’t just end there. USL also offers 100+ internship/trainee opportunities across functions throughout the year through flagship programmes such as their Unilever Leadership Internship Programme, and Supply Chain Industrial Trainee Programme. These golden opportunities allow youngsters to handle business-critical projects, which give them exposure to functions and leadership development. These wide-angled efforts have managed to earn them the number 1 employer of choice rank for the 9th consecutive year, said Hajar, the pillar of strength and mastermind behind it all. 

USL Supports its Employees and Fosters their Development

According to Hajar, USL focuses on unlocking the full capacity of its staff and helping them enhance their capabilities. Each of USL’s employees have their unique Future Fit plan to enable their development, which is a confluence of their plans for their wellbeing, purpose, skills, and standards of leadership. USL has not been hesitant to invest in this cause for the betterment of their staff and has spent twice the amount of learning man-hours over the past year while launching their very first e-LMS platform for the Sales outer-core employees. 100% of USL’s employees have undertaken their purpose workshops, driven by the very purpose that Unilever has set its heart on. She further shared that #UForceStepUp, their first-ever tailor-made capability development programme, is about to be launched to help blue-collar workers work their way into executive positions by enhancing their competencies, skills, and qualifications.

Unilever Mitigating its Carbon Footprint and Impact on the Natural Environment

Reminiscing about her mission to prove that sustainability not only helps humans and the world but also goes hand-in-hand with business performance, Hajar shared that the Unilever team led by her has taken on more initiatives. ‘Horana Go Greener’, which refers to a project launched by their Horana factory, is entirely designed to tackle climate change by reducing the consumption of natural resources through rainwater harvesting, waste reduction, waste heat recovery, greenhouse gas reduction, and the use of renewable energy. This has helped the team save 20,000 tonnes of rainwater a year, which they use for their factory operations. “This has helped us reduce our water sourcing requirements from the Kalu Ganga through the BOI treatment plant, minimizing our electricity consumption used to abstract water.” Hajar added proudly. Meeting 95% of their steam requirements through biomass fuel has also helped them to reduce CO2 emissions by 84% in the last 8 years, giving a new meaning to sustainability.

‘100% Re-Aqua’ is another initiative that is seeing light at the Ceytea factory in Agarapathana. USL has managed to reduce its water consumption by 73% over the past decade. 94% of its water requirements have been fulfilled by reused water and the company has saved electricity equal to what 100 households use a year. Of course, such applaudable initiatives hardly go unnoticed. Unilever has managed to win the Gold Award at the Presidential Environment Gold Awards in 2019, as well as the ‘Best Sustainability Project Award’ for several projects including project ‘100% Re-Aqua’ by the Ceylon Chamber of Commerce. 

According to Hajar, their hard work towards sustainability doesn’t stop there. “We are also committed to managing our plastic packaging waste in an environmentally friendly manner. Here in Sri Lanka, we have committed to help collect and process more plastic packaging than we sell by 2022; And by 2024, we have pledged to ensure that 100% of our plastic packaging is designed to be fully reusable, recyclable, or compostable.” she added. 

Thoughts on the Ongoing Global Pandemic and How USL Adapted to the Changes

When asked about how USL has faced the pandemic so far, Hajar responded that not only safety guidelines but also the wellbeing and resilience of their staff are promoted during this difficult time, to keep the spirits uplifted. She believes that compassionate leadership is necessary at a time like this, and she recognizes the depression that can be caused to the staff by the loss of freedom and joy. According to her, nailing that tough but sweet spot between ‘sustaining livelihoods’, ‘economic boost’, and ‘ensuring safety’ should be done by all leaders. She believes that such wisdom and data can be great assets when it comes to decision-making.

She has never failed to make her staff feel complete and looked after, and according to her, the company has gone above and beyond to serve that purpose during this tough time. USL has taken the initiative to provide grocery support, ICC (Immediate Care Centre) facilities, COVID-19 awareness sessions, a care hotline made up of employee volunteers, and emergency loan facilities, amongst many others. 

Opinion on What Makes USL Unique

“What makes us unique? It is our people, our brands, our community work and how we intervene in every shop, every house, and every moment of the day.” added Hajar with joy. She is grateful to her professional and brilliant team, rich in values, that have made such a wonderful journey possible.

Visions Learned from the Sri Lankan Market and the Sri Lankan People

According to her, the Sri Lankan people, and the market have turned over a few new and exciting leaves in her life. Hajar mentioned that ‘the Sri Lankan resilience to overcome difficulties’ and ‘facing adversity with calmness’ were concepts that she admired. “I must add hoppers, dhal, the best-ever rice, and the view from One Galle Face. We have paradise on earth here and we need to work together to make the world come to know it and experience it.” she said. Evidently, her goodness of heart has taken her much higher than her original plan of breaking social norms and making her proud, by being a skilled and thoughtful icon of humanity and talent.

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