The sustainability professional shares the life-changing experience that spurred her career move into ESG, the importance of her work and finding balance while raising happy, responsible and resilient children

In 2010 Amita Chaudhury joined 500 of India’s brightest young things on a 15-day train journey across the nation. The Jagriti Yatra, or Journey of Awakening, takes place annually and sees participants traverse the country’s rail tracks to meet a number of inspiring and extraordinary individuals in India’s various states.

“It was a life-changing event,” says Chaudhury. “It was my journey of awakening to the power of people and businesses to address societal challenges.”

It was the catalyst that would encourage Chaudhury to identify her life’s purpose—to face up to some of the planet’s greatest challenges and try to make the world a better place. It would see her enter the world of sustainability, an area in which she has excelled, currently heading up sustainability at AIA Group.

Prior to her life-changing journey, Chaudhury had worked in marketing at Colgate and Unilever in India, before following her husband’s career moves to Singapore, Hong Kong and finally London, where, in 2010, Chaudhury rejoined Unilever in a role that involved launching diversity and inclusion initiatives which she would go on to lead for the next six years.

It was an important time for the British consumer goods company. Pioneering business leader Paul Polman had taken over as CEO in 2009 and had relaunched Unilever’s purpose—“to make sustainability commonplace and its pioneering vision to grow the business, decoupling environmental impact from growth and making a positive social impact,” says Chaudhury of the brand’s ten-year Sustainable Living Plan that would become a blueprint for many other companies.

“During my time in Unilever, I worked very closely with Paul and saw up close and personal his unequivocal and unflagging commitment to the belief that business could not be a bystander to the social and environmental challenges that the world faced, and that it must be a part of the solution. This influenced me deeply; it was one of my key motivations to move into sustainability.”

Chaudhury also mentions another driver. “Having children played a part,” she says. “I want my kids to be citizens of the world who are not just individualistic and focused on achieving self-serving objectives but try to make the world a better place in some way. Being a role model to them was also an important consideration in the choice of my role.”

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Amita Chaudhury AIA
Above Amita Chaudhury AIA

In 2016 Chaudhury made the move, heading up Unilever’s sustainable business for Southeast Asia and Australasia through to 2019, during which time she was the recipient of the Leading Women in Sustainability award from the World Business Council for Sustainable Development.

During Chaudhury’s time at Unilever, the company was also recognised with various awards, both for being a leader in gender balance and for sustainability. Now at AIA and based in Singapore, Chaudhury incorporates experience from both of her prior roles at Unilever in looking after the pan-Asian life and health insurer’s ESG programme.

“We have an inspiring purpose of helping people live healthier, longer, better lives,” says Chaudhury. “With AIA’s legacy of trust with millions of policyholders, our scale with 23,000 employees and hundreds and thousands of agents and partners, and influence with an investment book of more than US$250 billion—the majority of it invested in Asia, AIA has the responsibility and the opportunity to build a sustainable, healthier future for Asia. Having the mandate and platform to drive that change is what gets me out of bed every morning."

Here, Chaudhury shares more on the importance of sustainability and how it has changed in recent years, and some learnings from her illustrious career, both professional and personal.

What is a common misconception about your work?

Less than five years ago, there was a perception that sustainability was the domain of NGOs or activists. This is no longer true. Integrating sustainability into business strategy is a Board and C-suite priority and it is an expectation from investors, regulators, customers and employees.

Poor ESG performance can be a business risk, financial risk or reputational risk, whereas strong ESG performance can unlock value for the business through growth and profitability, de-risking future plans, and can lower costs over the long term. Just as importantly, it fosters trust with partners, helps to attract talent, and improves employee engagement.

What’s the best piece of advice you have received professionally?

One great piece of advice from Mitch New, who heads AIA’s ESG Committee, has been to make sure that you take people along with you in all that you do. Being kind and putting oneself in other people’s shoes is the first principle of leadership and influencing outcomes.

What does work-life balance mean to you?

For me, work is such an integral part of my life; it helps me to fulfil my purpose to drive a positive impact at scale. I love to engage in problem-solving, and to be part of a community that’s working towards collective goals. So, I do not consider ‘work’ to be separate from ‘life’.

But, the amount of energy and time spent on different pursuits—work versus kids, friends and leisure—can change at different life stages or because of personal priorities. When I had kids, I took an eight-year break from corporate life to take care of them. I kept my mind stimulated through teaching at a university, writing a book and working on academic research. Now that my kids are older, I spend a lot of time working, which gives me energy.

The book you wrote while taking a break from corporate life was called Working Mothers, Happy Kids—what is the key message?

After having kids, it can be a hard decision to return to work for mothers who have the choice to stay at home, and some mums feel a lot of guilt when working while the kids are at home. I felt the same way. But I have seen full-time working women raise emotionally intelligent, responsible, resilient kids. Working mums can be role models to their children and I wanted to celebrate all of the positive impacts that working mothers can make.

What is your leadership style?

I would say that I’m inclusive, ambitious and direct. I believe that we can achieve the most when we work together.

What is most rewarding about your work?

The fact that it’s aligned with my purpose of delivering positive impact at scale for society through the power of business and partnerships.


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