Want To Win The Talent War In Emerging Markets? Start Recruiting Women

In the entrepreneurial economies of emerging markets, women are key to connecting with the main engine of growth: the small-to-medium business market.


In the three years since  Goldman Sachs launched its business in Brazil, growth has exceeded all expectations. Head count in the São Paulo headquarters has grown from 25 to 250, and Valentino Carlotti, president of Goldman Sachs Bank in Brazil, predicts it will double again in the next two to three years. So what concerns him?

“The growth opportunity is huge,” says Carlotti. “We expect Brazil to become a major contributor to the revenue generation of the firm. But we can’t get that done without attracting and retaining great talent.” Right now, that’s a challenge for Carlotti, who often finds himself playing musical chairs with other firms for in-demand homegrown high performers. Despite the depth of Goldman’s bench in developed countries, Carlotti doesn’t want to principally rely on expats from the United States or Europe. “Given what has shaped this market, local talent is very sophisticated, very savvy, and, in many ways, more creative and innovative.” A shortage of local talent, he fears, could “impact the growth.”

Carlotti’s concerns are shared by corporate leaders and talent managers throughout the emerging world, where finding, keeping, and maximizing top talent is more than an important issue: for many organizations, it’s now an urgent imperative.

With Western countries already weakened by a deep recession, multinational corporations from all countries are pinning their hopes for future growth on developing markets. The four largest of these—Brazil, Russia, India, and China, the so-called BRIC nations—together represent 40  percent of the world’s population and have accounted for some 45  percent of global growth since 2007, compared with 20 percent from G-7 economies.

Among burgeoning economies, the dynamic BRIC markets stand out for the speed of their growth and their long-term potential. Their increasing prominence on the global stage is beginning to reshape the way the world does business. Even as Western Europe and the United States struggle to emerge from the recession, the BRICs have remained remarkably resilient. Indeed, in the eyes of many economists, the BRIC markets are actually leading the global recovery.

Yet there is a critical obstacle to their continued expansion: a cutthroat war for high-echelon talent. A dearth of top talent is often cited as the biggest single barrier to company growth in emerging markets. To meet the talent shortage, multinational corporations have long followed the same well-trodden path: sending homegrown managers overseas, looking for (mostly male) foreign nationals educated in North American and European universities, or, as Carlotti says, “playing musical chairs” with top-quality local talent. All of these options are problematic given the rapid and sustained growth in these new markets. Corporations know they need to get off the beaten path to find and develop a new wellspring of human capital. But they haven’t known where to look.


In fact, the answer is hiding in plain sight: large numbers of university-educated women pour into the high echelon job market in the BRIC countries every year. In 2008 alone, the most recent year for which figures for all four countries are available, the number of women in tertiary education programs topped 27 million, and the trend has continued upward in every reporting country.

These women are highly ambitious; they want to make the most of their credentials. According to research from the Center for Work-Life Policy, more than 80 percent of educated women in Brazil and India aspire to top jobs; in China, the figure is more than 75 percent. In comparison, a mere 52 percent of highly qualified women in the United States are shooting for top jobs.

What is the implication of these numbers? As we enter the second decade of the new millennium, the face of top talent in emerging economies is most likely to be that of a woman. This is a revolutionary thought that flies in the face of conventional wisdom. Observers in the West tend to see third world women as victims. In their recent best seller Half the Sky, Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn, for instance, focus on illiteracy and oppression and point to micro credit as one of the few rays of hope for women in emerging markets.

In a similar vein, business leaders tend not to have women on their radar screen. Almost all multinational companies, whether they be headquartered in the United States or in China or India, hope to reap rich rewards in the BRIC geographies, but few recognize the crucial contributions that educated local women make in these markets. 

Fewer still understand the nature of this rich talent pool or know how to make the most of it. As a result, the brainpower that women from the BRIC countries bring to the workforce has been overlooked and underutilized.

The fact is that no company can afford to ignore highly qualified female talent if it wants to compete in these fast-expanding economies–and win. 


Educated women in emerging markets bring a keen sense of the consumer marketplace to their employers. When translating product development and marketing strategy into emerging markets, the mandate to “think globally and act locally” in pragmatic terms means “hire more women.” Lisandra Ambrozio, Pfizer’s human resources director in Brazil, doesn’t need convincing. “More than fifty percent of doctors here in Brazil are women. Seventy-five percent of the health decisions made in the family are made by women, not by men. We need to understand what is in the mind of a female doctor, or we need to better understand women, because they are the ones who make the health care decisions in a family.” She continues, “Gender diversity is not a social issue. It’s a business issue, not only for Pfizer but for each company in the market.”

Ambrozio’s comments are echoed by Hiroo Mirchandani, business unit director at Pfizer, India: “We know women are good at engaging customers, nurturing relationships, and communicating product features. Tapping in to this talent pool provides a competitive advantage.”

In the entrepreneurial economies of emerging markets, women are key to connecting with the main engine of growth: the small-to-medium business market. “The SMB market in emerging markets is the market,” explains Tracy Ann Curtis, Cisco Systems’ head of inclusion and diversity for Asia-Pacific and Japan. “It’s not the big enterprise market any longer. We’re servicing small entrepreneurial companies, and 33 percent of them in Asia are owned by women. If we want to sell into that market, we’ve got to understand who those women are and how they reflect on the marketplace.”

The diversity of thought, perspective, and experience that educated women add to any organization is multiplied in developing markets. Because of the obstacles they’ve often had to overcome, they bring a determination and a “can do, leave no stone unturned, we’ll find a way” approach to coming up with solutions, says Goldman Sachs’s Carlotti. When they solve problems, it sends a signal of “openness, creativity, forward thinking, and an innovative approach” to potential hires as well as clients. He concludes, “For me, when you look at who’s coming into the workforce and what they can mean for the development of human capital, it’s a no-brainer that women are a competitive advantage.”

Reprinted by permission of Harvard Business Review Press. Excerpted from Winning the War for Talent in Emerging Markets: Why Women are the Solution. Copyright 2011 Sylvia Ann Hewlett and Ripa Rashid. All rights reserved.

[Image: Flickr user liannes ibanez cubanita]