Ardian: Perseverance pays for women

Infrastructure can be a fascinating and rewarding career – I hope to see more women choosing this path going forward, says Ardian director Leonarda Orani

This article is sponsored by Ardian

Leonarda Orani

What’s been your journey in the infrastructure industry so far, and how have you seen the asset class evolve in terms of diversity in that time?

I started working in the infrastructure sector with Ardian over a decade ago, starting in the Paris office, then moving to Italy, and finally, I recently joined the Ardian US team in New York. Since that time, I have worked across a number of different sectors, including transportation, energy and telecoms.

As you may imagine, the infrastructure industry is very male dominated, particularly given its links to the construction sector. Unfortunately, we still see more men than women among those with this kind of background.

As a woman operating in a male-dominated sector, it has been very helpful for me that Ardian has a strong, female chairperson in Dominique Senequier. That really sets the tone from the top and creates a highly supportive environment. In order for you to thrive, it’s key to know that you are evolving in a workplace with a strong framework for equal opportunity. In the Ardian Infrastructure investment team as of today, the chief investment officer is a woman and women represent about 20 percent of the team.

I have also seen a real evolution in terms of the number of women at the table over the past 10 years. There are far more women in meetings today, which I have been very happy to observe. It takes time, but representation is improving.

Why is gender diversity important in the context of infrastructure, in particular?

Gender diversity, and indeed diversity in general, is important because it breeds better performance. People with different skill sets, backgrounds and personalities bring a different perspective to decision-making and that ultimately informs results.

We need teams that reflect the society in which we operate if we want to continue to find and develop the best investment opportunities. It is also important from an ethical point of view, of course. Fund managers investing in assets that are essential to society have a responsibility to improve social outcomes, and diversity is a critical component of that.

What have been the main drivers behind the improvement that you have witnessed?

The limited partners that are providing capital to the infrastructure industry have certainly been strong drivers of change. Firms in the industry today are particularly focused on the recruitment and retention of women. Particular effort has been directed to address the phenomenon of women at more senior levels choosing a different career path with the creation of a supportive working environment.

What kinds of initiatives do you believe are particularly effective when it comes to that retention?

Flexibility is absolutely key. Nowadays, we have all become very comfortable with remote working but this is something Ardian has supported for a long time. The human resources team have also developed a range of other initiatives, from mentorship to programmes designed to combat the unconscious biases that can represent an obstacle in the career development of minority groups.

We also believe it is very important to articulate specific objectives. Ardian has signed up to France Invest’s Gender Equality Charter, which sets an ambitious target of 40 percent female representation amongst investment professionals by 2030.

Ardian’s investment teams currently have 21 percent female representation, which is above industry benchmarks, and we are committed to doubling that in just eight years. Having clearly defined and articulated targets means the whole company can be focused on reaching those goals.

The Ardian Women’s Club is a particularly powerful innovation, helping to deconstruct clichés and show that women can and do thrive in private market environments. In addition to conferences, the club drives a commitment to solidarity, particularly through participating in the Odysséa running race, which supports the fight against breast cancer. The club also facilitates a women’s network through which female employees can meet, share experiences and benefit from mutual support.

What is your approach to recruitment in order to help meet those objectives?

When recruiting for junior positions, we are still receiving more applications from men than from women. For this reason, our recruitment process includes several steps aimed at uncovering female talent, with the target to have a balanced number of candidates from both genders. Practically speaking, this means always including women profiles in our recruitment shortlists. It also means that interviews are conducted by both men and women.

This helps ensure we start off with a diverse pool of junior talent that can then be progressed through the ranks. At an even earlier stage, meanwhile, Ardian has launched Generation Women, a series of events to promote the finance industry to prospective female talent in universities and even schools.

Ardian is also very cognizant of other forms of diversity, beyond gender, when recruiting. For example, this is a sector where many employees have very similar educational backgrounds, but we look to diversify the origins of our new entrants by developing stronger relationships with public universities. This involves interacting with future talent at an early stage, attending student events and explaining the asset class to young people who might not otherwise have had access to this opportunity.

How do you approach lateral hires to bring senior women into the organisation? Or is the focus more on nurturing talent from within?

It is definitely a bit of both. The target at the junior level is to reach a fair balance in the number of candidates from each gender being hired. That provides a strong foundation for the development of our senior female leaders of tomorrow. But we are also heavily focused on ensuring we have access to diverse talent when hiring for directors and managing directors. In particular, we have a policy that ensures at least one shortlisted candidate is a woman.

What does inclusion mean to you as a firm and as an individual?

Inclusion to me means that you are not only hiring diverse talent but that you are giving that diverse talent the same opportunities for development within the firm. That involves a recognition that different people will need different kinds of support and different kinds of training in order to flourish and achieve their goals. This idea of inclusion is certainly receiving a lot more attention today.

How do you approach diversity and inclusion at a portfolio company level?

We strongly support having women in management positions and on the board at the assets we are invested in. Certain segments of the infrastructure market are strongly linked to the construction industry, with historically more men than women having this kind of background. For this reason, having women in top management positions definitely represents a challenge, but again we are observing positive changes here.

Today, in several of our portfolio companies we see women in top management and executive positions. One example is represented by our participation in a telecom business where a woman holds the chief operating officer position. In Skyline, one of our US portfolio companies operating in the renewables sector, about 30 percent of the top management team are women.

The ASTM Group, a portfolio company focused on motorway concessions in Italy and Brazil, has formalised engagements in favour of gender diversity, with the target to reach at least 40 percent women by 2031.

These represent just some of the positive examples we observe today in the industry and it is absolutely our aim to support these and increase women’s representation on the boards of the assets where Ardian is invested.

What advice would you give to a young woman considering a career in the infrastructure investment industry?

First, I have been working in the asset class for more than 10 years, which is testament to the fact that I have found it a fascinating and rewarding career path. I really hope to see more women choosing this path going forward.

It is not always easy, of course, particularly in the beginning when women may feel they have to work harder to succeed. My advice would be not to let a few less positive experiences knock you off course. Persevere and the rewards will come.

I would also advise any young women entering this industry to choose a supportive institution that invests in their development process, gain the support of a mentor – male or female – and exchange as much experience as possible with other women in the sector. Having role models and guidance can make all the difference.

What would represent a job well done to you, when it comes to gender diversity in the infrastructure industry?

My ideal outcome would be one where women in positions of leadership are seen as the norm and not as the exception. It would also be great if it were no longer necessary to make adjustments for women to progress in their careers. They should automatically have access to the same opportunities. In other words, I would love it if diversity, equity and inclusion was just the natural order of things in business – not a topic worthy of conversation.

Measurement and transparency

An important component of Ardian’s approach to diversity and inclusion measurement is an anonymous survey focused on two indicators, explains Orani.

The scope of the survey was Ardian France, and it was the first of its kind done in a private equity company in France. The first indicator is the diversity profile of employees, which the firm gauges by asking team members to identify themselves. Ardian then assesses feelings of inclusion and the level of knowledge regarding diversity initiatives.

The 2021 survey revealed that 90 percent of Ardian’s French office recognises and promotes the importance of diversity. Meanwhile, 88 percent stated that they felt accepted as they are by colleagues and managers. A further 80 percent believe that diversity fosters creativity and innovation, while 58 percent say it breeds improved adaptability to change.

Ardian also believes that, in addition to measurement, transparency regarding career development and remuneration is critical to becoming a truly inclusive company. To this end, the firm has created a career skills framework, allocating a certain value to each key job within the organisation according to standardised and well-defined criteria, as well as systematic remuneration benchmarks.