Rebel Women: Naseem Lahri

“Never let anyone tell you that you can’t do the job you want.”

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Naseem grew up in a big family in the diamond-rich country of Botswana. The youngest of six children, her childhood was competitive and Naseem had to toughen up to keep up with her older brothers and sisters. “I had to fight to be heard and seen, so I learned how to make sure my voice was heard!”, she recalls.

With two working parents who both owned stores, Naseem also had a good idea of what she didn’t want to do. “My father ran a general dealer store, my mum sold gas and then she had a grocery store. Every holiday we’d be in my dad’s shop. I vowed never to work in a store again. I definitely needed more variety!”.

Naseem did well at school, moving through both the state and private school system in Botswana with her hopes set on a successful career in business. After graduating, she met her husband on a fishing trip and was married at 18 years of age, just after she enrolled to study accounting at the University of Botswana. “I knew what I wanted, I have always had a plan,” says Naseem. “My philosophy is you can do more when you are young. If I can say I got anything right it was starting my family at an early age.”

As a young newlywed, Naseem completed her accountancy degree, had her first child, qualified as a Chartered Accountant, then went on to obtain a Masters degree in strategic management at the University of Derby in the UK.  “I had a lot of support from my husband and family,” says  Naseem. “My husband owns tourism and hospitality businesses and knew how important my career was to me. At the same time I never put my work before my family either – I’ve always prioritised my kids and job so they are on par.”

Just before having her second child, a daughter, Naseem started working as an accountant in the coal mining industry. Unusually for Naseem, this career move happened to be accidental. “My husband isn’t Motswana and we had an issue with his work and residential permit, which meant we had to move to a town called Palapyei. I was lucky enough that at the time there was a position at a mining company and I got that job. The same company ended up being taken over by the Debswana Diamond Company. “I knew I’d found the right industry for me. It was dynamic and every day was different. I fell in love with it,” said Naseem. “The mining industry in Botswana is critical to the economy and when I went into coal mining I understood how critical it was. But coal has a smaller economic impact than diamonds. 80 per cent of our exports are diamonds and they bring the majority of income into Botswana.”

Looking back, Naseem realised then that the diamond industry had played a hand in her success. “My schooling and university in Botswana was paid for by the diamond industry not to mention roads, hospitals, schools and infrastructure, because our government is shareholder; benefiting from dividends, taxes and royalties that the Botswana diamond world produces. My awareness of this created a real passion in me. I decided I’ll try to be first female Managing Director of a mining company in Botswana because any decision I make while running this business will have a direct impact on improving people’s lives within my country.”

Although Naseem had made this her goal, it was not an easy task. “As a woman it is a lot harder to rise. But another problem I had is that I’m a chartered accountant by profession. Back then, I was trying to become a managing director in a mining business without technical experience such as mining or geology.”

Naseem knew that this prejudice against her was wrong. “As a Chief Finance Officer or a chartered accountant you have to understand your entire business. So why could I not break through the glass ceiling? I kept saying I could do the job. I became CFO for Lucara

Botswana, and after  five years, their new female CEO saw my potential and promoted me to Managing Director. At last I had achieved my goal.”

Being promoted to MD is the proudest achievement of Naseem’s career. As well as recognizing decades of hard work and commitment, it has also opened doors for women following in her footsteps.

“Before my promotion I was the only woman in the boardroom. Then our new CEO came on board and about 75% of the board is female.”

“70% of my exco team are women. The numbers are increasing.”

The year that Naseem became MD, the company improved their maternity leave policy, created more flexible working and lately through COVID, has come up with schemes to support employees working from home with young children. There is also no gender pay disparity at Lucara Botswana.

Naseem’s advice to girls who wish to get to the top of their industries is “Never let anyone tell you that you can’t do the job you want. Be tough, work hard and stay focused. If you’re not progressing, tweak your journey; you may have to take another turn to get to the right place. Never give up and keep your eye on the prize, as long as you do that you will get there!”.