01 January 2020


Ayesha Aziz Khan on her powerful journey as a business visionary

Hello! India, January 2020 | VOL 13 ISSUE 10



She’s a mother, she’s a business scion and she’s the CEO and Managing Director of the largest provider of infrastructure from the private sector in Bangladesh – Summit Power International. The 38-year-old, who completed her MBA from Columbia Business School, New York, starting her career in project finance and was promoted to her present position in 2016. In conversation with HELLO!, she talks about her 16-year long journey with the family owned Summit Group, her supportive husband and much more.

What prompted you to foray into the power and infrastructure industry – a sector totally dominated by men? You could have chosen a “softer” profession...

“I joined Summit Power right out of the university. I finished my Bachelor’s in Economics and Business in 2003 from the University College London and immediately started working. I joined the family business because it seemed like the most natural step to take. I’m the eldest in my immediate family. While growing up, my father would take me to office on the weekends and to visit project sites. He constantly spoke about work and shared his plans for the company. So, I joined without any fear or prejudice. I joined because that’s what I was raised to do. But, only after working for some time did I realize what a unique position I am in. As I grew older, I became more aware about how I was usually the only female in the boardroom!

‘I joined (the family business) without any fear or prejudice. I joined because that’s what I was raised to do. But, only after working for some time did I realise what a unique position I am in. As I grew older, I became more aware about how I was, usually, the only female in the boardroom!’

“As for a softer profession... I don’t know what that is. All professions are important. I wish we didn’t have to define professions or people in such a limited manner. All positive contributions to society are necessary. A world with only CEOs, bankers and lawyers is not a world that I would want to inhabit.”

What was it like growing up in one of Bangladesh’s most prominent families?

“It was and it still is wonderful. I come from a close-knit joint family. I felt like I grew up with more than one set of parents – my uncles and aunts have always been there for me. My cousins are more like my siblings. Both my sisters, my cousins and I went to the same school, to similar colleges and grad schools. Our parents did a great job by raising us together – the bond and ability to work together, make space for another and have space for each other does much more for family longevity and business sustainability than any family constitution or strongly-documented legal agreement.

“Growing up in a family like ours also makes one realize how fortunate we are and how much society deserves back from us. I hope my siblings and I can give back to Bangladesh and Singapore as much as the two countries have given us. We feel responsible and obligated to give back as much as possible.”

You are a CEO in a business that’s fairly dominated by men. What are the challenges that came with this role? And, how have you contributed to the company as a female CEO?

 “If you had asked me this question 15 years back, I’d have shrugged it off and said gender does not play a significant role – it’s your capability and actions that matter. But, the older I get, the more I realize how important it’s for me to answer this question not only keeping in mind my personal experience, but the experiences of every woman who’s trying to become a CEO.

“There are so many challenges, but the first and foremost remains the social construct of the way the world still operates. We are still very much a ‘provider-caretaker’ based family unit. When the caretaker also becomes a provider, the role of the caretaker within the family unit is challenged. The challenge is heightened by the fact that the role of the caretaker has always been viewed as the lesser one – one that does not have any economic value, that does not bring with it authority or power. So, when women try to get ahead in their professions, they fight two battles: a private and a public one. Women leaders are questioned either for failing in their private roles, i.e.: ‘How will you give time to your child? How will you look after the house?’ Or criticised in their public role – ‘She should not be made the CFO as she just had a baby and won’t be able to commit’ or ‘She has three children, so she won’t be able to give the job the time it needs.’

“It’s hard being a CEO; it’s difficult for a man as well. But, for a woman, it’s unnecessarily harder. The challenge should come from within the business. It should not come from us having to continuously prove that we can do the job or why we deserve to be here. Female leaders have to spend so much time just proving that they can lead, it takes away from the actual job at hand. I believe I’ve made it easier for other women to become leaders. I try to work towards policies that are equitable and fair.”

In one of the biggest Japanese investments in the power sector, JERA recently bought a US$300 million stake in Summit Power International. Please tell us about your experience putting this deal together...

“Summit Power International has been in the path of raising capital, for the last three years. The business we are in is capital intensive and requires billions of dollars in equity and debt. We are based in Singapore to help us raise both. JERA’s investment is a result of Summit’s rapid expansion in a capital-intensive sector.”

How do you balance work and a family, with two children?

“With a lot of help! Achieving the perfect balance is a myth – at least I’ve not seen it. If you are lucky, you build up a great support network that helps you continuously juggle.”

What, according to you, are the main qualities of a good CEO?

“Putting the company first. I think my main job is to always be available. I’m not the engineer who builds power plants, or the accountant who manages finances or even one of the analysts, counter-checking everything, But, I need to be there for them, whenever they need me. So, the main quality, I suppose, is dedication and perseverance on behalf of the company.”

 If you weren’t the CEO of Summit Power what would you be?

“The CFO of the larger group.”

What, do you feel, is it going to take to get more women in C- (CEO) suits?

“Fair and equitable employment policies with specific changes made for maternal and paternal leaves. I don’t know if the enforced practices of quotas work – I believe it brings in inefficiency. But, in order to mentor our juniors, providing a counterforce to the culture of ‘old boys’ club’ is necessary in certain sectors.”

‘Female leaders have to spend so much time just proving that they can lead, it takes away from the actual job at hand’

‘Achieving the perfect balance is a myth — at least I’ve not seen it. If you are lucky, you build up a great support network that helps you continuously juggle’

Where do you see Summit Power five years from now?

“Providing sustainable electricity and energy solutions to the people of Bangladesh and the region to the best of our ability while providing the maximum shareholder returns.”

What keeps you going in this highly competitive workspace?

“Love. I love my work. I enjoy doing what I do. Providing infrastructure to a country that desperately needs it is fulfilling. The number-crunching and competition just becomes a part of that story.”

On a less serious note, tell us about your favourite destinations, favourite dish...

“I love Bhutan and, generally, any place that has a cooler climate and is good for trekking. “To choose a favourite dish is difficult – the food I can have every day is basic home-cooked food or fresh pasta.”

Your favourite pastime...

“If I’m alone, I like watching shows on Netflix or reading. Otherwise I just hang out on WhatsApp with my sisters, who are based all over the world.”

Biggest icon(s)...

“My family. I’m in awe of what my father and uncles have achieved in less than 40 years. The dedication and effort my parents, aunts and uncles have put in is admirable. To stay together and work together in order to change their future: not everyone has that kind of foresight. My parents are my icons – my father in regard to my professional as well as personal life – I would like to be the kind of parent he was to me. And my mother for the kind of strength and grit she possesses.”

Tell us about your husband... How does he support you in your endeavours?

“He’s amazing. Not only has he always supported me, but he never expects gratitude in return. He supports me because, according to him, ‘That’s what a good partner does.’ I hope I’m able to support him the way he does.”

Your strengths and weaknesses...

“I’ve been working at Summit for 16 years, so it’s become second nature to me to work. I suppose that’s my strength. I know the business well – I’ve grown up with it and it has grown along with me. The same aspect would also be my weakness, for this is all that I have ever done. Summit is my only option or my only choice, depending on how you view it.”