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Managing Director | Global Delivery Leader | India Pride Sponsor at Accenture | Zahara Fernandes

Zahara Fernandes

Zahara Fernandes

"Work hard, move fast, and be better than you were yesterday." Zahara Fernandes

Footprints scaling to a phenomenal career growth

I have always been driven towards Purpose. While earlier this purpose was oriented towards achieving financial stability for myself and family, over the years this has evolved to creating an impact on the wider community and a desire to leave the world better than I found it.

The top three values that allow me to pursue my purpose are:

Accountability - In many ways there wasn’t much expected of me as a “girl child” and yet I always knew I wanted to do more. Whether it was teaching school kids in the early years or door-to-door marketing to collate college fees, accountability has been a core value on which I have built my career.

Resilience – Committing to making it happen and helping it happen for others. I think resilience is about dealing with the low points in your life when things are not going right and ensuring that when you are at a high point, you look out for folks who need your help. Resilience is a muscle, much like gratitude; it grows stronger each time you use it. My life has had its fair share of curve balls, and looking past those with hope for the future has been fundamental to my ability to thrive.

Support – Support systems are a huge factor. Being a mother at the peak of my career meant needing to balance and having support in my personal space made it possible. Having a mentor or finding a guide can be a huge boost both for confidence and competence. I look for people around me who can coach me on my journey to pursue my purpose.

At Accenture for example, I met Venkatraghavan CA (our HR Lead for Accenture Operations in India & Sri Lanka, an out and proud leader) during one of Accenture’s’ ‘Hues of the Rainbow’ sessions, a safe space for the LGBTIQ+ community and allies to engage in open dialogue on issues that matter. I was very clear on wanting to create positive impact to the marginalized groups and asked him to be my coach.


Venkat encouraged me to lead the India Pride Employee resources group in India two years ago. And it has been one of the most fulfilling and humbling experiences. I am now the Pride Sponsor for Accenture in India and work with our teams to strengthen the Ally network within Accenture, drive workplace sensitization and sharpen our existing focus on developing safe spaces for our people too so they can bring their unique authentic selves to work. This work fuels my purpose.


A warrior - against all odds

Stereotyping has far - reaching effects on the confidence, morale and mental wellbeing of an individual. Gender stereotyping is possibly the first bias that I have experienced from a very early age.

Sexual orientation & weight-based stereotyping are other biases that I have experienced. I am a bisexual person, who identifies as a female and is obese. The common negative stereotypes that have been thrown at me include being promiscuous, lacking discipline, being lazy, not being decisive. And let me add a failed relationship to the mix.

The threat of stereotypes is real, and I would be lying if I said I have been able to leave behind the constant pressure of proving that I am good enough first to myself and then to those around me. It is a journey that I continue to walk.

Three of the most essential hacks that have worked for me are:

1.  Don’t fall victim to stereotyping which include the stereotyping of what success looks like.

2.  Work hard, move fast and be better than you were yesterday.

3.  When unsure, take a small step forward – I am biased towards movement even if it is the smallest one.


A driving force for Inclusion at work

Over the years there have been significant changes at the workplace when we think from the lens of diversity.

From diverse groups being represented in boards and management levels to external collaboration on recruiting diverse talent, companies have moved the meter on diversity sharply.

I personally think the essential work that needs to happen is around inclusion and belonging, and both in separate ways. So let me start with Inclusion.

The element of inclusion is related to how the organization encourages participation, engagement and avoids exclusion of groups of people from career advancement, and professional development. One of the most basic methods to drive inclusion is through education and sensitization. Cognitive awareness on the LGBTQI+ training allows for the larger groups to recognize the existence of biases, how these biases drive negative stereotyping and drive practices of Inclusion.

At Accenture, sensitization training, and sharing stories have been powerful ways of building our culture of Inclusion.

Belonging is fundamentally an individual choice which is influenced both by experiences of self and observations of experiences of others.

It took me two decades of working in the corporate world to finally experience inclusion the way I did at Accenture.  It helped me make the choice to belong to this Accenture family fully as I am.

For me, the turning point came during a sensitization session where we had speakers share their stories of struggles for acceptance. I had spent a few years already at that point with Accenture, and it is then that I finally found in me both the courage and the acceptance in the group to openly share my own struggles of discrimination. 

Accenture takes an intentional approach to inclusion & diversity with focused recruitment efforts, workplace sensitization, mentorship, Ally network, safe spaces for open dialogue and the pride community resources groups.

Accenture in India is among the first few organizations that have translated the spirit of inclusion into people policies - with gender neutral parental policies, medical cover for gender reassignment surgery, mental health consultation (for gender dysphoria and beyond). In 2021, Accenture in India modified its parental leave policies, such as maternal, paternal, adoption and surrogacy leave, to focus on the importance of caregiving versus gender binaries to support our LGBTIQ+ people in their parenting journey. Accenture’s medical insurance and life insurance benefits cover the partners of its people who identify themselves as LGBTIQ+.

I think there is significant work we have accomplished within Accenture and yet humbly acknowledge that we have more to accomplish. I think one of the first steps that organizations need to take is to recognize that coming out unfortunately is not a one and done process and thus there needs to be the conscious effort to build belonging in every group and subgroup within firms. Strategies of belonging within the smallest groups of teams the firm itself is critical task companies will need to take to ensure belonging in the workplace for all.

I will Quote my coach Venkat as he says, we shouldn’t just be inclusive when we are amidst a diverse group. Instead, we should always be inclusive because there are invisible people around us who have blended into the crowds and are waiting to be welcomed fully as they are.


It took me 20 years of corporate life to muster courage to speak up. Hence, let’s create workplaces that welcome diversity and give them a voice so they can stand loud and proud because they made a choice to belong!


Ambitioning the Woman of substance

It is a known fact that professional women, especially of color, make up only a small fraction of senior leadership in organizations across the world. Having said that I am at one such workplace that has several women leaders in C-suite roles including our CEO, Julie Sweet.

In recent times there has been a lot of focus on gender parity goals that organizations set for themselves to help drive women into leadership roles because they see value in doing so. Research has time and again shown having diversity in leadership not only helps Innovation & Risk Management but also boosts revenue streams.

I think of three categories of barriers that need to be removed to boost the number of women in leadership roles:

- Social Barriers – Sexism and Stereotyping are some of the most common things that come to mind. The workplace has more women now, but the stereotypes are tied to traditional gender roles and thus an assertive man is a good boss, but an assertive woman is perceived as being pushy and aggressive.

- Structural Barriers - Access to resources and networks. The social networks that also form coaching grounds for aspirational men often don’t exist for female leaders. The onus of caregiving typically falls on women adding to the impact on flexibility and balance.

- A Lack of role models can impact the ability of women leaders to recognize and see themselves as leaders. 

Organizations need to recognize these barriers and focus on female leadership programs, mentorship & sponsorship programs and continually drive the momentum on identifying unconscious bias and how this impacts advancement opportunities for women.  The barriers to women in Leadership need to be owned by women working on skilling themselves in many facets including social and professional self-promotion. . I have found tremendous power in practising the skills I learned in an ‘IamRemarkable’ workshop.

The last five years at Accenture I have been a part of several sponsored external training programs and have had the privilege of benefiting from the tremendous learning resources we have available within our workplace.

Not only do we need more women at corporate workplaces but in all spheres of life – be it entrepreneurship, politics, policy making, academia. We need more role models in this space, and we need to invest in creating them right now in the schools and universities so our future generations can live the change.

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