Rising Star: Sunaina Kohli, People Experience; PwC Middle East

“My proudest achievement is that I have grown my entire career from grass roots level, with fearless determination.” says PwC’s Sunaina Kohli.

Intuitive Decisions – Dynamic Opportunities

Kenyan born, Kohli was raised and educated in the UK. She left university halfway through her law degree for personal reasons and was immediately offered an opportunity by the CEO of a small group of private investors. She worked her way up from an executive assistant to project manager and ultimately chief of staff to the CEO. At that point she felt she had tapped out her growth opportunities, so she took a six-month sabbatical to travel the world, a long-time ambition of hers.

Kohli started in Kenya with the mantra “The plan is there is no plan,” and within eight weeks she found herself in New Delhi, India, where she was offered a contract with an aviation and aerospace consultancy firm to work on government-related projects. Fast forward 10 months and a PwC recruiter discovered her through LinkedIn and hired her to join the Middle East firm.

A year in, she was presented with an opportunity to join PwC’s Global Human Capital team in New York, followed by a stint in Washington DC, working on the Global Human Capital transformation agenda, impacting the PwC Network of approximately 250,000 people.

This role evolved to an invitation to work at their Global Human Capital Leadership office and allowed her to extend her scope across the firm’s priority projects which included Diversity & Inclusion, Wellbeing, Talent Development, Workforce of the Future and change management to support the implementation of new technologies aligned with PwC’s digital transformation agenda.

Her work demanded a great amount of travel, visiting over 35 cities around the world in just three years. More recently, she was invited to rejoin the Middle East firm to drive the People Experience agenda regionally, focusing on priorities such as Wellbeing and Diversity and Inclusion.

“Very early in life, I learned that failure and hardship are incredible drivers to success, to the point that my tenacity defines my professional brand” said Kohli, who finds it’s a quality that her leaders have always appreciated and has led to many inspiring opportunities. Following your intuition can lead to new and unpredictable paths that ultimately challenge and define you.

“My decision to move my life across continents was a result of my intuition, driven by hunger for the next big challenge,” she says.

Navigating the Working World—Making a Difference

Through the Diversity and Inclusion agenda, she is proud to have the opportunity to be a strong advocate and influence, to directly and positively impact the advancement of professional women.

Kohli’s passion for supporting this agenda comes from her experiences; in the UK she worked as a volunteer to support women who struggled through domestic abuse. Kohli developed curriculums to support them on what can be a challenging journey to leave extreme situations, through to coping methods and life skills that would help them navigate their newfound independence and responsibilities.

She also taught underprivileged and disabled children to rise above their emotions through obstacles and challenges, using her classes as a way to help disabled children share commonalities with their more abled siblings. “Parents found this experience extremely rewarding as it finally gave them a leveled field for all their children to come together and share a collective interest and activity,” she added.

While in India, she worked with orphaned girls, teaching them the same types of skills, but also about empowerment. A self-taught henna artist, she was able to share that skill so that they would always have a safe means to make a living, as well as an emotional outlet through creative self-expression.

Her time spent across continents—from the gender-dominant environments of India and the Middle East to the more gender-balanced United States—has been eye opening. She feels fortunate to have worked with so many inspiring female leaders, who showed her that you can have it all if you want it, and she is eager to share this perspective now that she has returned to the Middle East; “We need to be more mindful about spotlighting our strong and successful female talent in the Middle East – you cannot be what you cannot see, so greater visibility of the incredible women that work among us is essential.”

Kohli also recognizes career sponsorship and mentoring as drivers to develop the female talent pipeline. She views sponsorship as a career game changer and has had a number of colleagues, both male and female, advocating on her behalf, vastly impacting her career progression. In addition, she has found that mentors have played a huge role in her development.

Describing the difference, she explains that mentors help you see what you may not see in yourself, pushing you closer to your aspirations; while sponsors advocate for you and believe in you. “It’s indescribably life-changing when inspiring and successful leaders see something in you and take the time to know and understand your capabilities better than you know yourself,” she notes.

Kohli’s commitment to empowering others culminated recently in joining her colleagues to successfully deliver the first women’s empowerment workshop to over 180 women from PwC offices across Saudi Arabia. This was a historic moment that defines the firm’s commitment to gender equality, especially as a UN HeForShe Impact 10 Champion.

 Creating Human Impact

All these initiatives and projects coincide and directly correlate with the work Kohli is doing for the PwC Wellbeing agenda. Specifically, she aspires to make a difference in employees’ personal and professional wellbeing and domino positive effects on communities the firm operates in. “In today’s incredibly dynamic environment, where change is the only certainty, people are having to work harder and faster than ever. Through managing wellbeing, our people will become more resilient and develop the capacity to thrive in demanding situations, helping them recover from setbacks and ultimately be able to bring their best selves to all they do,” she explained.

Kohli added, “Now, more than ever, it is extremely important to me to make a positive, human impact on people’s lives in what is a very disruptive and technology-driven world.”This ethos shines through in her philanthropic endeavors. Having lived on five continents and traveled extensively around the world, Kohli has always tried to bring a meaningful and positive impact to local communities, usually in environments when there is no one to guide, nurture and help an individual grow, she explained.

From her career to her volunteer work, all of Kohli’s pursuits have shared a common thread that allowed her to focus on her strengths. She concluded, “I am a very agile learner, a key skill to future-proof yourself in today’s increasingly fast evolving world where successful professionals will need to constantly adapt to remain relevant.” With this, today she has the opportunity to directly and positively impact those around her.