How Diversity and Adversity Can Challenge and Grow your Career

This week’s Wednesday’s for Women features ElMarie Hugo, senior director of North America Industry Strategy as interviewed by Christine Dykstra, director of North America Demand Generation.  ElMarie shares how moving from South Africa to the U.S. has taken her career path in a totally different direction and how building her network and base helped her to get there. 

Tell us about yourself.

I was born, raised and educated in South Africa in the towns of Cape Town, Bloemfontein and Pretoria.  I was a practicing lawyer, before making a career change into supply chain. The rising crime and finally a home invasion, which I thankfully survived, brought me to the U.S.  Embracing the opportunity to move to the U.S. was a huge risk but became an opportunity. I worked at UTi for 15 years and learned the art of supply chain and 3PL business. At the time of my move, the landscape at the company was challenging and there was no safety net. In hindsight, I felt like I was doing a trapeze act without a net. It was worth the risk though and resulted in a move to South Carolina in 2014.

Can you point to a critical moment in your career that really made a difference in your path?

The day I quit my job as a lawyer.  I was working for a seasoned lawyer. In the short time I was there, I witnessed so many unethical malpractices;  the final straw was not allowing me a half-day off to write my mid-year MBA Finance exams in my final year – it meant I would have to repeat my final year. So, I walked into his office one morning and quit.  I think he was more shocked than I was.  I left not knowing how I was going to survive.  I took two weeks’ time off and just hiked along the South African east coastline pondering my future.

I went back with purpose, establishing a healthy practice in commercial law and finished my final year (three-year degree) in the top of my class.  It set me off into another career path.  I created my own law firm and did some commercial work and created a steady income stream. I finished my MBA and accepted a position that became my foray into the supply chain industry, walking away from a law career.

What are some of the challenges you’ve had to overcome in your career and how did you tackle them?

Working in uncertainty. In my second month in America, I was tasked to resolve operational issues in a project that had gone south for an OEM (P&A Distribution).  I spent 100% of the next 10 months living in a hotel room, working crazy hours. 15 months into my U.S. experience, they asked me to run the WMS implementation team for North America, a role I was not prepared for, with the caveat that if I refused the position, my green card would be revoked.  Luckily for me, my global network was well established and having solid relationships helped me to be successful. My success was linked to my support network, my grit and refusal to quit!

What year did you join JDA and What are the favorite parts of your role?

I joined the JDA team in March of 2018.  As part of the Industry Strategy team I love matching market need with product functionality and helping our clients find the solutions that they need to be successful.

ElMarie scuba diving off the coast of South Africa

What is the best advice you ever received? Who gave it to you?

Don’t sweat the small stuff! A friend/colleague who is 10 years older than me gave me this advice.  It took me a decade to hear it and I was still tone deaf to it.  I am only now understanding how meaningful it is.  It’s about learning to pick your battles and understanding it’s not a race, it’s a marathon. Pace yourself to get to the end to avoid burnout.

What is your proudest achievement?

At UTi, I was part of the Supply Chain Design team like the JDA Value Engineering team.   I received the Chairman’s award at UTi for my team’s performance. We were a team of 12 people and we did amazing work for our clients and the company.

What was your dream job as a kid and why?

To be a marine biologist and photographer for National Geographic. I had visions of myself on a beach with an old jeep and my dog.  I was hooked on the idea after my first scuba dive.

How do you maintain a work/life balance?

It’s a daily battle – I am not a morning person and can easily immerse myself in work until late hours of the day.  I struggle with the discipline to cut myself loose from my desk at the end of a day especially when I have a deadline to meet.   My decompression time is spent at yoga / spinning / tennis or dinner with friends.  Any commitment – structured or unstructured – helps me to get out of the house.  I also enjoy playing bridge and lamp glass work.

How do you keep your skills sharp?

Sharpening the pencil is much needed. Continuously reading industry and subject-related publications help but it is most valuable to attend seminars, prepare for a lecture at UWM or an interaction with industry peers. It keeps you on your toes and validates ones’ thinking.  I have yet to find a forum in which one can incubate “new / out of the box” ideas without coming off as loopy.

What do you think are biggest obstacles of gender diversity in the workplace?

The current environment is filled with unnecessary obstacles to everyone; people have become so weary of each other.  We need to regain mutual respect and trust.   It goes without saying that colleagues should be respectful of each other, regardless!

I think people need to be conscious of merit and performance. Quotas inevitably turn into a form of reverse discrimination. I want a job because I was the best candidate, not because I was a quota token.

Have you ever found yourself as the only woman in a meeting? How did that feel?

It has never bothered me.  However, secretly I do a poll every time I’m in a room with more than five people. I’m amused by it and baffled as to why this number is seldom higher than 15% or at best 20% in 20 years.

What do you think is the most significant barrier to women in leadership?

I think there are two ways of looking at the answer to this question. I think, we should understand if women consciously shy away from or avoid leadership roles (or are overlooked for them), or if it’s a subconscious disposition.  If you consider how many barriers have been broken in the past 50 years by women in leadership, then you just need to be mindful of the fact that you can be who you want to be.

Our own ambitions and perceived limitations define who we are and become.  If it is your aspiration to be a woman in leadership, there should be nothing holding you back. Be mindful of the fact there can only be one CEO, but, there can be many leaders.   The support team is just as important. The strongest CEOs are those who surround themselves with the strongest leaders or second line of defense.

What woman inspires you and why?

All professional / working mothers inspire me – I always look at them with absolute amazement and wonder how they keep it all together.

What is the biggest challenge for the next generation of women in tech (or supply chain)?

There is still a bias among women to shy away from all things STEM related and I think women are more naturally drawn to the natural sciences rather than engineering / robotics / AI / IT.  That said, there are many exceptions and I think we should continue to encourage girls to explore these fields.  We live in an era where stereotypes are challenged – this will be a healthy paradigm to shift.

What are three key words you would use to describe yourself?

Pragmatic – I can see right through BS. I make decisions based on fact through problem solving.

Serious – I can overthink things and get into my own head.  I’m sensitive and had to learn not to overthink things and get thicker skinned on a personal level in my interactions with people and not to take offense to things.

Hilarious – I have a wicked, dry and dark wit. Unfortunately, this is not always appreciated… I’ve had to tone down my joking – this is especially true in America where things are different in the social settings than South Africa. I had to be conscious of becoming “quieter” than I inherently am.