By Sinazo Mkoko
Lamona Rajah’s value proposition is insatiable passion and purpose in the work she does, playing to her top strength of belief. Followed by achiever, intellection, input, connectedness, she is most fulfilled when she does work that allows her to leave the world a better place than she found it.
Moreover, she loves order yet thrives in the unknown – so will not let her organisation charge ahead without a plan. If it has not been done before, she will make it happen.
As a Diversity & Inclusion Practitioner, she has developed and implemented a Diversity & Inclusion Framework for the Africa Middle East region at Cummins. She created learning content on unconscious bias, cultural diversity, disability sensitisation,as well as women’s development programmes and dialogues on race and ethnicity to inclusive leadership. She shares with Top Women her journey that led her to where she is today.
Firstly, please tell us about the career path that led to you becoming the Diversity and Inclusion Leader at Cummins?
Without realising it, I was applying diversity, equity and inclusion in transformation projects for the Retail division of a local bank, since 2008 in my first role in HR as an HR projects manager. I helped change the way we recruited graduates for the Graduate Development Program, departing from the norm of seeking top-performing graduates from top universities in South Africa. I challenged the notion of the type of talent required for branch based roles in rural towns away from the big cities, and advocated for talent from the Universities of Zululand, Free State, NMMU etc. After all this was precisely where new branches were, and where youth could gain employment that would change their lives and their families.
After two years of managing the programme in this way, we had higher levels of retention in the graduate pool and good performance from those we placed in permanent roles, post their Graduate Development Programme. Today, most of them have remained in the financial services sector and progressed to senior roles. I loved making a difference. I applied those same principles of helping previously the disadvantaged; via Learnership programs and the Branch Manager development program. The latter focused on equipping new African Branch managers with the knowledge, skills, experiences, and resources to integrate successfully into the bank. Fast forward a few years to 2014, whilst in another company, I volunteered to manage the first learnership for Persons with Disabilities, as an additional project.
This set me up for a global role in Inclusion & Diversity where I managed global women’s programmes and facilitated unconscious bias training. I learned so much and grew my cultural intelligence, D&I skills, networks and confidence in the two years I was in the role.
At the end of 2016, I was approached by Cummins Africa Middle East for the role I am currently in and that was the highlight of my career. When I interviewed for the role, I was asked why I wanted it and my response was: “I want to change the world and use all that I have learned from my global exposure in the previous role to change life for people in Africa, the continent I was born on. There had to be a reason for why I am here, and I want to live out my purpose”.
I got the role, and it has been life changing. I created and implemented a DEI strategy for Cummins Africa Middle East, sparked change in mindsets and coached and consulted leaders and employees as change catalysts to sustain the work. Although people say I have made a great impact, I believe our employees have made a bigger impact on me and have been my greatest teachers along this journey. Cummins has invested in my personal leadership dev
Amongst other things, you’re also responsible for driving awareness around Gender-Based Violence (GBV), which is a pressing concern, particularly in SA. Please touch on the importance of everyone from communities to private and public organisations playing a role in fighting against this scourge.
GBV has been an ongoing issue for many years in SA and despite public outcries after atrocious crimes against women and femicide, it was the Covid-19 pandemic that eventually achieved the cry for help. Reports of heightened levels of GBV during country lockdowns made the papers, the news, got the attention of world leaders and organisations like the United Nations but sadly may have not reached the attention of larger society. Whilst some may complain about how the government has failed us despite SA having the best Constitution in the world, it is time society turned the mirror back on itself. I believe that collective societal action begins in our homes, in our schools and in individual lives. We must start having tough conversations with our children, our families, neighbours and friends. We must call out the behaviour or words used in conversation that perpetuate mindsets that may lead to GBV. We have to change the narrative from “it’s none of our business” to “everyone’s safety is our responsibility because every life matters” We should be challenging our friends when they beat their wives or girlfriends in front of us or speak to them harshly. We should be ready to alert authorities if we hear incessant beating next door, before they arrive to pick up a dead body. We can and must do something – we all have some power to act in some small way to help. There is power in community, there is power in collective action, there is power in collective accountability.
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You’re most fulfilled when you do work that allows you to leave the world a better place than you found it, why is this important to you?
I think it is because I’m naturally wired that way and have a strong sense of purpose and identity. My faith guides how I live so I do my work in a way that has a positive impact on people and I feel connected to my purpose. Money and titles mean little to me if the work I do is not deeply meaningful and gives me the opportunity to change lives.
What does your job as a Diversity & Inclusion practitioner entail?
After creating the DEI strategy for the region, I have been busy with implementing it through others. Therefore the role involves a lot of consulting and setting the aim based on data driven insights and global best practice. I thrive in developing locally relevant DEI initiatives aligned to Global DEI Strategy considering contextual factors, macroeconomic realities and societal issues based on history. I learned so much about history in this role! I also have to establish an infrastructure to sustain the work since I don’t have a team reporting to me, like other company structures do. This has been both challenging and rewarding as I have learned the power and possibility of integrating DEI into everyday practices through key stakeholders for systemic change. I support the development of DEI skills and competence in leaders to drive and lead DEI in the business and create change catalysts. Part of the process is coaching stakeholders on DEI application and enabling change in a psychologically safe way. In addition, I implement global DEI initiatives locally and provide local insights to global initiatives and serve as point of contact for the region.
Please share some of your proudest milestones in your career and at Cummins.
My proudest moment was getting a promotion within 6 months of being in my role and having people recognise my talent and skills in such a short period of time. Helping the company win various categories of the Gender Mainstreaming Awards was also a highlight. The role has given me wonderful opportunities to speak at external events and reach more people. Creating a DEI strategy from scratch was another proud milestone whilst completing my coaching certification this year has been my most satisfying one.
What challenges have you encountered in this industry as a woman and how have you overcome them?
In Cummins, I have not experienced any challenges as a woman. In fact this is the first place where during my interview, nobody asked me about childcare arrangements or about my family status. In previous companies, it felt like I had to work harder to get ahead and was not able to compete with the men around me due to my family circumstances. In Cummins, everyone gets a chance to fulfil their potential and achieve their dreams, no matter where you start from.
What do you like most about your job?
That I get to change the way people think about differences, so that they live differently both in the workplace and at home and in society. I love how much I learn about people, cultures, nationalities, and social realities and being able to form friendships around the world. I also love being a voice for the voiceless and advocating for change by using the platform I have.
In everything you’ve done and continue to do, what do you think will be your legacy?
I hope my legacy will be that I did change the world for people, whether personally or professionally, created a sustainable impact in the DEI space that continues long after I am not here and gave people hope in a broken world.
How would you describe your leadership style?
Visionary servant leadership – I want to take people to a better state and inspire them to keep moving along the journey. And I want to serve others, not myself.
What is your “why?”
My faith and my belief that I have been created for a specific purpose and I want to live so that my life counts for something past this one. I also hope it inspires my children to love others and find a way to live out their purpose.