Women Leaders in Sustainability: Narda Shirley, Gong Communications

Narda Shirley is the Founder and Managing Director of Gong Communications, a business to business agency with offices in London and Nairobi. Gong is focused on 3 areas; human capital, natural capital and private capital.


She is a serial public relations agency entrepreneur having founded an agency prior to Gong called Gnash, that rode the internet boom (and bust) helping establish some of the enduring brands from that digital decade including lastminute.com and Match.com. She was the  founding Chair of the PRCA’s sustainability group and is committed to driving sustainability engagement across the sector today.


1.     What are the biggest challenges you’ve had to overcome to get you where you are today? (what tips can you share from that experience?)


I think the biggest challenge in getting to where we are today has been figuring out how to become an international business and getting our Nairobi office on its feet. It’s been a stretch for me personally but a welcome opportunity to learn about a new cultural context for doing business after two decades of PR experience in more developed economies. For example, navigating local norms that don’t fit with ours, but it can also mean that culturally people in Africa sometimes don’t want to say ‘no’ which can be tricky to interpret when it comes to getting decisions over the line. But ultimately it’s about respecting the culture that you are operating in and programming in some patience. If you try to make everything go at top speed, you will just buckle under the weight of frustration.


2.     How can women have more impact and influence in the workplace?


I think in leadership, women have the opportunity to create very inclusive cultures that nurture people and enable them to be themselves at work. There’s a lot of research now to back up the fact that inclusive cultures foster productivity and innovation and help attract and retain the best talent. If we are talking about increasing impact and influence at all levels, I would encourage women to network furiously on and offline. It’s a stereotype, but a good one, that women are often good at forging new connections, so play to your strengths if that’s you, and build a network and use it to make your presence felt. If you have time, volunteer for steering committees or working groups, publish opinion pieces on LinkedIn or tweet with purpose. All it takes is the investment of a few hours a week of time and a firm concept of what ideas you want to get behind and support to make your voice count.


3.     We know that gender parity is essential for creating the positive sustainable world we’re all working for (SDG 5). What action(s) would make the biggest difference here in your sector?


In my world, where our currency is content, influence and advocacy, the biggest contribution to gender parity would come from better access to education, the internet and role models.  Producing and amplifying content that shines a light on the successes and innovations of women in leadership positions and the companies who put them there, is important to Gong. This work can lead to role models for women in all sectors around the world, but I think it is also important to be the change you want to see in the world. For instance, at Gong we encourage mothers to return to work, allowing flexible and remote working.


4.     What successes have you witnessed over the past year that we should all be celebrating?


One of our clients is The END Fund, whose mission is to end the five most common neglected tropical diseases which affect millions of the world’s poorest people. Over the last year we have observed the progress of the NTD control community towards SDG 3. Reports that Guinea worm and polio are effectively eliminated are something to truly celebrate. In November, a new US$100 million fund, called Reaching the Last Mile Fund, was launched with the goal of eliminating river blindness and lymphatic filariasis across priority countries in Africa and the Middle East. This is a tenacious, decade long commitment by His Highness, Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed Al Nahyan Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi with partners including the END Fund and the Gates Foundation.

These threats might feel a long way from home for people in the West, but the knock on effect of a new health dividend for countries affected in terms of human potential is huge. As well as relieving the burden for sufferers directly, their carers are able to go to work and school, which can help lift families out of poverty.

A world away from tropical diseases, but also firmly rooted in human potential, we’ve seen the Lloyd’s insurance market in London catalyse a global D&I movement which is really getting traction. The message that inclusive cultures are better for business is a fabulous issue that we are excited to work on in the form of the Dive In Festival.


5.     When it feels like the world is going crazy, what keeps your vision and passion alive?


We have a tendency to lean towards bad news in the world, and to get absorbed by scandal and pointless celebrity. What gets me down is the incidence of young people in our society who are self-harming, and the dangerous macho posturing of national leaders who should know better. But what lifts me up is the bravery of ordinary people, like the increasing openness around mental health issues. This year we’ve had the privilege to work with people who have put themselves and their struggles out there to help normalise mental health issues for their colleagues in the insurance industry. These people may not realise it, but they are hugely inspiring and helping them tell their stories keeps my passion for what we do very much alive.


On a more macro level, the B Corp movement cheers me up endlessly. Gong took the plunge into the B Corp community this year, achieving certification in June 2017. It’s open to any kind of business willing to prove that it walks the talk that business is a force for good, valuing all stakeholders equally. You can feel the energy and impatience for change coming out of that community and it makes me feel hopeful that we may yet find ways to live sustainably on this one very precious planet we all call home.