Inspirational Woman: Zula Luvsandorj | Project Finance Advisor, IPA, Cabinet Office

Zula LuvsandorjHaving started my career in the banking sector in London, in total I have more than 15 years’ experience in capital raising and project financing in emerging the markets of Asia, Europe, Middle East and Africa.

In December 2020, I was appointed Project Finance Advisor to the UK Government’s, Infrastructure and Projects Authority (IPA) at the Cabinet Office, reporting to HM Treasury and the Cabinet Office. In the UK, around half of the £600bln infrastructure projects are financed by the private sector. In my current role, my team and I support private sector infrastructure projects with wide range of both innovative and established financing mechanisms, such as commercially managed funds, guarantees and financing from HM Treasury. The IPA’s mandate is also to engage in the activities to reform Government’s project delivery, providing advice to Ministers in HM Treasury and the Cabinet Office.

Connect with me on LinkedIn here.

Did you ever sit down and plan your career?

No. I think my career has been defined by my background. I was born in Mongolia, which has been a strength. Being born to a nomadic culture, I have tendency to adapt easily to any new environment along with all the cultural and organisational differences. I have lived and worked in different countries and cultures with a variety of people in the competitive finance industry. In the banking sector, I have covered infrastructure financing in Russia and Eastern Europe, because of my background of living there. I’ve always felt pressure to add something extra to my CV and to utilise transferrable skills to succeed. Early in my career, this was driven by my competency in languages, plus the professional side. Later, I started furthering my knowledge by doing degrees and diplomas in other areas.

Have you faced any challenges along the way?

There have been lots! I think life is about tackling challenges in every step we take and learning from this journey. Every role has its very own set of organisational, cultural and professional challenges. As businesspeople we know that after tackling the hardest test, pretty soon the next one comes along. Life would be boring without these tests! The good thing is that there are always solutions and opportunities out there. It is important to celebrate your achievements after tackling each trial until the next one comes around the corner. I have experienced difficulties in being an ethnic minority female working in the male dominated financial sector. Looking back, I would not be the woman I am today without these challenges.

What has been your biggest achievement to date?

I’m proud of being able to contribute on a global stage. I feel fortunate to have worked on many major projects around the world, which have had wider impacts in the economies of different countries. Major infrastructure projects can have long term effects on people’s lives for 10-20 years or more. I am deeply motivated to see the real projects constructed and see them in their physical form. For example, every time I transfer through the Moscow airport, terminal D, which my team in SMBC bank financed, I like to stop and enjoy it for a moment.

Also studying at the Executive MBA at Oxford – while starting my start-up venture in Clean Energy, combined with the birth of my first child – was an extremely special time in my life. It was heck of a year, with so much going on and bringing all the pieces together, including seed funding and pleasing the savvy USD60mln investor. I am especially proud to have combined it with the birth of my son, who turned out to be a very happy boy, despite me having to be apart from him to travel from when he was just four months old. I thank my partner for being the most supportive husband during this period.

What one thing do you believe has been a major factor in you achieving success?

I would say curiosity. Curiosity to have a deeper learning and understanding of my work, where possible, every small detail of it. The devil is in the details! Larger infrastructure projects are usually incredibly complex at financing, construction and on the legal side. When you are curious, you naturally spend more time learning your subject. In energy project financing, for example, you must be both financier and something of an engineer.

How do you feel about mentoring? Have you mentored anyone or are you someone’s mentee?

I regret not discovering a mentor at an early age. Having a mentor and role model has tremendous impact and can speed up your career. I would advise anyone at the start of their career to have a good mentor who knows your field completely.

If you could change one thing to accelerate the pace of change for Gender Equality, what would it be?

Throughout my career in the financial industry, until very recently, I have always been the only female in the team. It takes courage and confidence to be accepted for who you are in a male dominated environment, especially coming from a minority background. Yet, even in 2021, it still surprises me to see male domination in so many industries globally. By the time I finish this sentence, somewhere out there are still mindsets that are discouraging women to achieve equality at workplace with men. We should all encourage greater numbers of women to be leaders and entrepreneurs. One important aspect is to support them in lobby groups and via various financing mechanisms. However, in some countries women also have disadvantage in the traditional role as a caregiver of their families. We should build a greater support mechanism to help with their personal responsibilities, such as home-based contracts, better childcare arrangements and flexible working hours.

If you could give one piece of advice to your younger self what would it be?

Early on, to believe in yourself and move forward without believing you must wait for the ideal time or until you are ‘perfect’. Just be brave and go for your goals!

What is your next challenge and what are you hoping to achieve in the future?

In my current role, I am shifting my mindset towards looking at the industries with a bigger picture, policy making and strategic vision, which Government tends to do. I am excited to join the UK Government, particularly during this transitional period of NetZero commitments and post-COVID recovery. Infrastructure has always been a major part of the country’s development and it will be driven by NetZero commitments in the next 20-30 years. One of the main objectives of the of the post-COVID world recovery is wider investment in infrastructure, especially prioritising technology in the NetZero contest, ESG and sustainability. Infrastructure investment will have a key role to play in the recovery. It creates economic growth, opportunity and improves people’s lives.

I have deep passion about sustainability and supporting both the private and public sector in financing greener projects in order to achieve NetZero ambitions globally. In the past few years, the UK Government has used wide range of innovative models to finance its infrastructure, such as commercially managed funds in order to catalyse the private sector investments. I am excited to be part of this transitional journey and contribute to supporting private sector businesses and innovative industry expansion.

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