Rishma Nathoo: A Global Leader Bridging the Gap to a Socially Sustainable Future

Top 10 Most Influential People in Leadership Consulting, 2022

A shift in perspective can extend an organization’s impact, both in scope and magnitude. A vision anchored in purpose, coupled with adopting transformational change levers, can help organizations begin to extract that value. That’s what Rishma Nathoo, Founder & CEO of TESORO, believes.

A Senior Global Leader with over 25 years of experience, Rishma helps public, private and non-profit organizations navigate change. She works with organizations to help them get into the sustainability and social impact space as well as set the stage where change, be it from digital transformations, mergers and acquisitions, governance or policy changes, can create spaces for engagement, openness and growth.

As a certified sustainability practitioner interested in the domain of Environmental, Social, and Governance (ESG) and UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), Rishma supports organizations looking to develop sustainability strategies, create or assess their CSR reports, or explore initiatives that would allow them to be more engaged in and contribute to a sustainable tomorrow.

She partners with organizations committed to elevating their workforce and work environment as they plan to or undergo a change or transformation. Her work spans organizational change-transformation management, operating model and organization design, strategy and program design and delivery.

Additionally, Rishma provides voice-over services to organizations looking to make their information and learning more accessible. A tenacious and inquisitive leader, she hopes to cultivate opportunities for individuals, organizations, and communities to thrive – socially, financially, and responsibly.

Weaving ESGs into the fabric of organizations

As a strategy and management consultancy firm, TESORO works in all sectors and industries on initiatives covering sustainability and social development, digital transformation, and mergers and acquisitions for all sectors and industries.

A sweet spot for TESORO – and the reason why it exists – is to help organizations weave ESGs, particularly the S and the G, into the fabric of their operations and being. The goal is to have organizations play a more prominent role in social development and social impact.

Rishma believes that everyone deserves a quality life, and that organizations play a significant role in developing the foundation in a way that bridges divides, creates, and offers a trampoline for growth and expansion.

“My focus is people performance. How do we get individuals to perform as well as they can with what they have, while equipping them with the tools needed to perform differently and better? People and organizations must evolve. Their performance must match,” says Rishma.

TESORO works with organizations to see the possibilities, set the roadmap, and facilitate their journey to make the ESG part of the organizational fabric by acknowledging, planning, and enabling the change. It looks at people’s interactions with the organization holistically – not simply learning or change management on its own.

“Every day I take this perspective, as I advise and support organizations and their people navigate changing and evolving environments, bringing the cross-sector, cross-industry experience I have gained thus far. I am ambitious for TESORO and the work it can do globally,” maintains Rishma.

TESORO is using this experience as a springboard to help organizations further drive social development and governance globally.

The journey to finding the sweet spot

Rishma considers her career a continuous experience of beginnings, as her goals and interests constantly evolve. She recalls that her interest in global work started during high school.

“I always wanted to have the skills to work anywhere in the world, wherever my life would take me, be it for professional or personal reasons. I wanted to give myself and those around me, the chance to experience and contribute to different societies,” she says.

Rishma’s volunteer work inside her faith-based community introduced her to different initiatives where her involvement was impacting others, be it locally, nationally, or internationally.

But the real ‘ah-ha’ happened when she was speaking to one of her EMBA professors at the Richard Ivey School of Business about a volunteer initiative she was involved in – a global sports festival where individuals from across the world had gathered to compete and build friendships.

“The initiative gave me a new appreciation of sports, particularly the role sports can have on people and societies; how sports offer a platform to build bridges and bring people together, positively influencing change. Its impact is felt within and extends beyond borders,” Rishma observes.

Her professor pointed out that she ‘lit up’ when describing the experience and asked her how she was going to ‘top that’. “I never thought about how I felt or what feeling or aura I was emitting. I just spoke about the experience, and to be honest, you’d have to tell me to stop talking about it,” she recollects.

Following that, Rishma took a Harvard Business School online course on Sustainable Business Strategies, where she learned about identifying the sweet spot – the intersection of what she was good at and what she was interested in.

She soon realized that her strategic and practical abilities made her very good at putting disparate pieces of information together, identifying opportunities, and guiding others to think beyond tomorrow.

“I learn well by doing and through discussion (some people call it debating),” she says with a chuckle. “A point of view is healthy so long as it is open to change. That’s where the discussion and experience come in. Discussion allows you to probe, to explore possibilities as you create new or evolved meaning, and to shift perspectives. It can be extremely healthy and insightful, as long as it is well intentioned and objective.”

The challenges of not following a traditional career path

One of the roadblocks Rishma faced in her professional journey was the rigidity that organizations put into practice when assessing someone’s strengths or determining if they’re a fit.

Rather than a partnership of exploring whether there’s a fit, the onus is on the candidate to define the value they bring. Rishma notes that candidates have to ‘sell’ the notion that their skills are transferrable, a sales pitch she did not know how to tackle, or communicate effectively at that time.

As her career has been ‘a bit of a jungle-gym’, having worked in most main industries and across all sectors, Rishma’s work experience spans many jobs, from being a store clerk, cashier, and a retail sales representative to a banking customer service representative, a pharmacist assistant, and an assistant in a real estate law firm.

“I’ve worked, contributed to, and learned from all my experiences. I’ve applied these learnings to organizations in the same and different industries and sectors where it made sense,” she notes.

Early in her career, people would tell Rishma to focus on one thing, to be a master of one instead of a jack of all. But being a learner by nature, this approach didn’t resonate with her. She did not want to feel stagnant and sought to learn while applying, testing, and evolving her thinking; gathering insights from different experiences to make something new, applicable, and relevant to the situation.

“Many persuaded me to start in one place and move up the ladder. There’s merit in this approach as it helps to create deep understanding of a sector and significant expertise in a discipline. But being inquisitive, I always wanted to learn more and see how I could connect the dots and make meaning by bringing in a new perspective. To do that, I felt I needed to expand the notion of ‘mastery’ in one area to ‘knowledgeable in many areas’. I wanted my professional contributions to be relevant and regarded as a value-add. That meant I had to adjust my viewpoint, commit to continuously building my skills, and be open to opportunity,” she says.

As organizations didn’t correlate a person’s diverse skills as an ability to learn, adapt, adjust, and evolve, Rishma’s interests, experience, and expertise were not viewed as a collection of transferrable skills that could be applied to new areas. She’s hopeful that current talent trends and challenges will cause organizations to rethink this point of view.

Rishma notes that organizations are a collection of people who need to evolve to be relevant. That requires learning and applying well-entrenched or new constructs and approaches in different ways.

She also recalls being excluded from interviews because of the unfair bias that only Ivy League schools produce capable people. As she didn’t go to one, her resume didn’t match the keyword search algorithm many organizations subscribe to; her accomplishments weren’t exactly written as an organization wanted to read it; and making the ‘perfect resume’ was exhausting and didn’t always open the door.

Rishma faced an equal roadblock when an organization felt she was over-qualified, with no opportunity to explore the value-add she offered. She notes that organizations appear to be following a script and imagines the impact a shift in perspective could bring.

But what these challenges ultimately taught her is that perseverance is non-negotiable. With the belief that challenge catalyzes growth, and that we can choose how we view these experiences, Rishma chooses to see them as a positive.

“For me, a challenge has always stretched me beyond my limitations. Often it is a mental limitation masked as a fear of something. I’ve been learning that, for me there are three things I need to do when it comes to a challenge: acknowledge the fear, decide to accept the challenge or not, and fight the temptation to procrastinate,” she states.

Change must be purpose driven and go beyond profits

Rishma always has her sustainability and social impact lens on every engagement, ensuring that she and her clients never miss the opportunity to incorporate sustainability thinking in programs wherever possible.

Foundational to her work is the belief that change must first be purpose driven. People and organizations need a situation, a cause to connect with and rally around if they’re going to embrace the discomfort of adopting new behaviours and mindsets.

A shift in perspective can extend an organization’s impact and magnitude; a vision anchored in purpose, and adopting some basic transformational change levers, is what’s required to get started, she notes.

“The agenda for organizational change should go beyond profits if it is to be relevant, impactful, and ‘stick’. Neither navel-gazing, command-control, nor linear absolutes work; the key is impact,” Rishma declares.

Her approach is simple: architect an experience that is practical, grounded in leading practice, and empowers people to drive and choose to thrive, in changing environments.

Helping organizations use their ‘social ticket’

Rishma explains that every organization has a social ticket that often goes unused. A social ticket confirms to an organization that they have the license to apply their knowledge, capabilities, and means towards initiatives that improve the lives of others and the environment we all live in.

The social ticket never expires and can be used as often as desired. It can be replicated and used both professionally and personally. The only condition for using it is that the initiative, at its core, is focused on enabling people to live quality lives. This can include initiatives focused on health, education, culture, social programs, economic health, and environmental care.

Rishma has been inspired by the work of the Aga Khan Development Network and their focus on improving the quality of life of everyone they serve – directly or indirectly.

She believes there are many elements that make us rounded individuals and have a quality life, including health, education, financial security, and social connection. These elements create a foundation to build upon and design the type of life we want.

Rishma notes that organizations are established and operated by people in service to people. But the service is limited to the paying few. They find it a challenge to recognize all the services they have to offer and make them available to others. They can also be short-sighted and narrow-minded when viewing their consumer and talent pools, particularly in the private sector.

Rishma remarks that when you have a sustainability and social impact mindset, the landscape broadens. Harnessing organizational capabilities, adjusting products, or expanding services can open new markets and consumers. Short-term investment can bring in significant rewards in terms of profit, environmental care, or positive social development.

However, organizations often neglect or ignore areas of strength and expertise, missing out on new consumers, additional revenue, and fully living out their purpose.

Much like Rishma’s challenge of articulating what she brought to the table, organizations are unable to identify how they can contribute to social development in their business, or their local, national, and global communities. In addition, they may not know how to make the mental and behavioural shift(s) needed to embrace new perspectives and goals.

Rishma observes that while these organizations are a great source of knowledge, their reach is limited to their primary customer pool. They have a deep vessel of knowledge and experiences that can positively impact society, its environment, and people. “Organizations just don’t know what to do or where to start. This change can be challenging, and that’s where TESORO comes in,” she says.

Rishma envisions the impact that could ensue if even a portion of their knowledge and tools were put forth to serve a broader group of individuals, directly or through their communities, and if their CSR activities went beyond financial donations or volunteer hours.

Making TESORO a bridge maker for organizations

Rishma notes that TESORO is unique in how it perceives change and the role of organizations to society. Its services are focused on uncovering and guiding organizations to leverage areas of strength and expertise, while supporting them in their transformational change initiatives.

TESORO’s work is anchored in people – committing to them and their change journey, supporting their growth potential, creating a workforce that is present and engaged, where creativity and innovation are accepted, encouraged, and welcomed.

It’s a bridge maker for organizations, helping them navigate the ‘potholes’ that often develop when they embark on new projects or need to make a change. Rishma’s belief is that change created and navigated from the centre, from a place of purpose, offers value, creates an impact, and becomes second nature.

We need to go back to basics, remember the raison d’être behind our organizations and check-in to see how we are doing. Can we do more? Can we do better? As sustainability, SDGs, and ESGs gain recognition and momentum, organizations need to consider the links between their visions, strategic priorities, and people more closely, and assess how they’re nurturing the quality of life of their people and society at large.

“We cannot forget that the baseline premise for most organizations is not money, but to offer a service or product that would benefit someone. The social order today, climate change, wars, human right issues, etc., are causing organizations to pause, reset, and evolve where they serve. This, too, is a shift. Any shift is a change, magnitude aside. I’m leveraging my experience and expertise in organizational transformation and change while leaning on my learning from volunteer work to focus on long-term sustainable impact,” Rishma notes.

The impact of COVID-19 on ESG, and the path forward

Rishma believes that the spotlight on equity, diversity, and inclusion was long overdue. COVID-19 intensely tested people and organizations, and shone a spotlight on ESG, helping many organizations surpass their ESG goals simply because travel and in-office work was deemed a health hazard.

COVID-19 also tested organizational beliefs as many explored and furloughed individuals to offset operational costs and keep profit commitments to shareholders. Employees got to see if their organization ‘walked the talk’.

These developments have a played a key role in the war for talent. Today, people want to work with a brand that has integrity; where commitment to people (not just profits) is high on their list; and when challenges occur, their principles remain intact, resolute.

Mother Nature loudly brought attention to sustainability and social impact illustrating the domino effect that climate change can have on all aspects of an individual, including their quality of life. These are not disparate pieces, but rather a delicate and intricate fabric that must be cared for.

Rishma believes that TESORO can assist in exploring these impacts, uncovering partnerships and areas of opportunity, and in navigating change. “We’re a young organization, just building. Our expertise comes from the experiences that led to TESORO being formed. We learn every day and our journey will always be just beginning,” she observes.

Rishma notes that there are many things she wants for TESORO – more global exposure, a broader range of engagements that cover ‘quality of life’ areas, speaking engagements, and connection with the work being done by so many global leaders, including internal organizations, foundations, and institutes.

An always evolving work-in-progress

Describing herself as an always evolving work-in-progress, Rishma hopes her belief in continuous and life-long learning and responsible experimentation, will help her continue to build on her expertise and grow TESORO.

Some of the beliefs that have guided her through life’s journey include:

  • Conviction – I believe in social development, the role we all play in it, and the opportunity before us to get engage, do more, do better.
  • Resilience – Ebbs and flows are natural. We control how they are interpreted and internalized. My role is to do my best in managing both, to learn from them and to protect that which is important.
  • Support – It comes in many forms, and I am very grateful and fortunate that support, encouragement, and belief continue to encircle me.
  • Humility – Each person, experience, and opportunity has played a role in the person I am today. I’m well aware of their role, their teachings, and am grateful. I also know that future growth will come through partnerships, trust, and ongoing learning. I’m open and ready.
  • Inner peace with imperfection – One needs to be happy with their input and output. You need to feel good with what you’ve done, with what you have and know at the time. And you need to be okay if it all changes down the road.
  • Progress – I define it as an evolving experience that has no end. Every day I can reflect, learn, and do things differently, to be better, and to have a positive impact.

Success is a mindset

Rishma’s journey of evolution and learning includes hearing stories and exploring situations that spur innovative thinking; witnessing resilience across people, teams, and organizations; and learning about experiences that have shaped individual and organizational performance and outcomes.

These intangibles influence how she defines leadership and guides her journey as a leader. Along the way, she gets to learn how to be a leader she would be happy to work with. “I discovered what I would want from a leader and test it out to see if it resonates with others. It is like being a chemist; to find what fits for you; what fits for others; and what else I need to learn, to grow,” she states.

Rishma defines success as making a choice, trying something new, or when she has an ‘Ah-ha’ moment. Being complacent can be easy; adopting habits can be easy to do and almost automatic.

She observes that a decision that’s different from ‘the same old’ one, that requires an action and no guaranteed outcome, requires guts, focus, weighing the pros and cons, and making an informed decision.

This decision tells fear to take a hike; it lets you know you’re human and that you must open doors, not close them; and if that doesn’t work out, you course-correct, adjust, and learn.

To Rishma, success also means hope and optimism. It signals that there’s still an opportunity to do more, to do better, and to right a wrong. In this way, success is a mindset, she notes.

Staying grounded and balanced

Rishma uses meditation to help her quiet the chatter in her mind, to take things in stride. “As a start up, I have to balance growth with keeping the lights on and making time to separate myself from work. I have yet to master the perfect work-life balance, but I am learning. I’ve often said that you can have it all – professional and personal life. I truly believe that” she declares.

Rishma chose to stop working weekends and maintains her volunteer work, which she credits with keeping her grounded and sane. She often reflects on her quality-of-life indicators, recognizing their fluid nature. It is easy to get consumed with work, but work is not everything.

“Figuring out what that balance is can be tricky, but it is important. Finding the right balance, being nimble to adjust, making time for and staying connected to those important to you can help. If you make sure the people around you know they’re important, they’ll stick with you as you find your balance. When that happens, the world is your oyster,” Rishma states.