Laressa Thavarin’s life purpose is gender equality in all walks of life

Making things better for generations to come is a personal and business quest, says Laressa.

Fostering diversity and inclusion is a core focus for Laressa Thavarin, HR Director at Air Liquide Africa Services and Southern Africa region, with gender equality in the workplace being a top priority.

“It’s key in all walks of life. Fostering diversity and inclusion is not a fairness matter, it’s going to be a driver of innovation and performance as well as a source of value and competitive advantage for businesses” she says.

For Laressa, commitment to diversity means creating a great place for women to work, empowering young girls for the future world of work and supporting communities to ensure inclusivity.

Laressa says diversity is being invited to the party, and inclusion is being asked to dance. “In the quest for cultural and emotional intelligence, which enables us to know ourselves by knowing others, we have all found ourselves on dance floors where not everyone knew the steps or liked the music,” she says.

“It is therefore important to shed light on experiences in intercultural situations faced during various situations, such as expatriate assignments or management of international teams or even the challenges of women in senior positions previously dominated by men.”

Actively driving the I&D agenda
Laressa, who is a member of two boards and on the executive committee at Air Liquide, has had direct experiences of discrimination throughout her career, based on her race and gender – at a time when black women are under-represented in boardrooms.

“It was a topic known to me, but unspoken, because I didn’t think I would ever be in the situation,” she says. “With the support of Air Liquide Management and senior executives who truly believed that I could make a powerful difference beyond my skin colour and gender, I managed to navigate through the issues of discrimination. I did that by focusing on the task at hand, which was making Air Liquide a better place to work.”

At Air Liquide, the representation of diverse talent is still an essential driver of inclusion, says Laressa. They continue to focus on advancing diverse talent into executive, management, technical, and board roles.

“We ensure that a robust I&D business case is created and accepted, and we think seriously about which forms of multivariate diversity to prioritise,” she explains.

“In addition, we not only strengthen the inclusive-leadership capabilities of our managers and executives, but also more emphatically hold all leaders to account for progress on I&D.|

“I am grateful that Air Liquide enables equality of opportunity through fairness and transparency,” Laressa notes. “To advance toward a true meritocracy, it is critical that companies ensure a level playing field in advancement and opportunity.

“We hold a zero-tolerance policy for discriminatory behavior, such as bullying and harassment, and actively help managers and staff to identify and address micro-aggressions. It is so important for companies to establish norms for open, welcoming behaviour and ask leaders and employees to assess each other on how they are living up to that standard.”

Laressa believes we must foster belonging through unequivocal support for multivariate diversity. Companies should build a culture where all employees feel they can bring their whole selves to work, she says.

In addition, managers should communicate and visibly embrace their commitment to multivariate forms of diversity, building a connection to a wide range of people and supporting employee resource groups to foster a sense of community and belonging.

Learning from a strong female role model
Laressa says her mother was the catalyst and driving force for her career in human resources. “My mum is my greatest champion,” she says. “She totally believed in my dreams. She told me I was good enough and that I could do anything – and I believed her.”

She initially planned to become a clinical psychologist, and enrolled at the University of KwaZulu-Natal, but after completing an internship at mental hospital Fort Napier, she realised that being a clinical psychologist was not her passion.

So it was back to the drawing board and after completing her Industrial Psychology degree, accelerating this during winter school and majoring in HR and Business Science, she progressed to honours and then a master’s in Industrial Psychology, and hopes to complete her PhD within the next two years.

“To get into the working world was quite tough and I was fortunate to land my first HR role at Edcon, as a junior HR consultant,” she recalls.

“When I look back, that job moulded and developed me to where I am today. It was a very pressurised, hands-on role which literally threw me into the deep end in all areas of HR,” she says. “I am grateful for humble beginnings, because I never ever forget where I started – which is why I am passionate about growing young women and leaders of tomorrow.

“I’ve realised that a company is only as exceptional as the people in it. Finding the right people really allows an organisation to flourish.”

Tough conversations
“We have to put a lot of time and effort into the hiring process, as hiring the wrong person for a role is a major inconvenience, a waste of money, time and resources. There are times when you get it wrong and this breaks down processes and damages the culture and teams. As HR, we often have to be brave enough to have tough conversations,” she says.

It is through such experiences that Laressa has built her resilience and is able to successfully implement numerous changes under challenging circumstances.

“I joined Air Liquide just over a year and half ago and there was a lot of segregation and resistance to change.It is taking time to understand the employees, and what makes them tick.”

At Air Liquide, Laressa has been instrumental in implementing transformation to address Broad-Based Black Economic Empowerment (B-BBEE). “Diversity and transformation are essential to the business strategy at Air Liquide,” she says.

“Our goal is to create a meaningful, sustainable and high performing business in southern Africa, incorporating transformation. We have four entities and are aiming for improved levels on our BEE scorecards for 2021.”

Air Liquide Healthcare has achieved a B-BBEE contributor score of Level 1 and Continuous Oxygen Supplies a Level 2.

“This significant milestone demonstrates our commitment to supporting the government’s national goals of driving economic transformation in the country through the B-BBEE policy,” says Laressa.

“For Air Liquide, transformation is a business imperative with a goal to build effective leadership and relevant business skills, broaden our supply chain, provide broad business access opportunities to previously disadvantaged communities, and contribute to the inclusive growth of the healthcare sector and ultimately the South African economy.

“With the support of the wider Air Liquide team and our shareholders, we commit to continue supporting economic transformation initiatives, especially in the healthcare sector. We do this by, amongst others, supporting black-owned small, micro and medium-sized enterprises (SMMES). We further invest in skills development, youth employment and supporting local communities in areas where we operate.

Sustainability
Air Liquide​ in Southern Africa​ has more than 1000 employees in over 20 sites. Air Liquide South Africa supplies rare and industrial gases in bulk quantities, Air Liquide Healthcare South Africa provides medical gases and related equipment to hospitals and healthcare institutions, and Air Liquide Engineering and Construction South Africa designs and builds units for large industries.

It is against this backdrop that Laressa has set herself the goal of taking her team on a journey to become a Top Employer by 2023. “Air Liquide has been awarded the Top500 – Top 5 Best Managed Companies in the Gas Sector and based on our company profile, we expect to also receive an award for the most diverse company,” she says.

At a previous employer, ironically also a French multinational, she was instrumental in the company achieving Top Employer for two consecutive years. This personifies Laressa’s belief in sustainability and having a purpose in life, which may be the reason she is currently reading Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor Frankl.

“Today, this remarkable tribute to hope offers an avenue to finding greater meaning and purpose in our lives,” she says. “His insights into human freedom, dignity and the search for meaning are deeply humanising and have the power to transform our lives.”