Sara D Anzeo, a partnership specialist at the Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific, is the driving force behind the Women Entrepreneurship Program, which is housed within the Trade, Investment, and Innovation Division of the UN Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific.

Leading the charge to establish innovative partnerships at the regional level, Sara has been instrumental in utilizing public and private resources to test and grow financial models that promote sustainable development and gender parity.

Before taking on her present position, Sara was instrumental in strengthening UNDP Bangkok Regional Hub’s partnership with the corporate sector to promote ethical and inclusive business practices. With more than 13 years of experience in international development working for the UN, nonprofits, and private companies, she is a versatile professional.

In a free-wheeling chat, Sara tells AsiaBizToday tells us how she aims to spark change for a more equitable and just world by applying her knowledge and experiences. Excerpts:

Q: Could you tell us a little more about your background and experience?

A: Throughout my journey in international development, I’ve navigated diverse roles with the United Nations, non-profits, and private organizations. My career path hasn’t been straightforward, which I believe resonates with many women in international settings. After earning a law degree in Italy, I ventured to the US, where I practiced immigration law. While I appreciated working in the field of law, I yearned for a role that was more dynamic and personally fulfilling. This longing led me to the Italian Chamber of Commerce’s trade office. There, I found my passion in organizing trade events and tackling international trade issues, which felt more aligned with my interests.

My career later took a turn into business development in the international transportation industry. This role had me traveling globally, providing a wealth of experience, but eventually, I grew weary of the corporate environment. I felt a strong desire to return to international affairs, specifically to leverage my skills towards causes I’m deeply passionate about, such as supporting private sector engagement for responsible conduct, women’s empowerment and advocating for equality.

Q: The Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific (ESCAP) is the most inclusive intergovernmental platform in the Asia-Pacific region. How would you define your role with respect to Asia and the Pacific?

A: Having a strong corporate background, my primary strength has been fostering partnerships with the private sector, especially in the context of the Asia-Pacific. My role within ESCAP involves actively engaging with entrepreneurs, organizations, and investors to mobilize capital and resources to increase gender-responsive practices and investments under the Catalyzing Women Entrepreneurship’ program, supported by Global Affairs Canada.

Q: In your experience, what are the key challenges faced by women in the workplace?

A: There are numerous systemic barriers that significantly hinder women’s participation in the economy. A primary obstacle is the disproportionate burden of caretaking responsibilities that women shoulder, according to recent ILO research, women spend 4.1 times more time in Asia and the Pacific in unpaid care work than men. This imbalance not only limits women’s availability for professional opportunities but also perpetuates a cycle of unequal opportunities. Education, skills development, and access to resources are other critical challenges. Deeply ingrained social norms often confine women to specific roles, restricting their potential to excel and thrive professionally. Even when women overcome these barriers, despite their competence, they often find themselves overlooked for leadership positions, their voices marginalized in decision-making processes.

Q: In an ever-evolving trade scenario, there’s a need to be innovative in order to succeed, but how would you define innovation from a woman’s standpoint?

A: Innovation transcends gender. The difference is only that women often start from a different baseline, dealing with challenges like unequal access to education, resources, and opportunities. It’s worth noticing that women drive innovation both as creators and consumers. Their experiences, insights, and understanding enrich the innovation process, ensuring that solutions are inclusive and sustainable, often catering to the community. I always emphasize this point in my discussions: to design the future we envision, we need the skills, ideas, and solutions that women can provide.

Q: As UNDP’s business engagement specialist, how important is the diversity and inclusion platform contributing to promoting gender-responsive procurement, women’s leadership in business integrity, and inclusive growth?

A: Earlier, in my capacity as a Business Engagement Specialist at the UNDP, I’ve explored the interplay between transparency, responsible conduct, and gender equality. A significant part of our work focuses on understanding how procurement, both in public and private sectors, can be a powerful tool for advancing gender parity.

We’ve discovered that adopting a more intentional approach towards supplier diversity isn’t just about fairness; but it makes business sense. By ensuring that procurement policies are transparent and gender-responsive, we’re not only promoting equality but also tapping into a broader range of talents and perspectives. This approach enhances innovation and drives inclusive growth.

Q: What do you see as the most challenging aspects of gender diversity in the current environment leading up to 2030 in the context of UN SDGs?

A: There are many areas that require urgent attention, but If I had to chose maybe one critical issue that stands out for me is gender-based violence. The alarming rates of femicide, sexual violence, cyber violence, and other forms of gender-based abuse continue to escalate, despite significant efforts by the UN and other organizations to raise public awareness and implement preventive measures.

The reality is that there can be no participation of women in the economy if we do not address and eradicate gender-based violence.

Another issue I would like to talk about is that women, especially in vulnerable communities, often find themselves on the front lines of climate-related stocks, such as extreme weather events, food insecurity, and water scarcity. Despite this, a significant portion of climate finance and frameworks remains largely gender-blind. The majority of climate action fails to consider the unique challenges and needs of women, which is a significant oversight. It is important to recognize that women are not just victims of climate change, but they are also powerful agents of change and should be at the center of climate action.