April 26th, 2010 | 6:00 am

Voice of Experience: Niloufar Molavi, Tax Partner and U.S. Chief Diversity Officer, PricewaterhouseCoopers LLP

filed under Voices of Experience

Niloufar MolaviBy Melissa J. Anderson (New York City)

“Taking risks is not the way I looked at things. I thought of them as opportunities,” explains Niloufar Molavi, PricewaterhouseCoopers‘ Chief Diversity Officer, when describing her career progression. “You have to be willing to step outside your comfort zone.”

Having worked for PwC for nearly 20 years, Molavi has seized upon many opportunities. She began her career as a tax associate in PwC’s Houston office in 1991, and was admitted to the partnership in 2001, working in the firm’s energy tax practice. In 2006, she assumed the leadership role for PwC’s national energy tax practice.

Throughout her career at PwC, and particularly for the last several years, Molavi has championed diversity in the firm’s Houston office. Her efforts grabbed the attention of Bob Moritz, PwC’s chairman and senior partner, who last summer asked Molavi to take on a larger, national role leading diversity and inclusion initiatives as the firm’s CDO.

What most excites her about the new role is the one-to-one connection she is able to make with PwC’s people. “One of the things I’ve always loved about being a professional accountant is the ability to connect with people,” says Molavi. “Everything is about making sure we are building a much more inclusive organization. We want to make sure our people understand and are comfortable working and interacting with people who are different from them. It’s been a lot of fun so far.”

What Diversity Means at PwC

“Diversity has a lot of meanings to different people. We see it as a business imperative,” Molavi explains. “It has the ability to drive innovation within the business and for our clients.”

Because of her experience championing diversity in Houston, Molavi says she was already familiar with many of the issues she deals with now. “I knew our previous two CDOs and had the opportunity to work with them in various ways.” She continued, “The city of Houston is very much a center of diversity. But now I have bigger responsibilities – the work is more strategic.”

With 14,000 women at PwC, programs to advance and retain women are at the forefront of Molavi’s agenda. “The ability to juggle motherhood and career continues to be a challenge for women,” she says. “PwC’s women are often part of a dual career couple, and they are usually the primary caregiver,” she explained. “How you juggle work and family is a personal choice. Our challenge is making sure we create career paths that make sense for women to achieve their longer term goals.”

This means keeping women connected while on maternity leave, and providing the ability to ramp up or down depending on their life situation. PwC programs such as Full Circle, which allows professionals — both women and men — to take up to five years away from the firm to devote themselves to full-time parenting (or other dependent care) and then rejoin the firm, provide that option.

The firm has numerous other mentorship and diversity programs in place to reach out to women, but Molavi takes a more holistic view: “The thing about the programs is that we have a lot of them. But we have so many because we hope they have a cumulative effect on each individual and the firm overall.

“A new program I’ve launched is Women Up Front. It’s a virtual site designed to connect women across our firm, regardless of where they reside and work,” adds Molavi. “It facilitates opportunities for our women to get to know one another, to seek mentors and role models.”

Other programs that focus or facilitate dialogue on gender issues in the workplace include the firm’s “Candid Conversation” series, as well as a program designed to prepare staff for leadership roles by providing opportunities to develop important skills.

Personally Speaking – Advice for Women

Molavi speaks from experience when offering advice to other professional women seeking work/life balance. “I’m a mother of two,” she explains. “Work/life balance is probably not realistic. But thinking about it more as work/life flexibility allows you to swing the pendulum in the direction you need – that’s how I find balance.”

She continues, “I would say what has worked for me is deciding which things I will not compromise in my personal and professional life, and making decisions with those things in mind – whether that’s my children’s basketball game or an important meeting or client deliverable – and sticking to them.

“Our goal at PwC is making that flexibility possible,” she adds.

Mentoring is another means of finding support and inspiration, according to Molavi. Her advice to women entering the workforce is to seek multiple mentors, both inside and outside their organizations, and to have different types of mentors throughout their career.

“I had a mentor who hired me from the University of Texas and continues to be a mentor to this day,” she says, adding that the opportunity to participate in PwC’s Mentor Moms program, which connects new moms (or moms-to-be) with another PwC mother who has experienced juggling motherhood and career at the firm, has been inspiring to her. “It has been a great feeling to share and see how the women participating in the program are able to manage themselves.”

Molavi believes that women need to be adaptable throughout their careers, citing her own background as an example. Born and raised in Iran, she and her family moved to France after the Revolution, and then later to Houston.

“We left Iran thinking we were going on a summer break – and never went back,” says Molavi. “Because of my background, I’ve had to learn to adapt and be comfortable with change.” She believes this is one reason for her success.

Another key to success, she says, is confidence. “You need to believe in yourself. It’s important for others to believe in you, but the most important thing is that you believe in you,” Molavi explains.

Women can help their own cause by promoting themselves, according to Molavi. “Have your ‘elevator speech’ ready,” she says. “Make sure you take ownership of your career. Understand the gaps in your skills and address them. Finally, to continue growing as a professional, make sure to expose yourself to different experiences and not get too comfortable doing the same things.”

Molavi plans to continue her own growth at PwC. “In 10 years, I definitely want to be at PwC, contributing to the growth and success of the firm, and I want to make sure I’m still having fun. Most importantly, however, I love working with people. That connection with clients and colleagues is what motivates me.”

Finding Inspiration in Others

Molavi cites the success of people she’s hired and mentored as her proudest achievements. “I’ve done a lot of recruiting for the firm. Watching those people I’ve recruited be successful – whether in work or personal accomplishments – makes me extremely proud.”

Similarly, she attributes her success in part to the people who’ve helped her along the way. “In many ways, I’ve been lucky. Others gave me opportunities and if it hadn’t been for them, I don’t think I would have been able to progress or make partner.”

Molavi’s inspiration and desire to help others extends outside the office. She is actively involved as a member of the board of directors of Dress for Success Houston, an organization that helps women trying to get back into the workforce, by providing them with interview suits, mentoring, career development workshops and – most importantly – self confidence. “It’s one of the most rewarding things I’ve done,” says Molavi. “Some of the stories of the women we support bring tears to your eyes.”

While mentoring has played a significant role throughout her career, Molavi cites her grandmother as her greatest source of inspiration. “My grandmother never worked and she doesn’t drive. But she is a very strong woman,” says Molavi. “She always used to tell me: ‘listen to others but stay true to yourself.’ In both my personal and professional life, that really came through.”

For more information on PwC’s gender advancement and retention initiatives, visit: www.pwc.com/diversity

1 comment

  1. Jacqueline Harounian, Esq.

    What an inspiring article. Thanks for sharing your career advice.