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Leadership In Challenging Times: Damla Er (MBA 2016)

By: Damla Er 04 Mar 2021

This post is part of our “Leadership in Challenging Times” blog series, which highlights the inspiring work of the HBS community in addressing the health and economic consequences of COVID-19, alongside the fight for racial equity and an especially polarized political climate. In this post, Damla Er (MBA 2016) discusses her work with the International Finance Corporation and its response to the COVID-19 crisis.  

Tell us about your work

I’m an Investment Officer at the International Finance Corporation (IFC), focusing on infrastructure projects in Europe and Central Asia. IFC—a member of the World Bank Group—is the largest global development institution focused on the private sector in emerging markets. We work in more than 100 countries, using our capital, expertise, and influence to create markets and opportunities in developing countries. My work involves leading investments in new projects (it can be debt or equity or across the capital structure) and overseeing a portfolio of existing projects.

How has your organization and your role responded to this year's challenges?

IFC has taken a lead role in responding to the COVID-19 crisis by supporting the private sector, which is key to saving jobs that represent the main route out of poverty for the 150 million people at risk of being pushed into extreme poverty by the pandemic by next year. We recently passed the halfway mark in deploying more than $4 billion from our $8 billion fast-track COVID-19 facility, providing liquidity to client companies and financial institutions. Our $4 billion Global Health Platform is helping developing countries gain access to healthcare supplies such as face masks, ventilators, testing kits, and, ultimately, vaccines.

In my role, I focus on projects in energy and transport, which are sectors that have been heavily hit with shrinking economies, changing restrictions, and customer behavior. The importance of these projects is now more than ever to support emerging market economies' recovery with improvements in connectivity, job creation, and catalyzing impact on local development. Whether the project is a renewable energy power plant or an airport, I focus on bridging the infrastructure gap by harnessing private sector solutions, innovation, and capital. I have been inspired by our clients' resilience, adaptability, and ingenuity in dealing with the uncertain environment.

What do you draw upon from your HBS experience?

I came to appreciate the two years of case method teaching at HBS. The approach repeatedly demands the ability to absorb vast amounts of information in a short amount of time and identify the critical points, ask the right questions, keep an open mind, and enable the team to move forward with the leadership skills tailored to the situation at hand. The amount of information that came all our way this year and the rapidly changing circumstances almost felt like we had to process a new case every day.

What lessons have you learned for going forward? In what ways will this change your work forever?

One of the key lessons from this year's experience was how to become more resilient, both personally and professionally. We are speaking about circumstances where forecasts that are usually valid for at least six months becoming irrelevant on a weekly basis, where individuals are forced into very different working conditions, and where companies and institutions are pivoting continuously to adapt to the changing circumstances. Part of the resilient approach is to take a long term view of projects or situations, recognize the underlying value and goal, and think strategically about taking action now that will open up avenues of further action instead of freezing. Another part is to adapt to uncertainty by accepting it, keeping an open mind, and being aware of confirmation bias, which can become even stronger in times of uncertainty. Finally, being creative. Usual approaches may not work in unusual environments. It can be scary to try something new right when the world seems to have gone haywire, but actually, it's precisely these moments where we need to think more critically, ask more questions, and try new solutions. This can be quite empowering.

How can someone interested in this area get involved or learn more?

IFC's web site is a great place to start learning more and read about our stories of impact and our COVID-19 response.