SAP Next-Gen’s global gender agenda and its trailblazing leaders

12 min read
26 Feb 2020

s we head into the next decade, it’s crucial that we create space for diverse perspectives and the people behind them. This is one of the ways that we will generate meaningful and impact-based outcomes for businesses, academic institutions, government entities and more. 

To be competitive in today’s marketplace, and in the marketplace we’d like to see in the future, we need leaders committed to equal representation. With a growing recognition of the value of diversity and inclusion, forward-looking companies are reflecting on the diversity in their boardrooms and talent pools and working toward gender equality and equity.

SAP Next-Gen is a purpose-driven innovation community – based on the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) – for the SAP ecosystem that connects companies, partners and universities around innovation activities linked to the SDGs, and demonstrates a strong commitment to SDG number 5: gender equality. Through its global gender agenda, SAP Next-Gen connects gender equality champions from the startup ecosystem, academia, industry, governments, and NGOs including the UN, inspiring them to raise ambitions for equality and linking them to initiatives based on SAP’s commitment to diversity and inclusion

To scale impact for its global gender agenda, SAP Next-Gen leverages its global network of educational institutions and partnerships, including its more than 30 “Innovation with Purpose” communities, through a partnership with Startup Guide. As a Business Avenger for the fifth SDG, SAP acts as a private sector leader in its commitment to advance women’s lives through economic and business empowerment. SAP Next-Gen also supports the UN Global Compact Target Gender Equality initiative, which aims to increase women’s leadership and representation in business.

SAP Next-Gen’s global gender agenda also collaborates with the Global Innovation Coalition for Change (GICC), which aims to drive industry action to make innovation and technology more accessible, open and workable for young women and girls.

To better understand how SAP Next-Gen advances gender equality around the world, we spoke to two leaders behind the global gender agenda, Sandra Moerch-Petersen and Kwena Mabotja. 

Sandra is SAP Next-Gen’s chief content director and leads the global gender agenda. She is also an ambassador for the Global Women in Data Science initiative. Kwena is the organization’s Africa director and the Europe, Middle East, and Africa lead for the global gender agenda. She travels extensively as a keynote speaker on these issues and was selected as a Mandela Washington Fellow in 2017, the flagship program of the Obama Young Leaders Initiative.

Ben Christensen, UN Partnerships Director for SAP Next-Gen, and Sandra Moerch, Chief Content Director for SAP Next-Gen

Startup Guide: How did you come to be leading members of the global gender agenda?


Throughout my entire college career I'd been super engaged in gender equality topics. Before working at SAP, I only ever had my own startup projects, and I felt kind of alone in the entrepreneurial community. I loved all my peers and my friends and it was a great ecosystem, but I always felt like there was an imbalance between women and men. 

When I started working at SAP five years ago, I made it a requirement to have gender balance on every team I was leading, because I had established a strong mindset around gender equality because of my experience in college and in the startup scene. I initiated SAP Next-Gen’s first gender-focused partnership with the Women in Data Science (WiDS) initiative, a program dedicated to mobilize women and girls around the world to engage in education and careers in data science. Because of the power of that partnership, I was able to really grow this out into a substantial program that leveraged many other equality-focused partnerships and programs to make innovation work for women and girls.

That is how we segued into creating specific gender programs for SAP Next-Gen. We have a larger, overarching diversity and inclusion program at SAP as a whole, where today 26 percent of leadership positions are held by women, and SAP Next-Gen is part of fostering the growing representation of women in leadership both inside SAP and across the SAP ecosystem. SAP Next-Gen is focused on the community and ecosystem side, ensuring that we're building out diverse future talent pipelines for SAP and building an ecosystem that's diverse and based on equality. 

When I started working at SAP five years ago, I made it a requirement to have gender balance on every team I was leading


I grew up in South Africa, where the societal constructs are still very much built around patriarchy, where men are basically leading industry, and women are staying home and looking after the family and the home. That social construct is still very much embedded in certain parts of our society.

However, in a South African village, where women are more economically active, they tend to reinvest their earnings back into their families and households, creating opportunities for education and improving the health and well-being of children. This shows that investing in women leads to sustainable social and economic benefits.

My experience was a little different in that my parents were more open-minded in terms of how I was raised, how I saw opportunities and how I approached opportunities. I’m certainly a minority in this situation. For me, it was important to play a role in inspiring more women and girls to take responsibility for themselves in terms of driving the direction of their own careers and destinies. If women are empowered, it creates positive social and economic impact for communities but also for countries as a whole. Most of the jobs of the future will have a STEM element, which is a wonderful opportunity for women to enter the field and create meaningful careers. It was important for me to plug myself into organizations, projects and initiatives that are looking at how we can ensure that women and girls get through school and are exposed to STEM as a career, and then once they enter this field, how to help them to grow as leaders and innovators.

SG: When did you realize that this was a calling for you, that this type of work was worth continuing and growing?


I think that every time you see the direct impact of a person who was empowered or found their voice through our programs, it makes our work worthwhile. If you can just touch one person and change their life forever, then it's all worth it. It's so rewarding and fulfilling to let people contribute to a better economy and a better society by creating systemic change that allows for people of all backgrounds to succeed and thrive.


For me it's twofold. It's the one-to-one interaction with girls that I mentor and that I meet but it's also creating a structure that can be replicated. I've had experiences where you're literally guiding and shaping and giving a platform to someone to come into their own and to feel safe, to create and be proactive and to have a voice within a certain space. 

For example, through our global partnership with The Female Quotient and the Equality Lounge® @ Campus program, we foster communities where students and faculty came together to have conversations about advancing gender equality. In our meetups, you can see the light bulbs going off in terms of men being more conscious and understanding their privilege and challenging their privilege in order to advance gender equality and seeing that as an important factor in terms of driving society. But also, for the women and the girls, especially the girls, these communities help them learn and be inspired by the experiences of women that have come before them. 

Kwena Mabotja, Africa Director at SAP Next-Gen

SG: What challenges have SAP Next-Gen confronted and overcome in growing the global gender agenda? And what are more general challenges entrepreneurs and startups face in achieving gender parity and equality?


I think that having data transparency and figuring out good metric systems and targets for how to measure impact in gender diversity is a challenge and an opportunity. If from the beginning you commit your company to be a gender-intelligent business and know the metrics you need to fulfill, you can make it much more systemic, scalable and tangible.



How do we influence and affect organizational culture that encourages gender equality and also incentivizes gender equality? If I am a manager, how am I incentivized to uplift and promote and inspire the women already in my team and also attract more women into my team? For me, it's connecting it to the culture, which has a gender-equal leadership imperative that starts at the top. For me, the opportunity I see is to incorporate a gender-equal perspective; a value embedded in the culture and something that is lived and practiced within organizations.

I think what also needs to happen is to raise awareness of biases and foster cultures that promote gender equality, diversity and inclusion.

SG: What can be done to realize the opportunities for gender equality in education, industry and the startup ecosystem?


What’s been really positive is that a lot of studies have come out over the years showing why diversity and inclusion matter. It affects your level of innovation, it affects your bottom line, proving an incredible market opportunity for embracing gender equality, diversity and inclusion in your organization. 

Logic, facts, figures and percentages support the business case for diversity and inclusion. These are all powerful tools and arguments to help persuade people or organizations to operate with the lens of equality. And the success of businesses that focus on diversity and gender equality are inspiring to leaders in academia, business and the startup ecosystem.


I think what also needs to happen is to raise awareness of biases and foster cultures that promote gender equality, diversity and inclusion. It’s a leadership opportunity. We need to take the lead in terms of shifting the culture of organizations. 

SG: Can you highlight some cases and programs integral to the global gender agenda?


For me, there are a couple of programs. The very first program I had the privilege of leading was the Women in Data Science program, which started out as a single conference taking place at Stanford University. Now it aims to inspire and educate data scientists worldwide, regardless of gender, and to support women in the field. In 2019, WiDS had grown to the world’s largest data science movement, with more than 170 WiDS events worldwide. SAP Next-Gen is part of making content that’s being presented in the main conference available to the world. It’s about democratizing content and access to really open up opportunities to create gender-diverse talent pipelines and empower women and girls around the world. 

A partnership that is also integral to the global gender agenda is our partnership with The Female Quotient. From hosting Equality Lounges and Conversations worldwide at conferences, university campuses and corporate offices, this program truly embodies everything we need to achieve gender equality. One of our key projects together was the launch of the FQ App, which has made it scalable to bring The Female Quotient’s content out to the world. We want everyone to have equal access to the same kind of community network ecosystem knowledge to really advance themselves and become successful. 


I think WiDS has definitely had some great success on the African continent in terms of driving an interest in data science. Really, for us, it's about demystifying the subject, which is a very important factor because a lot of people don't quite understand what data science is and that there's an opportunity for them as women to enter the field. 

I also want to highlight our Enterprise System Education for Africa (ESEFA) program, where we partner with universities to deliver enterprise system education for students, allowing them to be more employable. We're in about 13 African countries where we've really driven this emphasis around having more women and girls as part of those cohorts. And then building off the back of those relationships, we've brought out the Equality Lounges @ Campuses as a way of creating inspiration for women and girls in tech. And, of course, the FQ App is a wonderful way to democratize information and networks, especially in South Africa where there's such limited access. 

Johannesburg. Tembinkosi Sikupela / Unsplash

SG: What practices and initiatives have you adopted within SAP Next-Gen’s operations?


We always have diverse gender representation across the programs we lead, as well as in our own team. Furthermore, we have an entire program dedicated to HeForShe, which invites men and people of all genders to stand in solidarity with women to create a bold, visible and united force for a gender-equal world. Now we're an official HeForShe chapter. That's being run by Ben Christensen, who drives commitment to take action for gender equality among men in the SAP Next-Gen community.


Women leaders at SAP encourage safe, inclusive spaces to be your authentic self as a leader, and to lead from where you stand with your true authentic voice. That creates a sense of safety where you can embrace yourself and others in achieving a common objective.

SG: Finally, how can we help?


In terms of getting involved with SAP Next-Gen's global gender agenda, the cool thing about the program is that it's open to everyone. There are so many ways to activate women and girls across the program, whether it be preparing them for a job in the SAP ecosystem or having them become a partner. You don’t have to be a traditional technology partner; we have creative partners and artists that we work with for specific projects. We're really open and there are numerous ways for people to connect. 

I think to really grow the community, we need to gather the different women's movements in the world. It is based on partnerships; it's not just about one program. SAP Next-Gen is a facilitator and platform for all these magical connections to take place. 


To meet the objectives of the Sustainable Development Goals by 2030, we need to act now to close the gender gap. It will require an intentional effort and a knowledge and understanding from all stakeholders that everyone has a role to play. We encourage allies to come in and play a role, because there are so many benefits for all. Gender equality is not only a female issue, it’s an issue for everyone. We all have a role to play in terms of closing the gap. I also believe it’s important to take the lead. As allies, be proactive and educate yourself about your privilege, your biases, instead of waiting to be taught.

To learn more about the global gender agenda or SAP Next-Gen, the current library of Startup Guide books has interviews with SAP Next-Gen leaders, such as Ann Rosenberg, and articles on SAP Next-Gen’s programs and initiatives.