Mayra Souza

Belgium

Global Trade Leader & D&I Champion

Mayra is an inspiring advocate for inclusion and has been part of numerous gender diversity initiatives throughout her career. She is an inspiring advocate for change and as a Global Trade Leader has worked across the industry to improve DEI, foster positive change across the workplace and uses her platform to elevate others.

Growing up in the Brazilian countryside, Mayra Souza knew she wanted to make an impact that reached beyond the borders of her town. It was the story of Pedro, a Brazilian diplomat who was from the same town as Mayra, that inspired her to pursue a career that would cross countries and continents, with the ambition of making the world a better place.

Starting her dream career was not as easy as visualizing it, though. Mayra’s closest university didn’t offer an International Relations course, meaning a move to Rio de Janeiro – Brazil’s second-largest city and home to more than 6 million people – was needed. At the time, it was one of the most expensive cities in the world.

“Don’t ever doubt yourself.”

To save on costs Mayra stayed with her extended family, but that meant a two-hour commute to her campus, and two hours back after a long day studying. Later on in her course she was able to get a job at the university, allowing her to move further into the city – and to set her alarm clock a little later than 5:00am.

“I put a lot of time and effort into chasing my studies,” Mayra explained. “I was spending four hours on a bus each day, and sometimes you wouldn’t even get a seat!

“But from a young age, I always allowed myself to dream. I followed that dream because I was driven forward by my curiosity and desire to keep learning, but also by the prospect of uncovering a potential that I never really thought I had.

“I have always found motivation to keep investing in myself, in my development as a person and as a professional. I keep focussed on what I can achieve, and I always seek out feedback to help me improve.”

Mayra’s investment in herself proved to be worthwhile when she had the opportunity to leave Brazil and take her career to the international stage. While it was a chance that she grabbed with both hands, it wasn’t without its risks.

By working alongside her studies and taking a job with Michelin after graduating, Mayra had been able to buy her first apartment in the city and had already begun building her future when the opportunity to move to the UK came up. It wasn’t for work, however, but to continue her studies at the prestigious University of Birmingham. Her love of learning didn’t fade upon graduating with a Master’s Degree in International Business though – additional qualifications from the London School of Economics, University of London and Harvard University would follow.

Now living and working in Brussels, Mayra is surrounded by people whose stories share similarities to hers but who have come from all walks of life. The Belgian capital is a cultural melting pot, with people from an estimated 180 nationalities speaking more than 100 different languages in the city.

“I didn’t know what a good leader was until my team told me I was one. That’s why we need to celebrate role models.”

“I’m a true believer in cross-cultural effectiveness,” Mayra said when asked about the importance of being surrounded by diversity. “I can’t imagine my life today working for an organisation that didn’t embrace that.

“I have had the opportunity to work internationally, travelling to more than 25 different countries with my job, and that has taught me a lot. When you go from country to country, you learn so much about the culture, the workplace, the people… and when you are respectful of that, you begin to understand how other people work.”

As a Brazilian woman living in Brussels, who has studied in the UK and whose family heritage encompasses Portugal, Italy, Black and Indigenous Brazilian cultures, Mayra is acutely aware of the power of diversity. “I have become more self-aware, and I’ve learned more about my differentiators. Being a Latin American from Brazil, with a mixed-race background, that is a source of authenticity. It is my power.”

It’s been a long time since a young Mayra first heard the story of a diplomat named Pedro, but when she looks back, she understands that many of those dreams have been realised. In a role where she facilitates international trade, Mayra has been able to work in new geographies, travel the world and enjoy new cultures – South-East Asia is her favourite – and she continues to and develop herself and learn.

Mayra has done all this despite, in her words, not having a role model to look up to. She explains that while a number of people have helped and inspired her when the road got bumpy, or were there when she needed advice, there wasn’t a figure she felt she could look up to.

Not wanting the next generation of business leaders to experience the same thing, Mayra has committed herself to fulfilling that role and giving young women, whether they are from a small countryside town in Brazil or anywhere else in the world, someone to be inspired by.

“I don’t want to be just a role model – I want to be part of the solution.”

“I think I was just very courageous. I wish I’d had a role model, someone to champion me, because I think my road would’ve had fewer bumps in it along the way, but I didn’t. I didn’t know what a good leader was until my team told me I was one. That’s why we need to celebrate role models.

“But, while I’m so grateful to be part of this initiative, I don’t want to be just a role model – I want to be part of the solution. It’s my civic responsibility to advance the cause and contribute to a more progressive, accepting society. I’ve been part of so many Boys’ Club meetings where I’ve been the only woman, and this isn’t just my reality but the reality of so many other women.

“Networks are powerful and if women and their allies act together, we can shape a more equal future. Otherwise, the younger generations will continue being unable to see what they can be.”

There is more road laid out ahead of us yet, but the work Mayra is doing, alongside that of our other Role Models, is helping to make it a less treacherous one than she set out on at the outset of her career. It has taken a lot for Mayra to get to this point, and while she chuckles when she said she didn’t quite become a diplomat like Pedro, the message she left to her 18-year-old self was a straight-talking, serious instruction.

“Don’t ever doubt yourself.”

“I was driven forward by my curiosity and desire to keep learning, but also by the prospect of uncovering a potential that I never really thought I had.”