EIR Lessons in Perspective: A conversation with Western Union Executive in Residence Alumni Maureen Sigliano

Maureen Sigliano, Vice President, Global Loyalty Development & Western Union Membership, Paris, partnered with Ashoka Fellow Benson Wereje and his organization CIYOTA, working with refugees in Uganda. For more information about the Executive in Residence program visit the EIR program page, or contact us at [email protected]


What part of the EIR experience do you feel provided the greatest value to Benson and the CIYOTA team? 

They really appreciated the holistic approach we ended up taking together. I went in with a set of expectations and objectives that seemed to fit what I was about to embark on. Very quickly after the fist meeting, as I listened to them, what I heard was that their needs were actually slightly different to what they had told me. We had agreed on marketing, and I thought that was going to be a big objective, but there were so many other things as well… they basically had no financial structure. They are doing truly truly miraculous things with very very little money. So before we started on marketing they needed strategic planning help - their ideas were so good but there wasn’t a prioritization or a hierarchy, there wasn’t an ROI behind them. 

I think that’s the main benefit they got from me, that I really listened and really cared, and I realized that if I just ticked the boxes of what I had agreed to do upfront they were not going to be able to be successful. There was an enormous trust and deep relationship that built very quickly. In the past they have worked with NGOs that come in with a set ideas of what they are going to do. They appreciated my more consultative approach, focused on their longer-term success.


Have you felt any changes in the way you act in your professional life as a result of this experience, and what lessons are you bringing back to Western Union? 

I changed not just as an executive, but as a person.I’m pretty international; I’m somebody that has perspective and that is not naturally stressed. But this experience with Benson and the CIYOTA team gave me a new level of perspective and of what really matters. Not just in life from an existential perspective; These guys have nothing, CIYOTA has nothing, and they make miracles out of it. But then if we talk about the youth and the kids that they support- that’s just extraordinary. I came back home to my husband and I told him ‘babe- the ROI on our children is so low!’ These kids in Uganda don’t have electricity, don’t have water, barely have schools. And yet they are fighting, struggling tooth and nail to get an education, to try and get a scholarship, to make their dreams come true. They have such beautiful and noble ambitions. They never talk about ‘I want to do this because of me’ they say ‘I want to do this because of us.’

So the experience gave me this whole new perspective. First of all from a business perspective, when I have a bit of a bump I take a step back and think of those guys- I’m sure they would have a million solutions. From a family perspective this won’t change the amount of love or investment that I give to my kids, but I try to explain to them that everything is possible, even in Uganda. So when you live in Paris, really, everything is possible, so they need to go after their dreams, make it happen. It may sound very cliché but it’s very true.


What’s the most significant way that EIR has impacted Western Union?

There are different levels: Maureen as a leader is going to be a better leader, to make bolder choices, to make purpose come to life. I don’t believe that our purpose has to live in our foundation, but in our business. It’s very clear to me what we could be doing and how I could help WU while creating shared value opportunities. Then there’s the narrative side of things. I’m Italian and I feel very passionate about things, and this experience was ‘passionante’- an experience that makes you even more passionate. People would politely ask me how Uganda was, and little did they know that I’m about to tell them actually what happened, ‘oh my god can you just give me ten minutes of your time.’ My WU colleagues have become a bit indoctrinated by my passion, my new perspective on resources and possibilities, and how amazing this EIR program is. I’m telling everyone ‘please apply’. I applied five years ago and didn’t get accepted until last year, so I had high expectations, but this blew away my expectations. I knew I wanted to work with refugees and I knew I wanted something really out of my comfort zone. It was an absolutely life-changing and professional experience and I can only hope that any other leader who wants to improve in ways they can’t even imagine they can improve can do something like this. 


You mention in your blog, Hikmet Ersek, WU’s CEO, once said to you: ‘Maureen, turn that emotion into action' How would you say that Ashoka and the EIR allowed you to channel that passion into action? And how does your EIR experience fit into your broader mandate within WU to lead the WU refugee program?  

Hikmet was so right when he said that to me. I think it’s really important to experience things and to be moved by things, to have something that burns inside you and drives you. My main job in WU is loyalty and CRM, which has nothing to do with refugees. Back in September 2015, when I saw that terrible photo of the little boy washed up in the Turkish shore, that is when everything started for me. I realized I had missed something. I said to myself ‘you can’t even strong five sentences together about the refugee crisis, what is wrong with you.’ So I started reading. And since then, I’ve spent a lot of time in refugee camps. Hikmet said to me, ‘This is going to be a stretch assignment. I still need you in your main role. But since you are so passionate, if you want it as a second job, you need to make it work.’ I said ok I’ll do it. WU does a lot for refugees. There was action before and there is more action now that I’ve come back from Uganda. I went to Uganda thinking the refugee situation there was a little hopeless. And I was so wrong. Because the situation is so hopeful. Full, Full, Full. Uganda made me realize that the refugee situation has a lot of things in common across the world. Because humans are humans. And humans have an incredible strength and want to be connected, and be disenfranchised.  This potential needs to be harnessed. 


What were the greatest challenges you faced in delivering on the objectives that Benson and you agreed on before departure, if any, and while in Uganda?

None. I would go back in a heartbeat. I would re-do it all with my children. There was an exceptional connection that was made from day one. Yes there were a lot of funny moments. The road trips were endless, for example, and I don’t particularly like cars. But to be stuck in a car, shaken by these bumpy roads, with these amazing landscapes, breaks down all barriers and allows to build very special connections. Even those weird things, or the food (I’m a picky eater), were funny. They created funny moments with Benson. It made me feel alive. The objectives did evolve on the first day, but it all fell to place very naturally. Even the surprising moments were truly wonderful.


You mention that you committed to being an extended part of the CIYOTA team forever as an advisor, an advocate and as a passionate supporter - Can you expand on how you envision that partnership developing? 

I’m in touch with them on the objectives that we set out. But also on very different things. My husband Dominique is half African, from the Ivory Coast. When his father passed away, he became what is called the ‘Chief of the village’ he wears the village hat. Whenever there is a problem in the village- an illness, conflict, marriage- they call him. He brings people together, helps them find solutions, and regularly sends money. But I feel like Dominique takes a near-Colonial approach to this situation, and has created a type of dependency. Benson and his team create self-sufficiency. They don’t only talk about building leaders, they build leaders. They allow people to stand up and move forward. It’s not only that Maureen will always be part of CIYOTA, but maybe CIYOTA will actually go to the Ivory Coast. What Benson is doing in Uganda has to be replicated. And Dominique can probably learn from that, in fact, they are going to have a conference in the next couple of weeks. What could Dominique learn and replicate with the guidance and inspiration of Benson. So it’s not that I’ll be with them forever, but they have become part of my extended African life.


Can you comment on your experience with regards to parenting and developing your kids as Changemakers?

Parents should apply to the Ashoka EIR program. They should realize that yes, they will be away form their kids for 15 days, but they are going to come back better parents. They are going to coma back, tell them stories, teach them empathy in ways they probably couldn’t have done otherwise. We need to encourage people to look at the bigger picture because it allows us to be better parents.


What would you say are the best 'qualities' per se of the EIR Program, what makes it so special in your view? 

I think it’s incredible. It’s very important to put people out of their comfort zone. I think its very important to have people document what they do upfront in terms of objectives, and blogs. But that is not actually where the magic happens. There are connections that are made, not only people connections, but connections that drive innovation. When you’re exposed to even15 days you truly incorporate this new reality and look at the world from a different angle. It will drive business and social innovation, which help the world become a bit of a better place. By connecting leaders from very different backgrounds, we’ll be able to do so much more. I knew it was going to be good, but I’m not sure I expected that upfront. It’s not just a leadership program. It’s helping build new bridges and identifying new opportunities that people cannot even imagine. The positive halo effect is enormous. It’s so much more than any other leadership program. I think that this partnership has potential to go well beyond an HR program, or any corporate social responsibility program. This is a program that helps us demonstrate what WU’s DNA actually is, and not just talk about it. Social innovators can help WU innovate. If I brought Benson into my team for two weeks he would learn, and I’m sure we would make enormous steps forward from an innovation perspective.


For more information about the Executive in Residence program visit the EIR program page, or contact us at [email protected]