Never cut corners or say that you’ll do something halfway or half-heartedly – this is the philosophy of Nena Stoiljković. It has brought her through many challenges and led her to rewarding positions within the IFC. However, in contrast to the stories of many successful women, she wasn’t forced to sacrifice a family for a stellar career. Still, nobody would say that it was easy for her to strike the right balance: her recent jobs have all been global, requiring lots of travel to Asia and Africa

Reading even a very condensed professional biography of Nena Stoiljković, the IFC’s Vice President for Asia and Pacific is a challenging task. She joined the IFC in 1995, serving as an investment officer after having left a position as a consultant at the Economic Institute of Belgrade. Her current position gives her responsibility for all IFC operations in the region, while over the years she’s amassed global experience in development issues like climate change, gender, and fragile and conflict-affected situations, including through her recent role as vice president of blended finance and partnerships.

Stoiljković has a track record of promoting development finance innovation in a variety of IFC leadership roles. She most recently played a key part in the corporation’s efforts to construct a new architecture for development finance with other institutions, governments and the private sector. She helped shape the strategy of the World Bank Group, working with the International Development Association (IDA) on a pioneering private sector window to catalyse greater private investment in low-income and conflict-affected countries.

Ms Stoiljković previously co-led the establishment of the World Bank Group’s Global Practices and Cross-cutting Solutions Areas. This role saw her bring private sector experience into the process of harnessing global expertise to help government clients tackle development challenges. She combines this expertise with strong operational experience in IFC’s investment and advisory businesses through her roles as a joint vice president of IFC operations, vice president of Advisory Services, and director for the Europe and Central Asia region.

One could say that this long list of responsibilities is enough for three lives, but Nena Stoiljković has amassed them all throughout one career. In this moving interview, our interlocutor speaks about how she learned to prioritise, which kinds of tasks she finds inspiring and how her family has backed her. But this conversation wouldn’t be a rounded story if we failed to discuss the breathtaking changes taking place in Asia and Africa, financial instruments that are helping businesses and the planet to deal with the climate change, and the chances that this market and the IFC could offer to Serbian companies that are eager to enter these exciting markets.

I encourage young people in Serbia to research the IFC, which focuses on development through private sector investments. The work is very interesting and high impact

When somebody sees your responsibilities as a VP at the IFC and World Bank, two questions immediately come to mind. The first is whether your role as a very highly positioned woman in World Bank structures is a sign of gender equality in the WB or rather a more isolated example of personal success; why have we never had a female head of the World Bank, despite there having been no lack of suitable candidates?

You are right. It isn’t easy for any women to get to the top. I see that wherever I go. I participate in many events, meet with a lot of clients from governments and the private sector in many countries, and we still see much fewer women than men. I was very lucky to be employed in an institution that places a high focus on diversity (both gender and national), which made it easier to reach a VP position. At the time I became a vice president of advisory services at IFC, about seven years ago, the President of the World Bank Group set a target of 50 per cent of women in his management team, while the CEO of the IFC followed the same approach. That certainly helped.

However, of course, there are many women in the IFC and the fact that I was chosen had to do with my personal experience and career up to that point. I had an opportunity to be one of the very first IFC managers who spent time in the field (Istanbul) and then became a director of the East Europe Region (Moscow), and that was invaluable in advancing to more senior roles in the corporation. So, one thing led to another and being in the right place at the right time was important.

The second question would be how you manage to balance your professional responsibilities and private life. Do you enjoy an eight-hour day, 40-hour week schedule within a decent working agenda?

Many women think that the higher up you go, the less time you will have for yourself and your family. I am not of that opinion. I always tried to balance my workload so that I could spend a lot of time with my family, visit my parents and travel around the world with my children. That required me to be very organised and efficient, and to complete all tasks faster than others, though of course not at the expense of quality. I found that the higher up I went, the easier it became to strike that balance, as I could control my own schedule more, had more people to deliver in the units I managed and had more confidence and experience to make the necessary trade-offs.

It helped that I had a very supportive husband who sacrificed his career to support the family and the children, who like the impact of what I do and are proud of what I’ve accomplished. Now that they are aged 20 and 17, they appreciate the experience that the whole family has had thanks to my work, travel and living abroad. Now I work normal hours and have more flexibility, given that most of my team is in Asia, a completely different time zone from Washington DC.

When I am in Asia, which is about 10 days per month, I work non-stop and enjoy that pace – the interesting people I meet all the time, as well as being closer to my staff.

What is your advice for women who have a busy schedule and great responsibilities: how can they maintain a work-life balance?

My advice to all people, women and men, is to give their best in whatever they do. Never cut corners or say that you will do something halfway or half-heartedly. Once you are able to say to yourself that you are doing your best, it will be easier to find that balance, which is especially important for women. Being well organised and efficient at work helps. Being deliberate on determining what can be done without you and doing only those things that depend on you is also important. I now skip a lot of meetings where I know I won’t be adding much value.

Instead, I focus on projects, meetings, trips where I know that I can move the needle and where my staff need me. I make those choices deliberately, try to catch up with what is going on through other people, and enjoy the happiness of my colleagues when I delegate some important tasks to them. On the family front, I like active weekends and holidays, so that we can really spend quality time together without distractions.

My most challenging role was the one at the World Bank, when I was asked to co-manage the newly created Global Practices. The learning curve was steep, but I wouldn’t give up that experience for anything else

As a Serbian national, have you found it difficult to climb the ladder of the World Bank? Are you among the few people from this region who’ve forged a career in the IFC, or we are just not informed about the others?

I actually think that being Serbian women helped me get into the World Bank Group in 1995. I was definitely a very diverse candidate at that time. Now we have many more Serbians in the World Bank Group. In terms of further advancement, I don’t think that my nationality mattered that much. It was all about doing a good job, moving around the institution and being in the right place at the right time to take advantage of some of the opportunities that came my way. My impression is that young people in Serbia are more familiar with the World Bank than the IFC. I encourage them to research the IFC, which focuses on development through private sector investments. The work is very interesting and high impact.

Two people of Serbian origin who spent an important part of their careers at the World Bank are economists Branko Milanović and Duško Vujović. Both of them have been engaged in the Serbian economic scene in their own way. Have you ever thought of being more active in that respect?

Absolutely. I would love to be more engaged in Serbia, but that sometimes hard to do without being there very often. I was very engaged in Serbia during my time in Istanbul (2005-2008), where I managed eight countries in the Balkans, including Serbia, and in Central Asia, and during my time in Moscow (2008-2011), when I was a director of the Europe and Central Asia region, with responsibility for overseeing all IFC activities in Serbia and another 20+ countries.

My recent jobs have all been global and required a lot of travel to Asia and Africa, and there I had to find the right balance in terms of my professional and personal life.

You have experience in all IFC business lines. Which role have you found the most challenging to date?

You are right – I have changed jobs at the IFC very often and thus gained very broad experience. Every time I was asked to step into a new role as a VP, I felt that it would be a stretch. There was always a period of learning, adjusting and meeting new people. My most challenging role was the one in the World Bank when I was asked by the President to co-manage the newly created Global Practices, together with one of the bank’s VPs. Our role was to set up a completely new structure for 14 Global Practices, where we had 5,600 people around the world; to hire all 14 new directors and develop new processes and systems. This was the biggest change ever at the World Bank, and it was very challenging for me, given that I came into a different culture from the IFC.

The learning curve was steep, but I wouldn’t give up that experience for anything else. It made me a stronger person and a better leader.

In one of these roles, you were in charge of IFC’s climate business strategy. Could you tell us more about the potential of new climate-smart investment opportunities to impact on the pace of climate change?

We have several IFC backed investments of that kind in Serbia, but we would like to understand the bigger picture. Institutions like mine focus a lot on climate change, as we have instruments (both advisory and investment) to help address it. Globally, the biggest trend we now see is in renewable energy. Solar and wind energy are now important components in many national energy plans.

The private sector is more engaged and can make money on these projects, while financing under favourable terms is increasingly available.

Another important area is green buildings, where we can have a great impact on energy efficiency. We also see more municipal projects related to water and waste, which also impact positively on climate. The IFC places a priority on climate-friendly projects and supports them with a range of instruments, including green bonds. I am very pleased that we had one of the pioneering waste to energy PPP projects in Belgrade. I use this example in Asia, where we have yet to enter that space. The IFC has also supported a wind energy project in Serbia.

It would be great to see more Serbian companies expand in Asia. The IFC can help them connect with the right partners. Whenever companies go into new countries, it is important for them to understand the local dynamics

The world of finance has obviously changed, and the IFC’s role in supporting smart solutions has changed accordingly. To what extent are you involved in this process, and in which phases?

The World Bank Group is involved in dialogue with governments on their climate action plans and the necessary regulatory changes that will stipulate climate smart investments at the country level. The IFC is involved with private sector companies that invest in climate smart projects in those countries. We have supported, in terms of debt and equity, many renewable energy companies, retail and real estate companies that adopt green building standards and climate-smart agribusiness projects. The IFC has financed a number of banks that on-lend to their clients for green projects. For those banks, we have also provided advisory services to educate the banks on how to lend for climate smart projects. The IFC has also supported many financial institutions worldwide in the issuance of green bonds.

In my previous IFC role, I was involved in climate strategy development and defining collaboration with the World Bank on the policy side for the climate. I am now involved in the climate component of all projects in Asia.

Our annual programme of new investments in Asia is around $7 billion, with more than 35% of that classified as climate. We plan to grow this business segment further.

As someone responsible for the IFC’s portfolio and new business in the Asia and Pacific region, could you tell us how often the IFC supports the interests of Asian companies in gaining a foothold in our part of the world?

This is very much our priority, as we see lots of companies from China, India, Indonesia and Thailand that are interested in overseas expansion. Many of them still focus on nearby countries, but they are increasingly going to Africa, the Middle East and Eastern Europe. I believe we can bring some of them to Serbia.

There are many discussions about the possibilities of the new global financial storm. How do these warnings impact on your lending strategy in Asia, which experienced one of the most devastating financial crises in the recent past?

It is true that we are entering an economic slowdown globally, but also in Asia. China’s slowdown will have an impact on regional growth. Nevertheless, Asia will continue to grow, albeit at slightly slower rates. Development challenges in Asia are significant – from a lack of infrastructure and connectivity, through human development needs, to the inclusion of people in remote areas and providing them with access to finance and other services. Those needs will require financing and innovative solutions coming mostly from the private sector. So, I see a great role for the IFC and its partners in making a significant impact in Asia by helping the countries address these challenges and by bringing the necessary know-how and financing.

From a lender’s perspective, would you say that the sectors you are working with are today more resilient against any new financial crisis than they were in 2003 and 2008?

The IFC is a long-term partner to private sector clients, and we assess them on the basis of their long-term prospects. Our focus is on infrastructure, agribusiness, financial inclusion, health and education – sectors that will have to grow over the long term. We assess each company on its own merits and support local clients with our knowledge and experience, including on how to mitigate the economic slowdown and deal with the crisis.

We have a very healthy portfolio in Asia right now, and I believe that – with the experience gained in previous crises – the IFC is now better able to make the right choices of clients and support them in the long run with more diverse financial instruments. Some of them include risk reduction and capacity building to help companies implement their investments and address any sector-specific inefficiencies.

Some Serbian companies are today extensively seeking opportunities to start doing business in Asian markets, primarily those of China and Indonesia. What would be your word of advice for them?

It would be great to see more Serbian companies expand in Asia. The IFC can help them connect with the right partners. Whenever companies go into new countries, it is important for them to understand the local dynamics, politics and value chains, so having a local partner is a good idea. I believe that Serbian companies can be competitive in Asia and that they should be seeking new markets both in Asia and Africa, where we will see the highest growth over the next decade.