Career Advice Successful entrepreneurs’ story

Building on trust

A passion for legal rights has seen Monique Villa transform the way the Thomson Reuters Foundation makes a difference

She’s charismatic, outspoken and assertive enough to tell a conference room full of high-flyers she has no idea what she will be doing in five years’ time. She is also exceptionally honest and generous in giving advice. Meet Monique Villa, veteran journalist and CEO of the Thomson Reuters Foundation (TRF).

“In 2008, when Thomson acquired Reuters, I was asked by the CEO to transform the TRF into something bigger and bring a new culture to the corporate charity,” Villa says. “I had no experience of [managing] a foundation or charity, which was good because in one sense, I came with a totally different eye.”

Established in 1983, the foundation originally offered journalists media training and provided small grants to NGOs. But under Villa it has grown into a global and diversified organisation.

“The foundation has four programmes, including one to train journalists,” Villa explains. “It has a global team of journalists reporting on humanitarian issues – women’s rights, corruption and the human impact of climate change. We can shed light on issues which are usually not covered. The other [major programme] is TrustLaw, which provides free legal assistance to NGOs and social enterprises around the world.

“Finally, two years ago we launched Trust Women, a conference dedicated to enshrining the rule of law in women’s rights through real action,” she adds.

While many similar organisations also tackle humanitarian issues, Villa argues that the foundation’s approach is unique.

“We have stopped distributing small grants, because I thought we could achieve a more substantial impact by providing NGOs and social enterprises around the world with essential services such as free legal assistance,” she says. That way, she argues, they can use their resources to focus on their missions.

“The foundation leverages the skills of Thomson Reuters, so what we offer is news, information and key connections. We act as a neutral broker between many players. I don’t think any other corporate foundation does something similar,” she says.

When Villa took over, her journalistic experience proved useful when thinking about the kind of difference the foundation could make. “Being curious and not taking everything you’re told for granted has helped me give the foundation direction,” she says.

Villa is passionate about legal rights. TrustLaw, which she founded in 2010, is a network which works with 400 law firms and corporate counsels to provide free legal assistance to NGOs and social enterprises across 150 countries. In the last three years, TrustLaw’s network of lawyers has provided the equivalent of US$35 million in free time for 700 NGOs and 500 social enterprises.

“[By] putting NGOs and social enterprises in contact with the best lawyers to think through and solve issues, and help them in their missions, you have a far greater effect than by just giving [grants],” she says. “If you think of the massive impact, it is really powerful.”

Trust Women, another Villa creation, is an annual conference designed to stimulate action on women’s rights. Attended by business leaders, activists and world politicians, past conferences have included Aung San Suu Kyi, Italy’s former foreign minister Emma Bonino and Queen Noor of Jordan.

Top of the conference’s annual agenda is fighting human trafficking, which the International Labour Organisation says involves 22 million victims worldwide. The first Trust Women conference saw Villa co-host a working group to encourage major banks in the US to help fight human trafficking.

“As a result, the financial institutions agreed to share suspicious data with law enforcement agencies,” she says. “The working group issued international guidance aimed at helping the wider financial community identify and report irregularities in financial transactions that may be linked to human trafficking. A pro bono network of lawyers was created to sue traffickers on behalf of victims and get compensation.”

She recalls a successful case where a banker in New York spotted financial anomalies in a nail salon chain. The banker shared the information with law enforcement, resulting in the dismantling of a whole network of human traffickers.

“Human trafficking is a US$32 billion-a-year business – the profit of Wal-Mart and McDonald’s combined,” Villa says. “So if you attack the financial part of that business, you can really hurt [the traffickers].”

Under Villa’s leadership, the TRF has grown from 10 staff in 2008 to 75. It also works with 100 freelancers globally. But Villa doesn’t bask in the glory alone. She thinks success stems from hiring capable people.

“You are always only as good as your team members,” she says. “It’s a no-brainer for me that you always hire brilliant people. I’m a big-vision person. What I need around me are people who love the detail, the executioners. You really need people who operate behind the scenes. When you find people complementary to you, it’s fantastic.”

Villa also believes in a diverse workforce. “I’m very much a citizen of the world. I feel totally multicultural surrounded by people who speak many languages,” she says. Her staff are drawn from 24 different nationalities, speaking 30 languages.

Villa started out as a diplomatic correspondent at Agence France-Presse (AFP) before becoming London bureau chief at a time when few women held such posts. She eventually became managing director of Reuters Media in 2000.

Her career wasn’t always smooth, however. “I had a terrible male boss. You don’t always have a boss you respect, but when it happens, it makes no difference whether it’s a man or woman. You should try to be a good boss,” she says.

She says that women may be inclined to think they must tick all the requirements when applying for a job, but she urges them not to be timid. “I never look at the job description. If I feel I must do a job, I go for it. Know what you love and be daring,” she says.

Despite having two grown-up sons and five grandchildren, Villa shows no sign of slowing down. “I have a lot of family life, but I also travel a lot, so I have many good friends in many different countries,” she says.

Away from work, she likes to unwind with yoga and reading newspapers in parks. She still considers herself a journalist at heart, and thinks independent journalism must be upheld. “The principles and ethics are crucial for journalists. Without them, you can’t portray reality,” she says.

But she does have concerns over the running of her growing foundation. “The biggest challenge is retaining the mentality of a start-up, which is what we are,” she says. “If we identify something important, we go out and do it. This is the challenge because the bigger you become, the harder it is.”