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Justina Mutale: “Ensure everyone has a voice”

Ensure everyone has a voice: Allow different voices andperspectives to be heard and to be taken into account in decision and policy making. Each person brings something different to the table, depending on their life experiences and educational background. It is important to take different experiences and perspectives into account in designing policy or taking […]

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Ensure everyone has a voice: Allow different voices andperspectives to be heard and to be taken into account in decision and policy making. Each person brings something different to the table, depending on their life experiences and educational background. It is important to take different experiences and perspectives into account in designing policy or taking decisions in order to build a truly inclusive, representative, and equitable society.


As a part of our series about strong women leaders, I had the pleasure of interviewing Justina Mutale.

Justina Mutale is a speaker and leadership expert. In 2012, she was named African Woman of the Year and she is Founder and President of the Justina Mutale Foundation, through which she advocates for gender equality and the empowerment of women and girls in political participation and economic empowerment by providing leadership and entrepreneurship training and mentorship. Justina previously worked in the gender section of the Commonwealth Secretariat and has been a consistent delegate, speaker and parallel event convener at global forums that address political, economic, social, African and gender issues, such as a civil society delegate to the United Nations Commission on the Status of Women (UNCSW) and the African Union High Level Panel on Gender Equality and Women’s Empowerment.


Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit more. Can you tell us a bit about your “backstory”? What led you to this particular career path?

I come from a background of very powerful, strong and assertive women. Women who have defied gender dynamics for centuries. On my mother’s side of the family, a woman rules the kingdom. Although a man rules the kingdom on my father’s side of the family, this did not stop one strong, assertive and powerful woman to rise up and form a movement that shook the political foundations of my country, Zambia. Also, women from my mother’s tribe are given their own feminine names at birth, which they carry throughout their life and they never assume the husband’s name nor the father’s name. This gives women from my mother’s family ownership of the self as woman, without having to walk in the shadows of a husband or father. Prior to founding my own organisation, I worked in the Gender Section of the Commonwealth Secretariat in London. I was surprised to find that there was a fight for gender equality and that women were considered to be second to men in many spheres of life. My degree in International Relations and Politics had enhanced my understanding of power politics and the role it plays in shaping the gender dynamics in leadership. My further engagements with forums that address gender equality and the empowerment of women and girls such as the United Nations Commission on the Status of Women; the African Union’s High Level Panel on Gender Equality; the Commonwealth Women’s Forum and several others, made me realise there was a disconnect between the policies aimed at enhancing gender equality and the empowerment of women and girls and what was actually obtaining in reality on the ground. I then decided to do something about this by creating my own Foundation, focused on women’s leadership and the role women play in the economy, politics and society to help change mindsets and make women their own drivers of the gender agenda. I decided to bring in a different dialogue, different language, different approach and different perspective.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?

In 2014 I took the baton from Mrs Cherie Blair, wife of former British Prime Minister, Tony Blair, to launch the 2014 edition of the ‘Because I am a Girl Report,’ which takes an incisive and critical look at the state of girls in the world. Mrs Blair had launched the 2013 report. The theme of the report I launched was, “Pathways to Power: Creating Sustainable Change for Adolescent Girls.” I was appalled by that report’s statistics on the state of girls. It was disheartening for me to discover that in the 21st century, only 25 out of 500 FTSE companies were led by women. It was heart-breaking to read that girls were still lagging far behind boys when it comes to access to quality education, and that an unacceptably high number of girls were being given out in marriage before the age of 18, and the staggering number of girls enduring gender-based violence. The report illustrated many other negative human development and economic indicators regarding the state of girls. In March 2015, I attended the 59th Session of the United Nations Commission on the Status of Women (CSW59), which undertook a 20-Year Review of the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action. I was appalled that CSW59 revealed a sustained deficit in women’s wealth and a lack of effective women’s representation and contributions at high levels of the decision-making process in practically all spheres of life, including business, politics, society, environment, academia, science and technology. I was further shocked to find myself marching in what was once again called a “Historical March for Gender Equality.” And I began to wonder how long women were going to keep marching in the quest for gender equality. I wondered what it would take for women and girls to achieve this gender equality that had eluded them for centuries. I am a mother to a millennium baby. My daughter was born in the year 2000; the beginning of the century. She was born at the inception of the United Nations’ very ambitious Millennium Development Goals. By the time the Sustainable Development Goals replaced the Millennium Development Goals in 2016, the young lady was already a teenager at 16 years old. This millennium baby and all other children born at the beginning of the millennium will be fully grown adults at the conclusion of the Sustainable Development Goals in 2030. My millennium baby, together with her peers will be 30 years old by the year 2030. As adults, they will be the decision makers, policy makers, business leaders and political leaders of that era. I decided that, as a mother, I would simply not wish to see my millennium baby and her peers marching for gender equality at the conclusion of the Sustainable Development Goals in the year 2030 or beyond. However, should they find it necessary to march at all, I would prefer them not to march with their feet, but to march with their mind; a mind fully equipped with the necessary skills, knowledge and information to compete on an equal footing with their male counterparts.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

I was invited to a conference to talk about my organization and what we do. The conference had several speakers. I arrived there with a carefully prepared and typed up speech, which I was going to read from. Before it was my turn to speak, a speaker ahead of me stood up and talked about all the things I had in my written speech. I ended up having to speak from the heart. From that day on, I decided not to depend on written speeches at events that have more than one speaker. This made me realize that whenever I speak from the heart, the delivery and reception of the speech is more authentic, because the words come out directly from the heart and I connect with the audience, the moment and the energy in the room.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?

It has been said that teamwork makes the dream work and that it takes a whole village to raise a child. I therefore cannot point out one particular person as the only one who is responsible for my success, as I have had different players, who are multi-generational, that have contributed to my success. I am blessed to have amazing mentors and a great team that come from a variety of backgrounds, knowledge base, experience and expertise, that I need to do my work effectively. I am grateful and blessed to have a great team around me that keeps me grounded and helps to drive my mission to succeed and to be of help to those that I intend to help.

In my work, I often talk about how to release and relieve stress. As a busy leader, what do you do to prepare your mind and body before a stressful or high stakes meeting, talk, or decision? Can you share a story or some examples?

I normally start the day at 4.30 a.m. regardless of what part of the world I am in. At that time of the day my brain is at high frequency and at peak creativity. I find that there is something magical about waking up at that time of the morning as it is very quiet, with most people still asleep, no cars running on the roads, the air is nice and fresh, and there are no disturbances from phone calls, etc. I leverage this time to plan, review and strategize. During the day, I take moments to practice mindfulness. At times I take long walks and leave the phone at home, to have a moment to be in conversation with myself, my mind, my body and be at one with nature. Acknowledging nature and surrounding myself with nature brings me joy and calmness and this raises my self awareness for me to tune into myself and to centre my energies with the task at hand. I also take time to pray, meditate, and reflect to prepare myself adequately.

As you know, the United States is currently facing a very important self-reckoning about race, diversity, equality and inclusion. This may be obvious to you, but it will be helpful to spell this out. Can you articulate to our readers a few reasons why it is so important for a business or organization to have a diverse executive team?

The belief that we are different and separate from other humans has led to the world suffering all kinds of setbacks including hunger, poverty, conflict, as well as political, economic, social and gender inequalities. It is my strong belief that no nation in the world, no organization or company, however powerful they may be, will ever achieve their full potential without embracing the full diversity of its population in its workforce. In the USA, and elsewhere around the globe we have a diversity of race, cultures, traditions, nations, languages, colours, ethnicities, creeds, religions, sexual orientations, etc. And that is the true beauty of the world! We are doomed to fail if we continue to ignore the diversity, substance and the magic it brings to the table. It is therefore important for businesses and organization to have diverse executive teams, because different people have different abilities, different mindsets, different ideas, different perspectives, different experiences and different approaches. To effectively address important issues or implement policies that affect humanity it is important to have diversity of thought, as well as diversity of approach and perspective.

As a business leader, can you please share a few steps we must take to truly create an inclusive, representative, and equitable society? Kindly share a story or example for each.

1. Ensure everyone has a voice: Allow different voices andperspectives to be heard and to be taken into account in decision and policy making. Each person brings something different to the table, depending on their life experiences and educational background. It is important to take different experiences and perspectives into account in designing policy or taking decisions in order to build a truly inclusive, representative, and equitable society.

2. Recruit from a diverse group of people. There are multiple ways in which people experience the world and therefore, measures should be put in place to enforce job recruitment from a diverse group of people. Limiting a business or organization to one group of people, who have the same experiences in life, who think the same way, and who believe in the same things in life takes away the creativity, innovation and diversity of thought required in the operations of a business or organist for its success.

3. Identify Diverse Talents: Consider different genders, backgrounds, ethnicities, race, religion, creeds, sexual orientation, etc. Identify talents from a diverse group of people and accordingly match them to opportunities, roles and responsibilities. An organization or business has a greater chance of succeeding if they have an executive team that represents the true diversity of the world. Each person brings to the table a different perspective, different talents and a different way of doing things, that if brought together can complement one another and make the team thrive to serve the world better.

4. Ensure Diversity of thought: Bring together people with different perspectives and different educational backgrounds by building an intergenerational team and multicultural team, which consists of people who went to different universities, have different levels of education, different genders, race, creed, language, ethnicity, abilities, sexual orientation, etc to get a full picture of the spectrum that gives a full understanding of the world we live in.

5. Equal Opportunities on Merit: Job opportunities should be based on merit and not on race or gender bias. A world that operates on half its human capital, half its economic potential and half its talents, is one that is bound to fail. The world is diverse for a reason. This is because as humans, we have to compliment one another. We ought to embrace the world in its full diversity in all our activities. Focusing on one gender or race takes away the potential for growth in an ever changing world. Providing equal opportunities builds better families and communities, thereby creating a truly representative and equitable society.

Ok, thank you for that. Let’s now jump to the primary focus of our interview. Most of our readers — in fact, most people — think they have a pretty good idea of what a CEO or executive does. But in just a few words can you explain what an executive does that is different from the responsibilities of the other leaders?

While the role of a Chief Executive might differ slightly from one organization to another, overall a Chief Executive or CEO is the highest-ranking executive in a company or organization and is the ultimate authority in making final decisions. A Chief Executive provides strategic direction and has overall responsibility for the success of the business or organization and is responsible for devising policies and strategies to meet company goals, by directing, planning, and coordinating operational activities for their organization or company, while developing and managing key stakeholder relationships. In a nutshell, the Chief Executive drives the overall vision and leadership of the organization including organization strategy, mission and values, while a manager or other leaders are responsible for the activities of a team or group of employees in the business or organization. A Chief Executive is constantly on the move undertaking a lot of high stake client relationship management, meeting stakeholders, negotiating and seeking common ground to sustain the business or organization.

What are the “myths” that you would like to dispel about being a CEO or executive. Can you explain what you mean?

People think that a CEO or Chief Executive has it all and that it is an easy job to do because CEO’s have many subordinates to whom they can delegate their work, while they earn a high salary. The truth of the matter is that CEO’s work very hard, sleep very little, and have to undergo huge pressure, working on high stake decisions. The survival of the organization depends on the CEO’s strategic direction and staying power. While most of the staff work 9–5, a CEO’s job is never done and carries on 24/7. Being a CEO means making hard, complex and unpopular decisions. A simple decision can have a huge negative or positive impact on the business, organization or its beneficiaries and benefactors. One has to constantly make a sequence of important and high stake decisions that are highly sensitive and so important they could change or shift the course of things and take the business or organization, together with the team or workforce into a completely new direction or uncharted territory. A CEO’s decision can impact millions of lives at the click of a button. As a CEO, one is constantly working to serve and secure the interest of those that the organization or business represents using tact and diplomacy.

In your opinion, what are the biggest challenges faced by women executives that aren’t typically faced by their male counterparts?

Despite growing numbers of female leaders and changing mindsets, leadership continues to be dominated by men and as such the leadership terrain is still considered the domain of men. You therefore, find that even in the 21st century, people still doubt the capability of women executives. Even where a woman executive has proved herself capability, women leaders are never given the full credit that is due to them. It is disheartening that women executives find their credibility or capability continuously questioned, at times even by members of their own team, in addition to other stakeholders, just because one is a woman. As a woman executive, at times male subordinates might intentionally sabotage your efforts so that you can fail because they are uncomfortable working under the supervision of a woman. Then there is the issue of the focus on women’s emotions and their clothes, hair and overall look. In most cases no-one pays attention to the hairstyle or clothes of male executives and the way they look, while the looks of women executives are constantly under scrutiny to the extent that this tends to override the actual job performance of a woman executive. When a woman executive stands her ground, she is referred to as being stubborn, whereas when a man stands his ground they are hailed as being confident. Women executives have to constantly strive to win the confidence and trust of their own teams, as well as other stakeholders, as some simply or intentionally refuse to cooperate.

What is the most striking difference between your actual job and how you thought the job would be?

As explained above, I too thought the job would be easy. I now find that being a CEO is one of the most difficult and demanding jobs. The stakes are very high and there is nothing small or little in that position. Everything is a major decision and one is constantly under scrutiny with every decision having implications for different stakeholders. I find that I have to continuously make sacrifices and be on the job 24/7 juggling priorities, negotiations, partnerships, as well as high stake client relationship management. I always have to be on the lookout for growth opportunities, new markets, new partnerships and new collaborations, etc. In addition, I always have to be looking out for emerging issues on the social, economic and political fronts and be able to accordingly navigate these, as has been the case with the coronavirus pandemic, which has disrupted the way we do things, when COVID-19 brought the world to a sudden standstill and the global economy went into freefall, while sending global leaders into panic and despair.

Certainly, not everyone is cut out to be an executive. In your opinion, which specific traits increase the likelihood that a person will be a successful executive and what type of person should avoid aspiring to be an executive? Can you explain what you mean?

To be a successful executive, one has to have resilience, has to have focus, purpose and staying power because as an executive, one will face a lot of challenges and uncertain moments. One therefore, has to be strong minded and focused, with a conviction of purpose and have a strong vision, because vision is the fundamental emotive force that drives everything else in a leaders life, and it is the most potent motive for an executive’s actions. Someone without vision cannot be a successful executive because a person without vision has no drive and nothing to work towards. To be a successful executive one must be versatile, because things move and change very fast at that level. Therefore, one has to have a sharp eye to seek opportunities and growth and know how to navigate volatile territory. Some of the basic leadership traits that one needs to be a successful executive include versatility and agility,which are required to withstand the high frequency change in an ever changing world. A successful executive should be someone who has conviction of purpose and who knows their purpose, and can connect that purpose to their teams andthe purpose of their business or organization. To be successful, an executive needs to lead from purpose, becausepurpose is the main source of energy from which an executive pulls their strength, when all else fails. When one leads from purpose, there is no limit to how far one can go and how much a team can achieve even in unstable times. Anyone who does not understand their own purpose should avoid aspiring to be an executive, because without purpose one has no direction and without direction one cannot lead. One also needs to have resilience and the ability to adjust to misfortune or sudden change. A resilient person has the capability to cope in the face of daunting challenges, setbacks, barriers and limited resources. To be a successful executive, one must have acute awareness of critical situations such as the current coronavirus pandemic and the behaviour of those around them is such uncertain times, as this allows an executive to maintain firm and effective control of the situation, while innovating fresh perspectives to solve ensuing problems. Someone without resilience and conviction of purpose cannot be a successful executive, as they will have no staying power when things get tough and when the stakes get too high. Another important trait is high emotional intelligence which is the biggest predictor of performance in the workplace. Emotional intelligence allows executives to tune into their own emotions and those of the people they lead. It also gives them the ability to inspire their teams to give themselves unreservedly to the mission. If someone is not self-aware, they cannot be socially aware and this would make it difficult to lead other people as such a person would not be able to manage team behaviour and relationships in the workplace.

What advice would you give to other women leaders to help their team to thrive?

Women leaders are blessed with limitless inner strength, natural instincts and natural wisdom. They should utilize these to influence and manage their businesses or organizations to make their teams thrive. Women leaders should hone in on the high emotional intelligence that women possess, which connects them to the needs, concerns and hopes of their communities, and this makes women adept at leading in crisis. In dealing with their teams,women leaders should deploy their sixth sense and hone in on their emotional intelligence, empathy, compassion, care and survival instinct. Women leaders need to understand the vulnerability of their teams in these unprecedented times of despair and ensure that their teams feel valued and their input or contributions are recognized. It is important for women leaders to realize that they will get the most from their teams when there is a clear understanding and sense of acknowledgement and feeling of inclusiveness and appreciation. Women leaders should go above and beyond to gain the trust of their teams in order for the teams to perform at their best in these trying times. They should put in place successful strategies that empower their workforce with the tools and skills to do their jobs properly and function effectively. They need to be versatile and utilize their agility to adapt and handle different waves that come at them from all directions and should strive to ensure they and their teams know their purpose and operate from that purpose. This will lead to strengthened feelings of self-worth, which leads to self-confidence and self-fulfilment and enables teams to give positive engagement to the organization to go the extra mile to deliver beyond what is necessary. Like every leader, women leaders should remain alert and receptive todifferent approaches of thinking and different perspectives of looking at opportunities, challenges, and emerging issues in order to find solutions and make their teams thrive.

How have you used your success to make the world a better place?

As they say, to whom much is given, much is expected. Becoming ‘African Woman of the Year’ placed a lot of responsibility on my shoulders. In a world filled with natural disasters and man made catastrophes, I believe that it is our moral obligation to help those that are less fortunate than we are. I have therefore used my success to give back to society and to those communities in which we operate. Coming from Zambia in Africa, I saw the impact of the HIV/AIDS pandemic and how it ravaged our communities and left an exodus of AIDS orphans on the streets. As my contribution to the global efforts to secure an AIDS-Free world and AIDS-free generation, I founded POSITIVE RUNWAY: Global Catwalk to Stop the Spread of HIV/AIDS. This is a worldwide HIV/AIDS response campaign that works with young people by speaking the same language as the youth in order to make the message of stopping the spread of HIV/AIDS crystal clear in a discourse that is appropriate to the 21st century young generation. Through the Justina Mutale Foundation, I advocate for gender equality and the empowerment of women and girls in political participation and the economic empowerment of women through trade, business and enterprise by providing leadership training, mentorship and coaching to young women and girls. I strongly believe that every girl has potential, and it is my hope and prayer that every girl can be given an opportunity to realize her full potential so that she can make a positive contribution to the world. I also believe that the provision of quality education is paramount to the eradication of poverty and its feminisation. The Foundation, therefore, advocates for the retention and completion of tertiary education for young women from rural and disadvantaged communities in Africa by providing them with university scholarships to access higher education around the world. I believe that by enabling the girl-child and empowering women and girls, we can empower humanity and secure human prosperity and progress for all. After all, it has been proven that a child born of a rich woman will naturally lead an affluent life, and one born of an educated woman will naturally secure quality education and this would go on from generation to generation. Therefore, I believe the world will only become a better place once all women and girls have been empowered to empower their children, families and communities, and thereby empowering the world and making it a better place.

What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started” and why? (Please share a story or example for each.)

1. That it is possible to lead as a woman: When I left full time employment to start out on my own, most people thought I was biting more than I could chew. But I now realize venturing out on my own was the best career decision I ever made.

2. That it is a jungle out there: I trusted people very easily thinking they were like me and had good intentions. I quickly realized most people come under the pretense of offering help, only to come and steal my ideas and networks.

3. That the world would believe in my dreams: Had I known that the world would buy into my dreams and ventures, I would have started much earlier than I did.

4. That this is a journey: If I had known that being an executive is a journey and not a destination, I would have packed a bigger suitcase of ideas. But I have now learnt that it is a journey, on which one grows, meets and attracts different kinds of people, and I have accordingly adjusted my suitcase of ideas!

5. That there is no such thing as a stupid idea: I have realized that people will buy into any idea as long as the person that has the idea has a conviction of purpose. Knowing this has kept my going.

You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good for the greatest number of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.

To some extent I could say that I have already started a movement through my Foundation, which aims to get women and girls into leadership positions. I have backed this up with my book; “The Art of Iconic Leadership: Power Secrets of Female World Leaders’’, which aims to inspire and motivate a new generation of women all over the world through the stories of iconic female leaders. As stated above, an enlightened woman will naturally enlighten her children, family, community, nation and future generations to come, thereby enlightening the whole of humanity. It has been said that a mind is a precious thing to waste. I would start a movement of enlightenment for young people and the millennials. A movement that would bring humanity to the next level of consciousness. A movement that would make young people and millennials realize that they do not need to march with their feet, but need to march with their mind, because the mind is where the real power lies and that is what would trigger real change in the world. I believe the world needs a new kind of education. An education that broadens the mind in the best possible way, one that opens up the mind of the millennials and young people to the possibility and abundance that awaits them in the world. It has been estimated that up to 70% of the population in Africa comprises young people below the age of 24 and most of these young people lack the necessary access to basic education. It has also been estimated that by 2030, there will be approximately 1.2 billion new jobs requiring new skills and new ways of thinking. I believe the new world is not one in which people have to be physical to win battles. In the next world, battles will be won with the mind. We therefore, can no longer expect to bring about change by using physical power or marching on our feet in the streets. We ought to use our mind. I believe starting with enlightening the minds of young women and girls and other millennials will yield the greatest results for the greatest number of people. As stated above, it has been proven that a child born of a rich woman will naturally lead an affluent life, and one born of an educated woman will naturally secure quality education and this spirals from one generation to the next. Therefore, a movement that enlightens the minds of young women and girls will naturally spill over into enlightening the minds families, communities, nations and of course, the entire world population, thereby making the world a better place for all.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

My favourite quote is “I am because you are’’. This is derived from the traditional African philosophy of “Ubuntu”, which offers us an understanding of ourselves in relation with the world. In the philosophy of Ubuntu, we believe that “a person is a person through other persons’’ andthat there exists a common bond between us all and it is through this bond, through our interaction with our fellow human beings, that we discover our own human qualities. Ubuntu speaks of the fact that my humanity is inextricably bound up in each one of us. Ubuntu teaches us wholeness and compassion, which provides a proper self-assurance that comes from knowing that we belong in a greater whole. In the philosophy of Ubuntu, the idea of a global human family is one of the building blocks of society and is the nebulous concept of common humanity and oneness. This is relevant to my life in that I believe that the suffering of others is our own suffering. And this is why I focus on philanthropy to help those that are less fortunate than I am. The philosophy of Ubuntu lends its principles to emotional intelligence, which focuses on tuning in to your own emotions and those of others, and being sensitive to the needs of others. Emotional intelligence has been hailed as the new science of human relations and the biggest predictor of performance in the workplace. Ubuntu has also been proven through globalization, where the fluttering of butterflies in one part of the world can be felt right across the globe. We can also see this in the Coronavirus, which started in China has now spread across the globe. The repercussions of the 2008 crash on Wall Street is still being felt across the globe today. Wars fought around the world not only affect the countries in which the war is fought, but the suffering and repercussions of each war always spreads right through the entire globe, resulting in the exodus of refugees, increased hunger and poverty levels, as well as unnecessary deaths, human suffering and economic costs both on the side of the victor and that of the vanquished.

We are very blessed that some very prominent names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them.

I would love to have a private breakfast with Oprah Winfrey. This is because we both believe in the power that lies in providing quality education to young women and girls. I would love to explore synergies and possibilities for collaboration and cooperation between my Foundation and that of Oprah Winfrey’s, and of course, any other ways that she may be of assistance to my mission and vice-versa. In fact, Oprah is featured in my book: “The Art of Iconis Leadership: Power Secrets of Female World Leaders’’, as one of the iconic women leaders of our times to help inspire and motivate a new generation of women and girls around the world. Proceeds from my book go to the Scholarship Fund at the Justina Mutale Foundation to help disadvantaged young women and girls from rural communities in Africa to access tertiary education around the world.

Thank you for these fantastic insights. We greatly appreciate the time you spent on this.

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