Interview with Shachi Shah

Shachi ShahSomething a little special for you today – we’re very lucky to have an interview with the inspirational Shachi Shah. Shachi is a veteran Investment Professional, holding numerous senior positions at top tier financial institutions over the course of the last two decades. Most recently she was a Managing Director and Head of Funds and Advisory at Barclays. Among a great many accomplishments she was named Asset Management CEO of the Year at the Global Investor, Investment Excellence Awards in June 2012 and Winner of the 2012 Women and City Award for Finance. She is also one of the judges for the NCW: Giving Young Girls and Women a Voice competition. Today she is sharing competition tips, career advice and telling us about her current project Indiability.

The Competition

Giving Young Girls and Women a Voice is a fantastic opportunity from the National Council of Women for young women to speak out on issues that matter to them, entrants must answer the question – ‘If you could influence Government to take some action to improve the lives of women, what would it be?’ the winning applicant will attend the UN Commission meeting on the status of women in New York! (click here for more details).

 “If you want change you can’t sit back – you have to participate.”

We started off by asking Shachi how the idea for this competition come about.

The idea came about from the NCW conference last year when Theresa May said “the NCW does have the ear of Government and it wants to hear what young women have to say.” The NCW approached me to be a judge because they wanted women who would be encouraging and passionate about the message that if you want change you can’t sit back – you have to participate.

 “We will be looking for vision combined with pragmatic approach to implementing that vision.”

What criteria the entrants will be judged on?

We will be looking for vision combined with pragmatic approach to implementing that vision. Showing the impact of the new policy and how it can improve the lives of women and men. We want this to be about real solutions not protests. We want to be the drivers of change and we will want to see not only the problem identified but a very meaningful and implementable solution.

As one of the competitions judges, obviously you can’t give away too much! But could you tell us how entrants should begin to approach this question?

My personal perspective, dare to dream ask yourself what the world would look like if we really had 50/50 participation of men and women, what does industry, science, family, politics, law, economics, business look like in a world were men and women are equal participants. From there take the one area that is meaningful to you, that has day to day impact on you and if this changed what would your life look like. Then imagine all the women and girls in your neighbourhood benefiting from that change what does that look like. Grow the circle further to the women and girls in your town, your city, your country, your continent what does this change look like. What are the benefits, not just to women but also to men. Once you have this vision you will know if you have dreamt large enough or do you need to think bigger still? You will have the benefits and the solutions from all this day dreaming and your new plan will unfold! What an easy competition, all you have to do is dream a little!

“This is the opportunity of a lifetime to experience really being at the forefront and heart of policy making on the world stage.”

The competition has an impressive list of prizes, what’s your favourite?

Attending the UN Commission meeting on the status of women and the opportunity to present your proposal at the National Council of Women. This is the opportunity of a lifetime to experience really being at the forefront and heart of policy making on the world stage. I sincerely wish more young women get to experience the impact of their presence on the world stage early in their lives. Its critical that women learn to understand the impact of their participation and the consequences of their non-participation, their invisibility. I truly believe once our eyes are opened to our own potential and that our voices count, we will see that it’s critical that our contributions expand beyond traditional gender roles for the success of our families, our communities our nations. When this happens we will see profound shifts in our society that lead to greater peace, prosperity, opportunity and security for women and men.

“This competition is a call to action for all women to become much more active as advocates and engaged in our society at every level, in industry, government, commerce and education.”

How could winning this competition help a young woman launch her career?

This competition is valuable to all participants for three reasons:

Firstly it’s exercising the advocacy muscle by women for women. Our gender is particularly reluctant in utilising this advocacy capability. Advocacy is the most potent tool for inspiring change. The competition is aptly named speak out, and highlights ironically how little women can and do speak out. In developed countries over the last 20 years, political and corporate leadership by women has remained at less than 20%. The impact of this affects every area of a woman’s life from wage inequality, healthcare, education, policing, the list is endless and discrimination direct or indirect can be found throughout every strata of our society. Now take that and multiply it 1000x and think of the rest of the world and you realise the lack of active participation of women in our society has a real and very negative impact on our society. Over the course of the last 200 years the active rise of the feminine voice has transformed the lives of both women and men. Where the feminine voice is quiet or suppressed ask yourself are women’s lives better or worse, do they have better access to healthcare, education, opportunities, policing, property rights etc or worse. This competition is a call to action for all women to become much more active as advocates and engaged in our society at every level, in industry, government, commerce and education. A young woman skillful in advocacy will find her career advances much quicker, she will find support, backing and sponsorship to see her ideas become a reality.

Second, building a profile and increasing your visibility; women have to take ownership of their profiles and seek to actively promote themselves. Becoming involved in national and world issues is a clear way of raising your profile.

Third, network; a competition like this brings us into new circles of influence and participation, the opportunities to expand our circles of influence are a lifelong activity and to be given the opportunity to attend the UN meeting dedicated to women, interact with the NCW, the judges, puts you clearly on the map.

This competition is about women exercising their representation muscle.

 Young Women and Careers

“Yes I did say gender apartheid, that is what we have today and its uncomfortable but its present and we need to see it before we can address it.”

You’ve had a career that would make anyone envious, how did you start out?

I started out as a lawyer. Since a very young age I had been mesmerised by the charisma and power of advocates. I was addicted to legal dramas and the story of lawyers who had changed the world. In my early teens I new absolutely that I wanted to be an advocate. So I pursued a career in law. If you think about some of the greater individuals in history that caused profound political and social change they were lawyers. My transition into finance happened quite early in my legal career and I started working in an area of law that was in its infancy relating to the regulation & governing of derivatives. It was a logical step when I moved across into finance and developing products and strategies utilising the latest financial innovations. I also came to realise the importance of economics and the power of economics and in particular became very well aware of the lack of women in finance. Combining advocacy with finance is a powerful cocktail to cause even the most resistant to change. I have become more & more focussed on women establishing much greater economic power in order to enable the kind of social changes we as a society need to see in order to break down the gender apartheid that exits globally. Yes I did say gender apartheid, that is what we have today and its uncomfortable but its present and we need to see it before we can address it.

“Its as if she is the one mutant female that has some magic super powers that makes her operate more like a man and in his fields.”

You’ve done extremely well in a very male dominated environment, what were the main challenges you faced?

The cultural resistance to seeing women as leaders, as experts, as professionals as workers! This has probably been the overarching theme that I as a woman who started her career two decades ago faced and continue to face albeit that there has been progress, in many professions and industries. A woman generally has two phases of her career the first establishing credibility when she will tend to face more tests, she will only gain trust once she has demonstrated capabilities and such success has been observed by a critical mass of seniors and peers. The second phase on establishing credibility, is that she immediately becomes an exception rather than the norm. Its as if she is the one mutant female that has some magic super powers that makes her operate more like a man and in his fields. So the biggest challenge is the challenge that professional, expert, successful and “woman” are not synonymous. You will notice the rise of women starting up businesses and companies in order to fulfill on their leadership and business potential. I think this will happen more and more. Technology and the transition from an industrial dependent society to a technologically dependent society means women can more easily access, navigate and dictate how, where and what work is available to them. I am super excited. Technology has already made us challenge what leaders look like. We have some of the youngest and most ethnically diverse CEOs in the last 3 decades. These paradigm shifts will enable women to activate their creativity, facilitate new working styles, working hours and ultimately monetize and increase their economic power and influence.

“We can debate the reasons for our drop out extensively but ultimately we have to recognise we alone “drop-out”.”

What are the main barriers you see for young women in climbing the career ladder?

Women continue to “drop-out” too soon in their careers. In countries where women are freely able to access education, we see that we are between 50-60% of the under-graduate cohort, and yet our presence as primary leaders, experts and figures of authority continues to be limited. We can debate the reasons for our drop out extensively but ultimately we have to recognise we alone “drop-out”. A better social structure, policies, culture are important but first we have to make the mental shift that we matter in the work force, we matter in government, we matter in science, we matter in business, WE MATTER. It’s a lesson I learned early on that my talent matters because I say it matters not because others say it matters. Thoughts, ideas, causes all get life when we individually speak out and pursue our purpose and passion. I think as women we have to realise our lack of visibility and participation in society is as much to do with us as it is structural and cultural. We are desperately needed in our societies to participate locally, nationally and globally in every field. The shortage of skilled labour in the developed world would easily be filled if female talent was fully mobilised. We are a sleeping tiger. Recently Warren Buffet was quoted as having said that one of the reasons he was so successful is that he was only competing with half the population. He went onto say, “we’ve seen what can be accomplished when we use 50% of our human capacity. If you visualize what 100% can do, you’ll join me as an unbridled optimist about America’s future.”

So my first advice to all young women is make sure your career matters to you, and you realise, really realise the importance of your active participation in society throughout your lives in every sector.

“failure is not rejection or lack of capabilities, it’s an awakening and an opportunity to find out who you are in the face of failure and discover whether what you are pursuing really matters to you.”

Secondly, resilience; failure is not rejection or lack of capabilities, it’s an awakening and an opportunity to find out who you are in the face of failure and discover whether what you are pursuing really matters to you. If it does, no matter the obstacles you will find your “irrepressible” gene. I once spoke at a corporate event and by the time I had finished a room had been inspired into action. When the moderator of the event realised he had actually forgotten to introduce me as a speaker! He amended his mistake by declaring that I was irrepressible and needed no introduction. So you see as women we are expected to be, raised to be, educated to be and even coerced into being invisible, behind the scenes, a good support, flexible, co-operative, able to let go and bend, submit, compromise, quit, re-direct, succumb. Once we recognise that these skills albeit useful, at times, also restrict and constrain our ability to fulfill our highest potential. We can choose when it serves us to compromise and when it serves us to speak out. Linked to this is our fear of being perceived as selfish. I urge you to realise that all great actions, impossible achievements, causes, have a selfish side, nothing gets achieved without immense focus, dedication and commitment and often that means difficult and uncomfortable prioritisation. We have to embrace this if we are to make a real difference and have a global impact.

So my second recommendation is to find your resilient, irrepressible gene early on and to be your own best supporter, mentor and sponsor, no one can do this better than you.

With commitment and resilience a lot can be achieved because you enter the work force fully aware that there are barriers to entry both cultural and structural and the only way to bring down these barriers is to keep bumping up against them until they crumble. I always imagine that the Berlin wall that came down brick by brick as more and more people gathered. Walls are not impenetrable they eventually crumble.

 

“Be bold, courageous and most importantly be in action.”

 

What would you say to young women just starting out in their career?

Learn to rise above the need for consensus, approval, acknowledgement. Any pioneer ventures into the unknown and by definition most will disagree, many will be contemptuous only a few will see the vision. The path of the pioneer, the visionary, the leader isn’t lonely but it does require fortitude and an ability to thrive in the absence of the comfort of support. Nothing exciting happens in the world of known, everything that is interesting is only available in the land of the unknown. Be bold, courageous and most importantly be in action.

 

Indiability

Wow! Thank you so much for that fantastic insight! One final question – to add to your superwomen status you’re also a Trustee of the Indiability Foundation, can you tell us a little about it?

Indiability is non-profit organisation working to change the culture around disability. One of our most acclaimed projects IMAGE was recently selected to be included in a compendium published by the International Olympic Committee toolkit – ‘Get Moving! the IOC Guide to Managing Sport for All Programmes’, which was launched at the closing of the IOC World Conference on Sport for All. It highlighted some of the worlds most effective programs around changing our assumptions and perceptions about disability.

Our approach has been to create a network of sports clubs where able and disabled youth play sport together. Through sport they stop being alien to one another and discover friendship, their own potential and much, much more. Our organisation seeks to create real dialogue and increase accessibility and opportunity for the disabled. We set-up an orthotics workshops in rural India which is the only on-site facility for a boarding school over a decade ago. This workshop is now fully run by the school itself and many of the students actively participate in the running of the workshop, some who have gone on to study engineering and medicine.

Our latest endeavour is working in partnership with scientists at Imperial College London to implement a truly new generation waterless toilet. Its a very exciting initiative known as the 1000 Loos project. It’s actually the brain child of the girls at SKSN, the boarding school I mentioned. The girls started to question the real dilemma they have living with disability in rural India and dealing with their daily calls to nature. Mostly we don’t even give it a second thought, but for these young women its a daily choice to eat or not, fear of being attacked, how do they get themselves to the area dedicated as a latrine without being seen. Lack of sanitation is one of the most significant issues for women it leads to so many consequences to health, safety and self esteem.

Find out how you can support Indiability here.

Well that’s it folks! If you’ve got any comments post them below or tweet us your thoughts. If you’d like to hear more from Shachi, follow her on Twitter – @IndiabilityShah

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