This month we hear from York alum Abisola Barber. She tells us about her career in finance and her advocacy work for diversity and inclusion in the workplace.
Can you tell us a bit about what you studied at York and your time at the university?
I attended York from 2010-2013, studying my undergraduate degree in Philosophy, Politics & Economics (PPE). I thoroughly enjoyed the course at York, as it gave the option to explore interdisciplinary modules in our final year and carve out our own unique PPE degree with the selected modules.
York had a strong ethos of volunteering and encouraging students to get involved in all things extra-curricular – ideal for my personality! I was elected Sports Representative for my college, Vanbrugh; and later represented it on the YorkSport Committee. I also played netball for the university, and was heavily involved in the Dance and Fusion societies. In my final year, I was elected Chair of All Performance Societies – a fantastic opportunity to be fully immersed in what York had to offer.
We love reminiscing about years gone by at York – what are your fondest memories of your time here?
Whilst I have many fond memories from my time at York, I have to highlight my involvement in the Fusion shows and the Dance Society competitions. These were a true melting pot of creativity, vision and passion; and we raised significant funds for charity over the years.
After leaving university, how did you make the move into the finance industry? What did the early stages of your career look like?
Prior to joining York, I was fortunate enough to have accumulated work experience at a range of financial institutions – this gave me a great insight into what was to come, and assisted my decision making regarding where I wanted to be. I completed a summer internship at the end of my third year, before heading off to study for my Master’s degree. Through my internship, I was able to explore the different teams and departments on offer; find out what I did (or did not) like, and again refine my options. After a successful performance in my internship, I was then offered a position on the graduate scheme, which I completed following my Masters, and have continued to grow and rise through the ranks since.
Is your career path as you originally intended? What challenges did you face in launching your career?
When I was much younger, I had initially wanted to be either an accountant or a politician! It was during my A-Levels as the global financial crisis was wreaking havoc in the world around me that my interest in financial services peaked. Particularly on internships and graduate scheme placements, one is offered the opportunity to rotate roles. This was really beneficial to me, as I then discovered new functions and businesses within the bank that I previously was not aware of. I could then pitch myself for more opportunities, and I was not being restricted to my limited knowledge of what was available.
Launching any career can come with its challenges, and global internships and graduate schemes are rife with competition. Finding one’s feet and establishing themselves as a strong, dedicated and accomplished worker may take some time. The environments are also totally unfamiliar to anywhere previously experienced, and you enter a role completely ‘green’ and must learn on the spot. That proved an initial hurdle to become accustomed to – but actually is one that doesn’t ever disappear! Any new role may seem like a baptism of fire at times, but you simple have to roll up your sleeves and get involved!
What is your current role and what does a typical day look like?
Currently, I work as a Global Chief Operating Officer / Business Manager for two bespoke trading desks in the markets division of Barclays Investment Bank. My desks are based across Singapore, Hong Kong, India, London, Dublin and New York; and given their unique positioning in risks and products managed, it is fair to say no two days are the same! My days can include meetings with my traders and desk heads to understand market colour and what is going on; to planning with technology on new system developments; to drawing up and presenting plans on a new product that the desk is keen to trade. I really enjoy the variety and exposure this role provides, it keeps me highly engaged!
What would you say are the best, and most challenging parts of your job?
One of the best (but also most challenging) aspects of my role is the global nature. I get to work alongside people from all different backgrounds and cultures, which makes the work more enjoyable. However, it can at times be challenging to have a very early start or late finish (or both!).
You have done a huge amount of advocacy and research into the area of diversity and inclusion and breaking down barriers in the workplace. Can you tell us a bit about your work in this area?
I have always been exceptionally passionate about ensuring the decision-making table is inclusive, and considers the voices of those it is due to represent. Since the age of 11, I have been representing and advocating for the views of children and young people – initially across my constituency, then at a County level having been elected onto Local Government boards, then at a national level. Particularly within financial services, the industry has long been synonymous with the ‘Pale, Male and Stale’ rhetoric; but more than that, the diversity and representation of black men and women has been shockingly poor – especially at senior management level. I am driven to change that, and ensure that everybody feels the industry is one where they are both accepted and can succeed; and no barriers on the basis of their skin colour or gender will be a preventative. I have chaired race and gender networks within my workplace, and host a number of mentoring and coaching session particularly for young people in their early careers interested in Financial Services. My work also extends to universities and external organisations, where I deliver lectures and host round table discussions on how to drive change. There is much to be done but I am excited for what is to come.
What would be your advice to anyone who feels they have hit a ‘glass ceiling’ in their career?
At times, it may feel as if one has reached or is hitting a glass ceiling: an intangible yet unbreachable barrier to advancement. That can indeed be difficult to navigate. I am a strong advocate for mentoring, which helps to offer a sounding board and often open doors for other chains of thought or potential choices of action. In addition, setting clear and measurable objectives and ensuring these are well known helps remove any uncertainty when deliverables are met. In that way, it also helps to shine a light on whether any unjust or unfair means are at play to prevent further advancement.
What would be your 3 top tips for alumni looking to have a career in finance?
- Be confident in your abilities. Channel your energies into supporting and developing yourself, putting yourself forward for opportunities, and speaking out.
- It is okay to not know what you want to do. We hear of 5-year, 10-year and 15-year plans, and idealised goals to achieve by certain ages. Often, life does not provide us with all the answers and opportunities when we want them; get comfortable with forging your way and learning what you do enjoy (as well as what you don’t enjoy).
- Own your personal brand, and own it early. Many professionals do not start to consider what their personal brand says until it may be too late. Remember that people are Googling you at every step of your career – from applying to universities to entry-level roles, and even when you look for senior roles. Have a strong, consistent message that is true to your values.
And finally – working in the finance industry must be very demanding – what do you like to do in your spare time to unwind?
Before the pandemic, I rarely spent evenings or weekends at home – I was often at a speaking or networking event, or attending gym classes or playing netball. Whilst it was indeed tricky at first, I have enjoyed learning new ways to unwind and relax. I’m fortunate to have the space to exercise in my home, and I (like many) have tried my hand at baking – I’m told I make a delicious lemon drizzle cake!