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Series Four, Episode Eight: Looking beyond our walls – what we can learn from the legal sector and finding talent in other specialisms

In the final episode of Series 4, Funke Abimbola MBE, prominent legal diversity champion and campaigner and recently appointed Director of Operations, Conflict Resolution at Mishcon de Reya LLP, and Alison Choy, chemistry and biochemistry academic and Head of Machine Learning at Starling Bank, explain their career journeys. They discuss the high levels of female attrition between junior and senior levels in the legal profession, the potential for attracting talent from outside the more traditional financial services hiring profile, the importance of intersectionality and working with LGBT networks, why visible representation and relatable role models matter and the value of enabling young people to experience workplace culture as early as possible.

Funke Abimbola, CEO, Austen Bronte Consultancy

Funke Abimbola

Funke is a multi-award-winning Solicitor, Business Leader and Diversity Campaigner with 18 years’ comprehensive achievements.

She has been recognised for her inspiring and impactful leadership in both full time & voluntary C-suite roles and is ranked by the Financial Times as being a top 15 minority ethnic leader across the UK, US, Ireland & Canada.

Funke provides regular media commentary on business and diversity and features regularly on both BBC TV and radio. In addition, she holds several board memberships. The Prime Minister awarded her ‘Point of Light’ status in 2016, recognising the positive impact of her voluntary diversity leadership.

In June 2017, Funke was awarded the M.B.E. (Member of the Order of the British Empire) by the Queen for services to diversity in the legal profession and to young people.

She is the proud mother of a teenage son.

You can follow Funke on Twitter @Champ1Diversity.

Alison Choy

Alison Choy is Head of Machine Learning at Starling. She came to coding through chemistry. As part of her PhD in Chemoinformatics (the use of computers and informational techniques to solve problems in chemistry), Alison, 29, had to teach herself to code, which she did through YouTube videos. At 14, Alison taught herself English and moved on her own from Hong Kong to the UK. She went on to study Natural Sciences at the University of Cambridge, a perfect course for her as it involved a range of different scientific disciplines. She ended up focusing on Chemistry for her undergraduate degree, Biophysical chemistry and proteins for her Masters, and studied how humans absorb and metabolise drugs for her PhD in order to speed up the drug discovery process – something that can take over ten years. Alison feels that the best thing to come out of her PhD was picking up programming. Just as the puzzles of science drew her to chemistry, the puzzles of technology drew her to coding.

When Alison joined Starling in January 2018, she started working on the Marketplace, the connective platform giving customers access to the most innovative financial products on the market. Alison has “always found it odd that there aren’t many women developers” in the industry. She was often one of the only women at developer events and has been handed empty coffee cups by people thinking that she was a member of staff not an attendee. She is currently looking into mentoring and teaching female engineers with organisations such as Code Your Future, the non-profit organisation supporting refugees who want to become developers.

You can follow Starling Developers on Twitter @StarlingDev.

Series Four, Episode Eight Transcript

Julia: Hello, my name is Julia Streets and welcome to DiverCity Podcast, talking about equality, inclusion and diversity in financial services. On the podcast, we seek to shine a light on positive progress, call out areas requiring further focus, and offer lots of ideas to help drive change.

Today I’m delighted to be joined by Funke Abimbola and Alison Choy. More than being an award-winning solicitor and business leader, Funke Abimbola is also widely recognised as a diversity campaigner and has been acknowledged for her inspiring leadership in both full-time and voluntary C-Suite roles. In 2017 Funke was awarded the MBE for services to diversity in the legal profession and also to young people.

The FT ranked Funke one of their top 15 minority ethnic leaders across the UK, US, Ireland and Canada. If that’s not enough the Prime Minister awarded her a Point of Light status in 2016, recognising the positive impact of her voluntary Diversity Leadership.

Currently taking a pause from her career journey, Funke is completing a gender diversity post-grad programme at the INSEAD Business School before continuing with her next chapter. We’re very fortunate to have caught you, Funke, welcome to the show.

Funke: Thank you very much for having me.

Julia: Joining Funke today is Alison Choy, a developer at Starling. She came to coding through chemistry, took on a PhD in Chemoinformatics, and had to teach herself to code, which she did through YouTube videos. At the age of 14 Alison taught herself English and moved on her own from Hong Kong to the UK. She went on to study natural sciences at the University of Cambridge, focusing on chemistry for her Undergraduate degree. Continuing those studies into a Master’s level before embarking on this PhD which she completed in 2018, also while working at Starling.

Just as the puzzles of science drew her to chemistry, the puzzles of technology have drawn her to coding. When Alison joined the bank in 2018, she worked at the Marketplace which she describes as the app store for third-party services. This means that customers have access to the most innovative products on the market. She is also deeply passionate about tapping into pools of less-recognised talent by encouraging young engineers into the financial services industry. Alison it’s so wonderful to have you on the show. Thanks for joining us.

Alison: Thanks for having me.

Julia: As always, at the start of each show we invite each guest to talk about what they’re up to at the moment. Funke, let me start with you. What on earth are you up to at the moment?

Funke: I’ve just finished this wonderful programme at INSEAD Business School which has really helped me to have a much more structured focus around diversity generally, with the data at my fingertips, specific action plans and so on. I’ll be continuing with my career very much with that in mind going forwards.

Julia: How long was that course?

Funke: A few months. Very practical, very hands-on. I was given the opportunity to work with other senior leaders and study with them from many different industries, and I found it a real eye-opener, realising some of the challenges that they might be facing, which are very different to a lot of challenges I’ve seen in the solicitor’s profession where I focus my diversity work.

Julia: There’s so much in that that we’re going to talk about on the show today. I’m very keen to look beyond the world of financial services and hear your views about the legal profession and what we’ve learned there, but also calling on your studies at INSEAD as well, some of your thoughts on that. It is so exciting to have you here. Thank you.

Funke: Thank you.

Julia: Alison, what are you up to at the moment? What’s your focus?

Alison: I came to the financial services from academia. My PhD involved using machine learning algorithms to predict how the human body absorbs drugs. Now, I’m using that in my job. I work at the intersection between data engineering and data science at Starling Bank. Starling is, as you mentioned, a challenger bank. It’s mobile-only, and we’ve got over 400,000 customers. You can do all your banking on the app, on your phone, and it has smart money management tools built-in.

Banks hold a lot of customers’ data. We have information on where you live, what money you’ve spent and where, and Starling strongly believe that data belongs to the customers. Wouldn’t it be great if we can build something that offers meaningful and timely financial insights, when customers need it, before they even realise they need it? Right now I’m using my skills in software engineering and also the machine learning area to lay the groundwork to enable the bank to build a tool such as that or others.

Julia: There’s so much discussion about artificial intelligence, data, data scientists, and then also, how do we corral, manage, secure and also extract value from data as well? A fascinating job, and a very interesting time in the industry as well. We’ll come back to much of that, I’m sure, and I love the fact that you learnt to code using YouTube as well, which is amazing.

Funke, let me come back to you, I mentioned about exploring development in the legal profession and I’m really keen to understand partly your role in driving change, and also the change that you’ve seen as well. Can you talk to us a bit about that?

Funke: I started really focusing on the inequalities that I was seeing within the solicitor’s profession, probably about 10 years ago now, because of some of the experiences I’ve had being a black woman, I certainly faced challenges entering the profession, getting my first job. I had to make over 150 phone calls just to get my first job. Then there was another challenge when I had my son and returned to work after maternity leave.

I thought, “Gosh, this isn’t quite right.” You feel as if you’ve done everything right, you’ve worked hard. I’d got really good grades, gone to fantastic law school and I just thought, “Something isn’t quite right here.” And it was really that anger, I remember when my son was still very young, just being really angry all the time about why I was being shoved into certain choices. Even continuing my career was a challenge after he was born.

It was only later that I realised how bad the statistics actually were within solicitor’s profession and how for example, and this really surprises a lot of people, women actually outnumber men entry-level quite significantly. If you look at the numbers of women actively studying to become a lawyer or training, it’s about 60% compared to 40% male. Then you fast-forward about 10 years and only about 20% of those women become partners. There’s a massive attrition in between and such a loss of talent. Firms invest huge amounts of money in training their solicitors and then these women drop out. I was very interested to know what the reasons were and what I could do to change that.

Julia: Where did you begin? I mean, it’s such a huge challenge in that regard.

Funke: It really is. It started just talking to a lot of women, and talking to a lot of the male solicitors also. I realised very quickly that we’re now in a generation where both parents are working, both are professionals. One of the most illuminating conversations I had was actually with a very young male solicitor who was so worried about asking to work more flexibly, because his wife was a surgeon, and he was the one who needed to leave on time to pick up their daughter from nursery. He actually pretended he wanted to become a partner at the firm for many years because he just couldn’t face the stigma that went with a male solicitor not wanting to become a partner, which was quite an interesting twist on the whole thing.

I realised that I needed to get the guys involved as well, and that was what really drove the change for me. Partnering and really listening to the young men. I think being the mother of a young man myself, I was very curious to know what challenges are that generation actually going to face going forwards.

Julia: Structurally was that a once-a-month network meeting? How did you imbue that in daily behaviour as well?

Funke: Very good question. I was a training supervisor very early on in my career at various firms. I started off talking to the trainees and finding out more about them, their backgrounds and what challenges they had faced, which in itself was illuminating. It just developed from there into more structured networks, and snowballed into what I do now.

Julia: When you talk about the other diversities as well, one of the things we’re always very keen to talk about on the show is about reaching out into other groups as well. Whether that’s LGBT or disability, etc. Does that fall under that remit?

Funke: Massive piece. I’m an LGBT ally. A friend of mine runs a very prominent LGBT network within the profession. I help him a lot with that profile raising. As a black woman, there’s so many issues even within the black community, if you’re LGBT, again it’s very important that I’m seen to be doing that kind of work. But the visibility piece is so crucial in all of this. Having that visible representation is very important for young people in particular. I do a lot of work with young people who need those visible role models to follow. Really key for them.

Julia: When you were working with the Law Society, we talk a lot, particularly in financial services, about working with some of the industry bodies as well. We are seeing that, actually, there is a greater appreciation. I think about the keynote speeches that I do now as mostly invited by advisory boards of industry bodies. Was there a degree of you going to them and saying, “You should be talking about that”? Or were they thinking about it anyway? How did those two waves combine?

Funke: It was a bit of both I would say. Certainly the Law Society, until about maybe five or six years ago were slowly realising that this was a really important issue, for many reasons, that the solicitor’s profession needed to be more representative of the society that we serve. It’s the largest arm of the legal profession by far. That coincided with a number of presidents who were very passionate about diversity and inclusion. Often the president just sets the agenda for that year, and it’s built up since then.

We have many divisions now. There’s ethnic minorities, there’s women in law, there’s disabilities, LGBT, social mobility. We have a whole network of social mobility champions. Every year we have another 10 ambassadors who are appointed across England and Wales to champion that specific cause. Huge amounts of resource have now gone into this, with massive commitment from the firms themselves. It’s been wonderful to see the change.

Julia: It is really interesting to hear you talk about this, from a different profession from financial services, because there are so many things that are very common there and I’m thinking about the ways and the initiatives, and how to harness almost a momentum, if you want to call it that.

Alison let me come to you, because relatively speaking you’re quite early in your career in financial services. Not early in your life journey, but certainly early in your career in financial services as well as in the world of FinTech. You had so many choices at your disposal, when you think about your chemistry background and your PhD. What attracted you to financial services?

Alison: I never thought I would end up where I am. I didn’t set out specifically to go find a job in the Financial Services or FinTech, but I know, for me, I wanted to work on something that’s intellectually challenging and I want to work with a bunch of nice interesting people from very diverse backgrounds, which drove me to find a job in London because this city is amazing, and it’s so culturally diverse. We’ve got people from all over the world, and I really wanted to be here.

I wanted to continue doing software development. I actually had a job as a software engineer first and then through my network and friends I heard about Starling, and I realised I miss doing something that actually makes a positive impact on someone else’s life. Which is why I ended up at Starling.

Julia: Were you talking to other institutions as well? Or was it just “That’s exactly what I want to be doing. That is the perfect storm of everything that inspires me”?

Alison: Yes, it was pretty much that. Especially because Anne, our CEO is a woman in the tech industry and financial services which is just incredibly inspiring.

Julia: This is Anne Boden?

Alison: Anne Boden. Yes. Because of the lack of role models, particularly in the FinTech world, most people are white men from a very similar socioeconomic background. It’s quite refreshing to see someone very different.

Julia: Did that surprise you when you first joined? Are there any other things that surprised you when you came into the industry and thought, “I was expecting something a little different,” perhaps?

Alison: Yes. When I first moved to the city and started my first job here, it was quite surprising because I thought, walking around London, looking around there are a mixture of people and it’s fantastic. But when I went and had my first job, it was quite a homogeneous background. Everywhere was white men from a select number of universities. I couldn’t find a relatable role model, and that was quite surprising.

Julia: I appreciate you only started in 2018, do you feel that the world is changing? Obviously Starling for all the reasons you’ve explained, with Anne at the helm is probably a positive example of leadership and change and cultural change. But as you look at the institutions, do you feel that there’s an appetite for change?

Alison: I think there are lots of companies who generally want to make the change, because I think lots of research have already shown that when you have a diverse workforce, people think differently. You solve one problem with a particular set of people, it doesn’t mean that the next problem that comes along is exactly the same, and if you have people from different backgrounds who can think differently, you’re more likely to be a successful organisation. There are also probably other organisations who are perhaps, not seeing the benefits right now, who may just be doing that for marketing purposes.

Julia: This is fascinating, isn’t it? Because I think this real time of change whereas consumers, we’re so much more digitally enabled, and digitally savvy, and demanding, and we need our financial institutions to be able to deliver products in a smarter way.

Alison: Absolutely.

Julia: That requires an appreciation of the dynamics of your customers. Funke, you mentioned that as well, which is the people you’re serving are not all white men of a particular socioeconomic background, and with a particular education behind them. They work and they think and they behave in very different ways as well. I mentioned in my introduction Alison, you’re very committed and very passionate about reaching into some of the diversity pools, if you like, of potential talent to come into the industry. Talk to us a bit more about that.

Alison: I recently spoke at a school to a bunch of young apprentices and sixth form students, it’s fantastic, because it’s a technology school, these people have chosen to learn about technology and hopefully get into the technology industry. It’s actually lovely to see a real mixture of different races, different genders and they were very keen to get involved. I want to do more of that, because I think only 17% of people in the technology sector are women, and only about 7% of students studying computer science at school are women and girls.

We need to be able to raise those numbers, because I don’t know whether it’s the lack of relatable role models in the tech industry, whether that makes a difference, I don’t see any reason why a woman or a man can’t be as good at typing on a computer as each other if they have the right mindset. I think it’s a lot about giving people the confidence to try something different, if they want to do that.

Julia: I talk about this all the time, it’s actually about a commercial imperative. I was saying about working in digitally-enabled times where you need to have diversity around a problem and a challenge and an opportunity to build something new, in order to make it as effective as possible. Those firms that can do that will get a comparative advantage from others that don’t.

Funke, I want to bring you in here as well, when you’re thinking about the work with the Law Society about bringing young, fresh talent into the industry, and we’ve touched a little about essentially, if you can see it you can be it, so therefore, role models and inspiring champions and allies really matter.

The sentiment of change, of bringing young talent into professions. They come out of an academic institution hearing everybody commit to either changing their diversity and inclusion, or they have been changing their diversity and inclusion, and then they walk into organisations, how does that feel when they walk in as well? I’m very interested in your thoughts around culture and environmental considerations as well. Funke, let me start with you.

Funke: Talking about culture, that’s a really pertinent point, because when I do my work with young people, it essentially is going into schools and speaking to large year groups about my personal journey, tips for success, and then answering questions. Some are brave enough to ask me questions publicly, and others wait to have a private word, but often it’s that sense of feeling that will they belong? They didn’t all want to be solicitors of course, but they worry about whatever career choice that they’re thinking of at that point in time, will they be accepted? Will they belong? It’s a wide range of children I speak to, thousands every year. I mean, last year it was almost 2,000 schoolchildren. It has just made me realise that you can’t start too early, actually, exposing young people to the culture in the workplace.

I do a lot of work in matching work experience and shadowing and all of that, because a lot of young people have never been to the City before. Last summer, for example, I took five of my summer placement students into a law firm. I thought, “Oh, just come along, I’m giving a talk.” And three out of the five said they’d never been into the City before, and they don’t live too far away from the City, they were overwhelmed by it all, you know? The view, the building, the lift, everything, was just this amazing experience. I thought, “My goodness me, we cannot make any assumptions.” If you’re not familiar with that you then feel intimidated, as if you don’t belong and so on. The culture is key. Really important.

Julia: Alison, is that your experience, as well? As a chemist who came into the Square Mile. What do you see?

Alison: I think the culture absolutely is so important, because you spend a lot of hours that you’re awake working. You want to be somewhere where you’re comfortable, and you feel like you can contribute. Where they can bring out the best of you, because that’s more productive for you and the company that are employing you. I think particularly when you have a homogeneous mixture of people, everyone is different, but you can also relate to people who are different to you. But when they’re so far removed from what you’ve experienced in life, it’s much harder to find the common ground to have a conversation, to fit in.

Julia: Let’s take a moment, there, to turn to Robert and to Cynthia for some research to support today’s discussion.

Cynthia: According to the research from Access HE, an organisation that aims to support the progression of under-represented groups to higher education, by the end of the next decade almost three-quarters of London’s students who enter university will be from ethnic minorities, and more than half of the students from the capital will also be the first in their family to go to university.

Robert: Tech is expanding almost three times faster than the rest of the UK economy according to Tech Nation’s 2018 report. The digital tech sector is worth nearly £184 billion to the UK economy, up from £170 billion in 2016.

Cynthia: Figures in the report also show that there are more black, Asian and ethnic minority workers employed in tech, 15%, than the 10% working across the UK in general.

Julia: Thanks, Cynthia and Robert. The links to the research can be found on our website, That’s where you can find all our episodes and sign up for early notifications of future recordings. Please do follow us on Twitter @divercitypod, and DiverCity Podcast is available on BrightTALK and all good podcast channels. We’d love a rating because it all helps to promote the show.

We were talking there about role models, ‘if you can see it you can be it’, and the representation in the industry as well. But do we see enough diversity in the media? And in some of the marketing in the industry today?

Alison: The media representation of software engineers are quite typically a bunch of white male nerds who have no social skills and often a bad hairstyle. Actually, from the Second World War to the 1960s, the software engineering profession was considered clerical work, so it was mainly women who held the post. But a very interesting marketing campaign came out in the ’80s, which is when personal computers and game consoles came into the market. That campaign was aimed at boys, and from then on, we saw a very drastic shift in the number of men and women in the industry. If marketing and media can have such a powerful impact, why can’t we do something good with it?

Julia: It’s interesting you say that, because I think to me, and again, this isn’t based on any evidence, it’s just a feeling, that when it comes to marketing campaigns and media campaigns we’re ticking a few boxes, such as, have more women represented in pictures, but are we seeing the ethnic representation that we should be? I think we have to talk about race. It’s fascinating having you both here. You know, Alison, you were talking about your journey from Hong Kong to the UK, and Funke, being a very senior black solicitor in the industry as well. Tell us about your thoughts on race.

Funke: I see race very much as the elephant in the room. It’s such a sensitive subject. To bundle anyone of colour, which is a very loose term in itself, into this minority ethnic box, is oversimplifying what’s actually an incredibly complicated issue. I feel hugely encouraged by the level of discussions we’re having around race. I’ve seen a lot of investment in race initiatives, and starting with those really honest, open discussions. I feel slightly guarded that we’re still at the very beginning of what will be a long journey to get to a much better place of understanding around the intricacies of true racial representation in the marketplace.

Julia: Is there anything we can do to accelerate that discussion? The pace of change?

Funke: It’s having very strong commitment from leadership. Authentic commitment from leadership. Where I’ve seen this done really well is where you’ve had the CEO of the organisation, for example, in a reverse-mentoring relationship with, in one law firm’s case, it was an Afro-Caribbean trainee solicitor decided to be mentored by, and also reverse-mentor, the senior partner at the firm. They then shared that relationship, and how illuminating it was. There was a lot of educating on both sides, it’s all about understanding. It really is a sense of truly beginning to understand what it’s like to be in that other person’s shoes, and to build on that, to stand up for those who aren’t in a position to stand up for themselves.

Julia: Alison, as you sit here in the Square Mile, having made that move into the weird and wonderful world that is Financial Services and FinTech, are you optimistic? Or do you think we have a long way to go?

Alison: It’s quite interesting because I think we need to talk more about race. Talking about for example, white privilege to white people, can be difficult. But I am also very optimistic, because we’ve all heard about women in tech events, even though, at the moment, the racial representation may not be there yet, I think the fact that we’re having these conversations, highlighting areas that other people may not benefit as much as the generic white man, we also need to be optimistic that conversations about race, or age, or religion, or any kind of disability, also happen.

Julia: I completely agree. Maybe that’s one of the roles that we can fulfil. Just keep the discussion about race going. It’s been wonderful today. Thank you both so much for joining us, Alison and Funke. Thank you.

Alison: Thank you.

Funke: Thank you very much.

Kieron: This episode of the DiverCity Podcast was produced by me, Kieron Yates, on behalf of Julia Streets Productions. Thanks to Cynthia Akinsanya and Robert Pinto-Fernandes for their insights. You can find out more about the guests on this week’s show on our website, Whilst you are there, you can also sign up to our newsletter for all our latest updates.

To be sure of catching all our future podcasts, subscribe to our feed on iTunes, or your favourite podcast app. And, if you’ve enjoyed this episode DiverCity Podcast, remember to give us a rating or review. This all helps promote the show to a wider audience. Finally, our Twitter handle is @divercitypod. Thanks for listening.