‘If I can’t do it, no one else can’

By -

Uliana Kuzmis Octopus Real Estate wif

In our latest Women in Finance Interview, Tony Sanchez speaks to Uliana Kuzmis, Head of Development Finance (Light) at Octopus Real Estate.

Uliana is a credit and real estate specialist with over 19 years’ experience in underwriting, development finance and credit risk.

She is currently working in the Development Finance team at Octopus Real Estate as the Head of Development Light, managing a team of talented underwriters and leading the Development Light product.

Development Light finances various projects, from heavy refurbishment to ground up multiple unit developments, with loans ranging from £2m – £5m.

What brought you into financial services?

I have always been fascinated by finance and economics. I had a three-piece suit ready for my work in the financial sector when I was 16!

My BA was in economics and journalism and I started my career in finance by working in a bank’s call centre as mortgage advisor. Everything else spiralled from there.

What do you think makes a successful leader?

Happy employees lead to a successful business, so empowering and trusting your team is key.

The more you invest in people the more it will pay off in the long run.

Give your team the skills they need and rely on them to do their job well.

And in particular women leaders?

I believe by their nature women have a great capacity to be nurturing leaders.

In my opinion, this makes them well placed to develop thriving teams.

What are the biggest barriers you have faced in your career in financial services?

My career in property finance and then in development finance has progressed quite rapidly over the years, with no significant barriers.

Perhaps the most challenging period for me was 11 years ago when I returned from maternity leave to take on a new position as property finance credit manager.

There was little consideration given to the fact that I was a new first-time mum, breastfeeding and taking care of my new-born baby alone (my husband was working abroad at that time).

That was pretty tough. Luckily, times have changed; wellness and flexible working are the new norm and employers generally acknowledge the need to take care of their employees better in order to retain talent.

If you could tell your younger self one thing you know about business now, what would it be? 

Business is not rocket science!

Do not be afraid to acknowledge that you do not know something and you need help.

Reach out to the right people and ask the right questions.

Your personal and professional growth is your own affair, take ownership and become the best by learning from the source.

What’s your own personal mantra?

When I was a student I was approached by a manager of a blind students’ centre in the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, who asked me to take a group of visually impaired students and prepare them for government exams in history.

I had never taught history. Indeed, I had never taught, full stop.  He explained his requirements and at the end of the meeting he asked: “Do you think you can do it?” My reply was: “If I can’t do it, no one else can.

What do you think is key for finding a successful work-life balance?

The secret to successful work-life balance is in trusting your team and prioritising your recovery time.

The more you invest in your recovery the better you perform during your working hours.

Being physically active massively helps with recharging, managing stress levels and being more balanced.

What’s one key leadership lesson you’ve learned along the way?

Look after your team, and they will look after your business.

What advice do you have for women aiming for leadership positions?

Ask yourself if leadership is something you really want to do and will enjoy doing. It’s not for everyone. If it’s your thing, then go for it!

You are capable of more than you think. Show initiative, come forward with ideas and solutions. Put yourself forward, because no one else will.

What do you think is holding women back?

Partly it’s themselves. Men apply for a job when they meet only 60% of the qualifications, but women apply only if they meet 100% of them (as reported by Hewlett Packard).

We are holding ourselves back until we are confident we are 100% right for the position.

Forget that! Think like a man and apply for leadership roles!

Do you think there is still a glass ceiling?

Yes, there is and yet partially it’s our own doing. See the previous question.

What are your thoughts on the Women in Finance Charter? 

I think we are moving in the right direction. Perhaps this will encourage corporates to look deeper into the human resources they have and identify women that can and should be promoted, even though they might not be the loudest in the room.

There is a lot of power and drive within the female workforce which often isn’t obvious.

How do we encourage more women into financial services? 

I don’t think there is a lack of women in financial services.

We just need to encourage and develop the existing female potential. Having more women in leadership roles is key to ensure we have enough role models to inspire younger generation.

The gender pay gap is only second worst to the construction industry. What can organisations do to address this?

Creating salary bands for each position would be a good start.

These should be linked to specific positions and years’ experience in the relevant industry.

Scrapping previous salary details from the interview process would also go a long way to help with this.

Otherwise, we risk perpetuating historical discrimination and practices, and will continue to undervalue the contribution that female employees make to companies.

What is your biggest achievement to date?

About three years into my banking career at the age of 25 I applied for an opportunity to fly out to Eilat, Israel, to manage a mortgages branch while their general manager was on maternity leave.

I got the job! The youngest branch manager in the history of the bank!

I remember boarding that plane, looking around me and thinking: “How on earth am I going to do that, I am just a girl!”.

I arrived at the branch and found it in a pretty sad state. The newly hired team had had no training and no motivation, the departing manager was too tired to care, and the branch had one of the most awful reputations in the country.

I rolled up my sleeves and got straight to work. Daily training sessions with the team as soon as we shut the branch doors to get their knowledge up to speed.

New processes in place, customer service and quality control.

Within a few months we had borrowers queueing outside the front door way ahead of the branch opening hours.

The lawyers tried to get a slot in the branch after hours to get their deals through faster. The productivity and completions increased 240%!

The team were so proud of their work, you couldn’t get them out of the branch to go home in the afternoon!

On the expiry of my term, I was asked to take permanent position as branch manager. I refused.

The original branch manager was coming back from her maternity leave, and I felt that it would have been unethical for me to take her job.

Octopus signed the Women in Finance Charter in September 2021. Sponsored by HM Treasury, the Women in Finance Charter is a pledge for gender balance across financial services.

The Charter asks financial services firms to commit to four industry actions to prepare their female talent for leadership positions: 

  • Having one member of our senior executive team who is responsible and accountable for gender, diversity and inclusion
  • Setting internal targets for gender diversity in our senior management
  • Publishing progress against these targets each year in reports on our website
  • Having an intention to ensure the pay of the senior executive team is linked to delivery against these internal targets on gender diversity 

Octopus is committed to a 50/50 gender split across senior roles by May 2025.