‘It is almost impossible to go all the way without ambition and drive’

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Smithi Sharma Atelier WIF

In our latest Women in Finance Interview, Tony Sanchez speaks to Smithi Sharma.

Smithi is the ESG and assurance manager at Atelier, with a background in anti-financial crime and internal controls. She ensures that Atelier’s affairs are conducted with the highest ethical standards and believes that responsible lending does not mean sacrificing performance.

Having joined Atelier in March 2020, one week before the UK went into lockdown, Smithi helped Atelier set up its business continuity plan, implemented an ISO 9001 accredited quality management system, strengthened anti-financial crime controls, initiated a first-of-its-kind sustainable finance pilot product (https://carbonlitechallenge.co.uk/), and is now developing Atelier’s ESG Playbook.

Putting herself at the forefront of the ESG transformation of the industry has been a priority for Smithi, and she is being relied upon as a subject matter expert in her field.

What brought you into financial services?

I am a creative by nature, but I am also very analytical, and did not have a clue what I wanted to pursue when I was young!

There came a point in my life where I had to make a choice for my future and, not so controversially, I ended up graduating with a banking and finance degree.

After a few temp finance jobs, a female lead at a start-up BTL mortgage lender snapped me up and put me in a higher position than the one I had applied for – an Underwriter.

Six months in, I realised mortgage underwriting was too robotic for my personality type, and that’s when I sidestepped into the world of anti-financial crime, and business ethics.

I realised there is a whole world within the industry that goes beyond what people think of when one says, “I work in Financial Services”.

What do you think makes a successful leader? And in particular women leaders?

A successful leader is one that owns their domain, optimises the capabilities of those around them, respects their staff, has a great sense of humour, and strong interpersonal skills.

From my experience, anyone of any gender is a great leader when they have all of these skills.

I think the industry is positively evolving in its reception and perception of women in leadership roles, in that as long as she is good at what she does, she is respected.

There is still a long way to go in terms of getting more women in more powerful positions, but we are headed in the right direction, for sure!

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

I most enjoy roles that involve many spinning plates and are everchanging.

For this reason, I found that my biggest barrier has been staying current, whilst having the knowledge required to be a subject matter expert.

To fulfil this role properly, my most obvious challenge has been to stay on top of current affairs, incoming changes, and horizon scanning, and this has meant that research, education and continued personal development are my three best friends.

I am also in what is recognised as an “emerging” area of the industry (ESG), which has meant that the sector outputs are vast, constant, sometimes contradictory, and not tested half as much (or at all) as one would hope if they were to try and apply something to their business, so trusting myself has been another challenge.

My CEO does a great job of encouraging me, though! However, this also means there are some glaringly obvious industry problems that nobody has solutions to yet.

As a result, innovation is its own kind of challenge.

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

It is fun! When I was younger, I thought this industry would bore me, but I have had so much fun doing what I am doing and building my career thus far!

What’s your own personal mantra?

Passion is fuel. A little cliché, but it is almost impossible to go all the way without ambition and drive.

Whether it is focused on a specific subject (in my case, all things ESG) or simply a passion to get things done and reach your full potential, without that element of desire and belief, things will seldom flourish.

Find out what makes you feel like that and do more of it.

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

They don’t say “work hard, play hard” for no reason.

When I’m working, I am on full power and when I’m not working, I fill my time with events/people/food I love.

It’s also essential to understand your own personal stress levels and triggers, in order to control burnout or dissatisfaction.

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

Planning and preparation. Sounds basic but the power of planning should not be underestimated.

Arranging my whole list of to-dos, categorising, colour coding (visualising), putting tasks in order of criticality, diarising meetings (sometimes with myself!), the full works.

This has led to the optimisation of so many of my focus areas and assisted me in delivering some largescale outputs within my role.

It also goes back to my point about research and education, but also curiosity.

Before meetings, I like to spend at least the preceding 15 minutes (or of course more depending on the scale of the meeting) pre-empting questions I might get asked, so that I can be equipped with answers.

This mindset has markedly increased my professionalism and the way I build working relationships, as well as how I am regarded and respected in my working capacity.

One more tip: if I am looking to train someone, I sit down and think about exactly what would’ve helped me or what I wish someone had created when I was learning about the same thing, and then I try to incorporate that in any guidance or instruction that I create for that purpose or that trainee.

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

1) Take yourself seriously, and 2) don’t conform.

Naturally, some of us feel like we have to switch on a different personality in order to be seen as credible in workplace, and I just don’t think it is worth it.

Often, a prosperous and fruitful career is built not only on the quality of your contribution to a business, but also your unique attributes, amiability, and positivity. I think it is important to remember this because authenticity goes a long way.

What do you think is holding women back and what can organisations do to address this?

Gender disparity. It’s no secret that women are outnumbered by their male counterparts in the financial services industry and beyond entry level, you see fewer women reaching c-suite positions.

Closing this gap should be one of the top priorities of every business as part of their ESG strategy, and there is a long journey ahead of us to get this viewed as a business norm/requirement.

Where there is a disproportionate number of women in an organisation, part of the solution is to have a structure in place for more experienced people/management (of any gender) to act as mentors to younger or less experienced women, and not be afraid to provide platforms or champion the female talent within their business.

All of this is a product of culture shift which is arguably the toughest thing to change in a workplace.

Do you think there is still a glass ceiling?

Whilst I have not directly (that I know of) experienced this in my career (up to this point), saying that the glass ceiling no longer exists would be disregarding the experiences of a majority of women that are still having to experience this.

It’s critical to look at current facts and figures when you assess such topics, as they speak for themselves.

Statistically, something is stopping women getting to the higher positions, and whether it’s a glass ceiling or any other version of this term, it exists and it is prevalent.

Any positive experience I have will not change that fact.

What are your thoughts on the Women in Finance Charter? 

I think anything that shines a light on the pursuit of gender balance within the industry is beneficial.

It is always a plus when a pledge calls for accountability in the way that the WIF charter calls for targets and annual publishing of progress, but I do think this is more suitable for medium to large organisations.

Smaller companies or start-ups in this industry should start by encouraging female applicants whenever they announce vacancies, ensuring that they have female representation in their boards/committees, and then look at the charter (along with further research) to understand what else they can implement.

How do we encourage more women into financial services? 

In my opinion, the issue is not about encouraging women into financial services, it is actually to give the women in the industry the right (and fair) opportunities once they’re in these roles, so that they can excel into the management and leadership positions where you see the highest disparity.

What is your biggest achievement to date? (

By far, my greatest professional achievements have been in my current role at Atelier.

I have had a natural yet accelerated transition into a subject I feel very passionate about, earned the certificate for business sustainability management via the Cambridge Institute for Sustainability Leadership, was trusted with leading and contributing to key initiatives within the business, and have really found my footing.

Just enjoying the ride at the moment!