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An interview with Zahra Husain - Driving Diversity and the Bottom Line

Date: 18 July 2018

Zahra Husain has over ten years’ experience working in leveraged finance and is the co-founder of Humans in Finance, alongside her brother Asad Husain and friend Sarah Laitung. They champion professionals working in Financial Services “that are committed to a better society and world.”

Zahra was kind enough to moderate our event, Driving Diversity and the Bottom Line, in partnership with the Employers Network for Equality and Inclusion (enei). She had the difficult job of steering six powerful voices from Banking and Financial Services. Zahra sat down with us to discuss her experience of guiding the discussion and how she thinks Banking and Financial Services can learn from other industries to build meritocratic workforces that value talent from all backgrounds.

What was your main takeaway from the event? What do you hope that the audience left with?

Relative to other events that try to tackle the topic – I genuinely felt it was an inspiring evening, focusing on solutions and actual policies that can promote improved gender diversity through the ranks. 

A key takeaway for me was that aside from the moral argument or the business case – a balanced workforce actually improves the well-being of both men and women. The industry needs to embrace a more sustainable work ethic and certain policies designed to promote a balanced workforce (shared parental leave / flexible working for both men and women) certainly help to achieve that. I think the reducing the current “groupthink” at senior levels is something that needs to be urgently addressed as this, particularly in the financial services industry, has huge economic and social repercussions (as the financial crisis showed!). 

Overall, I left feeling positive and hopeful!

What advice would you give to a potential moderator? How do you direct so many different voices?

I worked with Selby Jennings and enei to prepare a list of questions that would guarantee an engaging discussion. I asked the panellists to list their top 3-5 questions to give me an idea of their particular areas of expertise, though I surprised them on the evening with which questions I directed at each panellist – I did not want our dialogue to seem rehearsed.

I would recommend having a conference call between the panellists and organisers, as we did, before the event to break the ice and help build a rapport. This helped negotiate the boundaries of the discussion and reassure any nerves! I think the best panels appear to be a natural, engaging conversation which I felt it was.

I structure questions in a related and relevant order to ensure a balanced number of responses. I planned to have two panellist responses for every questions, however some questions were more popular than others.

It is essential to engage the audience, for example, get a show of hands, or ask the panel their opinion on a perhaps more controversial topic. Gage their mood, if a few yawns appear, it’s time to wrap up the discussion and start the Q&A from the audience!

If you could share one thing about Humans in Finance, and the work that it does, what would it be? Where do you hope to see the organisation in five years’ time?

Humans in Finance is a social enterprise that celebrates inspirational people who currently, or previously did, work in finance. We champion these individuals via the power of story-telling and social media. Today our online community has grown to over 11 thousand. 

In the current climate of extreme division, populism and regressive public policies – we believe the financial services industry has tremendous potential power (and responsibility) to help create a better society and world. All that is needed is a change of mind-shift and we are doing our part to drive that very change! 

In 5 years’ time, we hope that we are able to unite financial services professionals and institutions themselves across the industry to solve common societal and global challenges. We hope to advocate changes that inspire the next generation to join our industry and we hope people everywhere can proudly say “I work in finance.”

How do you think your ‘outsider’ perspective can help Banking and Financial Services? 

Dipak Arya’s (a panellist speaker from BAE Systems) perspective was a great value-add and added an interesting dimension to the conversation. I think cross-industry conversations and sharing knowledge of best practices is a great way to find solutions to common challenges.  

How do you think the Recruitment industry is uniquely positioned to drive diversity and inclusion in organisations?

Given it is at the intersection of supply and demand for new and required talent, the recruitment industry has a tremendous responsibility in shaping the future of the workforce. I think the recruitment industry is best positioned to educate and “enlighten” senior management teams that often appear to be disconnected to these issues or not authentically committed to changing cultures / implementing the right policies for a more diverse workforce. In the long term, these companies will not be able to compete if they are unable to embrace the reality of our world today. 

Follow Humans in Finance on their website, Instagram and LinkedIn.