In our ninth podcast episode in series 1 of “Conversations With Coopman”, Mariam Akanbi, General Counsel at ARCH Emerging Markets Partners Limited (ARCH) and Co-Founder of Black Women in Asset Management (BWAM) joins co-hosts Andrew Murphy and William McCoppin to discuss diversity and inclusion in asset management.
ARCH is an owner-managed investment advisory firm founded in 2018 that specialises on private equity opportunities across EM jurisdictions. At ARCH, Mariam is responsible for all aspects of the company’s legal functions. She is also secretary to the ARCH investment advisory committees and oversees ARCH’s company secretarial function. Prior to this, Mariam trained in private practice as an investment funds lawyer and has extensive experience in advising clients on fund formation, fund raising, and fund operation matters. Mariam also co-founded BWAM, a non-profit industry organisation that seeks to connect and empower Black women. BWAM’s mission is to champion the positive impact of the talented Black women who work in asset management and to provide them with the tools to thrive in order to advance to senior leadership roles.
In this episode, Mariam shares how she started her career in private equity and the changes she has seen, not only in her own role as General Counsel but also the wider investment industry. Mariam also provides excellent advice for the investment community in creating a more diverse and inclusive workforce, before finally discussing the great work that they are doing at BWAM and the exciting plans they have for the future.
Key takeaways from the conversation include:
THE EVOLVING ROLE OF GENERAL COUNSEL
Mariam didn’t know about private equity (PE) when she was studying at university but became aware of the industry through an internship. She secured a training contract in a pan European law firm, with the majority of her time spent in the investment fund practice. Since then, Mariam has had an interest in emerging markets and impact investing. Now, as General Counsel at ARCH, Mariam’s role covers fund formation, legal oversight and deal structuring along with all of the company’s legal matters.
The role of an in-house General Counsel is wide and varied, and it is starting to change too. It is becoming more focused on business advisory, on being commercial and advising the business on current and evolving risks. It is now not just about fixing problems but understanding investing expectations.
CHANGES IN THE PRIVATE EQUITY & ASSET MANAGEMENT SPACE
Developed finance institutions have looked at Environmental, Social and Governance (ESG) and made the commitments to report on this, however there has been more of a focus on E & G and now more investors such as pension funds and institutional investors are looking at S.
For example, the Institutional Limited Partners Association (ILPA) that represents limited partners for PE, launched a recent programme looking at how diversity can be assessed. While the recent European regulation, the Sustainable Finance Disclosure Regulation (SFDR) focuses on sustainability and keeping investment firms accountable in this area.
A number of firms have been doing this well however some have played up to it, so it’s important to look at ESG holistically and the evidence of what it is that they are doing.
ENSURING DIVERSITY IN RECRUITMENT
There are many ways that this can be looked at but having a broad base of professionals has been proven to be beneficial to any business. At the grassroots, it’s important to look at universities not normally considered, or to look past MBAs and at people who are from different jurisdictions or changing their careers as they may possess transferable skills of great value to the business.
It is also important to be less narrow focused when it comes to the recruitment practice as a whole, for example an attribute such as resilience can be an asset to a firm outside of what is usually expected from candidates. By looking beyond typical backgrounds you will start to see other aspects of a candidate that can make them equally viable and capable.
Companies need to have this conversation with their recruitment partners in order to ensure they can provide a more diverse talent pool whilst also being cognisant of this in the recruitment process themselves.
THE KEY TO CREATING AN INCLUSIVE CULTURE
While Mariam’s own experience was very positive, she highlights that after recruitment, inclusion is key. The experience from people who are from ethnic minorities or from people who may be different not only contributes to the success of an organisation, but often sees it thrive.
Integration is key for an inclusive culture and it shouldn’t be the burden of the person who is different but on the firm that is bringing people in. While having a diversity and inclusion policy for recruitment is important, it is also equally important to have a diversity and inclusion policy for existing staff. Training around implicit bias and having the processes in place for explicit bias that allows people to call out when something is wrong or put their hand up when they feel something isn’t right is what companies need to encourage and support.
It is about creating a culture that accepts difference and doesn’t promote assimilation amongst the workforce and opening up your employee base to allow people to feel comfortable in being themselves. For the firms that don’t do this, there will be a level of attrition where people don’t feel they belong and ultimately a loss of very good talent.
INSIGHTS INTO THE WORK OF BWAM
BWAM was founded in 2019, and it began through a chance meeting between Mariam and her Co-Founder, Jacqueline Taiwo. They wanted to see if there were more Black women in the industry so they could foster peer engagement and peer support.
BWAM started off with ad hoc meetings and private dining room dinners to allow people to connect, network and support each other. That support is something that is key for institutions trying to drive diversity and inclusion. The power of cultural capital and the feeling of belonging are vital for people to integrate into the workforce and a minority or person that is different cannot generate that sense of feeling on their own.
BWAM is fostering the feeling of belonging and showcasing the work that Black women are doing in the industry, as well as providing tools to enable them to thrive. Networking events, career events and development workshops are now important offerings available to members of BWAM, as well a number of key notes from female fund managers who are at the top of their careers. The group also run outreach initiatives to move the needle in terms of asset management and its reach, partnering with organisations with university students and intern candidates and early career women who themselves are trying to achieve a sense of belonging.
Recently BWAM launched the Leadership Accelerator Programme to support Black women who are significantly underrepresented at leadership level. The programme aims is to help women to articulate their aims in the industry and accelerate their careers, encouraging more diverse leadership at the top of organisations. Being able to see yourself at the top at a later stage in your career is vital for career progression.
In order for ESG to be successful the focus needs to be on the S. That means that including the diversity and inclusion piece is essential for organisations, within the asset management sector but also across the entire industry. For companies in the investment community, partnering with groups such as BWAM can enable them to really focus on and drive their diversity and inclusion commitment and to develop their people as future business leaders.
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