• Chantelle Kelly

One Size Doesn’t Fit All

Everyone's experience is different.

Courtesy of Chantelle Kelly - Institutional Sales at Lazard Asset Management

How did you know that you wanted to pursue a career in financial services?

The truth is, I didn’t. When I finished my A-Levels, I didn’t know if I wanted to stay on the conveyor belt called education that took me from one destination to the next. I was initially going to study Law at university but decided to take an impromptu gap year. During that year, I worked full-time at Waitrose in Canary Wharf, which is when I really got my first insight into finance. Working on the checkouts and seeing professionals in suits every day made me want to find out what they did all day in the tall glass buildings.

As I met people and approached them, because they would get the same items for lunch or pick up the same items for dinner, we started to build up some rapport. I was so curious. I would ask what investment banking or finance was, what they entailed or any of the actual opportunities available. Whilst on shift, I continually served a lady who recommended getting some professional work experience in finance to help me figure out where I could see myself, and that’s exactly what I did.

What was your first experience of corporate life?

It was working in the insurance sector and shadowing underwriters, which is different to what I do today. The type of work they were doing in terms of risk management was really interesting, but I didn’t really like the culture. For me, even ten years ago, the culture felt very dated and backwards-looking. I wanted to work in an environment that was more forward-looking than what I had seen in the insurance sector.

In my search for something more forward-looking, I connected with a recruiter who covered opportunities in insurance as well as other areas of finance to see what entry-level positions were available. The recruiter refused to onboard me and said that at some point, I would hit a ceiling due to my not having a degree. The thought of someone else dictating my future was frustrating. I decided straight away that I didn’t want to keep working at Waitrose, and the process of deciding on my degree began.

What did you end up studying?

After much thought, I ventured 200 miles north up to Manchester to study Economics and History, very different to the Law degree I had enrolled on for the year earlier. I continued to work at Waitrose part-time throughout my degree in both London and Manchester. On my return to the Canary Wharf branch during university holidays, I would bump into some of the people that I had seen and built up a good rapport with. They were so pleased to hear that I had not only done an internship in insurance but that I had secured an investment banking internship during my first year of study.

I was happy that I had been able to secure an internship in investment banking too, but for a different reason. The one thing that was very prominent at the time was the unemployment figures of students post-graduation. That was my motivation when I was in university - to secure an internship and not to become a statistic. I knew that the offer I received was a good one, so I made sure that I converted the spring internship into a summer internship and then a graduate role.

How did you find the transition from being a student to a full-time finance employee?

Having grown up in inner-city London where most of my friends and the kids in school and college were Black, one could easily assume that there was a cultural shock in transitioning to full-time work. I would actually say my biggest cultural shock occurred when I went to university. Moving into my halls of residence, life gave me a reality check: I didn’t come from a private school, I didn’t live in the home counties and I didn’t speak like everybody else. Plus, nobody looked like me. Ten years ago, Black students attending Russell Group universities wasn’t as common as other racial groups, and it was the same within the finance industry.

Even so, I didn’t particularly have an awareness of the challenges facing Black finance professionals until I started building relationships within the industry. That’s when I began to hear about the difficulty and struggle that Black people face within finance. Although the situation seemed to be improving, what tended to happen was retention and progression was very much about the survival of the fittest amongst the Black professionals. It was great that you got the job, but there was no guarantee that you were going to progress further.

How have colleagues and managers supported your career?

I’ve had good managers that haven’t reflected the negative aspects of being a Black professional in finance. They have been very supportive of me; they’ve encouraged me and given me space for my creativity. They’ve also been frank with me when I needed clear direction. There were no misconceptions in terms of expectations, output or objectives, and I respect that.

The one thing I would say is that my progression within a role and my team has been and is consistently based on a meritocratic culture. I’m not going to get far because of my skin colour or my gender, but, rather, because I’m good at what I do and have built something from that position. I’ve also never felt that me being a Black woman in finance is a negative factor. If anything, I’ve seen that as a positive with colleagues always ready to listen and to learn, especially when new stories relating to the Black community appear. To say that I’ve had a negative experience would be unfair. I would say that I fully understand that if I work hard, I can experience career progression just like any of my other colleagues.

The one thing that I am very passionate about is that the team that I join has a culture in which I can excel. It’s important that people put themselves in companies where they can grow and develop. What that means for me is that diversity, equity and inclusion is consistently evident during the interview process. So, if I were to interview or meet with teams that aren’t inclusive, that’s not a team I want to work in because I know that I won’t be successful in that environment. Having said that, I haven’t been in a firm or team that has detracted from my potential.

Everyone’s experience is going to be different, and that’s why it really important to share my experiences. That’s something that I want everyone that’s in the finance industry and looking to enter the industry to remember. Yes, current statistics are disappointing in terms of senior Black professionals; however, that should not be a deterrent. From someone that had no real career plan and made sure that I didn’t become a statistic when I left university, anything is possible. I want people to read my story and hear that if you have the raw ingredients to be successful over time, things will work themselves out as opposed to you receiving opportunities or being successful because of your gender or your race.

Chantelle Kelly - Institutional Sales at Lazard Asset Management

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