In her professional life, Farah Shaikh has never knowingly faced discrimination because of her gender. If she has, she says it probably wouldn’t have bothered her because she’s already had to overcome some of the biggest challenges in her life. She tells Sanne Wass her story.
A born problem-solver, Farah Shaikh has already achieved much in her short life. As a vice-president of trade finance at Crown Agents Bank in London, over the past two and a half years she has built a trade operations team from scratch, spearheaded the implementation of new processes and systems, and helped the business more than double its trade revenues.
Certainly no mean feat for someone who, until her late 20s, had never even been allowed to venture alone outside of Baroda, the small city in western India where she grew up.
Having been raised within a conservative Muslim family, the 36-year-old faced restrictions in her youth. “I remember in my school and university, I was not allowed to talk to boys, and I never stayed out late. I was shy and had a very closed group of friends. That was the culture. At one point I was even worried I would never be allowed to work,” she says.
Nevertheless, Shaikh always had high ambitions for her personal and professional life. She wanted to be self-reliant, have a career and help her parents financially. And if she was ever to get married, it would only be to someone who shares her values and approach to life.
In pursuing these goals, Shaikh would become quite an exception in her family. “I was the first woman in my family to work, get married to a man from a different religion and eventually settle outside India,” she explains.
When she graduated with a master’s degree in commerce, accounting and finance from the Maharaja Sayajirao University of Baroda in 2005, it took a great deal of convincing before her parents allowed her to take the job that she was offered at ABN Amro.
But her career success gradually made them proud: within three years, she had become a manager in the bank. In 2008 she was recruited by HSBC to set up its trade finance department in Baroda.
As for the man she loved, who she had met at school and later went to university with, it took many years for Shaikh’s family to approve of and support their relationship. Their blessing was ultimately what led her to move to London in 2011, where he had found a job. They married soon after.
“Imagine me telling my parents I wanted to go all the way to London,” Shaikh says. She laughs as she recalls the first time she went to Mumbai – a train ride away from her home town – for a training session with HSBC. “My brother came with me because my family would not send me alone.”
Thriving on challenges
In London, Shaikh was hired by Zenith Bank, where, over the course of five years, she rose through the ranks, from trade finance officer, to supervisor, to assistant manager. In early 2017 she was approached by Crown Agents Bank, where she was offered the role she holds today.
Her tenacity has shone through in her professional life too. Having already overcome two of the biggest challenges in her life, it seems she thrives when things become difficult.
“I have worked with people who just do what they have been doing for ages and ages. But I like changes and challenges – otherwise I get bored. So I keep doing different things. I want to bring the change, not just sit and wait for it,” Shaikh says.
Throughout her career she has repeatedly won internal awards and recognition for her performance, including a ‘best client service’ award at HSBC and a ‘best employee’ award at Zenith Bank. She says it’s something that has boosted her confidence along the way.
Her move to Crown Agents Bank provided just the kind of challenge she was looking for, as she was charged with the significant task of building and optimising the bank’s trade operations business. “When I joined, they were using several different Excel sheets and three systems,” she says. “So the first thing I did was to stop all the duplications and put everything into one system. We used to have piles and piles of printed files, but we got rid of all the paper. Suddenly, a transaction which used to take five hours could be done in an hour. Our turnaround time really improved.”
Her main advice to other women? “Just believe in yourself,” Shaikh says. “I always had confidence in my abilities but was at times nervous if I would get opportunities to pursue my goals in life. Neither my family nor my friends believed that I could work, or get married to a person outside my religion. It took me years to believe in myself, but when I decided ‘I’m going to do this’, I got what I wanted. I feel immensely satisfied to see what I have achieved personally and professionally, and my family is today very proud.”
More articles in GTR’s Women in Trade Finance series:
Catherine Lang-Anderson: “Flexibility is not just an issue for women”
Silja Calac: “Don’t be afraid of making mistakes”
Alisa DiCaprio: “How we do trade finance today is not how we’ll do it in five years”
Sian Aspinall: “We owe it to the next generation”
Lorna Pillow: “There are no superwomen; there are only women who have support”
Emma Clark: “No one tells you that trade finance can be really fun”
Natalie Blyth: “Being the colour of the wall isn’t enough”