Baroness Shriti Vadera of Holland Park
In 2014 Baroness Vadera was appointed as the first woman to chair a major UK bank. Her move to Santander follows a remarkable career that has seen her at the heart of banking, business and politics in the UK and abroad. We asked her about the global financial crisis, trouble in the Eurozone, the outlook for women in the workplace and the lessons she learnt from an exceptional childhood.
WHAT DO YOU SEE AS THE KEY MOMENTS IN YOUR CHILDHOOD?
My childhood experiences were very powerful. One of my earliest memories as a very young child was of my Ugandan nanny who was like a mother to me, crying because she did not have money to send her children to school and worrying that the money my family gave her would be taken by her husband to gamble and drink. It taught me the simple injustice that her children, who I played with every day, did not get the same opportunity as me to go to school. They were my friends, but in the eyes of the world were not my equals. I arranged with my grandmother that we would pay the school fees for her children directly to the school so she could afford an education for them.
Years later, in the early 90s, I advised the Government of Uganda on its external debt. It was a corrupt and chaotic situation and I took some personal risks to my safety in helping to clean it up. After that I became a debt relief campaigner, working with Oxfam and others. A decade later I advised the UK Treasury which led the way to provide debt relief for poor countries. As Uganda was the best organised, it became the first country to receive debt relief under the internationally agreed programme and they used the money to fund free education for all children. My life over three decades had come full circle and it was a profound moment standing at the back of the press conference in the IMF building in Washington when the agreement was announced.
HOW DID YOUR FAMILY’S BACKGROUND IN UGANDA, FLIGHT TO INDIA AND LATER SETTLEMENT IN THE UK AFFECT YOU PERSONALLY? DO YOU THINK IT HAS CONTRIBUTED TO YOUR OWN VIEWS AND INTERESTS WHEN IT COMES TO POLITICS AND BUSINESS?
I consider these experiences a privilege, however uncomfortable the memories of adult fear or being a stateless citizen are. I had a comfortable background and otherwise may not have gained any understanding of insecurity, injustice, poverty, knowing whatever you face there are those who face so much worse every day, seeing people fighting for their families’ needs despite their own fear. And I learned to be an outsider comfortable in my own skin. It has been a huge part of making me the person I am.
YOU WERE AT WARBURG THROUGH A REMARKABLE PERIOD IN THE FIRM’S GROWTH. WHAT LAY BEHIND WARBURG’S GREAT SUCCESS?
I chose Warburg when I was an undergraduate almost by accident because it had a team that advised developing countries, which seemed to me a neat combination of my financial bent and passion for development issues. The Warburg culture was very distinct and gave me the best possible grounding – it taught me that total integrity in all your professional dealings was an integral part of success, a real attention to detail and that only the best is good enough. I think Warburg’s success made it forget to look out to how the sector was changing and so it was not nimble enough to survive – a lesson to be remembered.
WHAT IS YOUR OWN TAKE ON THE CAUSES OF AND SOLUTIONS TO THE EURO CRISIS – IN A FEW WORDS?!
However complicated it seems, the distilled truth remains that despite the great progress made by some countries, others in the eurozone – and elsewhere – are overly indebted measured on any number of indicators. And economic history shows there are only so many ways to deal with sovereign indebtedness – default, restructure, inflate…
WHAT WAS IT LIKE PUTTING TOGETHER A BANKING RESCUE PACKAGE IN 2008?
2008 into the summer of 2009 was the most fraught period of my life and I still occasionally have nightmares about it. Over a couple of weekends, we had to force government capital onto some banks and guarantee the new funding of most of the others – measures that seem so obvious now but were unprecedented then. In fact we shocked many governments in Europe and the US even though they followed suit pretty swiftly. The London G20 Summit in April 2009, when we negotiated a $1 trillion liquidity package to give confidence to the markets, was also a day of high drama – a largely untold story for another time!
WHAT ARE YOUR HOPES AND PRIORITIES AT SANTANDER?
I joined Santander because I think Britain deserves a banking system that provides a better core service to ordinary households and SMEs (small and medium-sized enterprises). It is shocking that a sophisticated global financial centre does not provide a simpler, more fair offering to its domestic customers. The large incumbent banks have many challenges and the smaller challenger banks can cherry pick successfully. I thought Santander was a “scale challenger” that could be transformative in the sector and that had the values and ambition to do the best for its customers. I wanted to contribute to that journey.
HOW SIGNIFICANT DO YOU SEE THE FACT THAT YOU ARE THE FIRST WOMAN TO CHAIR A MAJOR UK BANK? DOES THAT PROVIDE ANY SPECIAL OPPORTUNITIES TO ENCOURAGE CHANGE?
I think the financial sector would perform better with more women at all levels, particularly senior ones where the proportions thin out even more. It is not just a matter of equality and political correctness, but of improved financial performance as a lot of research shows.
First and most obviously, the organisation gets to pick from a wider talent pool. But second, women change a number of things that are important to performance whether in the trading room or in the boardroom. The Hour Between Dog and Wolf by John Coates shows that a trading floor dominated by young men’s testosterone is subject to a volatility that does not perform as well in the long run as one with more women (and older men!) Margaret Heffernan’s Wilful Blindness is a very profound book on many levels but points to the importance of not giving in to group think and herd behaviour – not only can women think differently from men but, she argues, they are better at being prepared to stand out of the crowd, perhaps because they are more used to being on the outside. That makes for better discussion in the boardroom.
What I would say to women aspiring to any career, not just in finance, is that managers perceive the limits you feel inside you before they see your limits objectively. So don’t let limits imagined in your head cap the achievements reality might bring. And secondly, don’t imitate but be who you are. That includes, crucially, being a woman, which is in and of itself of unique value.