Sacha Romanovitch can look back to various influences and inspirations but Great Aunt Monica stands out. In the 1930s Monica worked at Coutts Bank, where she noticed that the men were given beer at lunchtime but the women were not. Monica went to her doctor and successfully obtained a prescription advising her employer to give her beer at lunchtime too. The result was half a pint of Guinness daily – and a lesson she was able to pass on to her niece.
“She always believed that I could do anything,” says Sacha, who grew up in Surbiton. “I was lucky with my family too. I was adopted direct from care at 18 months and my adoptive brother and sister were both very gifted – one studied PPE at Keble and the other is now a half-colonel in the army.”
For Romanovitch, however, chemistry beckoned, thanks in great part to a charismatic teacher at her secondary grammar. The experience sparked a lifelong interest in the way things work. The combination of chemistry and Somerville was, she says, especially fortuitous.
“Studying Chemistry at Oxford, you were given space to think and to question,” says Romanovitch. “As for Somerville, I grew up in a kind of matriarchy, attended an all-girls school and was now at a women-only College. So it never occurred to me that I couldn’t do things because I was a woman – a mixed College might have been different.”
Little wonder, then, that she was dead set against the introduction of men to the College, a “terrible” move she campaigned against on the basis that society still feels unequal, giving women-only institutions a remarkable capacity to empower the marginalised sex.
“For my sister at Oxford, the girls’ rowing crews inherited their boats second-hand from the men,” says. “But at Somerville, there was of course not a whiff of that. And it really didn’t matter how you looked coming down to breakfast.”
In her fourth year Romanovitch began to prosper academically, enjoying the opportunities thrown up by a full year of lab research. (Finances were another matter – grants didn’t quite cover everything, so she made and sold ball dresses.) On the night of her 21st birthday, Romanovitch was working overnight in the inorganic chemistry lab studying solid state reactions.
“It was the first time I got evidence of the chemical reaction in solids – using UV light,” says Romanovitch. “And I clearly remember tutorials with Margaret Adams and Jo Peach, as they would always ask you questions. I think that’s crucial – in my job now, I use the coaching technique of asking people questions in order to get them to think, rather than just giving them the answers.”
Chemistry in the City
As well as a succession of world-class chemists, Somerville chemists have excelled in a number of other fields, such as politics (Margaret Thatcher or Lucy Powell) and business (Val Rahmani and Nicola Ralston). Behind that success lie some exceptional Chemistry Fellows – but might the subject have helped too?
“Chemists are great to hire because they not only have an inquiring mindset, but also the scientific discipline of experimentation,” she says. “In the business world, to really succeed you’ve got to be prepared to fail; in science, failure is part of the process – you learn by testing things out. There is something quite visceral about it.”
Romanovitch began to consider a career in accountancy when Mary Keegan (1971, Physics) visited her old College to speak on the world of work. She was, Romanovitch says, “a smart, sparky woman” – just the kind of inspiration a young student needed.
Romanovitch received various offers from the big firms but took a position with a small accountancy practice in Windsor – their passion and energy won her over. Girls-only education had insulated her from the usual workplace inequities but, even at her new company, two of the seven in her year group were women – not bad odds for the time.
“Only when I became a manager did I begin to notice that meetings were full of men,” she says. “I joined Grant Thornton in 1994, and in 2001 I was appointed the company’s first female audit partner in London. Just two of the sixty partners were women.”
Although she sees her work with Access Accountancy as addressing even greater inequalities across the profession than the male-female divide, Romanovitch is not unaware of the potential impact of her latest appointment.
“It gives you the voice to advocate for change and to lead in a way that changes the culture,” says Romanovitch. “An even number of men and women join our firm at entry level, yet by senior management level the balance shifts – so much comes back to children. We need to change the working world so that the load – and reward – is more evenly distributed.”
Grant Thornton was notable for promoting Romanovitch onto its seven-member leadership team in 2007 while on maternity leave with her second child. (Her husband is now primary carer.) The managing partner called to ask her to head ‘People and Culture’, with a remit to attract and retain great people.
“By the time my second was just nine weeks old I was presenting my vision to a full partner conference in Paris,” she says.
A major new challenge appeared in the form of the global financial crisis. Suddenly many of the company’s traditional clients – fast-moving, dynamic, acquisitive businesses – were no longer acquiring and growing. True to her questioning spirit, Romanovitch combed the company for ideas and suggestions – the company had to be nimble but it still had skills in high demand.
“We became very involved in remediation work with the banks, looking at what had gone wrong, who lost out and whether they had settled with people appropriately,” she says. “GT worked with the IMF to agree measures and monitoring around systemic banking failures such as those in Greece.”
Grant Thornton had broadened its remit, turning advisor as well as accountant. It meant, Romanovitch says, a chance to shape the market as well as operating within it. As a result, GT became a voice for mid-sized UK business – “the ones the growth needs to come from.”
This ability to seek out new opportunities and reimagine one’s work may yet prove to be her greatest asset when Romanovitch takes over in June. She has spoken publicly on the difference between managing and leading. The latter, she says, requires the vision to see what is happening in the market and to work out what the company’s purpose should therefore be, and the ability to inspire people to bring out their best in working towards that purpose.
It doesn’t take a Great Aunt Monica to see that Romanovitch is – in both senses – a leader in waiting.