Reboot: It’s not down to diverse team members to encourage inclusivity

State Street's Hannah Smith shares the challenges and opportunities in her career so far

Financial firms need to be cognisant of relying on the diverse members of their teams to encourage inclusive practices, said Hannah Smith head of Nordics at SPDR ETFs, part of State Street, in this latest Reboot video.

In the latest episode of this series, where ESG Clarity and Reboot celebrate ethnic minorities making a mark on the corporate world, Smith discusses the importance of sponsorship and how it changed her career, as well as why some ethnic minorities push back on being involved in diversity initiatives.

Please note ‘reboot.’ has rebranded to ‘Reboot’.

To see the full Reboot. series run by ESG Clarity click here

The full transcript of the video is below:

NK: Hello, I’m Natalie Kenway, global head of ESG insight at ESG Clarity and welcome back to this video series we’re running in conjunction with Reboot, the initiative that allows us to hear from inspiring ethnic minorities that are making a mark in the corporate world. Today, I am delighted to be joined by Hannah Smith, vice president of ETF sales at State Street. Thanks so much for coming in for our first interview in the studio for Reboot.

So with race discrimination still unfortunately an issue within financial services consciously or unconsciously, how have you got to where you are today? Tell us a bit about your background.

HS: In terms of my background, I studied maths at university and then during the course of doing my degree, I was thinking about what I wanted to do. I didn’t know a lot about the finance industry, but during the milk rounds we had, an organisation called CEOs Sponsorship for Ethnic Opportunity  came around and they started speaking about finance, specifically investment banking, and it piqued my interest. I thought ‘that sounds really interesting’. When I was studying, I was always very hardworking and I always knew I didn’t want a role where it would just be a 9 to 5. I wanted to give more and to be fully engrossed in whatever I was doing. And so then for me, investment banking sounded right up my street and what I wanted to do. Then I started looking for internship opportunities and it was very easy for me to get job interviews, but where I was failing was not in securing an internship.

I’d go to these interviews. My credentials were obviously supportive of the role being a math graduate, but I just kept getting rejected. I’d find I’d go to interviews and I didn’t have that natural rapport like a lot of my classmates that went to the same schools or their dads knew somebody, whereas for me it was I’d go there and I’d really struggle to find common ground. I just wasn’t really getting that rapport.

But I think what really helped me was my self-belief was I thought I’m good enough to be here, I’m super smart and if everybody else is able to get these opportunities, why not me? And that’s what really kept me motivated and that’s what ultimately allowed me to secure my first offer because I didn’t give up.

I think for a lot of people who maybe wouldn’t have that self-belief – I don’t know where I got it from, I was just like super resilient – for a lot of people it would be very easy to just think ‘okay, this isn’t for me’. But for whatever reason I just kept going.

NK: Well, fantastic. It’s interesting to hear about that and that the some of these programs we’re talking about in the financial services industry coming out to young people are actually working because you’re here now.

So what would you say are the barriers for progression for ethnic minorities to progress in this industry? And maybe talk about some of the challenges mentioned, some challenges you’ve had already, but have you been in anything else, what you’ve overcome?

HS: I’d say probably the two key challenges I faced was a lack of role models within the industry and then also a lack of sponsorship.

And I guess I’ll talk about those separately, but as I mentioned before, it was very difficult for me. When I was interviewing, there was nobody who looked like me, who had the same experiences as me, and so that was a barrier in itself. And actually, I probably didn’t elaborate during the answer to the first question, so I kept having these rejections, but it was through this organisation, SEO, who facilitated interviews with Goldman Sachs, and it was after having their support and they gave me a bit of guidance as well in terms of like interview prep, that’s when I was able to secure a full-time job offer. So without that, maybe I wouldn’t be where I am, well I definitely wouldn’t be where I am today. So super grateful that programs like that existed before. It’s not like it is today where I think there’s a lot more focus on inclusion and diversity, but back then it was a real rarity to have that support. So I’m super grateful for that.

Secondly, sponsorship. When I think about my career where it’s really elevated is when I’ve had somebody sponsor me, a senior executive. And there’s a real difference between sponsorship and mentorship. A mentor is somebody that’ll give you advice and they’ll give you guidance, whereas sponsors do that, but they also advocate for you in the rooms that you’re not in.

So it’s CEOs and senior executives on the management committee, they are the ones who will advocate for you and put you forward for opportunities.

NK: thanks for explaining the difference.

HS: Yes there is a real key difference. When I was younger, I didn’t even know what it meant. I was like, why would somebody advocate for me who doesn’t know you, like what’s in it for them?

I think a lot of ethnic minorities struggle with that as well, because I think often it will come naturally for other individuals. Somebody will sponsor them and it won’t necessarily be someone named officially as a sponsor, but it’s just somebody who sees something in you and advocates for you.

For me two key times it happened was firstly my global head of marketing she said do you want to go on Bloomberg? And I was like, I don’t know, but ok! I was super nervous. The self-doubt creeps but I said yes and thought I’d figure it out later. That was a real turning point in my career because it really elevated me in terms of the visibility, the new opportunities and the recognition as well internally. If she hadn’t have done that, I may never have had that opportunity and it might not have opened the doors, which it subsequently did.

Secondly, I recently got promoted to head of Nordics, and it was after sponsorship from the CEO we did, similar to this actually, a speaking series. I spoke about some of my experience and he really took a liking to me and off the back of that, new opportunities opened up and my manager’s manager said that they were going to sponsor me for this new role to develop within the organisation.

NK: Well clearly you are a natural at this! So you have mentioned sponsorship. Is that something you would say that firms need to get more involved with to be more inclusive? Is there anything else that you’d recommend?

HS: Yes, so I should probably highlight that actually some firms with the organisations and programs are doing now, they will pair individuals with sponsors, I think that’s a really good thing and I think it’s something that should continue because as I said, sometimes sponsorship happens naturally for some, but not necessarily all the time for ethnic minorities due to the lack of role models and senior executives. Normally it’s with somebody that you have a relationship with and you get on with and that just given the lack of senior ethnic minorities within the workplace, there’s less opportunity for that to happen for more junior ethnic minority employees.

So I’d say setting up structured programs where individuals can be paired with a sponsor and are educated about it because I didn’t know what one was until I went through my various programs and experienced it firsthand. I would also say having I think a lot of the time after 2020 when there was a big focus on inclusion and diversity and a lot of companies pledged a whole lot, I don’t remember half of what it was, but it was like a fight to say what each organisation was going to do – they  were lining up. Actually two years down the line, where are the results? What have we seen?

NK: They have all gone quiet with the gender pay gaps reports coming out

HS: Yeah, exactly. Some of the loudest firms have the worst internal records. So I think it’s not just about saying something and being on the front covers, it’s about the actual action that you take internally and actually investing in these programs, investing in a workforce that can drive this forward. Personally, what I found is a lot of the work falls on ethnic minorities because they are passionate about it and they do it alongside their day job.

But actually, I was talking to a friend yesterday who said she actually really pushed back on it. She’s an ethnic minority female but pushed back because she said ‘yeah, it’s great you want to hear from me and you want to hear about all my experiences and all the trauma, but actually this is just an additional job that I’m not getting paid for that’s distracting, detracting from my actual job, which is where I’m getting measured’.

Organisations need to be cognisant of that and not put so much emphasis on ethnic minorities to solve the problem and actually invest in teams which do that work.

NK: It’s for everybody to get involved isn’t it?

HS: Exactly. Yeah, absolutely.

NK: Well, thank you so much for coming in and sharing your results. It’s been fab talking to you.

HS: Thanks so much. Thanks for having me.


Natalie Kenway

Natalie is editor in chief at MA Financial covering ESG Clarity, Portfolio Adviser and International Adviser. She was previously global head of ESG insight for ESG Clarity and has been an investment journalist...