Black History Month: an interview with Paul Larbie

9 min
October 15, 2021
Paul Larbie is a Fixed Income Product Executive at Schroders Investment Management.He’s a remarkable speaker who regularly delivers inspirational live talks on Investment as part of our Finance & Accountancy Virtual Work Experience programmes.In order to create awareness for Black History Month, we’ve brought to you an exclusive interview with Paul as he reveals details surrounding his upbringing, influences, and advice on how to pursue a career in Finance.

Firstly, can you start by telling us a little bit about your family background Paul?

My family are originally from Ghana, West Africa. They moved to the UK over 35 years ago – I often remind my mum that she’s spent more of her life here in England than back home in Ghana! I was born and raised in a council estate in East London - a place I call home to this day. My parents had multiple jobs, at the same time when I was growing up. I had access to free school meals back in primary school, and one of my first jobs before I started my career was as a cleaner. However, as of now, my dad is a retired solicitor and my mum has had a number of professions including retail banking back in Ghana, being a chef, and also a nursery nurse (a woman of many skills!)

Who would you consider to be your role models?

The first set of people that come to mind when I think of ‘role models’ are my family – my mum, dad and older sister. Their ongoing commitment and drive in the face of challenges and adversity has helped shape my outlook and approach to dealing with difficulties in both my personal and professional life. They taught me that no matter what it is I’m working on, as long as I’ve done my best and put all my effort into it, successful or unsuccessful, it can never be considered a failure.

Secondly, I think the best teacher is always the person in front of you. I believe there is so much to learn from the people we encounter and speak to regardless of age, gender and culture, etc. Everyone has their own life experience and their own unique story.

What would you say Inspired you to enter the world of finance?

My inspiration to join the world of finance came from the old saying of ‘money makes the world go round’. I think the investment management industry serves a public good, using the time and expertise of financial professionals to help households and businesses generate investment returns in order to increase the wealth of the people. Whether it’s through stocks and shares, ISAs, pension funds, insurance schemes or the like, everyday we’re working towards helping clients achieve their investment objectives - this can range from capital growth to generating an income in retirement.

What did your educational path look like?

In terms of my educational background, I went to a church of England primary school, followed by a comprehensive secondary school. I then went onto sixth form where I did my A-Levels, studying Economics, Maths and Psychology, where I got B, C, C grades, respectively. When I look back, this is definitely a time where I didn’t particularly stretch myself academically, I was a bit of a classroom clown and didn’t apply myself fully.

Luckily, I managed to get into the University of Kent at Canterbury, where I studied Financial Economics with Econometrics and managed to get a 2:1, whilst also getting a Distinction in my dissertation, titled ‘The Ethnic Wage Gap in the UK and the Intergenerational transmission of Inequality’. My research focussed on the pre-market drivers of the wage gap between White, Black and Asian male and females, as well as how poverty and inequality persists from generation to generation, highlighting how public policy can help deal with this issue.

Since finishing university and starting work, I’ve completed a number of professional qualifications, including the certificate in Investment Management (IMC) offered by the CFA UK society, the Chartered Financial Analyst (CFA) designation (a set of three, 6-hour exams, which at the time could only be sat once or twice a year), and more recently the Sustainable Finance certificate at the University of Cambridge (Cambridge Institute of Sustainability Leadership), where we looked at initiatives within finance that could help drive the transition to a greener, more inclusive and equitable world.

Why is Black History Month so important to you?

Black History Month is an incredible opportunity to remind us of all the contributions made by the generations of black people that came before us.

It’s a time where we should all research and think about the history of black people and to explore elements of the past we were never taught in school. Not only is it critical to learn and understand the civil rights movements across the western world, but also to recognise that black people have a deeper, richer history beyond the times of slavery. We had philosophers, mathematicians, inventors, architects, astronomers and so on, but we rarely hear about them.

It’s vital for us to hear about these individuals and how their contributions have shaped the world we live in today, as it will begin to guide us, as a race, into being seen and treated as equals. The reasons for this were brilliantly explained in a recent talk I listened to by black historian Robin Walker, who spoke about creating a new cycle - a concept called ‘The Principle of Manifestation’. This is where our beliefs and thoughts contribute to our feelings, which in turn contribute to our actions. This then leads to results, which then helps form our beliefs and thoughts. If we were to actively hear and see more about the contributions of black people throughout the ages, it will begin to change the perception that black people are ‘lesser people’; rather, it would show that we too had and continue to contribute to society in a rich, meaningful and positive way.

How far do you think diversity and inclusion has progressed in the workplace?

I believe diversity and inclusion (D&I) has come a long, long way. What I believe is important is equality of access. No one should be excluded from accessing opportunities based on their background or lack of connections. I think brilliance is evenly distributed across people from all walks of life – no one type of person is naturally smarter or better at anything than anyone from another background. A white, middle-class male is not an inherently superior investor to a non-English speaking, working class female immigrant.

Diversity of thought, which comes from diversity in perspective and experience, is important in all walks of life, and the investment industry is increasingly recognising the benefit to having this in the workplace. There are now many different schemes and charities available, which aim to attract and include people from different socio-economic backgrounds and genders. These schemes and charities help individuals identify opportunities in the industry as well as putting their best self forward at the interview stage.

Companies are increasingly encouraging people to bring their ‘true self’ to work, and not leave/hide parts of themselves. This narrative can only be beneficial to employers and employees. A brilliant book that demonstrates the effectiveness of diversity of thought in action is Matthew Syed’s, ‘Rebel Ideas’.

Is there still room for improvement within the finance industry?

Although we’ve come a long way in the D&I space as an industry, I believe there is still a lot of room for improvement. Firstly, I think there needs to be broader recognition across the industry of the need and benefit of D&I in the workplace. Secondly, the work in the D&I space has been quite passive in that it has been more of an afterthought to bring in people from different backgrounds. However, I believe to solve the problem at hand, there needs to be a more active, deliberate, and direct approach to bringing in, retaining and promoting talent from diverse backgrounds.

Thirdly, in line with my second point, I think there has been a lot of work done in getting young, early career people from diverse backgrounds into the industry, which is fantastic, but there needs to be more work done with the diversity already in the industry who are approaching the early-mid stage of their career. Those who have managed to receive a promotion or two already but are now looking at taking the next step in their career towards management or more senior roles in their organisation. I don’t think there is enough support here for them on how to navigate this jump. I think this can be done through mentorship or help in securing executive sponsorship (the support of senior members of staff).

Finally, I think there needs to be improved transparency in the work being done in the D&I space. This can be in the form of companies publishing their wage gaps between male-female, White-Black/Asian and other ethnicities, middle class-working class, etc. I appreciate that this information can be difficult to obtain, and it most certainly shouldn’t be a naming and shaming exercise for those companies with wider gaps, but should be seen as an opportunity for accountability and measurable progress.

What advice would you give to students who are wanting to pursue a career in finance?

I’m going to approach answering this question from both a practical and slightly more philosophical standpoint. From a practical standpoint, some of these points are generic, and some apply specifically to finance, but I’d say the following:

Always, always, always try to demonstrate a keenness and ability to learn. As you’re only just starting out in your career, no employer expects you to know everything, or be an expert at your job on the first day. What they are interested in is your ability and reliability to work (i.e. do you have good time management, are you a team player, do you have good communication skills, and so on). Everything else in terms of the actual job itself, you can learn, so they want to find students who can and want to learn. With this, I think it's also very important to ask questions when you’re unsure – there is no such thing as a silly question. Also, make sure you understand what is being asked of you at all times. It’s best to ask and get the task right, rather than not ask and get it wrong.

Network, network, network! Speak to as many people as you can in different divisions, at different levels, in different organisations to give yourself the best idea of the types of roles that are available in finance, and what interests/suits you. Don’t be shy to message someone on LinkedIn or drop them an email if they have a profile which interests you and you want to learn more about what they do and how they got to where they are. People are a lot more helpful than you think. Also, it’s useful to build up a network of people in the industry should you want to get their advice or be made aware of potential developments in the industry. It’s even a great way of finding out about different job opportunities.

Just because you’ve finished structured education, doesn’t mean you should stop learning. Across different finance roles there are a number of professional qualifications that you can do which can help you learn more about your role and the industry. Whether it’s accounting qualifications, operations certificates, investment management certificates, or wealth management diplomas. See what’s out there that interests you or is in your area of work, and do them. Not only do they equip you with information which you may find useful, they also look very good on your CV. One thing I must say here is that qualifications are good, but they’re not the golden ticket into roles; experience and competencies are what employers are most interested in.

Finance affects the world, and the world affects finance. Keep on top of the news and think about how it impacts the area you’re working in or are interested in.

From a philosophical perspective I’m going to include a number of my favourite quotes which I think apply to all things, both career-wise and in personal life:

“The steps you take don’t need to be big, they just need to take you in the right direction.”
“Rejection is often life’s way of directing you to the path you’re supposed to be on.”
“Failure is a bruise, not a tattoo.”
“If you aim at nothing, you will hit nothing.”

If you’d like to gain further knowledge and insight into the world of Finance with interactive live talks by industry professionals like Paul, then check out Springpod’s Finance & Accountancy programme here.

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