PROFILE: Anjali Harkoo, from working at her grandfather’s shop to landing a top role at Stanbic Bank Kenya

PROFILE: Anjali Harkoo, from working at her grandfather’s shop to landing a top role at Stanbic Bank Kenya

Anjali Harkoo is the Head, Wealth at Stanbic Bank Kenya. She also manages Liberty Life and Heritage Insurance relationships including Joint Venture agreement obligations.

Anjali started off as Head, Wealth and Investment Kenya and within the first three years of operation in Kenya, she had recorded tremendous growth in the Wealth and Investment business. The business was awarded as the Best Private Bank in Kenya at the 2015 and 2016 Global Private Banking awards.

She spoke with Citizen Digital about her childhood, how she ended up working in the banking industry and what she sees as the future for women aspiring to take up leadership roles in their career.

Tell us a bit about yourself.

I was born and brought up in Kenya. My mum is Kenyan and my father is from Trinidad and Tobago so I have a little bit of Caribbean in my blood. I was educated here and then did my degrees in Toronto and London. 

I lived and worked in London until about 9 years ago when I came back to Kenya to work at Stanbic Bank. I have been working in the banking industry for over 20 years now.

What do you when not at work, when you need some down time or just want to recharge?

I used to love traveling but unfortunately COVID-19 has kind of ruined all of that. I do love traveling, a lot, learning  about different types of cultures. And recently I picked up my exercise regime again and I do enjoy doing that as well.

I also love building relationships: I have a good network of family and friends in Kenya and all over the world, so just keeping in touch with them. The thing I am most proud of is that I recently started scuba diving, about two years ago and I am an avid scuba diver now. What a beautiful country we have that we can do that very easily here.

Are you the first born, middle child or last born in the family? And seeing as there is a lot of focus on how girls ought to be raised: how they can be enabled to be confident, prepared for leadership roles so that they don’t just think leadership roles are for men, do you think your upbringing had anything to do with where you are at today?

I come from a very strong feminine background: my mum was a single mum with three girls and I am the youngest. We come from a very female-dominated family. I don’t think my mum was a feminist but what she did instill in us was that we have to learn to be independent and when I look at my sisters, all three of us are very independent people.

And it is not just my mum, it is also extended family: I had some really influential male figures in my life including my mum’s father and her brothers. From quite a young age, it was like ‘you are going to stand up on your own two feet’. I guess my mum being a single mother did influence a lot in my life in terms of being independent and making it on your own.

Did you always know that you wanted to work in the banking industry? What was that journey like for you through school and into your first job after university?

When I do reflect on that, I think I knew very early that I was going to go into a finance-related role. My grandfather used to own a shop on Kimathi Street and every holiday we would go there and help out. It was quite a busy shop and he just thought it was good to instill some discipline in our lives. I realized very quickly that I like numbers, a lot, so he started encouraging me.

The shop had a manual billing system and we had quite a few tourists coming into the shop and they would pay us in dollars and so he taught us about exchange rate at a young age. In high school I chose to do finance oriented subjects: Finance and Economics. In university I chose to do a BA in Maths and Economics in Toronto and then I did my Masters in Finance and Economics in London. My first job was in a bank and I have been in the banking industry.

But I think it has now become broader in terms of choosing what to study: even in banking now we are looking for quite different skills. You don’t need to be a Finance and Economics graduate to work in a bank. I think we have to have people who think differently. In my days if you got an interview at a bank you had to have subjects that were in line with that but things have changed.

You first worked in London and then moved to Kenya. What is your take in terms of working in two different regions and what was your transition like when you moved back home?

The key word here is just to be adaptable. I worked in London for 11 years at and luckily had quite a close community of extended family and friends from Kenya. I never really felt out of place. I worked for an amazing institution, Credit Suisse Private Bank and had really good career exposure. I used to travel to a lot of other regions: I love traveling and learning about new cultures and that particular institution I was working for was very highly exposed to the Middle East and Asia. We had lots of people from all over the world working there so I really enjoyed my career journey there.

In 2012, I moved back to Kenya and I think it was the best thing I ever did. I never looked back and I am never leaving. Honestly it’s so nice to be home, as much as being abroad and having all those experiences was great, I think it’s a really good place to live and have good balance in your life, spend time with your loved ones.

Kenya and the U.K. are culturally quite different, it took me a bit of adjustment but luckily for me I have a good network. I have always covered Africa in terms of my clients in the past so I was traveling here very regularly and I have family here so it was a very easy transition and I got a wonderful job as well with Stanbic Bank.

What would you say in terms of your achievements here in Kenya, in the position that you hold; if you decided to leave work and say ‘I have done my bit’, what would you look back and feel most proud of?

It’s a very easy one for me. I joined Stanbic to set up a business, specifically with some of the experiences I had had in my past. I am really proud of what we have achieved with our High-Net-Worth unit over the years. We started up from scratch and we really built it one client at a time and it’s been 8 years now.

It’s been a long journey and when I look at that business, the team in particular and the clients and the proposition, I am really proud of what we built there. Everyone teases me because it’s like my own baby. It’s taken a lot of blood, sweat and tears and something which is the first in Kenya, we still have a dominant market share and quite a good proposition there so I a really proud of that.

I am also quite proud of the position I hold right now: I started working at Stanbic Bank in 2012 and the  joined the Executive Committee two years ago. At the time I joined there were very few women on the committee and the organization has enabled this.

You have been with Stanbic Bank for 8 years yet millennials change jobs quite frequently. What is it that has kept you at Stanbic Bank for so long? Every morning when you wake up, what makes you excited to go to work?

You’re right. Every time I interview people I ask ‘How do you keep switching jobs every two or three years?’ because to establish and immerse yourself  in an organization, it takes a long time. It’s hard work. For me it just happened rather than me thinking about it. What you find especially with some clients is that they also don’t like if you keep moving from organization to organization. I think this made me quite grounded.

I really enjoy working for Stanbic: I love the culture of the bank. When I joined it was quite small but now it is a very large international organization. We have some amazing colleagues in Kenya and also across the group and it’s amazing to work with people of that calibre. I set up the High-Net-Worth unit and I was very committed to make sure that it worked. My mantra, when I wake up, is love what you do and do what you love. I never see it as work actually. It’s just something that I wake up and I can’t wait to do.

Opportunities for development have been immense and I have really progressed from the day I joined the bank till today and hopefully into the future. It’s been a very enabling environment and I think that’s what makes you stay: when you know you can grow within the organization, you don’t get bored, there’s always something new.

Stanbic Kenya has intentionally been prioritizing women through the Dare to Aspire Dare to Achieve (DADA) initiative that targets formal and informal businesses. Tell us more about this and the motivation behind this decision.

I have been part of the bank before we launched the women’s proposition and I think it’s really quite inspirationally led by our CEO Charles Mudiwa who joined us a couple of years ago. We worked with the International Finance Corporation (IFC) and a couple of other partners just to research what the woman proposition looks like in Kenya. We found out that we can play a very active part in that and we also have the DNA and aspiration to look after women in this market.

From the research we did we found that women have quite unique needs and requirements. We wanted to position ourselves with them from a financial organization point of view but also non-financial: to become their trusted advisor and main provider of services.

There’s the age-old saying that when you empower a women you empower a community and this intertwines quite well with our vision to drive for growth. We have learnt a lot along the way: in terms of products we do offer all banking and non-banking solutions but most importantly we want to add value to their lives through forums and networking events.

I am personally involved in something called Fitness Academy which talks to women about their financial fitness and it’s a 2-3 hour session that delves into how they save money, how we can help them save, how they think about financial planning, investments, children’s education and insurance products. I also think the networking and sharing has become very critical to DADA.

202o was a hard year for most people because of the COVID-19 pandemic. What are your hopes for 2021 for women in Kenya?

I think last year was difficult as there was a lot of unknown, uncertainty and readjustment. If you look at us now, we are having this conversation online: the type of transition to cope with COVID has happened. People have had to reposition their businesses, their business models, the way the work and the way they think.

I think the bank did well in a difficult environment and I am proud of how we handled our employees: transitioning to work from home. We were the first bank to offer moratoriums in the market for our customers so we really had a lot of empathy because a lot of them were going through difficult times. We continue to support our clients through difficult times because we are not out of the woods yet.

We are currently experiencing the third wave of the pandemic in Kenya but I think we have adapted well: we have a new normal for working and we are interacting with our clients in a different way. For women in particular, the dynamic is quite different. When I talk to some of my clients and colleagues they really appreciate working from home, have a bit more time to spend with the family. What COVID-19 has highlighted is what is important for each of us and for women it’s a lot around family.

So we are very optimistic from a forward-looking point of view: if you look at our aspirations around women in this market it is quite ambitious. We continue to connect with them even through digital means.

What would you tell young women who are starting out their career and are wondering how to navigate to a leadership position?

I knew I wanted to go into Finance but I got quite some good exposure to several departments and then I decided what I wanted to work on, so I think you have to experiment a little bit when you’re younger. Your first job may not be where you are going to end up.

Put your hand up for other opportunities and try and get as much experience under your belt. One of my first jobs was to work at a branch of a bank in Nairobi and I went on a teller-training course.

For one month I learnt how to be a teller so no one can pull the wool over my eyes when it comes to reconciliation and cash positions. So I think just be open to any opportunity and get the experience out of that.

Have a plan, stick to it, be persistent and determined. There are quite a lot of obstacles along the way but don’t let anything get you down.

You will thrive when you do what you love. If you are in a role or job that you are not enjoying, it’s time to move and do something that you love.

You need to have your support system: your mentors, networks and family to encourage you along the way. For women today, the time is ripe to thrive. I think the environment is very conducive.