How one powerful training paid off for this inspiring startup
London, 30 December 2020
Salary Finance CEO Asesh Sarkar shares his thoughts on financial wellbeing during a pandemic, building an inclusive culture at scale, authentic leadership, focusing on employee happiness, women in Finance and checking one’s own biases in this interview. Read the full interview below to learn how FinTech CEO and diversity champion Asesh Sarkar is leveraging inclusion as a competitive advantage.
Perrine Farque: Thank you Asesh for joining me today! I'm really excited to have you with me and to hear more about yourself and your journey related to diversity, inclusion and leadership. Could you tell us a little bit about yourself? What is your role at Salary Finance? What is the story behind Salary Finance? What does your typical day-to-day work look like?
Asesh Sarkar: Yes sure. So I am one of the co-founders at Salary Finance and also the global CEO. We started as a start-up about five years ago and I've grown the business since and so today we're about 200 people. We operate across the UK and in the US. Essentially what we do is in a way a financial wellness platform as our whole focus is helping employees in big companies across the UK and the US become financially healthier. And so we have about 500 clients. They reach about four million people so there is four million people in our community. We help them save directly from the income if they need a loan. We provide a low interest loan if they need insurance, we file insurance, we provide financial education. So a whole series of products. Our focus is on improving people's financial wellness for employees of clients who work with us across the UK and the US.
As mentioned we have been going for about five years now. We've raised about a hundred million so far in terms of equity to grow the business and in terms of what my day-to-day looks like, it’s really all sorts of things there: focused on growing the business; sometimes working with the team, sometimes doing things myself, sometimes speaking with investors, sometimes speaking with clients, so there's a whole series of different things building a business.
Perrine Farque: Amazing! And what a great mission: financial inclusion is so topical right now. Salary Finance had a very busy year to say the least: you acquired another company, you grew your workforce significantly, you did raise additional capital (congratulations!) and you had your first diversity and inclusion training with me! Can you tell us a bit more about what were the biggest milestones this year at Salary Finance and what changes happened in your organization and what drove the need for diversity and inclusion education?
Asesh Sarkar: Yes, that's right, 2020 was a big year for us and firstly, financial wellness as a topic has become really in vogue. We've been doing it for five years, but what the pandemic has shown is that there not only is it a health pandemic but there is also a financial pandemic where the impacts on people's finances are quite significant; so we've grown a lot as a business organically; then added to that, like you said, we did an acquisition so we doubled the size of our UK business, we took on an additional hundred or so people and then when you combine that, and actually we took on that business in March just as COVID kicked-in so actually, the integration was entirely remote as well. So a big year for us both in terms of demand for our services, but also in terms of growth of the team.
In terms of why we brought in yourself, diversity and inclusion has always been something which has been important to us, but I would say it's been quite organic in how we approached it, as opposed to bringing in an expert like yourself into our organization. The reason we made the flip was in the early days, as you build a team from ground up, you hope that if you build an organization, you can organically be diverse and inclusive with a great company; as your organization grows and as you bring in a hundred people that you don't know, that actually becomes much more difficult just to organically hope that everything is going to work. We have a really strong team culture, both the original Salary Finance team plus the new colleagues we brought on board, and as part of that, to also make sure that we are a diverse place, inclusive place, and for us what's really important is organization happiness. Actually people like the work they do, they like their colleagues. They can be their best and so for us we kind of felt that that wouldn't just happen organically, we need to put some effort and investment into it and then there's quite a part of that kind of vehicle calling your support as well.
Perrine Farque: Thanks! Like you said, 2020 has been a big year in terms of diversity and inclusion, obviously with Black Lives Matter being such a prominent topic this year everywhere. We've seen companies being pointing the fingers at for their lack of diversity or even sometimes discrimination. So in your experience, what makes an organization successful in their quest to boost diversity and inclusion, and what are some of the challenges that business leaders might face when it comes to bringing diversity and inclusion in the organization?
Asesh Sarkar: I would say that the first thing which is really important is that, from a leadership perspective, it's important that you authentically care because I think if you're just doing it because actually the PR is quite good or you're ticking certain boxes then it doesn't quite work. For me, the first thing is that actually you do care and you do believe in it. And then, for me the reality is that I think there's never really an end to diversity and inclusion. Everyone is fundamentally different, everyone has fundamental biases, whatever they may be, even if you're an expert in the field, everyone has them and so for me, what’s really important is that actually everyone recognizes that different people are allowed to be happy, which is an important thing for me and for them to be good at their jobs, which is also clearly very important for us; for them to be productive, we need an environment where people can be themselves. What I don't want is an organization or people that look and think exactly the same; that’s the whole reason we're successful, and the reason most companies are successful, as we have diversity of thinking, diversity of experiences, diversity of education etc… And so for us to really embrace, all of those things needs a recognition that those things are important; but then, some conscious thought around how you create an environment where those different kind of skillsets can
come and mix well, perform together, this is a real thing so the key thing is authenticity and really believing it. The second thing is that we are not just ticking a box because you have X on Y metric; but it's a constant evolution of having different people with different skill sets, different backgrounds and we do great things as a result.
Perrine Farque: Absolutely! And I know some CEOs and business leaders are reading this; what advice would you give a senior executive who wants to incorporate more diversity and inclusion into their agenda, but who is not sure where to start and what to do?
Asesh Sarkar: Yes, one of the things which has really helped me, and I would say I learnt early on, is that Salary Finance has thankfully had a high growth story. So we started five years ago and I say we raised almost a hundred million pounds. If you look at our clients, we reached 20% of the FTSE 100, one in four NHS Trusts, 8 of the big 10 supermarkets, we are live across all 50 states in the US. We have great investors: Goldman Sachs, Legal & General, Experian. So we have a lot and we operate in Fintech and all this makes us like a poster child of a Tech company. But what I realized early on is actually, for me, that is secondary. It's nice that the organization gets this kind of credit but actually if you, as an executive, unless you can come into your organization and then unless the people in your organization are happy, then actually the rest of it doesn't see you there for the long term. So it's really important that you get a certain amount of pride when you appear on the news, or you read a paper story about your company, but actually for me, that's very secondary to an organization which is happy, productive, successful people feel they belong, and if you do all of those things, other things will follow. So my main piece of advice would be: don't stress so much about all of the external metrics, but focus very much on your people, and if you do that, the rest of it comes together. We come across organizations where the opposite is very true, where we speak to people in those organizations who are not particularly happy and they don't have a huge amount of respect for their leaders. They don't feel like they belong but when you read about those companies in the papers, it all sounds absolutely amazing. And so so for me, it's really what type of leader you want to be: one that is really focused on the external metrics or one where actually, the external comes but where you run a really good organization internally.
Perrine Farque: What are some of the wins that you can share with us to illustrate how positive the diversity and inclusion training has been so far and what kind of benefits to the business have you seen so far?
Asesh Sarkar: I would say the first thing is that most people don't intend to be un-inclusive or un-diverse so fundamentally most people are generally good and what they sometimes have is a fear of what they don't know so it's actually what the training has done. It has reduced some fear because it's given people some knowledge. If you have knowledge, you don't fear things as much, it has helped people understand and open their minds to things, which they may have done unintentionally, with good intent, but actually the impact is not good. It has also allowed us to have many more conversations on the back of it in a safe environment because we know it's fine. We now have some terminology everyone understands, we kind of recognize that no one is perfect at this. So it's created the framework by which we can debate and talk and so that's been hugely helpful. And then on the back of it, it also created specific initiative: we have a women in Finance group that has been going for a long time, but actually some of the recent things they've done which are really good is they have a series where it is about women empowering other women in the organization and they interviewed different members of the team and interviews aren't just about what you do at work, it is really much around your life, where you grew up, your relationships and your family, how you manage work etc… It's just been really fascinating to learn about different people's stories both in work and outside of work as well. So they say it's a combination of helping us have much more authentic conversations in a way which is much more knowledgeable or with less fear. And sometimes you just need a bit of time to think about it. And then secondly, there are specific initiatives which have been more in focus now that we have done the training.
Perrine Farque: As we wrap up this interview and we look at 2021 and beyond, what is the one piece of advice that you want to share with business leaders who want to make a positive difference in how they operate?
Asesh Sarkar: The important thing is to recognize that everyone has biases. Just because you're an amazing leader doesn’t mean that you don't have biases and you can be an amazing leader with biases; so for me it's recognizing that you do and as a result put some conscious effort in to make sure that these biases don't negatively impact your people and then that actually, put some effort and some investment as an expertise around creating an environment where your people can all belong and be happy and they'll do great things.
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