Take risks, banker advises women


London - Women in the world of finance must not be scared to look further afield if opportunities at their current employer dry up.

It’s a key lesson that Sophie Javary learnt when she fell pregnant early into a career in corporate banking, and found she was no longer on her employer’s talent list and bonus scheme.

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Sophie Javary is an adviser at BNP Paribas. Photo: Reuters

“I became very frustrated, so I left,” says Javary, who 20 years later advises BNP Paribas’s most senior clients and co-ordinates the bank’s corporate finance team in Europe, Middle East and Africa.

“You have to bite your lip and deploy extra energy to cope. That’s what I did because I didn’t want to be left behind.”

The soft-spoken banker says the period between the ages of 30 and 40 is particularly tough for women because they are faced with motherhood just as their careers are taking off.

It is vital for women not to shy away from new adventures at this point if they feel they are not being recognised, she counsels.

Javary established a taste for risk as a student at HEC, France’s top business school. Rather than opt to spend her gap year in Paris, London or New York like her fellow students, she headed for Brazil – at the time still a Third World country.

“Going alone to Brazil for nine months at the time was a bit of an adventure,” she says, adding that the experience taught her to seek new experiences as her career progressed.

“I think it is especially important for women to dare to take up challenges. I probably took more risk over my career than a man with the same diploma and same track record.”

Before moving to BNP, Javary was the head of Rothschild’s European debt advisory and restructuring team, a job she took on without any previous experience in the sector, just as the financial crisis was starting to push many private equity-owned firms into difficulties.

She recalls working with France Telecom’s then finance director Michel Combes – now chief executive of Alcatel-Lucent – on the telecommunications company’s e15 billion (R223bn) recapitalisation plan to stave off bankruptcy. It was an experience that involved very little sleep or food.

“As Michel’s financial adviser all I had to eat was the chocolate and bananas he kept in his desk!” she laughs.

Javary deployed that same dedication when her family needed her – dropping everything to spend her days and nights in hospital when her youngest child was diagnosed with meningitis.

Now her children are older, she works with BNP to seek out new talent and encourage the next generation of women in finance to grab opportunities.

She is particularly proud of Yasmina, a young Moroccan graduate from a poor and near-illiterate family, who struggled to find a job despite having a PhD in insurance.

Javary encouraged her to ask her professor about job opportunities, which Yasmina found difficult because of the social conditioning of her upbringing. Javary also helped her to close a deal that led to a job at French insurer AXA. – Reuters

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