An interview with Founder and CEO of Uma - Rita Kakati-Shah

This interview is Episode 2 of the Nightingale Podcast Series moderated by KCL Women in STEM. Nightingale is hosted by Anel Yegemberdiyeva, a third-year Maths with Finance and Management student at King’s College London and the President of the KCL Women in STEM. The aim of this podcast is to inspire women currently studying a STEM degree to pursue their career further, helping them navigate the resources available to achieve their goals and excel within their chosen field, whether it’s a specific industry or in wider research.

Speaker - Rita Kakati-Shah

Kings Business School graduate (2001) with a degree in Mathematics and Management

Rita is an award-winning, gender, diversity, inclusion and career strategist, speaker, author and advisor to Fortune 500 companies. She is the Founder and CEO of Uma, an international platform that partners with organizations to attract, retain and develop women and minorities in the workforce, through empowering confidence, inspiring success and building leadership and resilience. Prior to Uma, Rita led Business Development globally in CNS healthcare.

Rita began her professional career at Goldman Sachs in London, where she was awarded the prestigious Excellence in Citizenship and Diversity Award. She is also a Distinguished Alumna of King’s College London and a triple Stevie Awards for Women in Business winner, judge for the Middle East Awards, and recipient of several international awards in recognition for her significant contributions and leadership to furthering gender equality, diversity and inclusion around the world.

Q1. Mathematics and Management wasn’t your choice of degree when you first went to University, how and why did you go about transferring your degree?

I come from a family with a strong medical background, me and my brother were brought up thinking that we would pursue a career in medicine following in our family’s footsteps. So when it came to making degree choices, my choices were subjects that would lead to a medical career.

Back in my day in the late 90s, education was very spoon-fed, you would copy down what was on the blackboard, learn it, memorize it, go to exams and regurgitate the content back. I was really good at exams, and I just thought I would be a doctor. So I got to medical school, did my pre-clinical medicine, but I just felt that something was not right. When I entered university, I realized that we need to be responsible for our own studying, this level of autonomy opened up a brand new scope to me and made traditional classroom teaching much less attractive. As a result, although I did really well at exams, I was skipping classes and all my families, professors around me and even myself know that this doesn’t feel right. So eventually, I made the toughest decision at that time in my life, which is to switch degree.

I thought about the options I have, and mathematics is not something that you could figure your way out on your own - you need guidance and teaching, so I decided to do mathematics. A week before the term started, I was watching all the news on stocks. The financial market was new to me and I was really interested, which then motivated me to switch to mathematics and management. This was a completely unknown area to me but at that time, I had nothing else to lose. I just wanted to learn something that really interests me and I am really glad that I made that decision.

Q2. A lot of girls always put parents’ expectations as a priority, what reaction did you expect from your parents when making this decision?

My mom saw that this is coming since she was always the person that I would consult when I had thoughts in mind during the two years of my study. But my dad was shocked. All the stereotypical reactions that I expected did happen and for a while, he was just not willing to talk to me. But I felt like I had grown up overnight, making my own decisions about my life and I knew that one day I will make great achievements and make my parents proud because I am doing something that I’m truly interested in.

You have to show them that it was all worth putting this trust in you.

I never regretted this decision and the funny thing is, what you pursue in your future career usually has nothing to do with the degree you study at university. But as long as you enjoyed studying it and there are certain skills that you’ve learnt, it would be worthwhile. Firms are ultimately looking for skills, curiosity and the desire to learn on your part.

Q3. Did you experience any discrimination or prejudice against women when you were working on the trading floor in your first career at Goldman Sachs?

It was a very male-dominated career so of course there were many sexist incidences that you could see happening on the floor. But from my personal perspective, I didn’t really experience too much of that. One reason is that I was always very open to networking with people. I would always turn it around and become friends with the aggressors without realizing it. Going back to what happened on the trading floor, when I first went in, everyone was saying “What is this brown girl doing here”. However, their behaviour changed when I went along to the pub with them after the market closed. I wouldn’t drink like them but I would take a sip. But the ability to get involved in the community and diffuse any areas that made you look different is very important when working across male-dominated areas and breaking stereotypes. Negotiation and communication served critical roles. It was always about being authentic and prepared.

So my advice is: There will be challenges, but sometimes the challenges come from our own mental barriers: we might think that we look or think differently than others but we need to use that as our advantage and use it to form bonds with your team.

Q4. What would be your advice for students who are interested in getting into finance careers but lack a strong financial background?

Time has changed. Back in my day, you don’t need any background in finance to get into finance as it was mainly about skills and curiosity, but these days it gets more competitive. I would suggest checking the minimum requirement and start building relevant knowledge. At the same time, have a genuine desire to learn them and not just go by ticking off the boxes.

Know what differentiates you from others, whether it is a volunteer experience or a project you did. Evaluate how it could impose an impact on someone else.

A lot of financial corporations have strong social objectives and support relevant small businesses. Check them out and try to understand why they are getting supported, what their mission is and is there any relevant experience on your part that resonates with their aim.

Also, think about the different skills they’re looking for. For example, can you withstand stress and pressure on the trading floor? Are you flexible? Research the area using youtube or books written up by people in the industry and read about their experiences. Then picture working in this industry and think about how you’re going to add value to it.

Q5. What recommendation would you give to people preparing for an interview for financial corporations?

The first and foremost important thing is to prepare your responses in advance. Other than that, be creative. In one of my previous interviews, I was given a grey brick and asked to sell it in 20 seconds. The point is that you need to use your creativity and demonstrate how to have fun with it! Often in interviews, they don’t really care if you could get to the exact correct answer, but they care more about your thought processes, and how you would react if you get the wrong answer.

Linkedin is a really good platform to reach out to people working in the companies you’re interested in. Read their posts before you reach out, comment on their posts and that is one way you’re engaging and trying to find resonation with them.

Q6. After working in the finance industry for nearly a decade, you moved to the US and worked in the pharmaceutical industry. What is the reason behind this career shift?

I had no background in the pharmaceutical industry and it started just by helping out my friends with the business side of things alongside my job in Goldman Sachs because it was an experience that I otherwise would not have the chance to get involved in. I was so used to working in large corporations and I wanted to try out business development for a new business - starting from scratch.

It was a fantastic opportunity and that was why I made the shift. There were many skills I’ve learned in my time at Goldman, and being able to work in many different professional positions at Goldman made my transition much easier as I could learn characteristics of different roles.

Q7. Could you tell us a bit more about your experiences as a mother and your journey in starting up Uma?

I travelled a lot when working for business development and that was what brought me to the US, had my children and life has taken a different toe since then. When I first realized I was pregnant, I was trying to cover it up as it was a really competitive industry and I didn’t want my pregnancy to affect my meeting attendance. When I go to the bar I would tip the barman in advance to make sure whenever someone orders me a drink, they would serve a glass of water. I continued doing this until I couldn’t travel anymore and pregnancy sickness affected my ability to carry out regular work.

But what shocked me was that when I talked to my boss about maternity leave and asked him “What is the plan?”, he said he had no plan. In the UK, you get a year of paid maternity leave and mentors to help you get back on track. However, the US lacks a system that supports women in the workforce. Either you go completely into motherhood and quit your job, or you take the six-week unpaid maternity leave and go back to the job when your body is not ready yet. I just didn’t feel that this system was right and I felt insulted, so I quit my job and took 3-4 years as a full-time mother.

Having experienced how difficult it was working in business development and in the financial industry, I have to say that being a mother is much more demanding. But more shocking to me was when I tried to get back to work, every company’s attention is so fixated on the 3-4- year gap on my CV, whereas in my opinion motherhood should be taken as a full-time job, it is just that we’re not getting paid for. And this planted the seed for me to start Uma. To empower women, inspire success and confidence, both personally and professionally, building resilience in women and minorities in the workforce. It was born completely out of my own experiences and struggles.

It is important to always have a high level of motivation when you’re starting a business and for me, it is my strong feelings against injustice in the way women and minorities were treated in the workforce, and I am determined to bring the confidence back.

Another thing that drives me is that I want my children to see my positivity and strength so they could grow stronger. They will see me having terrible days and sometimes incredible days and I don’t want to hide it from them. I take them to meetings and business travels. It was really different back then when you just know that your parents have jobs and they don’t really talk about them. But now I am getting the conversation across to my children, which makes them more empathetic and hopefully, they would understand what drives you motivated. Be a role model for your kids.

Treat everything as a blessing. Everything is for a reason, without my two years in medicine, I wouldn’t realize my true passion. Learn from every experience, find out what you can bring to the future and take the time to think about what really drives you to decide how you will take the next step. Don’t be scared to take risks and always remain positive about what’s happening.

Nightingale Podcast Series by KCL




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