What differentiate Samina Akram from most of her peers are perhaps her passion and commitment to empower women in Islamic finance which have led her to spearhead the creation of a platform to connect and support women worldwide in navigating the male-dominated sector – one that was most welcomed by the industry. The UN Ambassador of Peace shares with VINEETA TAN lessons from her journey, future goals and what it means to her to be bestowed Freedom of the City by the City of London.
“My career story is a rather unusual one,” admits Samina. It isn’t the fact that the Londoner does not have a finance degree – many successful Islamic finance professionals have built their career without a finance qualification – but her rapid rise at the workplace, particularly in the area of Islamic finance. The University of London graduate (Bachelor of Arts degree in philosophy and a Master of Arts degree in psychology of religion) worked for private, commercial and investment banks before joining Merrill Lynch in 2006. She started in a support role and quickly climbed the ladder within the five years she was there: progressing to a client-facing role and promoted internally to lead and develop the international bank’s Islamic wealth management business.
“At the heart of my fast-paced career progression was Merrill Lynch’s diversity initiatives. As a member of the Merrill Lynch South Asian Professional Network, I saw an opportunity to highlight and teach others about the sector,” Samina explains. The bank’s diversity initiatives were instrumental and invaluable to Samina’s career, as they provided her a chance to highlight her ideas, ultimately landing her in her “dream role”, in an otherwise rather challenging environment.
Samina wasn’t sure if the many obstacles she faced when she first entered the industry was because she was female, or her lack of experience in the field but she persevered. “I had a great deal of passion for Islamic finance; however, I had no direct industry experience,” she says. “I found the banking sector to be very closed, with very few opportunities existing to gain your break, in particular in the London Islamic finance market. So I decided I would have to somehow leverage from my internal networks and highlight this growth market.”
In 2009, she left the bank to set up her own consultancy specializing in Islamic and ethical finance, but not before leaving a deep impression.
“Samina worked for me when I was [the] chairman of Merrill Lynch and was a visionary thinker in terms of the way we built our Islamic finance business,” Bob Wigley, Samina’s mentor who is now the chairman of several corporations and previously an ambassador for UK business for former prime minister, David Cameron, tells IFN. “She has continued to develop her expertise in this area with great success and remains in the forefront of both product development and execution.”
In the midst of establishing her own firm, Samina was also working on realizing something close to her heart – an independent networking platform for industry professionals to meet, collaborate, support and promote the interests of the ethical and Islamic finance industry – the result was Women in Islamic & Ethical Finance Forum (WIEFF), formally launched in 2015. From a mere 30 keen supporters in 2007, Samina has managed to grow WIEFF’s database to over 8,000 members who hail from over 25 countries.
“One personal goal has always been to have a platform where we could somehow highlight and give the stage to women who have against all odds risen to the very top of their profession. We learn so much from people’s stories, their struggles, what has motivated them, what inspired them. Also more importantly, these inspirational role models in turn motivate, encourage and inspire others,” says Samina, reflecting on the past year since the launch of WIEFF; she calls it a dream come true and an incredible journey. “The long-term goal of WIEFF is to become an active think tank for the industry. We hope WIEFF can assist and play an important role to support and inspire female talent.”
Freedom of the City
For her work in promoting women in Islamic finance, Samina this month was bestowed the Freedom of the City by the City of London, a tradition dating back to the 13th century honoring valued members of the community, a recognition, Samina shared, was made possible due in no small part to her mentor, Wigley.
“I am delighted she was awarded the Freedom which she wholeheartedly deserves. The City needs more Saminas,” commented Wigley.
Glimmer of hope
So how has the Islamic finance landscape for women changed over the decade Samina has been in the industry?
“When I first entered the industry several years back, you would hardly see any women speaking at industry conferences or mentioned in mainstream media. However, over the years, much progress has been made. We are beginning to see women are not just visible, they are at the forefront of industry innovation and playing increasingly important roles in industry development,” Samina opined, adding that commitment and focus on increasing women participation in senior roles are being discussed at a very high level and that it is only a matter of time before tangible results materialize.
What also leaves Samina with glimpses of hope for women in the industry is seeing more young women, during her time speaking at universities, vocalizing interest in building a career in the sector compared to men. To them, Samina cannot emphasize enough the importance of networking and continuous professional development.
“I didn’t have a strong background in the Islamic finance sector; however, I paid to attend courses. And when no one gave me my break, I decided to create opportunities myself. If you’re passionate about something, no matter how many rejections you get, you won’t give up. Keep going, keep knocking – your time will come.”