Lena Chauhan, London-based sustainability expert, is the founder and director of Rise IQ, an ESG consultancy working with companies to link profit with purpose. Chauhan shares her journey from being a top broker within the finance industry working with investment banks and asset management firms to becoming an ESG strategist, public speaker and DE&I specialist within the education sector. She also addresses the challenges she overcame managing a demanding job in a male dominated industry, as well as her observations along the road. Chauhan issues a plea to us all to look within ourselves, find what inequity makes us angry and harness that into a social impact. A thought leader with a thought-provoking message helping vulnerable demographics with impact investments. An edited version of the discussion follows.
Q. What inspired your career in investment banking?
A.My initial motivation for entering into the world of investment banking was purely financial. I did not come from an affluent background, had a state school education and was not exposed to people who were part of successful networks with great ambition & wealth. However I knew I always wanted more .. and only through university did I begin meeting driven individuals who introduced me to the world of investment banking. It was thrilling, and I began to realise the importance of one’s network. I made possibilities for myself when others relied on academic excellence. I hustled my way into this exciting space which was far easier to do 30 years ago than it is today gaining positions within investment banks. Although the catalyst was financially driven, I was also incredibly enticed by the lifestyle it offered.
Q. What did you study? And did you complete your education in London?
A.I attended Kingston University in Surrey, earning a bachelor’s degree in Accounting & Finance. During my university years, I worked within investment banks during the summer holidays and after graduation, I was offered a position with Fidelity Investments, but the brokerage was not in the City of London where all the excitement and growth was. So they said, “go to our main headquarters in Boston,” and I had an amazing four months working there, but I always wanted to be in London, so jumped at the opportunity of a graduate placement when it was offered. That’s where I spent the next few years of my career, and it greatly impacted my thought process. because you see people for who they are when they are under extreme pressure, the psychology behind what changes minds, and the impact of someone’s upbringing on who they feel they can or cannot become.
Q. Did you ever feel disadvantaged coming from a different background to your colleagues?
A.I was surrounded by people who came from elite private schools which definitely made me feel like an imposter and automatically meant I had to try harder and work harder than those around me who already had the ‘network’.. That does give you a certain perspective. I came from a place where I was granted financial access funds at university because of our lack of financial resources, followed by a world where everyone had everything… It was quite a shock.
When that started to sink in, I initially wondered how life would have been if I had those opportunities, but that changed to “I’m here and they’re here.” We’re from completely different backgrounds, which means it is possible for different people to do this and achieve these same things. However, the complexities of what their networks and upbringing afforded them was woven into their mindset. Almost an entitlement of knowing they belonged and deserved to be there. It took years for me to realise I was worthy of this too.
I developed some incredible relationships, I learnt so much, and then I moved to a Brokerage firm to be an Equity Derivatives Broker which was the most incredible ride. I can’t fault it in terms of the exposure I had, but I did feel this overwhelming imposter syndrome during my years in finance. As a woman in a male-dominated industry, they make you feel grateful that you’re there, that you’ve got a position on the desk, even though I was producing so much revenue for the company.
Back then, this was not seen as gender inequity, there was no such thing. It was really drilled into me “okay, I need to fight, and you’re only as good as your last trade”. That rang in my head constantly, because that’s what the boys all used to say. So you’re living in this constant cycle of, “I need to do this, if I don’t do this, I’m going to be let go”, even though I was never in danger of losing that position. Then, I developed an eating disorder to feel in control. Superficially, life was fantastic and some of the things I experienced did bring me a lot of joy and fed my ego, but over time I started to feel really unhappy and alone.
Q. Would you say that was in part due to the competitive nature of the job and working in a male-dominated industry?
A.I think all of it had an impact. Even my own drive had an impact, because I could have said, “Look, you don’t need to do this, you know you can stop”, but simultaneously, I didn’t feel good enough to do anything else because this was all I knew. I was surrounded by aggressive, egotistical masculinity which I started to embody myself. Every other word that came out of my mouth was an expletive. I was such an angry person and the only woman.. I really believe you become who you surround yourself with and although I didn’t care to question my behaviour, I knew there was something wrong – I just didn’t know what.
Q. Do you think your own mindset has evolved since starting your career in ESG and DE&I?
A.Yes, completely. It’s a journey that will forever continue as I am a lifelong learner.
One of the main catalysts for change within me was having children. My children are also my teachers in many aspects of life. They trigger both positive and negative reactions within me enabling me to learn more about myself and have been instrumental in me becoming purpose and intention led in life.
Whilst working within ESG and DE&I space you soon realise that choices & sacrifices always have to be made and regardless of what you read or listen to, you simply cannot have it all. You need to develop ideas, create solutions and thought leadership within an inequitable world.
Another period of mindset change several years back was experiencing perimenopause symptoms which again forced me to re-evaluate what was important… You actually don’t have a choice, your body shuts down and you’re like, “What do I do now?”. Success is still very important to me. Making money in the longer term is very important to me, but not how it was before.
Q. Do you think that you have lost anything in your success?
A.No, I think that I’ve actually developed an incredible sense of self, and the life I have led enabled me to do that. Had I not experienced this tumultuous journey and developed my sense of self and accepting myself, I would never be able to do what I’m doing now.
Q. Would you say you feel more fulfilled now than in the past?
A.Yes, 100%. I didn’t feel emotionally fulfilled working in the finance sector. That being said, everything I did during that period served a need and my ego.
It enabled me to support my mother which is a promise I had made to my father decades before prior to his untimely passing.
I created the life I wanted on a superficial level before I really knew what was important to me. It also enabled me to finance myself once I became an entrepreneur. I don’t regret where I came from at all. It has driven me to become who I am. I am now definitely where I need to be.
Q. How would you go about advising somebody looking to create an impact?
A.I would ask ‘What inequality creates an emotional response for you. Whether it’s a lived or observed experience”? Because, when I look at millennials and Gen Z, I find that they are so much more purpose-driven than previous generations. Growing up with social media, they information at their fingertips which myself and previous generations were not privy to, and they’re more intune with world issues leading them to question everything.
I am mentoring four incredible teenage girls whom I met as a mentor through ‘Teens in Artificial Intelligence Hackathon.’ They developed an app based solution for women affected by domestic violence. When asked why they chose this as an issue to work on, they replied “We want to help fix an inequality we see”. Observing this inequality during Covid is what motivated them to create an impact within this space. This feeling provoked an action.
So, “What inequality or injustice makes you mad?”. If it’s domestic violence, you go online and connect with people. Even if that’s typing into a search engine “Domestic Violence Initiatives”, you are literally led to making connections through LinkedIn, facebook groups, and other social media outlets. It’s not difficult to find people who are aligned with what you wish to do.
Always start the journey knowing you will make mistakes and that’s okay. You have to learn, adapt and overcome. You have to ask yourself, “how is this going to happen? Who is going to support me? Who is going to build this and distribute it? What are the legal implications?” That’s the learning journey. As you start to develop knowledge and a network surrounding the issue you are working on you find people who will help bring your goal to life. That’s when you know you can begin to create an impact.
Authored by Kaja Geha