Brown Brothers Harriman (BBH) was delighted to co-host our second Women in Funds event at FundForum International along with AQMetrics. The event was attended by business leaders from across the asset management and fund services industry.
At the flagship event, BBH’s Chief Global Regulatory and Market Strategist, Carla Jane Findlay-Dons, interviewed the visionary entrepreneur, gender equality campaigner, and Obelisk Support CEO Dana Denis-Smith about her drive to innovate, create new ways of working, and proactively sponsor women entrepreneurs.
Carla Jane Findlay-Dons: In 2018, the Financial Times named Obelisk Support one of the top 1000 fastest growing EU companies. Obelisk aims to provide a more flexible working environment for lawyers and you have seen over 600% year on year growth for the last three years. Tell us about your journey:
Dana Denis-Smith: I started Obelisk in 2010 with £500 and we have experienced over 1,000% growth since inception. With this level of growth, you’d think it was easy, but there is a real difference between supporting women in business and taking positive action to back them. Most of my meetings involved pitching to prospective clients with another lawyer, who sometimes was pregnant. I remember one particular meeting with a bank where of the ten people in the room, only my colleague and I were female. They listened, but at the end of the pitch asked how they could trust a “school-gate mum.”
I realised very early on that I needed to listen to the reasons behind the pushback and build a narrative around why those reasons made no sense. After all, our consultants were the same people with whom they’d worked at large law firms and were perfectly competent. The only thing that had changed was their family situation. In addition, my business would guarantee the service delivery, so there was no problem.
CJFD: You’ve won numerous awards and were featured in Management Today’s “35 under 35” list of UK female high flyers and the FT Innovative Lawyers Awards. Looking back at some of the challenges you faced, how did you remain motivated to overcome them and continue?
DDS: Hearing “no” is normal for an entrepreneur, but for whatever reason, maybe madness, you never give up because you feel that what you need to do is fundamentally very important. We now have 1,500 lawyers, 80% of whom are women. Every time I speak to them, they tell me that if it wasn’t for my business, they would never have had a route back into work. We have some of the largest global investments banks and FTSE companies as clients and in doing so, have successfully altered the way they view alternative working practices by pushing back and being true to our model – we know it works.
CJFD: You received no external funding for Obelisk. What part does support and funding play in creating greater gender equality?
DDS: I’d love to get to the point where Forbes’ billionaires list contains more self-made billionaire women. Women often attain wealth through inheritance or divorce, but are less likely to make their own wealth and this is certainly not due to a lack of ability. It’s very important that a shift happens and we need to think about how we can help create the female wealth makers of the future, because this benefits us all and creates opportunities for more products. To do this, we need to go beyond just supporting women by putting our money where our mouth is and to champion and back them financially.
CJFD: You launched First 100 Years, a campaign that aims to celebrate the stories of women in the legal profession over the 100 years since women were allowed to enter the profession. Why do you think it’s important to memorialise the stories of these women?
DDS: I’m motivated by legacy and what we leave behind. As worthwhile as demonstrations and marches may appear, they are often transitory in their impact and do not lead to the permanent change that is needed.
What’s really important is that we place ourselves in history as women. We’re not the new generation of feminists, we’re part of a tradition of women fighting for equality. We’re not reinventing the wheel or creating a Snapchat moment in history which then disappears. Instead, my motivation is that women become visible and remain visible. The Pankhursts (British activists and leaders of the suffragette movement) were extremely prominent but then 50 years later nobody really spoke about them. We’re in danger of always repeating that cycle without driving permanent change. Action, not words, is what we need.
CJFD: You’re well-known to many as the co-founder of the campaign for the UK’s first ever female statue in London’s Parliament Square. What drove you to do this and what challenges did you face?
DDS: I have a daughter so for me it’s very simple – I want to leave something behind for her and girls like her to aspire to. Not to have a single woman represented in front of one of the world’s most famous seats of political power was shocking to me. Millicent Fawcett, who is one of the best-known suffrage fighters and campaigners as well as feminist icon, was a natural choice to provide girls with a clear message that they too can achieve something like that.
I started campaigning for the statue in 2015 when we launched our project in the House of Lords. I’d walked by the square and noticed there were 10 male statues, then two days later the 11th male statue turned up! I was disappointed, but luckily a year later, I teamed up with someone who wanted to achieve the same aims. I believe this made it easier because each of us had different influences to draw on. The British government funded the project in the end, which was a relief as it was quite an expensive undertaking. I persevered despite the number of challenges as this symbol is so critical to our daughters’ sense of self and place in history.
CJFD: You grew up in Romania under Communism and didn’t speak English until you were 16, when you taught yourself. What piece of advice would you give to your younger self about navigating and overcoming the challenges you’ve faced, especially around setting up your own business and gaining access to funding and capital?
DDS: Never pay attention to where you come from and whatever cards life hands you, as you can play your own game – that’s what I did. The main lesson of my life came from my father, who said “it’s really important you’re educated, as no matter what happens in life, nobody can take away what’s in your head. It will make you fearless.”
I understand how difficult life can be, but I’ve always been driven to achieve and effect change. I grew up under communism but never stopped dreaming. I remember when I was about 10 years old saying to my sister “I really believe I will make a difference.” I had no idea how, but I knew I was going to grow up and make a difference and that this was important to me.
I have a good foundation and values instilled in me by my parents, and that will serve me well whatever happens. We shouldn’t be afraid to aspire and take on new challenges.
CJFD: We have female figures such as Theresa May, Angela Merkel, Christine Lagarde, and now the first female statue in Parliament Square. What is needed in order to get to the point where we achieve true gender equality?
DDS: There is a new class of woman who is professional, educated, and ambitious, and we need to acknowledge that she exists. We then need to reward her appropriately so that she can become an entrepreneur or whatever else she wants to become.
Allowing women to flourish is really the next frontier. 70% of entry positions in the legal world are held by women, so that isn’t an issue. What we need to do is make sure they can stay with and flourish within organisations, and that starts with acknowledging that these women have a lot to offer. Once they become richer and more powerful, they will definitely shape industries and new products and there will be a better success story for everyone involved.
Focusing on growth, embracing female entrepreneurs, and providing funding will as a by-product result in gender equality. It’s up to us to make it happen and actively shape the next 100 years.
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