When Asad Husain told friends and family he was going to work for Deutsche Bank’s Financial Institutions Group (FIG) in 2011, he didn’t get the best of receptions. Signing up to an analyst program at a leading bank was equated with the kind of craven urge for a quick buck perceived to have caused the financial crisis three years earlier. He joined DB anyway.
“There’s a lot of negativity around this industry,” says Husain, who’s worked in FIG for TD Securities since November 2016. “My sister and I both work in finance and we were questioned a lot about why we chose this career. Finance has got such a negative image: people categorize you as a ‘greedy finance worker.’"
Bankers have always been vilified, but the millennial generation is arguably even more anti-finance than its predecessors. Not without reason. While finance professionals prior to 2008 could be castigated for an unhealthy obsession with personal gain, anyone joining a bank after 2008 stands accused of this and of joining an industry that brought the West to the brink of ruin. British politician Jeremy Corbyn is both staunchly anti-banking and popular with millennials; that’s unlikely to be a coincidence.
Organisations like New Financial, a thinktank founded by former Financial News editor William Wright, are trying to tackle negativity surrounding the finance industry head-on by educating people on its broader purpose. Husain, however, decided to take a different tack. Together with his sister Zahra, a leveraged finance banker at Commerzbank, and Sarah Laitung, a former JPM researcher who now works as a corporate finance advisor to the British government, he set up ‘Humans in Finance.’ The purpose? To humanize the financial services industry.
“We just want to create some positivity,” says Husain. “To showcase that there are good people in this industry. – People who care and who want to have a positive social impact. We want to change people’s mindsets about finance.”
The Husains and Laitung have taken their message to social media. Using the Humans of New York blog as a template, their aim is to share what Asad Husain describes as “relatable small stories and snippets about normal people who work in finance.” They have their own web page, but the real activity happens on Facebook and Instagram, where it’s not unheard for their posts to have hundreds of likes.
One such post by Hamza Farrukh, a securities analyst at Goldman Sachs, is typical. "Suddenly I was working on Wall Street and living on the 45th floor of a Manhattan high rise… in Pakistan where I grew up, you can’t walk down the street without seeing poverty front and centre," writes Hamza, who's set up a GoFundMe campaign to provide solar-powered water purification in Pakistani villages. Another post quotes Sandy Chen, the former Panmure Gordon banking analyst whose career pivoted when his wife left him: "I was an analyst running emerging European banks. We were recovering from Russia’s default [in 1998]. I was bitter and untrustful. My fiancé was pregnant, and suddenly she announced that she wanted me out. I was in bits,” says Chen, who subsequently left finance and now runs a company which makes a high-tech graphene composite.
While Chen's story is more an advert for getting out of finance than feeling warm and fuzzy about it, Husain says humans in finance is having the desired effect. "We're starting to gain a greater following. We're creating a movement internally within the industry," he says.
In the social media echo chamber, there's a danger of Humans in Finance preaching to the converted. Husain insists it goes deeper than that: "We're changing the impressions of people outside the industry who are looking in." Banks might question whether this is really necessary - after all they get hundreds of thousands of applications from millennials each year. Like the students we spoke to at the London School of Economics, however, many of those applicants simply see banking as a stop-gap before they move onto something better. Will the perception that bankers are nice people encourage them to stay? Maybe. At least it's a start.
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