Rupal Sachdev Kantaria on creating a diverse world and the benefits of mentoring
Socio-economic diversity pioneer, and Partner at Oliver Wyman, Rupal Sachdev Kantaria is determined to see a more equitable society. She talks to Lysanne Currie about the power of lived experience and how mentoring can be the great leveller
What do the singer Dua Lipa, former Supreme Court Judge Ruth Bader Ginsburg, education rights campaigner Malala Yousafzai and Mahatma Gandhi all have in common? They’re all quoted on the brochure for Rupal Sachdev Kantaria’s International Women’s Day showcase at the House of Lords. And they are all personal inspiration for Kantaria, who, with spirit and strength, is on a mission to create a diverse world free of bias and stereotype.
Kantaria is excited about the event (we meet shortly beforehand), not just for the incredible line-up of speakers – 14 in all, ranging from BP’s Executive VP Kerry Dryburgh to child marriage survivor Payzee Mahmod and LGBTQ+ campaigner Baroness Barker – but for its format. It’s a two-parter: speeches followed by a networking tea – the latter being as important for inclusion, she believes, as the inspirational speeches.
“The event deliberately puts CEOs alongside people with lived experience,” explains Kantaria. “So we’ve got NatWest CEO Alison Rose talking about the amazing work she is doing for female entrepreneurship. And alongside her, we have Ellie Downie, a gymnast who spoke out against weight-shaming and over-training in the sport. It’s important to put the CEOs alongside individuals with very different stories because otherwise leaders risk sitting in an echo chamber. We get change when people meet other people outside of their normal social circle, get an opportunity to walk in someone’s shoes, and see and really feel what needs to change.”
Kantaria herself is an in-demand speaker. She is authentic and open about her own experience, her challenges (she has talked about the loss of her baby and is a trustee and long-term supporter of national child bereavement charity, the Lullaby Trust) and her background. Her father came to London from east Africa in 1969. “He had £5 in his pocket and didn’t know a single soul. London gave them [her mother followed in 1971], and us, so many opportunities – to create businesses, to have a British education, to work and to learn, giving us and our children experiences we would never have dreamed of.”
Her entrepreneurship and business savvy comes, she says, from her east African heritage. “Nobody was pressurising me to be a doctor or lawyer, but accountancy and finance were always part of the conversation. There are a lot of Indians and east Africans who are qualified accountants and went on to start their own businesses. My dad had an accountancy practice and also went on to have lots of different businesses – from money lending to T-shirt printing,” she says.
Dinner table chat was finance-led – “exchange rates, interest rates, inflation” – and she and her siblings all studied economics at A-level and university. Kantaria kicked off her career with an internship at the Bank of England’s financial stability department. But she longed for the dynamism of business; and so, in 2003, she joined Oliver Wyman – then the young, entrepreneurial kid on the management consultant block. Two decades later she is still as passionate about the company.
“My mission in life is to drive greater equality for all: in my own community, my workplace, and beyond to other organisations, groups and society. Oliver Wyman gives me the platform I need to create this change,” she explains. “Working with different sets of people in different sectors is really exciting. I can lead into a different bunch of partners. Currently I'm working with the insurance and asset management practice."
Kantaria is also Partner at the Oliver Wyman Forum, the organisation's think tank, which brings together business, public policy and social enterprise leaders to seek solutions to the world's toughest problems. Its event speakers are a who's who of global leaders. This month, for example, US Senator Chris Coons will host one session; Mark Candi, Moody's Chief Economist, another. The topics span the issues keep CFOs awake at night - the climate, talent retention, inflation, Gen Z, productivity and flexible working.
On the latter, Kantaria is passionate but pragmatic. She herself works three days a week, but, she laughs: “It’s seven really. There is always something going on.” As well as her day job, she has an array of non-exec roles, advises myriad companies and has caring commitments: “Two children, my niece is currently staying with me, and we look after my 84-year-old father-in-law. I’m lucky as every week can be flexed. I try to stick to certain days but life doesn’t always pan out like that. Getting support around you and learning to accept help is vital, as is learning to be agile and to find your own way of relaxing. Meditation is key for me – I read daily ‘how to live’ lessons written by my guru, Paramahansa Yogananda who founded Self Realization Fellowship.”
When asked what advice she would give young people starting out in financial services, Kantaria has one word: “Network.” It’s a topic that emerged as key in last month’s International Women’s Day theme – Embrace Equity – and Kantaria is convinced a network of contacts is key to progress. “You can provide people with the education and the opportunities, but if you don’t have the same network that others do, then there isn’t equity,” she says.
She recommends digital networking. “LinkedIn is brilliant for building your network with like-minded people,” she says. “You can message a CEO direct and get a direct reply. You wouldn’t get that if you bumped into them and handed them your business card. But you have to be very clear about your profile and the messages you want to convey.”
Kantaria advises being structured and strategic when meeting potential contacts: have specific topics to talk about: “The worst thing is if someone comes to talk and it’s just a general chat – I feel like I haven’t helped them at the end of it. If they ask something specific, then I see how I can help, who I can introduce them to, what else I can suggest that could be useful. My first mentor taught me that – he knew how to be a good mentor far better than I knew how to be a good mentee.
“Without me asking, he said, ‘I want to connect you with these three people in my network. I think they’d be valuable to you.’ I was really grateful to him because he started to expand my network and to really challenge me in terms of some of the limitations that I put on myself.”
Kantaria’s own experience of mentoring inspired her to co-found (with Moving Ahead’s Liz Dimmock), a new mentoring programme for the 30% Club, which campaigns for greater gender diversity at board level: Mission Include. “I was lucky enough to be part of the 30% Club cross-company mentoring scheme. I thought, ‘This is amazing and it should be available to everybody. I’d love to see one specifically focus on race, and then one on LGBTQ+ and so on.’
“However I realised that this approach to diversity, taking strand by strand, sometimes has an adverse effect. And what we needed was something which was flexible enough for every organisation to be able to work with the programme according to their stage of the journey. So we created a mentoring programme for members of the 30% Club, set up to support all protected characteristics as well as broader diversity strands such as socio-economic background, thinking styles, and all intersectionalities. Mentees are high-potential individuals from under-represented groups across all levels within organisations and the mentors are leaders of under-represented groups and their allies.”
Kantaria feels the cross-company element, where a mentee is matched with a mentor from another company and probably another sector, is key to success. “The value of cross-company, cross-sector mentoring is that mentees can be more honest about their career aspirations, about their experience of the world of work, which is less likely to happen within their own organisation,” she says. “Having somebody from outside the organisation… can be much more powerful. It can be unique and liberating.”
Mentoring is a partnership, Kantaria says, and what makes it good is “commitment and communication”. She advises potential mentees to be sure they put in the advance work: “Prepare! A mentoring relationship can be so valuable but you get out what you put in. I wanted to get as much out of my sessions with my mentors as I could, so I was very structured. I followed up straight afterwards with a note and planned the next meeting.”
And the advice for a mentor? “Not to underestimate the power in creating a space for your mentee, and secondly, to realise the importance of developing a skill of active listening, which for us egotistical human beings is quite difficult – it’s a really important strategic skill that I am certainly working on developing!”
Kantaria encourages those who would like to give something back to consider becoming a mentor: “You’d be surprised how much you get out of being a mentor,” she says, “and you don’t need to be at the very top to become one. It’s valuable for someone to learn from someone three steps ahead, for example.
“And it’s important that mentors are diverse too, if we are to create a society that embraces belonging and equity. Mentoring also helps leadership understand the experience of under-represented talent. And it helps under-represented talent feel, even if they don’t have a role model, that they have the confidence to apply for certain promotions or put their hand up for opportunities.”
In closing, Kantaria quotes the aforesaid Yogananda: “‘You realise that all along there was something tremendous within you, and you did not know it.’ That’s the potential we are unlocking. Mentoring is a change agent, and [mentors are] creating a really powerful butterfly effect within their own organisations and beyond. That’s what we’re aiming for.”
Ways to become a mentor through ICAS
The ICAS Career Mentoring platform combines a straightforward sign-up process with a sophisticated matching system, connecting you to the mentor or mentee that best fits your needs. It works wherever you are in the world, enabling you to message and set up and host meetings, both online and in person.
CAs have a wealth of experience in business and finance. ICAS supports business growth by opening up our membership to prospective mentees to find a CA who is willing to provide mentoring support.
ICAS Foundation mentoring
The ICAS Foundation supports accountancy and finance-related students through their studies with bursaries and mentoring. CAs can volunteer to become a mentor to a university student enrolled on our programme.
To learn more about any of these programmes visit icas.com/members/mentoring
For more resources on diversity, equality and inclusion visit the ICAS EDI hub