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In 1960, Eleanor Roosevelt shared a rather singular piece of advice. In Eleven Keys for a More Fulfilling Life, the First Lady of the United States wrote: “You must do the thing that you think you cannot do.” As a philosophy, this might very usefully describe the approach taken by Dieu Anh Khuat (MIFFT2014).
Anh arrived in the UK at the age of 16, without her family or friends, to pursue the chance of an overseas education. Driven by a desire to prove her potential and build on her life experiences, she worked with the British Council to identify a state school where she would be surrounded by UK students, be able to get first hand exposure to the British culture and polish her English language skills.
“Mine was the first generation in my family not to experience war and poverty. I wanted the opportunity to learn and prove myself. My mind was open to the challenges of being the only Vietnamese person in the room, and facing up to the linguistic and cultural obstacles this entailed.”
Fast forward to 2018 and Anh is still not averse to pushing the boundaries of her comfort zone. As Vice President in the EMEA Public Sector Group at Citigroup, she is sometimes the only woman in the room in a sector that is still predominated by men in positions of leadership. Thriving and attaining success as a woman in this competitive and fast-paced world, she says, hinges on an ability to empower yourself. That, and a willingness to keep learning.
“In a big organisation you need to find a kind of resilience to stand up for yourself and your ideas, and to keep on learning every day.”
The desire to learn that took Anh to the UK in the first place also brought her to London Business School (LBS) in 2013, when she secured sponsorship from Citi to pursue the full-time Masters in Finance. Eager to accelerate her career, she wanted to build on a strong foundation in economics from her degree at LSE, and consolidate the technical skills that would help her move on and upwards. What she found at LBS exceeded her expectations.
“I was at a point of transition. The skills and knowledge I had were things I’d picked up on the job, but now I needed a framework to really develop that kind of expertise in finance that would take me to the next stage in my career. LBS was a natural choice. First there was the London location, at the centre of this major finance hub, and the access to the School’s organisational ecosystem. Then there was the School’s reputation for being the foremost business school in Europe – a reputation that in my experience is completely deserved.”
Then there was the network.
“I made some of my closest friendships among my classmates and faculty – even writing case studies with one of the professors. These are relationships that really sustain me and continue to help me overcome challenges both professionally and personally. I’d say the network is the biggest thing I took away from LBS.”
The challenges facing anyone – man or woman – looking to excel in finance can be acute, says Anh. Working life is fast-paced, competitive and the hours can be very long. For women particularly, the obstacles can be hard to overcome in juggling a family life with the kind of work and travel commitments that come with responsibility. Her network has had a major role in boosting her confidence and empowering her to “find her voice.”
“Being a working mother means getting good at balancing and prioritising. There are times when I am travelling to remote parts of the world and I have to leave my young family behind. The challenges are real and they are personal, and you do have to dig deep to find the persistence. This is where I draw support and at times key advice from my network, my family and my friends.”
Women in business have a “duty” to support each other, she believes. “Whether you are at the top of your career or coming up, women understand women better. There will always be issues or problems that you are going to feel more comfortable sharing with another woman. And successful women can provide a kind of mentorship to others – as you progress up through your career you appreciate what women coming up behind you are experiencing. You’ve been in their shoes and you can empathise.”
For women looking to progress their career, be it in banking or in business, Anh has her own singular words of advice to share. “Surround yourself by people you aspire to become. Proactively ask for feedback. Take criticism seriously, but not personally – don’t let it get you down, sort it out and move on. And most importantly, don’t be afraid to ask.”
You have nothing to lose, she says, whether you’re asking for greater flexibility after maternity leave, or to get out to the field to visit clients. “Earlier in my career I worried about things like costs to my company if I asked to meet with clients in Europe and Africa. When I finally picked up the courage to make these requests, to my huge surprise, there was no hesitation whatsoever from senior management.”
Having the courage to ask is key. Whether it’s for advice, for support, for equality in opportunity, in access to education, or whether it’s asking more from yourself, don’t be afraid to do it, says Anh.
“In most cases, if you don’t ask, you don’t get.”