I was introduced to Shefaly by Louise Downing of Spotdeco (whose interview is shortly to come on the site).
Many of the interviews on here end up being with creative businesses, and such is the nature of the recommendation that each interviewee makes for future interviewees, sometimes it’s nice to feature something outside that mould.
Shefaly definitely defies the traditional expectations of what my Masters of Many interviewees have been in the past. Working in the more traditional corporate arena, she has found a way to have an incredibly flexible and varied career, through a series of executive directorships. I found her story really interesting and I hope you do too.
Tell us about what you’re doing now and your journey to date…
I'm currently working as a board director and a trustee of a charity, and looking to expand my portfolio of board roles.
I started my career in corporate venturing, after completing my MBA. I worked for a huge tech conglomerate creating new businesses and product categories and managing large P&L’s. I learned German on weekends, so I became the new country manager in Switzerland and then the UK. They were things that people out of business school generally don’t get to do straight away and following that experience it rendered me virtually unemployable. The roles that would have suited me were generally offered to people 20 years older, and those that were deemed fitting for my age and ‘experience’ were less interesting, rich roles.
I started to wonder if an organisation could give me more growth, as I interviewed with a lot of companies and it just didn’t work out. People didn't use the term ‘quarter life crisis’ then, but you could see that was what I was having. I decided to leave the corporate world, before I turned 30. This was in 2000, and I went on to work independently and create a portfolio that worked for me.
I grew up in India and we are quite at home with things that look very opulent or luxurious to other people - fine silks, embroidery and fine jewellery. One of my co-founders approached me to start a fine jewellery start up. I thought it was a great opportunity to create something. What we were doing was drawing on the fact that the world’s cultural heritage is there for everybody to own, enjoy, and draw inspiration from. We created pieces of jewellery inspired by stories that could be culturally transcended and familiar to people from different cultures.
We were three co founders and we were boot strapping the business. Then, and it is all too common a story, we ran out of money.
Between giving up my corporate role, and following the jewellery business, I worked independently as a consultant. I worked on academic research, with start ups, and a few non profits. I was a mentor with the Princes Trust for a time, which was really diverse work. Near the end of the 90's and 2000's there wasn't as much activity around start ups. People were up against a lot of challenges for funding and advice, so I worked intensely with a few companies.
Then I worked with investors who wanted to put money into network and regulated industries. I also did a masters at Cambridge in economics and a PhD during this time.
After the jewellery start up I looked at various options, and I was keen to expand my work in governance, risk and technology. One way was to work as a board director. Board directors tend to be recommended by people they know. I found a programme called a ‘board apprentice programme; - and JP & Morgan offered me an apprenticeship. I started in January 2016 and in September they offered me a full time director role.
I have served on boards before, but this is a different experience versus small start up boards. I now work with a listed company and another which is a pretty well established charity (5 years) on the cusp of growth - called 'Beyond Me’. They offer a completely different set of challenges. I want to go and work in sectors where my experience of working from a risk perspective can be put to good use, or in a fine jewellery company.
As a board holder your first commitment is to the interests of the shareholder, or in a charity it’s the stakeholders. That completely changes your perspective of how you look at the same problem as a consultant would. You have to think about doing things within regulatory limitations. You have to be transparent about communicating regularly and your considerations about monitoring things like share price etc.
I continue to work with start ups in an advisory capacity - a company which is a civic startup called Represent; and an a synthetic biology accelerator in California. My driving thing has always been that nothing path breaking happens when people are too deeply imbedded in one speciality. Unusual thinking happens when they look above the parapet and ask people in other networks what they're doing.
My journey is to seek to learn every day and learn in ways that you don't think are possible before.
Do you have a good work life balance?
I'm super organised mentally. I know what things are to be done in an efficient way, and I don't waste time dwelling on those things. When you take care of the functional stuff efficiently it frees up time for you. Since I was 17 I've been waking up at 4am, enough time to stretch and do yoga or pilates and think about what your day holds. I write in the mornings, I check my emails and by 9am I've normally done what I need to do for the day. Then I can go out and meet people, see art, advise people and write.
What made you take the leap to do things differently?
After the start up didn’t work out, I had the option to go and do more consulting, which would have been relatively easier. The alternative was to look a doing things differently. Being a board director challenges me, but also draws on the fact that I have lots of experience in tech, risk, talent issues, branding and governance, and I was putting it all together. In the course of the board apprenticeship process I was told that boards don't often find people with all those skills, as well as deep international experience. That was really valuable input in terms of where my value lay.
How long did it take you to feel like you’d made progress once you’d started training as a board director?
The board that were on the apprenticeship that I was doing were excellent. They went into the programme with full commitment of mentoring somebody who didn't understand what an investment trust was. I started from scratch, but once you figure out the business model, as an outsider you have perspective and questions which they may be asking too, but there are different dimensions to your questions. I often joke that I'm so much of an outsider in the city that I still get lost in the city! [the financial district].
I learnt well and had excellent mentoring, and had served on boards previously, so was alert to some of the challenges. A lot of people think that being on the board is like retirement, but there is a lot of work and we are very involved in the business.
Would you go back into the jewellery business?
I don’t know yet, maybe! I design my own jewellery and have a couple of jewellers that can make jewellery from my designs. Through the process of the business I have identified the suppliers that own their value chain so everything is ethically sourced. All of that knowledge is there in my head.
I haven't decided if I'll return to it, but it will either be something that I do for a cause, or give everything to and try to build it into a massive business.
How often have you felt like working as a board director in different businesses wasn’t going to work?
I haven’t felt that so far. The growing number and type of boards I serve on is a bit of a slow process, but I have 2 this year which isn't bad. There is an annual FTSE board report and I'm on a list of 100 women to watch, which is really interesting. I started getting emails congratulating me, and then came home and read it, and was like 'oh my god’. Its considered a list of the best board talent in the country today, so that makes for an easy door opener to head hunters and boards, it’s a really good endorsement.
What do you find difficult about your job / managing multiple jobs?
I actually don't find it difficult because my personality is variety seeking and I've always worked on multiple projects. It’s more that I find it interesting to switch from unrelated tasks to another. I think it keeps you ticking.
Biggest thing that your new way of working has changed about your life?
I see more people, which is a massive change. When I was working independently I'd do a lot of projects and never see my clients, it was all through phone calls and emails. That's an interesting shift.
As a result of that and wanting to do more of it, I've started doing more speaking and a lot of that happens in the evening which is an interesting challenge given when I get up each day! I'm quite used to working through everything in my own head and not discussing things, but now I discuss stuff, and bring it to a meeting. I hear more ideas, validate more, go to more breakfast events.
What idea do you wish you’d come up with?
A lot of ideas that I see aren't serving anyone or improving anyone's life, yet they are getting funded and it breaks my heart as I know businesses that need funding which are more meaningful. For example, I know someone who is looking at an alternative funding model for under researched medical solutions. That’s the sort of stuff I wish I'd come up with and when I see it, I want to support it. That will change people’s lives.
What did you want to be when you grew up?
Nothing! I never asked that question of myself. I just wanted to be smart. It sounds crazy, but that's all. I used to read all the time, even reading the dictionary for fun.
Single best piece of advice you’ve been given along your journey?
When I started working I lived for a short while with the parents of a close friend. The dad was a decorated Army general and a very chilled out person. I grew close to them. Nearly every day I came back from work, complaining about inefficiencies or unfairness I’d encountered that day.
He said to me “Keep a small diary. Draw a vertical line in the centre of each page. On the left, write in detail everything you find wrong, unfair, indefensible, immoral, or untruthful. Then as you grow in your career, review this left column frequently to see how many of those behaviours you are yourself now indulging in. If very few or none, you will be on your way to defining success your way. Otherwise the environment is shaping you, in which case stop and ponder.”
This makes me stop and ask at every decision if I am compromising my basic values of fairness, doing right by others and doing the best I can. If not, I correct my course.
Find out more about Shefaly's work at https://shefaly-yogendra.com/about-2/