Hafi Ali Profile Pic

Hafi Ali, market director, top UK bank

Guest blogger Hafi Ali talks candidly about his lengthy and hugely successful career in banking. But as a second generation British Bangladeshi it wasn’t all plain sailing. Read on to discover more about Hafi’s inspiring career story.

Growing up in the 80s and 90s as a second-generation British Bangladeshi meant breaking free from some of the customs adopted by my parents. Like so many of my contemporaries, being raised in a different country to the ones we were born in resulted in us having to forge our own paths and create our own success.

Unlike many of their friends who had a ‘pull’ back to their ‘homeland’, my parents were all about creating a more permanent life for us in the UK meaning their focus was firmly on giving their kids the best education. This was somewhat of a revelation amongst many members of our community who started businesses in the rag trade or opened ‘Indian’ restaurants and simply saw the UK as an economic transition.

Thanks to my pioneering parents, I’ve always believed in doing the best I can, spurred on by the plight of BAME individuals through the years. The following two hard hitting quotes have also inspired me to try my hardest.

The first is from boxing legend Mohammed Ali, who said: “If I were a garbage man, I’d be the world’s best garbage man.”

The second are the words of industrialist and philanthropist Andrew Carnegie: “Give me a man with an average ability but a burning desire to succeed and I will give you a winner in exchange every time.”

My older brother was one of the very few (if not the first in our community) to go to university. Academically I did well too, but in the midst of my A Levels, and after moving into a new house, my father became ill and could no longer work. Consequently, I was left with an agonising choice between higher education and getting a job to support my family.

I ended up not following my older brother’s footsteps and instead went out to work, joining one of the big UK Banks. With Thatcherism in the backdrop and despite the Blair years, I was sold on the idea of free markets, a small state, buying your own home – it was all about the meritocracy and pushing yourself.

I remember in my first role, approaching the HR Manager and feeling like Oliver Twist when asking: “Please Sir (you called them Sir or Mr… in them days) may I please go on to your Management Development programme?”

He explained the scheme was only for graduates and that I did not qualify. But thankfully something stopped him in his tracks, he looked at me and then hesitated before agreeing to put me on it.

My progression within the first organisation to hire me was quick and saw me eventually move onto an American Bank, providing consumer loans in the UK. Was it me, or was it the will of my parents (egging me to succeed) that drove me on? Whatever the reason, that ambition soon saw me become my bank’s youngest branch manager.

I moved again to another UK bank, and as they were setting up a new team to look after the ultra high net worth division (we’re talking still in the late 90s) I boldly approached the regional manager and declared, if he wanted the team to succeed, he needed me in it. He looked at me in total astonishment, surely this wasn’t how the British behaved? However, I got the role and together we succeeded as a team.

My final move, 21 years ago, was to my current employer, another major UK Bank. Seven jobs on, and having passed banking, investment and treasury exams, including corporate finance and an executive diploma in management, I’m still pressing on.

Looking back, and if the truth be known, I didn’t make much progress career-wise during my early years. I soon realised, no matter how hard I tried simply to fit in by adapting the way I spoke and / or behaved, it couldn’t change my skin colour or alter who I really was.

But once I eventually acknowledged that it wasn’t necessary to fake it, or indeed compete with my other-self, I felt more relaxed. Sure, stereotyping still exists, and I often joke that as a BAME individual you always need to be better, try harder, work longer and keep running on the treadmill. But in the end, I’d rather do that than be someone I’m not.

I’m now in a senior role for a major UK Bank, and yes, there there’s still a woeful lack of diversity in the upper ranks. Personally, I believe this is no longer all ‘deliberate’ but more a consequence of legacy and the encouraging news is that it is changing . But this needs to happen more rapidly, otherwise we risk letting down yet more generations of hugely talented BAME banking professionals.

I can’t profess to holding the key for success, nor am I privy to a hidden recipe that’s locked away in a banking vault. But one thing I do know is that trying your hardest and a burning desire to do well, have always worked for and there are very few substitutes for that.