Understanding your value is imperative for professionals today. According to Sonia Chowdhury, doing your research is a key step in having a better grasp of your market value and what you bring to your team and organization.
In this episode of Stellar Women, Mila and I chat with Sonia about her experience in the compliance world, engaging in conversations with your managers, and mentorship.
Trace Compliance Subject Matter Expert
Mary Rechtoris: Hey Stellar Women fans, I'm your host, Mary Rechtoris.
Mila Taylor: And I’m your co-host, Mila Taylor. Stellar Women shines light on female leaders making their mark in tech. For today's episode, we’re chatting with Sonia Chowdhury. Sonia is a Relativity Trace compliance subject matter expert based in our London office.
MT: Hello, Sonia, welcome to the podcast.
Sonia Chowdhury: Hi. Thanks for having me.
MR: How are you?
SC: Good. It's cool being on webcam and speaking during these remote working periods. It's lovely to see some new faces now.
MR: It's nice to meet you.
MT: We are so excited to have you on. We have a lot of questions because Mary and I have had the pleasure of chatting with you before this interview. You have a really interesting story. I think that our listeners will be really excited and inspired by what you've managed to do. So let’s jump right in. How did you get into the compliance space?
SC: My background is not the traditional background of a compliance SME or a compliance officer. I actually studied math at university. I was planning to avoid the whole banking industry totally because I really enjoyed numbers and I planned to continue being in academia. But then I decided to study a master's in law. During that time, I came across compliance and it was a hot industry. This is back in 2015 and it was definitely a growing industry. By luck and also by recommendation, I fell into the compliance world. I started off in a French investment bank and I was part of a very small compliance team focusing on communications surveillance.
MR: Do you speak French?
SC: No, I tried to learn, and the firm invested a lot into trying to teach their employees to speak French. But I learned Spanish at school … not to say I'm good at it now. That was the language that I could learn, aside from the languages that I had already learned at home.
MR: I took an online French class, so I know a little bit of français and thought maybe I can use what they taught.
SC: The thing too about French is about pronunciation. I'm not good at it. For Spanish, that’s easier to pick up on.
MT: I'm trying to learn Spanish now. Actually shout out to Lindsay on the marketing team. Her mom is a high school teacher for Spanish and she's going to teach me online.
SC: So cool. I'm jealous.
MT: I know nothing though. I didn't learn Spanish growing up so I will be much worse than the high school students.
MR: So, you fell into compliance in 2015. Now, five years [or so] later, what do you love about the field?
SC: One hundred percent. The role itself has grown, and by grown, I literally mean it has been shaped in a different way. By compliance, I don't mean just general compliance across all industries. The compliance I worked in was within financial institutions. Financial institutions have been hit with huge regulations [due to] misconduct, breaches, insider trading, and with the recession. Everyone knows about the huge hit of 2008. Because of that, the compliance industry grew, specifically the surveillance space. What I've seen is a huge development in the technology space within compliance with young individuals coming into the industry without any banking experience. The industry is growing these compliance teams who have data analytics or mathematical backgrounds like myself. Traditionally a compliance officer would have a legal background—someone that's practiced law. And I've never done that, so that's a big change. But also there’s a technology piece. There has been a lot of investment from banks and financial institutions into technology and wanting to bring in mathematics students and data analytics [students] into the compliance space. [The industry is] a lot more automated. I'm lucky that I'm in at a time where it's really hot.
MT: That's awesome.
MR: For Stellar Women, we talk a lot about elevating women in tech, whether that's e-discovery, legal, and now, compliance. Can you give us a little bit of a lay of the land for the compliance space in terms of male and female talent? Is it very male heavy? What's it been like for you being an emerging leader in the space?
SC: When I joined the French investment bank, I would say it was a male-dominated industry at that time. All of your big financial institutions and big investment banks had a lot more males in the compliance space. Then, five years, when I moved to a Spanish investment bank, it was female dominated. So it's quite interesting going from one to the other and seeing that huge shift. What I would say is that compliance is definitely an industry within the financial space where they have got that split. I wouldn't say it's a 50/50 split. It depends on each organization. But I am seeing a lot more women in this in this sector than you would within other industries. In the legal space, you won't see as many. Women are doing a lot better. There's a lot more compliance directors that are female in this industry. I think that's been great. And I've had really amazing mentors that were female. My line managers were all female and they were the ones that pushed me to do well and progress. I definitely have seen it in the last four years. It's definitely been a female-led approach, which is great.
MT: Jumping a bit around … Back to your journey in compliance. You mentioned earlier that you fell into it through luck and recommendation. But what I'm also picking up is that you're obviously very analytical and you jump on an opportunity. I would give yourself a lot of credit there, because I think you were able to capitalize on this opportunity and make it work for yourself. So what would you define as your key to success? What has made you successful, and what has enabled you to jump on these opportunities?
SC: I've never been someone that plans every move that I make. So again, with my first role in compliance, I honestly took that opportunity because I had a lot of student debt. That is the main move for any graduate. You sit there and you think, you know what, I need to start earning money. I can't just keep studying and get your masters and PhDs when you're stuck and you want to enjoy life. That was the main motive to get a job and then I end up enjoying it. I wanted to progress in the industry and in that field. Definitely that was one move and the motive there. But secondly, I'd say the success was more down to the relationships I’ve made. I've always been someone that's very sociable. I like to build relationships and build my network. That allowed me to be in touch with many individuals within the industry that advised me. On top of that, just be active in the industry. There are a lot of roundtables where you can have discussions with very senior people in the industry, which you would never have [had otherwise]. If you are someone that has just come down the graduate [route], you may not have the confidence to do so. I've always been someone that's been quite confident and gone forward with it.
MT: I'm the same way. I tend to go with the flow. Do you think that these relationships that you've managed to build have helped you advocate for yourself, or has that been a separate thing?
SC: Advocating for yourself should be something that as humans, whether you’re male or female, you should always be doing. Being a middle child, I've always had to advocate for myself. I'm the only girl. I've got two brothers, so I've always had to advocate. Because of that, I've learned how to speak up. That's been applied across my career. Throughout my career, I've always documented any milestone or any value that I added to a product or a project that I'm working on. By using that and having that documented, you then can look back on it and say “Well, I think I've done this, this, and this.” [You should do that] if it’s the case that your line manager or your colleagues are not aware of what you've done. It's always good to voice it. It's not about blowing your own trumpet. Most of my female friends in the industry, they feel shy to do that. I think that you really need to express what you're doing, especially when you have full autonomy. Management may not know what you're doing. You're just there by a computer. That's all they see. You need to explain or let them know what you're working on so that they know that bringing you in was worthwhile for the firm, but also, you’re putting yourself on the map and on their radar. Building those networks and relationships has helped me grow that confidence in my work because I did question my work a lot. I would look at things millions of times before I sent it off to management. But then it gets to a point where you've been approved a few times by colleagues or whomever in your industry or in your team. Then you get to that point where you think that “I don't need [all of that]. I can just go straight ahead and submit that piece of work or speak about a specific topic.”
MT: I think that bit you said about working in autonomy, not everyone knows what you're doing. I think that is especially relevant now when everyone's working at home. You can't just swivel your chair around and tell someone, “Hey, I just finished this project.” Advocating for yourself has become increasingly and increasingly more important.
SC: One hundred percent.
MR: And, documenting what you do, even if it's on a notepad. You might not remember what you did eight months ago. It might not be top of mind, but you might have done something really cool. Thinking through that, Sonia, documenting what you do and advocating for yourself … it’s something we haven't talked about and I don't know if you're an expert in this but would love to get your thoughts on advocating for a raise. I think that's an awkward conversation for everybody. But I think female professionals in general tend to struggle with this a little bit more. How do you advocate for yourself for that raise? How do you even know what your raise should look like and how do you articulate what you think you deserve? [Please share whether] it's personal experience or what you've read or what mentors have told you. How would you advise someone on those conversations?
SC: There's two routes depending on if it's an internal move or you're looking at your next progression in the industry and therefore it could be an external move. What I do now is not something that I naturally knew when I started in the industry. It was something that I came across when speaking to peers openly at some of the firms I'd worked at to find out what everyone's on. Look at the market to understand if you're being undervalued or underpaid for doing more work than someone being paid a lot more for doing a lot less. So it's always good to have that conversation. It doesn't even have to be a frank conversation, just an open or a ballpark figure of what someone could potentially be [making]. It's all about research. Moving into this industry, I definitely reached out to recruiters to understand how the market's doing because even if you're not looking to move, it's always good to see your position in the market, even if you plan to stay in a firm for seven years. It's always good to just pitch yourself against the threshold within the market. It’s good to start there and to know what the numbers are, what the band is, and see where you are. If you see that you are being undervalued or underpaid based on the market value for your role, then you know where you stand. You can have that open conversation with management because line managers are there for you to have that conversation about progression. Progression isn't just for you to learn new things and to gain new skills to add value to the firm or yourself. It's also a progression [for you], whether it's a job title progression or a salary progression. And I think that's what people fail to remember. And the other thing is you should never look at the time you've been [at a company], because especially with me, I've been in the industry six and a half years, but I've worked at four and a half different firms. I say half because I've only recently joined Relativity’s Trace team. I don't think you should always [give] two years in order to be given validation or progression or move internally. You should just see where you stand and also take into consideration your goals. Do you want to progress in that specific role or at that firm or another firm? And again, factor in the investment you've put into yourself. Look at your degree. Does that apply or are there other extra courses you've done? Did that apply to the role you're doing? If so, the firm should credit you for that and maybe provide a salary increase or a bonus. I definitely think it's all about these features. You need to think about [them] when creating a position internally, but also have a position in your mind if you were to move externally. [Think about] what you'd offer to a new employer and have those conversations with recruiters and with your line manager, because at the end of the day, your line manager is there to essentially guide you for your next step. Recruiters are there to have that frank conversation.
MT: That was great advice. I was like listening, forgetting that I'm interviewing you and I'm like taking notes in my brain. It's really great advice. I never really thought [about some of that]. When you’re not necessarily looking for a new job, I think it's important to check in with the market. I've only really done it as like a Google search. Chatting to recruiters is such an intelligent way to go about it because they're in the field. They know exactly what's going on.
SC: Yeah. And they also know what your competitors are doing. Even if it's not a competitor, they're able to tell you what people are doing. [You can talk to them even if] you've just recently joined the industry or you haven't got any new features that you can sell to them to get you that pay increase. But they could suggest what you can invest further into yourself and your career, like doing an extra course or being accredited in an ACCA, to put you on a higher pedestal for a new role. That's always a piece of information you get from recruiters.
MT: I think there's a lot of conversation on this topic about being confident and doing that power pose in the bathroom before having that conversation. But there's a lot of prep work that has to go into before the conversation. You can't just, you know, march in and say, “[I deserve a] 20 percent increase” and assume that they'll say, “yeah.” It needs to be a rational approach.
SC: You need to rationalize why the firm should invest in you and what you're going to offer. Because this is the other thing: people that are able to that and have the confidence to ask for a high salary, they [may not be] able to answer the question of, what are you going to provide to the firm for that increase? You need to know that you are a product. At the end of the day, they're investing and buying into you. What are you going to provide in the next year or so that makes a firm feel that investment is worthwhile?
MR: But that's a hard question to answer. Let's say you go to that meeting with your manager. You have the research. You've done your due diligence. You've also noted where you've excelled throughout the year and the value you've provided. And they're like, “Well, what are you going to do for us in the next year?” How do you take that more futuristic approach to what you can do for them?
SC: Start off with a roadmap. If you look at my experience in compliance … For the Spanish investor where I worked, I looked at the firm's roadmap and the firm's deliverables for the next two years. I looked at the compliance of my direct teams aimed at deliverables for the next two years. I looked at how I can help assess those deliverables and get them over the line sooner. I came across a global project that I can invest in and I decided to create a whole new process. I basically took the lead on that project already prior to having that conversation. So, do you have your evidence and information ready to leverage in that conversation? Show and give good examples. Because at the end of the day, we can all say, “Well, I can do this and I will do that.” It’s about showing what you've done already as well to back it up and make yourself look viable. That’s something I did. I created a new process and I took ownership and my manager at the time was really happy. They were fully invested at this point. So that's one piece. But then the second element is obviously looking at your plans for the next two or three years. Some people think that having a five-year plan is what you need. You don't you need that. Have at least the next two years planned out, whether you meet all the goals or the aims for the next two years. It's up to you. It's good to plan it out so that the firm, your recruiter, your line manager know that you've invested time into yourself to plan out and set out what you intend to deliver. Then, they know that you're not just thinking in the short term. When you are moving around to different firms more than once a year, it does look like you're quite flaky and you're not investing into the firm. The final point is to make sure that the firm is benefiting, especially in this industry.
MR: That's really great advice. You’ve said that you've hopped around a little bit—you've been at four different companies. How did you kind of navigate those conversations?
SC: I used to be quite nervous having that conversation. I always thought I'd be someone [who stayed for an extended period of time]. At the time and being straight out of uni, I thought I'd be at a company for at least three to four years because that's what everyone at uni would plan to do. All my siblings did that. They were [somewhere] for four or five years after graduating. And then they made that big move. Two years after graduating, I had worked at three different companies. When I was having those conversations about if I was moving within the year, there was a reason why I was looking to move. There was a reason why I wanted to leave a certain firm. It's because I wasn't getting enough out of it or I felt I wasn't progressing or there was no room for progression. Some firms have a strict rule where they do not allow an employee to officially progress unless they've been at the firm for two years. They want that investment from you. Now, for me at that time, I was quite new in the industry. I didn't know if I wanted to commit to that industry yet. So I was happy to take that risk. By understanding the market, I knew I could do better in the sense of salary and investment from my firm by moving to a new one. When recruiters ask, “Why are you looking to leave within the year?” You have reasons—so unless it's something like a particular incident or HR consequence or whatever, which is a different story, if it's the case that you're moving for your own progression for your career, then it's valid. And if a recruiter is willing to talk to you on progress, when you to speak to an employer, it doesn't matter that you're leaving in a year. Why is the employer interested in you? It is because you have value and you can add value to the team. So what does it matter if you're moving within six months? At the end of day, anywhere you work, you're always learning transferable skills. You're taking experiences to your new role.
MT: Honestly, I've already learned so much from this conversation and I'm excited to see what you do. Can you maybe talk a bit about how you have or how you want to pay it forward to emerging leaders in the compliance space?
SC: I think that it's always good to mentor. If you're working on a post-graduate role, you're always able to give some sort of experience or share some sort of knowledge with a graduate or someone going for uni or college. I tend to mentor as many graduates as I can at my university where I studied as well as at the firms I’ve worked for. My focus has been for the Bain Society and IDB in the Relativity Trace space. What I've always done is mentored and shared my experience with new people in the industry. By doing that, I’m learning from the new members of the industry, and they're able to learn from the mistakes I've made. The second piece is actually taking part in other events outside of your job. At the end of the day, with your job, yes you have certain tasks you need to get done in the day. But the events [help with] the elements of your job to help you progress. And you get to meet people in the industry and like-minded people who you can share thoughts and advice and best practices with.
MR: Sonia and I have loved chatting with you today. It was so good to know you and all the awesome stuff you accomplished.
SC: Thank you. It was lovely speaking to you, too.
MR: I want to give a quick PSA for our listeners. Please, please, if you have the mobile app for Apple Podcasts, rate us for Stellar Women. Five stars are accepted.
MT: Please do. We'll be waiting.
MR: We'll be waiting. And for Stellar Women, I'm Mary Rechtoris.
MT: And I’m Mila Taylor.
Both: Signing off.