Meet the female Halifax banker hoping to inspire more women into the industry

Riana Azam broke the mould by entering banking. The regional sales director of Nucleus Commercial Finance is now hoping to show others that they can do the same, writes Ismail Mulla.

Saturday, 11th July 2020, 11:30 am

The easy option for Riana Azam would have been to pursue a career in the legal sector.

Two of her brothers run their own law firm, she has a sister who works as an in-house lawyer for social services and her youngest sister is a partner at a law firm in London.

However, taking the easy route isn’t for the Halifax born and bred finance professional.

Riana Azam

“In terms of people who had any experience of what I wanted to do, there wasn’t anyone around me,” she said. “The easy route would be to go into law like the others but I’ve never wanted to do anything easy.”

Instead, having studied IT and finance at Bradford University, she entered the world of banking in 2005 with RBS.

Despite not having any contacts, Ms Azam got “lucky” as it would only take her 12 months to be promoted to a position where she was managing a portfolio of 75 clients.

She said: “It was very much a baptism of fire. It was my responsibility to ensure that those businesses thrived, wages were paid and working capital was looked after.”

Her time as part of the invoice finance facility team would see her fall in love with the profession and get her asking the question why there weren’t more women from ethnic minority backgrounds that wanted to enter banking.

Ms Azam said: “Everyday was absolutely jam-packed with various different issues that you had to get involved with and deal with. That was very much where I learnt my trade.

“For a period of time I was the youngest one that they had in the team managing a portfolio. That was a really proud moment for me.”

The banker threw herself into the role and started carving out a reputation as a driven finance professional.

She said: “I’ve got this massive sense of wanting to do the right thing and also not letting people down.

“People would ring me on a Friday at 4pm and I would spend the weekend on getting whatever it was they required sorting. I took that responsibility on and I really wanted to do the right thing for my clients.”

From RBS, she joined Santander in 2013, helping the bank set up its asset based lending (ABL) offering.

She spent five fruitful years at the Spanish-owned bank. However, Ms Azam’s drive is intrinsically linked with her desire to be challenged.

“If you’re in a role where you feel you’re not being challenged anymore then you’re in the wrong job,” Ms Azam said. “For me personally, if I wasn’t challenged at work, I would lose that ambition and that drive.”

So when the opportunity came along to take on another challenge Ms Azam took it. This time it was with Metro Bank

“At that point in time Metro were looking to expand across the North,” she said.

During the pandemic, she moved on to another challenge and took on the role of regional sales director at Nucleus Commercial Finance.

Both of Ms Azam’s parents are originally from Pakistan and her goal is to make her heritage proud.

She said: “I would never do my parents a disservice of not appreciating the sacrifices that they made coming to the UK all those years ago, very much to give their children a better life.

“I would never disrespect my heritage by forgetting those challenges that they obviously had to overcome.”

If Ms Azam does feel like she is losing perspective on life in her successful career as a banker, there’s always her sisters to keep her grounded.

Her eldest sister is an assistant head teacher at an inner city school in Bradford and another of her sisters works as an in-house lawyer for social services.

Ms Azam said: “What you tend to find is that when you go into a profession you can lose that perspective of the world around you.

“I may enjoy a lot of privileges but there are a lot of people who don’t.”

She describes how she looks up to her sisters and how they keep her grounded by offering that “perspective that there is a lot more to life than just your issues”.

It’s the reason why Ms Azam readily gets involved in charity work and is an advocate for more women from minority backgrounds breaking into the banking profession.

“You can help so many more people by maintaining that identity of who you are and where you’ve come from along the way,” she said.

Perception of the industry is the greatest barrier to ethnic minority women not pursuing a career in banking, according to Ms Azam.

“I will continue to champion the need for more diversity,” she said. “The different dynamics that different people bring to any role is exactly what we need.”

Ms Azam added: “I would say that if anyone has a perception that there’s a barrier to entering a profession like this then that is completely wrong.

“I would be more than willing to have those conversations in terms of the opportunities that I’ve had or in terms of the fact that people from all backgrounds have championed me.

“If you’re good at what you do and you work hard you will get the opportunities.”

Her advice to those that do pursue a career in banking is to be true to yourself.

Ms Azam said: “Never lose sight of who you are. The issue has always been around the fact that you think people expect you to be a certain way. That’s your perception.

“Whereas as long as your intentions are right and you articulate it in the correct way and you are willing to accept other people’s point of view, I wouldn’t say rein it in at all.”

One of the biggest challenges of her career was having to deal with the recession but even choppier economic waters may be ahead she concedes as the world tries to get a handle on the coronavirus crisis.

Ms Azam’s advice to businesses is to be proactive and take on board what advisers have to say.

As she looks to help build and grow Nucleus Commercial Finance’s Yorkshire presence against the backdrop of Covid-19, it’s probably a good thing that Ms Azam is one to relish a challenge.

Having found her way in finance, it may be for the best that she didn’t follow her siblings into the legal sector after all.