What career women can learn from Bénédicte Nolens, a leading woman in the GRC space

Women Special

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Bénédicte Nolens is a well-acclaimed senior executive in the financial industry with 20 years of unbounded experience across international borders. A 24-hour woman, she at any time plays several roles. She is a managing director at SC Ventures, the innovation arm of Standard Chartered Bank, whose mission is to lead digital innovation across the group, invest in Fintechs, and promote rapid testing and implementation of new business models. Her role consists of assisting the head of SC Ventures to oversee the three business lines and help them stay within appropriate governance, policy frameworks and risk appetite. She also remains an advisor to Circle, a Boston based pioneer in the crypto asset space, where she previously worked as the Vice President of International Regulatory Affairs. She is also a board member at the Fintech Association of Hong Kong (FTAHK) which supports the development of Hong Kong as a leading Fintech center, and a member of the Investment Committee of AngelHub, Hong Kong’s first SFC licensed start-up investment platform. Before long, she has submitted her part as a member of the steering committee of Women in Finance Asia (WiFA), an association that is committed to providing women and men in the financial services industry the tools, resources, and network to move the needle in their career.

“Life is a marathon, not a race. I strongly believe in not missing stages in life, else you may fail in the end.”

The importance of taking a career risk

Originally from Belgium, Bénédicte moved to Hong Kong in 1997 when she was still in her early twenties. At that time Hong Kong had just returned to China as part of the hand-over, marking the beginning of the end of British rule. She tells Aspioneer, “This was a time of great anxiety when many moved the other way – leaving Hong Kong – while I arrived. I recall at the time that during our Christmas dinner, a family member questioned the wisdom of this move as China was still very poor. I responded that ‘I had seen more capitalists in China than in Europe’. One particular example that struck me in the summer of 1997 was seeing many hawkers being allowed to trade, and by implication make money, on Tiananmen square in front of the Forbidden City, the very heart of China. In other words, I saw the beginning of economic green shoots in China. The rest is now history.” 

Since then, China has been on an unparalleled growth path, and her move to Asia has paid off from both a career and a personal standpoint. She says, “I met my important other, built a career with a level of challenge and diversity that would have been difficult for me to achieve elsewhere, and traveled a lot. While doing so, I witnessed Asia in all its differences and traditions, including different cultural thinking, often much more fatalistic. We are now at another transition point in the history of Hong Kong – and I am still here because I believe that Asia will remain one of the most dynamic regions in the world.”

Bénédicte Nolens, Managing Director, SC Ventures, Standard Chartered Bank

With difficulty comes opportunity

Bénédicte tells us another early life-defining moment: “Around 13 years old, a vegetable stall salesman in Belgium pointed at me and asked, ‘and what does the boy want?’ I had short hair at the time. Nevertheless, that moment left a mark on me – I realized I was not given beauty and thus would need to rely on my brain and hard work instead.”  Funnily enough, 10 years later Bénédicte got her first job interview at the New York University Job Fair while she was completing an LL.M. at the University of Chicago because people had mistaken her first name signaling she was a man. “They all seemed rather surprised when a woman showed up with the name Benedict,” recalls Bénédicte. This interview, however, proved to be crucial in her life as it led to a follow-up interview with White & Case, a leading global law firm, which in turn landed her first job in the Big Apple. She chuckles at the thought of how she got the job because, given heavy snowstorms, she was the only one to arrive on that given day for an interview. Moreover, she arrived in a cast with a broken leg. The hiring manager had taken that as a sign of grit.  

Courage in the right form at the right time

Another big moment came at the end of her participation in the international lawyer’s program at White & Case when she was to be transferred from New York to Brussels. She shares, “When I received my prospective pay in Brussels, I noticed it was much lower. Being a junior lawyer at the time, it took me a lot of courage to go to the second most senior partner at White & Case, then the International Head, and ask if this might be ‘a calculation mistake’. He had the discrepancy fixed in a 1-minute phone call to HR. I shall also add for completeness that this was likely not ‘a calculation mistake’, but rather a cost of living adjustment – the pay was lower in Belgium. Yet by formulating it as ‘a calculation mistake’, I had given this senior partner a way to save face. The result was a 30 percent higher pay at the onset of my, by now, 23 years of career. Imagine how well this one move of courage has paid off.”

Pursue your convictions

Moving further, as she stepped into the innovation sector, Bénédicte was advised to stop augmenting her research on Green Finance and Fintech because at the time these trends were still viewed as irrelevant. “Fast forward to today and the whole world is talking about these trends,” says Bénédicte. This experience taught her that some people require more evidence than others before they reach conviction on a new topic or trend. “We see this extensively in the context of the climate change debate: some people want to wait until the evidence is irrefutable, by which time others believe it will be too late. It is also visible in the context of digital assets: some people think paper money is here to stay, while others believe finance has entered an irreversible trend of digitization of money.” She continues: “Thankfully, throughout my career, my parents and brother have always acted as a sounding board, including when I was facing set-backs. Also, I have good friends who keep me focussed on my pursuits, such as Paula di Perna, a lifelong conservationist who was part of the crew of Jean-Jacques Cousteau, and my fellow Board Members at the Fintech Association of Hong Kong.”

The cornerstones of great leadership

“Honesty and integrity are at the core of everything we do. Our assets are our people, capital and reputation – if any of these is damaged, the last is the hardest to restore.”

Bénédicte learned this principle upon joining Goldman Sachs in the 1990s. It came from a printed booklet delivered by the partners during the onboarding training and she has never let go of it since. “This best encapsulates my leadership principles: honesty, integrity, respect for staff for the time and effort they dedicate to me as a boss and to the company, and protection of the reputation of any company I have worked for. My career is one concentrated on governance, risk, and compliance (GRC) and throughout my tenure at any of my past employers, no scandal has hit my remit at those employers,” says Bénédicte. “Another key principle that I recently saw exhibited on the wall of one of our ventures in India is to ‘do it with passion or not at all.’ I very much subscribe to this. Innovation is extremely hard. If you have no passion to persist notwithstanding the hurdles thrown in your way, better to never start.”

Put your hand up!

Bénédicte’s ‘can do’ attitude and desire to learn new things scored her several red-letter moments. For her, four of those stand out:  On the recommendation of her first boss at Goldman Sachs Kevin O’Neill, who she credits for the most positive impact on her career, she got the coveted George E. Doty scholarship allowing her to complete an M.B.A. at the University of Chicago. “My present career is still the result of being offered this opportunity,” says Bénédicte. Further, while at the Securities and Futures Commission (SFC) “I was the only one to sit on the Standing Committee for Risk and Research of the International Organization of Securities Commissions (IOSCO). I became the Fintech lead of IOSCO as a result of my work on this committee, and later joined the Fintech working groups of the Financial Stability Board (FSB) and the Steering group for Fintech of the Hong Kong government.” A third time came when the CEO of Circle Mr. Jeremy Allaire, asked her to stand in for him at a meeting with Mrs. Lagarde, the former Chair(wo)man of the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and incoming President of the European Central Bank (ECB), who is her role model. “That meeting will for sure stand out in my memory for a long time to come,” says Bénédicte. Another momentous day was when the Financial Action Task Force (FATF) invited Bénédicte to speak at the United Nations (UN) premises in Vienna on the topic of Virtual Currencies. She tells Aspioneer, “When I started my career, I harbored the hope to someday work at the UN. I have not yet realized that, but this is the moment I at least made it to the premises! ”

Bénédicte starting her journey with Madame Lagarde

Use positive executive behavior

Clearly, throughout her career, Bénédicte has been placed into different roles. To achieve goals she turns to her belief of influencing people in a liberating way. “Influencing is an art that can take many forms – creating a solid foundation that others cannot dismiss as irrelevant (this can take the form of research), then build on this by seeking buy-in from those who are more willing to explore new things, work with them to transform the idea into reality and from that point onward, hard work to keep the idea on its feet and to keep the momentum going – the latter being actually the hardest as any new ideas need constant work, and often continued pivoting, to succeed in the long term,” says Bénédicte. 

Reasonably, she digs sanguinity in people she works with, which requires a special personality with a lot of strength and grounding from within. She tends to encourage creativity by allowing people a lot of freedom in the workspace, as long as they are transparent and duly report their progress on the tasks they have been assigned. It is clear that for her, the deal-breakers would be the lack of honesty, integrity or respect. She further adds, “I like working with positive people. Negative behavior drains too much energy out of a team. Life is too short for that.” 

Of course, it’s tough, being a working mum...

Bénédicte acknowledges like most women that the most difficult challenge in her career was to continue progressing at the same pace as many of her peers after becoming a mother. “It would have been easy to do one or the other – work or raise kids – but to combine both was simply hard, even more so since by the time I had my two children I was a Managing Director,” says Bénédicte “jobs are demanding at that level and many companies are still not fully cognizant of the pressures new mothers face. There also seemed to be no short-cut around these challenges.” Her life bogged down in a quagmire when her second son was struggling with congenital health-issue and that was only diagnosed when he reached 3.5 years old, after multiple misdiagnoses. 

“These for sure were the toughest years of my career. The easiest would have been to give up, but I did not think I would do other working mothers justice – including many reporting to me – by simply giving up,” shares Bénédicte. 

Luckily, her son’s health issues got successfully diagnosed and addressed. This experience, however, definitely gave Bénédicte a new outlook on life. Ever since she does pro bono work with Women in Finance Asia (WiFA), helping women navigate similar challenges and junctures. To the ladies who are contemplating giving up motherhood to not slow down their career growth, Bénédicte issues a word of caution: “Life is a marathon, not a race. I strongly believe in not missing stages in life.” She continues, “If you need to do a twist or turn in your career to simply survive and continue breathing (that’s how it felt to me after my second maternity), do it. I left my job in banking to join the regulator to give myself more balance, while I needed to focus more time on raising my two sons.” 

Bénédicte with her sons

The importance of pro bono work

In fact, in the past 10 years of her career, Bénédicte has done an increasing amount of pro bono and not-for-profit work. According to her, she has several reasons for doing it. Firstly, it keeps her grounded. Secondly, often before trends become mainstream it is the pro bono sector that pioneers the topics and that breaks ground on them. She explains, “I have observed this in the context of gender equality, Green Finance, Fintech, and crypto assets – on each of these topics I have done a lot of pro bono work before these topics became more mainstream.” Thirdly, it lets her meet new people, from outside the narrower network of her daily life, which she finds invigorating. She says, “It enables me to at any time be part of multiple networks and ways of thinking, which I very much enjoy.” 

Inspire positive change

In reality, Bénédicte tends to live her life and career less planned than it might seem. These days she is looking to invest in start-ups, including as a result of her own involvement with AngelHub. “While I have done a lot, so far, I am not a Founder myself. Angel investing is a way to gain exposure to those braver than I”. Asked about the future, Bénédicte says that in addition to continuing her career path, she remains open to taking on more advisory or board roles on topics dear to her heart. “Dialing back the clock, my career is the result of the equal opportunity offered to me by my parents from birth – I was given all the same education and opportunities as my brother. Many girls globally still do not have this most basic form of equality. Seen through that lens, there is a lot more work ahead.”

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