How “being yourself” at BlackRock can help get you to the top

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Inclusion, diversity and career development are not just buzz words at BlackRock – they are embedded in its culture. There are a huge range of inclusion and diversity (I&D) programmes and networks available: from the Women’s Leadership Forum and Multicultural Talent Development initiative (which support high performing staff through insight, sponsorship and a global network), to the Driving Better Decisions initiative, which helps thousands of leaders and managers understand and mitigate against unconscious bias at work.

Here, two leading lights at the firm, Vik Chinduluri, a Vice President in the BlackRock Platform Innovation team, and Stephanie Cohen, Global Chief Operating Officer of the Financial Markets Advisory team, explain how BlackRock has done all it can to support and include them in every aspect of its culture.

Early BlackRock appeal

“I’m from a small fishing village in the North of Scotland, so the City of London is quite a departure from my point of origin,” says Stephanie. “I went to university and lived in Edinburgh for many years, until at age 28, I was given a diagnosis which fundamentally changed my life. I was told I had multiple sclerosis, with a 60% chance of being in a wheelchair by the time I was 40. So I decided to move my entire life to London and put my foot down on the career accelerator to see what I could achieve. I went for a job with Merrill Lynch Investment Managers (which later became part of BlackRock), and met my husband on the third day of the job. He still works there. From day one, the firm has done everything possible to support me in my determination to achieve, which is why I became a Managing Director in a pretty short space of time.”

Vik’s early career prospects looked a little bleak when he graduated with a computer science degree from Cambridge University in 2001 only to find the information technology sector was hitting a dive. “I did a load of different jobs, including working at HMRC and Sun Online. I then worked as a senior IT consultant at SS&C Technologies, which was great, but there was little scope for promotion for me at the time,” he explains. “What appealed to me about BlackRock was that it was a large firm with a lot of opportunities and different roles. I was initially recruited into portfolio compliance, monitoring overnight guideline breaches, as well as coding client and regulatory rules. It wasn’t what I wanted to do with the rest of my life, but I could see it was definitely a firm I could have a career with, as their internal mobility policies meant that if I showed myself to be a worthy employee, there could be other opportunities available along my lines.”

Making progress

Both Vik and Stephanie sing the praises of their senior managers in helping support their growth within the firm. “When I first joined the portfolio compliance team, I had a really good manager who was seconded to the UK from New York. He was very technical focused on the technical side of things and made sure we had knowledge beyond what was required for our day to day jobs, so we could excel going forward,” says Vik.

“We also did a lot of training in the first six months, so when new people were hired, I was given the task of training them up. I went from being instructed to an instructor within a year, deciding who does what to help the team function. I was also allowed to give demonstrations of our investment platform to clients, which gave me exposure to portfolio managers and sales teams, and helped me understand what the client wanted.”

“Then when the integration between Merrill Lynch Investment Managers and Barclays Global Investors happened, I was involved in combining their systems with BlackRock and Aladdin. My time was my own then, so if I had to spend 15 hours coding investment guidelines to get a go-live, it was possible. It helped that the team spirit was always positive.

“When I came to the end of my time with portfolio compliance, I didn’t feel like I had to hide the fact I wanted something else to do. They said I was a valued member of the organisation and helped me seek out another position internally. My manager helped set me up with my current role through a contact in another part of the business called BlackRock Platform Innovation (BPI), which plays a critical role in developing the firm’s technology and operational platform, and in solving critical related strategic challenges.

“Our senior MD who hired me into the team has always looked out for me and pushed me in directions I might not have thought of going. So over the past seven years I’ve done four different roles within the same team. Each of those he suggested to me, saying they’d be good for my career progression and improve me as a person.”

Stephanie meanwhile, spent most of her BlackRock career on the investment side in equities, but when she found out she was pregnant with twins last year, she spoke with her manager and he said it would be a great time to try something different once she returned from her maternity leave. “I wanted to work in a growth area, dealing with clients while still remaining technical. That was when I found the wonderful opportunity in the advisory business.

“I already knew the culture and that it would be a great fit, we’d done months of due diligence, and I received a huge amount of well-wishing and support from the people at the top of the firm.”

Roles and responsibilities

According to Vik, “in my current role, we work with teams across BlackRock to ensure they have an effective and scalable operating platform, and we’re updating Aladdin to offer enhanced funds to end investors. Having a background in portfolio compliance is really useful because it means I understand things from their perspective.

“A big part of my role is relationship management because you’re dealing with stakeholders and subjective parties. Sometimes a project doesn’t work for all relevant teams, so we have to establish how/if we can still achieve our goal (such as adding extra staff, or evaluating the ultimate client impact).

“But even when there have been difficulties, it’s always been a pleasant experience because everyone’s trying to make things work, and we’re always friendly to each other.”

Stephanie agrees that employees always support each other and there’s plenty of scope to learn from one another. “As a global COO at BlackRock, it is my job to run the platform for the business heads day to day. There’s always an expectation for you to perform at a certain level, but because it’s a new role for me, there’s also an element of learning. At my induction programme, there were about 30 meetings with in-depth sessions on all angles of the business. So I’m achieving, delivering value, contributing and learning at the same time.”

Work-life balance

Now that both Stephanie and Vik have young children, they also have to carefully manage their work and home lives. Fortunately, BlackRock is very supportive and flexible. “My wife and I alternate pick up and drop off for school. If I have to attend a meeting on the days I’m responsible, my team is always sure to give me plenty of advance notice,” Vik says.

“Plus, from a technology perspective, BlackRock is way ahead of other firms. I can work from home easily because when people call my desk they get through to my iPad, so I can see them, and I have a secure log in that I can use from any computer to access my files.”

Meanwhile, Stephanie’s expanded family came with real emotional resonance. “I was told by the doctor that I was expecting twins on December 8, my 40th birthday. So instead of being in a wheelchair, I was celebrating our newborn twins with my husband and eldest son.” She now has a great support structure at home for the kids and is happy to be back working again. But, she is also given flexibility to work from home to be with them when she needs to. “I’m going to work while I can, then when I can’t, I’ll know I tried.”

Inclusion and development

BlackRock is all about breaking down barriers: Whether it’s diversity programmes or employee networks, which bring together people from different backgrounds and areas of the business with a common goal – to share experiences, work together, and achieve success for themselves and the firm.

“Five years ago I went on the Women’s Leadership Forum,” explains Stephanie. “It is a year-long programme, where I joined about 60 other women and worked on professional development, career aspirations, and had access to senior sponsors. Mine was the Vice Chairman, Ken Wilson, which is an incredibly powerful relationship for me. I see him every couple of months and talk to him whenever I need to. Being able to tap into that experience and expertise is an incredible thing about BlackRock.”

Vik adds that employees are also encouraged to challenge themselves. “It is fine for us to ask for other work opportunities, side projects to expand knowledge, training, flexibility and more.

“I completed the Investment Management Certificate. I’ve also been on a pilot scheme for leadership, where they’ve taken about 80 Vice Presidents across the firm and organised various events, including one to one coaching and seminars with top figures, such as Larry Fink, our CEO.”



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