Aartie is known for building diverse yet strong teams and is well aware that women and people of colour are a vast minority in her industry; especially at the very top. Born and raised in the Netherlands, Aartie’s Indian-Surinamese parents instilled hard work and discipline in her. She learned at a young age that life is not fair and being a woman of colour probably meant that she would have to work harder than anyone else to make her dreams come true. It didn’t help either that in the Indian culture, parents are overprotective over girls, although well-intended, boys have all the freedom. All of this only fuelled her to go after every goal she set for herself no matter what got in her way.
She started out as a lawyer after double majoring in Dutch and European Law at Leiden University, but soon realised that this career path was not fulfilling to her. So, she took a leap and tried her luck in the world of banking instead. Challenged on every whim, she worked hard to prove herself and soon found herself climbing the corporate ladder. Today, she is Managing Director and Head of Credit Portfolio Management for Corporate Banking at ABN AMRO.
Why do you think minorities lack visibility in your industry?
What I have learnt is that visibility is more about networking and putting yourself out there; so, getting people behind you takes more than working hard. Once you have reached a certain level, everyone is capable and really good at their job, so how are you going to stand out? Our default as minorities is to work really hard in the hopes that someone will take notice of us. We tend to be very humble, so putting ourselves out there is simply not something we have been taught. In an industry where the privileged already know how to work the room, someone who looks like me can be easily overlooked. So, it is important to allow senior colleagues to get to know us and work on relationships outside of work. You are going to need them to root for you and pick you up if you fall.
The gap seems to be bigger for women; why do you think?
So, generally speaking I think women of colour have a larger gap to bridge; more so than men of colour. In my experience, men are better at presenting themselves than women. I even see it with my son. He possesses a level of confidence and pride I don’t naturally see with my daughters. The way I see it, if a man believes he is capable of doing something he will go for it. He believes he is able to learn what he doesn’t know. Women on the other hand, start listing the things they can’t do, thus they will not pursue what could potentially be a great opportunity. We are wired differently and that is reflected in our approach to things, which can put us at a disadvantage if we are not aware of it.
So, what factors contributed to where you are today?
When I first started working at the bank, I was an outsider in every sense of the word. Here I was, a young woman of colour with a law degree and people were asking what I knew about banking? My mere presence was questioned and did not get the benefit of the doubt. I was challenged on every whim and had to really prove myself. It was a nuisance, but it kept me motivated and I kept striving for more. It led me to where I am today. At the same time, I have not reached the limit of my potential. I am still in the learning and growing modus. Therefore, I remind myself to take moments to appreciate all I have achieved, especially coming from my background – and to enjoy the process just as much.
Did sponsors also play a role when you were climbing the corporate ladder?
During the span of my career, I have had great sponsors and mentors in the different roles I had. They have really helped me climb the corporate ladder. So, mentors and sponsors are necessary, but you also need to take action. Doing a great job is not enough, even on my level. Someone once told me lazy people find shortcuts and I know I am definitely not lazy. I am always working very hard, but I have learnt it is also very important to spend time outside of work networking. So, I am constantly required to be mindful of that and step daily work modus to build relationships and relationship equity. It is important to reach out to people especially when you don’t need them, so you can leverage all that invested time when I do need them.
What is your leadership style?
Being a leader means connecting with people, trusting them and building relationships in order to extract the best out of them. I consider myself a connected and inclusive leader. I like to elevate my team and give everyone responsibility without losing sight of the broader picture. I believe it is the only way we can thrive and reach success. So, my job is really to uplift others and give everyone room to evolve. The way I see it, carrying a set of responsibilities leads to imminent growth and I am glad we get to do this in such an inclusive environment with many different nationalities.
What is the recipe for a strong team?
Having people around that you can trust and rely on. I challenge every team member to take responsibility for their actions and I expect them to deliver on their promise. The banking industry operates on high performance. So, I tend to choose my teams diligently, but I also make sure we have a diverse group of people working together in terms of race, gender and education. Personally, I love taking on challenges and doing transformative work where I am able to challenge the status quo. I have been taking a key role in shaping the bank for the future in the digital age and in order to achieve this, I made sure to have people around me with different backgrounds to take us there.
Do you still find yourself learning at this stage in your career?
Absolutely! At this particular moment, I am learning to play the office politics more. I am great at my job, but that is not the only attribute that is relevant. As I have mentioned before, visibility is about connecting with people that are your senior and I need to put more effort into networking in a way that feels authentic. Do not get me wrong, I already know all of this. I am a connector and leading feels natural to me. However, networking and seeking sponsorship from my seniors feels less authentic, but if I am to grow even further, I have to actually stand in the light, instead of only staying in the shadows doing all the hard work. I am learning that it is ok to be seen.
What advice would you give to your 20 year-old self?
Really appreciate what you have and be grateful, but also listen to your intuition and what your body tells you. If you feel like you are capable of doing something, just go for it. Live your dreams and if they are bigger than people tell you, keep believing in yourself. Most people can only look at others through their own lens and value system. So, their opinion is not a reflection of the truth and it has nothing to do with you.