fivehundred magazine > Banking and Finance Yearbook 2023 > Perspectives: Dr Sandie Okoro

Perspectives: Dr Sandie Okoro

‘Have the ambition that seems impossible, don’t aim for the possible,’ Standard Chartered’s Dr Sandie Okoro on breaking glass ceilings, aiming high and fighting injustice

Why did you want to become a lawyer? 

I always wanted to. I wanted to fight injustice. It began when I watched Crown Court on TV – although I wanted to be the judge rather than any of the lawyers. So, my first inclination was after watching a TV programme, and thinking ‘I want to do that’.

As I got older and realised the role lawyers play in helping people fight for their freedom it became very attractive.

You qualified as a barrister first, before switching to become a solicitor, and then moving in-house, going on to work for some huge names in the financial services sector. Why in-house? 

What wasn’t appealing about private practice was the time sheets and the grunt work you had to do at the beginning of your career. You didn’t always have access to clients and it wasn’t quite where I wanted to be. Then I found this fabulous job at Schroders. At that time, it was unusual to go in-house so early in your career – everyone thought that, as a proper lawyer, you had to be in private practice. In fact someone even said this to me. How different things are now!

I wanted to be a civil rights lawyer, but I had bills to pay so I ended up in the City and took to it like a duck to water. You have clients around you all the time and you can be part of creative solutions and be part of a team that’s bigger than just a legal team.

What has been the biggest achievement of your career to date? 

That’s a difficult question because there have been so many high points across the different jobs I’ve had, when we achieved things people thought you couldn’t!

One of the things I’m most proud of is launching a programme during my time at the World Bank called Empowering Women by Balancing the Law (EWBL) which had the aspiration of changing all the laws in the world that discriminate against women. The World Bank has a publication called ‘Women, Business and the Law’ which provided the data we needed on the laws that discriminated against women. We therefore knew exactly what needed to be changed – so we thought let’s get that going! These things always take a long time, and that vision is being carried through now. A former World Bank colleague recently said, ‘we’ve launched EWBL and it’s doing exactly what we hoped in The Gambia’.

Another is being appointed group general counsel at Standard Chartered and breaking that glass ceiling of being the first woman of colour to be in that position at one of the top 20 largest international banks. I’m really proud to work at Standard Chartered, whose purpose is to drive commerce and prosperity through its unique diversity, and to have the opportunity to launch a Taskforce in October 2023 with some of our Global Legal Panel firms to drive diversity and inclusion within the legal sector.

A third is when I was made Master of the Bench at Middle Temple – it was a complete surprise when they approached and asked me if I wanted to be an Honorary Master, so that was also a real highlight in my career!

And what has been the most difficult challenge to overcome?  

Everyone always has someone who gets in their way or is a bit of a thorn in your side but I realise now that I was my own biggest blocker. My biggest challenge has been overcoming my own self-doubt; the gremlin on my shoulder, my imposter syndrome. Although I always knew I could do it, I didn’t necessarily believe I could do it – and those are two very different things!

There may be all sorts of tangible blockers, but nothing is as big as the one in your head.

What have been the biggest differences between your work now at Standard Chartered compared with the World Bank?

First of all, there are so many similarities – both organisations have a global footprint and are built on value propositions. They are also a great bunch of people to work with and similar in terms of intellect and loving a challenge.

The real difference is that the World Bank had certain privileges and immunities and was not subject to local laws and regulations, but here at Standard Chartered that is the exact opposite. A big challenge is therefore the complexity of complying with various laws and regulations in over 50 countries. At the World Bank, of course there are internal rules, but coming back into a heavily regulated space has been the starkest difference.

What issues do you think will be keeping you particularly busy over the next year or so? 

I think the things that will keep me energised as group general counsel will be pretty much the same as many other large international firms, be they banks or anything else.

Some of the current geopolitical issues are a challenge for everybody, no matter which industry they’re working in. Data sovereignty issues are becoming a challenge as well, as different nations want to claim sovereignty – quite rightly – over their data. I also think that in a post-Covid environment working practices have changed, and it’s not just a generational or gender thing anymore – so we have to adapt and get that right so we can attract and retain talent.

You’ve been very focused on championing social justice throughout your career. How much progress do you think has been made? And what are the key things which still need to change to improve things further?

Looking at when I started my career to now, I can see that lots has changed to allow someone like me to get where I am. When I was at school and was told by my teacher that little black girls from Balham couldn’t become judges, I don’t think she would have changed her mind if I’d said, ‘ok I’ll become group general counsel at Standard Chartered instead’.

Before, no matter how hard you worked, your ethnicity and gender would not let you get there. I think there’s a much better chance that your intellect and skill will get you there now. The opportunity has changed, and the things that used to hold you back are less likely to do so now. Not in every country in the world, but it is changing, and for the better.

There is still a lot of work to be done in social mobility. Where you were born, where you live, and your background can really dictate your success. That needs to be less so. I think there’s a lot to be done there.

The other area to improve is around gender. In the past 100 years, there has been a stark improvement in gender equality, but there’s still a long way to go. We need to allow women to be the best they can be across the world – which involves contributing to their communities, their families, and their countries. We are lucky in some parts of the world that there has already been such progress. We also want zero violence against women – that is another thing to tackle which is very important. One in every three women in the world has faced gender-based violence at some point in their lives, and if we don’t tackle that, no matter what other things we put into place to help women succeed, it won’t work. It is ingrained in us that the world is a dangerous place for women, and how we make those choices needs to change. Everyone should feel safe, whatever gender they identify with.

When you look back on things, you realise that people are having similar conversations now compared to 30 years before, you just swap some words around. So discussions that were had previously about racial equality, we’re now having in relation to gender. If we focus on how to include rather than exclude people that would be a great step forward for humankind. For me, that has been the conversation throughout my entire life and career. When I started out, nobody thought I could do X,Y and Z. But as my life progressed, and the world progressed, things became more inclusive. I think we need to make everybody feel welcome – if people hadn’t done that to me, I wouldn’t be here now. But the people who had that powerbase included me in the conversation, and we need to pass that on. There should be inclusion in life.

What advice would you give to others who want to get to where you have?

Go for a bigger ambition than that! Have the ambition that seems impossible – that’s what I had. Don’t aim for the possible, aim for the impossible.

At a glance: Dr Sandie Okoro

2022-present Group general counsel – Standard Chartered

2017-22 Senior vice president and general counsel – World Bank Group

2014-17 Global general counsel – HSBC Retail Banking & Wealth Management

2007-14 Global general counsel – Barings

1991-2007 Head of Legal for Corporate Services – Schroders