Blog

Women in Alternatives: “Don’t Be Shy About Leaning In”

by Preqin

  • 17 Dec 2019
  • PE
  • VC
  • HF
  • PD
  • RE
  • INF
  • NR

Aisling Keane from State Street talks to Louise Weller about how women can realize their full potential through confidence and self-awareness, and how tennis stars were once her role models


Please can you start by telling us a little bit about your current position?
I am a Senior Managing Director at State Street with responsibility for the Alternative Investment Solutions business in Asia-Pacific. Based in Hong Kong, I lead teams in Hong Kong, Singapore, Japan, Australia, China, and India. Our clients are from all over Asia-Pacific, and we also have global clients with investments in this part of the world. It’s challenging and incredibly interesting, working with a fantastic team drawn from many different nationalities, ages, and backgrounds.

What did you study at university and why?
I studied Economics at University College Cork, in Ireland. I have always been curious about how the world works and about the different ways businesses, governments, and people interact. My brain tends to focus on how the different parts of a system fit and flow together. So, when I was thinking about studying economics, the idea that certain models and ways of thinking can help you explore how the world works was really appealing. I originally went in to study a combined Economics, Psychology, and IT degree but narrowed quickly to make Economics my major and went on to do a Masters in Economics.

Why did you decide to pursue a career in finance? Where was your first job?
It’s very common for people in Ireland to take time out to travel and work abroad after university. I actually lived in Australia for 14 months and while there I joined SPC Potter Warburg supporting the futures traders. That was my first exposure to the Australian Stock Market and investment funds and I loved it. So when the time came to leave Australia, I spent a couple more months traveling through New Zealand and Canada, which gave me some time to reflect, and by the time I reached Ireland, I knew that finance was the industry that I really wanted to work in. 

In a sense, it was the perfect fit – my economics background and brief work experience helped ‘sell me’ to prospective employers but, more importantly, as a career, finance has enabled me to work on things that interest me and suit my personality and skills, which is really important if you want to build a long-term career.

As an aside, the experience of traveling through New Zealand and Canada on my own was amazing; I quickly got over the shyness with meeting new people and could really be myself!

Are there any inspirational figures that have influenced your career?
I have found that the kind of people that inspire me have evolved over time. When I was young I admired strong women achieving their goals in life, but my role models were as likely to have been drawn from sport as much as business. I was a big fan of Chris Evert, the tennis player who made everything look easy, elegant, and confident; but, if you read about her background, she learned to use humor and a genuine interest in people to overcome what she described as crippling shyness as a young girl (hard to believe, right?). I also admired Martina Navratilova for her work rate, and sheer determination to succeed no matter the odds.

As I’ve grown older, I tend to look for ‘heroes’ a little closer to home – both male and female. Rather than holding any one individual up as ‘inspirational’ – no-one’s the perfect allrounder – I now tend to admire a particular strength or skill in someone. For example, a female senior leader who I saw disarm a somewhat hostile and patronizing meeting a few years ago through her sensible, firm, and measured response. She maintained her cool and sense of humor when others would have lost it. She didn’t wither back into her shell; she calmly held her position, and won the room as a result.

What advice would you give to females looking to start their career in finance?
Don’t hold back. If you’re going in for the right reasons – that it seems like a good fit for what you like to do – don’t be shy about leaning in. Be prepared to volunteer for that project, to commit fully – and also to claim your seat at the table. For some reason, I still find a number of young women either apologetic or unwilling to step forward and be confident in what they can do. There are always some that overcompensate (male and female) and can come across as too ‘aggressive’ – I’m not advocating that either. Just that you should have a confident, self-aware understanding of your skills and worth, and a willingness to present that forward. Sheryl Sandberg talks eloquently about this similar theme in her Ted Talk.

Oh, and find a mentor or two – doesn’t have to be formal, doesn’t have to be someone all the way up in the executive suite – just someone who you get on well with and who has struggled with the same challenges you’re going to face at the different stages of your career and personal life. It’s great to have a sounding board and someone to talk to that cares about you and can give you advice.

Have you seen people’s outlook on female representation within the industry change since you started your career?
Yes, thankfully. There’s a lot more awareness of the incredible results that we can unlock by giving everyone an equal chance to develop to their full potential – irrespective of their gender or other demographic ‘label.’ There’s also been some very helpful recognition that females, in particular, face some difficult choices at different stages in their life, such as when or if to have children. Making allowances for that – and doing the right things by Mums (and Dads) – leads to a healthy workplace and the chance to leverage the strengths and investments we made in some of our best talent. There’s also greater understanding of unconscious bias, and the very real steps that each of us in management need to take to make sure that we don’t only hire, promote, and develop people who look and behave exactly like us.

Do you think the industry needs to focus more on female representation? Why/why not?
Yes, but not just women: we need the talent drawn from all different spectrums and walks of life and, more importantly, the diversity of opinion that comes with building diverse teams and management structures. That’s how you compete in a fast-moving and diverse world. Metrics and KPIs are useful in that they force us to confront our decisions and our thinking process, to get beyond our unconscious bias. But I look forward to the day when we don’t need a metric, we simply and instinctively invest in the person with the best potential, irrespective of gender, color, race, or whether they’re an introvert or extrovert. Skills, aptitude, and attitude should be the only things that should enter into the equation.

Are there any specific initiatives that your firm is undertaking to improve female representation?
State Street has taken a very visible position on this, I’m pleased to say. As well as a number of internal initiatives and supports, we’ve also been visible externally. The Fearless Girl statue launched in Wall Street in 2017 brought the issue to the forefront and significantly raised the level of debate. But more importantly, behind the scenes, our State Street Global Advisors business has been an advocate for board diversity and other gender-related topics. It’s not an easy or instant path. These initiatives provoke strong emotions and reactions but, over time, if we’re determined, we can make a difference and give our sisters, daughters, and future granddaughters the very same opportunity to contribute that we allow their brothers. And our companies and society as a whole will be better off.

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Aisling Keane is a senior vice president and head of Alternative Investment Solutions (AIS), Asia Pacific at State Street. Ms. Keane is responsible for leading our hedge, private equity and private real estate operations in the region. 

She has a strong background in building and leading successful alternatives businesses in Asia and most recently held senior management positions at Credit Suisse and BNP Paribas.  

Prior to these roles, she had 16 years of experience working at State Street in both our Dublin and Hong Kong offices, including head of International Funds Services (IFS) in APAC.  

Ms. Keane holds a Bachelor of Arts degree in economics and computer studies and a Masters in economics both from University College Cork.

This Q&A is part of Preqin’s 2020 series on women in alternatives. Keep an eye out for our upcoming report Women in Alternative Assets 2020 and register your interest by emailing Preqin.marketing@preqin.com.

In the meantime, you can read our factsheet for the latest statistics.

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