24th February 2024

Better business. Better community

Business Industry and Financial

Embracing equity in financial service – Damian Cilmi

This year the theme for International Women’s Day was Embracing Equity. With women still under-represented in financial service and particularly in the advice sector, it is more important than ever to showcase the expertise and talent of the fantastic women in the profession.

In Praemium’s latest podcast, Samantha Hawkins, Head of Sales (Southern), takes the reins as guest host of the Investment Leaders podcast, moderating an important discussion on gender balance with Katerina Nicolakopoulos, managing director of Eikon Financial, and Widiana Setiawan, Senior Private Wealth Adviser at Shaw and Partners. 

Discover their insights on career opportunities in financial services, their passion for serving clients, and the importance of attracting more women to the profession in the transcript below. 

Listen to the full podcast interview here.

Watch the podcast highlights here.

Samantha: Hi everyone. My name’s Samantha Hawkins. I’m Head of Sales here at Premium, and today we are really pleased to introduce you to two fantastic women from our network, Katerina Nicolakopoulos, who is the founding partner of Eikon Financial, a fantastic financial advice firm here in Melbourne. Katerina has been in our industry for over 26 years now, and Widiana Setiawan, who is a Senior Private Wealth Advisor at Shaw & Partners who has had over 15 years’ experience in the financial services industry. Thank you for joining me and welcome.

Katerina: It’s our pleasure.

Samantha: Now, we are talking today in honor of International Women’s Day, and the theme of International Women’s Day this year is around equity and building equity within our profession, which I think all three of us here are very passionate about, building equity within our organisations and our financial profession in general. We’re going to talk a little bit about background from Katerina and Widi and where they’ve started, what led them to the path that they’re on and how they got here, maybe some hurdles they’ve had along the way, what they’ve learned along the way, and what they think we could do to encourage women and younger women to follow the path that you maybe have done.

So first of all, just introducing each of you. You’ve both have some similarities in the background of your upbringing and the things that maybe led you into financial services as a career. So, Katerina, we’ll start with you. You started your own business with Eikon a number of years ago. It’s a very successful business with a really great loyal client base. Can you give us a little bit of background, and what inspired you to take that step?

Katerina: Thank you Samantha for allowing us to come on and inviting us to speak about what our experiences are in the industry. Given that it has been predominantly male dominated it’s a privilege to be a representative of females in financial services. So, in terms of what led me, firstly to the industry and then what led me to become an advisor, growing up as a country kid to parents that had migrated from Greece, I really got little direction in relation to what career path I could choose. So, I actually studied a very broad degree in business. And when I graduated in 1996, Queensland was in a very serious recession. And there was peak unemployment and a lot of businesses shut down.

When I was at uni studying, I’d head to the library and look at the newspaper section and be interested predominantly in the financial services section, and the stock market. So I actually ended up in the industry. I don’t know if that is by circumstance or chance, but essentially, I was working on the other side of the fence advising advisors for 10 years in this corporate world, and I was writing their strategies for clients to implement. I was auditing them to make sure that they were complying with our requirements and the legislative requirements. And then I went and managed the FSR transition, which was a major financial services reform across our industry.

And that was a huge task to undertake. I was only 27 or 28 at the time. And I suppose I got to peer into hundreds of businesses across Australia, financial services businesses, and I got to see firsthand working with these advisors, what worked well and what didn’t work well. And it was a bit of a battle sometimes because we’re dealing with an industry that wasn’t tertiary educated and wasn’t quick to adapt to new technologies. And so as part of that experience with the corporate, I actually started working with an accounting firm that was trying to get their financial services up and running. I then joined the firm. I suppose the key reason to try this was to see whether everything that I was teaching these advisors over the course of the years and all the work that I was doing, whether or not I could actually apply it and could I do things better.

In short, the two key reasons were to see whether or not I could apply the learnings and the teachings of the prior years in corporate. And also, most importantly, really was to look after the clients once I was there and I was facing them and looking after them and, and playing the role of responsibility to manage their financial affairs.

The branding of Eikon, so eikon is the ancient Greek word for icon. And basically, we wanted to create a firm that set the new benchmark in the industry so that advisors could see how we could do things differently. And not sell. So, our industry was predominantly based on selling product and we aligned the business very early on to be of service and to advise our clients.

Samantha: And having worked with you for a few years now, I can say that that is definitely the feel that I get when I come into the Eikon offices. It’s definitely a full service and a supportive and really nice environment. So I think you’ve created what you set out to.

Katerina: Thank you, it’s great to see 16 years on.

Samantha: Widi. So, a little bit of a different story or a different path that you’ve gone down, but interestingly some similarities in background. Can you give us a little bit of a summary of what led you to Shaw & Partners?

Widiana: Sure. So first of all, thank you for having me here. My background is very similar to Katerina in the sense that I came to Australia when I was thirteen. Purely came here to study, with my two older sisters, from grade seven to finishing my year 12. I learned a lot and met a lot of people. I also grew up in a small country town, and then I slowly moved towards the city. I went to Melbourne Uni to do my degree, a Bachelor of Science, majoring in physics. After a year into the degree, I thought if I decide to go back to Indonesia to work, I need to look at some alternative careers, because it’s very hard to find a job, especially as a woman in the physics field.

So, then I start attending finance and commerce subjects in my second year of physics. And I loved it. I and I thought I’ll give it a shot. And here we are. I’ve been working in financial services for over 15 years. One of the motivations for me is that I love the customer interaction. I love to hear clients telling me the story of their life experiences. I can help them solve their problem. I can provide solutions based on the knowledge that I have, and then at the same time, I can add value to this relationship, between the client and the advisor relationship. So for me, that was my motivation to become a financial advisor.

Samantha: One thing that has come up from both of you, was the impact of a background in a rural community and parents who were maybe not in professional roles and not afforded the same opportunities that you’ve both been afforded and the influence that your mothers had on the path that you ended up following. I know Widi, you mentioned your mum was very encouraging in pushing your education and getting you through to uni. Do you think your mother had an influence on where you are today? And do you think that speaks to the broader influence of women in society and the influence that they have?

Widiana: Absolutely. I think having someone to support you and to encourage you especially when you’re going through adolescence and an uncertain period of your life, it’s quite important. And my mum basically just said to me go enjoy, enjoy your study, enjoy your life. But back then the expectation for girls my age was to complete your study and settle down. My mum said to me, go out there, have a career, make a name of yourself, and do whatever you want. And so that was a great encouragement for me to move to where I am today.

Samantha: Fantastic. And Katerina, I know you said you felt the same with your mum. She really wanted more for you than what she had achieved with her life academically?

Katarina: Well, I think with my mother, she wanted more for all three of us. She always encouraged us to continue onto university. There was actually no choice for us. And that she saw, as a new migrant, that was the way out of an agrarian lifestyle, which is very labor intensive, and it’s a tough life. Although it was a really beautiful childhood. And I think, in terms of growing up in the country, yes, there is definitely a sense of community and that’s probably influenced us in how we work and in building a nice community around us. I feel like our team and our clients feel that community and family. Also what I did learn was work ethic and resilience.

Samantha: So, resilience, I think, is something that is obviously an attribute that you’ve both inherited from your parents, and I’m sure has contributed to the career path you’ve taken and the successes you’ve had in your careers. But if you think about all the other attributes that are important to the roles in financial services and financial advice in general, what do you think are the other attributes and skills regardless of gender, male or female, that are important in the role of a financial advisor?

Widiana: Yes. So, for me I always believe the most important thing is to listen, to listen to what your clients have to say. I have this rule to talk less, so I would encourage my client to talk about themself 80% of the time, and I will then talk about 20% of the whole conversation. And at the same time, I also like to get to know them and not just them as an individual, but the families. Because when it comes to advice, I think like all relationships, it is important for you to build that trust. It’s a long, potentially a lifelong relationship. The other thing that I think is quite important is that regular communication, understanding what they want, what they’re looking for. So those are the main things that you should have as an advisor.

Samantha: Yes, absolutely. And it’s difficult, especially when you’re in a role where a lot of your role is teaching. You have to educate your clients in what you are recommending for them, so, correct. You do have to talk a lot. So, to step back and make sure you listen is sometimes a difficult thing to do. Katerina, anything further to add to that as far as skills and attributes?

Katerina: Yes, absolutely. So, I definitely agree with Widi in relation to communication. I think that communication is critical. Einstein said that if you can’t teach it to a six-year-old, you haven’t mastered your subject. And I suppose that that really comes in terms of that mastery of being able to articulate to a client the advice that you wish for them to implement. The second most critical element in terms of being good at our profession is definitely knowledge in a sense of making sure that you understand the financial markets, but you also understand monetary policy and fiscal policy and geopolitical events, and all of those aspects that you need to be aware of to be able to manage finances.

And so really having been in the industry now 26 years I’ve certainly gained the knowledge which I needed to in terms of being able to navigate through our regulatory and taxation systems and the investment markets. But then you learn so much more through experience as well. I’ve experienced the Asian crisis, the GFC, obviously COVID. And so, through that it better prepares you in terms of managing money, particularly when it’s such a huge financial responsibility that you have because the two most important things in life is your health and your financial position. So, we wear this with a huge sense of responsibility in terms of what we do.

I think key skills are definitely knowledge, communication and the right people is critical. Working with the right people can either make your life easy and your clients’ outcomes great or not. And also, introspection. Being able to know potentially what you haven’t done well and being humbled in that and always looking to improve. And I think that that’s what builds a great business. That’s what builds great advice. And I think that that’s actually important for everybody, even through all aspects of life, is that introspection and being able to look inwards and identify your strengths and your weaknesses.

Samantha: And it is probably not a strength that a great many people have. It’s very difficult to be completely honest with yourself and look back and think what you could have done better or differently. But completely agree with that as an importance. So, those are obviously general attributes and skills that are important. And obviously knowledge is important and listening to your clients to understand what they need and being able to communicate to them so they clearly understand the advice that you’re providing. If we think in the theme of International Women’s Day, are there any attributes specifically that women do you think are more natural to women in our industry? So maybe Widi, I’ll start with you on that one.

Widiana: Yeah, I think creativity certainly is one skill that we bring. We are looking at different ways when it comes to managing the portfolio. So I think in the sense that having male and female advisors, to have that balance in the workforce, certainly really helps me anyway. But women tend to be a bit more looking at the bigger picture, we often plan ahead. That’s what we are really good at.

Samantha: Using that creativity. And its an interesting point that there are strengths in that male and female balance, they may have different strengths, and it’s bringing those strengths together, that’s probably the best combination. So, that gender equity is exactly what we are looking for.

Widiana: What I experience in the workforce is working alongside male advisors, it’s given me more of the practical view and I’ve learned a lot from the advisors at Shaws actually, they really, really help. They like to share their knowledge, so I’m learning a lot from them. So, yes having that good balance of male advisors and female advisors is quite important. It helps you to become a better advisor as well.

Samantha: Yes, absolutely. And I know it’s probably no surprise to anyone that Shaws, being a stockbroking firm, is quite a male dominated environment, but I know in speaking to you over the period of time that I’ve known you, it’s certainly been a positive experience for you. And you’ve had other experiences in other roles that weren’t necessarily male dominated that weren’t as positive. So we’re all very much on the same page there, different skill sets, different people, different backgrounds and all the benefits that come because of that.

Katarina: I love that point because when it comes to hiring somebody new at Eikon, we’ve always followed the philosophy that they have to be different. They can’t be the same as everybody else. And I think even though we’ve got a small team, we’ve got a smart team. And we’ve got a productive and efficient and highly qualified team, and each member balances the others out in terms of their strengths and weaknesses.

Samantha: So, I know there’s difficulty in bringing females in. And what do you think we need to do then to encourage more women to consider financial services as a career option? I know Widi, you are particularly passionate about providing financial advice to women. I know you focus on women who maybe have been through separation or some sort of financial hardship and helping them to gain financial independence and knowledge. I think probably women are in a better position to do that for the women that are in a vulnerable position. So, it is important that we have women advisors available for that reason. What do you think we can do to get the word out there that this is a great industry for women to work in and to encourage more women to consider it?

Widiana: I think being a female advisor you have to first of all love the job. But at the same time, if we have more internships, more coaching, as well as more defined career paths within the company, graduates will understand what to expect. At the same time, having a senior female as a mentor or someone to talk to is quite important. I am quite passionate, especially in closing that gap in female financial literacy. I think women in the past have often given that responsibility to the breadwinner. But what we are slowly starting to see is women in our generation are starting to step up, trying to understand and it’s good for to see more engagement.

A lot of my meetings with my clients, I try to get both partners thoughts in terms of the financial advice that I share with them, or I try to understand what their concerns from both sides are, and then that way they are both engaged, they know exactly what’s going on. It’s not just about encouraging financial independence, it’s also that if anything happened to your spouse, you are aware of what’s going on. And that you can work together as a team to back each other up. But at the same time, those that may be coming out of a really bad relationship, they also need a bit more independence in terms of managing their finances, and being educated and empowered. And that’s where my passion is.

Samantha: Katerina, what do you think?

Katerina: The two most important things a person needs in life is great health and financial security. And so, if you can play a role in helping people with their financial circumstances, it’s such a critical role. And if you love learning and reading you can absorb as much as possible. You get to work with amazing clients, like you said, Widi. I mean, what an eclectic group that I’ve been working with for the last 16 years, these are incredible people that have achieved a lot.

I’ve really broadened out into the investment piece outside of the strategy taxation piece. So, I think if you’re, if you’re caring and you’re smart, this is an amazing industry to work in. And like I said, the rewards are just, I mean, there’s no price on those rewards in terms of what you can do to help, especially for Widi. And, I’ve worked with women as well that have had their husbands manage their financial affairs their entire life. And so, you know, they need their handheld and direction and to ensure that again, they can afford to continue living, their lifestyle and what they want for themselves.

Samantha: Yes, absolutely. And very interesting about the positives and why would someone want to do this role? One of the things I do personally miss about financial advice and actually being an advisor, even though I’m still in the industry, I miss a lot of my clients. They become friends or family over time. But that reward, when you realise you’ve worked something out and they can achieve what they’re wanting to achieve there, it is a wonderful feeling to feel that you’ve helped. It is a financial role, an analytical type of role. You do need to have that sort of background and knowledge and, and enjoyment or interest in the financial markets, but it’s a service role too.

So, I think to finish up, what do you both think that we need to do as an industry to encourage women into financial advice, but into financial services overall? We’ve talked about all the benefits and the good parts of the role, and how your experience has led you to where you are. And I don’t think either of you would say that you’ve, you know, we’ve all had hurdles, but neither of you, in my knowledge, have really ever experienced anything particularly negative. It’s not saying it’s always easy. What do you think we need to do then to, encourage women into our industry?

Katarina: The reality is, I don’t want to sugarcoat anything. So in terms of women entering the industry or any industry for that matter, it’s not easy, but just having the confidence, the courage, the conviction and, and doing what you want to do is important.

Widiana: I agree. I think any hardship that you come across in any career, just don’t get yourself distracted. Just keep on going. I always say to myself, you are the master of your own destiny. You decide what you want to do. At the same time, when it comes to life, you always have a choice. Whether you decide to take that criticism and better yourself for it, or dwell on it and just keep holding yourself back. Keep on going, just stay focused on your goals.

Samantha: And I think that’s something you said when we’ve been discussing this podcast was that the main thing that we can do as women in the industry is to talk about our roles and get the message out there that there’s a lot of diverse careers and different paths that you can take.

Widiana: Exactly.

Samantha: This podcast has hopefully been a step in the direct right direction for that, to let women, young women, out there know what options are available. Two very successful women who have had different careers and taken slightly different paths, but both giving a great deal of service to the clients that they look after. And providing a huge amount of support and confidence and self-belief to their clients. And that can’t be overstated, the importance of what you bring to your clients. So, thank you both very much for your time.