Karen Finlayson didn’t covet the mantle of role model for the black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) communities but has had that title thrust upon her as a result of her career path.
The partner at PricewaterhouseCoopers in Yorkshire has proven the doubters, who said she would never make it at a big accountancy firm, wrong and done so comprehensively.
“I got told lots of times early on in my career that I would never make it,” she says. “I proved them wrong.”
Ms Finlayson, who is now Northern business risk and controls leader at PwC, is the only black female partner outside of London at the professional services firm.
It’s fair to say that she was originally reluctant at the thought of being a role model. Being a private person outside of work, it didn’t come naturally to her.
However, she is now comfortable with the fact that there are other colleagues from minority backgrounds who look up to her.
“I genuinely didn’t see myself as a role model,” Ms Finlayson says. “I saw myself as someone who just had a dream and worked hard to achieve it.”
Ms Finlayson’s parents immigrated from Jamaica to Doncaster in the 1960s. It’s where she was born and raised and still lives.
She left school at 16 with “pretty average qualifications” and took up an apprenticeship doing administrative finance.
Ms Finlayson would end up working at DFS, Abbey National and at the government agency Training and Enterprise Council (TEC).
It was while she was at TEC that she became interested in auditing and decided to go to night school in 1989.
“I redid some O-Levels, mainly around accounting,” she says. “I did an Association of Accounting Technicians qualification and then went to Sheffield Hallam University to do a postgrad in business and finance.”
In 1997 she joined PwC in Leeds, helping to build the firm’s government and public sector practice.
Ms Finlayson adds: “I just felt it was a bit more of a place where I could grow, develop and learn, even though it was a bit of an unknown and, if I’m honest, it did feel a bit scary. A girl from Donny working for a Big Six firm was a bit daunting.”
In fact, prior to joining PwC, various recruitment agencies had told her that she wouldn’t make it at a big accountancy firm, that she wouldn’t be the right fit for those organisations.
However, within three years of starting work at PwC, Ms Finlayson became a manager. Then in 2003 she took a year off for maternity leave.
She was made a senior manager within a year of her return before progressing to the role of director in 2009. Ms Finlayson would go on to be named partner in 2015, but her career was against a backdrop of her juggling being a single mother.
“I always had a view that I wanted a family and a career. I’ve been very lucky that I’ve had a great support network around me to help me progress and be able to continue with both,” she says.
“Every time I went through promotion or a major hurdle in my career, I’d ask for the support of my friends and family.”
Being a working mother is “definitely” the greatest challenge that Ms Finlayson has faced in her career.
Avoiding being stereotyped as an ethnic minority woman was also a challenge for her, especially in the middle of her career.
“Although I’ve navigated that, there have been times where I’ve felt like I’ve had to work harder or I’ve had to prove myself,” she says.
“I’ve had to adapt to environments and situations probably more than some of the other people have.
“I look back and think ‘has it been something that has held me back?’ No, but it was something definitely in the mid-part of my career that I was very conscious of and at times it did impact my confidence.
“I was more worried about how people would perceive me and whether I would be taken seriously.”
It was when Ms Finlayson was going through the partner process that it was pointed out that others in the organisation, especially from ethnic minority backgrounds, would be looking up to her as a role model.
She concedes that despite her own success story, the professional services firm needs to do more when it comes to diversity and inclusion.
Ms Finlayson is helping lead on that agenda and has personally put in place interventions to ensure unconscious bias doesn’t end up becoming a barrier to career progression for those from BAME backgrounds.
She has also helped bring PwC’s Multicultural Business Network to the North and is hosting events that gather together people from other organisations as well.
Ms Finlayson was named Professional Services Leader of the Year at the Black British Business Awards in 2018. It’s an accolade she is very proud of, especially as she was told earlier in her career that working at a big accountancy firm wouldn’t be for her.
“Winning that was just ‘I told you so that I can do it’,” she says. “It meant a lot because of the fact that not only did I get into the firm but I managed to do well in the firm.”
Ms Finlayson knows that she’s in a privileged position and wants to leave a legacy behind.
“I would like to leave a bit of a legacy,” she says. “I would like to leave a mark that shows I did make a difference and changed things for the better in some ways, whether that be through diversity and inclusion or whether that be just through being a good partner at PwC.”
Her message to other people from BAME backgrounds considering a career in professional services is to “go for it”.
“I’d definitely encourage people to do it,” Ms Finlayson says.
“I would tell them not to be afraid about it. The ‘it’s not for me, I wouldn’t fit in’ argument doesn’t work any more.”
She might not have felt comfortable with being a role model at first, but her action and words suggest that it’s something that Ms Finalyson has taken to really well.
Title: partner – risk Assurance, North region leader for business risk and controls
Date of birth: July 31, 1969
Favourite holiday destination: Tuscany
Last book read: The Critical Few by Jon Katzenbach
Favourite film: I love the Marvel movies
Favourite song: Never Too Much, by Luther Vandross
Car driven: Jaguar E-Pace
Most proud of: My son
Education: Danum School, Sheffield Hallam University