If you wanted to consider an investment to grow your portfolio, say a low-risk type, you'd either research or have someone explain the options and advise which would be the best for you.
Say you decided on treasury bills because you read that they are one of the safest investments available; you might bring in a risk assessor to evaluate the risks involved. They would check the credit rating of the treasury bills you're considering and help you decide whether the inflation risk is worth it while looking at your books.
Risk assessors don't always get their flowers, but without them, individuals and businesses would make financial and social decisions without taking necessary precautions to minimise risks.
Samira Nwaturuocha, Sparkle's Chief Risk Officer and Chief Operating Officer, didn't exactly start her working career as a risk and compliance specialist with formal academic training in the field; she simply made a bold move for what would turn out to be a big break at a bank she worked. A new team was starting; she applied to be part of the pioneer team straight from sales and marketing with no prior expertise in treasury or bonds.
"I applied for the role and got interviewed. And even though I didn't have experience, the manager at the time was happy to give me an opportunity. And that's how my journey into risk management started," she began.
Thinking about what influenced her decisions to the point she's reached professionally, Samira alludes to a great level of curiosity, upbringing in an entrepreneurial setting, a joy for learning, and a need to help people.
Having scaled through the most-challenging moment in her career as the Chief Risk Officer at AXA Mansard during the COVID-19 pandemic, she had grown resilience in the business community and crisis management.
"It was complex! It was complex, to say the least, but we survived. I'm not sure I've ever worn my thinking cap like that before in my life. Because of the challenges, you are literally thinking on your feet about how best to execute around the restrictions, the health risks for the people and their families."
Taking solace in reading, researching, cooking, and gardening, Samira has created a working system keeping her as one of the continent's finest risk managers with 14 years of experience.
Not the 'clean, rinse, repeat' type
Samira is not the average Jane who would have been satisfied with a routine job, even if it was a seemingly stable one. She graduated from university with a microbiology degree but made the decision early not to proceed with any job that doesn't challenge her every day, having discovered she'd always look out for excitement in a job.
During our conversation, I discovered that a thirst for new challenges, a teachable mind, and a love for teaching all contribute to Samira's drive. Samira began making a mark in the fast-paced world of finance at an audit firm.
"My first job after university was with an audit firm, and I found that interesting. Even though I was working in admin and human resources part of the company, I found the forensic part of auditing, looking into financial accounts reports, deep diving, analysing and researching things quite fascinating," she said as we discussed how her career began.
And that lasted for 10 months. Then she got into Guaranty Trust Bank (GTB) for an entry-level role, and went through the statutory three-month training before she was absorbed into the bank's sales and marketing department.
At that point, she was also a relationship officer for account holders that took credits, and this opened her to another side of banking.
"As the account officer of an account, you get into the details of the customer's business. You try to understand their cash flow, the business potential, the trajectory of the business, their inventory and how they do their payroll. and, you know, that sort of thing. And also the legal aspects of banking; incorporating a company, who has the authority to do what and not do what, all those sorts of things. It exposed me a lot to how businesses were run."
Samira joined GTB at a golden moment when that bank’s branch was opening a new arm -- market and liquidity risk management group -- and she saw it as a chance to start something new and gain knowledge while doing it. When I asked what helped her through this period, she didn't have to think long before saying, "curiosity, a lot of research, a supportive team lead and colleagues."
In three years and a few months, she had accomplished a lot in trading risk management and liquidity but still felt the need to develop more competencies in that area, but she was unexpectedly redeployed back to credit risk management.
Although this wasn't a change she was happy with, she was encouraged by her mentors to take it as a learning opportunity. It ended up being something she enjoyed as she was exposed to another side of credit risk management she never saw as a relationship officer.
"I am now on the other side where I am reviewing and validating what I previously used to write. I got to experience credits from little loans, like retail loans and salary loans, to being in a team that was reviewing documentation for syndicate-type transactions that involve a lot of banks. I look at the nitty-gritty details of the legality of a customer's collateral and sometimes have to explain it to the relationship manager, who might be unable to explain it to the customer. It wasn't just about writing credits; it also about finding solutions."
Samira’s next stop was operational risk management.
"I wanted to be a holistic risk manager. Since I have done financial risk, when there was an opportunity in operational risk management, I thought to myself, 'okay, now is your chance to really experience it all.’ I took that opportunity, and I got to do not only operational risk management, I also did business continuity and environmental and social risk management."
With over eight years of experience in the bag, Samira joined AXA Mansard as a risk and operational resilience manager before peaking as a Chief Risk Officer and Chief Security Officer, all under 7 years. In September 2022, she brought her expertise to a Nigerian digital bank, Sparkle.
Understanding risk management
For Samira, it wasn't entirely hard deciding to stick it out with risk management despite how challenging it is. She believes that when making choices in life, one should consider their level of certainties and uncertainties for them to prepare for the best possible outcome. She calls it "creating procedures and taking responsibility to mitigate the risks of your uncertainties." And this applies to both business and life.
Having experienced risk management from different perspectives, Samira did a quick explainer on how managing risk differs across different fields.
"In financial risk, you're dealing with the risk of losses arising from financial indices like interest rates and FX. For example, if you buy $100 and decide to convert it to Pounds, what is the risk that when you want to convert the Pounds to Naira, one of those three currencies has not changed such that you lose or gain some money?
“In operational risk, on the other hand, you are dealing with the risk of a business operation across certain pillars -- people, systems, processes and the external environment. As the name implies, it affects the operations of a business, and how those operations are run can either lead to profit or loss.
“Environmental and social risks are what some businesses call sustainability. You are looking at risks that impact a business in terms of how it's sustainably generating its profit without adversely impacting the environment. The social side of it has to do with empowering people and ensuring that businesses conduct their activities and operations in a socially responsible way."
Managing startup risks vs corporate risks
While acknowledging a common situation where startups hardly consider risk management from the onset, Samira advised that it's important for a company to be risk-conscious early before it gets too big and gets too many moving parts.
"Risk management goes hand-in-hand with governance. You don't want your business to be 10 or 20 years before you know there are many things you could have done better."
She, however, admitted how challenging it can be for many startups to get an in-house risk manager like Sparkle did, and proposed a way to go about that.
"I would say risk is more of a mindset. In many organizations, the CEO is the risk manager. It's more about cultivating that right risk-based thinking. A second option for a young startup would be to have people come in and consult and offer it as an advisory service.
“Because if you have generated that mindset around the people themselves who work in the business, you've created the culture, then chances are that implementing it is actually going to be a lot easier."
Despite the peculiar nature of doing business in the startup space compared with the corporate space, Samira proposed that these differences are not enough to be responsible for how risk is managed in the different spaces.
"There's no hard and fast rule to anything," she said. What makes the difference are the complexities of the different industries, with influence from regulation, the expected level of accountability, presiding economic situations, and the well-being of citizens.
"In my experience, it's a lot more complex dealing with risk in insurance compared to banking because it has to do with a lot of probabilities. For me to come into the fintech space at Sparkle was consistent for me. It's an opportunity to help more people, the only difference is, this time around, the target is different. No better place to make an impact than an area that is challenging and nobody wants to go into. We're dealing with SMEs."
Regardless, working successfully in one industry shows you can work in any other sector.
Being a professional who has had to focus on one thing at a time, Samira finds her current role quite dynamic. One day is different from another. One day, she's managing risks with the regulators, the next, she's dealing with employees or customers.
Starting a career in risk management
"Financial acumen is important because risk, at the end of the day, is all about profit and loss."
Asides from having a foundational knowledge of financial management, a person considering a career in risk management must also have an eye for details and be conversant with regulations not only in the industry they play in but also in their clients' industries.
Mastering interpersonal relationships is another soft skill that can’t be ignored when dealing with people. Although experience plays a huge role when making faster decisions, risk managers should be equipped to think on their feet by being vast in research.
"The beauty is that you can start your risk manager career anywhere. I didn't start my career in risk management, and I know of many risk managers who didn't. It's important to understand the market and organisation. Also, there are a couple of institute certifications you can get depending on the area of risk management you're interested in. You could also join the Risk Management Association of Nigeria, and you don't necessarily have to be a risk manager before you join. That in itself starts to expose you to that technical knowledge-base you need."
Being a risk manager has its attending troubles as it requires a high level of mental resilience. Samira commended her support system for helping her through those moments. Younger risks manager should, however, should be willing to make mistakes and learn from them.
According to Samira, transitioning comes easily when a person has once run a company and understands some areas of risk management. Where that is unavailable, shadowing experienced risk managers is another way to learn. "Have mentorship sessions and learn tips for your career path."