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From non-English-speaking migrant to finance director in GE and EY

moved to the UK
Spurred by her similar background, Fardad is helping young migrants and refugees bridge the gap. Source: Elham Fardad

When Elham Fardad first moved to the UK from Iran, she was 13 and could not speak English well. Within three years, she had transferred between three different schools. Yet, she was determined and earned good GCSE scores. 

When it was time to go to university, she found out she was counted as an international student, which translated to higher fees. Resolved to be counted as a resident, she camped outside her city council until someone agreed to consider her as a home student.

Since then, she’s walked an illustrious path with her finance degree, going on to hold leadership positions in GE, EY and News Corp. “I will forever be grateful to the British for welcoming me, educating me, and giving me opportunities to fulfill my potential,” she shares.

Today, she’s paying it forward as the CEO and founder of Migrant Leaders, a charity programme set up to help young migrants develop their talents, succeed in Britain and achieve their career aspirations in large corporates — just like she did.

We caught up with Fardad to learn more about her move to the UK, her University of Warwick degree and her advice for international students:

Where does your interest in finance and business come from?

Although my academic strengths lie in maths and science, I have absolutely loved my finance career. I think it’s because I could see where finance can add the biggest value to business

I was lucky enough to be given opportunities to operate in that space. I remember when I graduated from uni, I found I did not have a work permit as a migrant. So, I enrolled in a local college to do my ACCA exams to qualify as a professional accountant. 

University of Warwick

“I decided to camp outside the Birmingham City Council offices for three days in a row until somebody agreed to count me as a home student,” Elham Fardad says. Source: Elham Fardad

As luck would have it, one day I was passing the college corridor and saw the notice board with a notice about “Accountancy Student of the Year” competition. I decided to enter expecting nothing to come out of it. 

I wrote my essay and how accountancy can add value to business in key decisions transforming operations and performance. That winning essay really defined my growth path in my finance career and when I was 25, I landed my first big break as a financial controller at General Electric (GE).

Walk us through your educational experience in the UK, the challenges you faced as a migrant and how you overcame them.

I experienced typical migrant challenges as my family broke up. This led to visa and financial challenges. 

We moved to the UK when I was 13 and in the first three years, I went to three different schools. Despite the challenges, I was determined to learn English and achieved great GCSE scores. 

However, by the time I was 18, the situation seemed hopeless since I was counted as a foreign student. I knew that I needed to go to uni because I saw education as a way to get myself out of my problems.

I decided to camp outside the Birmingham City Council offices for three days in a row until somebody agreed to count me as a home student. I will forever be grateful to the British for welcoming me, educating me, and giving me opportunities to fulfill my potential. 

Tell us more about your career trajectory since graduating from the University of Warwick.

After qualifying as an accountant with three years of work experience, I started at GE as a financial controller. This was an incredible time which I can only describe as the feeling of flying. 

They put me on the GE Advanced Financial Leadership Programme and the promotions followed. I trained and worked with some of the best finance and business leaders in GE globally. 

My finance team broke records like achieving six-sigma in internal audits. After my day job, I often spent time with the night shift engineers in the factory as I thought they would be some of the best people I could learn from about operational processes. 

I wanted to know what really drives the business and how I can add the most value. They were brilliant teachers and we worked together on several rewarding projects. 

While this gave me a depth of knowledge, I sensed I needed breadth in business skills since most of my colleagues had years of experience ahead of me. As a young migrant, of ethnic minority and being a female in an engineering company, I wanted to contribute. 

I wanted to show that I earned and deserved my place on that team. I decided to take on an EMBA at the University of Warwick which meant my evenings and weekends were dedicated to studying. 

I will never forget the University of Warwick for giving me that opportunity to be heard. After what felt like a comfortable 90-minute chat exchanging ideas, they congratulated me on becoming the youngest ever on their EMBA programme. 

I went on to work for 23 years as a finance director in GE, News Corp and Ernst & Young LLP. I frequently deliver talks and lectures at the University of Warwick and it always warms my heart when I work with their excellent team.

What inspires you to help the young migrant community? Are there any success stories within your foundations you can share? What else do you think should be done for this overlooked community?

Simply put, I don’t want others to suffer like I did. I know how it feels to deal with migrant struggles. On a positive note, I discovered what I was really capable of. 

I feel a huge sense of gratitude to Britain for the opportunities and friendships. In my toughest moments, my friends looked after me and welcomed me in their homes expecting nothing in return.

I truly believe in the young migrants’ talents and drive to succeed and I believe the UK deserves to be one of the best, most competitive, innovative countries in the global markets. Everyone wins if young migrants win and give back to Britain with their success. 

Migrant Leaders is a development programme to support young first- and second-generation migrants as well as all disadvantaged youths to help them succeed in the UK. The programme is free and applicants between 16 and 25 years old. 

This gains them access to mentoring, workshops, work experiences and connections. We now have over 700 senior mentors from more than 95 Financial Times Stock Exchange 100 and leading firms. 

We are also proud to share inspirational videos illustrating the impact of our corporate partnerships on the deserving young people we support. Examples include Anglo American, Smith & Nephew, Kantar, and ABB. Our Impact Report illustrates so many stories of wonderful mentees

What skills or knowledge do you wish you learned more during uni?

I do question which professions really need a uni degree. I spent three years learning academic views on, for instance, dividend policy. I enjoyed it very much but only to discover that I have to “rewire” my approach in order to pass my exams for professional accountancy the first time. 

I remember after my degree when I started studying for my ACCA exams, the tutor asked the class: “What do you know about dividend policy?”. I thought to myself “I got this.” and I put my hand up. 

I gave an academic answer and had a chat with the tutor afterwards about how professional exams are very different to an academic degree. This experience taught me to always have the endgame in my mind and make decisions based on my passions, abilities and personal purpose. 

What advice do you have for international students who want to study in the UK?

See it as a business investment. Your time, energy and youth are the greatest commodity you will ever possess. If you don’t know your objectives, seek internships, mentorship and guidance so it can help you decide. 

For instance, if you want to work as a professional in a blue-chip company in roles that don’t benefit from a PhD, you should think about aligning your education. Also, experiences, and the advisors based on your end objectives. 

This is a common error in many disadvantaged migrant families who quite rightly are proud of achieving highly in education. However, they don’t always think strategically about the professional purpose of that education.

What’s something you missed from Iran and how did you substitute it?

Mountains. High mountains with peaks that have snow all year around that I could go hiking on. I have happily replaced that with the beautiful green vast and surprisingly varied English countryside where I go on walks with my husband. Incidentally, he is from Spain and he too misses mountains. 

Where do you envision yourself in 10 years?

Since launching Migrant Leaders in 2017, I’ve regained the excitement I felt in my youth. The feeling that the sky’s the limit where I don’t even know what the limit is.