By her husband Neil Wolstenholme
Manjit Wolstenholme was a remarkable woman whose story of success, which took her from the remote, rural village of Khothran in the Punjab via Wolverhampton to the top of the Western banking world, could be the stuff of novels and films. She was the youngest woman to head an investment bank in London at 37 and the first woman of ethnic origin to chair a FTSE 100 company. Boom! The Times described her as a ‘Trailblazer’ and she was second on the UpStanding Leaders List of the 100 leading ethnic minority executives in the UK and US, a perfect role model and an inspirational figure for women and people from ethnic backgrounds.
The vision of the Fund being set up in her memory is to create an opportunity for others to follow in her footsteps. First, by providing ladders where they are needed to help young people, targeting in particular those from a wide range of socio-economic and ethnic backgrounds, to climb to the next level; second, to improve the world we live in by increasing social diversity throughout organisations right up to the top. By telling Manjit’s story I want to provide an insight into who she was and how she succeeded: it wasn’t an accident.
Before I tell the story, I would really like you to contribute in some way and I have outlined how you could do this at the end of this article. I’m looking for pledges of support to:
make a financial contribution to the Fund;
help connect with colleges or put forward potential applicants for the Fund;
offer support, such as mentoring or work experience, and/or;
share your views about Manjit in the time that you knew her, and why you think she was able to succeed, considering social mobility and the barriers facing young people today.
The Beginning…a Far Away Land
Not many of the people who worked with or were friends with Manjit realised that she had been born in India and had lived there until her family emigrated to England when she was three years old. Manjit’s story wasn’t silver spoon stuff. Her father, from farming stock, had left his homeland for England before she was born, brimming with the promises of riches and a better life. He landed in the industrial heartland of Wolverhampton and, after securing employment and a base, he then summoned the family to join him. They lived in a run-down 2-up, 2-down, just a long ball from the famous Molineux football ground. This location piqued her curiosity in football and sport in general as she watched the fans streaming past her house on match-days. It meant that when she was older she could converse about sport with a deep knowledge fostered from interest at an early age, a useful asset in male-dominated circles. It certainly made me take notice! In that domestic environment, she had to share a bedroom with her three sisters.
There was very little personal space, they had to share everything and work as a team every minute of every day; teamwork was one of Manjit’s great strengths. Her parents had to go out to work for long hours, with days of hard graft in local factories; Manjit was left in charge of duties at home in loco parentis. From the tender age of seven, she had to cook, clean and dress her siblings. These responsibilities forced her to be a leader. It also made her very efficient and pragmatic — ‘your jobs must be done before you can sit in front of the TV’. Because her parents spoke very little English, Manjit was responsible for dealing with the outside world. It meant she became a fantastic problem-solver and, as she had had to organise the whole family, she was usually three steps ahead of most people. I thought she would be really good at chess and promised to teach her in retirement.
Manjit didn’t speak a word of English until she went to the local school at five. She then grew up to be bilingual, interchanging between English and Punjabi depending on the situation, an excellent channel to create mental agility. She suffered from a stammer in her teens and said that it sapped her confidence. Not to be deterred, she decided to practise speaking the words she struggled with until she perfected them. It rebuilt her confidence but also ensured she spoke clearly and without a traceable accent. Interestingly, this probably worked in her favour later on in her life; at university, in the accountancy firm, the investment bank and the board room, as her contemporaries and peers would struggle to make judgements about her background and assumed she was ‘one of them’, from private or public school stock. If only they knew! With her reinforced confidence she became an excellent public speaker.
As a teenager, she did her homework each evening on a tray in the living room with the telly on and the rest of the family of 7 milling around the same room. This gave her a great strength; the ability to multitask and deal with lots of contrasting and conflicting information. In recent years she would be watching the news, cooking tea and reading a book, all at the same time! Manjit was a voracious reader. As she wasn’t allowed to go out to socialise with her schoolfriends as a teenager, her time was spent reading novels. In the time I knew her she would typically read one serious book a week, she had developed an ability to skim-read effectively with phenomenal information retention skills.
The Arranged Marriage Conundrum
As a girl in a Sikh family, she was acutely aware of the shadow of the arranged marriage lingering over her. A university education was calculated to enhance her value to potential suitors, but she was always keen to escape the net, she didn’t want someone else making this crucial decision for her. Recently, we watched ‘The Boy with the Topknot’, the story about a Sikh boy from Wolverhampton going to university, then meeting a white girl and having to deal with the travails of arranged marriage. Manjit knew that her story was even more compelling; as a female, she was under even more pressure to conform to traditional norms. When we started going out I was aware of this situation in the background, but, coming from a completely different culture, I didn’t really understand the implications. There was the constant worry that she was going to be entrapped into doing it. Later on, after we were married, Manjit told me:
‘I had one shot, so I had to use it wisely.’ She had to choose someone for herself but also a person who would be accepted by the wider family. As a compromise, we had two weddings, an English affair in London, and an Indian wedding in Wolverhampton. We were trying to please everyone. Manjit was my soulmate and I always supported her to the best of my abilities in whatever she wanted to do. I’m proud of that. All this drove her to take control of her own destiny and strive for a better life. No short cuts, just hard work and taking her chances as they presented themselves to her. Manjit was proud to be English and appreciated the opportunities she had been given in this country, such as a free education, to have the freedom to succeed at whatever she wanted to do. She would even support England at cricket against India.
Building the Skills for Success
Despite assumptions to the contrary, Manjit didn’t shoot the lights out academically. The local comp in Wolverhampton didn’t allow for that! However, in relative terms, she did excel at her school, where 19 students, out of 2,000, sat A levels and only 2 went on to university, one of these being Manjit. There may have been more students at Pendeford High with great potential but we’ll never know. That’s the basis for this six sigma event. The teaching at A level was poor and she effectively had to teach herself A level Physics. Now that’s tough! What she learnt was how to manage her own time, be self-motivated, build the confidence to read technical information and teach herself. This was the foundation for success at university and beyond. Manjit was very competitive and decided to apply for Oxford. Her attitude was why couldn’t she go if others could? Aim high. She had read about the different universities in the city library, which was the only place she was allowed to visit by herself outside the house. There was no advice from parents, the wider family, friends, teachers; they didn’t know. So, she had to rely on her own judgement, something that held her in good stead over the coming years.
She didn’t get into Oxford and told me that she felt very uncomfortable with the tutors and people she had met there. Being pragmatic, she went to her next choice; Bristol. She had been given a lower offer, probably because of her background, and this proved to be a major turning point in her life. Interestingly, in 2017 she was contacted by Oxford to invite her to be interviewed so that they could explore why someone like her had ‘slipped through the net’. I wonder if she would have got in nowadays or whether she would have even considered going to university with the burden of student debt.
A Key Turning Point, To Bristol University….And Beyond!
I met Manjit Boual, as she was then, right at the start of university. I remember that initial encounter like it was yesterday. It was a lovely late summer’s day and we were walking back up Stoke Park Road from Coombe Dingle; Manjit had been playing hockey. It was day 2 of the first year and for some reason I decided to cross the road to say hello as I passed. She took me by surprise, she was such a vivacious chatterbox and so energetic. What I recall the most was her smile, it was so warm and genuine.
A few days later an excited throng was gathered around a newly taken photo of Churchill Hall’s freshers’ intake. I heard some chap point and say ‘who’s the little Indian girl?’, Manjit stood out like a beacon in a sea of white faces. She didn’t want to be different, she just was. Well, that ‘little Indian girl’ became a colossus. In that foreign world, she was very unusual and had to be strong to deal with the preconceptions. She had to watch and learn how to act in order to be accepted and she was a fast learner!
Although a little bit intimidated when she first arrived at Bristol, where many of the students were high achievers and educated at the best public schools, Manjit grew in confidence over the three years. I think another turning point was when she was installed as Captain of the Women’s Hockey Club. She enjoyed organising the team selection and was very good at it; widening her circle of friends at the same time and she became very popular. Her inter-personal skills were exemplary. The teams were successful and Manjit’s profile rose. Inadvertently, it made her CV stand out. I got to know her well at uni because our courses overlapped; it meant I could help her with Quantum Mechanics and, in exchange, she would help me with Spectroscopy. How many couples can say that! It was the start of a beautiful relationship! She was always very ambitious and, after graduation, decided to give accountancy a crack. “You’ve got to think big” was Manjit’s approach to life, so she applied to Coopers & Lybrand (for you youngsters, it’s PwC now) in London and claimed a place.
The Career Woman
When living in London, I was astonished when she was revising for the accountancy exams. No multi-coloured highlighter pens were required, no underlining or constant 24/7 revision, rereading notes a thousand times; Manjit would read the chapter once and could retain all the key information. Incredible. This was a period when she flourished. She was motivated and could manage her time well, balancing hard work, an active social life and lashings of exams. This was time when we started going out together. She sailed through all the exams and qualified as a chartered accountant; the world was her oyster.
She took me by surprise when one day she told me that she had decided to go into investment banking. I was a little bit taken aback, but as my dad always said ‘once Manjit has made up her mind, it’s all over.’ Initially, she applied to Barings and they told her to get more experience first. So, not to be put off, she worked for a year in the corporate finance department of Coopers before applying again, this time to Kleinwort Benson. She was accepted. Not only did she work incredibly hard but allied that with immense intellect and excellent judgement. She also had pre-eminent organisational skills, which she had developed looking after the family from a young age. At that time there were no role models or networks of support for Manjit to look up to and turn to for advice, although it’s true to say that some senior men in the bank recognised her talent and capability, and supported her for promotion.
Should I Stay or Should I Go?
Only once did she seriously question whether the culture and attitudes that she came up against in the banking world meant it was not going to be a place for her. She came home one day feeling furious about a comment made to her by the head of the bank: ‘your skirts are too short’. It was the all-too-typical kind of undermining remark that many career women have received from senior men in organisations who wield the power. Manjit just could not accept that this was how things were and she never forgot that occasion. Fortunately, she used her anger to drive her on by becoming the person at the head of the organisation herself, and whom no-one would speak to in that way again.
At 37, she became the youngest ever woman to be head of an investment bank, having had two kids, Luke and Lily, along the way. The six-sigma event was happening! During the period when she was having the children, we weren’t sure if she would go back to such a demanding career. The bank was very supportive during her maternity break and when Manjit decided she wanted to return to ‘give it a go’, I committed to supporting our domestic situation by getting home early to look after the kids and organise the home life. Last summer, one of the hockey parents at the euros had googled Manjit and asked me how she had succeeded in such a blue-blooded, traditional English merchant bank such as Kleinwort Benson, which was full of public school men, where diversity was considered to be going to Winchester rather than Eton? That was just Manjit. If you knew her you wouldn’t be surprised. She listened and learned how to act and how to deal with people, firmly and fairly, as a leader. She knew no fear. Our friends and I were less surprised by her success. She had something special, what’s called charisma or ‘the sauce’.
The hardest part of the journey was deciding to get off the council estate aged 12, the rest was inevitable as she had honed the skills to succeed. She came from such a great, large family, in which they all looked after one another. This gave her an inner belief and confidence and a drive to succeed. Blessed with a sharp intellect, she loved to argue about things. That’s what I’ll remember most about her and I really miss it. Manjit loved to debate; news, morals, sport. First thing in the morning, last thing at night. I always had the last words in any argument though…’yes, Manjit.’ Most people have nicknames like Wolly, Chinny, Hughesy. Manjit’s nickname was ‘Strong Views’. She had real conviction behind what she said. Combined with absolute honesty and integrity, it was very powerful.
It only dawned on me that she had really made it a couple of years ago. I was flicking through the newspaper and saw a letter from business leaders urging people to vote Remain. There were over 1,300 signatories but only about 100 in the paper. Manjit’s name was one of those alongside Branson, Bloomberg, Sorrell etc. She hadn’t even told me, she was very modest. The cruel part is that, although she was very successful, this was only the beginning, the best was yet to come.
After investment banking, Manjit had a period where she did some headhunting, something she’d always wanted to do, and then occupied her time as a full-time mum; doing the school run, shopping, housework etc. She was a brilliant mother but full-time just wasn’t for her, she needed projects to keep her brain occupied. Manjit had built a formidable reputation in business so she rekindled her contacts and was invited into non-executive positions. Her reputation snowballed from there until she became Chairman (woman) of Provident Financial. With this promotion came a blaze of publicity. It was a good fit as coming from her background meant she had a good understanding of the circumstances of the customer base.
I remember we attended a dinner in honour of her becoming Chairman, all the previous living chairs past and present were there with their wives. The contrast represented a great change in styles and a new era. I always found the corporate offsite events interesting. During the day, the Board would convene and the wives might go shopping while I would be left to play golf or do some work on my own! We recognised that our situation was unusual! When Provident went into crisis last summer, Manjit immediately grasped the nettle and took responsibility as she always did. It was no fault of her own but she put the interests of the company above her own welfare. We all expected her to turn it round, it’s what she did. Unfortunately, Manjit died suddenly aged 53.
Because of all of this attrition and headwind in her life, Manjit build up incredible resilience. Her career was a tour de force and I can hear her words now while I struggle to adapt to life without her: ‘get on with it’, she would say. I accompanied Manjit for a large part of her journey and was lucky enough to be her husband. Although what I’ve written about Manjit all seems very serious, she was actually fantastic fun to be around and we had great laughs along the way. I want to use her story to inspire young people to aim high, have belief in their ability despite their circumstances and background. It is something we both felt passionately about. I want to use her story to inspire other young people from socio-economic backgrounds such as Manjit’s to aim high, have belief in their ability despite their circumstances and background. It is something we both felt passionately about. Manjit’s journey was social mobility on steroids and I don’t want it all to have been in vain.
The purpose of this Fund is to look and help the ‘future Manjits’ out there. regardless of gender or ethnicity; other children from poor backgrounds who have the genuine potential to be leaders of the future. To give some support and belief to someone who has what it takes but isn’t sure how to go about ‘making it’. It is about supporting social mobility, about helping gifted young people from less privileged backgrounds to reach for the stars and follow their dreams and not be restricted by financial constraints or advice with limited horizons. Manjit faced many barriers on her journey and the key message of this story is that you can turn what appears to be adversity to your advantage in the long run, if you work hard at it. I’d like to thank Provident Financial for helping me to set up the Fund.The Fund will, among other things, award bursaries to secondary school and college students, and students already at university which aim to help alleviate the costs of studying and, for example, day-to-day living costs. I propose using the digital platform, Kloodle, to help the Fund to identify potential applicants to the bursary by demonstrating their skills and commitments. This platform allows students to evidence their employability skills through badges. A panel, together with Luke and Lily, will select the skills which they think resulted in Manjit rising to the top and the candidates will demonstrate that they have these skills in whatever way they see fit. Out of the pool of applicants, we shall select a group to receive financial and mentoring support when continuing their studies. I want to help to identify potential talent which isn’t sitting in the obvious places, which makes it extra special talent as it requires supercharged resilience and determination.I would really like you to help, please. Yes, you. How?One way you could help is to:to write about what social mobility means to you. To identify useful resources, reports, research, evidence, organisations etc. that are working to promote social mobility to write about your own experience of Manjit, and what you think helped her to succeed?to consider the challenges and barriers which exist in our society that the Fund could work to overcome — either through relating these to what you know of Manjit or using examples from your own life.I would like to invite you to write your one page ‘chapter’ on what Manjit meant to you, how she touched you. What characteristics she showed. Family members, ex-colleagues and friends from university, accountancy, investment banking and the businesses she was involved with, as well as parents from school and the hockey fraternity. I want to collect a series of articles about her as a demonstration of what the journey looked like from different perspectives and give young people an insight into the person with the name on the Fund….and why she succeeded.If you would like to do any of this then please contact me at the email below.2. You could make a financial contribution to the Fund. Please contact me if you would like to express an interest in a pledge.3. You could propose or connect with a college or school which you think would be a good and appropriate source of potential talent. Or, you could put forward some individual candidates. Again, please contact me.4. Another potential help would be to offer mentoring or work experience to some of the candidates, to give them an opportunity to make that first step onto the ladder. Again, please contact me if you want to help with this.
My contact details: firstname.lastname@example.org
We know that Manjit is not and will not be the only six sigma event; let’s identify more of these special youngsters and support those of them who would not otherwise be supported by well-connected families and strong financial resources. It’s a happy “win-win”; we shall all benefit from the future difference that these extraordinary people can make.Thanks for reading.