Welcome back to Tech In Her Words, a spotlight series dedicated to elevating the voices of women in tech and inspiring young women to pursue careers in STEM and technology more widely. This month, I’m talking with Yasmin Kaur Johal, a lawyer, fintech thought leader, and an advocate for increasing female and BAME (Black, Asian and minority ethnic) representation in fintech and tech more generally.
In our conversation, we explore Yasmin’s journey from her law degree, to working across investment banking, and, ultimately, how her professional experiences led her in to the fintech sector. We also discuss the challenges of internal barriers, such as imposter syndrome and how representation — seeing people that look like us and sound like us — across society has the incredible ability to embolden the next generation of female leaders.
Marlene Spensley: Hello, Yasmin! It’s great to talk to you today. Congratulations on your TechWomen100 Award, and your recent recognition as one of the Standout 35 Stars in the Women in FinTech Powerlist with Innovate Finance. What does it mean to you to have been recognised through these awards?
Yasmin Johal: Thanks, Marlene. Great to be speaking with you today. And, likewise, congratulations for your TechWomen100 Award too.
I am really pleased to have won both of these awards, but also very surprised that I was selected amongst all of these amazing, inspirational women within the tech and fintech sector. For me, it really shows the diversity of the tech and fintech sphere and also that tech is an industry and a wider ecosystem. It is exciting to be involved in this ecosystem and to be making a contribution to the technology and fintech sector.
Marlene Spensley: So tell me about your current role, what you do and what your typical day is like.
Yasmin Johal: I am a lawyer at CMS, which is the fifth largest international law firm in the world. I have a particular specialism in financial technology, which some people know as fintech. I’m one of the few female specialists in the financial services regulatory aspects of fintech.
My day job requires me to provide legal and commercial advice to all players within the fintech ecosystem, including governments, investors, financial services firms and tech companies, and in turn, helping shape trends and developments in the fintech industry, both domestically and internationally. In simpler terms, I like to say that I make financial services, products and services, more accessible to everybody. Tech is the way forward and it’s changing the financial services landscape, and I love being at the forefront of it.
Tech is the way forward and it’s changing the financial services landscape, and I love being at the forefront of it.
In terms of my day-to-day role and what it looks like, I don’t really have a typical day. One day I can be advising on a new fintech proposition. The next day I can be drafting response to regulation of stablecoins and cryptocurrency. My day-to-day role is really varied. I think that is the beauty of working in a multifaceted career where you interact with different sectors. And for me, on a day-to-day basis, I interact with technology, financial services and law.
Marlene Spensley: That sounds very interesting! How did you get into this field? Did you always want to go into tech?
Yasmin Johal: That’s a really interesting question, and to set the scene, I am not your traditional “techie person.” I’m a lawyer by trade and my specialism is financial services. But my cross specialism is technology, and I think it’s really important for me to emphasize that. My journey is not your traditional role into tech or STEM — it’s much broader. I work in technology as a sector. It shows the breadth of the careers and the availability within the tech field.
In terms of how I got into it, I interned at various banks across the U.K. and the U.S., and I found it fascinating how tech can help make financial services more innovative and accessible. I always knew I wanted to practice law, but I never really knew what area I wanted to work in. And having worked in large financial services firms and helping deploy technological innovation really honed down on the importance for me to work in the tech and financial services sectors.
Marlene Spensley: Prior to your law degree, what did you study at school?
Yasmin Johal: During my GCSE and A levels, I picked traditional humanities subjects — law philosophy, sociology, history, very nontech-focused subjects. I then went on to university, and I read law at King’s College London, and spent a year with Georgetown in DC, looking at economics politics and the interaction these disciplines have with the study of law.
At no point did I do anything that had a tech focus or a tech subject. It was only really when I started actually doing some practical work … and working across investment banking, did I realise that, actually, tech is engrained in our lives and is the way forward. For me, irrespective of what subjects you study at school, you can still get yourself into the industry in some way or the other.
Marlene Spensley: Absolutely, that is what I’m trying to highlight — that you don’t have to have a computer science degree to get into technology, and that there are many different paths.
As a woman in tech, have you faced any challenges coming into the industry?
Yasmin Johal: For me, I tick all those diversity boxes. I’m a woman. I’m from a BAME background. I’m state school educated. I’m a northerner from Birmingham (although I hope you can’t hear the accent right now!). But, you know, breaking out into the city of London and within the tech, financial and legal fields, it was really quite difficult to know what to say, how to speak, how to present yourself etc. Is there a right way or wrong way of doing things? This impacted my confidence and also my view on how people perceived me.
It took a very long time to feel comfortable in my own shoes, and sometimes I still get a little nervous when I am in an unfamiliar or alien environment.
Marlene Spensley: Right. So it sounds like your challenges were often about your own view of how you’re perceived rather than challenges from elsewhere. Would that be fair?
Yasmin Johal: Yes, I think that is fair. I think that you can summarize it by saying it’s imposter syndrome. And I mean, this is really interesting actually, Marlene, because I imagine that there were external challenges such as unconscious bias and external perception, but for me imposter syndrome was the only thing I worried about. ‘Should I be here?’ was always my main worry. I think that has been the biggest challenge throughout my career today, and something that I imagine will always be there due to being from a diverse, non-traditional background.
Marlene Spensley: Women, and especially women of color, are underrepresented in technology. I want to encourage more women and girls to pursue a career in tech. From your experience, do you have any ideas of how we can do that?
Yasmin Johal: Yes. I think I’ll take that question in two. I think first we look at women, not young women, say those over 18. I think in terms of that kind of demographic of society, we need to have more role models for them. We need to see people that look like us, sound like us, and are in different positions across the society which we are trying to achieve. If we can see more women in our position, be it our managers, our CEOs, our peers, that will naturally encourage and inspire the next generation of talent into tech. You always look to someone that is like you for inspiration and support.
We need to see people that look like us, sound like us, and are in different positions across the society which we are trying to achieve. If we can see more women in our position, be it our managers, our CEOs, our peers, that will naturally encourage and inspire the next generation of talent into tech.
Looking at young girls who are under 18, perhaps at school or college, I think we’ve got to remind these young women that they are already women in tech. Every young girl who has a mobile phone is a woman in tech. If they use Instagram, WhatsApp, Facebook, or all these cool social media apps I haven’t kept up to date with, then they are already women in tech. If we remind these girls that, by their day-to-day interaction with technology, they are women in tech, this will potentially spark interest. And interest in itself will hopefully lead to knowledge and opportunity for girls to pursue tech subjects at university or pursue tech careers, or go straight into apprenticeships with a tech focus.
Marlene Spensley: Finally, is there any advice you would give to young girls who may be considering tech as a career path?
Yasmin Johal: One thing that someone told me a very long time ago is that it doesn’t really matter if you finish first or if you finish last, what is most important is that you started and finished.
One thing that someone told me a very long time ago is that it doesn’t really matter if you finish first or if you finish last, what is most important is that you started and finished.
Marlene Spensley: Absolutely! Thank you, Yasmin. It has been so great talking to you and hearing about your experiences and your advice.
Yasmin Johal: Thanks, Marlene. Likewise, it’s been great talking to you too.
Yasmin is an Associate at CMS and specialises in the regulatory aspects of fintech. She provides advice to all players within the fintech ecosystem, and helps shape developments in the fintech industry internationally. She has worked across U.K. and U.S. financial markets, helping deploy technological innovation, and authors industry thought leadership on areas of fintech and innovation. Yasmin is a tech speaker and an advocate for increasing female and BAME representation in tech, and speaks at various events, on topics such as fintech, diversity and inclusion (D&I) and career development. Yasmin was a #TechWomen100 2020 Award Winner recognized for her work in fintech and was also a Standout 35 winner in the Women in FinTech Powerlist 2020.
Marlene Spensley is a Strategic Partner Manager at Hitachi Vantara, developing the UKI channel ecosystem to build incremental profitable revenues with our partners. Marlene has spent her career within the technology channel, working within a number of large partners and distributors. She has a background in hybrid multicloud, DevOps and digital transformation and is passionate about the potential of technology innovation. Marlene was a recent TechWomen100 winner and is an advocate for women in technology.