Helena Thernstrom works as Head of Legal for RBS’s Asset and Invoice Finance businesses where she also heads up the Bank’s gender network in London. She is a passionate and visible advocate of diversity and inclusion, including social mobility and pro-bono initiatives.
Helena Thernstrom
Helena Thernstrom
RBS

Helena was shortlisted for the 2019 WIBF ‘Champion for Women’ award. She is also shortlisted for the same award this year, and for the Women in Finance 2020 ‘Legal Adviser’ award.

You were shortlisted for this award last year. What stand out memories do you have of the process?

My first memory of learning that I had made the 2019 shortlist was an incredibly strong feeling of humility mixed with both pride and awkwardness! This has not really changed this year: it is an honour and privilege to be recognised for something which I care so deeply about. Especially so since I know from last year what the calibre and strength of other shortlisted individuals look like.

My number one standout memory from last year was the joy of meeting and connecting with the trailblazing individuals who had also made the shortlists. Meeting at a shortlist dinner ahead of the awards ceremony was possibly the most rewarding part of the process for me as it enabled us to exchange ideas and experiences in a meaningful way. The ceremony itself felt a little bit like the cherry on top and was absolutely great fun, but the most precious experience was, as is often the case, the people.

What have you been up to in the past year at the Bank?

It has been a busy year! But one filled with plenty of wonderful experiences and inspirational people.

At the Bank, I have had the continued privilege of chairing the gender network in London. Key strategic initiatives have been aimed at becoming even more inclusive and to reach colleagues who, as a result of differing working patterns and circumstances, have historically not been as engaged with the network’s activities as others. Engaging with colleagues working in branch or service centres has involved a transformative change in approach which has been hugely rewarding.

Last year, my WIBF award nomination centred on creating a Development Programme for colleagues below managerial level. Having delivered its fifth iteration last year, I felt that the time was right for the next generation to take over and drive the programme forward. I was incredibly proud to hand over the baton to two outstanding programme alumni and am very excited to see what direction this year’s iteration will take under their leadership. My involvement is now limited to support, oversight and sponsorship -cheering colleagues on from the side-lines!

Your nomination references a number of recent initiatives outside of the Bank. Could you tell us a little bit more about these?

Since last year, I have worked on a number of initiatives across the asset finance industry -an area sometimes accused of being more homogenous and behind the D&I curve than other parts of the finance world. However, over the course of this year, I have come to realise what fantastic drive and momentum exists for change!

In the Bank, I have helped Lombard (the largest UK asset finance provider) kickstart a number of initiatives and have been incredibly encouraged to see the enthusiasm and commitment from the leadership team to set a strong diversity and inclusion agenda.

In the wider asset finance industry, together with an ex-colleague, I have set up a network for female professionals. This has a vision to ‘Connect. Lead. Inspire.’ and acts as a platform free from institutional or political pressures where women exchange experiences and drive thought leadership. We have hosted a number of events which have been very well attended and given significant industry-specific media coverage. I have also joined the Leasing Foundation’s D&I committee which aims to help asset finance companies to understand the business benefits of embedding diversity and inclusion in all aspects of their operations.

Finally, I have been very proud of the modest contributions I have been able to make towards various social mobility and pro-bono schemes. In particular, in current lockdown situation, I am happy to have been able to put my legal skills to use in supporting the National Centre for Domestic Violence with whom RBS and Dentons have a pro-bono scheme. This scheme helps victims of domestic abuse take their cases before the courts for protection.

What do you do when you are not working as a lawyer or on D&I initiatives?

Outside of work, I think that most of my personal interests and pursuits centre around broadening horizons in one way or another. Continuous learning is somewhat pathological for me and I enjoy activities that provide varied experiences.

First and foremost, I absolutely love travelling, whether exploring cities or remote corners of the world. A particular ‘hobby’ is to add destinations to my list of visited UNESCO World Heritage sites. Closely allied to travelling is a passion for all aspects of food: preparation, eating, and understanding its cultural place and significance. I have also relatively recently discovered scuba diving which has turned into a little bit of an obsession. Scuba diving quite literally opens up a whole new (beautifully colourful) world and I find the silence and calmness incredibly cathartic.

Finally, I am a bit of an art-junkie and under normal circumstances, I spend a fair bit of my personal time traipsing around London in pursuit of seeing/experiencing the visual and performing arts. Lockdown has inevitably made this somewhat complicated but I have greatly enjoyed the numerous virtual options that institutions have put on.

What are your reflections on current lockdown and on the future for women?

It is clear that covid-19 has not been a great leveller and that the vulnerable have become more vulnerable. Recent times have exposed and exacerbated pre-existing inequalities and women have had a different experience of the pandemic to that of men. This spans areas of domestic abuse, care responsibilities, job security (and income), and inclusion in decision making processes. There is a real concern that the limited progress made across past decades may be stunted or indeed regress.

In defining the new normal, leaders have a difficult task ahead of them. Covid-19 is not just a health issue but a profound shock to our societies and economies and with women comprising half of the world’s population, it is fundamental that they are part of the solution. Female participation and leadership must be at the centre of ongoing work to create sustainable outputs and it is imperative that this is not treated a as a ‘women’s issue’ or a ‘nice to have’.

The formulation of the new normal provides an opportunity to make people, diversity and inclusion, and compassion the starting point. I hope that organisations will use this period in time to revisit their purpose, reconsider pre-existing expectations of their people’s working arrangements, equip themselves with the best possible information and knowledge, and avoid the temptation of resorting to quick and easy solutions.

What top tips do you have for life in lockdown?

1. Limit your news-consumption. I think that over-indulgence will either make you unnecessarily fearful or, in my case, angry. Read something else to get away from the media frenzy. I am currently enjoying ‘The Omnivore’s Dilemma’ by Michael Pollan which is a book about the search for a perfect meal in a fast food world.

2. Take the opportunity to connect with friends and family. I have regular Sunday zoom catch-ups with my family which has enabled us to connect across the UK, China and Switzerland. I also have a weekly standing engagement with friends to watch National Theatre offerings.

3. Don’t feel oppressed by received wisdom or dicta about do’s and don’ts. Find something that works for you and don’t beat yourself up about not fitting the mould. Pursue your own happiness and embrace the rich diversity in people’s circumstances and what makes them happy.