Philip Smith, journalist

Bano Sheikh FCCA has spent her career breaking down barriers. Whether they have been cultural, professional or geographic, the KPMG partner has constantly risen to the challenges during a journey that has seen her move from Pakistan to London, via Dubai and Edinburgh.

Growing up in Dubai after leaving Pakistan at an early age, Sheikh was the youngest of four siblings.

‘My brothers and sisters were already married when it was time for my father to retire back to his home town of Lahore, but I was still studying for my A-levels [school qualification for 16-18-year-olds], so I returned to Pakistan with my parents,’ she recalls.

Back in Pakistan, Sheikh was faced with a choice. Even though she had been studying accountancy and business studies, she had been told that ‘girls don’t do accountancy’.

But after discussions with her father and uncle, and amid warnings about how male-dominated the profession was, she simply said: ‘Let me try.’

I could either fail and learn from the experience, or fly and be more successful.

I could either fail and learn from the experience, or fly and be more successful.

Leading the way

It was a good choice. She was one of three out of a class of 50 who passed the foundation accountancy exam, and in fact was one of the very first people – male or female – to study for the ACCA Qualification in Pakistan, having been inspired by Arif Mirza, head of ACCA Pakistan, who urged her to stay in the profession.

‘This alone was a big achievement,’ says Sheikh, who had been required to self-study at the time. But after completing her training contract while working with EY in Lahore, her next move was to the finance department of Umer Group, a large textiles group also based in the capital.

‘It was then I realised just how male-dominated business was in Pakistan,’ she says.

Undeterred, she stayed with the organisation for two years, as chief accountant, until she joined the Pakistan Credit Rating Agency – a move that sparked her interest in financial services.

Leap of faith

It was at this point that she was faced with another career-defining choice. Sadly, her marriage had not worked out, so she decided to make another leap of faith and returned to Dubai, where she joined KPMG to lead a number of audit advisory projects in the financial services sector.

‘I said to myself that I didn’t want to be unhappy; I didn’t know the expression “breaking ceilings” but I knew I needed to take a leap of faith,’ she says, recalling that difficult time.

‘I knew there was probably no return. It was a very conscious decision, I needed to overcome the fear and focus on what my heart was telling me. But I also knew that my family wanted me to be safe and to be happy.’

Dubai was a good step for Sheikh. Culturally similar, it was modernising, even though there were still not many women in the accountancy profession at that point, with very few female role models in senior positions.

But after one year, she was faced with yet another choice.

‘Everyone I knew lived outside London...the pace of work was very different, the lifestyle was very different. It was the biggest change in my life.’

Beginning of a career journey

While considering her career options, which included the possibility of further study either in the UK or the US, an opportunity arose to move back to EY. But it was a move with a difference: this time it was to Edinburgh.

‘The culture was different again – and it was also much colder!’ she says. ‘And going to the UK on holiday was very different from actually moving there to work. But everyone was very warm and welcoming.’

Sheikh considers this move to mark the real beginning of her career journey. She was able to find great mentors and good leaders, and was identified for leadership courses.

Candidly, she admits to feeling as if she was a minority within a minority as a Muslim woman, ‘but it was just a fear, not the reality’.

London calling

A secondment opportunity saw her move to London in 2013 to work with Andy Baldwin, EY’s then managing partner for the EMEIA financial services office. Again, it was another big move.

‘Everyone I knew lived outside London,’ Sheikh recalls. ‘The pace of work was very different, the lifestyle was very different. It was the biggest change in my life.’

Then came more upheaval. The UK had voted to leave the European Union, and Dublin was vying to become a global financial services hub. A secondment to the Irish capital saw Sheikh take on yet more challenges, knowing that if she did not rise to these, she would not progress.

Tough decision

And it was clear that people outside EY were also noticing her. One day, she received a call from KPMG: would she consider rejoining the firm, but this time as a partner? ‘I was already discussing partner prospects at EY; it was a tough decision to make the change after nearly 12 years there,’ she says.

But she was impressed with the KPMG offer. ‘I needed to explore something else, so I could either fail and learn from the experience, or fly and be more successful.

Telling her story

Today, Sheikh is an audit partner within the asset management practice of KPMG. But importantly, she is able to devote time to both the firm’s Muslim and women’s networks: ‘I have a story to tell; I am happy to share my whole self.’

But even though her career journey may have taken her far from home, ACCA Pakistan still remains very close to her heart. Sheikh appreciates the role the qualification has played in her career and, whenever she can, she takes the opportunity to speak in her home-country’s schools and universities.

Like everyone else, she has been affected by the current pandemic. ‘It has shown us how to be resilient, and how to embrace change,’ she says. ‘We have all checked in with our colleagues, and the network meetings have made us feel even more connected.’

Understandably, Sheikh is very concerned about the disproportionate impact that Covid-19 has had on black and ethnic minority communities.

She also recognises that there is still much to do to improve diversity within the accountancy profession.

‘Change does not happen overnight, and we still have work to do,’ she says. ‘But I want to do my best to encourage people to live their dreams. Even if you fail, you will learn, so grab them and hold on to them.’