BYP had the pleasure of sitting down with Morgan Stanley’s Aïssata N’Diaye and Didier Owusu-Sarpong. Both their stories encompassed themes of hard work and addressed leadership pressures as members of the Black community, whilst providing personal quotes and mantras that have helped them throughout their careers. Filled with admirable anecdotes and critical takeaways for BYP network members, Aïssata & Didier’s insights are sure to encourage every reader to become the very best version of themselves.
Aïssata is a Vice President in the Institutional Equities Division at Morgan Stanley, where she is a lawyer in the Equity documentation team. Her role consists of preparing and negotiating legal documentation across key business areas and working with a diverse range of clients and internal stakeholders.
Aïssata is no stranger to navigating her career path. Her story embeds the themes of hard work, success and putting your best foot forward. From being recognised for her strong writing skills as a young child by her local mayor to receiving an honorary medal of achievement in 2018 for her International Women’s Day accomplishments, Aïssata has graduated into a positive role model for Black women, professional women and young Black girls alike. Her growth mindset and motto of ‘nothing is impossible’ have allowed her to push beyond the barriers often confronted by women and more importantly, Black women.
“I am the type of person who does not take the easy road. I actually like bumpy roads, which require hard work and effort,” Aïssata says. Understandably so, as personal and professional growth rarely happens in spaces of comfort. Blessed with twin traits of perspective and foresight, it was early on in life that Aïssata thought deeply about her beliefs, what type of person she wanted to be, and what it would take to get the career she wanted. She concluded that the best outcome for that personal journey would require her to take ‘the road less travelled’. What does this look like? It means being prepared, being ready to work hard, and ultimately being prepared to go the extra mile.
YOU CAN’T BE WHAT YOU CAN’T SEE
American children’s rights activist Marian Wright Edelman once said, ‘You can’t be what you can’t see’. At its core, the phrase acts as an inspiration to many searching for personal growth and professional achievement. But, it also is a motivator in the context of broadening diversity and overcoming underrepresentation at all levels in the workplace.
As a woman that has had the experience of being the only Black professional in a meeting room, Aïssata was able to relate to this. Her international experiences – in France and the US, where she qualified as a lawyer, and the UK – have also offered perspective and insights into how different cultures tackle racial disparity – and inclusion. She sums it up this way: “It is actually in the UK that I have found my blackness more welcoming, even if much more progress still needs to be made.”
Her encouragement to individuals who work in homogeneous spaces is to find common ground with colleagues and leverage it to their personal advantage. “In life, there will be people who don’t appear like you, but who you may have a lot in common with,” she says. “If possible, search for a role model who you can learn from.” She adds: “Rather than looking for a mentor that looks like me, I focus on finding a person that mirrors the person I want to be, then leverage that and put my style to it.”
BE THE PERSON IN THE ROOM
Being the only Black person in the room often can be a daunting prospect, especially when placed in a new role. Aïssata recounts many such occasions and how others in the room can have “so many presumptions about how you will act.” To combat that, preparing, as much as you can, for such meetings is crucial, she advises.
For Aïssata, that means not letting racial differences define the situation or serve as a barrier to outreach. Instead, it’s about trying to initiate a dialogue when one doesn’t appear to exist. “It has to start from somewhere,” she says. “Even if you can’t see yourself in the room, you can be that person for someone else.”
Describing herself as a cheerleader for her mentees, Aïssata’s message to her cohort and beyond is that knowing at an early age where you want your career to go is helpful but not essential. Putting the work in to get it is. “Provided you want it, there should always be a place for you in this industry. It’s about finding it and following its evolution closely. Part of it is seizing opportunities, but the bigger part is putting the work in.”
Being bold definitely helps, so long as limits are adhered to. “There is a fine line between being bold and being too direct. But, most of the time, being bold works.” Her final message to BYP network members is: Set a goal, deeply believe in yourself and know that there will be help along the way. There will be people, resources and events to assist you. Focus on what you want and go for it.
A 15-year veteran of the finance industry, Didier Owusu-Sarpong is an Executive Director in Global Capital Markets (GCM). This division involves the structuring, issuance and distribution of debt and equity securities to investors. He’s also a good example of a Morgan Stanley banker who’s taken risks to broaden his skill-set by initially working in the Fixed-Income Sales and Trading division before transferring into his present role in GCM.
BE OPEN TO GROWTH
The first thing that is apparent about Didier is his drive to always be better – both professionally and personally – than the day before. Well aware that self-improvement can often involve significant change both mentally and in lifestyle, he counsels that the best approach is taking it one day at a time. “Try and break things down into little steps,” he says, pointing to a book – Atomic Habits by James Clear – that he recommends as a useful guide on how to break bad habits and replace them with more suitable ones for a more productive lifestyle. While the book offers insights on how much a person can transform themselves over a year, Didier recognises that given people’s individuality, outcomes are not exact nor linear. People move to different beats. But, that shouldn’t diminish the goal: If you are willing to be open to change, you will definitely witness progress in terms of learning and career roles.
THE JOURNEY OF PROMOTION
In a world that is said to be moving faster every day, it can be hard to stay focused on your goals. For those in dedicated, structured careers – like investment banking – landing a promotion is often the biggest prize. Didier knows all about it and talks enthusiastically about his elevation to Executive Director in 2017, just one level below Managing Director, the highest of five operating titles at the firm. He’s also aware that when a promotion comes, you should savour it. “With every promotion, it gets harder to get to the next level,” he says. “So, when you do have such moments, don’t forget to take a break, celebrate and remember what it took to get that achievement. And then start the climb to the next level, trying to break it down into an achievable set of steps”, he adds.
FAILING AT YOUR BEST
Failure is an unavoidable part of anyone’s journey. But, as is often said, it can be the fastest route to success when lessons are realised, accepted and applied. It’s true that in areas of leadership, that adage can sometimes feel a little trite, where failure seems less a learning tool and more just plain forbidden. Didier is philosophical about the subject, aware that his own career path hasn’t always been smooth sailing. But, his advice is simple, give your best at all times. “When you fail, if you can demonstrate that you tried your utmost, your colleagues and seniors will be tolerant, supportive and inclusive. They’ve been there themselves.” He recognises that being Black can pose additional challenges in overcoming stereotypes about failure. But, he doesn’t let it anchor him, knowing that consistently working at being the best version of yourself – and offering no excuses – is the best way to overturn narrative prejudice. It also better paves the way for those coming after you, he adds.
Didier’s final message to BYP network members is Belief in yourself whilst being humble. Take on board constructive criticism so that you can grow and evolve.
At Morgan Stanley, you’ll find trusted colleagues, committed mentors and a culture that values diverse perspectives, individual intellect and cross-collaboration. See how you can continue your career journey by visiting Morgan Stanley or their BYP jobs page.