Host: Amanda Young, Chief Sustainability Officer, abrdn

Guest: Omar Shaikh, Director, and Co-Founder of the Global Ethical Finance Initiative (GEFI)

Sustainability Inspires Podcast

Amanda: Hello, I'm Amanda Young. You are listening to abrdn's Sustainability Inspires podcast discussing all things relating to sustainability and responsible investing.

I'm delighted today to have with me as my guest Omar Shaikh. Now Omar is the director and co-founder of the Global Ethical Finance Initiative or otherwise known as GEFI. A chartered accountant by profession, He specialises in ethical and responsible finance, Islamic finance, and private equity. He has extensive experience in financial services and has advised multiple governments and regulators on financial inclusion policy. For over 15 years, he has been a leading advocate for ethical and responsible finance. His background includes working with EY London, where he was a former head of Islamic Finance. Now Omar launched the award-winning ethical roundtable series in Edinburgh, a platform that led to the inception of the ethical finance hub, and then ultimately GEFI. Through his work, he has established a number of initiatives including the Ethical Finance Summit, which is a major conference, the Finance for Nature Project with UNDP creating innovative financing structures for the SDGs and the interfaith Edinburgh Finance Declaration. Omar is an alumni from the University of Glasgow and as a member of ICAS. He holds Select Board advisory roles, including those with the Prince's Trust in Scotland, and supporting Glasgow museums and preserving South Asian heritage in Scotland.

Now outside of driving forward the sustainable finance agenda Omar is of Scottish Asian heritage and as such as intrigued by the fascinating history of South Asians in Scotland, which is the largest ethnic minority in Scotland. From the role of the British Indian Army and the regiment force K6 who served in the Highlands of Scotland to the global invention of chicken tikka masala in Scotland. He has explored how Scotland has been unique in its experience of integration of such minority communities, and how the sense of belonging and identity is critical to what we can all achieve in life. And one of the things I absolutely love about Omar is how he has created a tartan out of the SDG colours, of which I'm proud to say I own a little. He has also written a book, which is a collation of oral stories of elderly Scottish and South Asians. This is all absolutely fascinating. So, it is a delight to welcome you today Omar to our podcast.

Omar: Thank you very much Amanda. Pleasure to be with you.

Amanda: Can we perhaps start with something really interesting. The question of chicken tikka masala. is it really a Scottish invention? News to me. Tell me more.

Omar: There, we think with our stomach. So, let's start with the issue of food obviously. Yeah, it is. Obviously in Scotland, we say we invented the whole world and there's always there's lovely kind of context here. But the chap who did so his name was Ali Ahmed Aslam. And he invented this in the late 60s, early 70s here in Glasgow and remember, the curry is Britain's number one favourite kind of food. The market is worth billions of dollars and even Bill Gates put a post on about him passing away, just a fortnight ago.

Amanda: I’m also fascinated about your work into Scottish Asian relations. Is there anything here that links with your passion for ethical and sustainable finance?

Omar: That’s a very good question, and probably nothing to be very frank. But what's lovely about it, Amanda, it was I got involved in this area purely out of intellectual curiosity. So, I'm not, you know, a social scientist, or a historian, or an anthropologist. But when I came back from having spent 10 years in London, and having worked abroad, I came back to Glasgow and one thing I personally felt, Amanda was that it's important, if you've managed to do well in life, where you've managed to have an opportunity, it is really important to give back to your community. So, when I came back home to Scotland, although I still obviously have a lot, I was I was keen to see what can I support? What can I do to help my community which I benefited from growing up in, on the outskirts of Glasgow. So that's how I got involved with this project. And what I found particularly interesting, and the project was all about recording the stories of the very few remaining early generations of South Asian migrants with people in their 70s, 80s, and 90s, who migrated across from South Asia to Scotland. Anything from the kind of very few are left on who migrated in the 30s, but really 30s, 40s, and 50s to really capture their story before we lose that amazing journey. So that's what it was Amanda, it was my desire to give something back, I knew this particular social project had a very clear time fuse on it. So, you have to do it today because you won't be able to do it tomorrow. And that's why I ended up getting heavily involved with this. And it's just been phenomenal. Absolutely phenomenal, the honour and pleasure it's been, and the wisdom that you've managed to gather from listening to the stories of this unique generation of our grandparents and grandmothers who came across. It's just been an absolute honour of my life, I would say.

Amanda: I think that really touches much on your career, Omar, I mean, you're obviously somebody who really wants to give back to the world. And you have had an illustrious career promoting sustainable investing, particularly in Scotland. Perhaps you can tell us a little bit about how you actually got into this industry? Given that actually, you started off as a chartered accountant at EY.

Omar: Well, you're definitely right. I think purpose and having a passion is what makes life worth living. So, I am very much driven by that. Why question, what am I doing and why does that matter? And how does that help? How I stumbled into this, Amanda, was fascinating. So, when I under started, I graduated from Glasgow University in Accounting and Finance, I went on to join a Big Four to get my CA qualification, this in the late 90s and early 2000. What was fascinating was there was a period where we had these disasters, these financial disasters and corporate scandals of Palmer Parmalat, Enron, WorldCom, Arthur Andersen, the largest auditing firm in the world at just collapsed.

Amanda: I'm old enough to remember that too.

Omar: It was And then there was a dot bomb, and then everything crashed. And all these theories, we were told, everything we were told as to how audit should work, and so on, was clearly not playing out in practice, in reality, in the markets, otherwise, you would not have had these, you know, seismic disasters. And by the way, I haven't even talked, we haven't even got to the global financial crisis yet. It's it was so well, you taught us all of this out valuations. And I'm working in investment in a M&A team. And these anything All of a sudden, it's got a superior valuation, you know, what's the theory, then you begin to speak to people who are wiser and more experienced than me at that time, and they're above, you know, fear and greed and market fervor, etc. And how that really impacts valuations. And you could see that blatantly with it with, boom in the late 90s. Now, what that did for me, Amanda, is that I started asking questions. Well, hold on a minute, if Arthur Andersen could collapse of all these businesses can collapse, is our system stable? Is our system, you know, fair and transparent? And by default, ethical was my simple interpretation of that, you know, does it have these components in it? So that's where I started asking the questions. And I also at that point, around 2002/3, got involved with Islamic finance, being a Muslim faith, I didn't frankly know much about Islamic finance prior to that, and it wasn't particularly my faith that intrigued me, but it was at a time of these global collapse, at a time where I was reading interesting books on the tube in London, you know, that you actually, you know, turn around and say, Okay, this is interesting. And back then again, in the late 90s, early 2000s, you know, anything kind of, you know, ESG, or ethical finance was for tree huggers, hippies, and those faithy guys, right, and it was a haircut on performance. It was completely dismissed. It was it was very much marginalised in the city at that time. But then, as these disasters continue to happen, the world particularly after the global financial crisis, had to sit up and listen, because it was clear and prevalent that the system was not working.

Amanda: I mean, clearly, you're passionate about Scotland, you've just talked about being global issues here. You live in Glasgow; you've been very keen to see Scotland playing its part in the sustainable investment landscape. Some people see that as small or parochial. What's your view on this? And how do you see Scotland playing its part in a global move?

Omar: You can very much be in Scotland and be global. I have enjoyed 10 years in London, had a fantastic time there really learned a heck of a lot in the early stage of my career. I lived in Bahrain, and in Dubai as well. But Scotland is home, and that's where I grew up. And frankly, it got to a point really in my life where when I had children, Amanda that I wanted them to grow up in Scotland, I wanted them to be proud of their Scottish roots, as well. So that was where the decision came. But more importantly, and more interestingly, when we built out GEFI’s work from Scotland, when we started to do these kinds of international conferences, I think around 2015, seven, eight years ago, one of the things I felt was unique to the kind of ecosystem in Scotland, was that we had this space, I think we had a very interesting community and we were not like London, because in London, I would go into these lectures regularly at Cass Business School or BBA or different Institutes. But there was a lot of noise, a lot of movement in London, whereas I felt the space to have a more considered conversation about more holistic components, which today is very now we're talking about profit and purpose. How do you define purpose, right? That requires some considered space, and real deep reflection to navigate that. And Scotland presents one of the best places I would say, in the globe, where you have, uniquely an ecosystem of actors who have those considered thoughts who get together as a community, are absolute, amazing FS professionals are able to also navigate and contribute to the global conversation on ESG, and sustainable and responsible finance. We've got things like the library of mistakes here, we've got the roundtable series that you mentioned earlier, that's been running since 2010. It really is unique.

Amanda: So, your glass ball, what would it be? What, you know, if you had one thing that you could wish for, what would it be?

Omar: That's a great question. Things have moved so fast Amanda that you would have seen in the kind of responsible investing world in the last five years. We can't keep up from the early, early 2000s, even 10 years ago, we were just wishing people would take this agenda seriously. And now some of the best brains in the world have gotten involved whether they have to because of compliance and regulation or whether you just need to no longer be seen to be doing nothing or whatever that may be, greenwashing, virtue signaling, or genuinely, actually, the ecosystem giving you the oxygen to have this conversation, which previously they felt they could not. The market is moving rapidly. And it's very difficult now for me to say, you know, whether it was a crystal ball, what I would like to see, because I would have just said I was having this conversation, you know, abrdn doing a lot more and sustainability would have been my ask maybe 10/15 years ago. So, in one sense, I'm very humbled and happy that the market has moved on in this trillions of dollars of money managed onto responsible investments. But looking forward nonetheless, I would love to see a market, a space. And this is where I think FinTech and digitalization can enable, where we have a market where every person can invest in line with their morals, and their faith and their view and their principles and their personal views. Every individual can deploy their capital in a way they want to, if I go to my bank, and my bank is lending my money that's in deposit with them to a widget factory in, you know, wherever that is, or versus lending that money with the similar risk return or I opt in for that risk return. So, it's my choice, yeah. To the local nursery, or whatever that is, that's what I'd love to see Amanda and environment where everyone, every individual in society can have a stronger influence, be it through your pension, or be it through your money in the bank, where you want that money to go. And a system, a system that is inherently more stable, and inclusive, and less vulnerable I guess comes under stability to some extent. So, getting rid of the market of naked short selling, and all these toxic financial instruments, you want to do that, have your market, call it the Wild West, make your money, do what you want, that's your choice. But the money of the ordinary individual has to be protected and has to be engaged in a market. So, you're buying stocks and shares Amanda where you know, GameStop scenario really prove that out recently, right? You know, the market is manipulated, the market does suffer from these components, which are the Achilles heel. And so And one last thing on that I would say Amanda, by potential that love to see that when I make these words, I say them in a global perspective, as well, because one of the great things about GEFI is the views we get from the Global South, is that everyone around the world has that option to be included and to be inclusive. So, there's some, you know, kind of democratisation and kind of fairness applied to this ability of certain states in the world to create money. And others, which can't. And COVID really proved that out. Where Prime Ministers of countries in the Global South said, “I can't afford to tell everyone to sit at home and pay them”. The government can't pay them, right. So, you're either going to die of hunger at home, or you're going to die of COVID on the street. So, it's an extremely different scenario to what we were fortunate very fortunate to have here in Britain.

Amanda: Okay, well, at this stage of the podcast, I'd like to ask my guests to inspire our listeners. So, have you got something a book or film event or something that you'd like to share with our listeners that has inspired you?

Omar: Well, I guess two things. It's not always that easy to inspire, but one quote I love Shawshank Redemption, I'm sure many of you might have seen that great movie, and there's a great quote in there, a line that is “Get on with living or get on with dying”, I've always felt you really, you know, we're on this planet for a short period of time, we're fortunate and blessed to have you know, the, the faculties and facilities that we have. So, you should really, you know, kind of go for it and enjoy and maximise your time and really give back something positive to your community. So, but in terms of my favourite book, but I would also encourage people to read. And there's probably a link here to what you were saying earlier, Amanda, there's a lovely book called “30 lessons for living” by Professor Karl Pillemer. And what he's done in the US is basically gone and interviewed, like, nearly 2000 elderly people who are in their kind of, you know, 60s and those in the 70s, 80s, 90s, and so on, and said, you know, what advice would you give to someone in their 20s, someone in this you know, who's just finishing education, finding a career, someone maybe in their 30s just On a build out a career purpose, some of them may be in the 40s with regards to kind of family and someone in the 50s, in terms of how to go, you know, grow old gracefully. And that really, really is a phenomenal book. Amanda, there is so much wisdom out there or for nieces, as Aristotle put, we so often forget, that's something that I would say as well is, you know, get on living or get on with dying and fairly get on with living, you know.

Amanda: Well, as somebody coming up to a significant birthday, that's a fantastic recommendation. I'll certainly take that away. Now, as we draw to the end of our podcasts, I'm going to ask you for one word, to answer my final question. What do you think the next big sustainability thing will be for us in the finance industry?

Omar: That's really difficult. Amanda, one word, maturity.

Amanda: I like that. Thank you so much that absolutely we need we need to get to that point of maturity. Omar, thank you so much for being with us today. It's been a real, real delight to have you with us and listening to everything you've been able to inspire us with.

Omar: Thank you so much, Amanda. It's great that you and abrdn are doing these podcasts on sustainable inspires. Great work. Well done. Thanks.

Amanda: There, you've been listening to the abrdn's podcast Sustainability Inspires, aiming to share and inspire listeners with stories in sustainability to all those who have taken time to tune in many thanks for listening. You can find all of our podcasts on our website until our next podcast goodbye for now.

Disclaimer: This podcast is provided for general information only and assumes a certain level of knowledge of financial markets. It is provided for informational purposes only and should not be considered as an offer investment recommendation or solicitation to deal in any of the investments or products mentioned herein and does not constitute investment research. The views in this podcast are those of the contributors at the time of publication and do not necessarily reflect those of Aberdeen. The companies discussed in this podcast have been selected for illustrative purposes only, or to demonstrate our investment management style are not as an investment recommendation or indication of their future performance. The value of investments and the income from them can go down as well as up and investors may get back less than the amount invested. Past performance is not a guide to future returns, return projections or estimates and provide no guarantee of future results.