How They Did It: Investment Banker to Teacher

The first profile of this series feels incredibly apt - I met Naresh Sonpar back in 2011 when we began our Teach First journey together. I was 22, about to begin my first permanent job, but Naresh already had behind him a highly successful financial career. We were all fascinated by this man who had left a high-flying, and well-paid, job in the City to teach Business Studies in a state school in East London - but it became obvious from the outset that Naresh was driven by a genuine passion for education. This was in part spurred on by his own experience helping his two sons navigate the system with his eldest son being on the Autistic Spectrum. Naresh speaks with wisdom and insight about his career journey so far and how his previous experience has shaped him as a teacher.

Tell me about your first career - what was it, and how did it come about?

After completing my degree, way back in 1991, I was interested in working in finance in the City. Before starting my degree, I was a broker for a year in Hong Kong. I later decided to move back to the UK to study for a degree. I tried to look for jobs but it was in the middle of a massive recession - it was pretty bad. I must have sent a lot - I mean a lot - of applications with a 100% rejection rate, which did not bode well. So I studied for a MSc in Corporate and International Finance at Durham, and then started submitting CVs and application forms. At that time the internet as we know it today didn’t exist so sending application forms were done through the post and there was a lot of handwriting!

I still remember the person who gave me my first job offer - his name was Mitchell Lenson and this was at Credit Suisse First Boston, now known just as Credit Suisse. The job was essentially statistical and analytical work for him, but from there he suggested I go into the Research department. From Research I was seconded to Mergers & Acquisitions. I knew I wanted to work on the trading floor and I moved back into Fixed Income Research to develop my knowledge and skills. Next I moved to what is now BNP Paribas and did a range of roles there - I worked in Risk Management Advisory, financially engineering Structured Derivative Products and working in Derivative Sales selling to a range of clients including hedge funds. I later worked at the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD) and worked as a Portfolio Manager in Asset & Liability Management. I left and became a Partner in a hedge fund for many, many years. I analysed a wide range of financial products including bonds, interest rate and cross currency swaps, futures, currencies and Credit Default Swaps - trading them, hedging them, managing the risks and so on.

I didn’t realise you’d done so many different roles - I only knew the headline ‘Investment Banker’!

I wanted to learn lots of different things, and come up with my own view and my own idea of where I wanted to go. In the end, I thought working with portfolios and being part of a hedge fund was, for me, really interesting because I had the freedom to do a lot of different things and they kind of left me alone. You had to attend meetings and you had to get rolled out for clients now and again but generally I focused on what I did best, and I really enjoyed what I was doing.

But then my eldest son got diagnosed on the autistic spectrum. I took some time out initially, and I could see that he was making great progress, so I thought ‘This is the time’. The family needed a lot more time with me than I could give if I was working the long hours, doing what I was doing, so that’s when I left and took a break to focus on my eldest in particular, helping and supporting him.

And this was when you decided on teaching?

I was looking at what I was good at, what was I going to do and where was I going to get the skills to help [my sons] further, and that’s why I went into teaching. That was my spur, and if I was going to go into teaching, then I also wanted to have an impact. I liked the Teach First mission of addressing educational disadvantage. I can see that the system is broken - the financial model, the economic model, the business model that we see today is broken. So the question is what can we do to try and address it? For me, first and foremost, it’s got to be education - to raise aspirations and show people what’s actually available, rather than them having to hunt to find out. That’s extremely difficult if you don’t have the confidence, or if you don’t come from a family which has the confidence or the background to support you. That’s one of the things I focused on really hard - it’s not just about the subjects I teach but also about developing [students’] skills, particularly soft skills, and helping them to open their eyes and look above what some people might think is their station in life.

I had one student who has a wonderful spirit, very intelligent, and worked really hard towards her ambition to be an accountant. I told her ‘If you wanted to go to Cambridge or Oxford I know you can do it’, but she said there was no way it was going to happen, and her parents wouldn’t let her leave London unless it was Cambridge. So we did all the Oxbridge prep, and in the end she got the offer to Cambridge and her parents had to let her go. I see her now and again and her confidence has blossomed - she’s going to do great things. That’s something that gives you a warm fuzzy feeling that maybe, maybe you are making a difference.

You described the Teach First mission of ending educational disadvantage, and the lack of opportunity for some students - were these things that you were aware of before you became a teacher, or was that something you didn’t fully grasp until you were in it?

I didn’t really grasp it at all because let’s face it: the world I was living in was a totally different world to what most people would be living in. Once I was on the escalator and things were going well I could go where I wanted - I used to take my passport to the airport, decide where I wanted to go, and literally just go there. I had the freedom to do that. I didn’t have to think about other things because I had choices.

When I joined my training school I had never met a Kosovar before, I’d never met an Albanian before, I’d never met God knows how many people from so many different countries. It opened my eyes to the kind of backgrounds a lot of kids have gone through. I came to understand about NEETs [young people Not in Education, Employment or further Training] and what kids in those situations faced. I was really big on trying to raise aspirations, get kids to believe that they can achieve, but also that nobody achieves any kind of great success totally on their own. We all get a leg up somewhere in our lives, whether it’s your family, or friends, or teachers, or whoever - but some people don’t have access to as many people to help them as others. In the public school system for example, you’re imbued with the belief that you can achieve anything you want to, but in many [state] schools they tell you what to do, what to fill in, ‘here you go, get your grades’, everything’s fine - but some students haven’t learned anything.

Do you think it made a difference to your teaching when you could say to them ‘I’ve been on the other side of the fence, I know what’s there, and I know how to get you there’?

Exactly, and I gave that option to kids. I said ‘If you're interested in this I'm willing to talk to you and help you get there, but you need to make the first step - I’m showing you the possibilities.’ I kind of talent spot - this kid’s really good at numbers, this kid doesn’t talk very much but he’s really working very hard at what he wants to do. I’m still in touch with many of my students - they send me emails, and it’s really nice when they do that because I’m always curious where they are going. Many of them decided to become lawyers or work in the City!

It sounds like you’ve got an employer hat on when you’re teaching them - spotting who has potential in a particular field, who is the kind of person you’d have been looking to hire.

I definitely tell them if I think they can do a particular job. And I try to encourage students to think because I don’t think we do that enough. We give them piles of theory which you have to know to get an A grade but don’t necessarily give them time to think about whether it makes sense, or they agree with it. I like to share real stories too, like what happens in the middle of a financial crisis. I’ll share what happened in 2008 and what I had to deal with: this market was going belly up, that market was going belly up… You can use your own personal experience as part of the learning - and the students love stories.

When you’re looking at the world, particularly at financial markets, you notice patterns exist. These patterns are effectively waves - it’s like going to the beach and getting your surfboard out. You could try and ride the biggest wave but the chances are you’ll get destroyed by it. You can get a little puddly wave in which you’ll go nowhere and have no satisfaction from trying. Or you can find the right kind of wave which will take you all the way to the beach.

That’s a fabulous metaphor for careers as well. You described earlier being able to turn up to the airport and go wherever you wanted, and all these other perks of your last career - was it difficult to walk away from those things?

The lifestyle was amazing, but you have to make the right decision for you. Particularly when it comes to income, for some people it’s never going to be enough. A large number of people in the City have made more money than they, or their children, or their grandchildren can spend, but it’s the game - without it they feel they have no purpose. It’s not about how much they can earn, it’s about how much they can earn relative to the person sitting next to them. For me, I don’t think I was too wrapped up in it. I did what I did, and I don’t think I led as lavish a lifestyle as many of my colleagues, but I liked knowing that if I wanted to go somewhere I could just go.

Going into teaching effectively cost me money. For quite a few years, every day I was teaching I was spending more than I was earning. That can be disconcerting, and you have to adapt your lifestyle. But the key is I would never make that choice on my own. The decision was made with my wife, thinking about what was right for our family. Okay, so we might go on holiday less, or we might eat out less, we might think about how we’re spending what we’re spending, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. The main thing is to hold on to why you’re doing what you’re doing. I actually sat down with my boys and said ‘I could go back to the City but that might mean you don’t see me as much during the week and on holidays. Or I can carry on teaching, and you’ll see me more, but there are some things we might have been able to do in the past that we can’t do anymore.’ Fortunately, they made the right decision!

With technology things are very, very different - you can trade and manage portfolios and do everything from home, you don’t need a dealing room anymore. But for me, at this stage, I really love teaching!

You described sharing stories from your banking days with students. What some other things you’ve taken from your old career into your new one?

How to break through glass ceilings. When I joined the bank, I was one of a few people on the trading floor who was non-white. Nowadays you see all colours of the rainbow, all genders, and it’s fantastic, but at that time it was still very much who do you know, what school did you go to…? I was a complete outsider - I came from Hong Kong and had no network here. Today there are so many more people out there willing to help you - all you need to do is ask. That’s what I tried to do - and some people said ‘Yeah I’ll help you!’, while others ignored you.

When you’re starting, it’s about looking at what you really want to do, what you want to achieve, having goals, motivating yourself to make those goals a reality and then deciding the steps to achieve them. In the past for example, I had to teach some of my students how to walk into a room, stand up tall, give a proper handshake, make eye contact. I think psychologists have shown that within the first 30 seconds you have a pretty good idea if someone’s the kind of person you’re going to hire, so if you’re not able to make that impression right at the beginning it’s going to be a tough slog. Those are the things I had to learn, because as a kid I had very low confidence. I don’t think many people even knew I existed in school. After many years I bumped into a person in a restaurant who was in my class and said “Hi!”. He looked at me and did not recognise me. When I told him my name, he still did not recognise me. With all the rejections I had when I tried to get my first job, I wondered why I was doing this but with the support of my family and friends I developed that self-belief. For kids from certain kinds of communities where maybe, traditionally, they haven’t gone into jobs like finance, I try to open their eyes and if there’s [a career path] they think is interesting, to help them get there.

And you’re living proof that what you pick when you’re 18 doesn’t have to be what you do forever.

Particularly in today’s world I wouldn’t be surprised if kids now had four or five different careers in their lifetime because things are evolving so quickly. It comes back to my wave - finding which is the right wave for you. There’s no point riding a wave if you’re going to hate it because it’ll make your life miserable. You have to do something that is in line with your core values, your beliefs, your sense of justice or morality. It’s great if you can find something you’re passionate about and enjoy doing but if you can’t make a living from it, maybe your passion should be your hobby and your career is what’s going to help you own your own home or whatever.

Viewing your career as part of the much bigger picture of your whole life, rather than the be-all and end-all.

Your career doesn’t define you. It’s a result of who you are, but it doesn’t define you.

Having worked in two such different worlds, is there anything that you were really happy to leave behind?

Finance attracts a wide range of people, some of whom will do whatever it takes to take you out, take your clients, and that kind of skullduggery. I never felt particularly emotional about my work - for me, trading markets was like the best video game in town. Sometimes you get a win, and you try to learn from your mistakes so you don’t make them again, but there’ll always be people who are going to be upset or will deliberately try and make you feel bad. I never really let it get to me, because they are who they are. I still have a lot of friends in the City - wonderful, kind people - and in all careers you’ve got different types. In teaching, I found it very challenging at the beginning adjusting to hierarchy because I wasn’t used to it. In finance traders for example could be earning way more than their bosses because they’re the ones generating the income - it was very flat in that sense. I didn’t realise you had all this deference [in the public sector] - it took me ages to understand you had to sugar coat what you were saying. I was used to just speaking my mind.

Can you share three tips for anyone who’s looking to change careers completely?

If you’re going to change careers, you need to know why. Is it something which is particular to the company that you’re working in, or the firm, or the business? Is it particular to that organisation? Is it something to do with the sector you’re working in? Or is it something that you’re yearning to do, that you’ve always wanted to do, but were afraid to, potentially because you’re in what’s called the golden cage? You’ve become so used to the lifestyle that you’re trapped by it. For some people, that will be an issue.

Think carefully about your motivation - if it’s a yearning to do something, then taking the time out to do it is important. If it doesn’t work out it’s not the end of the world, you can always try something else. The world is constantly changing - for every opportunity that’s gone, there are several new opportunities that are created.

For your final tip, what would you say to someone who wants to get into teaching slightly later on, having had a different career first?

Accept the fact that when you start, you’re not going to be as good as you think you’re going to be. But it will come. Believe in yourself, keep working at it, get support, discuss ideas with your friends or colleagues. Being part of a group is the good thing about Teach First - it made a huge difference to me that I never felt quite alone. You’ll probably feel like you’ve failed, but that’s because it’s a journey and it does take time. Give yourself a year, maybe a year and a half, and see you how feel because by then you’ll start to see the fruits of your labour and the achievement coming through.

Next up: Olly Hewett on switching from IT to acting.

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