“I think my childhood opened up my horizons early on and made me really quite open minded and inclusive and connected to people – especially with some of the poorest in the world. That has really never left me and it makes me feel really grateful for the advantages and privileges that I’ve had.”
Hephzi Pemberton, Angel Investor, founder and CEO of Equality Group and co-founder of Kiteka, the daughter of Jeremy and Carrie Pemberton, Church of England Vicars, grew up in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) so it was not your usual childhood as she recounts:
“I think it was an amazing childhood growing up in DRC and I was very sad to come back to a council estate in Leeds as it felt like a real low! But, it did get better from there which was really nice. The other thing is that I grew up in a big family – I’m the eldest of five children and we basically had a Congolese family. My parents were both vicars and our house was constantly full of people coming and going which probably helped in being able to continually manage quite chaotic and sociable situations.”
If the move back to Leeds was a world away from DRC, the same must have been true for Oxford where Pemberton attended Balliol college graduating in 2007. We wondered how the conversation went with her mum Dr Carrie Pemberton Ford herself a PhD graduate from Cambridge. The support from her parents, however, in instilling a sense of self-belief and intellectual conversations over dinner set her in good stead and on the road to success.
“I think just the constant underlying belief, encouragement and support from an early stage [helped]. My dad especially was very supportive – the “You can do anything… go for it”. He was always pushing me to go further and to stretch myself. Both of my parents were very engaged intellectually and academically; it was a very stimulating household with debates over dinner and reading. All of the good things that you would want to be stimulating for children were there.
We’ve all gone on to do different things but my sister also runs her own small business and I think there is a bit of an entrepreneurial streak that runs through. There is a definite lifelong learning philosophy that runs through the family. We challenge each other and have huge amounts of fun with board games in our household being off the scale! It just gets very silly…Monopoly was actually banned for a couple of years because it led to such awful meltdowns but we do take card games very seriously!”
This is not to say that life for the young Hephzi was without its challenges as her parents separated, and while this is a sad occurrence that many children and teenagers go through, the reason for Hephzi’s parents split was that they had come out as being gay.
“It was definitely a big shock and it was a really hard period to manage personally, especially as the eldest daughter trying to support my parents and also my siblings. It was a very full on at the time but 10 years on we have such a lot of love in the family (we have always had an incredible amount of love in the family relationships) and that love is still there even if the relationship for mum and dad has changed. I’m really proud of them and what they did. It must have been so horribly difficult. Although it was hard for me in the midst of going through it, I can see how difficult it must have been for them so I have a lot respect and love for them. They’re happy and that’s what you want, whether that’s for your children or your parents.
The Church of England is a very hard place to be gay, a very hard institution and I hope that changes. I think that they have very much been influencers on me in my outlook, what I care about and what I want to be working for. They basically got chucked out of the diocese and didn’t have anywhere to live. Dad had to declare bankruptcy and it was a pretty brutal time. I wasn’t really able to tell anyone for a while because of everything that was going on and the risk of the impact it would have on them. So it was difficult when I couldn’t tell people and, when I could, I did. And, you know, people are generally so very open minded and understanding.”
Having seen what her parents were going through it would have been understandable if Pemberton had turned away from religion and the church but this was not the case. Her parent’s sexuality aside, their faith and influence had been well rooted in her.
“My faith just got stronger through it and it may sound unusual but I think I already had my own adult faith as it were. My parents had already taught me a lot but it had become my own. It was separate from theirs and it became a deep source of strength during that time and it has continued to be. For my parents, yes, I think there were definitely moments of real darkness but they have very strong faiths still and continue to be great ministers, so things have evolved when it comes to our faiths.”
The time spent playing monopoly with her family must have rubbed off on Pemberton because on leaving University she knew that her ultimate goal was to start her own business. This shaped her career journey with her first job being with Lehman Brothers with the aim of learning as much as she could about finance and business. As history shows or if you’ve have watched the film “The Big Short”, the US government refused to bail out Lehman Brothers, which was finding it impossible to roll over its borrowings in the markets and the Wall Street bank was allowed to go bust. This was an extraordinary time for the finance and insurance industry as the shockwaves were felt across the developed world. Being employed at the bank in the middle of this must have provided more learning for Pemberton than she could have ever anticipated. Fortunately, she had been able to leave a month before the bank went bust moving to New York to work for head-hunting firm Glocap Search which set her on the road to starting her own business ventures and angel investing.
Pemberton’s angel investing interests aside, she’s also founder and CEO of Equality Group and co-founder and trustee of Kiteka. Equality Group is a recruitment firm whose mission is to harness the power of diversity and inclusion for its clients but Hephzi describes her business as “levelling the playing field for people”. Diversity is a common theme in her life story having lived and worked in different countries so Equality Group’s proposition is not a surprise and is something she is very passionate about.
“This year’s McKinsey report, Delivering Through Diversity, found that companies in the top quartile for gender diversity on executive teams were 21% more likely to outperform on profitability and 27% more likely to have superior value creation. The results were even more impressive for ethnic and cultural diversity: top-quartile companies were 33% more likely to have industry-leading profitability.
Yet, despite this remarkable impact, many businesses are focusing their efforts on hiring and retaining white women like me. I had the privilege of several educational and professional opportunities, including a place at Oxford University, an investment banking graduate job and access to business and investment networks. As a woman I do encounter workplace bias, but there are others who need assistance more than me. Despite the obvious case for more radical change, the biggest beneficiaries are still white women. It’s hard to tell whether this is because it seems like the easiest first step to take or because so much of the diversity agenda has so far focused on this group.
Yet some of the women I could introduce clients to would be almost identical: middle class, educated at private schools and elite universities, and trained at top-tier firms. They wouldn’t look like the men, but they would think in a fairly similar way. They certainly wouldn’t add as much diversity as a Nigerian man who grew up between Nigeria, Ghana and the UK, studied in Canada, worked in three other countries and had incredibly relevant experience for the role”.
Our childhood experiences have a profound effect on us whether we’re aware of this or not and growing up in the DRC really shaped Hephzi who experienced poverty and the lack of empowerment of women. Kiteka, co-founded with Bethy Isingoma, is a smartphone loan and training company helping women to be fast-tracked into entrepreneurship simply by giving them phones. The project launched in Uganda at the end of 2016 – where 64% of women don’t own a mobile – to provide phones and training to women running small businesses in the capital city, Kampala. Ugandan women are 24% less likely to own a phone than men, and if there’s a smartphone in a household, the woman is unlikely to have access to it. Hephzi points to a recent impact survey they conducted with The University of Edinburgh, which shows that 80% of Kiteka women had seen an increase in profitability, with over 90% reporting that their confidence had increased significantly, and 100% saying they feel safer.
“Kitaka is a Ugandan goddess (spelt with an ‘a’ – Kitaka) and we wanted to be a little more ‘techy’ so changed it to an ‘e’ to become Kiteka. So… we’re creating digital goddesses! We bring together groups of eight to 10 women every month, and we give them each a smartphone on an interest-free loan. They’re trained on how to use it, how to get on to social media, create an email address and download a few apps that will be useful.
It is hugely rewarding because you can make such a huge impact with very little when you are doing that sort of work. A $40 smartphone can be transformational for some of the women in our network and connect them to the rest of the world to improve their businesses and connect them with their customers, families and friends. It’s great as we get such wonderful feedback and case studies from the women we work with. I love working with them and seeing their development and the impact on them. I love it especially as Kiteka is a great fit with Equality Group and I have a good team in Uganda who run it on the ground. They run it much better than I could as a white woman based in the UK. Fundamentally they are able to relate much better to the women in the network and what they need and how they work.”
When it comes to angel investing it could be argued that this too links back to the diversity theme that has flavoured Pemberton’s life so far – as we found out in our interview with Jenny Tooth OBE, CEO of UK Business Angels Association (UKBAA) there is a disproportionate number of female angel investors when compared with the split of wealth between genders. Here too Hephzi is keen to see change and more diversity in the angel investing industry with more women becoming involved to provide a better balance.
“I think, and this is anecdotal, but I think the facts will probably back it up – that women lack a huge amount of confidence when it comes to money and that when you have enough money to be able to be thinking about becoming an angel investor, there is a deep lack of confidence. I have spoken to a number of very successful high net-worth women who only invest their money in what their husband/father/brother tells them. It’s really quite shocking isn’t it? I don’t think that angel investing has been suggested to very many women for a start. Then when it is, they don’t necessarily have the confidence to start to follow it through. Then there are the things like do they know the best place, the best way to access those deals which is more of an education piece but I think the confidence is the critical factor (followed by education).
Having said all of that, angel investing is extremely high risk and I mean extremely! You should never be putting any money in that you’re not willing to completely lose. I do it for more reasons than just financial. I do it because I love to support other entrepreneurs; I really enjoy the business building journey as I find it very rewarding and it gives me much more than just the financial return which I can get from passive investing in stocks/shares on line.
We need more female investors because there are such huge amounts of money floating around the investment industry and where that money is going really, really matters. I’d like women to be making some of those decisions as I think it would lead to better balance in the investment industry.”
Despite having left university only 11 years earlier Pemberton has had a huge amount of success, but in keeping with the core of her beliefs is keen to share what she knows and help other women achieve their business goals.
“Gosh, am I successful and in a powerful position?! I guess it is all relative I suppose. In terms of advice to younger women who want to succeed, I would say that we are better and stronger together. I would love to help women support each other and not pull up the ladder behind them. That’s really important because you do hear of that happening which is such a shame. I have so many great peers and female mentors who have just been so incredibly generous with their time and knowledge and I want to be one of those women. I would encourage other women to be as generous as they can be because it really will improve business if we did that.
For youngsters, I’d say that you should really invest in your education and invest in your relationships with networks. I do think that pays dividends and how you treat people and how you are is what matters. I think it is really valuable to keep that in mind at every stage.”
Like many successful people it is clear that there is a certain amount of being focused goal achievement – without this drive they may not be successful or the person they are. Hephzi is aware of this and tries where possible to live in the here and now.
“I would say just enjoy every single stage because it is so precious. I look back at certain points of my life and just think “I always wish I’d enjoyed that even more”. I’d let myself enjoy it even more because I am very forward planning. I’m often thinking in the future which is a strength from a business perspective but I do think that, from a personal perspective, it sometimes takes away from the here and now of what you are going through. I would say ‘enjoy the now – you’re obviously going to do your planning because that’s who you are but also just enjoy it!’.”
Pemberton claims that she does take time off to recharge her batteries and relax but it’s clear that there is no holding back this driven lady as in her spare time she has replaced the board room (and monopoly) for the bridge table where another deal awaits.
“I love to exercise – I love running, pilates and yoga. I also love reading and hanging out with my family and friends. I also like bridge and I can’t wait until I’m 50 and its legitimate! I love it so much and I can’t’ wait to get a lot better at it by playing every week. Right now, though, I have to persuade friends who like cards to learn to play. We have very good bridge players in the family – my aunt, grandpa and my dad are all great at it.”
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