Listen to this article
Shaheen Sayed’s route into management consulting was unconventional. The 44-year-old, who is a managing director in the technology business at Accenture, aspired as a teenager to become a theatre director and wanted to attend London’s Royal Academy of Dramatic Art.
That plan changed when Ms Sayed, who was born in Britain but raised in Nairobi before returning aged 11, attained better than expected A-level exam results.
With her parents’ encouragement, she instead decided to study politics and Arabic at university, followed by a masters in English literature and an internship with Amnesty International.
Later in her studies, she was drawn to a career involving technology because she “didn’t understand it at all” and wanted to “run with the things I feared the most”.
“I wanted to understand what industries were dealing with in terms of business problems. What I didn’t understand — that was quite exciting,” she says.
This led her to US-listed Accenture, which now has more than 435,000 staff and is known for its technological expertise, receiving the top rating in the digital and IT categories of the UK’s Leading Management Consultancies 2018.
“I was an anomaly when I came to Accenture 20 years ago. I was a social sciences student with no technology skills, and I had never touched a computer,” she says. “I came from a very working-class background and computers were not something we had access to. I had huge anxiety in my first three weeks.”
Yet within weeks her peers would have described her as a “techie”, she says. “I liked making things and having something tangible in my hands and there was a real adrenalin from meeting someone’s requirements.”
The fact that she was one of the few graduate trainees not from a science, technology, engineering or mathematics (Stem) background became an advantage, she says, helping her to become a partner within 10 years. She worked in Accenture’s technology team for six years, before moving to health and public services in 2003, and then financial services in 2014.
“I could tell a story very well, I could take macro industry trends with a slightly different angle, I was creative and I approached problems quite differently,” she says.
Her decision to focus on how technology affects businesses came as the corporate world was being transformed by mass access to the internet in the mid-to-late 1990s. Technology specialists within consulting have been in demand ever since. Their work has become more interesting, says Ms Sayed, who spent a year in India with Accenture and speaks Urdu, Arabic and some Finnish.
At first technology specialists “were restricted to back-office transformations — looking at products, designing and testing them”, she says. “Interactions with clients were formal, and the proximity to the real nature of the business problem was opaque.”
The picture is very different today. “I didn’t have a clue [that technology] would become so intrinsic to people’s lives,” she says.
One of the most memorable projects she worked on at the start of her career involved building a financial system to underpin transactions on retail website Urbanfetch.com, an early rival to Amazon.
“You would go on a basic website and order milk and socks and someone would cycle up to your door and deliver it. I was really thrilled to be in New York in my twenties working on this,” she says.
Another project, for the UK Rural Payments Agency, was to set up an online system delivering subsidies to farmers. “There was a defining moment where a farmer came to us who had never used a computer. He was about 70 and asked us how to fill out a form on the website. I had actually created the form. It was pretty amazing,” she says.
The self-described “real west London girl” and mother of one is now focused on financial services within Accenture’s technology team and oversees 900 analysts at the firm. One of Ms Sayed’s missions is to improve social mobility.
“I think it is incredibly old-fashioned to remain in a world where [success] is simply [about] these universities and these degrees. We need more fluidity,” she says. To underline her point, Ms Sayed declines to name the universities she attended.
The firm’s practices are already “impressive” in terms of recruiting women, she adds, with entry-level hires evenly split by gender and a target to achieve gender balance across the workforce by 2025. Accenture’s average UK gender pay gap is 17 per cent.
She has encouraged the firm to consider a broader range of degrees when it approaches graduates and to drop its habit of primarily seeking students from Stem backgrounds.
When Ms Sayed joined Accenture, “the concept of social mobility was not even discussed,” she says. “It sounds grandiose but it has to be fully part of my legacy that I leave it in a better place than when I started.”