School taught Sezer Sherif to accept mediocrity and not to expect to get a job in the city. He ignored it.
Through sheer hard work, dedication and determination, he rose from an underprivileged background to join the City of London on the London International Futures and Options Exchange (LIFFE).
He’s worked with some of the largest investment banks and founded his own investment organisation, the Vector Capital Group, which has companies in Switzerland and the UK.
His is a true rags-to-riches story. He comes from a single-parent Turkish family and, despite his mother holding down two or three jobs, the family had no permanent base.
“We grew up on some really tough council housing estates, bouncing around women’s refuges, hostels and B&Bs,” Sherif recalls. “You’re having a bath surrounded by ants, your front door hasn’t got a lock on it, and your neighbours are alcoholics.”
There was a brief respite when his mother set up a retail business that enabled her to buy a home. Sadly, the business failed, and it was back to square one. Education became Sherif’s salvation. At one point, he had to take time off school because he kept passing out due to studying late into the night.
“I was the kid with broken shoes and holes in my trousers,” he says. “I always knew I had to do more.” But relying on school education wasn’t enough: “There was no expectation. The system is built to contain you within what they believe is appropriate for you. It’s not built to give you hope or self-belief. It’s built to give you a basic education that then feeds into a certain pool of jobs and a certain place within a business. That, for me, is tragic.”
Fulfilling the dream
Sherif realised that to fulfil his dream of working in finance, he would have to teach himself. He left school early and went to college and from there to the City of London. He eschewed university as he and his family couldn’t bear the financial burden. Sometimes money was so tight that Sherif became a blood donor “because I knew I’d get some cookies.”
Being from an ethnic background and having no qualifications, the cards appeared to be stacked against him at LIFFE, where most of his peers were white, Oxbridge-educated males. They even told him to change the way he spoke. One of his first tasks was to do the McDonald’s run for 20 of his colleagues. He had to memorise each order and make sure it was given to the right person – he passed the test.
Six weeks later, Sherif sat his exams to become a qualified broker – it usually takes six months to reach that stage. By the age of 20 he’d become the most professionally-qualified in the business and, at 21 was made a partner.
He puts his success down to character. “This was a very aggressive environment,” Sherif explains. “I knew I couldn’t compete on brains or education, so I had to use my character. The big banks were phoning me to take orders, saying, ‘we only want to deal with Sezer.’ So, I realised my strengths, I played to them, and I progressed.”
Diverse workforce outperforms
“That mentality has to change,” Sherif argues. “Diversity is important, and as a small company led from the top down, it is easy for us to adopt. Why? As its leader, I understand that, statistically, that a diverse culture and group of individuals are going to outperform. It gives us all the things that I love, which is innovation, problem-solving skills and understanding of our clients who are diverse by culture and also class.”
He believes change is coming slowly but driving it depends on embedding the right culture that is led from the top down. His priority, as CEO of Vector Capital Group, is promoting the business’ brand and culture. This means, for example, “where we get great candidates with excellent qualifications who, on paper, could make us a fortune but, if they don’t understand and share our culture, that’s a red flag. They will steer us in the wrong direction, and ethics and integrity are so vital to me.
“Everyone in our business gets along so well because we’re different in character, but our integrities and ethics are all aligned. When you have that alignment, your profits grow regardless.”
Sezer Sherif admits, ruefully, that while his company may be diverse, it has struggled to attract women. “We have women working for us externally, in social media marketing and PR, but they’re not in our business daily, and that’s something we want to change,” he says.
“We have to look at our adverts and what we can do to encourage women to apply for roles with us, especially in senior positions. Half of our clients are women, so it’s important to be a balanced business.”
A key aim of the company is levelling the financial playing field to enable ordinary people to make money in the way that the banks and super-wealthy have always done. Vector Capital Group takes a similar approach to corporate social responsibility. Its CSR includes mentoring underprivileged children and supporting the homeless. There are plans to hire via the Kickstart programme to give people who wouldn’t normally get the chance to work in the financial sector.
Don’t fear change
Looking to the year ahead, Sezer Sherif is confident that the business is in a healthy position as it responded to the coronavirus pandemic by expanding its product portfolio into real estate. It is now in the process of listing on the London Stock Exchange.
He says: “We paired up with two strong real estate developers to create new opportunities. We reinvested into the business, we found better talent, and we’re hiring; we didn’t lay off anyone or turn to the Government for support. We’ve grown from strength to strength and, because we started the year on a stronger footing, it’s going to give us, as the market bounces back, the ability to capitalise on it a lot more.”
In Sezer Sherif’s view, the diversity that has been instrumental in helping the business flourish is “social class diversity and, in particular, the guys who have come from tough backgrounds with me.”
His advice to other businesses is not to be afraid of change. “We will continue to grow because of our diversity in social class and culture and sex,” he stresses. “The sooner you start, the easier it gets, and it has to be led from the top down.”