Ismail Ahmed & Edith Cooper: Innovators in Economics

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For this year's Black History Month we're focussing on the lesser-told stories of prominent Black figures in the history of finance. We've already shared the history of Black economist Abram Lincoln Harris, and now we'd like to share the stories of two more innovators who took new approaches to business but aren't often celebrated.

Ismail Ahmed - Founder & Non-Executive Chairman of World Remit

Portrait photo of Ismail Ahmed

Ismail Ahmed was born and raised in Somaliland. When war began in 1988 he was smuggled out in the back of a truck and moved to the UK, a journey which took him over a month. After arriving in the UK Ahmed worked a series of jobs, including strawberry picking so he could send money to help out his family who, at the time, where living in a refugee camp in Ethiopia.

While sending money back to his family he encountered several issues including extortionate fees and the long transfer times which could take months to complete. This is when the idea for a money transfer service began to form.

Fast forward to the early 2000s, Ahmed was working for the United Nations Remittance Programme where he was making sure money transfer companies were complying with Anti Money Laundering Rules. Whilst working for the UN, he blew the whistle after uncovering corruption in their Development Programme for Somalia and ultimately lost his job. He was eventually compensated to the tune of £200,000 for being unfairly treated.

During his time at the UN, Ahmed was also studying for a MBA from London Business School. Using his knowledge from this and his compensation, he set up World Remit in 2010. World Remit has revolutionised the way that money is transferred, especially in Africa. It's made it possible for people in underdeveloped countries to easily receive money from family or friends in developed countries, for instance payments can be made directly to a mobile phone.

Today, World Remit employs over 700 people across 6 continents, has over 4 million customers worldwide and is expected to soon reach a valuation of $1 billion.

Ahmed's dedication to changing the face of remittance services around the world which earned him the title of "Britain's Most Influential Black Person" on the 2020 Powerlist. He's a true innovator who has used his own experiences to positively impact the lives of millions of people around the world.

Edith Cooper

Portrait photo of Edith Cooper

Edith Cooper was named on Black Enterprises 2017 "300 Most Powerful Executives in Corporate America" list and was recognised by Crain's New York Business as one of the "Most Powerful Women". And not without reason.

Originally Edith Cooper had more modest dreams of opening her own boutique, albeit on Madison Avenue. To help her achieve this she decided to study Business at Harvard before studying at Northwestern University in the evenings whilst working as a First Scholar at First Chicago. Dreams of Madison Avenue put aside, Cooper went on to climb the ranks in the financial world before joining the Security Division at Goldman Sachs. She would stay at the company for nearly 25 years.

Cooper eventually became the Global Head of Human Capital at Goldman Sachs, making her the first Black woman to serve on their management and partnerships committees, and one of just 2.6% Black executives at the firm.

During her time at Goldman Sachs, she completely transformed their hiring process, setting out to achieve diversity at every level of the firm. Her main area of focus was to create a culture “in which each individual's full talents, unique backgrounds, and distinctive perspectives can contribute to the personal and professional growth and to the continued progress of our clients, our shareholders and our communities.”

Cooper has frequently spoken candidly about her experiences as a Black woman in the financial industry having often faced questions such as "What country are you from?" and "Did you really go to Harvard? How did you get in?" to being asked to serve the coffee at a client meeting she was in fact chairing, and being mistaken as the cloakroom assistant at a school event. She's also mentioned that on the other other hand she's been told she isn't "black black" because of how successful she has been and where she lives. Cooper has also spoken of being the only Black person in a room, and the only person who'd had to share their credentials.

Understandably, this took its toll on Cooper but after some reflection and a comment from her husband - "the good news is, they'll never forget you!" - she chose to turn the "obstacles into opportunities" and focus on making an impact at work instead of focusing on the perception of others.

Edith Cooper has since left Goldman Sachs and now sits on the board of a number of companies which align with her own values, including Slack and Etsy. She has recently created "Medley" with her daughter, a career development platform designed to make coaching that's normally reserved for executives, available to people earlier on in their careers.

Ismail and Edith are trailblazers in their achievements in Finance - they built businesses and sought to actively change their environments in the support of Black people.