Alumni newsletter - Leading by example
For any would-be corporate lawyer, Ferheen Mahomed's CV is a blueprint for success – taking her on a journey from university to Slaughter and May, as well as some of the most groundbreaking deals in Asia.
In her current position as Group General Counsel for the Hong Kong Exchanges (HKEX), Ferheen has been instrumental in opening a gateway to China for international investors, via the Connect platforms.
To simply view this Hong Kong native as one of the territory's legal elite would be doing her a huge disservice. Instead, much of her life has been defined by a single-minded determination to rise above a childhood as an under-privileged minority.
"I'm a fourth generation Hong Kong native," she explains, "but of Indian race, so having an arranged marriage was very much expected. My older sister and I had other ideas though and wanted to be the first ones to go to university instead."
While Ferheen's parents were supportive of her wish to be the first in her family to study law, they could do little to further such a plan. She was forced to give up a scholarship to read law at St. Hughs College, Oxford, as the scholarship did not cover living expenses. My relatives made it clear they were not prepared to loan me the money to study in a far-flung place. "I swore then and there that I never wanted to worry about money or to rely on others for it," she says.
The road to independence
By 12, she was already tutoring younger students, combining this with regular participation in moots. Success and travel in the Commonwealth and Jessup competitions was to follow, but Ferheen knew that, ultimately, realising her dream to take a place at the University of Oxford would rest solely with her.
She undertook five jobs during her law degree at Hong Kong University and saved up HK$100,000 (£10,000) in order to fund a Masters, having missed the opportunity to read law at Oxford. In the end, she was awarded the Rhodes scholarship, so didn't have to use it – but in any case, she was ready.
She pursued the Bachelor of Civil law at St. John’s College, Oxford for two years and then returned to Hong Kong to article with Baker McKenzie before joining Slaughter and May. Soon after, she became the first London secondee from the Hong Kong office, on an 18-month placement.
Ferheen departed six years later. She got a job with Société Générale (SocGen), as an investment banker in Singapore, as she and her partner wanted to relocate to Malaysia. She felt an investment banking career covering the region would suit her wheeling and dealing personality.
"My training at Slaughter and May was amazing because of the firm’s multi-specialist approach – I was able to work on regulatory investigations, corporate finance, banking and derivatives," she says. "It was truly an all-round and very challenging experience, and I can safely say that my time at the firm was instrumental in teaching me to navigate any challenges that I faced."
In spite of the geography, the friendships Ferheen formed during those days have gone from strength to strength. Former partner, Miranda Leung is her best friend and guardian to her children, while another former partner, Richard Thornhill is the chairman of one of HKEX boards – LME Clear.
The Asian Crises struck two years into her investment banking career and deals dried up. Restructuring and close outs were the name of the game. SocGen asked her to move to Hong Kong and take on the role of APAC General Counsel. Her first task was working on SocGen’s Gitics exposure in China. With exposures managed and the market starting to recover in Asia by 2000, she worked with the front office closely in building SocGen’s derivative platform in Asia.
After 14 years at SocGen, she wanted a more global exposure and moved to become global GC for CLSA, a Crédit Agricole owned domestic broker with global presence. Ferheen was instrumental in helping Crédit Agricole sell CLSA to Citics, which called for regulatory approvals from 22 countries, so a Chinese brokerage could acquire control. "I cannot begin to explain the politics and complexities involved for a Chinese enterprise to get approvals from so many regulators, the approval process alone took almost two years,” she says.
Subsequent to the acquisition and integration, she was offered a GC role at a Hong Kong family office which had global interests spanning property, insurance, telecoms, asset management, private equity, fintech and beyond. "It was like nothing I had ever done. It was 24/7, very challenging and novel – where the impossible was possible," she recalls.
Having been headhunted once again, Ferheen is now at HKEX. "Being local and being passionate about the future of Hong Kong, I felt this was a good move for me. The role allows me to work towards ensuring that Hong Kong keeps its financial and market competitiveness, China sees our significance and ultimately we can mutually benefit. My vision is for Hong Kong to be ‘the Switzerland' of China."
She continues: "It is inevitable that China will become the global player – as it advances and progress surpasses any country with its drive and population. From a markets perspective, China wants orderly and transparent foreign investment at a pace that can be controlled. The Connect schemes are the centerpiece, with Hong Kong providing the platform to connect China to the world from a financial markets perspective – and vice versa.
Making it count
With such a pedigree, it's little wonder that Ferheen was invited to join the board of the Asian University for Women (AUW). She says: "This was a first for me. I've never really been very socially conscious or interested in NGOs. However, AUW attracted me because, 30 years on, women are still being deprived of education by their own families and communities.
"I feel strongly that the way for any underprivileged group to rise, is through education and financial independence. Only then can we free people from the shackles of poverty and abuse. The recipe is simple, the execution gruelling and the outcome exhilarating.
I am a living example of this and thank my lucky stars every day that I can be my own woman with total and complete financial independence. I want all girls to know it is possible and I want people to understand why funding women to have a safe education in an all-girls university is so rewarding."
When it comes to the workplace too, Ferheen believes there is still much to do in the realm of race and sex discrimination. "I feel discrimination stems from lack of knowledge of the target and not always hostility," she says. "We need to take an approach which is less aggressive, more compassionate and a sense of humour always helps. I believe in achieving true equality for all, beyond just gender."
So would a move back to London ever be on the cards?
"Things are very different in London. I love visiting, but I love working in Hong Kong," she says. "Why? Because it is fast-paced, with a serious can-do attitude and the hunger for wealth and achievement is staggering."
She continues: "I would be keen to move to India, however. It would be very rewarding to have the opportunity to know and understand my country and be able to contribute whatever I can. It is a country of contradiction and colours and it would be an amazing next chapter for me."