Weaponizing Women's Rejection to Harm Us

Weaponizing Women's Rejection to Harm Us

Seven years ago, I was pregnant with my last baby and facing some serious life changes.  I had been living in Lagos, Nigeria for the past 6 years having moved from New York City where I was an investment banker with Lehman Brothers.  I had met my now-husband and essentially followed him home (we are both from Nigeria) in 2008 and got married the following year.

Even though I had had 3 children in what felt like quick succession, I was resolute to maintain my career trajectory because I've always been ambitious and, at the time, I was stuck on this notion that what your business card read was how you were defined as a professional.

I reached out to a few friends wanting a new role that was not in investment banking but on the "buy side", which is essentially to work as an investor.  I wasn't attracted to early-stage investments and thought that my background as a financier and entrepreneur would be really well-suited to a career in private equity (PE). 

For those who don't know the distinction, venture capital (VC) is largely focused on investing in early-stage companies and these types of investments are highly risky.  PE investors (often called growth capital), by contrast, tend to invest in later-stage companies that have proven their business models and are well past the "product/market fit stage."  This asset class tends to invest in more mature companies that have positive cashflow while their VC peers are better known for making pre-profit-stage bets.  The lines are blurring these days with multi-stage investment firms, but I wanted to give a quick and dirty primer.

I digress though.

Long story short, through my best friend from college, I was introduced to a senior executive of an Asian Sovereign Wealth Fund that we will call "SWF."  Sovereign Wealth Funds are investment pools that utilize a particular government's financial resources to act like a VC and PE investment company.  This SWF was actively investing in Africa and I was really excited to explore the opportunity to lead their efforts to invest in African businesses.

One minor detail though, I was pregnant.  

If you know anything about pregnancy, it's not a lifelong condition.  It generally takes 40 weeks (give or take) and then many women opt for maternity leave and then they carry on with life.  This was my third pregnancy so I kind of felt like I had it handled.  My first set of interviews were on the phone and I didn’t quite know how to broach the fact that I was with child and you never know when is too early or too late to share this information.  As our conversations progressed, I became more and more interested in the role and realized that I would need to meet a series of the team members in London, where the role was based. 

I had lived in London before and the idea of relocating my family there was exciting to me.  I wanted a change in my career and my surrounding environment, and this felt like a great way to do that with an amazing job to boot.  At my own expense, I flew to London for a series of interviews/discussions.  That’s how serious I was about this role.  When I showed up to their swanky offices, with my large and rotund belly, there wasn’t much to explain at that point.  I didn’t feel it was an issue because I was an incredibly experienced and credentialed finance executive with a solid track record, who just happened to be pregnant.

All of our conversations went well and a day or two after the baby was born, I was given the offer!  To say I was pleased was an understatement.  And then came the financial terms and facing the reality that I would be relocating myself and my children to London without my husband coming along.  He was knee deep in building his own entrepreneurial venture and it wasn’t a great time for him to move.  It turned out that though he lived most of his adult life in London, he hated the city! His reluctance to support the move coupled with what I thought was just an “ok” financial package started to make me think twice about the offer.  It didn’t help that I had literally just had a baby, so I was exhausted at doing the mental, emotional, and financial gymnastics.  I called my would-be boss and explained my struggles and he was very understanding and told me that he completely understood why I wouldn’t take the job and that he’d never recommend me splitting my family for work.  I was so relieved at his understanding and thanked him profusely for the opportunity and walked away from the experience saddened that it didn’t work out, but I moved forward. 

I assumed SWF did too.

To put this in context, I had advised this SWF before on a successful transaction so not only did, they know me from the interview process, but they had an idea of my professionalism.  I had brought them several deal opportunities since then as well. 

Fast forward about two years later and I am working on a transaction with one of the senior executives of SWF's portfolio company in my new role as regional head of investment banking for a pan-African banking group.  The client asks me to come to Mauritius to present to their board and executive management team, at their expense, about investing in West Africa.  Of course, I said yes.  It was my job to.  Not only was I looking forward to visiting Mauritius, who wouldn’t accept the opportunity to pitch your firm to the board of a large client? 

I told my team about the presentation and asked them to start working on the materials for the meeting.  We would wow them.

A week or so before the presentation, I got a nervous call from the managing director.  He was horrified and wanted to discuss something sensitive and confidential.  I assured him that he could feel free to tell me what was on his mind.  As a banker, you'd be surprised what confidential information we are privy to.  He said that he needed to disinvite me from the board presentation because two of the board members were uncomfortable with my presence.  I was silent and it was clear that he was embarrassed to be making this call.  Quite frankly, I was embarrassed to be receiving it.  Why don’t they want me there?  Then he asked if I had ever interviewed for a job with SWF and I said yes.  Well, it turns out that while I thought we had parted on good terms, we hadn’t.  My rejecting their job offer was such an affront to these two men (the would-be boss and another senior exec) that they would not and could not tolerate me showing up to their board meeting to present to them and their colleagues about what I actually do for a living ( and do well.)

I thanked the managing director for his candid feedback and flew to Mauritius anyway to attend the African Leadership Networks annual event and skipped the board meeting.

Why did I write this blogpost?

This morning, I was sent a notification on Clubhouse that one of the gentlemen who “cancelled” me had joined and I was asked if I wanted to connect with him.  I smiled and wondered if he was still in the business of weaponizing his privilege to destroy prospects for women executives who turn him down. 

One day I will ask him.

Thanks for reading.


aisha xx


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