By establishing a members-only investment club for women in Dubai, Zoë Cousens is now promoting financial literacy on a scale seldom seen before
In the aftermath of World War II, the Channel Islands were wrecked. It had faced the brunt of German occupation for much of the war and most of its businesses were squashed. The inhabitants of one of the islands, Guernsey, though can be singled out as a particularly resilient lot.
In the Fifties and early Sixties, this small island – no larger than 25 square miles – located just off the coast of Normandy, quickly developed two major industries – tourism and tomatoes. But by the early Seventies change was afoot. “The tomato industry was overtaken by the Canary Islands and the tourism industry was overtaken by cheap holidays to Spain from the UK. That was unfortunate for Guernsey but the island has always been innovative in what it does,” says Zoë Cousens who was born in Guernsey in the Sixties and would be the generation that would develop a multi-billion-dollar business which would replace tourism and tomatoes – the financial services industry.
Cousens has spent over 30 years in the finance industry, but it wasn’t her first choice. “My real love is languages, so that’s what I studied when I went to college. But in the Seventies, there weren’t many opportunities to work with languages. I was told that I would either be a teacher or an interpreter in Brussels – headquarters of the EU (which had just formed). I didn’t want to be either and so I gave up that idea and went to work in London. I was a young girl on an adventure.”
In the early Eighties, Guernsey was beginning to establish itself as a major offshore financial centre. Cousens returned to the island and found a job with a stockbroker, but was quickly deputed to the London Stock Exchange. She started at the very bottom of the rung, as what was known as a Blue Button – a trainee dealer. Explaining how a trade was done in her era, she says, “In those days, we used to sit in rooms called boxes with walls of telephones. The stockbroker sitting in his office would speak to his client who may want to buy a certain share and they would call that through to the box. The person at that box – me, the trainee dealer – would go up to the stock exchange floor, and I would literally run around the jobbers – the guys making the price. You couldn’t say whether you were buying or selling because you couldn’t give the game away. I would go around the jobbers finding the best price. Then I’d go back down to the box, ring the broker, and he would then ring the client and discuss with his client whether he wanted to buy at the price I had got. They would then call me back and I would go back up to the floor, to the jobber who made the best price. Because I was a junior I couldn’t strike the trade, so one of the brokers would have to come with me to place the deal.”
She’s still held on to her Blue Button to this day. Cousens has seen this process that would typically last a few hours to strike a single deal being reduced to a couple of nanoseconds today. Her time at LSE was interesting because it was also a time when she was one of the first women on the City’s stock exchange. She didn’t see herself being part of a male-dominated institution as something of a revolution, but rather a job that required her to work in an environment predominantly filled with men. “I don’t really recall, in those days, there being such an awareness of the women’s ‘glass ceiling’. These kinds of phrases hadn’t been invented. I wasn’t ever aware of it. It was very interesting being one of the first women down there. I thought that some of the older guys who were there would be slightly resentful, but that wasn’t the case at all. I think they were delighted to see some women on the exchange floor.”
Cousens quickly worked her way up the ranks. She spent the next decade at a London-based investment house where she would run portfolios for high-net-worth clients and served as a fund analyst as well. Before she could strike out on her own, Cousens took some time out to study. “I took a year out to broaden my financial knowledge on topics other than investments like pensions, regulations, protection, and insurance.” On completing her course, she set up her consultancy in Guernsey. “I began to provide investment oversight consultancy service for clients who are typically trust companies or families that have portfolios. I oversee the investment managers – checking that they are meeting the objectives, that the charging structure is appropriate and that the risk profile is relevant.”
While in Guernsey, she also set up a service that provided financial planning for women. “A lot of women were coming to me because women like talking to women about financial matters, if they can. So, it just made sense to help women with financial planning.” Guernsey has got bad press recently, with terms like “offshore” becoming a word weaponized and wielded to demonstrate wrongdoing, rather than a smart business move which is completely legal. “The sensationalist reporting appears deliberately designed to undermine the legitimate business acts of offshore centres, attempting to portray it as a lack of transparency. But in most cases, such as Guernsey, that is simply not true. Privacy and valuing client confidentiality should not be conflated with secrecy. Strong regulation ensures higher service standards and protection for consumers together with a mechanism to reinforce anti-money laundering and anti-terror financing. In fact, offshore centres such as Guernsey act as a tax-neutral facilitator of global investment into the UK, Europe and global economies,” says Cousens.
In 2015, on the brink of entering her third decade in the financial services sector, she made a radical decision to move and set up her business – Castellet Consulting – in Dubai. “Women in business are extremely well supported here in Dubai. It’s wonderful to see, for example, Sheikh Mohammed’s government has got such a high number of women. I think through his leadership that that feeds through to the other industries here, particularly the finance industry. There’s a very strong ease of doing business in Dubai as well.”
More recently, Cousens has embarked on another pet project that focusses on promoting financial literacy among women. She’s established the Women’s Investment Network (WIN) here in Dubai. “WIN is a members-only club. Our aim is to help and inspire women to become financially knowledgeable and independent. By sharing expert knowledge, we promote financial literacy and money-management skills. We are establishing a community of like-minded women who wish to come together in an informal setting to learn more about financial matters,” says Cousens. The club will conduct presentations and investment workshops geared towards offering members an insight into the world of personal wealth management. For a woman who’s spent over three decades perfecting what she’s teaching, we’re all ears.