Clara Durodie - CEO of Cognitive Finance Group

Clara Durodié is a business technologist with Board level experience in wealth and asset management and an expert in applied artificial intelligence in financial services. In 2017 Clara was named on The Powerlist Women in Fintech (globally) for the second year in a row; Clara is an internationally recognised speaker more recently invited as an expert on applied A.I. in financial services by the World Economic Forum; Clara is the CEO of Cognitive Finance Group, a consultancy and investment company specialised in applied A.I. in financial services for the correct adoption, selection and implementation of A.I. systems. Clara is also mentoring at leading incubators and advises Fintech start-ups on go to market strategy and partnerships.

Before establishing Cognitive Finance Group, Clara had started scoping the research for her PhD which sits at the intersection of neuroscience, artificial intelligence and wealth management and looks at how episodic memory informs how people save and invest. Clara is a member of the Chartered Institute for Securities and Investment in London UK, has a Certificate in Investment Management and holds a Master’s degree from the University of Oxford.

How did you get where you are today and what, or who has been your greatest influence in business?

Knowing when to say yes to opportunities is science more than anything else. But what isn’t science, is the ability to know what is your calling. When I was 12, I knew that I wanted to run my business so I wrote my first business plan explaining how my business would make the profit. At 21, I turned down a few job offers with global corporates, to start my own firm and lead a team of 8 electrical engineers at a time when being an entrepreneur wasn’t the flavour of the month. My early inspiration was my family.

My grandparents owned successful businesses in the 1910s -1930s and I used to hear those great stories during family meals. My father would always encourage me to dream big and know that nothing can stop me from achieving what I wanted. He would never raise gender as an issue. My father would always encourage me to learn how to fix things around the house, how to use a hammer or an Allen key. Taking up helicopter flying lessons and boxing lessons have always been rated as normal in my family.

So, I grew up always thinking that gender cannot be a stumbling block in my life’s direction. I have also been exceptionally lucky to have strong female roles models in my family: my mother and grandmothers. All strong, courageous, classy and sassy women with articulated vision and determination. They built their own path by running a business, going to war or building a career in the medical field. This is the set-up of my early life. It shaped how I identified and build my own dreams, it formed my thinking and my general vision of life. However, the long-lasting influence has been the people close to me, the company I keep.

I have always been drawn to work with people who are smarter than me, people who inspire me and whom I respect. It keeps one humble. Humility keeps a leader in check and is never in over-supply. In Cognitive Finance Group, the company I founded in 2016, I am grateful to the very special people I work with, people I deeply admire and respect and learn from every day.

Collectively, they are my greatest influence in my business life: Michael is my daily inspiration to do better and be better, Kay is my source of sustainable vision, Ryan is my rock for clarity of thinking, Steve is my trusted ‘eyes’ for all things AI, Alex is my reliable support for tactical approach, Mike is my constant for business focus and wisdom, Greg is my compass of intelligence in wealth management, Tristan is my platform to navigate machine learning and philosophy with British humour, Natalino is my reason behind diving deeper into data science Italian style, Sabine is my motivation to inquire deeper and with German precision into Boards, Jay is my incentive to connect data science and social impact with South African crispness.

What is the driving force behind your career goals/ aspirations?

The driving force behind my aspirations is my genuine interest in applied artificial intelligence to solve real-life problems for financial services and to help executives make the best decisions when selecting and implementing these systems. I possibly have the best job in the world: working on complex problems with incredibly intelligent people.

Have you ever made a business decision you’ve regretted, and can you share it? And, what is your greatest professional achievement to date?

I believe in giving the young generation a seat on the Board. I am millennials’ greatest supporter. In 2017, I have a mid 20s professional a seat on the Board of Directors. He disappointed me because his professional maturity wasn’t there yet. It was a great lesson for me.

My greatest professional achievement is setting up Cognitive Finance Group with a clear agenda to drive the correct adoption of artificial intelligence (A.I.) in financial services. This means that we provide impartial advice on the selection and adoption of A.I. systems.

We have already started to see positive results of our work. Our advice has already had a favourable and substantial impact at the Board level and executive teams in how they think about and adopt A.I. Our work challenges openly the traditional consultancy model which typically has a vested interest in the procurement stage. In simple terms, it works this way: the consultant advises the client to do X and recommends that the client buys Y system. Every time the client buys Y, the consultant gets a commission. So the consultant has vested interest to keep recommending a certain system. Therefore, their advice is not impartial.

Cognitive Finance Group’s model is that our advice is impartial. We recommend systems only on merit and never charge a commission. That’s the measure of our commitment to our clients. In a world inundated with AI hype, the Boards need a trusted and impartial adviser on what they need to buy for their organisations. We are that trusted and impartial adviser.

What do you do to keep evolving your career, to ensure a fulfilling and successful longevity?

I read a lot. I have always loved reading and thinking about thinking. The knowledge which I acquire helps me drive my business further. I also enjoy sharing my knowledge through my public speaking engagements. I am hugely excited to see those ‘Aha!’ moments in my audience. I like conveying complex problems in simple terms.

Big words don’t always signal intelligence. Simple terms are only possible with mastery of a subject. Knowledge and intelligence will allow take me where I need to be in my career. Working in a fast-changing environment like technology, staying up to date is the meaning of staying relevant.

How do you achieve a balanced life and what activities do you participate in outside of your working life, that you see contributing to your business success?

It’s catch 22: a clear mind resides in a healthy body. A healthy body is controlled by a clear mind. I aim to live a balanced life, meaning I don’t entertain excesses. I root my internal peace in meditation and daily physical exercise and stable relationships with my business partners and associates. My internal peace secures clarity of thinking which is my prime focus in my business. My family is also a key contributor to my business success.

Do you mentor others? What have you learnt in the process?

I mentor younger generation. It’s our duty to share with them the lessons we have learned and to help them further their journey. I am a mentor for a couple of fintech incubators. However, my longest mentorship has been that of my 19-year-old son, Alexander. I have always been interested in intelligence (human and artificial) and my son is my first ‘experiment’ in building human intelligence. Ultimately, this is what defines a mentor’s job. Alex’s successes are also a measure of my mentorship.

My son has also been my best teacher. Through him, I learned a lot about myself, about my strengths and weaknesses. More importantly, I learned how to be comfortable with those weaknesses which I cannot transform into strengths. That is the meaning of being comfortable with who I am. This is a great lesson because of its simplicity. When you are genuinely comfortable with who you are, you stop trying to be someone else and start being you. That is an exercise in honesty. Honesty attracts Trust.

What advice would you give to young women who want to succeed in the workplace and what do you see as the biggest challenge for future generations of business women?

Now it’s a great time to be a young woman. My advice is:

Fight complacency
Do not ever take for granted what women have achieved so far. Let’s not forget that only 45 years ago Portugal recognised women’s right to vote! I was in Australia in 2017, when this young American woman told me that “this gender thing is redundant. Women have it all now and what’s the point of women only panels.”

Strive for balance
The world is a better place when women and men work together and respect each other. Respect comes from class, strength and warmth. Strive to act in such a way which calls for respect.

Encourage chivalry
Men know that we can open doors, fly airplanes and do everything else which they are able to do. Chivalry is about being a true gentleman. This is a sign of respect men show us. Let’s encourage it.

Stay classy
Etiquette tells us that certain circumstances require certain manners and clothes. Being classy is precisely about recognising that match. It commands respect.

What’s the best piece of advice you have received as a woman in a leadership role that you would pass on to others hoping to get there?

I was in Oxford during my master’s degree. I asked the same question during a “Women in Business” session. The guest speaker was Dame Stephanie Shirley, a British businesswoman, Jewish child refugee in the 1940s who became a successful technology entrepreneur. She said that “leadership is about projecting strength and warmth”. It sounds like trying to mix water and oil, though. Strength is one’s ability to make things happen with abilities, knowledge of subject matter and force of will. Warmth is the sense that a person shares our feelings, interests and view of the world.

The most difficult thing about strength and warmth is that it’s very challenging to project them at the same time. Projecting them at the same time is considered the magic ingredient of those who have gravitas and command respect, two attributes which are essential in a leader.

My addition to this great advice is to make Trust the foundation on which you build your trust, strength and warmth. And it is not difficult to make Trust the core of your leadership.

"More importantly, I learned how to be comfortable with those weaknesses which I cannot transform into strengths. That is the meaning of being comfortable with who I am."
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