Why I ditched my lucrative Asian investment banking job to help struggling school kids

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When bankers in Asia quit banking jobs they tend to flock to family offices or other less stressful parts of the finance sector. Or they pursue their passions – from Pilates studios to music schools – by setting up small businesses.

They don’t, as a rule, become employees of non-profit organisations. So what made Shie Haur ditch his high-flying investment banking career at CIMB, Southeast Asia’s fifth largest bank, after just five years to join Teach for Malaysia, a charity focused on improving standards in that country's most needy schools? Haur tells us about his unusual career path – from a credit-card call centre to the charity sector, via investment banking.

Why did you get a graduate job in banking? Why not go straight into a non-profit?

I joined CIMB’s management training programme in 2008 because like most people in my cohort at university there were two options if you didn’t really know what to do in your early career: investment banking or consulting. Banking was a way of safeguarding myself – it would give me great skills while I waited for something else to come along. Even as a student I knew that eventually I wanted a job that would make a social impact.

What was it like working in investment banking?

Strangely, my one-year rotational traineeship included two months in CIMB’s credit-card call centre. We were taking calls 9 to 5 and were timed when we went to the washroom! We were the first trainee group to work there and the last, after the feedback we gave. But then I was really lucky – I got a job in a small in-house private equity team that invested the investment bank’s own money. It’s really unusual to get a PE-related role so early. It was high stress but a huge opportunity as I had to present to the leadership and defend the deals we were making. It gave me modelling skills and soft skills, especially the ability to work well with senior people externally, within the companies we invested in.

Did you get involved in any charity work while at CIMB?

During my first year CIMB invited all employees to submit ideas for new corporate social responsibility programmes. In Malaysia there are lots of non-governmental organisations seeking public donations but it can be difficult for the public to tell whether they’re legitimate or not. So I suggested that we use our online bank as a donation platform – letting customers give money to NGOs vetted by the bank, so it’s easy to donate and you know the NGOs can be trusted. My idea became the “CIMB Cares” platform – it just shows that even a junior employee can make a difference within an organisation of 40,000 people.

So why leave banking when you’re building a successful career and contributing to CSR?

I was happily putting in extra hours to get people to buy into my donation-platform project. But while I was also performing well in my day job, my motivations for doing the work weren’t as compelling. The project made it even more clear that I wanted to make a social impact and in 2011 I took four months out to work at a new NGO, Teach for Malaysia, setting up its finance function. I was inspired by the commitment and collective purpose of the people there and it was hard going back to banking, where personal success is more important. If you’re working 14-hour days just to buy a bit of happiness at the weekend, is that really a good use of time? I still work quite long hours but now I really enjoy my work.

You then joined Teach for Malaysia full-time as director of strategy and operations. What’s the main career challenge you’ve faced there?

Investment banking helped me with organising the financial side of Teach for Malaysia, because this requires skills like financial modelling. But aside from the confidence that I built up in banking, there was almost zero transfer of soft skills. Leadership in banking is more generic – you can motivate people to work harder with money and career progression. The main leadership challenge in a non-profit is motivating staff – you can’t simply use money or better job titles. You rely on intrinsic motivations, getting people to buy into your strategic vision.

What is that vision?

Everyone agrees on the overall vision – addressing inequalities in school standards by attracting the best and brightest professionals to work on two-year fellowships in a high-need Malaysian schools. But we also need to assess how we’re going about improving the school system – that’s why, for example, I organize an annual strategic planning meeting to make sure we’re fulfilling our vision as best we can.

Who do you work with in your strategy team?

Along with permanent staff, we’ve been bringing in a few people from firms like PwC and Accenture on secondment. Our founders were from Accenture, so it’s been easy to collaborate with consultants – they come in when we have a particular problem to solve. Outside people help to challenge you, especially when there’s no bottom line.

What about bankers?

Credit Suisse staff provide great support via the Teach for All global initiative. But generally I think consultants can help us more than bankers as they have more downtime between projects and their skills are more generic and more focused on problem solving. On my full-time staff I’ve only ever had one ex-banker and I haven’t come across many bankers interested in moving to non-profits.

Is that because they don’t want to take a pay cut?

Probably yes. I do see a trend of people leaving banking in Asia, but they mainly want to set up their own businesses. For me, I’m obviously paid less than at CIMB, but I’m certainly not underpaid here. While sometimes I miss the money, ultimately it’s how much you save, not how much you earn. I can still put aside enough money and use my finance skills to make sure I make good investments.

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