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Opening doors for women in finance

Photo of Sema Oguz Kirdar
Posted 2020-11-26
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Sema Oguz Kirdar has had an exemplary career in corporate investment banking, specializing in risk management and financial engineering in global capital markets. A strong advocate for her profession, Sema is encouraging more women to pursue a career in finance. 

Sema is a Managing Director in Corporate Risk for Wells Fargo & Company. Based in Charlotte, North Carolina with her family, she is the head of Enterprise Counterparty Risk Oversight and Architecture function in the Market and Counterparty Risk Management organization. She and her team are responsible for the identification, risk measurement and oversight of derivatives and securities trading activity conducted with the bank’s clients.  

“The exposure methodologies, data analytics, quantitative and qualitative factors are critical for timely determination of risk on a daily basis,” she explains. “We estimate the expected and maximum potential exposure we could lose in the event of a counterparty’s default. Once we identify and evaluate the set of critical information, we make decisions to effectively manage the risk we take with the bank’s counterparties on a daily basis and throughout varying market conditions.”  

A career spanning three countries

Sema’s globetrotting life story began in Istanbul, Turkey where she was born and raised. She moved to Canada with her family and pursued her undergraduate degree in Finance and Management Information Systems at Concordia University in Montreal. Upon graduation, she began working at the Montreal Exchange, where she was one of the few women working on the trading floor.  

Sema’s career took her back to Turkey where she joined the country’s top investment banking firm, working on mergers and acquisitions in the oil and gas sector, as well as private equity deals and initial public offerings in the region.  

“This was a remarkable work experience on an international scale,” she recalls. “I learned and travelled a lot in a short period of time. At the same time, I knew that I wanted to advance my education and enrol in a rigorous graduate degree in the field of quantitative finance.” 

Her research pointed her back to Canada – to UBC Sauder’s Master of Science (MSc) program in Finance. The research-oriented program is small and highly competitive. Students come from quantitative disciplines such as commerce, economics, mathematics, statistics, sciences and engineering. 

“I remember feeling doubtful if it was the right time to move again. I told myself and my family that I will apply to UBC’s MSc Finance program only and if I get accepted, then it is a sign that it is time to pack the bags once again.”

Sema on her first trip on B.C. Ferries, 1998

Sema on her first trip on B.C. Ferries in 1998.

Sema was accepted into the program – the only woman in her academic year. When she arrived in Vancouver in 1998, her new home for the next two years made an immediate and lasting impression. 

“It was an inspiring, diverse and intellectually challenging environment to live and learn in. I met great friends, some for life, and I had the opportunity to learn from the best professors in the field. I hope my two girls will get to experience a similar environment when the time comes.”

Navigating the highs and lows of global capital markets

Upon graduation, Sema was introduced by her most admired professor and advisor, Ron Giammarino, to David Downie (PhD, 1994), who had graduated from UBC’s MSc Finance program in 1988 and worked in risk management at Royal Bank of Canada. Sema was hired to work in RBC’s market risk management group in Toronto. After four years, she made the jump to New York, one of the world’s largest financial centres. 

Sema with her family in New York City in front of her office building in 2015 and during a Thanksgiving trip to Washington, DC in 2019. 

Sema with her family in New York City in front of her office building in 2015 and during a Thanksgiving trip to Washington, DC in 2019. 

She joined UBS in 2004 and worked first in the model validation group in the investment banking arm. During her time with the Swiss bank, she took on several front office risk management roles on the trading floors in New York and Stamford, Connecticut before moving to Wells Fargo in 2016.  

“I joined UBS at the time when the trading floor in Stamford was well known to be the largest and the most vibrant in the world. The energy and trading activity on the floor was unequaled.” 

Then came the 2008 financial crisis.  

“It was a harsh reality to live and work through over multiple years. There were some really difficult days with friends losing their jobs,” Sema recalls. “Besides the learnings on crisis management, it highlighted to me the importance of being a positive outlier during times of stress. It also demonstrated the value of seeing persistence as a differentiator in what you do.”

This year has presented unique challenges and learnings as well, driven by the COVID-19 crisis. At work, Sema and her team have adapted to working from home while managing the risk portfolio across stressed market conditions and leading through uncertainty. She and her husband have also adopted a remote learning setting for their two daughters.  

“There was no preparing for this pandemic crisis. In the wake of uncertainty, it is most critical to remain calm, be open minded, listen, learn and use all the information available at your disposable to make the best decisions you can.”   

Inspiring the next generation of women in finance

Sema has been a role model and mentor for many along the way and recently volunteered with UBC Sauder’s CUS (Commerce Undergraduate Society) Sustainability Business Competition. Over Zoom, she met with a team of four BCom students and helped them polish their presentation for the final round of competition.  

Through these mentorship moments, Sema hopes to share her knowledge and passion for the world of global banking, including the highly specialized field of risk management and financial engineering. 

“To this day I am grateful for my experience in the MSc. Finance program and the doors it has opened for me.  I look forward to mentoring students and empowering more women to enter the dynamic and rewarding field of quantitative finance and risk management in banking.”

Inaugural winner of the RBC Graduate Entrance Scholarship for Women in Finance

Linwei Wu is in her first year of UBC Sauder’s MSc Finance program.

Linwei Wu is the first student to win a new scholarship supporting women to pursue UBC Sauder’s MSc degree in Finance. 

The RBC Graduate Entrance Scholarship for Women in Finance was created a year ago, awarding $25,000 annually to a top woman candidate. The award comes with an internship opportunity with RBC’s Group Risk Management team.

“I was very surprised when I found out I was awarded the RBC scholarship,” Linwei says. “It was unexpected and a huge honour.”

Before applying to UBC Sauder, Linwei worked in the financial sector in Shanghai and Hong Kong as an analyst and researcher. She is currently based in China and studying online with her cohort, but hopes to travel to Vancouver soon. 

“I find finance fascinating because it’s part science and part social science,” she says. “It’s ultimately about people. There is no formula that would be able to tell you what a stock price will be tomorrow – that depends on people. I find that interesting and challenging.”

Learn more about the entrance scholarship here .