Where are you from and what brought you to Rome over fifteen years ago?
Diana: Fifteen years. Wow. Yes, we graduated in 2002. I was in love with Rome and I really wanted to live there. I left home to come to Rome. I was at St. Stephens for two and a half years. Murat was in Rome, as his mom worked at FAO.
What are some of your fondest memories of St. Stephen’s at that time?
Diana: I had gone to many international schools, as my family traveled quite a lot. What I found really particular is that there really weren’t a lot of cliques at St. Stephens. Everyone was really cool. From the nerds, to the punks, the rich kids, the Parioli crew, whatever group you were in, the reality is that we all hung out together. We had a lot of fun. It was a really tight community. What truly drove your experience wasn’t your group; it was more about your year. It was like everyone was a popular kid and everyone was a cool kid. It was a beautiful community from that perspective. I don’t know where it comes from.
Murat: For me, I came from a different background. I was living in Texas before I moved to Rome. It was a stereotypical massive public school with over three thousand kids where you were just sort of a number. At St. Stephen’s, we were just thirty-five students for our year. It was a huge shock but in a good way. Everyone was at least bilingual and came from somewhere else, either from a different country, or a different school. Because of that, everyone was kind of their own character. As Diana said, no one was trying to be like anyone else. It was very individualistic. During those high school years you’re very vulnerable and self-conscious, so it was a great atmosphere to just be yourself.
In Texas we had these huge computer labs with hundreds of computers with all the latest gadgets. Then I come to Rome where there’s an old monastery and the heat isn’t working and everyone shares a bathroom. It was a big shock but great. In the end, I thank my parents for doing that to me. (laughter).
After you graduated from St. Stephens, what came next?
Murat: I went to university in Chicago to study math and physics and then I came to London to be with Diana, who had gone to Imperial College for civil engineering. So four years of long- distance…there was a lot of Internet.
Hello, that is a serious long-distance relationship. We’re not talking L.A. to San Francisco.
Diana: Yes, Chicago to London and Paris. It was pretty intense but we survived. Murat and I became a couple during the last year of high school. It’s been wonderful, wonderful growth ever since. We both started our careers together here in London working in the financial industry. Murat was at BNP and then Nomura. I went to Merrill Lynch and then to Barclays. At the time we started working in the industry, it was literally when the financial crisis hit. In many ways we were in the last boat of the good years. We were in a very particular situation and we didn’t get fired. On the contrary, our careers went quite well as we were more on the quantitative, analytical side because our backgrounds were more scientific. The crisis was obviously an intense period in the industry for everyone, but we learned a lot from surviving it and from staying in the industry for a few more years. We quickly realized from the experience that this was not the best career path long- term. So while we enjoyed and loved our time in the industry, I think that we knew we wanted to try something different eventually. We didn’t know when but we knew it would happen. By the time we started the company, we were both at a stage where we thought it was the right time to try to take that jump.
Your start-up, Suade, was featured in this year’s “FinTech 50” list of companies to watch and was recommended by the Bank of England as a solution to some of the banks’ issues with regulation. Did you always see yourself as an entrepreneur? You touched on this briefly in the previous question, but why did you decide to leave the world of steady paychecks?
Diana: For Murat and I, there are very different reasons.
Murat: For me it was more about I had stopped learning in the bank. After eight, nine years you kind of know how to do your job; it becomes somewhat mechanical. You come in, you do your job. You’re just collecting your paycheck. You don’t feel like you’re becoming a better person, not necessarily in an ethical sense, but you’re not improving, learning new things. There was a bit of ethical component where you see your friends getting fired, not because they’re bad employees but because the market has taken a turn. You see people losing their savings because of things like the Madoff fraud and trading scandals. It was more a decision to do something that I enjoyed doing. When I went on holiday, I was proud of telling people that I did something that I enjoyed.
I left nine months or a year before Diana did. I was doing some consulting work; helping people make investments, find investments, analyzing risks on investments, so trying out different things, real estate, private equity, and one of them was start-ups. I had clients who wanted to invest in start-ups but didn’t know how to value them or how to engage with them. I spent a lot time finding and researching start-ups, going to accelerators. Those years, 2014 to 2015, FinTech was becoming quite a thing in London and the Financial Technology boom was happening. I was spending a lot of time with the start-up community and I realized that none of them knew anything about banking. They were about disruption and getting rid of the financial industry, but I believe that banks will still be around for the next twenty years. What they do is fundamentally different from what a start-up can do. I told Diana we should do something that would help the industry, make it more cost-effective, more transparent, and better for the consumer. I met a lot of start-up CEOs and thought Diana would totally smoke them. She’s always had the spirit of leadership even at St. Stephens. When we met, we were paired up for the Treasure Hunt as the two seniors and Diana was the leader of our group. She has always been a leader. Well, she can tell you but I believe she was being held back at the bank.
Diana: The nice thing is that we both came to this conclusion simultaneously, that it would be a good time to work together. A lot of the work I was doing after the financial crisis was very regulatory- driven. We leveraged our experiences in the industry to start something. It was quite interesting. We do have these stories about kids dropping out of school to start companies, but statistically the entrepreneurs who are successful and can pay their bills from starting their company are older. The average age is thirty-one. They’ve gone through something where they have expertise. Quitting college and all that happens as well and, yes, there are the entrepreneurs who have started very young. However, if you do something for a few years and have expertise you can learn a lot and use that experience for innovation. Everyone thinks that they have to drop out of college to be successful, but not necessarily. Of course, if you know what you want to do, by all means do it, but people shouldn’t feel intimidated by the Facebook story or feel like they must leave university to make it happen. There are other ways to start a business. To me, what's more important is when you’re ready. That’s what matters.
Yes, I was somewhat of a rebellious spirit at the bank. I didn’t know what it meant to be a CEO, but many people alluded that I should do it or I should be the boss somewhere. It’s been quite interesting because for me the journey of entrepreneurship has been such a big process of self-discovery. You know, Murat has been also keen on learning and I have always been keen on business, getting results, getting stuff done. It’s been interesting to realize that a job where you’re the boss means you can get anything done however you want all the time. I absolutely love being the boss.
What skills sets do you believe are invaluable for entrepreneurs? We’ve touched on this a bit. Is there anything you wanted to add?
Diana: Absolute resilience.
Murat: You have to reevaluate yourself and the situation on a continuous basis. You have to be okay doing things you don’t know how to do. You can’t have any fear about doing something new. By definition you’re doing something new when it’s innovative, a start-up. You have to be aware it may not be perfect. It may fail. You have to recover and may need to tweak it and try again. You must have a certain amount of confidence in yourself that you will figure it out eventually. You will learn how to make it happen and you will succeed. You have to believe in yourself.
Given that Suade is based in London, will Brexit impact your company and your plans for expansion?
Diana: For us it will not, as we’re a company that is relatively established, sustainable, and profitable and we’re doing well. I think for other companies it might be a different story. Obviously, we are not thrilled about the situation, because we are quite European. I think it’s also a reality that maybe this is an opportunity for the rest of Europe to get talent back. For our business doesn’t really impact us but you need to have a certain level of resilience to be able to not see these kinds of things as a problem. There are problems everywhere. The US has its own problems now. It’s almost impossible to work in Italy. It’s like anywhere you feel is the right place for you, you will be, to find a way and execute. I wouldn’t worry about the politics of the world, because there will always be madness.
Can you tell us how Suade uses innovative technology to work with financial institutions regarding their regulatory calculations and reporting? In general terms, what does your company do?
Diana: We don’t do just reporting or calculation. A better way to describe what we do is that we take data and then format it for regulatory outputs, many different outputs. The reality with many of the services type industries is that they haven’t had much innovation in the last thirty years. A lot of enterprise software is very old school. Not just in financial services but across everything. For example, the way your bank takes your mortgage information, the way a doctor makes notes, etc.--the software available is very poor compared to what you get on your phone. It’s a reality that by applying approaches that are popular in other industries and bringing them to an industry that’s not doing the right things, you can do straightforward innovation.
Murat: There are hundreds of thousands of metrics that regulators monitor, things like the breakdown of customers, what is your credit risk, etc.
Diana: It's a lot more complex than just formatting.
Diana, you have said that one reason you embrace regulation is because of your experience at Merrill Lynch during the great financial crisis of 2008. Could you expand on this?
Diana: I felt so disappointed that it was possible for something like this to happen at all. What we’re trying to do with this company is more transparency, something that can change the industry for the better as a whole. Wherever you have dissatisfaction, it can create a lot of innovation.
Finance/banking/tech in general is a very male-dominated business. What do you say to women who are interested in this field but aren’t sure about the culture?
Diana: I would say screw the culture. I say do what you want to do. For women there’s a lot of pressure from society and things that could be better. There’s a reality as well that if you don’t care about that and you ignore a lot of it, then don’t see a lot of it. I think focus more on yourself than on what’s happening externally. You have to control what you can control. Things you cannot control, forget about them. If what you really want to do is, say, trading or whatever the hell it is, just do it and you’ll figure it out. Don’t victimize yourself.
Did you have mentors? Do you mentor? (Murat had to step away to take a call)
Diana: Yes. Yes, all the time.
What do you consider your greatest achievement so far?
Diana: I think you achieve great things all the time. As Murat mentioned, you have to feel confident that you’re doing your best. If you don’t feel that way, you need to sort that out. (laughter) If you’re doing your best, there’s not much more to it. Always being self-aware and happy and continuing to strive for betterment. Maybe my greatest achievement overall is really this approach of not stopping learning to improve oneself to become better and better. However, at the same time to be kind with yourself too. You need to be comfortable with the fact that you’re not perfect, with uncertainty, and with the way life actually works. Striving for perfection is good, but accepting that you will probably never get there isn’t a bad thing. It’s more about the journey rather than the destination that you need to enjoy.
Do you see yourself as a trailblazer? An influencer?
Diana: I don’t think we try to think about it like that. I think everyone has their own journey, which is really beautiful and contributes to make the world better. Most people are good, honest, and live their lives trying to do something that will matter for themselves, their children, and the world. It’s more about being as honest with yourself as possible. To continue striving for happiness and to continue to contribute in any way you can. It’s part of this journey that we have on this earth.
Has it been a straight path for you, or do you feel you have you been tested along the way to achieving the goals you’ve set for yourself? Can you talk about what some of those challenges have been and how you’ve surmounted them?
Diana: You’re tested all the time. It’s constant. Then you survive all the time. I think the satisfaction of just being part of the journey makes it worth everything. What‘s beautiful about entrepreneurship is that you come to this philosophy of learning fast and fading fast and you’re okay with whatever that means about glory. My father always said it’s not about the battle; it’s about the war that you’re trying to win.
It would be madness to think that it’s not challenging, but it’s also madness not to appreciate and realize that what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger and that these challenges teach you so much about yourself, about life, and about the kindness of people. The best things in our life come out of a challenge. If they did not you probably wouldn’t think they were the best things, because you wouldn’t appreciate them. A Michelin-starred chef probably enjoys his job thoroughly because of the years he spent in the kitchen cutting carrots at the very beginning. It’s that understanding, the peace from realizing that it’s the edges, it’s the roughness and the rawness of life that makes it so beautiful, because it means anything is possible. You lean into the reality that nothing is perfect, that there are so many uncertainties and that only change is constant. If you embrace life for what it is, you can appreciate that everything is not the same all the time. We have color and variation and we learn from other people and we’re vulnerable and we open ourselves up to learn.
What do you enjoy most about what you do?
Diana: Working with Murat.
Murat (has returned)
Murat: It’s sort of a dream, to work with people you love and care about and build something together. When you work in a bank, you work on a deal, you work on a project, work on a transaction, and then at the end of the year you get your bonus and then you start over. You’re always going back to the beginning. While here we’re always building on what we had yesterday. The product is getting better. The company is getting bigger; it’s a kind of a snowball effect, as opposed to a lot of little snowballs. It’s a nice journey and why a lot people compare it to raising a child. You see it grow and you remember how it was when it was just the two of us in our pajamas. Every stage of that is wonderful; it’s like how parents say every age is a wonder.
What are some of the most important lessons from your professional experience that you would like to share with the next generation of St. Stephen’s graduates?
Diana: It’s work, but do what you love and you’ll never work a day in your life. The earlier you figure that out the better and the happier you will be in life. That is a fact. We can tell you that it’s absolutely true.
Some will say this is a cliché. With the older generations, there was this mentality that you’d stay in a job you hate until you retired at sixty-five, and then life was lovely.
Diana: Yes, we saw that in our parents’ generation. Now people are realizing that it’s all a huge scam. If you’re not happy, then what the hell are you doing with your life? I think it’s really exciting for the younger generation the freedom that they have to choose where they are, the mobility; the new ways of working that are starting all the time. I would say that it’s important to be able to stand on your own two feet so you don’t need to be dependent on anyone. It’s a reality some people will like money more than others. There’s nothing wrong with money. It’s more about how do you make it, doing something you enjoy. It’s possible to do something you love and to be successful. For example, even if you’re a painter, if you’re not pragmatic with how the world works and you don’t manage to find people who want to buy your art or you’re not knowledgeable about how to sell your art, or how to develop the social skills to get people to buy your art, then you’re going to have financial problems that will cause trouble.
The key is finding this balance of pragmatism: doing something you love but not turning your back to the world.
You both are alumni who have been faithful and loyal with your “time, talent and treasure” throughout the years. What keeps you involved with the school?
Diana: Well, things like this, and we’re hosting a reunion in our home the week after next.
Murat: A London alumni meet up.
Diana: Whenever we come to Rome we always see our friends from the school. We still see our friends from the school in general. For us, we’re hoping one day to send our own kids to St. Stephen’s. Murat and I met at the school, so we’re forever grateful for our time there. It’s also quite a magical place that has been created at St. Stephen’s. It’s a tight community. There’s so much to learn, also from living in Rome. There’s a lot to learn from people who are completely different and come from different backgrounds, from the boarders, the students who come via the UN, all of that. There’s no place like it in the world.
Murat: I would say that a lot of our entrepreneurial spirit came from being in that environment, which was very open-ended. Even a lot of the clubs and societies--if it didn’t exist, you just created it. It was three people and you’re the Latin American Club now.
Diana: I created the Latin American Club. We had also Banked, which I think is still alive.
Murat: We were at St. Stephen’s when the September 11th attacks happened. We watched them in the bar in the Cortile. A week later we organized a forum and a debate at the school. It was that kind of place where you could make things happen. There were very few barriers. I think that’s something the school should preserve. The notion that if you want to do it, go ahead and we’ll trust you that you will do a good job and care about the right thing.
Diana: You’re becoming adults.
Murat: Even things like the treasure hunt. Releasing sixteen- and seventeen-year-olds out into the city for the whole day with no supervision? That’s a huge vote of confidence.
Diana: It’s a wonderful place. We hosted this reunion last year. There were these younger alumni who came to our house. They were awesome, all doing these awesome things. It’s the spirit of the school in general. You’re in this beautiful city. You have these students from all over the world. You have the quality of teachers that are fantastic. These are the things that will accompany you for the rest of your life. St. Stephen’s is a place we will always be connected to.