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Oonagh van den Berg of Virtual Risk Solutions: “Rome wasn’t built in a day ”

Rome wasn’t built in a day — There is so much we can do to make a positive change, but we need to take it one step at a time. I worked every day for 5 months until I ended up with the flu because I was so exhausted. My father-in-law even tried to warn me, but […]

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Rome wasn’t built in a day — There is so much we can do to make a positive change, but we need to take it one step at a time. I worked every day for 5 months until I ended up with the flu because I was so exhausted. My father-in-law even tried to warn me, but I wasn’t listening.


The COVID19 pandemic has disrupted all of our lives. But sometimes disruptions can be times of opportunity. Many people’s livelihoods have been hurt by the pandemic. But some saw this as an opportune time to take their lives in a new direction.

As a part of this series called “How I Was Able To Pivot To A New Exciting Opportunity Because Of The Pandemic”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Oonagh van den Berg.

With over 18 years of experience in a range of fields and disciplines within legal and financial services non-financial risk, Oonagh van den Berg has built and lead various compliance risk frameworks and teams across the industry and developed and maintained regulatory and industry body relationships.

Oonagh is also an advocate for ethical compliance leadership and framework development, with increased automation, including AI and Machine learning integration.

She is passionate about empowering people with the capabilities to address risk challenges through understanding behaviors to break down barriers and create cultures of morally imperative business-sensitive decision making.

You can connect with Oonagh on Linkedin: www.linkedin.com/in/oonaghvandenberg and learn more about her work at: www.virtualrisksolutions.com.


Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we start, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your childhood backstory?

I was born in Northern Ireland during the Troubles to parents of mixed religious backgrounds — my mother from a catholic family and my father from a protestant family. This made family gatherings interesting! It did however allow me to grow in an environment where I saw different views and opinions and helped me keep an open mindset on issues, which I believe have shaped me very much into the person I am today. I actually see it as a blessing to be able to have such an opportunity.
 
 My father was a policeman, and unfortunately was shot in the late ’70s, and then involved in an explosion in the early 80’s — both causing him permanent health problems. It was difficult as a child to always have a father who was unable to be active, but he was still a wonderful father. I admire him for getting up each day and putting his life on the line, and paying the price, for a purpose he believed in. It was not just a job for him and that is also how I feel about the work I do. 
 
 My mother grew up in a Catholic working-class area of Belfast and was raised by a single divorced mother in the middle of a lot of the military intervention in Northern Ireland. These were some of the darkest days in our national history. They had very little and my grandmother worked two jobs as a cleaner to provide for her and her sister. She had to leave school at 16 to get a job due to financial challenges and worked incredibly hard to create opportunities for my sisters and me. She has worked in the voluntary sector most of her career, with both legal and accounting degrees earned in night school as she worked. She became CEO of a UK charity for the elderly and is also an international bestselling author. She is now CEO of the Women’s Information Network in Northern Ireland, which provides women with information and free access to education to allow them to make informed decisions on issues such as health, housing, family, and finance. 
 
 You don’t have to look very far to find my role model with a mother like mine. She has lived through some of the worst adversity in life and reminded us daily of why we are blessed and lucky to have the opportunities we have. I look at my life today and I know that I have the opportunities my mother always dreamt of — and I never take that for granted. My role, I believe now, is to pay it forward and also help others. 
 
 As a child, I was certainly not academic. My older sister Katrina is the Mensa child in our family, followed closely by my younger sister Victoria. Instead, I excelled in sports, specifically sprinting. I won numerous athletic events and held sprinting records. I also joined nearly every extracurricular activity I could in school — such as public speaking and debating — mostly to get out of class! But looking back, I realize that trying to escape class actually was forcing me out of my comfort zone and helped me to develop new skill sets and knowledge.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life? 
 
“Be who you are because there is only one of you.” I was raised by my parents to be proud of who I am and never try to be anything but myself. As a mother of two girls, this quote in an age of social media is even more important. I see too many people, young people, trying to be like their “celebrity” icon. 
 
We should all be proud to be exactly who we are and own that.

Is there a particular book, podcast, or film that made a significant impact on you? Can you share a story or explain why it resonated with you so much?
 
The biggest impact film I ever watched was Life is Beautiful (La vita e bella). It’s about a Jewish Italian father who shielded his son from the true horrors of the concentration camps through his imagination. 
 
Because of my father’s job, as a young child, we sometimes faced danger. We got shot at and on one occasion had to move during the night to a safe house as there was a bomb threat on our home. However, we never got scared. My parents made sure we felt secure and safe by deflecting the true reality of what was happening. This movie exemplifies that even in the worst atrocities in life we have the ability to make it better for those around us by changing the narrative of the situation. For many people now living through this pandemic, that is something we all need to hold onto

Let’s now shift to the main part of our discussion. Can you tell our readers about your career experience before the Pandemic began?
 
Before the pandemic, I spent my career working in compliance in various global banks, beginning with my legal internship at the European Central Bank, and then working in product legal documentation at JP Morgan, before moving into Compliance. I spent many years building compliance frameworks and teams, having worked in and ran projects various banks including HSBC, Standard Chartered, Deutsche Bank, ING, MUFG, Schroders, Commerzbank and most recently as APAC head of AML and Compliance Internal Audit at Citibank. I also spent a few years in financial institutions regulatory consultancy at Protiviti.

What did you do to pivot as a result of the Pandemic? 
 
My position was made redundant in Q1 2020 leaving Citibank in March. My initial, immediate thought was to jump back into a role at another Bank, but then it became clear that hiring was frozen due to the pandemic, and roles were being reposted only to keep them active internally. So I knew I had to find another way to share my experience and talents.

Can you tell us about the specific “Aha moment” that gave you the idea to start this new path?
 
I love my career in compliance and genuinely feel we add value. But I worry at times about whether compliance officers are being supported enough by their employers and by the regulators. We need support in being able to make credible, innovative, and sustainable change. My concern is we are seen as a necessary evil which is rubber-stamped but not actually being lived within the organizations. 
 
We began seeing a lot of enforcement actions coming through in mid-2020, starting with the Jeffrey Epstein Deutsche Bank case, and then the systemic failures at Wirecard being exposed. The question in all the cases was whether the situations could have been avoided? What was missing to allow this to occur? The answer was Compliance Culture was broken. To begin to fix it, we need to help support people within the compliance industry with more access to knowledge and information to increase awareness on risks, drive innovative solutions to identify potential risks and begin to influence culture change. 
 
It dawned on me that if I help support an industry I care so much about, then maybe my redundancy had happened for a reason. It happened so I could become the solution.

How are things going with this new initiative?
 
I set up two ventures — RAW Compliance, a global compliance community social enterprise, and Virtual Risk Solutions (VRS) which is a compliance consultancy and training practice.VRS is currently financially supporting the infrastructure of RAW, which as of its launch in September 2020 has just over 3000 followers.Since July, we have run 16 free, global, fully interactive 1-hour training webinars on topics based on requests from our members.

The response has been phenomenal! It clearly demonstrates that there was a gap that needed to be filled in helping support the industry members. We filled this need through the creation of a platform to share ideas. We have also had speakers from across the industry, NGO sector, and government agencies including the US Department of Justice, which is an honour.We are really excited to be rolling out a free masterclass on Crypto regulation in Q1 2021. It has had an incredible response globally, and in industry roundtables, to help drive the development of more Public-Private Partnerships so we can increase information sharing and typologies. We also have a podcast that will go live in Jan 2021.To continue to support the work we are doing; we aim to start corporate sponsorship in 2021 and begin to get banks and industry participants to further support our mission.

Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?
 
My mother. She has taught me that doing the right thing is priceless, helping others is all our responsibility, and sometimes you need to be the one that is the catalyst to change.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started in this new direction?
 
I’ve been overwhelmed by the support and positivity, especially from people reaching out just to say thank you for creating the platform and offering their support for free. This is even more amazing in a time where there has been so much negativity.

What are your “5 things I wish someone told me before I started leading my organization” and why. Please share a story or example for each.

Rome wasn’t built in a day — There is so much we can do to make a positive change, but we need to take it one step at a time. I worked every day for 5 months until I ended up with the flu because I was so exhausted. My father-in-law even tried to warn me, but I wasn’t listening.

Take time for yourself and have a tech detox — You need to take one day a week when you block out your diary and take a break from technology just to spend time on a re-energizing strategy. Otherwise, all your time can be consumed in meetings and replying to emails.

Remember why you are doing this and stay true to your vision — Sometimes you can be pulled in different directions with different ideas from people. This is your journey, so stay true to you.

Business Planning is time-wasting — I prefer being agile. I prefer to jump in at the deep end, try an idea, fine-tune it if it’s working, modify it, or move onto the next if it doesn’t work.

Set the foundations and boundaries — Have your BAU infrastructure in place and set boundaries on your time and availability.

So many of us have become anxious from the dramatic jolts of the news cycle. Can you share the strategies that you have used to optimize your mental wellness during this stressful period? 
 
 
We need to be versatile. No one has a crystal ball and we need to be able to adapt to change, whether that’s through acquiring new skill sets or changing to new career paths.

You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? 
 
To remember that knowledge is not power. We need to share our experiences with others so we can all grow and develop together.

Is there a person in the world whom you would love to have lunch with, and why? Maybe we can tag them and see what happens! 
 
Bethenny Frankel — I find her incredible. What she has achieved and built on her own is amazing. She isn’t afraid to put herself out there, she is versatile and adapts to the market, and she is her own best marketing agent. I also was a single mother for a few years before I met my now-husband, so I equally admire her success as a single parent.

How can our readers follow you online?
 
I mostly use my LinkedIn for daily posts, so please add me https://www.linkedin.com/in/oonaghvandenberg/ and also visit https://www.virtualrisksolutions.com/

Thank you so much for sharing these important insights. We wish you continued success and good health!

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