Karen Ruimy: from boardroom to the boards

Karen Ruimy was a Paris financier who quit the high life to follow her heart. Alexandra McIntyre charts her mid-life adventures, from self-help guru to a flamenco dancer and singer

A crying shame though it is, there aren’t many women in banking. If there were, we wouldn’t be in the mess that the testosterone-fuelled industry has landed us in. So some say, anyway.

In Nineties Paris, a young Moroccan-born woman was bucking the trend. After a securing an MBA from Grand Ecole, Karen Ruimy went to work in mergers and acquisitions for HSBC where she was spotted by a head hunter for brokerage firm Finacor.

“There were very few women. I didn’t care though. It was a challenge and fun” says Ruimy. By the time she was 28 she’d made the board.

She ran on adrenaline: 12 hour days, no social set outside work and a lingering fear it could all go wrong at any time. But a Parc Monceau apartment and an envious bank balance cannot make a girl complete. After seven years – tired, drained and realising the pursuit of wealth no longer appealed – Ruimy stepped away from her life as a high-flying financier.

start quoteI really wanted to stop, and write and read and meet brilliant people who were in different worlds. And be inspiredfinal quote

“Everyone cared only about making money on the markets. All I cared about was meeting people and having lunch – I was a success, making money every day but I wasn’t having fun anymore.”

Colleagues and family were shocked, but the sudden freedom was a blessing. Ruimy’s relentless career had left her with something of a spiritual emptiness and free time meant a chance to read philosophy and to travel.

“Because I was also on a spiritual quest, people thought I was crazy, that I was joining a sect or something! But I really wanted to stop, and write and read and meet brilliant people who were in different worlds. And be inspired. So that’s what I did.”

The life lessons she drew from that period were published in a book called The Angel’s Metamorphosis in 1999. Its success, particularly in the self-help hungry US, seemed to set  Ruimy up for a career as a wellbeing guru but something else was stirring in her soul. Or, more correctly, her feet.

“I was an artist in my soul”

As a three-year-old in Casablanca, Karen had twirled in Arabic dances “in big fiestas, a part of the feast, at weddings”. At 18 her attentions turned to that most passionate of dances, flamenco. Inspired by time spent in Andalucia, she says her love for flamenco is “unexplainable – it’s in my gut. My body speaks to me.”

Her post-finance years had allowed more time for dancing and with trademark commitment and risk, she turned professional, aged 37. “All my life, dance was in me. I always knew I was an artist in my soul. It was very late for me – but flamenco is for any age. In flamenco when you see an older woman – 60 maybe – she brings something a younger woman just can’t.”

Karen and her teachers developed a successful show for the Paris stage before hooking up with Strictly’s Craig Revel-Horwood to bring a flamenco show to the Lyric in London.

The swirl of creativity that dancing provided also gave Ruimy the freedom to sing too. “I’m inspired by Arabic music, flamenco, a little bit of rai, French singers like Michel Berger and Veronique Sanson. If I listen to too much western music I feel a lack.” What began as songs for her Paris show, ended up on her debut album Essence de Femme.

Multi-tasking maven

Now music is at the forefront of her life again, with the release of her new album Come With Me. This one, she says, “is heading towards something more personal.” Recorded at Peter Gabriel’s Real World Studios, with legendary producer Youth (“we just clicked, you know?”), it was launched last night amidst a flurry of A-listers at Soho nitespot du jour, The Box.

Of course, if you’ve followed the Karen Ruimy story this far, you’ll know that she couldn’t possibly be without other projects on the go too. With her friend – and ours – Mariella Frostrup, she co-founded The Great Initiative, a charity that works to redress the gender imbalance, something she knows all too well from her banking days.

“We build a platform for grass-roots women’s organisations. They do amazing work. In Liberia, for example, there is a radio station created by women for women – it gives them a place to go if they have a crisis. We funded that.”

Campaigner, singer, dancer, author – it’s all a far cry from Parisian boardrooms. But Karen Ruimy has followed her heart, and, given the enthusiastic support when she performed last night, there are many who are glad she did.

Come With Me by Karen Ruimy is released at the end of May. Follow Karen on Twitter: @KarenRuimy