From a very young age I knew I wanted to work in finance. I just didn’t know exactly what I would end up doing. My life has been a series of incredible opportunities to learn and challenge myself. These opportunities have involved moving countries – not once but three times (from Russia to Sweden; Sweden to Germany; Germany to the UK) – and a tremendous amount of hard work. At times, the LBS Masters in Finance involved a huge amount of work a week on top of my day job at Conning, where I was Assistant Vice President of Insurance Solutions. But every time I face challenges and demanding work hours, I tell myself :“if Elon Musk can manage to run SpaceX and Tesla at the same time, and Jeff Bezos can simultaneously run retail giant Amazon and Blue Origin, I can always do more with my time”. That has always been my attitude in the face of challenge and opportunity.
I didn’t have a sense of my potential when I was at school in Volgograd, which is where I’m from. In hindsight, I was incredibly fortunate to have had a great education with exceptional teachers and a competitive cohort. But when I got to Volgograd State University in 2006 to study Economics, I felt I wasn’t challenged enough. By then, Russia had only been an open market economy for about 15 years. The learning was very theoretical, and after two years, I decided I could work while studying. I secured my first job at a local equities’ brokerage.
After my undergraduate degree, I commenced a Masters in Finance and Banking also at Volgograd State University. I realised again that I had the capacity to study and work at the same time. My first job was at the former TransCredit Bank – now part of VTB. The second was at Gazprombank. In both banks, I worked in their retail loans and business development departments, evaluating the risk and credit scores of applicants. This was more than 10 years ago and there wasn’t the technology there is today; many of the risk evaluation processes were done manually. It was a good learning experience, but I realised I didn’t like the big organisation culture; both firms were very hierarchical. I’m ambitious and I like to contribute; this wasn’t really possible in a junior role in those banks at that time.
“I liked the fact that I could study part-time while gaining access to a network of international, ambitious and open-minded professionals from different sectors and industries”
I then tried applying for banking jobs in Moscow. Volgograd is a smaller city, with a population of a little above one million peopleI was ready for something bigger. This was in 2009 after the global financial crisis. I applied for many jobs and received lots of rejections before realising that you need to treat job hunting in the same way as entrepreneurship. You have something to sell – yourself and your skills – and you need to have something special, something different, that will compel an organisation to hire you over someone else. You have to take responsibility for your professional success – and it was during this time that that I realised I didn’t yet have that USP.
A chance encounter with my maths teacher from university gave me the direction I needed. She suggested I look into a Master of Science (MSc) in Financial Mathematics at the University of Halmstad in Sweden. This was a very technical, highly academic programme exploring mathematical models in finance, specifically with regard to pricing financial instruments, like derivatives. To understand how to price these very technical instruments, you have to do a degree like this one. It was a massive challenge and I knew I was ready for the next step.
The degree at Halmstad was the most challenging of my life. The programme was far more advanced than expected and there was a sizeable knowledge gap that I had to close by doing extra work. But after six months I found my rhythm, completed the programme in the top quartile of the class and got an A for my thesis. I then had to make a choice – do I try and find a job in Moscow or go to Europe instead. With the maths degree, more doors were opening and I got an interview at insurance asset management firm Conning in Cologne, for a role as an analyst for their risk and capital management team. Conning had to prove they couldn’t find anyone suitable in the EU; getting the job was close to impossible. Against the odds, they ended up waiting for me to get my visa, which was rare with a new hire fresh from university. It was a major achievement and I started the job in January 2012. This meant I didn’t go back to Volgograd to finish my Masters in Finance and Banking.
Of course, as is typical with me, after a year I got a little too comfortable in the job. I was once again ready for a new challenge and so I took the Chartered Financial Analyst (CFA) exams. I had decided by then that my next professional step would be less about mathematics and more strategic and impactful, and I started researching business schools. I wanted my next step to be not just incremental; I wanted to make it count. I also wanted to study, live and work in a major financial centre – New York or London. On one occasion, I was in London with work and I remember walking across London Bridge and being among huge crowds. Feeling that energy was such a rush.
There is no question that London Business School is the best business school in Europe. I was researching the School’s Masters in Finance (MiF) programme at the same time as requesting a transfer to London with Conning. The LBS MiF appealed to me because I wasn’t looking to quit my job (I couldn’t afford to do that). So, I liked the fact that I could study part-time while gaining access to a network of international, ambitious and open-minded professionals from different sectors and industries. I had already studied at one of the most rigorous, difficult academic curriculums in the world and had completed the CFA programme, so when I joined the MiF, I was really looking for it to help me with a change in career direction. I wanted to better understand the professional opportunities available to me and where I’d be best suited – and make new and interesting friends!
Being a part-time student with a full-time job gives you a few advantages when networking. You are not desperate to find a job (because you already have one), so other people are more relaxed networking with you. Having a job means that you can offer something in return when networking. On a part-time programme, your classmates tend to be at more advanced stages in their career, which makes working with them on assignments more interesting and is great for networking as well. The other advantage that comes to mind is that you can start applying the knowledge immediately at work. It has an immediate positive effect on work and helps you to understand the concepts deeper.
“Degree Education coaches Roger Howgego, a former Managing Director at Lehman Brothers, and Christian Dummett, Executive Director, Head of Career Centre, were amazing. I booked time with them as often as I could”
For the first three months of the MiF, which started in September 2015, I was still living in Cologne. I’d get the first flight out to Stansted on a Friday morning, work the day in the London office, attend classes on the Friday evening and Saturday and then travel back again on the red eye on Sunday morning. Money was quite tight and I took the cheapest flights. Once I moved to London, I started getting serious about thinking about which direction my career could go in. Many students leave it to the last minute, but I don’t recommend that. It’s not something you can – or should – do quickly.
When it came to career direction, I was weighing up M&A Advisory and portfolio management. Conning mostly invested in fixed income securities, and I wanted to learn about other asset classes. I started using the LBS Career Centre. Degree Education coaches Roger Howgego, a former Managing Director at Lehman Brothers and Christian Dummett, Executive Director, Head of Career Centre, were amazing. I booked time with them as often as I could and kept a tight structure to every meeting so I could get the most from their time and insights into the market and how to best approach my job search.
Initially, I was set on investment banking and Christian gave me some advice that he said he tells all students keen on a career in this sector. He told me to develop a pitchbook to use as a door opener and conversation starter in the recruiting process. Of course, it’s time consuming to put together (it took me six months to finish it) but it’s ultimately what got me interviews with Directors and Managing Directors at some of the biggest investment banks in the capital – despite my CV being screened out by those organisation’s HR gatekeepers. As I said, you have to be entrepreneurial with your career: don’t let convention, tradition and rules stop you finding a way to make the connections you need to make.
In the end, I decided not to pursue investment banking. I’d interviewed with many of the major investment banks and met many senior level people. I’d got the sense that there was a lot of focus on process orientated tasks rather than analytical ones. I didn’t think I wanted that to be my life for 10 years as I climbed the ranks and got to a position where I’d be able to do something more tangible. In my second year, I took an elective on Value Investing, which then was led by legendary professor Eddie Ramsden. The course took place twice a year and admitted only 20 students at a time. The experience was intense and as close to real world investing as you could get. It teaches you to look at equity shares as a percentage ownership of the underlying business. Hence, to invest in shares, you should do your own primary research and valuation of the underlying business. The first five weeks focus on different aspects of the investment research process. This included competitive advantages, management and special situations. For the second half of the course, you do a real-world investment analysis of a publicly-listed company of your choice.
The small size of the Value Investing class allowed us to receive detailed feedback on our work every week. Eddie also arranged everyone to be mentored by a top tier hedge fund manager. I chose Next Plc for my analysis as I thought the size of its online business was massively misunderstood. I was mentored by Greenlight Capital. At the end of the course, you present your idea to a panel of independent judges who work at hedge funds and alumni of the course. Eddie hired a public speaking coach to help us prepare for the pitch. The Value Investing course was the single most challenging and at the same time the most gratifying experience at LBS for me. The hundreds of hours of work I invested into my investment case paid off. I was delighted to win the Silver-Bull Award, which goes to the winner of the best performing stock idea from the class of the previous year.
“You have to be entrepreneurial with your career: don’t let convention, tradition and rules stop you finding a way to make the connections you need to make”
The Value Investing elective was an excellent foundation for a career in equity investment management and I decided that’s what I wanted to do next. Through a classmate, I got the opportunity to manage an investment portfolio for a Single Family Office. It is a lot of responsibility and a big challenge – a job with complete accountability for my decisions. That is what I was looking for – for better or worse. Every day, I use the knowledge and frameworks I gained in the MiF Value Investing elective, which is testament to the quality of the teaching and relevance of the principles the course is built around.
Even though I didn’t end up pursuing investment banking, the process of selling myself repeatedly, finding the right people to talk to and engaging them to invite me for an interview was an excellent experience and can’t be underrated. It’s given me the confidence to approach people I don’t know for all sorts of reasons. When I’m conducting research in advance of an investment decision, I reach out to management teams and board directors, ex-employees, competitors and journalists. This would have made me very nervous in the past but not anymore.
Since graduating from the MiF in 2017, I’ve returned to LBS to complete Scott Richardson’s Systematic Investing elective. As an alumnus, I have access to two or three LBS elective courses a year at a heavily discounted fee, which is amazing. It really does feel like a lifelong partnership. The fact that I had some practical investing experience made Scott’s elective even better. It teaches you to look at the fixed income markets in a systematic way, identify mispriced credit securities and filter out securities that look attractive based on the fundamentals. Back in my job, the new insight and frameworks I’ve taken away mean I can work much quicker and more effectively.
My advice for future MiFs would be to engage the Career Centre early and with purpose. Don’t expect a job on a plate; that won’t happen. Understand your pain points and structure your sessions so you can make progress, whether that’s in gaining a wider understanding of the market or the roles available to you. Think outside the box and put your heart into it. LBS has amazing resources and networks, but they’re just tools: you have to be proactive and take the initiative to use what’s on offer to your best advantage.