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Are you an entrepreneur or a mumpreneur?

Since having a daughter almost a year ago now, I have been thinking very actively on the topic of entrepreneurship, wrecking my brains for the next big business idea. Since I don’t want to be a consultant ever again, looking at my expertise it is most likely that if I set up a new business it will be in the personal finance/wealth management space, and I think I would enjoy it  a lot. I feel like a few more years experience in trading is going to be very useful though.

A lot of women who leave their jobs after having children (or who return to their jobs but are looking for an exit that doesn’t involve becoming a 24/7 housewife) start fiddling with the idea of entrepreneurship. As the new life revolves around other mums and babies, the most common business ideas involve baby products. This has become so common that tech writer Jolie O’Dell caused a stir this week by tweeting: “Women: Stop making startups about fashion, shopping, & babies. At least for the next few years. You’re embarrassing me.” from the technology conference DEMO 2011.

I’ve had similar thoughts when screening business ideas sometimes, and dismissing mumpreneurial ideas with the argument that “all mums are trying to do the same thing, but I think I was wrong. When I told my business school friend (by now a working mum of two young children) I don’t want to set up a baby related business because “all mums are trying to do the same thing”, she was surprised and asked “really? I don’t know any mum who is actually setting up a business”. It got me thinking. You hear a lot on the internet about mums setting up mum-businesses, but I had to admit of all the mums I know in the neighbourhood, NOBODY has actually set up anything or is thinking about it, and they are all educated women. Everybody is either going back to work or planning to take a few years off.

In addition, any informed business person should know that FASHION and BABIES are BIG business. Before my daughter was born, I used to say I would NEVER spend more than $200 on a piece of plastic that is a stroller, only to purchase the BUGABOO BEE before her birth as nothing else was good enough. I was a complete tomboy as a child and NEVER wore dresses, and yet there I was going crazy shopping for baby clothes in the HARRODS sale. Something about loving your child makes you think nothing is good enough and only the very best will do. If I remember correctly from my MBA, I think in microeconomics this is called price inelasticity and that is every business owner’s dream!

I’m all for women thinking big and broad and building businesses in any field they have expertise in, but I am convinced babies and fashion are about the most lucrative niches you can find. Bring on the mumpreneurs!

Weirdest questions from hedge fund and investment banking interviews

In 2007, I interviewed for hedge fund and investment banking jobs and was asked some pretty interesting questions along the way. I am sharing these so you are prepared and are not thrown off guard in your interviews. Overall I found the hedge funds much more innovative in asking questions, while the banks ask the typical brainteasers that everybody who has prepared a little bit already knows (can you believe I was asked “why are manhole covers round?” by one banker??!!!).

Hedge fund interview questions

My favourite question at the hedge fund was:
- “I have to ask you… do you like money?”
I looked the guy straight in the eye and said
- “yes, of course I like money”.

He sighed in relief “oh, that’s good, because in the end this is all about making money, and if you care more about the details of the company than about the money, this is not the place. You look at a company, you buy, two weeks later you sell, you move on.”

The question was tricky because every vault guide says in ibanking interviews you should never admit to being interested in money – you are supposed to care more about client service, industry trends etc.. Luckily I went with my intuition and turned out to be right. I hesitated if I should tell the truth for a few seconds, but in the end going with my guts was the right decision (I got the job, by the way, in case you were wondering).

Another interesting question from the hedge fund interviews were
– “okay, I have seen your CV, tell me about yourself but without mentioning anything on your CV, tell me who you are beyond your CV”. This is a really tough one. Are you going to talk about your hobbies and other weird stories from your life? I think I opted for a really boring answer because I wanted it to be relevant for the job. I told him why I really wanted to work for a hedge fund so he understood my motivation and knew I was serious. I wouldn’t have liked the answer if I had been the interviewer, but it didn’t deter them from making an offer.

One brainteaser I got at the hedge fund that I liked was:

[quote]company A and company T both have oil fields, company T has one in Texas and company A has one under the arctic ocean. Both have a market capitalization of $1bn. Who has more barrels of oil in the field? Then: okay, where is the price of oil? Let’s assume tomorrow the price of oil doubles, whose market cap will rise more?[/quote]

At hedge funds, you also need to be prepared to answer off topic general knowledge questions. Hedge fund managers are successful by being very curious and asking lots of things about lots of different fields, so they might see something on your CV and want to learn more. For example, I had mentioned on my CV that I had played “Brennball” at university, which is a Swedish sport which I think is the pre-cursor or original version of baseball. They saw it and wanted to know what it was, how it worked, how many people played it and so forth (maybe the fact that a couple of the investors were Swedes and Norwegian had something to do with it!).

Also, after grilling me on finance, options and stock markets, the CEO of the fund’s London office started to chat on a more personal level, and suddenly asked “I see you took some psychology classes in your undergrad so you must have studied child development. You know, my son is 3 years old and growing up bilingually, he is still not saying much… Is this normal? Should I be worried?”

Luckily my mother happens to be a linguist and knowing that my future children would grow up trilingually (if not quadrilingually!), I had read up on the subject and was able to give him an intelligent answer. He might have known the answer any way, but I think it was his way of testing.

It reminded me of what a McKinsey director had once told me about what he liked to check in the final interview. He liked to grill people on their master’s or PhD thesis and see if he could challenge them in anything related or find a flaw in their answers. His argument was that if these people had spent 6 months or 3 years on a subject and couldn’t say anything intelligent on the subject, they were probably never going to be good at anything else, as they would never get as much time to spend on anything else. Makes sense, right?
The banking questions were more mainstream in a way but nevertheless there were quite challenging or at least interesting ones

– “Imagine you have a client who tells you he always only decides based on price. If you quote him the lowest price, he will do business with you, if not, he will take his business somewhere else. What would you do?” (this one was from Lehman Brothers, may they rest in peace!)

– “We have invited 15 of your classmates for the final round. Why should we take you and not your classmates?” (Deutsche Bank)

– “Tell me about a time in your work when you really felt the power of a team and what a team can achieve” (from Goldman Sachs – I thought this was a much nicer question than “tell me about a time when you worked in a team…” – it’s also a smart way to see if someone is actually enthusiastic about working with other people)

– “What do you think is the next big investment opportunity in the markets that can offer spectacular returns?”  (Goldman Sachs)

All the other questions were pretty standard I believe –
– why do you want to do this?
– why do you want to leave consulting?
– draw me the US yield curve.
– How do you calculate forward rates?
– where do you think interest rates are going?
– where’s gold?
– what do you think determines the oil price?
– what’s happening in Venezuela?
and so on, just checking awareness of the markets

5 questions (not!) to ask at recruiting events

I wrote this piece of advice while recruiting for McKinsey and it was one of the most popular posts on my blog during business school, so I wanted to make sure to share this with you.


Knowing that I was off to business school, I volunteered to take part in a recruiting event at McKinsey in May. Actually, we call these events “sourcing events”, where we “source” new candidates to apply for a job with us. This is distinct from actual recruiting events where you would conduct interviews. So there I was on a Saturday morning 9am after a very tough 80 hour working week, having come home from the airport the night before.

First, a principal from the Swiss office made a very interesting speech about the sports industry (basically, the big money behind FIFA, Olympics; Basketball etc. – I was amazed to find out that FIFA and Olympic computer games make more money than the actual events with sponsorships and ticket revenues ), and then there was a free brunch for all the candidates with about 5 consultants mingling with the candidates to answer their questions on consulting and McKinsey. What struck me was that some candidates gave me very bad vibes and some gave me very good vibes. Some made me feel bad, angry or shocked at their naivity, others made me feel at ease. Obviously, based on these observations I would make recommendations for the candidates or not. After the event, I thought about why I got a negative impression of some and a very positive one of others. I think this is helpful for anyone attending recruiting or networking events.

What not to ask at a recruiting event…

  • Do I have to have studied business studies to apply?
  • Isn’t it horrible to sleep in hotels 4 nights a week? I could never do that!
  • But do you really work so much? Isn’t it tiring?
  • But do you recruit natural scientists? (upon my affirmation) But I studied advanced robotics, can I do advanced robotics work in consulting? or another girl: “but do you have molecular biologists?” (upon my assertion that we have just about everyone you could imagine at McKinsey, she replied: “I don’t think so because my university was the first to launch a molecular biology degree 3 years ago”!
  • Do you like your job?

… and why not…
Regarding the last question, it is actually the most valid of the list and can give useful insight. However, since I didn’t like my job very much at the time, it made me feel bad. It made me feel bad that I had a job I didn’t like, and it made me feel bad because I was in a dilemma about what to say. Obviously I cannot say that I don’t. So I can say yes, you learn a lot, but that it is definitely a tough job. So the problem I have with the last question (do you like your job?) is that it can put the other person in a defensive and uncomfortable situation, and you should always try to make the “recruiter” feel at ease.

The first four questions are terrible, because rather than show interest in the job or the company, the candidate is looking for reasons NOT to like the job. I found that many students who had no idea about my job only wanted to hear about the negative aspects of the job or threw around prejudices they had heard. Some questions also stem from insecurity. Instead of saying that they have a background in computer science but they would love to learn more about business, they ask “but do you hire scientists? But can I do robotics?”. Some also showed a high degree of inflexibility. Some candidates had a background in biology or medicine and asked if they could apply their knowledge in consulting, and I started telling them about work for healthcare and pharmaceutical companies, but they would insist “but can I do molecular biology?”. First, it shows a lack of interest in a wider range of topics, and it also shows a high degree of ignorance about the business world.

So keep your doubts about the job to yourself and ask more diplomatic and positive questions instead. These will usually give you the information you wanted, but leave a much better impression.

… and what to ask

  • What do you actually do in consulting on a daily basis?
  • What would a typical week look like?
  • What are the people like in your company?
  • I studied political science and would love to try out consulting – how would you advise me to approach consultancies?
  • I would love to have a better idea of the kind of work you do. What kind of projects have you worked on so far?

If you are looking for commonalities in these questions, you will quickly notice that these questions show genuine interest and an open mind. These people respected that I probably can tell them more about the job than what they might have heard second hand, and asked with an open mind. They also conveyed a much more positive attitude by asking how to make it happen, rather than listing all the problems there might be. The questions were also very open, engaging me in conversation, rather than abrupt, such as “isn’t it horrible to sleep in hotels every week?”.

I think it is not about lying or asking only flattering questions. It is about coming in with an open mind and asking the person who probably knows best what the job is like what their job is like. This is very different from coming in thinking that consulting or investment banking is a horrible job and looking for confirmation of this opinion. If you think the job is horrible and you know all about it, why attend the event in the first place?

Week in the life of a McKinsey consultant
Management consulting career guide 

Are women in business their own worst enemies?

I just read Katrina Alcorn‘s new story on Huffington Post Women titled “Stop Passing the Buck Ladies”, in which she gave some very worrying examples of women leaders in business making life hard for junior women, by complaining about “women whining too much”, complaining about women thinking they are going to get a job after a few years out of the job market to take care of their kids, even of one executive bragging about pulling all-nighters shortly after her baby was born! It’s often been said that particularly the older generation of women executives are some very tough cookies, that’s how they managed to get where they are! You would have thought things should have changed though, wouldn’t you?

Are we still our own worst enemies? I’ve been wondering about this many times myself, because even though I don’t like to believe it, unfortunately I have often experienced the same. My two worst experiences at McKinsey where with one female partner (who was known for giving all female junior consultants a very hard time in the performance reviews) and with one Associate Principal, who I thought I was friends with until I worked on a project with her and she turned into a cold and heartless robot, I was so shocked! She wasn’t too popular with the male consultants either though and never made it to partner, so it seems I am not the only one to have had a bad experience.

When I interviewed for trading jobs, the one time I had really bad vibes from an interviewer was with a female interviewer from Lehman Brothers (thank God I didn’t get a job offer from Lehman though, she saved me in the end!). On the trading floor, it’s hard to say because I have only worked with men so far, at least on the trading side, and a lot of them have been very supportive.

What this shows us is that as we move up we really have to be very mindful of how we act towards junior women in order to inspire and encourage them, rather than showing we’re tougher than them. I know it’s hard, because I must say I have been disappointed with some junior women I have met in investment banking. I am so disappointed that 95% of female graduates who make it into banking only want to work in sales or structuring and shy away from trading. We from the trading desk tried to encourage them, invited them, did everything and they would just not even answer emails and disappear, only to tell us a couple of weeks later that they had chosen a sales role, whereas all the male graduates would come by our desk non-stop trying to get the job. I am trying to be supportive to be to junior women but also find myself disappointed by their lack of ambition and self-confidence.

But thanks to Katrina for posting this, it has reminded me again of my bad experiences with female leaders when I started out on my career, and that I shouldn’t turn into one of these people. I don’t know what it is in us that makes us work against each other rather than supporting each other. Let’s all remind ourselves that we need to encourage and promote each other, for our own good! Life is tough, and no-one is going to make it on their own, no matter how smart and hard working they are. We need to be there for one another, because if not, more and more will drop out of the corporate workforce along the way and it’s not going to get any easier for those who stay.

What are your experiences with female bosses? Anyone here with positive experiences?


Impressive and inspirational 35 women under 35

Just found this list of 35 women under 35 at Management Today and am so impressed and inspired by these ladies. Many of them are former bankers/consultants/lawyers gone entrepreneurs, others are young ambitious women who have risen to very high positions at ebay/google/bskyb, managing hundreds of people.

It just got me thinking again is that there is too much talk of how women are achieving less than men in the workplace, and I really think we should talk much more about how many great things women are doing and achieving nowadays. Let’s celebrate our success! Women are much too modest and don’t like to boast, and I think that’s a big reason why we don’t hear about all the fantastically successful women out there.

Have you heard of STEPHANIE NIVEN, 27, for example? She’s one of the women on the list:

After taking a double first in history at Oxford in 2005, Niven joined Goldman Sachs, becoming an investment analyst. Four years later she left to help set up Majedie Investments-backed Javelin Capital, a hedge fund with assets of £157m, where she’s the portfolio manager in charge of almost half of returns.

Or have you heard of LIZ MCCARTHY, 34?

In 2008, McCarthy co-founded Audacity, a communications agency which counts BT, Malibu and Unilever as clients. It now has billings of over £25m.

A woman in her early thirties founding a £25m a year business in the UK and we never even heard of her? Please go through the list and read what these fantastic ladies are doing to get inspired. Don’t listen to the people who tell you that you can’t achieve amazing things.

The list shows that women can achieve amazing things in corporations and banks, but I think they can do even more amazing things when they have the confidence to go out and launch their own business. I hope it inspires you!