Women’s History Month Q&A: stories of determination, commitment, and mentorship
Women’s History Month Q&A: stories of determination, commitment, and mentorship
During the month of March, we celebrate Women’s History Month by honoring the trailblazing women at Alantra who lead with determination, commitment, and integrity, significantly contributing to our Firm’s growth. We are thankful for their valuable contributions this month and every other month of the year.
This week, we feature Sarah Shephard-Smith (CFO & COO of Alantra Investment Banking), Valentina Osele (Director of Alantra Investment Banking), Larissa Böhm (Director at Alantra’s EQMC Fund) and Oanh Thi Duong (Analyst of Alantra Investment Banking), who share their experience, the importance of mentorship in their careers, and what they are looking forward to in 2024.
Q: What inspired you to pursue a career in Finance?
Sarah Shephard-Smith: It seemed a natural path for me – I was studying Maths when I applied to intern in Investment Banking. I had taken on treasury roles throughout school and university, and in general I felt I brought a finance context to decision making that others often didn’t, and this was something that differentiated me. That said, I really did not know what an Investment Bank did when I applied, so I was lucky too!
Valentina Osele: When I began in Finance, I found a stimulating environment where I could learn a lot about companies and markets. On top of that, I was exposed to brilliant entrepreneurs, top managers, and capable professionals.
Larissa Böhm: 20 years ago, I was working as a fashion designer between Germany and India. What sounds like two different worlds, has many similarities. Fashion design is very analytical, it’s about spotting market dynamics before they become trends and choosing fabrics/patterns that meet market needs. Investing is similar – you screen markets, try to understand trends, and ultimately, uncover target companies. At Alantra EQMC, we screen, invest, and constructively engage with companies to unlock value for all shareholders.
Oanh Thi Duong: My natural curiosity for the financial markets and the desire for a challenge drove me to pursue a career within Finance. As a person who is just starting their career, it has allowed me to to be in rooms I would not have had the opportunity to be in, and I am grateful to work with passionate and interesting people.
Q: What key challenge is your team working on?
Sarah Shephard-Smith: A core focus this year is supporting greater integration of our Investment Bank; this includes better leveraging our sector expertise globally and making sure that our infrastructure helps and incentivizes bankers to do that. Secondary to that, there is a lot we can still do to enhance our management information flows within the firm.
Valentina Osele: Complex market dynamics are impacting our daily operations. Post-COVID turbulence, the geopolitical turmoil, and running inflation have led to an unpredictable market. Companies’ performances are often worsening, due to supply chain inefficiencies higher costs of energy and raw materials. Debt is impacted by limited credit and higher interest rates. There are now multiple challenges to closing M&A projects in reasonable timeframes.
Additionally, managing human capital has become increasingly complex. Covid has left a lasting impact on the mentality of younger generations, and we need to cope with this change. In a way, this change is also creating more opportunities for young women now entering the finance community.
Larissa Böhm: I joined the team 10 years ago when the fund was just €80m in size (vs. c. €1.1bn today). We constantly have challenges which we have to adapt to, also as a team which is growing in size, age and responsibilities, and it’s great to be part of this journey. Moreover, since the pandemic, we are transitioning from a more traditional work environment towards a hybrid, flexible working environment.
Oanh Thi Duong: Cementing Alantra as the leading Nordic mid-cap M&A advisor.
Q: Who has influenced you most in your career?
Sarah Shephard-Smith: I don’t believe there is one perfect role model or mentor. Instead, whenever I see a quality I admire in someone else, I think about how I can emulate that or learn that skill. Similarly, I seek advice and perspectives from a very wide range of people – you never know who is going to be the person that says the one thing that makes the path forward clear.
Valentina Osele: There have been so many people I’ve met in my journey that made me appreciate the finance world. Customers who became friends, colleagues who became family.
Larissa Böhm: Two of the most important people in my life are my husband and my father. Their unconditional support and belief in me were reason to continue even through the most difficult times. Without shared responsibilities and support in a partnership, especially when you have children, I would never be where I am today.
Oanh Thi Duong: My uncle has been a great source of inspiration for me, as he grew up in poverty in Vietnam, but has since worked his way up to become an influential businessman. Achieving success from a disadvantaged position requires incredible discipline, wit, and courage, all traits which I admire.
Q: What advice would you give to women looking to pursue a career in Finance?
Sarah Shephard-Smith: It is the same advice generally that I would give to men. First, if you are new to this industry, then it’s important to take in as much knowledge and advice as you can from the experienced people around you. Second, your long-term success will not be determined by your knowledge and skills on day one, but your potential coupled with your drive and ability to reach it. Third, don’t be afraid to take some risks and run towards problems – that’s often where the interesting work is and where you grow the most.
Valentina Osele: There is a huge opportunity for women right now, especially for younger generations, which must be exploited with tenacity and courage to succeed in the long run. Loyalty and networking among ourselves are key for our growth as women.
Larissa Böhm: In my mentoring work I always tell young women that they can have it both: a career and a family. However, there will be moments when you will have to reassess your priorities. If you don’t make this choice and prioritize, you are likely to burn out. Building a career is not a 100-meter sprint, it’s a marathon.
Oanh Thi Duong: I would advise them not to change themselves in order to fit into a male dominated industry. That our unique approaches and traits can be a great source of strength and advantage.
Q: What would you like to see happen for women in 2024?
Sarah Shephard-Smith: I think one small thing we can all do is making sure that we know and manage each member of our team as an individual. For me this means not assuming everyone has the same strengths, priorities, beliefs, comfort zones, etc. When we manage based on stereotypes an expectation gap can form, and other issues (performance, attrition) can follow. I think doing better at this helps everyone, not just women.
Valentina Osele: I would like to see more open-mindedness and support to welcome women in Finance. Not just a compliance choice, but a true acknowledgement of the fact that women can bring value and a different point of view both to individual teams and leadership.
Larissa Böhm: We should not forget how much has changed over the past 20 years, yet a lot remains to be done. Especially in finance, companies must break gender bias perceptions and assumptions which prevent women from equal opportunities, compensation, and career path. As a society, we need more awareness of equal opportunities based on merit and we need men to embrace their responsibility in this issue. A diverse team is of utmost importance because it challenges the status quo, changes our perspective, creates positive friction and ultimately, everybody benefits.
Oanh Thi Duong: I would like to see topics such as business, finance, and investing become more common conversational topics among women. I believe this is a contributing factor as to why women are not equal to men in financial terms. As women, we should care more about our money, and we need to share our knowledge about these topics with each other.