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Susie Stanford - Investment Manager

From Film to finance - a path less trodden

I was a very average student at a very academic school, who ended up attending the London School of Economics following a brief stint at film school in New York. From there I applied to an investment bank graduate programme simply in response to a heckle, but went on to work there for the next six years during the depths of the financial crisis. Successful and happy, but convinced that driving a company's growth would be even more thrilling than just picking the winners, I took a leap of faith and left to join an Africa-focused private equity group. Two years of adventures later, I'd come to the conclusion it was consumer orientated businesses which really made me tick. So earlier this year I moved to lead the consumer and digital investments strategy for the Lewis Trust Group.
 
My senior school instilled in me a love of working hard, but also an humble understanding that there would always be someone out there who was smarter/faster/prettier than you. As such it seemed to me that the best approach to achieving my out-sized dreams was to be a good all rounder, with a willingness to hustle and a thick skin.
 
Leaving school I was a disillusioned student film maker, who turned to a degree in economics only because it meant I could get a "proper" degree whilst staying in London, where I could continue to work as a tour manager for a band. University taught me economics, and tour management taught life lessons including 1) never check luggage and 2) never believe that a Russian oligarch has wired your fee unless you can actually see it in your account...
 
In my second year at university both my flatmates were diligently applying for internships at investment banks, and after a particularly left wing self righteous rant about them selling their souls, my friend snapped back. She pointed out that while I had some pretty strong views on the industry, I had never actually met anyone who worked in the City, nor did I actually understand what the "the City" did. Never one to bow out of a challenge, I responded by asking which was the toughest bank to get an internship at and promptly applied. Fast forward through my eccentric application and interview responses, I somehow found myself standing on the Goldman Sachs trading floor - electrified by the energy and instant accountability of it. No time for doubt, no space for apathy - this was about your ability to move quickly based on the information you had at that moment. It was also about how you coped when things went sideways, whether you could pick yourself back up again for another round.
 
Over the next six years I traded various asset classes on behalf of my clients, operating right at the epicentre of the financial crisis implosion. I loved that I had to be informed on the economic events which were front page news everywhere, and then have my own view. I also got to understand the the importance of finance in real businesses: how it was instrumental to the health and strategies of companies which we all interact with daily, but rarely stop to wonder how or why they do what they do. As a result I became fascinated by what made a company successful and how technology was empowering new entrants to disrupt age-old sectors.
 
As a result I decided to try and get closer to those earlier stage and private companies. However transitioning to private from public equity investing is not a well trodden path, even though increasingly one is just a precursor to the other. This seemed absurd to me, so despite initial resistance I kept on having coffees with people, explaining what I thought I could contribute. Finding myself a bizarre combination of overqualified and under experienced, I was ultimately fortunate enough to find a German entrepreneur keen to take a risk on me. 
 
Moving to the private side was a huge culture shock. The evaluation process took weeks and months rather than seconds, and the "tickets" (investments) were smaller but committed for much longer duration. However the guts of the work was the same; have a differentiated view and a hunger to find great companies. The added layer of complexity was that once you found a company you wanted to invest in, you had to then convince the management teams to let you be the one they should work side by side with. This required relationship development and people management, which fortunately I had been practising for years - whether it was corralling band members onto a tour bus, or managing egos during the friendly fire negotiations on a trading floor. 
 
Two years of experience in the trenches at the Africa focused private equity group (including a trip to Sierra Leone at the start of the Ebola outbreak...), and the corporate America blinkers were fully off. I now had the experience to match my qualifications, and so was able to take another step towards my dream job of having my own consumer focused investment fund. Since May this year I've been working with a fantastic team making investments in businesses ranging from high street retailers and art house cinemas, through to the ASOS-like platforms in emerging economies and the latest customer big data technologies. I absolutely love that the businesses I look at from a financial perspective are the same businesses my friends and family have a view on from a consumer perspective. These are innovative and ground-breaking businesses, which touch millions of us every day. 
 
Finance is not a cold or old-fashioned industry. It's the lifeblood of businesses - and can empower great ideas which go on to touch all of us. From an industry I so readily wrote off to one I plan a lifelong love affair with, aged 30 I consider myself just at the very beginning of my career. 
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