Hiring Circle meets Farieha Altaf
Farieha talks about turning your differences to your advantage.
“I was aware that I was “different,” but I’ve asked myself; “how do I use that to my advantage?””…
Originally from Pakistan, Farieha studied Chemistry at Oxford University. Following graduation, she joined a mid-market Private Equity fund as a graduate; an unusual move as historically PE professionals have typically built a foundation of skills and experience within consulting firms, banks or Big 4 through formal graduate training schemes. Despite often finding herself in the minority from many perspectives, she has established an accomplished career within PE over the past 5 years. In this interview Farieha speaks honestly about the lessons she has learnt along the way and demonstrates how to successfully turn differences to your advantage.
Firstly, tell me about your decision to join a Private Equity fund as a graduate straight from Oxford.
If I'm honest, my move to PE was semi-accidental. I did a Chemistry degree at Oxford, which I loved, but I missed meeting people and didn’t want to be in a lab setting for the rest of my career! The two common options that were open to me were 1) academic research or 2) a front office role in a bulge bracket bank, but neither of these appealed to me. I really loved Chemistry and didn’t want to lose the subject knowledge or analytical skills, so I interned at a hedge fund and asked if I could do some pharma research for them. This was my break into finance. I worked with ex-Bain consultants and they identified that I was naturally good at building relationships with management teams of businesses – so they suggested PE as a career. I found an internship at a mid-market private equity fund where they wanted someone to build a life-sciences pipeline of investments and it continued from there.
What do you view as the keys to success for graduates moving straight into the PE industry?
Probably the most important thing to succeeding is being a self-starter. Grads moving into the PE industry, especially in the mid-market, must remember that there is likely to be very little formal training or ramp-up. It’s different to joining a grad programme as there are leaner teams and great responsibility from day one. You need to be able to up-skill yourself and be confident in building conviction on investments as you’ll be having Director/Partner level conversations early on, sharing insights on whether something is a good investment or not.
Probably the most important thing to succeeding is being a self-starter.
Typically for grads on graduate schemes, the opportunities to have these conversations with senior professionals would take a while, even years. Whereas, as a grad starting in PE you could be leading meetings relatively soon, and will not be able to hide behind your director or manager. For example, I was put in front of a CEO of a priority deal within weeks of joining my role!
How did you go about making an impact in your day to day role and differentiating yourself?
Given that I joined as a junior with no experience into a team with lots of M&A experience, I constantly asked myself; “how do I make a difference?” in every meeting I sat in. Having an entrepreneurial mindset is key to this. Perhaps you can think of different sectors others haven’t thought of? Or perhaps you can build relationships with different angles?
I constantly asked myself; “how do I make a difference?”
Personally, I have a great academic network so I could call my old tutors and peers up about different niches in the healthcare market and ask them questions such as “what are the emerging trends?” It was vitally important to maximise what I had that others didn’t. In the mid-market, you are also dealing with Founders/CEO’s of small businesses – not corporates. They will warm up to people with a similar entrepreneurial outset and those that step into their shoes when making suggestions for how to effectively grow their businesses. This made the relationship building much easier.
Being young, how easy is it to build credibility and relationships with more senior professionals?
On the credibility front, it is important to be really prepared for every meeting and build professionalism quickly. You represent the fund – you need to do your background work and research and prove you know your stuff. It’s your responsibility to show that you and your fund can add value to the business if they partnered with you. Being accurate, thoughtful and measured in your responses is key in these meetings.
On a personal level, you are dealing with people at different life stages. Most people were older than me and most had kids so it was important to find the hooks. When you build these relationships, find common ground. Ask yourself what you can talk about? Family? Hobbies? Did they go to university with any of your tutors perhaps?
It remains quite unusual for PE funds to take on grads, though of course there are exceptions to that rule. So without that well-trodden path, how do you map out your personal career path?
I think you need to remember that you won’t be joining with a cohort so it is important to build your own community, map out where grads/junior pe professionals are in other funds and utilise that network to reference and plan your development. I would suggest speaking to these graduates/junior pe hires to find out which learning and development resources they found most helpful and making an effort to identify your own skills and gaps. Ask yourself which courses will genuinely be most helpful for you / how much self-learning can you do?
Self-branding and mentors to help you maintain it is key.
The other question is, how do you implement and stick to that path? Most PE funds will have money to put behind a certain amount of training but how do you manage that with your work-life balance? Can colleagues help and do they have the time to sit with you for an hour every now and again?
As someone who joined the industry so early on, what in your opinion is key to having a sustainable long-term career in Private Equity?
Self-branding and mentors to help you maintain it is key. As you get to your mid to late 20’s it’s important to work out how to balance your personal and professional interests. Particularly for women – you want survival on a personal perspective but you want progression on the professional side too. There is definitely a lack of women mentors – but there are many feminist men in the industry! I use Deloitte M&A, Level20 and other networks, but having men as advocates is key as they know how to educate other men and promote gender equality in the workplace.
What has your experience of the industry been like being female and from a BAME background?
When I first joined as a grad being one of the few women didn’t phase me as I was hungry to succeed and from an academic background which is super male dominated! I was aware that I am “different,” but I’ve asked myself; how do I use that to my advantage?
It’s clear that there is underrepresentation from the BAME community in the PE industry.
I come across open minded, good at building connections and very approachable. On a number of occasions, I have found it easy to build relationships with management teams of businesses by relating over the differences and being transparent about fitting into the pe world. My perspectives are also unique given my background, particularly useful when discussing growth strategies for businesses.
It’s clear that there is underrepresentation from the BAME community in the PE industry. It’s a relationship driven job – it's reading people and finding common ground. A lot of founders don’t come from an ethnically diverse background or class. A lot of socialising revolves around alcohol and playing golf. It was really important to me to work on changing the ways relationships are built and work out how to implement that. I didn't play golf, so I preferred networking over other sports instead!
When you look back at when you made that move to PE as a graduate, was there anything you wished you’d known that you’d like to share with current graduates looking to make the move?
When I first began my career journey I didn’t have a huge amount of information about the industry. I didn’t have a mentor to help me with any questions and issues so I’d really like to provide any current graduates looking to follow the same path with the toolkit to prepare themselves. But I'd also like to give a balanced view and remind them that it won’t be a walk in the park! There is a lot of hard work to be done, personally and professionally. I would encourage candidates not to get carried away by a flashy career at a big name, which are usually the only places they’ve heard of. Know yourself and work out the type of firm that would suit you. The mid-market can be an excellent place to start, but you need to do your research and referencing. When I was a graduate I wish someone had asked “What are your life goals”, “What is your evidence that you want to go into healthcare” and most importantly “What is your Plan B?”.