On Tuesday evening 30 Escape the City members came together for an Escape School Q&A panel at Bathtub 2 Boardroom in Bank, London, for an intimate Q&A with three extremely successful, mid-career, finance professionals.
Introducing the panel
Isabelle Irani has recently escaped the city to found Sumerian Partners - working with philanthropic investors to achieve their ideas. She spent over 17 years working in mainstream finance in positions of serious responsibility – including Lehman Brothers, Advent Venture Partners and the Mittal Family office – LK Advisers). You can read more about what Isabelle is building here.
Rupesh Chatwani started his career as a technologist, engineer and developer. He then went the business school route (LBS). He was in tech at the time of the first dot com boom and crash and has lots of experience working in Venture Capital. More recently he worked at the EBRD (European Bank for Reconstruction & Development). He is currently plotting his next move.
Sean Costello has an equally stellar CV, coming up through Morgan Stanley, Lehman Brothers, Barclays and RBC. Somehow he also found time to produce films that won awards at the Sundance film festival. He now runs his own firm – Mayer Park Capital – which advises some of the world’s largest family offices on investments.
What did I learn?
The panel introduced themselves and talked us through their careers to-date. They kindly humoured my preset questions related to “what do you wish you had known about careers when you were 25?” and “what do you recommend for getting the most out of the corporate world?”
Some really interesting themes emerged as the event turned into more of a conversation between the panel, myself, and the attendees. I’ll do my best to do that conversation justice below.
Please add your own thoughts and reflections in the comments…
1. Joining Up The Dots
All three of the guys have moved around a lot in their 15-20 year careers.
Rupesh went from engineering to business to finance to venture investing to a development bank (US, London and Europe). Isabelle went from the markets over to the buy side and back, she founded a hedge fund, and she worked in a family investment office. Sean went from mainstream finance to business school to a startup then took two years out to work on films. He missed finance and returned to big finance before starting his own company.
The thing that struck me was that none of the three ever alluded to having a grand plan for their career.
They pursued interests, took the next logical step in their careers and reacted to opportunities and situations as they arose. It seemed like in some roles they were more fulfilled and energised than other times- but broadly they were drawing their maps as they progressed through 15-20 years of their careers.
As each of them looked back on their careers the thread became apparent (via a maze of experiences, skills, networks, and peers) but, first-time through none of them had a “grand plan” for their careers – at least it didn’t seem like that.
2. The Corporate World Is Addictive
The evening was particularly valuable for me due to the honest truths and no-bullshit messages delivered by the panel. It became apparent that there was no one-size-fits-all for building a career inside and outside of the corporate world. I liked the fact that the conversation wasn’t prescriptive.
One theme that emerged was the difficulty of disengaging from the world of finance once you’re in it. Mention was – jokingly – made of brainwashing, business class flights, bonuses, and peer comparisons. There was talk of the frenzy of competing on job titles and salaries.
The over-riding theme was the acknowledgement that it’s really hard to leave that world – your professional identity is wrapped up with your current trajectory and you can’t imagine ever being able to match your salary outside of your sector. The message was – look, it’s not easy, but it’s not as hard as you think.
3. Jumping Ship Sooner
A double theme emerged of the guys agreeing that if they had their time again they would definitely have taken more “risks” earlier in their careers. This was tempered, as some of the audience pointed out, by the fact that the conversation kept returning to the power of the networks that all three of them had built from staying in the corporate world and the mainstream of finance.
I found this interesting but didn’t feel that it invalidated the desire to have done something more exciting earlier… because had Isabelle gone to Kinshasa in 1998 or had Rupesh started a tech company in 2000… they would simply have built different networks (not necessarily better or worse).
It was, however, a good reminder of the power of the corporate world for building a really strong network – which, after all was the objective of the event itself – “how to make the most of your time in the City”!
4. Making The Most Of It
The network emerged again and again as the thing the guys most valued from their corporate careers and their business degrees. They talked of going in to bat for each other, introducing each other to clients and contacts, and generally being there for each other regularly throughout the journey.
The other theme was that a well-paid corporate job is a great place from which to make a plan. Keeping your integrity and doing your work well is a given. But, beyond that, the guys talked about not feeling bad about working on other priorities (side projects, startups, business plans) alongside your job.
We discussed how hard it is to juggle full-time highly-pressured work with, for example, an early-stage startup. The advice from the panel centred around being laser-focused on what you want and enforcing limits. “They’ll get their pound of flesh out of you – you don’t have to feel guilty about any of that!”.
5. Rethink Risk
The guys talked about how we’ve all been brainwashed into thinking that the long hard climb up the corporate ladder is the only way to build a life and a career.
They challenged us about the downside – what’s the worst that could happen if you try something that doesn’t work? You craft a story around the experience and go and get another corporate job. What’s the best that could happen? You get out there in the world and build something, have an impact, and gain new skills and new networks.
Rupesh reminded us that there has never been a better time to start a business, to raise capital and to bring a product to market. Isabelle talked about how she wished she had headed out into the field in her 20s and gone and got deep experience and skills in the social sector. Sean asked us not to prioritise someone else’s success over ours.
There was a tonne of other advice and ideas that came out during the 75 minute session (which went in the blink of an eye!) and in the pub afterwards. I want to extend a massive thank you to our three panellists for generously giving us their evenings and sharing some excellent thoughts and honest perspectives – it was a great event.
What did you learn?
What did you take away from the event? Do share your main thoughts in the comments. What do you still want to know? Ask any follow-up questions or leave us feedback in the comments.
If you enjoyed last night, we’d love to see you at another event: http://www.theescapeschool.eventbrite.co.uk/
What is Escape the City all about then?
Frustrated by climbing the corporate ladder, we decided to build a community to help people build meaningful careers doing work that matters – to them and to the world. We help talented people find unfulfilling work by making big career changes, building businesses, & going on big adventures. We’d love you to come with us on this journey.
How do you get involved?
1. Job Seeker? Create an Escape Profile to get matched to exciting jobs.
2. Aspiring Career Changer / Entrepreneur? If you’re in London, come and see us at The Escape School.