By Cleo Thompson (London), founder of The Gender Blog
Twenty-seven year old Stephanie Niven is aiming high. As sole Portfolio Manager of the Fundamental Strategy of the Global Equity Strategies Fund at specialist equity boutique Javelin Capital LLP, she has already been named both the Young Professional of the Year at the Women in Banking and Finance (WIBF) 2011 Awards and as one of Management Today’s 35 Women Under 35.
The list, published annually, showcases the UK’s highest achieving young women, acknowledging female talent in a variety of industries and disciplines. Nearly half of this year’s list includes women involved in the successful start-up of new corporations, with Stephanie’s inclusion reflecting her role as part of a three person team from Goldman Sachs who established Javelin Capital in 2009.
A self-described “geek”, albeit one who also competes in triathlons, Niven’s career indicates how it’s possible to find success in the City without the typical background of an economics or finance degree. She has a double first in History from Oxford University and describes history as her “passion, rather than a vocation – but the skills that I bring from an arts degree, such as assessment and the ability to constantly be learning, are very useful in a stimulating environment such as the City.”
From Water Polo to Emerging Markets
As a student, Niven decided to apply to Goldman Sachs for a sought-after internship once she saw water polo team aiming for jobs in investment banking.
“I applied because I played water polo and I knew older guys on the team who were applying to the banks, so it gave me the idea to do the same. It also gave me the confidence to both learn about it and to apply for myself.”
Following her summer internship at GS as a member of the Global Active Equity Team, Niven then returned post-graduation and ran a basket in the multi-approach Emerging Markets equity long-short strategy, which invested in global materials.
“I was a member of the European team but it was a global industry, so I wasn’t restricted only to Europe. I travelled to Chile and Africa and became known for being very hands-on. I met a lot more people who worked in areas such as Japan and China; this built me a great web of connections.”
At the same time, Niven continued her professional education by taking the Chartered Financial Analyst exams and passing all three stages immediately – a rare and immensely tough challenge.
The Importance of Sponsorship
Echoing the words of Marion King, CEO of VocaLink and keynote speaker at the 2011 WIBF Awards, who urged women to seek out sponsors throughout their careers, Niven started working with Victor Pina, now the Managing Partner at Javelin Capital. Then a VP at Goldman Sachs, he was trying to develop a new investment process and he became her informal mentor. Describing how her career became aligned with his, Niven followed Pina to Javelin when he was approached to set up a new boutique firm in 2009.
“It was an obvious decision for me – and I’ve never looked back. I’m directly responsible for every investment decision I make; I’m only 27 and it’s pretty rare to have that level of autonomy. Obviously, there’s a lot of pressure and stress, but then I couldn’t do a job without stress and challenges.”
She continued: “Back when I started work, it was quite daunting. I was very shy and I used to do the stereotypical thing of keeping quiet and writing my notes, before gradually realising that actually, it’s OK to speak up. I’ve now learned to be more confident – don’t falter, don’t let anyone intimidate you, men or women! And be flexible – respond to change, flex your style.
“I was one of eight interns in my division, of whom four were women. Wealth management is more female friendly, more open to taking candidates from an arts background. And the hours are slightly better, with fewer early mornings. The atmosphere is less obnoxious, without the sharp talking that you see on the dealing floor.”
Big Bank vs Start Up
Niven is clear about the contrasts between her new boutique and Goldman Sachs.
“Goldmans was a fantastic place to start. I was thrown in at the deep end and expected to step up immediately, complete with a huge learning curve and a specialisation – in my case, mining materials. Whereas with Javelin, it’s so different. I get involved in everything and it would have taken me 15 years to get that amount of experience at GS. I do lots of marketing, I interact with different parts of the business infrastructure, I speak to brokers and dealing desks. I’m far more conscious of what I do and the impact it can have.”
Barriers and Challenges
Wise beyond her years and currently the only woman in her team of six, Niven hopes to see more women getting involved in fund management, particularly at more senior levels and urges senior women who have already broken through to support and mentor their more junior colleagues as much as they can.
“I’d love to see more senior role models and get ideas for paths to follow. And being heard is a huge issue; often people don’t listen to you in the same way they might listen to a man. You do need to be confident in yourself and to be prepared to ignore people. Ignore the fact that you may be the centre of attention at a conference. Tell yourself that you’re worthy of being there. Don’t be intimidated. It’s easy to curl up in the corner – but just go ahead and get on with it!”
Javelin is too small currently to have development programmes specifically aimed at women, so Niven looks for support externally, having recently joined WIBF and 100 Women in Hedge Funds.
Out of work, the former water polo player now competes in marathons and triathlons, including participating in an Ironman triathlon in Zurich this summer.
“I do a lot of training for the three sports, but the real bonus is that it’s another informal way of networking via the people who I know in sport – so I’m always building connections, but on a more equal playing field.”