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‘ICEF was a turning point for my future career’

‘ICEF was a turning point for my future career’

Olga Shikhantsova is a Bachelor’s graduate from the Faculty of Economic Studies (FES) and a Master with a degree in Financial EconomicsICEF. In the early spring of 2021, she joined the SpeedInvest venture capital fund as a Principal with a focus on seeding Fintech. In May, Olga was included on the Forbes’ 30 Under 30 list in the Finance and Investment category. In this interview with the HSE News Portal, Olga speaks about her work in the venture capital industry, time management, management philosophy and her affection for HSE University.

How I entered HSE University

I was very good at maths in high school, so I wanted to continue studying it while also learning some professional skills. Of course, I dreamt of entering a top university, so before applying, I compared the programmes offered by HSE University, Moscow State University, and Moscow Institute of Physics and Technology. These were the only options I was interested in. As I was one of the winners of the Lomonosov Olympiad for high school students, I could enter any of them, but I decided on HSE University.

This university appealed to me for a number of reasons. First, I adored the atmosphere of its Open Doors Days. Studying at HSE University seemed like a lovely breath of fresh air, everything looked cool and full of energy there, and I wanted to become part of that world. Second, economics is a practical area closely related to mathematics. The Faculty of Economic Studies is one of the core faculties of HSE University, and not easy to enter. That’s why I discarded all the other options.

© Fobes

I was planning to study abroad after completing my Bachelor’s programme, so I was looking for scholarship programmes offered by foreign universities, getting ready for language exams and doing everything I needed to prepare myself for enrollment. I graduated from FES in 2014. Then the Crimean incident happened and the Russian currency plummeted, so I realized that my family would not be able to pay for my living expenses even if I received a scholarship. I thought I might apply for ICEF because I wanted to continue my studies at HSE University with some elements of foreign education included in the Master’s programme. I wasn’t able to study abroad, but I was so deeply in love with everything that had happened to me at the Faculty of Economic Studies that I thought to myself ‘Okay, why not stay at HSE University for another couple of years?

My student life

I had never studied in one of Moscow’s top schools, I went to an ordinary school in the suburbs of Moscow (Editor’s note: Olga was born and grew up in Krasnoznamensk, a town just outside Moscow). That is why I was fascinated to meet those really talented guys from Moscow and other cities who were much better than me, far cleverer, and more erudite with many hobbies and interests (some played the saxophone, some were swimming champions). This encouraged me to work harder throughout my studies.

When I’m asked what influenced my life most of all, I usually say that it was the environment and the ability to network with the right people. The environment of HSE was one of the things that influenced me. 

Another important thing was that we had to abide by very strict rules, working hard from 9 am to 9 pm, studying many hours of math analysis, linear algebra, very many hard hours of micro- and macroeconomics. It wasn’t easy to study, we had to learn a lot, but I liked that: we really had to push ourselves, stepping outside of our comfort zone. Another thing that I liked was the structure of these modules as it always kept us on our toes. Those were real but well thought out ‘sprints’: we had to study non-stop, with weeks of tests that we had to take every day, which was a kind of ‘running’ for results, followed by ‘steady jogging’, then another ‘sprint’, and so on.

When I was a second-year student, I joined the FES Student Council to participate in student activities, and a year later, I became Deputy Chair of this organization. We revived the traditions of student initiation and summer camping. We also organized a bunch of other new events, such as the FES Day and the FES Ball, and we managed to build a great team of likeminded people truly committed to everything we did. 

I relished that mixture of student activities and hard studies. When I asked myself ‘What am I proud of most of all as a student?’, I replied ‘My membership of the Student Council’ 

I began paid employment when I was doing my final year of the Bachelor’s degree. That was my first internship experience. As a Master’s student, I usually combined work and studies too: I worked full-time for a year and a half out of the two years of my studies.

I get to know the world of venture capital

The Master’s programme was a logical continuation of my studies: I knew everything about HSE University and the subjects I had to learn. For the first six months of my Master’s degree, I had been thinking of where I would like to work, talking to people from different fields, because after the internship period, I left Procter&Gamble even though they had offered me a job. Eventually, I chose a course in venture capital at ICEF. The course comprised of theoretical lectures and practical workshops given by people from the industry who could share real case studies with us. ICEF was a turning point for my future career.

Kostantin Stiskin, a FES graduate, came to our final lecture. As a person who worked for a venture investment fund, he was eager to share his knowledge with others. His story fascinated me, and I realized that I wanted to work in that sphere. I began looking for a job in the venture industry. It took me some time and effort, but I finally managed to get there. I have been working in venture capital for six years now, and I have no plans to leave the industry.

Olga Shikhantsova has worked for a number of Moscow venture capital funds, including Binomial Ventures, where she closed three deals: with Raisin, a savings and investment marketplace, the Foodfox delivery service, and Yieldify, a customer journey optimization platform. In autumn 2017, she received an offer from Target Glogal and moved to Berlin, where this international venture capital firm has its headquarters. In March 2021, Olga was appointed Principal with a focus on seed Fintech at the SpeedInvest venture capital fund.

My interest in the venture capital industry

I thought that with a degree in economics, people ended up working in the financial department of a consulting firm, a bank or an insurance company. I wasn’t particularly attracted by any of those options and at that time, I didn’t know that I could specialize in the tech industry.

My perception was that the tech industry was strictly for those who knew how to ‘code’, rather than for people specializing in economics (despite the fact that I had a magnificent course in econometrics in HSE University, where I learned to ‘code’). This is why I went through an unclear period, when I didn’t understand what I should be doing in the future. 

I did not want to work in consulting, because I honestly thought that it meant a very superficial knowledge of different industries. Today, you are providing consulting services to a chemical plant, tomorrow—to a bank, and the day after tomorrow—on climate policy; so I knew I would not be able to get any deeper expertise and understanding of any industry. You have advised something as a consultant, so what? Will there be any change? Is there any value in your advice? I am not trying to devalue this sphere, I just want to explain how I personally felt. I now know that in consulting I could apply the knowledge I received at HSE University. I have many friends who graduated from this university, I personally participate in hiring consultants, and I understand that it is a great opportunity for learning. However, it wasn’t really my cup of tea. I felt the same about other potential development options. 

What did I envision for myself? I wanted to use the hard skills I had. I adored everything connected with investment analysis: a large array of input data, numerous unknown variables, and a clear task of maximizing the benefits. Moreover, I wanted to communicate with people, to be among them and to work with them—the opportunities I had as a member of the Student Council. 

Venture capital appears to be an ideal combination of these things because my job involves constant interaction with people and looking for companies I can invest into and with which I will go a long way to success

My work includes both ongoing communication with people and the continuous process of review and selection in conditions of uncertainty. I have meetings with about 35-50 companies a week, and I need to tell them either ‘yes’ or ‘no’. Overall, I close 5 or 6 deals a year, which means I have to say ‘no’ in most cases.

After entering the industry, I quickly realized that it is a fantastic environment, where I have the privilege of everyday communication with the founders of startups, who know much more than me about the industry they are trying to change. I have been lucky enough to learn from them throughout their development and assist them in building their venture financing story.

My advice to startup founders

I would recommend those who are launching a startup not to immerse themselves too deeply into their own vision, but rather to look around and check if there are people ready to pay for the product/service in question and how much these people are willing to pay. You should give each hypothesis a reality-check as early as possible to discard things that do not work and try something else, so that you are investing your time and resources in something that does work.

It is necessary to surround yourself with the right people—a team of smart, experienced and complementary co-thinkers and advisors. The product may change many times, but the people who surround you will move your business forward.

Overall, sourcing people and team building are about soft skills and communication, which were often missing in our training in the higher education system. We should not underestimate these skills. Nowadays, they are a necessity: communication and negotiation skills, and even things like stress resilience and flexibility of thinking.

On juniors and managers

I do not really like the word ‘director’ and the typical Russian hierarchy. Your promotion does not mean ‘I am your boss now, so listen only to me’. You hire people that in some aspects are smarter and better than you so that everyone can contribute to your common cause. In addition, I always leave some room for mistakes and let my subordinates convince me otherwise. This is especially important in the venture capital environment, because emerging investors should have their personal opinions. Otherwise, they will not survive in the world of investments. They need to be able to make decisions and to take a clear position. Yes, their opinion may be wrong, but the ability to justify and promote it is an important skill. I am ready to provide this opportunity to my colleagues and to leave room for their mistakes. 

Another equally important thing is that managers should not underestimate juniors, and juniors should not underestimate themselves. You can always bring some new perspective to the common cause, so you need to believe in yourself and in your opinion. Undoubtedly, this only works if you’re subject to ongoing self-improvement, proactivity and the readiness to go an extra mile and to perform at a much higher level than needed. I was lucky: I always worked with excellent managers, I learned a lot from them, and they always gave me the freedom of opinion and the right to make mistakes. 

I have always done more than I needed to 

The promotion from a junior position to that of a manager is not an end in itself, but a new round of growth and development. I continue to learn and improve myself, but with a renewed perspective. The goal and the objectives are the same: to invest into the best companies and to build the best portfolio. However, I will not be able to build it on my own, I need to bring people to my team so that we can do it together. 

When you are 26 or 27, people who don’t know you tend to say ‘What can this person give me, what do they know and understand?’ I have never been embarrassed about my age and lack of knowledge. I never hesitated to ask questions and to communicate my ideas. This helps your personal development, and eventually people around you start seeing your progress and listening attentively to what you have to say. Pro-activeness and not being afraid to ask questions helps you to grow professionally and to move forwards.

On time management

With my tight schedule, I don’t have a spare minute mainly due to a huge number of meetings and phone calls. I try to allocate two hours a day just for myself. I might spend this time doing sport, reading a book, having a training session with a coach, a walk or breakfast with a close friend—some personal things that nourish me. Sometimes these two hours may be shifted from morning to evening, and sometimes the two hours become one, but I always try to fix my personal time and working time in my calendar. 

I know that if I had only focused on studies when I was a student, I would rapidly have become burnt out. Fortunately, my life included both studies and the Student Council activities for my own pleasure. I believe that one helped the other. My current job takes up the biggest portion of my life, but I’ve still got hobbies: yachting, tennis, music. It is very important to be able to switch between the two.

I’m also constantly searching for ways to change working habits within my business. It is not efficient to be on phone calls from 9 am to 9 pm, so I include other adjacent tasks in my working day schedule. A burnt-out manager is a big problem for the team, so you should not let yourself reach these condition. I also try to monitor the condition of my team, because I want them to be happy in order to function efficiently.

I don’t think I’m an expert in time management, and I do not believe I’ve managed to beat the system. I am always learning, and fuelling myself with ideas from smarter people, I go through experiments, make mistakes and experiment again.

On people I look up to and my plans for the future

My bosses and partners during my career in the investment sphere were my mentors and friends rather than just managers. They served as a reference point for me, helping me to understand how to interact with the team both now and in the future.

I have my close people, my personal advisors in various specializations and backgrounds, who can always give me good advice. Almost every person has something you can learn from, I am very much open to that, which is probably the key reason why I chose my profession. I’m inspired by my family and the people that surround me. I have always been ‘driven’ by stories of athletes because I enjoy sports very much. I love doing sports and watching competitions, cheering on the athletes. I try to learn different things from as many people as I can and get inspired by other people’s experience.

I try not to plan too far ahead. You need to be more than flexible in the tech industry: everything changes so quickly. For the next few years, I aim to stay and develop in the venture capital industry—this is a powerful driver for me. Currently, I am not thinking about returning to Russia because the outlook is better and interest is stronger (especially given the things I have already accomplished here) in the European environment, where the fintech sphere is booming.

I have been living in Berlin for the last three years, but if I count the number of days I have spent outside this city, I would probably call London my home.  I don’t like staying in one place for too long, I often travel to see my companies, and this is currently my idea of a perfect life—always on the go and meeting new people.