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'I was an international student but I never felt like one at ICEF'

Tonka Lange

Tonka Lange

Tonka Lange earned her bachelor’s degree from ICEF in 2008. She obtained her master’s from LSE and earned an MBA from INSEAD after five years at Goldman Sachs. Since 2021, Tonka has been with Amazon (Singapore) as its Senior Treasury Analyst. In this interview, Tonka gives finance majors tips for surviving a financial crisis and shares how to make the most of master’s studies at LSE and how to benefit from MBA.

The power of love for math

In 1997 when Bulgaria was about to join the European Union, many of its industries came to a halt. My father was offered a job in Russia, and the whole family relocated. 

It was late August when we arrived in Moscow. I didn’t speak a word of Russian but was due to go to a Russian school. My parents brought me to school on September 1 and said to me, pointing their fingers at the teacher, “Follow this lady. She will show you around.” I had to learn Russian as fast as I could. Later, this ability to adapt quickly and deal with unexpected problems became my fundamental skill that predetermined many events to come in my future life. 

One year later, fluent in Russian and a student of a regular school, I started to feel I was working below my potential. I have always had a passion for mathematics. We lived in Zelenograd back then and we were happy to discover that the area’s best school with concentration on mathematics and physics was exactly there in Zelenograd. I enrolled in that school and boredom ceased to be an issue.

Why ICEF felt like home

I was an international student but I never felt like one at ICEF. I came to Russia when I was 11, because my parents relocated for work. As a foreigner, I wasn’t eligible for tuition free university studies, but I could enroll in any fee-based programme that didn’t require entrance tests, including Moscow State University Faculty of Mechanics and Mathematics. There were two options for me – to continue my studies abroad at a mediocre school, since the secondary education received in Russia has no value in the West, or to enroll in an international programme in Russia.

My parents advised me to choose ICEF. Because of LSE, which has a proven track record and is trusted by employers globally. There was one problem however – English. The school I went to had a strong concentration on physics and mathematics, not languages. I nevertheless strived for excellence, so I set myself up for learning the language. Losing my chance to enroll in ICEF meant having to leave the country. 

Why lack of internship opportunities can have a bad effect

Unlike with learning environment, which was absolutely perfect at ICEF, the internship opportunities didn’t seem possible for me. While most of the students were free to do internships already in their first year of studies, my international student status made me ineligible for getting officially employed in Russia, which had delayed the start of my career considerably. For a Russian company to employ an international student, even if they are a student of a public university, it has to go through a complicated and effort-consuming procedure. But I nevertheless continued to attend all career events there were to attend. I even passed job interviews but was never made a job offer. 

I had officially lived in Russia for 10 years trying to figure out why I couldn’t be eligible for employment

It wasn’t until I completed my master’s studies at LSE that I made another attempt to get a job in Russia. Things turned out to be much easier in the European Union on the employment side. For me, ICEF has proved an excellent source of theoretical knowledge. The hands-on skills, I got them during my further studies. 

What ICEF graduates saw as challenging at LSE 

ICEF gives its students some really useful skills by actually never letting them slow down. Each day of its five examination sessions comes with two exams in different subjects. It does boost your endurance and ability to switch from one subject area to another, which all came in handy later at INSEAD. ‘Exams’ are what happens to you every day of your professional life. One needs to get used to them a little earlier and be able to cope with challenges. 

At the same time, the Russian fundamental education is not without downsides. Student self-sufficiency is not what it cultivates in the first place. University programmes seem to be rather inflexible, with a limited choice of courses and methodologies and a preset scheme of home assignments and exams, leaving students very little liberty to opt, whereas at LSE you find yourself responsible for everything – your time, studies, goals, priorities. Being your own manager is very important not only at work but also in life in general. 

At LSE, master’s students have only one examination per year. The faculty staff don’t feel it is their duty to encourage students when they underperform. The whole learning process there builds on complete trust in students, their awareness and self-control. 

Your progress at LSE is nothing but the product of your motivation and pursuits

When me and other students of ICEF moved to London to study at LSE, we at first had a feeling its programme was a… piece of cake. With so much time on our hands, it seemed an easy road and it took us some time to realize that our end-of-year results depended completely on us, not the programme.

LSE was where I met my husband. He's earned his bachelor’s from WHU, the German equivalent of ICEF. WHU is a private university and a global leader in terms of the number of graduates among unicorn founders who started giants like Rocket Internet, HalloFresh, FlixBus, audibene, Zalando, Home24. Unlike the guys from WHU – they felt deeply responsible for their role in the learning process and were working literally days and nights at the library – we spent our time hanging out because we thought we were pretty savvy and could afford being carefree. But unlike us, all German students from WHU graduated with honours. The resources available to LSE are simply immense, one being the access to the top professors. Whether you make the most of them depends on your personal goals.

Surviving the start of your career

The start of my career wasn’t a terribly good one I must say. A financial crisis broke out just when I completed my master’s studies. My plan was to get a quant job, but quants were the first to be laid off. Now that I’ve adopted a philosophical attitude towards life, I am even thankful for that stressful experience that I early in my career. I learned how to survive. 

Then, an internship opportunity came my way from the department for strategic management at Henkel head office. Knowing that the department was headed by one of the company’s five presidents and was a prestigious one to work in, I grabbed at it. I went to Germany to work there for a year as a business analyst doing market and comparative analysis for senior management at a very high level. I returned to London fully confident, as it seemed to me back then, I wanted to be in IB.  

The position I accepted was in the sales department of BNP Bank office in London. It involved managing some interesting projects and cooperating with regions of Russia, CIS, and South Africa. Communicating with clients did prove a unique experience, but I soon realized sales were not where I wanted to be in. My day started at 7:43 a.m, two minutes before my boss. She usually arrived at 7:45. The other way round would be bad for my karma. And I wouldn’t get back from work earlier than one o'clock at night. How long can I go on, I wondered. Was it worth it? What there any point in doing my manager's job?

Searching for meaning at Goldman Sachs and fulfillment at Amazon

I decided to move back to Germany and I soon got a job at Goldman Sachs, a turning point in my career. I joined the team of its Corporate Treasury and what proved an incredibly interesting project, which was unique even according to Goldman Sachs’ standards. Our task was to integrate into the bank’s structure a whole division represented by three companies in different European countries, whose employees were to be transferred to Germany. It required not only the knowledge of finance, but also the skills of a project manager. As to the international communication skills, I had them thanks to my international employment history and I was well aware of time management perceptions and business thinking specific of particular nations. 

It felt right to be in that project. I found it highly inspiring. After eighteen months at Goldman Sachs, I asked for a transfer to its office in Singapore, where I worked for another three years, managing the liquidity of sixteen different currencies in Southeast Asia from the perspective of corporate treasury. That experience has proved very useful in my current job at Amazon, where I’m in charge of 20 projects in 10 countries of Southeast Asia.

My team at Amazon is responsible for expanding the market for our treasury operations. If Amazon should decide to break into a new country, my duty is to ensure that there is adequate infrastructure in place and that we would be able to pay and receive money from customers by analyzing and finetuning the corporate finance. Amazon's corporate treasury has a staff of 250, who are accountable directly to the CFO for all the finance available to the company there. Notwithstanding Amazon’s overall focus, my position does not involve a lot of technicalities. What is does involve is finance skills.

Why study for an MBA

I resisted this step for a long time. Unlike the majority of my classmates at ICEF, who obtained their MBA degree much earlier than me, it took me much longer to find my true calling. There were two goals I pursued while doing my MBA at INSEAD – networking and searching for meaning, the latter being a prerequisite to my self-sufficiency. My decision to do an MBA coincided with my midlife crisis. I felt I wanted to be motivated by being able for impact some of the work-related processes.

At Goldman Sachs, I felt I had no connection with product resultant from my work – okay, I can move billions of dollars every day and what?

Professionally, I felt this gap between strong hard skills and weak soft skills. But in the end, my MBA studies gave me more than I expected – I had myself figured out faster than in my entire life that year. Now, I feel like I’m my own person and I know my goals. I know where to go and I feel good about myself. What I also learned during my MBA studies was self-presentation. It is now easier for me to present myself to companies as an expert and full-fledged professional. 

In Singapore, as in London and continental Europe, professional connections are extremely important as there are so many INSEAD graduates here. You can go to any company and find dozens of people from INSEAD who will want to talk to you and even offer help – this opens up huge opportunities. I can’t say how long I am going to work in Asia. We shall see what we shall see, but my husband and I think we might return to Europe. So, this network of social contacts that I have – when you can call the people you studied together with at any time – still plays a big role in life and business communication. It’s good to know you have the people who will always be there to help, because they are a part of a community of people you belong to. And I know that the alumni community of ICEF in Russia works in exactly the same way: it is a great source of support and confidence that there are many like-minded people in many different fields.