An Interview with … Hanneke Smits

An Interview with … Hanneke Smits

Hanneke Smits is the CEO of Newton Investment Management. She is co-Founder, former Chair and steering committee member of Level 20, a not-for-profit organisation that she set up to inspire women to join and succeed in the private equity industry, and a Trustee of Impetus-PEF, a venture philanthropy organisation.  She spoke to Cityparents members last week about her career, family life and decisions she had to make along the way.

Q: What has influenced your career choices and interests?

A: I grew up in the Netherlands which is a small country and you soon realise at an early age how important it is to be global in your views and connected to the rest of the world. Most of the Netherlands’ GDP is from trading with other nations and as all children do in the Netherlands, I learnt English, German and French. So I grew up surrounded by different cultures and languages. My parents were completely supportive of my career and didn’t differentiate between how successful they thought their daughters should be compared to their son - looking back, I think this was quite unique for their generation. In my mother’s and my father’s families it had been equally important that daughters and sons had equal education opportunities.  We are shaped by our respective experiences; equal opportunities have been very important to me and I came to realise during my career that perhaps this hasn’t been the case for everyone.

Q: What difficult decisions have you had to make about your career? 

A:  I started my career in London at Pantheon back in 1992 when it was a small private equity firm.  During my 2 year MBA at London Business School I was given the opportunity of running a research project for them which gave me a great insight into their business. In 1997, I was promoted to director coupled with the opportunity to participate in the employee option scheme;  at the same time I got a call from what was to become Adams Street Partners.  They had nothing outside the US and wanted me to set up a European investment portfolio and team. Suddenly I had two amazing opportunities and a huge dilemma, which I agonised over. I decided to take the role with Adams Street as I thought it was a very interesting opportunity to have a blank sheet – to create your own investment portfolio, build a team and be part of something that could make its mark in Europe.

In 2013, I had the opportunity to take a sabbatical and think about what I wanted to do next. I had been at Adams Street a long time and it had been a fabulous opportunity.  By 2014 I decided to I was ready to do something else so I decided to leave and had a year off in 15. I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do next or even if I wanted to go back to a full-time role. If you are thinking of taking a change in your career it is incredibly healthy to have some time off. Everyone told me not to jump into the first thing that comes along which is actually quite difficult to do. Finding yourself from travelling 80-100 days a year and suddenly being at home is a huge change.

Q: Any scary moments?

A: Yes, taking on the new role at Adams Street as it was a new role and a blank canvas, and I knew it would take about 5 years to establish a track record and see the results. We also went through the internet bubble during that time and Europe wasn’t immune from that. We didn’t have much exposure to technology but it was hard not to be invested in it when everyone else was.   I was then asked to roll out the strategy for Asia and we made the first investments in 2003/04. In the meantime, the team had an opportunity to do a buy out from the private equity group of UBS Asset Management and so we formed Adams Street with 50 people and just under $5bn under management. It was a pretty scary time: the internet bubble had burst, I was 3 years in to the job and we didn’t know how good our new portfolios in Europe and Asia were going to be.  But we did the buyout and by 2014 it was very satisfying to look back and see how successful Adams Street had become. By the time I had decided to leave it had grown from $5bn under management with a US focus to $25bn under management with 6 offices on 3 continents.

Q:  How have you managed your parenting responsibilities alongside your career?  

A:  I have a very supportive husband.  We have two sons and a daughter and when we were expecting our third child he made the choice to become the main caregiver.  He had been thinking about making a career change into the hospitality industry which would have meant long, unsocial hours.  This would have been difficult to combine with managing a family and incompatible with the large amount of travelling I did in my role. He decided it wasn’t the best idea to go back to a full-time job and it definitely made things a lot easier, especially as it was the year I assumed global responsibilities - I was appointed CIO and I was travelling extensively.  Knowing that he was at home with the children was very reassuring; I have been very fortunate that he decided to do that.  Different people manage things in different ways - life is all about choices!

Q: Why did you set up Level 20? 

A:  Role models are really important – how to instill values in your children and what they learn from you. As well as role modelling for my children, I wanted to role model in terms of giving back to others at work. Which is why I set up Level 20 in my year off. Private equity is traditionally a very male environment where women comprise about 5% of senior roles. My awareness of this was raised about 6 years ago when someone asked me ‘how did I become female CIO?’ It made me realise there is a lot of bias in private equity and I wanted to see if I could change this.  This led to the creation of Level 20 which launched in 2015 with the aim of getting 20% of women into senior roles in private equity by 2020.  We do this through a mentoring programme, targeted events and recruitment. Level 20 is now funded by almost 40 private equity firms and has a CEO and office support in place as a result of which it can run independently of me/the Founder group and continue to expand.

Q: How did you find returning from maternity leave? Did you suffer from a lack of confidence?

A:  When I took maternity leave at Adams Street we had to write the maternity policy for the UK office! I didn’t take long maternity leaves so I didn’t miss that much. With my first I took 12 weeks and the second and third I took 16 weeks; this was entirely my choice as I had significant responsibility and I just felt it would be difficult to be out for longer. In terms of confidence, this was more self-imposed and I felt more aware of it when I was pregnant than on my return. I was unable to travel from 32 weeks and given I was in a global role I felt uncomfortable that I wasn’t able to contribute as much as usual.  However that was me worrying too much - my colleagues were very accommodating.

Q:  To what extent have you made your career decisions by yourself vs sought help from a coach?  

A:  I pretty much did it myself; in my early career my father was my mentor and I often asked his advice. However, during my year off after Adams Street and before Newton I kept a diary.  I wrote down how I felt and I found my own perspective changed over that year. I also made a list of inspirational people who were say 10 years ahead in their career and I asked them for advice. Much of the advice was ‘think about what you don’t want to do’, ‘network extensively’ and ‘ask lots of questions’.  Doing all this helped me focus my ideas. If you can take 6 months out to plan a career change then that’s great. However, if it’s not possible then establish a good network of peers in your company and industry, get advice and have lots of conversations - you need to invest time. Opportunities such as the Cityparents events are really good.

Q:  What have been some of the biggest hurdles you’ve faced as woman in private equity?

A:  I suppose it’s fitting in.  Early on, you try and mirror what everyone else on the team does. It takes a while to realise that there are other ways to become a team member without actually doing the same as the group. Any minority will tend to conform to what the majority does and not conforming comes with time and confidence. You stop worrying about fitting in and become your own person. Once I realised this and just focused on the job, it became much easier.

Q:  Much is said about gender differences in how men and women approach performance reviews and promotion opportunities - how much have you relied on self-promotion to progress vs recognition from others?  

A:  As an investment person, it’s important to be clear about what your track record is and producing lists each year of what you have done. How your performance is tracking the benchmark and giving that information to your managers.  I have worked with women and men reporting into me and I have definitely found that women tend to undersell their performance. As a manager, you need to make sure men and women in your team are giving you the same level of information about their performance.

Q:  Finally, people talk about whether women ‘can have it all’. What do you make of this?

A: Firstly I am not entirely sure I know what this means and secondly, I think that it’s not something that men worry about. For women, it means trying to do everything to some kind of level of perfection which is impossible. Trying to function well at work, trying to be a good mother, trying to be a fantastic partner. Something has to give and for me it was not making cup cakes at 5am! It’s like Allison Pearson’s book ‘I don’t know how she does it?’ In my view, I concluded I can’t do it all and there are tradeoffs. My daughter now bakes the cupcakes!


Released On 7th Oct 2017


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