With a powerful network of professionals spanning the world, we took the opportunity of International Women’s Day to connect with some of the passionate women in our teams, who have chosen to build their careers in M&A. From seasoned professionals to those just beginning their careers, we sought to understand what compelled them to pursue a career in M&A, the challenges they may have faced in doing so, their views on what diversity can bring to deal making, and advice for the younger generation anticipating a career in the industry.
How did your M&A journey begin?
Alexandra Dubar: I graduated from a French Business School and hold an MSc in Corporate Finance. My internships, as an Investment Analyst, both at Square Capital LLP and CapHorn Invest, confirmed my desire to start my professional career in corporate finance. As I am passionate about technology and digital businesses, it was natural for me to start my career in a renowned investment bank dedicated to technology and growth companies, such as Clipperton.
Anneka Shah: I studied Economics at university and then joined KPMG, where I worked in the Financial Services team whilst studying for the ACA qualification. I realised quite early on that I really enjoyed the strategic elements, as well as the client facing nature, of the role. I joined Fenchurch Advisory Partners in 2016 and have had the opportunity to work on a variety of transactions.
Ashley Skead: I was born in South Africa and migrated to Perth, Western Australia several years where I completed my primary and secondary schooling., I commenced a one-year jazz music studies program the West Australian Academy of Performing Arts (WAAPA), and then in 2017 I decided to undertake a Bachelor of Commerce at the University of Western Australia (UWA), majoring in Finance and Economics.
During my final year of undergraduate studies, I decided to apply for a graduate position at Azure Capital. I was offered a graduate role commencing in February 2020, as well as an opportunity to complete a winter internship in July 2019.
Connie He: I was admitted into Beijing University, one of the top universities in Mainland China. Before enrolling, I was fortunate to gain a scholarship for the Chinese University of Hong Kong, where I began to be influenced by the international education. After graduating with my Bachelor's in 2006, I joined Deloitte & Touche in Hong Kong, working as a certified accountant in the audit and consulting team. After four years there, I joined Vermilion where I have worked ever since. With Vermilion, I have worked in the Shenzhen and Beijing offices, before joining the Munich office in 2014. In 2019, I also completed my MBA degree at Colombia University.
Delphine Le Court: I started my career in an M&A boutique in Paris called Ricol & Lasteyrie, where I worked for three years before deciding to join a team with an international footprint. I spent 3 years in the M&A team at Natixis in Paris, then worked as Chief of Staff for Marc Vincent, who started to develop Natixis’ M&A set-up by acquiring independent boutiques (Natixis Partners, Peter J Solomon).
I joined the PJS team in New York for three years, working on cross border deals as well as increasing relationships with Natixis both coverage and M&A teams worldwide. I then joined the Vermilion team in Beijing in July 2019, helping to leverage on Natixis’ relationships with French clients who wanted to enter the Chinese market. Chinese investors are actively looking at acquiring technology, know-how in various industries - especially those mentioned in the Made In China 2025 plan.
I am now part of the Hong Kong M&A team where I still work closely with Vermilion and also with our Australian team, Azure Capital.
Divya Dhar: I studied a fairly abstract degree at Warwick University – MORSE (Mathematics & Operational Research & Statistics & Economics). Typically, the only people who study that course are those who want to become actuaries, which was my initial plan. But after attending career fairs and speaking to investment banks who came to campus, I realised that I probably wanted a career that had a more strategic angle to it, and where I could make more of an impact. After Warwick I studied for a Master’s in Finance at London School of Economics. While studying, I did an internship at Nomura and they gave me a full-time offer and that’s where I started my career. After a year or so, I joined Fenchurch. I have always been ambitious and the prospect of a career that allowed me to be a trusted advisor to senior management of global blue chip companies drew me towards M&A.
Irina Adler: I started in the banking industry about 18 years ago as an analyst. From the very beginning, I found the work to be very intellectually stimulating and saw how being a trusted advisor could be value-added in the business world and impact the course of how industries evolve. I stayed in the industry and have been promoted over time to my current MD role.
Jenny Song: I started my M&A journey with Natixis APAC. The first deal I followed after I joined Natixis Corporate Finance Team was a cross border M&A transaction in the Food & Beverage sector. The complexity of the transaction captured my interest in M&A.
Joëlle Harfouche: My goal after business school was to start my career in a job that was challenging and with a fast-learning curve, and M&A was an obvious path. After 2 internships which confirmed my interest in M&A, I joined Natixis in 2007, and it has been going on for 14 years now! The diversity of subjects, the satisfaction of offering bank's customers regular support in their equity issues and large-scale operations and the expertise and professionalism of the different participants we deal with are all important drivers that daily strengthen my motivation and commitment for this great job.
Mary Laroche: I graduated from ESCP Business School (Paris) in 2020, with a major in Corporate finance. After two six-month internships in M&A (including one at Natixis Partners), I chose to return to Natixis Partners as an Analyst in September.
Miao Zhang: I joined Vermilion Partners in 2018, primarily focusing on cross-border M&A transactions. Prior to joining Vermilion, I worked at Deloitte in the United States for three years, providing international tax advisory services to multinational companies. My experience at Deloitte provided me an opportunity to learn about different types of transactions, including M&A and restructuring. This unique exposure helped me further develop my interests in transactions, in particular, in the M&A field. Vermilion’s expertise in cross-border transactions and extensive involvement in the China market attracted me to join the firm. I am very excited to develop my long-term career in the cross-border M&A field at Vermilion.
Roxy Zhang: My M&A journey began in 2016 when I had an internship at a boutique M&A firm in Singapore. I supported multiple cross-border M&A deals in the consumer, healthcare and industrials sectors in APAC. M&A is a very attractive area to me, as I was looking to start my career with a generalist experience where I could also develop a strong technical skill set, which I believe M&A does.
Susan Wang: I have a pretty international background and grew up in 6 different cities across North America and Asia. Moving from place to place, I got to experience and observe various cultures, languages, and environments – including a variety of different retail environments. One thing that really fascinated me was seeing how the same brand of consumer products differed in packaging, messaging and positioning across different markets. This interest led me to pursue a major in business and political economy at university, and following graduation, Consumer & Retail M&A!
Have you faced any challenges in your career?
Alexandra Dubar: As an Analyst, I’m still learning a lot on a daily basis, so my challenges are focused on growing my skill set and developing my technical knowledge to be a Tech investment banker.
Anneka Shah: The intensity of a corporate finance role is quite different to a Big 4 graduate role. The transition was definitely a shock to the system and the learning curve incredibly steep.
Ashley Skead: As my career path within banking and finance only begun in February 2020, I am yet to experience significant career-specific obstacles. In saying this, finding a healthy work-life balance has proven to be an underlying challenge for me (as I’m sure is common to many undertaking a career in M&A), however having good organisational skills and maintaining communication are avenues in which this can be managed.
Connie He: During my four years at Deloitte in Hong Kong, I had a hefty workload and often worked until midnight. But this is a difficulty that can be overcome through hard work. I found it more challenging when I first arrived at t Vermilion’s Munich office seven years ago. It was not easy to integrate into a completely new working environment in an unfamiliar county, not to mention the language and business culture barriers. I tried hard to find an ideal position in the M&A business world in Germany, and soon discovered the trend of Chinese companies investing abroad and making acquisitions. I immediately focused business development on Chinese clients investing abroad, particularly in Germany, and have achieved excellent results since 2015.
Delphine Le Court: The main challenge I faced was changing team and country many times! Each time you not only need to prove yourself in daily business, but also quickly understand each teams’ habits and cultural differences. The most important thing is to be able to adapt yourself and keep in mind that everybody has the same goal: Doing deals!
Divya Dhar: I think the first few years as an analyst are tough for everyone. It is a very steep learning curve, and I think because I did not come from a traditional finance background, I found the curve to be even steeper for me. It required a lot of perseverance and determination on my part. Back when I joined Fenchurch in 2011, I was one of only two women in the office – and if I compare that to the careers or my other female friends, who were in more typical 9-5 or 9-7 jobs, I didn’t really have anyone who was in the same position as me, and so it was important to retain perspective and understanding – it might be tough now, but I’m investing in my career. But as you get better at the job, you develop more confidence and you enjoy what you do more and more.
Irina Adler: No day is ever the same on this job. You are always faced with a new set of facts, deal intricacies and challenges. You have to learn how to adapt and be nimble, be prepared to address challenges as they arise. Also, it is important to find the right work life balance given time demands of this job.
Jenny Song: M&A is a complex product and requires us to not only have M&A knowledge, but to also understand financing, capital structure, rating, etc. The corporate finance team in APAC allows us to learn about and execute different products (Merges & Acquisitions, Debt Capital Markets, Strategic Acquisition Financing, Strategic Equity Transaction and Capital Structure and Rating Advisory), which further allows us to be more hands-on when we are executing M&A transactions.
Miao Zhang: Before joining Vermilion, I did not have much transaction related experience in China. The first challenge for me was to quickly develop knowledge base of the China market. I spent quite some time catching up on the trends and the characteristics of Chinese companies. I value this learning experience very much, as it provided me an opportunity to gain in depth understanding and develop insights of the China market.
Roxy Zhang: Every M&A deal is unique, compared to equity or debt deals which are more standardized. The most challenging part for me is to be able to learn within relatively tight timeframes, and be able to understand a wide variety of transactions from different perspectives.
Susan Wang: A challenge I faced early in my career was being afraid to speak up, especially in situations in which I was the youngest or most inexperienced person in a group. I used to think that my views and ideas were irrelevant and underdeveloped – after all, I had barely any work experience! However, one thing that Peter J. Solomon said really resonated with me – it was that his best ideas came to him in his 20’s. PJ SOLOMON has a uniquely wonderful culture of empowering and encouraging junior people to speak up and step up, and through the encouragement of my superiors and mentors, I have found that because of my relative age and unique experiences, I can often provide a differentiated perspective that is actually value-additive and even appreciated by clients.
Virginie Gasnier: I think during any career you face many challenges: building your own credibility, serving your clients with the best solutions, bringing the best of yourself by considering your own personality and assuming feminism, and the fact that things can be done in different ways for different personalities. And managing family, like many others have to do.
What do you think diversity (gender and more broadly) brings to the table in M&A?
Alexandra Dubar: I believe that diversity is beneficial to all kinds of organizations, including M&A organizations, because it is a factor which increases creativity, productivity, and ultimately, company performance.
As an advisor focused on technology, a sector which also encounters diversity challenges, I believe Clipperton has a role to play in encouraging diverse profiles being brought to the table.
Anneka Shah: Potentially different angles and perspectives resulting from greater balance and inclusion. It also enables us to evolve with our clients and stay relevant.
Ashley Skead: Gender diversity provides significant benefits to an organisation, particularly those with an M&A advisory or consultancy focus. Having a well-rounded and diverse team allows for a wider and multi-faceted talent pool, encouraging different perspectives and enhanced collaboration.
Connie He: I believe that being a woman in M&A has brought me and my female colleagues a lot of advantages. It can be relatively more efficient for us to communicate with clients and understand their M&A strategy from a different angle, which helps our team to form a comprehensive view of the project. It also helps our team gain the client's trust relatively quickly, which sets up a substantial basis for the cooperation. We also have useful contributions in projects in some sectors such as consumer products, particularly in baby/mother care products, fashion, cosmetic/skincare products.
Multi-background team members could bring new angles and unique contributions to help us complete successful M&A transactions.
Delphine Le Court: I think diversity is really important especially with the increasing number of cross-border transactions. It is a real value-add to have people on a deal who are able to understand different markets, behaviours, ways of working / communicate.
Regarding gender diversity M&A is still overwhelmingly a man's game but I think we are making good progress on this topic. I was lucky to work closely with Cathy Leonhardt (PJ Solomon) who is an impressive banker and she became my biggest role model.
Diversity of experience, skills and demographics paired with a strong shared purpose is a powerful combination.
Divya Dhar: Adding diversity to the workplace brings different perspectives. At the end of the day, M&A is an advisory business. Our clients come to us with complex issues and they need advice to make strategic decisions, and this is where diversity comes in. Being able to offer well-rounded advice with considered perspectives from different groups of people, is very important. The second impact is that I often see it translates into greater employee retention and higher employee engagement. When you work in a firm where you see there are equal opportunities for everyone, regardless of gender or background, as an employee you feel that you are working as part of a meritocratic culture that rewards hard work, and you see that everyone is treated fairly – which applies regardless whether you are in a minority or not. And that’s something that I’ve always valued at Fenchurch.
Irina Adler: We are seeing more and more female led and founded businesses. Women bring an added dimension, perspective and way of doing business. It is important to evolve with times and provide diversity in M&A advisory.
Jenny Song: Gender and cultural diversity bring different perspectives to M&A. Diverse cultural perspectives inspire creativity during execution. It’s very common in APAC that deal team members come from different backgrounds, so a diverse skill base allows us to produce a higher quality of work and create more efficient working environment.
Mary Laroche: Generally, it brings more varied points of view.
Miao Zhang: Diversity in M&A is important as people with various gender identities and backgrounds are able to bring different ideas. No matter whether they are regarding industry insights or transactional suggestions, diversified opinions are always helpful from both business development and transaction execution perspectives.
Roxy Zhang: Diversity brings balance and innovation. It can broaden perspectives and drive better decision-making process, which is incredibly important.
Susan Wang: I think diversity is incredibly important to driving innovation in any situation, and especially in M&A. Diverse perspectives, backgrounds and opinions are critical to generating creative and thoughtful solutions for clients. For example, diversity can power differentiated idea generation in M&A processes by drawing on unique insights from individuals’ different life and professional experiences. Diversity also enables access to a wider and deeper shared knowledge pool, which richens the advice that an M&A advisor can offers its clients. Furthermore, diversity leads to well-rounded teams in terms of skills and knowledge – an M&A process involves a multitude of different elements, from pitching to financial modelling to negotiation – and having a team of diverse individuals each equipped with unique strengths bears optimal results.
Virginie Gasnier: I don't think gender diversity brings something substantially different; I don't think it's a question of gender but rather a question of personality. Nevertheless, diversity, and this includes gender, origins, backgrounds, allows us to bring to a project very different points of view, which is much richer in every M&A process for our clients.
What was the most interesting M&A deal you’ve worked on so far – and why?
Alexandra Dubar: I had the opportunity to work on Smart’s MBO led by Capital Croissance. I learned a lot regarding the Adtech sector and the business model, while being exposed to the company management. I was in charge of the Information Memorandum, which requires a complete understanding of the company and its environment. Working on this deal enabled me to foster my analytical and synthetic skills.
Anneka Shah: We are very active at Fenchurch and so I have had the opportunity to work on a number of transactions. Each one has been unique in terms of type and my role. Working on the demerger and listing of Investec Asset Management (renamed Ninety One), for example, was a long term project that allowed me to gain invaluable capital markets insight.
Ashley Skead: As my experience within M&A advisory and capital markets is limited, I haven’t had the chance to be fully involved in an M&A deal from preliminary engagement to completion. In saying this, I have worked on various live processes and BD initiatives covering a variety of sectors including mining services, engineering, retail, and IT, some of which reached advanced negotiations.
Jenny Song: The most interesting M&A deal I worked on was Sanyuan Foods and Fosun International acquiring a French spread business – St Hubert. This deal gave me the exposure to see how two management teams with different cultural backgrounds handle a transaction, as well as their perspectives of managing the business in the future. It was a meaningful deal as the acquisition introduced healthy and innovative foods into China and is aligned with the Chinese government’s policy to support and drive technological innovation.
Mary Laroche: I’m currently working on a very interesting deal in the Food industry. Because the team is small, despite the fact that I am still junior, I get to be involved in more work streams than what I would usually be.
Miao Zhang: I am extremely lucky to have the opportunity to engage in many interesting transactions in different sectors at Vermilion, including consumer, industrials, financial services, and natural resources. It is very difficult to pick one particularly interesting M&A deal, as most of the deals I worked on are interesting from different aspects. In general, the most attractive part of M&A deals for me is the opportunities to learn insights of different industries and companies, and the chances to interact with people from multiple background.
Roxy Zhang: The most interesting deal I have worked on is ENGIE ANZ’s sale of its majority stakes in the renewable platform to ICG. This is a milestone project in my career as it is the first sell side deal I have closed after joining Natixis. I got significant exposure to the renewable industry and developed more quantitative skills set / modelling skills. Most importantly, the overall experience working with the deal team was very enjoyable.
Susan Wang: The most interesting deal I’ve worked on was the sale of an online women’s apparel brand to another leading online retailer in 2017. I had been following the women’s apparel brand and its founder for many years prior to the deal (I was a huge fan and avid customer in high school!), so when I found out PJ SOLOMON was engaged on the assignment I knew I had to work on it. The deal was an incredible learning experience and opportunity to not only interact with but advise a trailblazing entrepreneur that I had long admired.
Can you share an occasion or situation where you made an impact in the career of younger colleague?
Connie He: I used to have lunch often with a former senior analyst at Vermilion, and we’d discuss all manner of things. One time she asked my opinion regarding her choice of timing and location to study for an MBA. Together we analyzed many factors that contributed to her final choice, such as the macroeconomy situation, the school's geographical and industrial focuses, and her career planning for the next five years, which was the most crucial factor. In the end, she chose to pursue her MBA study in one of the top business schools in China, and she is now one of the top performers at a leading private equity house in Mainland China.
Delphine Le Court: I don’t know if I made any impact on anyone’s career per se, but I was very touched when I received messages from younger colleagues saying they enjoyed working with me a lot. Warren Buffett says whom you work for matters to your success. I have been lucky to work with people I admired, and I hope I will also become a human-centered leader one day.
Divya Dhar: At Fenchurch we have a mentor and buddy system, so when we have junior analysts come in, usually a director or a VP will look out for them, give career advice, make sure that they are settling in well. Over the years I’ve had people I’ve mentored and the one that springs to mind is a young woman who was very good at what she did, but whenever we’d have meetings, she was always very quiet, shy and hesitant to voice her opinions, and consequently didn’t get the recognition she deserved. We had a coffee and a chat about the importance of contributing and increasing her visibility, and she put the discussion into practice and in the months following, she started to get the recognition she deserved. I often see that junior bankers are afraid to speak out – perhaps due to their inexperience –but at Fenchurch we always encourage junior colleagues to speak – M&A is a very relationship drive business, if you think as a junior that you can wait until VP or director to start interacting with clients, you can’t, it’s too late – you need to start developing relationships at the beginning of your career.
Irina Adler: I have tutored many young professionals over the course of my career. I have also tutored many young working moms as they were thinking through their work / life balance. As one example, I recall helping my colleague who was a VP and just had twins navigate getting back to work and adjust to her new role as a working mom.
Virginie Gasnier: I think you can be inspiring based on your own accomplishments without even really realizing that you have had an impact on a younger colleague; however, younger colleagues have regularly come to ask for advice or help in their careers or to make certain choices, at that point you have made an impact and your opinion is important to them.
What advice would you give to young women interested in a career in transactional work?
Alexandra Dubar: Working in a transactional environment is ensuring a strong learning curve for all young professionals willing to strengthen their professional skill set at light speed. I would highly recommend this career path as a first step to young women interested in M&A. If I had a specific advice for women willing to enter this field, it would be to be self-confident and trust that our value as women lies in our difference.
Anneka Shah: If you have a genuine interest in this space, don’t be afraid to reach out to people and learn about their experiences. Also, keep up to date with industry developments and transactions, so that you are as well informed as possible.
Ashley Skead: Never underestimate yourself – a career in M&A advisory can be challenging and is largely male-dominated, however this should never deter you from pursuing a career within the industry or diminish your understanding of your own capabilities
In terms of preparing for a career in M&A, my advice would be to constantly keep up to date with capital markets and M&A transactions to ensure you have a solid contextual understanding of the industry.
Connie He: Always keep your career planning in mind. Based on that, you can choose a job that will make fair use of your competencies and allow you to enhance your skillset by learning from working.
From my experience, being proactive in thinking is essential, especially when your senior colleagues might not assign you a specific job/task but rather giving you a direction.
Finally, be brave, speak out your opinions and ideas. Your senior colleagues would appreciate your contribution!
Delphine Le Court: Be bold, take risks!
Divya Dhar: M&A is a challenging career and you have to be prepared to work hard. But at the same time, it’s very rewarding – not just in terms of monetary compensation, but the exposure you get to CEOs and chief decision makers at some of the biggest corporates in the world. Your clients are very successful, super smart and highly motivated individuals – there is so much you can learn from them. The advice we give to clients has a huge strategic impact on the company and its employees. We help our clients create shareholder value. But you genuinely must enjoy what you do and enjoy transactions. In terms of skills, you should be a good listener, you need analytical skills, and you need to be a good communicator. In terms of preparation, read up on M&A, keep up to date on trends driving deal activity and the sectors you are interested in. The more technical aspects of the job can be learnt on the job, but a drive and hunger to learn more are things you must be naturally born with!
Irina Adler: Believe in yourself and your abilities. Do not play it safe, try to challenge yourself. Spend time with other women in business to educate and familiarize yourself with work and be comfortable with the journey you are about to undertake.
Jenny Song: Having strong corporate finance and accounting knowledge would definitely be a huge plus to kickstart a career in M&A. The primary and value-added work faced by the junior teams in M&A is to build financial models and perform valuation analysis. Besides that, having a strong interest in M&A is also a must, as you will need to work over time, pick up and absorb new knowledges quickly along the execution process and deal with ad-hoc requests within a short time frame.
Mary Laroche: Persevere in your job and/or internship searches. Getting through interviews without previous experience requires a lot of preparation and personal work upstream, but if it is what you deeply want to do, it is worth it!
Miao Zhang: I think it would be helpful to have some basic knowledge of a particular industry (or industries) and keep track of industry trends and milestone events. I am sure people will be able to develop insights as more knowledge is accumulated. Additionally, it might also be helpful to have some financial background, so as to be able to easily understand key financial indicators.
Roxy Zhang: Step forward and speak up!
Susan Wang: I think it’s important and helpful to be informed of market news and dynamics, particularly involving M&A. A thought exercise I like to go through is each time I read about an M&A transaction, I try to think about the strategic rationale behind the deal and potential effects of the combination on stakeholders and the broader market. It is a great way to learn more about the companies themselves, market trends, and the M&A process, as well as to hone your strategic thinking skills. And, it’s very similar to what you would actually be doing on the job!
Virginie Gasnier: You should have a strong interest in the financial sector and be willing to make a substantial personal investment into your career. It also helps to have a strong sense of empathy, to better understand the customer's need to find the right partner, either on the seller's side or on the buyer's side. You should also bring positive energy and be confident!