Is working in finance useful preparation for running your own business?
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Corporate office life in the financial sector, however intense, is a different world to the particular grind of entrepreneurship. Yet some who have made the leap say they can draw on the skills and networks gained from a career in finance.
“After eight years in . . . I felt like I definitely earned my stripes as an investment banker and I was dying to build something tangible,” says Joanna Dai, of her time working for JPMorgan in New York and London.
The idea for her clothing venture, Dai, came out of a business trip when her work clothes were too uncomfortable on a flight from Stockholm to London. “I was sitting on the flight thinking ‘I wish I wore my yoga pants’,” she says. That led to a sabbatical of several months, a course at the London College of Fashion and an internship with luxury womenswear designer Emilia Wickstead.
Eventually, she quit the Wall Street bank in 2016 to launch Dai in London, designing and selling women’s office wear made from the kind of comfortable materials that are typically used in clothes for athletes.
Ditching a finance job for the fragile world of start-ups was a big risk. However, Dai found her investment banking experience made her more sanguine about quitting. “I felt confident enough in terms of the business side, [expertise such as] negotiating, analytical modelling,” she says. The skills she lacked, in product development and fashion, she picked up at the London College of Fashion and during the internship.
“If it was going to fail, then it would fail fast and I felt really confident about my transferable skills,” Dai says. She took £30,000 from her savings and bootstrapped the business — it more or less funded its own growth — for the first 18 months.
The company now has 12 employees and exports its sustainable office wear worldwide.
Eshita Kabra-Davies swapped analysing corporate bonds for poring over the accounts of her fashion rental app, By Rotation, which she founded in 2019. She worked in trading and asset management for Mizuho, Axa and Standard Life, now Abrdn, in London, before committing to her side-hustle full time.
“The analytical side of [my finance job], evaluating the company — that helped me prepare my business plan,” she says. And “knowing the lingo . . . what kind of investment deck to prepare, how a financial model works” were also crucial skills.
“My background in finance is integral to what I’m doing now and I think a lot of founders in the fashion tech space probably miss this,” says Kabra-Davies. “They’re good on the creative side, but they don’t think about how they can monetise the business.” She believes her investment firm experience helps her communicate with investors, and even guided her on not giving up too much equity in her company too soon.
By Rotation has raised $3.8mn so far from investors including venture capital firm Redrice Ventures and Magnus Rausing, heir of food packaging group Tetra Pak. Users list their typically high-end clothes and offer them for rental at a daily price. Kabra-Davies charges a fee to both lender and renter.
Building brand awareness and user numbers began with friends and former co-workers. She also approached City of London colleagues to invest, like a typical “friends and family” investment round.
Dai, similarly, used her contact book when raising £1.6mn through crowdfunding in summer 2022, which valued her fashion business at £8.6mn. Its leading investors include sustainability-focused investment group Closed Loop Partners, based in New York.
But experience in the financial sector goes only so far in preparing for the complications of life as an entrepreneur. Dai, for example, says sourcing materials was hard until she was able to lean on mentors for guidance.
Mariam Jimoh says her time as a banker specialising in mergers and acquisitions at Rothschild meant that working on a business model and preparing a pitch for her grocery delivery company, Oja, came naturally. But other differences are striking: “When you’re working on deals, you see the fully presented picture of the company — as opposed to the firefighting that can go on.”
Using her networks to find the right advisers was crucial in shaping her business — and in changing its model.
Oja began as an app to connect users to different ethnic food stores, but the market is fragmented and Jimoh pivoted it to a digital supermarket, which currently focuses on African and Caribbean groceries. Oja delivers goods to customers in London from its warehouse in the capital and has raised about £3.5mn from investors led by UK venture firm LocalGlobe.
Despite their contacts in the world of finance, all three say raising funds is a struggle without the backing of recognised financial names.
“Writing an $80mn cheque, when I was investing in bonds myself, [was] taken so lightly,” says Kabra-Davies. “The first million that I raised for my start-up was way more difficult than any money I’ve [previously] deployed.”
However, Dai says she appreciates having more control over her working life, and creating a socially conscious business is easier when you are your own boss. “When you’re at a large bank, you are a small cog in a huge machine.”
Essay competition: win a free EMBA
The FT launches its annual Women in Business essay competition in partnership with the 30% Club and Henley Business School. The prize is a fully funded place on Henley’s part-time Executive MBA programme.
This year’s question is: ‘Affordable and flexible childcare is a challenge that concerns everyone. What role can employers and policymakers play?’
The deadline is May 22
More information: hly.ac/WiLscholarship