Laura Shen Partner, Headway Capital

Please describe your current role

I am a co-founder and Partner of Headway Capital, a special situations secondaries firm with €800m under management. Headway Capital provides a full range of liquidity solutions for private assets and invests across all secondary transaction types (secondary directs, GP restructurings, structured transactions and LP interests), geographies, industry sectors and investment stages, specializing in value-added, small to mid-size complex deals.

I tend to think of my primary role as investing, but as one of three Partners of a small firm, I share responsibility for firm management and operational oversight, investor relations, recruiting, etc. and this management role does take up quite a bit of my time.

What attracted you to a career in private equity and how did you get started?

I started my career as an analyst in the leveraged finance group of Goldman Sachs in New York and my first real exposure to private equity was working on a debt issue for a leveraged buyout sponsored by Goldman’s private equity arm. In this capacity, I worked closely with the private equity team and accompanied them on management meetings and due diligence site visits. It was an eye-opening experience for me to learn to think like an investor and I found the buy-side much more interesting; I loved the intellectual challenge of trying to understand an investment’s risks and opportunities, as well as the potential future satisfaction (or learning experience) from experiencing the outcome of an investment decision.

After completing the Goldman analyst program in 1997, I joined the investment team of Bain Capital in Boston and I have been working in the private equity industry ever since. After completing an MBA at Harvard Business School, I decided to move to Europe and to try something new. Through a recruiter, I discovered the nascent secondary private equity industry and joined Coller Capital in London. In 2004, I left Coller Capital with two colleagues to start Headway Capital.

What were your motivations behind starting a new private equity firm?

My partners and I were motivated by a combination of different factors that converged at the same time. We saw a niche market (smaller, complex private equity secondaries) that was underserved. We wanted to be more in control of our own destinies, and we didn’t see a future for ourselves at a firm where we could not eventually become part owners. We were also very excited about the prospect to build something. It was fifteen years ago, and we were very young and idealistic. We wanted to build a better investment firm for both employees and investors, and we wanted to have fun doing it. For investors, we wanted to offer a unique product, as well as better interest alignment and transparency. For employees, we wanted to create a partnership that was empowering and inclusive. We actually wrote our mission statement about what type of firm we wanted to be before we wrote our business plan or even fully articulated our strategy.

What were the key challenges in starting a new firm?

Everything takes so much time when starting a new firm. There was a lot that we took for granted in larger organizations. Before becoming entrepreneurs, we were primarily focused on investing and were supported by a large infrastructure of skilled people in different operational areas. And then, all of a sudden, we had to think about things like office space, regulatory approval, compliance, finance and back office, investor relations, IT, recruiting, etc. Looking back now, I see that we were too budget conscious in the beginning and took on too many of these tasks ourselves. For example, I built our first website with some software that came bundled with my laptop, and let’s just say that it was not particularly impressive! Early on, we should have outsourced more of these tasks to the best service providers, despite the costs.

What advice would you give women interested in a career in private equity?

Go for it! Private equity is a great career – I never stop learning and every day is interesting. However, it is very demanding and sometimes I feel like my work/life balance is off-kilter (I have three children and a husband who works even more than I do!), but I’ve learned to cut myself some slack and to accept that every aspect of my life will not be perfect. In life, you have to understand your priorities, act accordingly, and accept that each person’s priorities are different.

Don’t be deterred by the fact that private equity is still a white male dominated industry. Things are improving and there is growing recognition of the value of diversity in making investment decisions. After all, women are the world’s most powerful consumers, and so much of the world’s growth is coming from outside Europe and the US. My advice would be to join a firm where you can find supporters (male or female) and build strong relationships with them. There are lots of great firms out there, but they each have different cultures. I believe it’s important to find the right fit for you personally, because that is where you will both succeed and enjoy yourself the most!