From Engineer to Asset Manager: Backing the Next Generation of Impact Investors

21 Dec 2018
An exclusive Funds Partnership Asia interview with Amar Odedra, Director of Asia, Capria, on his journey from mechanical engineering to buy-side, fund admin and back to buy-side again. Discover first-hand insights on what it takes to work in a VC, and the future of impact investing.

1.    What’s your career trajectory in a nutshell? How did you end up in the funds industry (in Asia) despite not being formally trained in it? 

I actually graduated with a degree in Mechanical Engineering in UK, so all those without a formal background in finance, take heart!

Upon graduation, I worked for a year as a Systems Engineer, which I very quickly realised was not where I was going to stay long-term. As much as I enjoyed parts of it, the niche role meant very little business and commercial exposure – which were roles I valued and wanted to grow more in.

I decided to make a complete career switch and started as an intern at a micro Venture Capitalist (VC) firm, Equity Plus Partners. It was a boutique investment house, and I was helping the sales team of a portfolio company. It was very intense work, but I was very hungry to learn, and within a few months I was offered a permanent role. In the span of one year there, I had a glimpse of life in the fast-paced VC world, and what it meant to support a company any way that added value.

With some experience in sales, I then joined a global fund services group, Augentius to drive their business development. I was focused on EMEA, primarily Scandinavia and UK. My core role was to onboard new fund managers, and support them throughout their fund-raising before they went live.

In 2013, I was asked if I wanted to move over to our newly-opened Singapore office to become the Head of Sales APAC. I jumped at the chance to expand my horizons to the burgeoning Asian markets.

After 4.5 years in fund admin, I had the opportunity to go back to the buy-side, first through Wavemaker Partners, a cross-border VC firm with a focus on Southeast Asia and Southern Californian early-stage firms.

After over two years, I most recently joined Capria, an investor in emerging markets fund managers.

2.    So what prompted you to go from buy-side to fund admin and BACK to buy-side again?

I felt I did pretty well so far in fund admin, but if I stayed on, I would just continue doing the same things pretty well, just earning more money. It’s been a theme in my career trajectory so far actually – to continually be exposed to broader aspects of asset management.

Although I knew staying on would mean a comfortable progression in a secure job, I knew something was missing and I would never be truly satisfied long-term.

Ever since my one year stint at a VC, deep down I had maintained a desire to want to go back into an Asset Manager role.

I always had a desire to bring in deals, and working at a VC meant being constantly at the forefront of up-and-coming technology and innovative companies.

When the opportunity to join the buy-side came up, the timing was right for me to switch over! Furthermore, with the rapidly growing opportunities in South East Asia, I knew that it was dynamic and strategic place to work in a VC. As such, I had the conversation with quite a few fund managers and the firm I chose seemed to be the best fit!

Throughout even my sales role fund admin, I realised that I thrived best where there is some sort of relationship-building and deal-making involved. Some level of selling was always part of my core responsibility, and that was consistent throughout all my roles! Although I did oversee aspects of the VC (including deal origination and operations) but one of my primary KPI’s was fund-raising to launch funds, which I enjoyed very much!

3.    What were some things that you experienced in fund admin that helped you as a leverage to head back to buy-side?

The complete breadth and depth of understanding of different types of funds, strategies, return profiles, and how a fund actually works.

Surprisingly, when I was back in buy-side, a large share of new fund managers in the VC space did NOT have much knowledge of how a fund operates! 

Fund admin firms generally have very good at training, and helped me to understand typical waterfall equalisation, closing process etc. You may not get access to such resources if you have only been in the buy-side.

4.    What are the top 3 things that make working in a VC very fulfilling?   

  • The adrenaline rush working with potential LPs (Limited Partners) to analyse on whether an investment would be of interest to them
  • Working alongside inspiring entrepreneurs – through the process of launching and growing their companies. Although I didn’t get involved in the operations, I would give them guidance via my experiences in sales and make introductions and connections when I can.
  • VC firms are typically small teams, so establishing and growing a business of our own

5.    What would you say for someone who was in fund admin sales and wanted to step into buy-Side?   

  • Definitely interpersonal skills. Most deals are based on relationships and the ability to earn trust and respect. Having the willingness and ability to build good quality relationships isn’t as easy as you think!
  •  Start building a relationship and reputation and amongst LPs. It is so important to build brand presence and thought leadership. I knew that someday I would go back to buy-side, so from day one, I knew I had to leverage my connection with investors. True enough, when I did return, the network I had built and the contacts with investors were essentially the value I brought.

Everyone can invest but not everyone can raise money.

In order to excel as an asset manager, you don’t just need to be skilled as an investor, but I strongly believe you need to have good fund-raising abilities too.

6.    What advice do you have for someone who wants to go from fund admin client services to in-house finance? 

If you come from the accounting to the to the buy-side, you need to be a good communicator! That is key. You should strive to have a holistic understanding of the fund manager (what are the commercial aspects of the investments, what drive people in the organisation). This will enable you to be able to fit into buy-side and create an efficient relationship with everyone there.

7.    How about someone who wants to go from sales into Asset Management? What advice would you give someone from an unrelated industry? 

The main criteria or question asked will be “what AUM can you bring to the table?”. You can very quickly start paying for yourself if you bring in money. If you did sales outside of the funds industry, or business development for a start-up it doesn’t matter; the most important would be to have a relevant network!

8.    If someone came from fresh grad from entry-level applies, how can they increase their chances of getting in? 

1)    Have an interest in a particular sector (healthcare, technology etc) or geography, with compelling reasons why

2)    Ability to comprehend and analyse a fund manager’s strategy

3)    Have a deep understanding of how a fund operates. Fund managers will not see any value in you until they see ROI. If you have a basic background in the framework of how a fund operates, it’s much easier for them to want to hire you to hit the ground running.

Of course, if you have a personal referral or introduction, that would definitely put you at an advantage! A great way would be to have a chat with some of the consultants at Funds Partnership Asia.

9.    How is the culture and work-life balance in buy-side compared to fund services?

They are two different worlds.  Fund admin is a 9-6 kind of role and it is unlikely you will need to do any work on the weekends or evenings. You can also really expect to be uncontactable on your holiday.

Whereas on the buy-side, based on my experience across the roles, the schedule has been quite ad-hoc! Working hours would be anytime, really – even evenings, or weekends. On holidays, you can anticipate you’ll be getting emails and texts too!

But having said that, because of that you also have a bit of flexibility in managing your own workloads. In general, you need to have a very entrepreneurial mind-set and be self-motivated – not much structure, a lot of autonomy, and it’s up to you to organise your own schedule!

10. Do you have any comments on the trends in impact investing? What kind of opportunities should you look out for?

We’re seeing a rapidly increasing allocation of institutional, corporate, and personal capital towards impact investments. There is also growing momentum from some of the world’s largest asset managers, including the largest, Blackrock.

According to a recent survey by GIIN (Global Impact Investment Network), the amount of impact investment assets under management almost doubled in a single year to $228bn.

Along with this trend there is increasing recognition that investing in impactful businesses does not mean one should expect concessionary returns, in fact, recent studies have shown impact investments to have delivered superior returns.

Our focus is to not only invest capital in great fund managers and funds in emerging markets with a commitment to impact, but to deeply partner with them while bringing them into our deeply collaborative global network.

We’re actively growing our network of funds in Southeast and South Asia, with a current focus on selecting 2-3 new funds in the next few months.

11. What will you look out for in fund managers in impact investing?

a)   We look for strong teams with investing and operating experience, a sound investment strategy, and the ability to deliver superior financial returns to investors.Our assessment and selection process is similar to one that any other institutional LP would make.

b)   In parallel, we also assess the level of impact which has been delivered to date through their existing investments (if any), together with their ongoing commitment to impact as built into their investment thesis.

12. How do you accurately measure “impact”?

By nature of this region, many fund managers have been making impactful investments without measuring and tracking the scale at which they have been doing so.

Our impact is an aggregation of the impact of each of the underlying funds in our network. We look at impact across three dimensions which include:

  • Accessibility of Capital in the investment geography: Is there a critical need for capital, would additional capital sources be nice to have but not critical, or would additional capital be supplemental?
  • Overall development of the market: Is the ecosystem underdeveloped, lacking the infrastructure to support small and growing businesses? Are there incubators, accelerators, service providers, associations, and other resources available to help companies thrive?
  • End clients/systems: Is there a specific intentional behind the investment strategy of a fund?

For the funds we invest in and work with, we work with them to right size the metrics they are capturing based on the stage of the company they are investing in, aligning them to the latest IRIS metrics and the UN Sustainable Development Goals.

If you are interested to pursue a career in this space (even if you do not have the “right” qualifications), do send your queries to ayyaz@fundspartnership.com and we will be in touch shortly!