Myths, misconceptions and an element of mystery: undergraduates are often unsure what life within the investment management industry really entails.
Asked if they need a degree in pure maths, no social life and a ruthless streak and they’ll likely agree.
Asked if their future investment decisions can be a force for positive societal change and they may be surprised by the notion. Female students may also be surprised by the access to a network of supportive professionals to help advance their careers and the teams and friendships that develop along the way.
The truth is, in 2020 investment management has an image problem.
A conversation with Sarah Harrison, Head of European High Yield at Morgan Stanley, dispels all this in minutes. Sharp, friendly, motivated and insightful, her enthusiasm for inspiring the next generation of female portfolio managers is infectious and her drive for success unbridled.
“The bank is a strong believer that capital has the power to create positive change in the world,” Harrison notes. “At Morgan Stanley Investment Management, being in charge of a large pool of capital means you have a platform to engage with the companies in which you invest. We’re using this pull to engage with companies on sustainability issues — a topic that is very important to me.”
On the impact of her investment choices, she talks in real-world terms, one example being the cosmetics industry - and a sad link to child labour.
Alongside her role as a portfolio manager running different strategies that invest in high yield debt, Harrison regularly sits with a team of 10 investors from fixed income to discuss the latest trends in sustainability and how to employ these in their investment strategy. In 2018, the team developed a quantitative investment framework to integrate across all investment decision-making. This approach is now a key tool in facilitating client engagement.
The ESG framework, for example, highlighted an issue related to mica — the shimmery powder that brightens the pigmentation of eye shadows and other make-up products. Much of the mining of mica has been linked to a child labour ring that exploits an estimated 22,000 children in India.
“There are things cosmetic suppliers can do to ensure a greater transparency in the supply chain of the products they stock. We are engaging with make-up retailers to encourage signing up to the Responsible Mica Initiative,” she says. “This is the first of many similar projects we plan to work on.”
After graduating in Canada, Harrison joined Morgan Stanley in London 10 years ago on an internship. It was an easy choice over other banks in London and New York, she says, because she connected best with the interviewers at Morgan Stanley and liked that there was a dedicated asset management operation, something not many institutions offer. At the end of the internship, she was offered and accepted a full-time role.
In the early days, she would boldly email MDs in asset management and elsewhere in the bank to simply find out what they do. Many replied. That busy senior professionals would answer her questions over a coffee made a lasting impression.
“I’ve been with my team for 10 years,” she says. “It’s a testament to the encouraging environment, opportunities that have arisen and Morgan Stanley’s inclusive culture.”
Harrison notes that Morgan Stanley Investment Management has a strong network of female portfolio managers that support each other through informal mentoring and industry-wide initiatives, including forums for us to discuss investment ideas, as well as the unique challenges and opportunities women face in career progression.
“Sure, my team is focused on performance and striving to win, but we can chat about the latest restaurant openings and share memes,” she adds with a smile. “The diversity of thought we bring is incredibly important to us as it contributes to a more robust debate; we have team members from France, Italy, Germany, Lithuania, Australia, Slovakia, South Africa, Canada, the US, and the UK!”
As she progressed through the ranks, Harrison has participated in several development programmes at the bank. Notably, the Morgan Stanley Strategy Challenge, where volunteer teams of employees from different functions across the bank partner with non-profit organisations seeking to expand or overcome a critical challenge. The team and members of the non-profit work together over eight weeks to develop an action plan.
Last year, Harrison’s team worked with Access Sport, a charity working to combat the exclusion, hardship and poor health faced by many children in the UK. “It was very similar to being in a board meeting,” she says. “We were fully accountable to the charity as our client.”
The programme can be gruelling: adding as much as 15-20 hours a week on top of the day job. But, it’s a rewarding experience. “Professionally, it’s gratifying to see how valuable our team’s strategic input can be to a non-profit. Personally, the experience of working with such a client honed my negotiation and presentation skills, which is important preparation for moving into a more senior role. I rolled up the sleeves in the Strategy Challenge and a couple of months later I was given my new role.”
There is also Step In, Step Up, a programme for female students in years 12 and 13 that gives an introduction into the careers available at Morgan Stanley, from investment banking to technology to asset management and more.
She visits schools around London and has noticed a misconception among the girls about working in finance. “We want to show there is a place for them, that there are great roles at an asset management firm. I enjoy sharing my experiences and successes as a female portfolio manager with students who are starting to explore their futures,” she says. “Many are surprised I didn't do maths. The truth is my best topics at school were psychology, politics and philosophy.”
“In asset management my days are intense, but my hours are work/life balance-friendly. I can go to the gym in the morning and my evenings are free to go out with friends or cook with my husband. You can have a personal life and work in this industry.”
And what of female representation across the bank? I ask. “At the graduate level, Morgan Stanley is now at 50-50 male/female. We have more to do at senior levels, but it’s moving in the right direction.”
For graduates, the message is clear: leave your misunderstandings at the door and pursue a career in investment management. It could well be more meaningful than you thought.