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About Success Builder

How do you find your place in life? How do you find something to do that both comes naturally to you and makes you happy? The answer is that you have to apply the knowledge you’ve gained from university and from life itself correctly. The Success Builder Project features HSE University graduates who have discovered themselves through an interesting business or an unexpected profession. The protagonists share their experiences and lessons learnt and talk about how they’ve made the most of the opportunities they were given.

In this interview, Tonka talks about how a finance graduate can survive a crisis, what to do to get the most out of the LSE master’s programme, and the main advantages of an MBA degree.

How Love to Math Won

In 1997, many industries shut down in Bulgaria on the brink of the country’s accession to the European Union. My father was offered a job in Russia, and our family moved here.

We came to Moscow in the end of August, I didn’t know a word in Russian, and on September 1, my parents brought me to school, pointed at a teacher and said ‘follow this woman, she will tell you everything’. I had to learn Russian fast and without any preparation. Later, this ability to adapt quickly and solve unexpected problems became my fundamental skill, determining my future.

A year later, when I had learned Russian, regular school became boring for me. I had always loved maths, and I was missing it. We lived in Zelenograd and found that one of the best schools focusing on physics and mathematics was located there. I was admitted to this new school and have never been bored since.

Why ICEF Felt Like Home

Although I studied as an international student at ICEF, I never felt like one. I had lived in Russia from the age of 11, since my parents worked here. As a foreigner, I didn’t have the right to free higher education, which meant that I could choose any university and apply without exams. I had two options: to go abroad and seek higher education there, but not at one of the very the best universities, since Russian secondary education is not valued in the West; or to apply for an international programme in Russia.

My parents and I chose ICEF, since LSE is a reliable and recognized brand, which is trusted by employers worldwide. There was only one problem: the language. At my physics and maths school, I had put a lot of effort into the hard sciences, but not into languages. In spite of this, I was determined to achieve a new milestone and get the best higher education, so I forced myself to learn English, since staying without going to ICEF would have been the same as leaving the country for me.

Photo courtesy of Tonka Lange

Difficulties Faced by ICEF Graduates at LSE

ICEF gives you important and useful skills, because, more than anything else, it keeps you alert. Imagine five examination periods with two exams in different subjects a day. This is an amazing experience of endurance and gives you the ability to switch from one topic to another, which I later reinforced during my studies at INSEAD. At work, a professional has ‘exams’ daily, and it makes sense to get used to it in advance in order to be able to face these challenges.

However, the Russian educational system has one specific feature: it doesn’t really foster independence. University programmes lack flexibility, and you are quite limited in terms of subjects and methods: you do what you are told to do, you pass exams and complete assignments, without thinking about any options. On the LSE master’s programmes, you immediately have to make your own decisions: you manage your studies, your time, you define your goals, you choose and prioritize. These skills are essential not only in work, but generally in life.

Exams and LSE are conducted only once a year, and no teacher is concerned with your progress or interest. Teaching is based on fully trusting students, their consciousness and self-control.

The progress of studies at the LSE master’s programme is a reflection of the student’s motives and interests

When together with other ICEF graduates, we were admitted to LSE and moved to London, our first feeling was that everything was too easy. We felt unusually and unexpectedly relaxed and it seemed like we had nothing to do. After some time, we had to understand that the results at the end of the year completely depend on you, rather than on the programme.

I met my future husband at LSE. He was a graduate of WHU, a German institution similar to ICEF. It is a private university that is a world leader in the number of graduates among ‘unicorn founders’, founders of such giants as Internet, HalloFresh, FlixBus, audibene, Zalando, and Home24.

Photo courtesy of Tonka Lange

The guys from WHU who came to LSE were incredibly responsible towards their learning: they were literally slaving over their books for the whole year, spending their lives at the library, while we were mostly hanging out: both due to our excellent preparedness and the lack of responsibility. As a result, all the Germans from WHU graduated with honours. LSE possesses endless resources, including access to top professors, and everything depends on one’s personal goals.

How to Survive at the Start of a Career

I must say that I was incredibly ‘lucky’ at the start of my career. When I graduated from the master’s programme, a financial meltdown enveloped the world. I was going to work as a ‘quant’, and they turned out to be the professionals who were fired first. Of course, today, I can look philosophically at the situation and I’m even glad that I experienced some stress at the start of my career and got some ‘survival skills’.

Finally, I got the opportunity to get a long-term internship at Henkel headquarters, in the strategic management department. It was a good offer, since the department was headed by one of the company’s five presidents and was considered a very prestigious one. I went to Germany for a year to work as a business analyst; I was performing market analysis at the company and comparative analysis for senior management at a very high level. After that, I came back to London and was pretty sure I wanted to work in IB.

I found a vacancy at a sales department of the London office of BNP bank and was involved in several very interesting projects for some time, working with Russia, CIS and South Africa. Communication with clients was a unique experience, but here, I understood quite quickly that sales were not for me. I came to work at 7:43 am daily, the woman who was my boss came at 7:45, and I had to come two minutes earlier, otherwise my karma was spoiled. I rarely went home before 1 am. Will I survive it much longer? Why am I doing this? What is the purpose of doing my manager’s work?

How to Find Oneself at Goldman Sachs and to Fulfil Oneself at Amazon

I decided to move to Germany again and soon, I got a job at Goldman Sachs, which turned out to be a key turning point in my career. I was employed in the corporate treasury department, where I found a project that was thrilling and unique, even by Goldman Sachs standards. We were integrating a whole division in the bank structure, represented by three companies from different European countries, where we were closing offices and transferring the staff to Germany. There, I made use not only of my financial skills, but also of my project management skills. International communications were familiar to me, since I had moved from one place to another and understood the specifics of certain national ways of business thinking and time management.

I felt extremely inspired by this project and it seemed like I had found my place

After 18 months at Goldman Sachs, I asked for a to transfer to the Singapore office, where worked for three years and in terms of corporate treasury, was managing the liquidity of 16 different currencies in Southeast Asia. This experienced turned out to be very useful for my current role at Amazon, where I manage 20 projects at the same time in 10 countries in Southeast Asia.

My team in the company is responsible for expanding the coverage in many countries in terms of treasury organization. If Amazon decides to enter a new country, I need to make sure we have the infrastructure ready, and we are able to pay and get money from customers. I perform analysis and ‘set’ the company finance.  Amazon’s corporate treasury consists of 250 people who directly report to the CFO for all the money possessed by the company. Despite the general focus of Amazon, my position includes no technical tasks, but requires a full scope of financial skills.

Photo courtesy of Tonka Lange

Why One Needs an MBA

I had resisted this step for a long time; most of my classmates had applied for an MBA much earlier, but I had been looking for my place for too long. I had had two main purposes in getting an MBA at INSEAD: networking, and a sense of purpose in my work, which provided me with a certain independence. This decision coincided with my midlife crisis: I wanted to be more motivated by understanding my impact in certain processes.

At Goldman Sachs, I was not related to the product that was the result of my work: okay, I move billions of dollars daily, but so what?

It seemed to me like I had a gap between my strong technical skills and poor social ones in terms of the professional environment. As a result, the MBA gave me more than I had expected: I sorted out more about myself during this year than in the rest of my whole life. Now, I feel much more comfortable with myself and my goals; I see where I am going and I feel good. After the MBA, I also feel easier presenting myself to companies as a professional and an expert.

In Singapore, as well as in London and continental Europe, professional links are essential: there are very many INSEAD graduates here. You can go to virtually any company and find dozens of people from INSEAD, who will be willing to talk to you and even help you, and this provides huge opportunities. I am not going to predict how long I am going to work in Asia, but most probably, my husband and I will eventually return to Europe, and this network of social contacts — where you can call someone you’ve studied with any time — is essential for life and business communication. These people will always help you since you are part of a community. I know that the community of ICEF graduates in Russia works the same way, providing support and confidence that you have likeminded people in a wide range of fields.