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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.

Maria Maslennikova, a graduate of HSE FES, chose two paths at once as a specialist: she succeeded in both consulting and investment banking and gained the trust of the international market to such a degree that she now works as an independent consultant. In this interview with Success Builder, she talked about how the HSE community contributes to career success, why working in a boutique company is more interesting than working in a global bank, and how to conduct multibillion-dollar transactions for state corporations.

When did you become interested in economics?

I was born and raised in Moscow and come from several generations of engineers and teachers. When you grow up in such an environment, you naturally become familiar with both strict, laconic mathematical models and their elegant practical applications. I was fascinated by the inextricable connection between economic theory and everyday life. Somewhere in the 8th–9th grades, I made an existential choice: I realised that I wanted to become part of the corporate world and wear a nice business suit. Economics seemed to me the most logical and shortest path to achieving managerial positions. A gold medal and a prize-winning finish at the Academic Olympics in Economics opened the door to admission to HSE, the country’s leading economics university.

What were the strong points of the FES bachelor’s programme?

HSE University keeps freshmen on their toes from the first days of class. In addition to the fact that you have to integrate into a new format of study and get used to the environment, you need to master a large volume of complex disciplines, and work with scientific literature—all at high speed.

Looking back, you realise how much the programme prepares students. This includes a serious level of disciplines taught in an international education format, a charismatic teaching staff, and a modular system that instills successful work skills under tight deadlines. The programme allows you to create a toolkit, a set of specific logical constructs that the graduate subsequently utlitises to analyse, think critically, and propose solutions. Ratings and appeals teach you how to argue your position, manage expectations, and conduct business negotiations in the future.

The competitive environment of the Faculty of Economics dispels the illusion that someone is simply waiting for you somewhere with open arms

At the same time, a graduate of the HSE Faculty of Economics has the luxury of choosing his place in the sun from several options and subsequently building his career path. I clearly remember how we crowded around the exam results on the dean’s bulletin board. Everyone looked for their last name in the ranking. We all had some fundamental inner need to be part of this intellectual elite. It was considered good manners to study well. Our environment and teachers inspired us to make the extra effort and perform better. All these components of learning—from the knowledge gained to the environment—like elements of an erector set, laid a solid foundation for future success.

The faculty has formed a strong community. Despite the discrete nature of communication, we have developed a positive tradition of meeting within the framework of SPIEF and congratulating each other on successes. And this is much more difficult and more valuable than empathising with failures. There is something uniting us invisibly—a certain set of moral and ethical values. It’s a great success when you manage to carry these wherever you go because they are valued not only in business, but also in life.

Why did you decide to get a master’s degree and how did you choose the programme? How has your study experience abroad influenced your career?

When I got my bachelor’s degree, I felt a sense of understatement, incompleteness before taking the responsible leap into the corporate world. I wanted to start working as soon as possible and chose the optimal option from all points of view: a one-year practice-oriented master’s programme in Business Economics in English at an HSE partner university in the heart of Europe.

Photo by Mikhail Dmitriev/ HSE University

The idea of studying in a foreign master’s program would not have seemed so logical if I hadn’t had previous experience living in other countries. Thanks to my parents, I spent several years in South America and the Middle East. I went to Western Europe to try life on my own. The Belgian university KU Leuven, where I chose to study, is one of the oldest European universities. It has a rich history: it was founded in Leuven in 1425; the country holds the KU Leuven teaching staff on a par with its political elite; being a KU Leuven graduate is prestigious for any European; and thanks to its high state status, numerous medieval buildings on the university campus are still maintained in perfect condition.

The programme fascinated me with its large number of elective subjects and specialised disciplines. Thanks to passing the CFA exam in the fourth year of my bachelor's degree, I was happy to include financial and strategic subjects in my academic ‘diet’. The teaching was very dynamic due to the large amount of group work (with the composition of students varying from subject to subject), and there were practically no seminars. New formats forced us to adapt on the fly and quickly master the material.

Photo by Mikhail Dmitriev/ HSE University

My strong academic performance enabled me to secure a scholarship from Oxford and graduate with honours, entering the top 1% of university students. Later, when undergoing a series of interviews at the Moscow office of the Rothschild investment boutique, the experience of studying abroad turned out to be a significant advantage, since half of the team in the company were expats. Much later, it was through the KU Leuven alumni club that my recent big project found me, where I was invited as an independent consultant to support the strategic transformation of a multibillion-dollar European conglomerate. The Financial Congress in St. Petersburg correctly noted that ‘Today, the winner is the one who changes the fastest’.

How did you choose your first job? Why did you opt for a boutique format and not a bulge bracket (global bank - Ed.)?

While still a master’s student, I received an offer from the Brussels office of Deloitte, but declined it because at that time I dreamed of a career in investment banking. I spent a couple of months choosing among companies; I wanted to find the right fit. Rothschild suited me in every sense: I immediately liked the team and their more scrupulous, personalised approach to each transaction and client, which, by definition, cannot be achieved in the bulge bracket.

When a company chooses you from among 200 candidates per job slot, of course you feel chosen in the literal sense of the word

Of course, during the selection process, your education, specialised knowledge, and internships are important, but they are not the deciding factor. The personal qualities of the candidate play a decisive role, since for each employee such a company is a big family where you spend a significant part of your time. A boutique is unique in that every employee is in full view and worth their weight in gold, whereas in a bulge bracket you are a functionary that is more easily replaced. In addition to the fact that you know how to build financial models well and make presentations, it is very valuable to put out positive energy and be involved. I mentioned this when I shared my experience and practical advice in a motivational speech at an FES graduation ceremony.

Investment bank Rothschild was an excellent start to my career and a school that one could only dream of. Years later, this experience in particular enabled me to join the family office of the inner circle of the Forbes list. This group of companies is always a very private, almost behind-the-scenes story, and becoming a part of it is the dream of many industry experts. I joined as a shareholder advisor on strategy and investments. I plunged into real business as a member of the board of directors of our portfolio assets. It was necessary to establish interactions with a large number of participants, at all times protecting the interests of the owner. It required dealing with total uncertainty on a daily basis. As Carl Jung noted, ‘A person’s maturity is determined by how much uncertainty he can tolerate’.

How would you characterise the investment field? Why do you like it?

Anyone my age who graduated from an economics university had two big dreams: investment banking and strategic consulting. I mentally tried on both roles. I was more into financial subjects back then. Passing the CFA international financial exam in the last year of my bachelor's degree and, in particular, the preparation for it, tipped the scales towards investment banking.

Photo by Mikhail Dmitriev/ HSE University

This line of work requires that you make accurate calculations, justify them, and clearly present the results of your work to shareholders or senior management and decision-makers. The ability to interact competently with clients is also critical. All these skills became part of my DNA thanks to my economics education and accumulated expertise.

How did you come to the position of investment director at Sberbank Venture Capital?

I quickly agreed to join the SBVK (Sberbank Venture Capital) team, having been impressed by a speech that SBVK General Director Denis Cherkasov gave at a specialised conference. Mr. Cherkasov is also an adherent of Western corporate values; he graduated from Harvard. They had a small, boutique team that made decisions quickly. We were tasked with managing the portfolio. It was the investment heritage of the Troika Dialog company and included high-risk projects with breakthrough technologies, assets with a significant share of R&D, and Western projects. I then learned to be a ‘one-man army’ with a large number of abilities in my arsenal, which allowed me to develop significantly as a specialist. This was a springboard to joining the family office as a shareholder advisor.

What was interesting about your job with JSC DOM.RF and how did it help your career?

Indeed, DOM.RF JSC stands out on my track record because I worked primarily with international business groups and business owners. However, I was invited to the state corporation by people from the investment banks with whom we had previously worked. My main task was to introduce a new financial product to the project finance market, the enormous scale of which was immediately obvious. Tasks of this level require a creative approach because the standard set of templates does not work. In addition, business development is an extremely energy-intensive area; you can only succeed if you have serious in-house resources.

When you get to a certain level at which market players trust you as a professional, you can choose new challenges for yourself

Negotiations about joining the team lasted for about six months, until the company accepted my terms. I launched business processes from scratch both within the organisation at the level of interaction with eight divisions, and externally, building client relationships with key banks in project financing. When we signed the first multibillion-dollar deals that launched the DOM.RF guarantee mechanism, my role and time itself showed that I could be confident I would succeed thanks to my personal qualities that motivate the team.

What project are you working on at the moment?

I am completing and handing over to my regional colleagues a personal project to support a sell-side mandate for the sale of a particular asset. I also began receiving offers from various fundraising projects, investment projects, including investments in art, and charitable initiatives that would be interesting to take on. For example, I took part in the Meet for Charity auction, in which patrons donate funds to charity in return for meeting with famous people. As a lot, a personal meeting with me went for half a million rubles. I was pleasantly surprised and, of course, immensely grateful to the patrons for such a high valuation.