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The global financial crisis ended many reputations and careers. But for Karen Farzam, it provided the impetus to start her own business, while her MSc in international finance from HEC Paris gave her the knowledge she needed.
“I never saw myself as an entrepreneur. Building my own company was never a dream for me. I always thought I would devote my whole career to a bank,” says Ms Farzam, who walked away from a role as a trader in complex exotic equity derivatives for JPMorgan in Tokyo in 2009.
Now she runs WHub, a Hong Kong entrepreneurial community — a start-up launched to help other start-ups.
“At first I thought my background in finance would be useless, but it’s actually helping me a great deal. Everything comes back to finance in the end,” she says.
Having earned a double diploma degree in engineering, in Paris and in Montreal, Ms Farzam, who is originally from France, received her first taste of financial derivatives during internships at Crédit Agricole, before enrolling on the HEC masters in 2004.
“The masters gave me the exact finance and mathematical knowledge I needed to have that career,” she says. It not only equipped her with a general understanding of finance, but also let her explore specific areas such as mergers and acquisitions and how to trade options — a course taught by the former trader Olivier Bossard and the one she enjoyed most.
“I found the masters to be really practical and most of what I learnt during that time I’ve been able to use afterwards. Once I knew in which direction I wanted my career to go, the masters enabled me to study everything that I liked and needed,” she says.
That year spent completing the masters was tough, she recalls, because of the breadth of curriculum covered in a relatively short space of time. “The workload was pretty big, but it wasn’t overwhelming,” she says. “I’ve always been quite a hard-working type of student.”
After another internship, for JPMorgan in Tokyo, Ms Farzam was hired as an exotic equities trader. Three years later, she took a career break for family reasons and returned to France for 12 months. When she and her husband returned to Asia — this time to Hong Kong — Ms Farzam might have resumed trading, but this was now 2010, the height of the financial crisis, and it was hard to find work.
“Sometimes, when you cannot find the right opportunity, you have to create your own,” she says. That happened when she met up with an old friend, Karena Belin, who was working in Hong Kong for Procter & Gamble. Through their different friendship circles they had come across many entrepreneurs.
“When you work in finance, the talk is of funds, money, prices, but when we spoke to entrepreneurs, we heard them talk with such confidence about their businesses that we saw an opportunity to help them promote their passion,” she says.
“Our aim with WHub was not only to create a platform for promoting their products and services, but also their missions, values and dreams because that’s what makes a difference for start-ups.”
Shopline, Notey, 8 Securities, AfterShip, Bindo and Ambi Labs are among the Hong Kong start-ups that WHub has been able to help connect to talent, investment and other entrepreneurs over the past four years.
“Hong Kong has a vibe that makes you feel if you work hard, anything is possible. It’s the perfect place for entrepreneurship, but when we had our idea, there were no start-up ecosystems here, so the timing for us was just right,” she says.
The next phase is to extend WHub into south-east Asia and deepen its interests in fintech. “Fintech is going to be the new revolution,” says Ms Farzam, who is a founding board member of the FinTech Association of Hong Kong. “If you want to benefit from that revolution, you will need to have a strong finance background. There is still a lot to come in fintech, lots of opportunities and much to be done by the next generation. A masters can help by giving you that essential strong foundation in finance,” she adds.
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