This 24-year-old moved from the world's biggest asset manager to raise a $100m VC fund
Millennials going into financial services jobs now often have a plan about what they want to do next, rather than an intention to move up the ranks. For Abbas Kazmi, that process started by accepting a job at BlackRock, rather than one of the offers to work in IBD at a large investment bank.
"BlackRock was a great opportunity, and the training programme is excellent, but the hours are less intense in asset management than in IBD, which meant that I had enough spare time to pursue entrepreneurial projects," he says. "I knew longer term that I wanted to launch my own VC firm and build my own companies, and working for BlackRock gives you experience, credibility and connections with the right sort of people to pursue that ambition."
Kazmi had interned at Deutsche Bank and Goldman Sachs among several other companies and industries, but decided instead to accept a graduate job in asset management at BlackRock. At 24, he left to launch his own $100m VC firm, Collegiate Capital.
It aims to find, and commercialise, the best and most innovative research coming out of UK universities. A lot of this is fintech, but also digital media, energy and cyber security. The idea is that Collegiate Capital offers the expertise to get the idea off the ground – it has 30 coders in its tech support team, for example. It also has the backing of senior executives like Mike Davis, a former MD at UBS, Steven Taylor, a former senior managing partner at EY, Chris Buchanan, the former CIO of Noble Group, and tech expert Ed Shnayder.
Kazmi, however, is just 24 and gave up a highly sought-after job at the world’s largest asset manager to start his own business. Why?
"You have to make a choice at some point in your career, and I knew that long-term I wanted to work for myself and run my own companies rather than staying in a large financial institution. Right now, my financial commitments are minimal - I have no wife, mortgage or children yet at this age - so it's the right time for me to take the risk and go further on the entrepreneurial adventure. I'm not alone, as a lot of people are completing investment banks' training programmes before moving to the next step, with strong experience and a bolstered CV."
“Most of the entrepreneurs I’m speaking to at the universities are around my age,” he adds. “This makes it easier to work with them – they view you as a peer, rather than as a large corporate investor.”
Investment banks have started cutting the junior ranks more recently, but most have rolled out programmes to try to keep their millennial workforce happy. This can be anything from accelerated promotions or cutting working hours to ensuring that managing directors don’t dump a huge amount of unnecessary work on Friday evenings.
Kazmi admits that he didn’t have “years of multi-million pound bonuses” to support him in founding the business, unlike a lot of senior financiers quitting for start-ups, but he started and sold various businesses throughout university that helped and still provide a regular income.
But, he suggests, analysts and associates should be able to build up enough contacts to allow them to launch their own business relatively early. It is, says Kazmi, all about networking.
“People take for granted that they’re working with some of the largest pension funds in the world, or have sovereign wealth funds for clients. This is a chance to build up personal relationships with key people in these organisations,” he says. “When you’re in large organisation you also have a chance to work with a lot of different skilled people. We had a rotational scheme and it gave me the chance to network with a lot of people internally.”
Not that working for a large financial institution necessarily equips you with all the skills needed to start your own business. Kazmi says that he's been involved with various start-up businesses since the age of 16, and has always wanted to be an entrepreneur. When he was studying at Westminster School, he developed a computer game, which he describes as "FIFA meets the Sims and Second Life".
He also relaunched the Oxford Guild society in 2011, which now has a huge 14,000 members. This he says has opened a lot of doors and enabled him to "email literally anyone in the world and get a response". It hosts guest speakers that have included Kanye West, Nobel Prize Winner Professor Muhammad Yunus as well as senior bankers like former Credit Suisse CEO Brady Dougan and Josef Ackermann, the ex-CEO of Deutsche Bank.
In other words, starting your own business involves experience, good connections and combining that with the expertise you'll gain working for a large financial institution. It’s also a matter of timing, he says. “You need to know when to take the risk. Right now, the environment is very favourable in the UK for fintech and other start-ups. Brexit has proven a bump in the road, but the opportunity is still there.”