Career Advice From A Mother In Finance

Career Advice From A Mother In Finance

A Cambridge graduate and London native, Hannah Seal started her career in consultancy before going on to work for some of the biggest names in business – think Ocado and eBay. On the precipice of starting a new job with Uber, a friend convinced her to give venture capital a go, and the rest, she says, is history. Five years into her role as a principal at Index Ventures, she shares the career lessons she’s learnt along the way…

Don’t panic if you leave university not knowing what you want to do. Having graduated from Cambridge with a degree in economics, I initially thought about going into politics and being Chancellor of the Exchequer one day. Instead, I went down the expected path and did consultancy for two years. But I hated it. After that, I worked at Ocado setting up a general merchandise business, before moving on to eBay for three years, where I helped manage the consumer marketplace. 

If you’re just starting out, don’t feel pushed to pursue a given career path. It doesn’t matter what your friends are doing or what your parents want you to do. Looking back, consultancy was so ill-suited to my personality and skill set. Something I want to tell my own children is to forge your own path. Also, try to find people you enjoy working with. Pre-Covid, I loved going into the office – I was very fortunate that most of my colleagues were my friends. I’ve never appreciated that as much as I do now.

It’s entirely possible you’ll end up on a certain career path by accident. I was about to leave eBay to join Uber, with the long-term goal being to set up my own business. But just before I left, a friend at a venture capital firm asked me to think about a move into the industry, even though I didn’t know anything about it. She introduced me to the team at Index Ventures, where I currently work, and the rest is history. 

Knowing your industry inside out isn’t important – understanding what suits you is. For instance, I knew pretty much nothing about venture capital in the beginning. But I do know I’m a curious person and get bored easily. Obnoxious as it sounds, I’ve always had a thirst for knowledge, too, and venture capital is all about hearing people pitch interesting ideas. It’s a really rich, diverse, people-facing business, so I knew it would suit me in the long run. 

There will be moments when your career moves up a gear. Often referred to as your ‘big break’ – joining Index was that for me, although it definitely didn’t feel like it at the time. In fact, I was pretty clueless at the beginning. It’s the kind of job where you learn an awful lot as you go. But it only took a couple of years to find my feet and built some conviction – it’s what helped me start leading deals and developing my own perspective.

Knowing your industry inside out isn’t important – understanding what suits you is.

In any new job, you should spend the first few weeks listening and learning. It’s sometimes easy to forget you’re not expected to deliver everything in the first few weeks. Instead, it’s about getting to know people and finding your feet. Also, be yourself and don’t try to put on a front – it’s unsustainable and exhausting. As long as you’re not in a mono-culture kind of office, then you should find you’re encouraged to be yourself.

Everyone suffers from imposter syndrome at some point in their career. I have always doubted myself. For instance, at school, I always thought I’d failed every exam – even though I never did. In my experience, women tend to suffer more with it because most of us are perfectionists. We always worry about what we don’t know, rather than be confident in what we do. What has helped me most is finding a mentor who was focused on building my strengths and teaching me to accept my weaknesses. Ultimately, you can’t be good at everything. 

Always revel in your achievements. For me, it always exciting when we’ve been passionate about a business for so long and then we get the chance to invest in it. We had banged on the door of Beauty Pie for a long time, plus I was a loyal subscriber for years, so getting involved in their journey has been amazing. Peanut, which is social networking app for mothers, was a similar experience – last year we finally got the opportunity to invest. 

But that’s not to say you shouldn’t prepare for some lows, too. As well as investing in companies we’re really excited about week in, week out, we also see hundreds of companies that aren’t the right fit for us. That’s always a tough bit of news to break. Having said that, we do try to help them out in some way, whether that be connecting them with other investors or just introducing them to the right people. 

Most jobs aren’t 9-5 anymore. It’s certainly true of venture capital – I’d say it’s one of those jobs where you have to make it your own. Your role is to go and find great companies to invest in, so it requires you to work out what’s interesting now and what will be interesting in the future. You have to be good at managing your own time and at working independently, too. There can be weeks where you find nothing worthy of investment, so you have to be comfortable with the ambiguity.

Not everyone you work for will be a great manager. A good one is someone who genuinely cares about you – it makes such a big difference when it comes to forging a good relationship. Open and honest communication is best, too – constant criticism is not. Don’t get me wrong, a good manager will tell you that you screwed up, but they’ll also explain how to do it better in the future. It can be painful to hear that kind of honest feedback, but it’s ultimately more helpful. 

A good manager should handle issues like maternity leave really well. The first time I fell pregnant, I was forced to tell my boss at seven weeks as I had terrible morning sickness. I was crying when I told him as I was so anxious about what it might mean for my career, but my boss was amazing, and really supportive. There were no expectations – the onus was on me for how I wanted to handle it and I was lucky enough to be able to set my own boundaries. I would encourage other women to see boundaries as a positive thing. 

Many people have been forced to put their career dreams on hold this year. But I’d say there’s light at the end of the tunnel now, so it’s crucial not to forget what your goals are.

Having children can actually improve productivity. It’s certainly made me a more empathetic person, and I’m far more efficient with my time. I work fewer hours, but I’m probably more productive than I was before. Also, because venture capital is a business where you can manage a lot of your own schedule, it’s a great job for working mothers. 

Industries like venture capital are changing when it comes to representation. There’s still a long way to go but in the last year or two, there’s been much more of a focus on diversity and getting more women into the industry. Having said that, I wouldn’t want anyone to feel discouraged about a career in venture capital – my own experience has been largely positive. Plus, at Index, we’ve got businesses like NET-A-PORTER, Glossier and Beauty Pie as part of our portfolio – all of which are businesses built for women, by women. It’s therefore so important to have women at Index who can relate to those companies.

Many people have been forced to put their career dreams on hold this year. But I’d say there’s light at the end of the tunnel now, so it’s crucial not to forget what your goals are. On the upside, people have become increasingly compassionate over the past 12 months and are more willing to help than ever before. The crisis has really brought people together.

To stay motivated and focused at home, routine is key. I always get properly dressed to take my older son to nursery, and then by the time I come back I feel ready to start the day. Also, try not to book in too many Zoom calls. Where possible, I try to make phone calls on a walk instead, so I’m not constantly looking at a screen. I’m also religious about doing bath time with the kids. It signals the end of the working day (even if I have work a little bit afterwards). 

Lockdown has been a big shock to the established system. Our business is so people-orientated and relies so heavily on the bond you have with company founders, so we’ve seen a big shift in how we get to know our clients. Building these relationships virtually has been a big change in how we work. We’ve adapted, like so many others, and in many ways, it’s made us more efficient. For example, we all spend far less time traversing the City trying to get to a million meetings. Even so, I am looking forward to the day when we can return to in-person meetings.  

Success will mean something different to everyone. For me, it’s two things: one is a happy and healthy family and the other is feeling like I’ve fulfilled my potential and taken advantage of every opportunity. It’s also that feeling that I’ve invested in a business which makes a difference or solves some sort of problem in the world. 


For more information about what Index Ventures does, visit You can follow Hannah on Twitter @HannahLSeal

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