Career Life Stories: April Henry, Equell
From an early career in politics working for a US senator, April Henry has worked in law, financial services, venture capital and media. She talks to us about facing financial hardship during her college years, how she has achieved success in a career spanning different roles, sectors and continents, as well her perspective on finding your strength as a woman and a person of color.
Can you tell us a little bit about your early career and how you got your start?
My first experience working at the intersection of technology and finance was as a 15-year-old bookkeeper for a pharmacy working on a very early computer; the theme of finance and tech has continued throughout my career, albeit across many different industries.
I’ve had a very circuitous path. I attended Columbia University until my parents ran into some financial hardship, such that I couldn’t return to school for my junior year. During my college hiatus I found a job as a legal assistant in New York. I figured it would be a good foundation for a hopeful future in politics although I worked out pretty quickly that law wasn’t for me.
After a year as a legal assistant, I move to D.C., where my parents lived, and I miraculously secured an internship with Barbara Boxer in her sub-committee office. What I thought would last a couple of months turned into three years on Capitol Hill where I filled a litany of roles such as a systems administrator, legislative aide, interim deputy press secretary, and ultimately Barbara Boxer’s office manager once she moved into her Senate seat.
While I’d had an amazing experience, jobs on Capitol Hill do not pay well. Many of my friends (who had graduated at this point), kept guiding me to consider financial services firms which were known for providing educational assistance to employees. I knew very little about the stock market, but I was fairly good at technology and math, which enabled me to secure a job as an assistant with Morgan Stanley’s technology division, putting budgets together for large trading systems.
Eventually, I discovered a love of markets which lead to a transition to the global equity research department as the management operations associate under the direction of Mayree Clark, who is one of my greatest mentors and professional heroes. Initially, I helped transition her department from legal notepads and mainframe reporting to email and distributed systems.
There is a moment I’ll never forget; I was sitting in Mayree’s office when she asked me what I wanted to be doing in the next 2-3 years. I told her I’d love to be a stock analyst but that I needed to save a lot more money up to finish school. Without hesitation, she picked up the phone and facilitated an arrangement that allowed me to financially afford to return to school while satisfying my work responsibilities. I graduated from Columbia in 15 months while continuing to work full time. It still makes my heart flutter – Mayree changed my whole life.
The day after graduation, I took on a new assignment as the interim Operations Officer for Morgan Stanley’s equity research group in Hong Kong, filling an unexpected gap. Initial apprehension about an international job quickly dissipated; since then my life and interests have been very global.
You’ve had such a dynamic career with experience across a wide range of industries: law, financial services, government, venture capital and media. How have you managed to successfully move across such a variety of industries?
Each new experience was enabled by a previous one and could not have been accomplished without some amazing mentors. After eleven years at Morgan Stanley, I decided that I wanted to experience what it’s like to be on the inside of a corporation – a move that was validated by Mary Meeker. She suggested taking a stop through private equity or VC and generously facilitated numerous introductions on my behalf. These introductions led to a role with Index Ventures in London where I had the chance to meet and collaborate with a diverse array of early stage companies as well as the corporations that came to invest in or buy them at later stages.
What made you decide to pursue a career within Business Development/Corporate Development?
It wasn’t a conscious decision. I finally shifted into more of a traditional corporate development role when I moved to Newscorp. There, I had the chance to work within Jeremy Phillips’s team, Rupert Murdoch’s number one technology strategy and corporate development advisor at the time.
With geographical experience as broad as your industry experience, can you share some of the distinct characteristics of each of the markets in which you’ve worked? Specifically, how does hiring differ from market to market?
In the broad business development and corporate strategy world, the differences tend to be with the maturity of the digital ecosystems – not just the companies themselves, but the investment firms too. Silicon Valley is far ahead in that regard, but the other markets are playing pretty fast catch up.
London was the most challenging from a hiring perspective during the years I was there. There were very few locally headquartered tech companies at scale, so finding someone with a digital mindset plus strategy and business development skills was a much harder slog than in Silicon Valley. It required a lot of cross-border recruitment. We were constantly relocating people. When I go back to London now, it’s a hotbed for technology and talent.
A decade ago, recruiting outside of the entertainment industry in Los Angeles was very challenging. However now, what is often called “Silicon Beach” is developing into a very exciting and diverse network of technology-first companies. With more attractive economics, LA has become a natural extension of Silicon Valley for both companies and candidates.
I wouldn’t yet go so far to say that location is a non-issue, but the playing field is leveling.
Business development professionals are some of the most widely connected individuals on the market. How does this impact a company’s ability to recruit in this function?
Great BD people are relatively easy to identify and hire. That said, they tend to be highly social individuals and poach attempts are constantly happening. While they may not be especially difficult to employ, they tend to be more difficult to keep and keep satisfied. The nature of their work is almost wholly external which means they become known in the market in ways many other employees do not.
A lot of your experience has been at the intersection of media and technology. What are you currently most excited about in this space?
Nearly everything we do is becoming digital in some way or another. There is a pain point to be solved around the exhaustion we all feel from consuming so much data on a day to day basis. There are recent studies that point to excessive multitasking across digital platforms materially impacting employee productivity. As a result, consumers and companies are really starting to pay attention to this space.
It is getting so difficult to efficiently manage all of the digital input and output, and obviously security has become a huge issue. I’m excited about companies who are focused on taking the complexity and pain out of managing digital lives. I’m seeing an increase in people ideating around using machine learning and behavioral science to improve individuals’ and families’ health and financial lives in an easily consumable way – a way that does not require an early-adopter personality. Along those lines, I am a co-founder at a company that aims to solve aspects of these problems in a fun and engaging way. We’re still in stealth mode so more to come.
What advice do you have for young professionals who aspire to build a career in the business development or corporate development space? (e.g. Are there any key developmental roles they should try to attain?)
Titles in the space I’ve typically occupied vary considerably from company to company. You might be referenced as anything from business development to strategy, to chief of staff, to M&A, to corporate development or simply development. For most of my career I’ve had a foot in each of those buckets.
Over time, I’ve noticed a preference for companies to hire a true jack of all trades. These are generally folks who have a base in one field, but have the aptitude and appetite to test themselves in other areas. The reason for this is that companies don’t need to be making investments in acquisitions constantly, and they often don’t have the resources to keep someone on the payroll for the occasional investment. It has become very compelling, therefore, to hire someone who can lead M&A or commercial deals as well as contribute to strategic planning and operational support. Some of the most interesting projects I’ve worked on have related to hybrid transactions that incorporate both investment and partnership aspects.
Candidates that come into an interview stating they want to help me discover new revenue streams or to leverage and grow existing revenue streams are far more compelling than someone that tells me they’ve done a hundred investments or commercial agreements.
My best advice is to be a chameleon, and if you’re a hiring manager, build a team of chameleons. Focus on exceptionally smart people who bring different perspectives to the table rather than on candidates with a specific background.
What is one question you always ask during an interview process? Why?
“What do you think you want to be doing in 2-3 years?”
I think the key with highly talented people is to be immediately aware of their goals so that you can work together as partners.
If a candidate says they want to be doing the same thing they’re doing now but with a bigger title, that can be okay if your business requires a lot of soldiers. However, I prefer to hear someone’s passion for stepping outside the traditional BD or corporate development track into a range of more operational and strategic responsibility.
At the end of the day, I want people on my team who are comfortable admitting that they have ambition beyond exactly what they’re doing today.
How has being a woman and person of color impacted your career? Do you have any advice?
I always advise women to use your scarcity to your advantage. Your uniqueness, in any regard, may make some people uncomfortable, but it means that they’re paying extra attention to you. Their attention is your opportunity. Once you get over the fact that someone might find your presence makes the uncomfortable or distracts them, use that energy – positive or negative – to your advantage.
- Don’t waste your time worrying about what other people think.
- Don’t fade to the background – speak up. My mentor, Mayree always chastised me if she found out I knew the answer to something but was too intimidated to voice it in certain company.
- Don’t stick around. If you’re in an organization that can’t handle a competent female or minority voice then find one that can.
If you’ve done the homework you’ll be right and wrong just as often as any other person. Don’t let that potential for a biased perception dissuade you from taking a chance. It takes a lot of guts, but you have to power through it.
What resources have you turned to throughout your career for continued learning and development (books, podcasts, blogs, conferences, etc)?
Right now, I'm a big consumer of podcasts during workouts and commutes, often 2-3 hours per day. They're a great in-depth supplement to standard news sources. I tend to focus on the ones that teach me about what I thought I fully understood but actually didn't. They include: The Daily by the New York Times - I'm still a politics addict at heart; NPR's Hidden Brain, Freakonomics and a very new one by Vox called Pivot - I'm a big fan of Scott Galloway and Kara Swisher, they both contribute fearless insights on the intersection of tech, finance and politics and it's fun to hear them do this in tandem
11. What is the best way for people to connect with you?
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