Quants are in the enviable position of both being in short supply (and therefore enjoying a comparatively stable career) and working in a job which demands a high degree of technical expertise.
Frenchwoman Laurence Fauchon was enjoying her own steady quant job in Hong Kong when she set up a web business in 2012 that would eventually lead to her leaving banking. But she didn’t launch a fintech firm or anything vaguely quant-connected – her website ‘Helper Choice’ connects bankers and other busy professionals in Asia and the Middle East to domestic helpers who’ve listed their profiles online in order to find work.
This how she moved from Parisian quant to Hong Kong entrepreneur.
How did you end up in Hong Kong?
I did a Masters in Mathematics Applied to Finance after my engineering degree and joined BNP Paribas’ management associate programme in Paris as a quant in 2007. About 18 months later I wanted to go to Asia for personal reasons, but it was also a good move work wise. I’d studied Mandarin as a third language at university and when I moved in November 2008 it wasn’t exactly a great time to be working in banking in Europe. BNP had its quant operations centralised is Paris, so I had to negotiate a transfer to Hong Kong to become their only equities derivatives quant in Asia.
You were the only quant surrounded by traders?
Yes. It was very exciting and demanding because I was so far away from Paris and directly facing the Hong Kong traders. Sitting with them means you have to work quickly – you can’t take weeks to find solutions. And as the only quant I had to become more of a generalist than I would have been at head office.
You were busy at work – what gave you the idea to start a business in 2012?
When I got pregnant I realised I was going to need a helper myself. But finding one was difficult – some of the agencies didn’t even have websites – and I was horrified by stories about trafficking and the high fees charged to the helpers themselves. I thought ‘this is 2012 – the sector is due for some disruption and there must be a more ethical and efficient way of matching helpers and employers’. Helpers are the backbone of Hong Kong and Singapore, without them business people here wouldn’t be able to pursue their careers in the way they do now. This includes banking professionals – I’d estimate that 20% to 30% of our clients work in finance.
How did the business get up and running?
I have some programming knowledge from my engineering degree so actually I coded version one of the website myself – the essential functionality like allowing helpers to build profiles. And I concentrated on optimising the site for key web searches – I got on the first page of Google very quickly which helped grow the business.
Why did you decide to leave banking in May this year?
By 2014 Helper Choice was growing even more quickly – we'd expanded into Singapore and now the Middle East, which is a very different market for us. I was working on it nights, weekends and even holidays, and it was becoming too difficult to balance that with family and my day job. There were push factors out of BNP too – I became technically more senior and the compensation was great, but there wasn’t much real career progression compared to in a large team. While I did get another job offer, I thought I might face the same issues elsewhere given the size of quant teams in Hong Kong.
How have your quant skills helped you run your business?
My analytical skills were helpful in doing detailed analysis of web traffic to my site to see how people were interacting with it. By working in a bank I also learnt that I had the capacity to work long hours – that’s needed as an entrepreneur. At a bank I also developed the ability to face stressful situations – the trading floor is fast paced and you need to be fast to succeed as a start-up.
Do you think more quants will follow in your footsteps?
Speaking to people still in the job, I think quants are getting a lot more interested in leaving banking because they now see more opportunities to start businesses in areas like big data and data mining. I’m glad I made the move myself. I don’t think I could go back to a big bank, I enjoy being an entrepreneur too much. It’s great being able to make your own choices and apply them right away. The business cycle is so much shorter: you think of something, you do it the following day and you learn from it the following week. In a bank that could take months.