We are delighted to introduce to you Miranda ADEMAJ, CEO of Skënderbeg Investment Management.
I was born in Kosovo during a time when an undeclared war ravaged the area. Since the situation in my home country deteriorated more and more, my parents decided in 1994 to flee with me and my two siblings to Germany. My parents did not take this decision lightly, because they had to leave everything behind and it was uncertain if we would even get into Germany because of our unclear refugee status. We did make it to Germany. But without a home and with no idea of what future might hold, the prospects were not really encouraging.
From a social and cultural point of view, Germany was very different from what I used to grow up with in Kosovo. As an adolescent woman I recognized particularly that women in Germany had more options and a higher social status than in Kosovo, but to assert similar rights for myself in my own social environment was a year-long up-hill struggle because, as an Albanian woman, you are expected to behave according to the norms of your own culture. This means living more conservative. At that time, my family tried to stick to those values and Albanian tradition in general. I think that for my parents I was sort of a difficult kid, because I was a person that enjoyed pushing the limits and transgress boundaries. My mom asked me again and again why I couldn’t be a normal girl like other Kosovar girls. Despite being left to my own devices in a way, I managed to graduate from Economics College. While studying, I also had to work part-time to support myself financially. So, I went through some hardship, but that turned me into a fighter.
In 2005, I realized that the economic situation in Germany would deteriorate because of the deeper integration into the European Union. The EU is comparable to the former Yugoslavia, not really a success story. I therefore deliberately looked for a country that is self-determined and liberal. That is why I moved to Switzerland because I saw Switzerland as a neutral country with more democracy, more freedom and a country that has learned the right lessons from wars dating back centuries. In Switzerland, I was confronted with, and had to learn to adapt to as a matter of fact, yet another culture, albeit a culture not so much different from Germany’s. But, ultimately, this country turned out to have a significant influence on my life. In Switzerland, there are almost half a million people of Balkan origin and, among the country’s total population of eight million, almost two million are not Swiss. Life has never been easy for young people uprooted from their homes by war, making their way into a new country, which, at times, may appear unwelcoming. For instance, when I arrived in Switzerland, a poster of a right-wing party against public funding of integration centers for immigrants from Kosovo could be seen everywhere. This was certainly not a comfortable sight for me. The omens seemed to be not favorable. But, the vast majority of the Swiss population is very welcoming and, « Where there is a will, there is a way ». I continued my studies in economics and, as a hobby, I did some modelling. I even had the opportunity to appear on television. I had achieved all my goals. Except one: the dream to become someday CEO of my own company. Since a very early stage, I have been fascinated by the intricacies of the financial markets. Hedge funds, in particular, attracted me due to their secrecy, their mysterious aura. Later on, probably partly due to my traditional upbringing, I wanted to see whether I could make a difference in this men-dominated world.
I started my career in a Swiss bank and came into contact with hedge funds relatively quickly. Despite their negative reputation, they immediately captivated me. Although frowned upon as highly speculative and unregulated investment vehicles, my enthusiasm for hedge funds did not diminish, quite the opposite. However, in this large bank I felt almost like a hamster in a wheel. Neither innovation nor creativity were required. One simply could not make a difference. As a freedom-loving and self-determined person, this environment was just not made for me.
I needed some time off, time to come to terms with what I wanted in life. So I went on a 1-year backpacking trip round Australia and South East Asia. I wanted to find out who I really was, whether I had unconsciously taken on the wrong role in this life in the past. But above all I wanted to get to know unlimited freedom in order to better understand the world I lived in. During my voyage around the world, I had neither safety nor comfort, but it turned out the best, most instructive and freest time of my life. The best education you will ever get is travelling. Nothing teaches you more than exploring the world and accumulating experiences. As a conclusion of my trip around the world, I recognized that I was following the right career, but on the wrong side.
Back in Europe I had to start again from scratch. I decided to go into the industry which still fascinated me most. Hedge Funds. But it was important for me to work in a small company because there was more freedom, responsibility and opportunities. As a consequence, I started to work for BrunnerInvest, a fund of hedge funds pioneer in Zurich. There I met some great people. People who understood my perspective in life, who were enthusiastic, intelligent and highly educated. One day, after having gained a lot more experience, my last unfulfilled dream resurrected, and I decided to create my own company, a quasi-spinoff of our employer. I partnered with two colleagues, and we created a company called Skënderbeg named after the medieval Albanian freedom fighter Gjergj Kastrioti Skënderbeg. Everyone thought we were insane to launch a fund of funds in a time when the reputation of hedge funds was at rock bottom. There were even some bets against us. But we believed in our conviction and set up clear goals. We founded our company, against the odds, at first without clients, but with a clear idea, drive, motivation and a good feeling, and, luckily, with some high-profile investors in the pipe-line. And our dream to launch our own fund of funds, which we initially thought virtually impossible, did come true. After only three months, we received a multi-million commitment from a seed investor that enabled the launch of the Skënderbeg Fund. It’s, by the way, very interesting that all countries that are dear to me are represented in our company. The chief investment officer is Swiss, the chief risk officer is German and I, as the CEO, come from Kosovo. Each nationality has its strengths and by combining those strengths, we have built a strong team.
As far as challenges are concerned, I think the biggest one is to change the perspective that, in the men-dominated hedge fund industry, women only have assisting roles, in particular if they are good-looking. Thus, it’s not surprising for me to hear the question: « What’s your role in the company, Miranda? » In meetings, I’m most often the only woman. That’s kind of a weird feeling, being the only woman in this environment, but actually, I don’t care, because I know my skills. At the end of the day, the fact that I’m a woman in the industry is in our favor and gives us a competitive advantage, because the way women approach investing works in their favor. Reasons for this conclusion have nothing to do at all with intelligence or education levels or years of experience. It all boils down to one biological differences: Women tend to be physically weaker. This disadvantage they have to compensate with prudence and a higher awareness of risk. In addition, men produce, on average, 15 times more testosterone than women. This has an impact on aggression, dominance, confidence, hostility and risk-taking. A study by BlackRock found, that there are two main ways in which women differ from men: Firstly, women tend to view their investing with longer-term goals in mind—namely, financial security, independence and quality of life. Secondly, they tend to take more time to research their investments and seek out the advice of others before taking the plunge. Men, on the other hand, tend to take decision-making into their own hands. They are also more likely to make impulsive decisions in response to the markets. For example, a study in support of this assertion proved that women were less likely than men to sell equities during the 2008 financial crisis. It turns out that being a thoughtful, patient investor pays off. Women simply perceive risk differently from men and tend to manage their portfolios accordingly. I also think that female intuition has its advantages. Their social and emotional skills are more developed than men’s. In general, women ask questions more quickly in case they think they don’t really understand an issue. They immediately want to get to the bottom of things. Men often wait for fear to be considered uninformed or unknowing.
To sum up, I think people who experienced uncertainty—and certainly war—have a very different understanding of and relationship with risk than people who come from a quiet academic background, free of fear and uncertainty. My dark years offer many relevant lessons—about life, politics, financial markets, wealth, and survival—that can help investors like us to deal with adversity and difficult times. For example: In war, there is often no second chance. This can be transferred to the investment strategy.