Success in entrepreneurship: Follow your own path to greatness, not someone else’s

Written by Tom Fairey

14 March, 2022

Emma Davidson used an internship to eventually land a job at Citi, which prompted her to reassess what her long-term priorities were

Let’s talk for a second about creating your own success, because Emma Davidson has done a lot of that.

Davidson was born in South Africa and came to the U.K. in 1999. At 18, she joined an internship program sponsored by the German bank Commerzbank, beating 100-to-1 odds to land the spot.

That program was aimed at grooming the next generation of bankers for leading roles in finance. Davidson used it to get on the trading floor with just a college degree — something that normally requires that, plus an MBA and years of on-the-job experience.

Though young, Davidson used her time well, working for a great boss, getting to know retail customers, and working at the bank’s warrant desk, where she could speak to lots of salespeople. She got ahead by volunteering to take on a job no one wanted — the bank needed to help traders procedurise what they were doing on the floor. It involved a lot of late nights and weekends, and Davidson was game.

“I wanted to get on the trading floor,” she told me in a recent episode of my podcast, Back Yourself. “I thought it was exciting, and I knew I wanted to be there.”

When you have a goal and fix on it, it’s amazing what you can achieve.

Though globally successful, Commerzbank had a U.K. problem. The bank’s U.K. coverage had always struggled, and a wide range of salespeople had been hired — not just anyone, but senior sales staff plucked from big investment banks — all to no avail.

Somewhat timidly, Davidson raised her hand and volunteered for the job, and much to everyone’s surprise, she got it. 

“There was no reason why I would not work as well as the others,” she said. After all, she had already been talking to customers. “They had nothing to lose either since they were paying me so little. So I just went for it.”

Here’s a prime example of a great business lesson: Hard work pays off

Davidson’s story was incredible, and it soon became the stuff of legend: Years later, young bank recruits would seek her out to say her story was repeated to every class as an example of how they could succeed in this rough culture.

One constant of success is the need to deal with unending failure. That’s why so many of those who rise above failure are those that put in the time and the hard work. Whether Commerzbank saw something in Davidson and decided to let her loose, or it was just dumb luck, she grabbed on to the chance she had been given and never looked back.

Eventually, Davidson left Commerzbank — Radobank, the large Dutch bank, had been tracking her progress and offered her total compensation that tripled what Commerzbank had on offer.

That’s hard to say no to, and so Davidson said yes, embarking on a two-year role as head of U.K. sales there, only to see herself headhunted by Citi.

The jump to Citi, for a trader, is a huge deal — while Commerz and Rado are major players, they are not tier-one contestants the way Citi and its competitors are.

She did not know it at the time, but working at City would help Davidson realize what her life priorities were — an important role for any entrepreneur.

“It was the Holy Grail of trading floors,” she said.

Davidson arrived at her desk at Citi in August 2007, just in time for … well, in time for August 9, the day, as the Wall Street Journal put it, which began “the most far-reaching economic disruption since World War II.”

Citi was thrilling, but also a difficult environment to work in, particularly for a woman.

“It became a Lord of the Flies-like situation,” she said. “Everybody was terrified. People were terrified of losing their jobs.”

The impact of the crisis did not have an immediate impact on the floor, so to a certain extent, there was little that changed, although waves of regulatory updates did come. It was later, toward 2011 and 2012, that stress began to build, and Davidson left.

This time when she left, she was not recruited by a headhunter. She recruited herself. Davidson founded Affinity Capital Limited.

Affinity is an innovative London-based investment boutique specialising in structured investments and derivatives. The company developed and retained an elite network of exclusive clients who invested huge sums of money with the company. 

Davidson was not good, she realised, at following rules and toeing to authority. Growing up, her mom and dad both ran business, which meant wavering financial security. She wanted a steady corporate job, which she worked hard at for 12 years. But she never could really conform or respect authority. Particularly guiling was the tenure, or people good at corporate politics, people who were in respected positions because they had put in the time, not necessarily because they were qualified.

Success should be earned, not inherited.

In 2011, Davidson’s father died suddenly, which prompted a long hard look at where her present path was taking her. Once again, she asked, “What’s the worst that could happen?”

At Affinity, Davidson could chart her own path, following her own ethics, creating the type of environment she wanted to be a part of. She took the experiences of Citi and put them to use to create a better, healthier her.

In 2016, her husband started his own venture, Staude Capital. The two were successful, but the 12-hour days were taking their toll. As she has often done over the years, she and her husband imagined themselves as 80 year olds: What would they be proud of? What would their regrets be? What decisions should they have made differently? Though Affinity was hugely successful, Staude had promise; Davidson went to work with her husband, and has not looked back.

The Takeaway

Davidson grew in her role by focusing on herself, from the huge decision to have a child to the weekly talk she has with a therapist to work through tough issues. Chart your path in life by working toward your own definition of success, not someone else’s. Don’t succumb to pride: You’re not above doing anything. If there’s a job to be done, roll your sleeves up and do it. And if you want something, it’s OK to be naive about it. Just go for it, take the plunge, and run with it.

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