Former banking executive shares her experience taking the entrepreneurial plunge

After nearly two decades of building a career in the global banking industry, Hilka Schmitz made a career change and used her financial expertise to help launch a tech start-up. 

She joined Deutsche Bank in 1997 and enjoyed roles in Frankfurt, New York and London across multiple divisions of the bank while working her way to director. In 2014, she became chief operating officer of Source – Lifestyle, a start-up that developed a digital concierge app that allows users to request elite services and products from hand-selected vendors. She now works as an independent consultant in the financial services sector. 

Hilka graduated from Duke University’s Fuqua School of Business Cross Continent MBA program in 2003, prior to the program's merger with Fuqua's current Global Executive MBA program. She currently serves on the school’s regional advisory board for Europe. She shared insights from her unique career path in a Fuqua Q&A.

Hilka Schmitz

Q) When beginning your career, you had a background in computer science, and you worked on technology projects while at Deutsche Bank. Has your plan always been to stay close to that field?

Initially yes, however I decided very soon after my start at Deutsche, to pursue a global career in banking and strategy rather than go down the technology route. I moved to New York in 1999 to join the integration of Deutsche’s acquisition of Bankers Trust and started the MBA program with The Fuqua School of Business two years later. However technology has always accompanied my career as the key enabler of change and strategy.

Nowadays, I joke that my tech knowledge is from the 1990s where we booted PCs from a floppy disc and I was able to manipulate the start-up batch file. Understandably, our genius chief technology officer—who built our lifestyle app—has been reluctant to ask for my help with any of the coding.

Q) What prompted your move from banking to helping launch a start-up?

I am proud of my career and enjoyed the complex and dynamic environment of investment banking, but after almost 20 years it was definitely time to move on. The last couple of years were tough. Full diaries and a large number of stakeholders with conflicting priorities left little energy for me to think about what I was actually passionate about. At the end of 2013, whilst waiting for my new role in transition strategy to gain momentum, I found the time to muse about my next step. I was keen to work with a small group of visionary and inspiring people where I could be close to clients and have a passion for the product—all of which I have found at Source – Lifestyle.

Q) Going from a large company to a start-up in its infancy is a dramatic change. What surprised you most about the transition?

The thing that surprised me the most, is that it wasn’t a dramatic change. In this start-up we pursue a number of opportunities in parallel—global expansion, client acquisition, new technology—just like you would in a large corporate setting, only more intense as we are running the business whilst we are building it. Fortunately, I come with a lot of prior experience, having kept Deutsche’s senior management focused on priorities of overriding programmes, even during the financial crisis. These skills have transferred perfectly to Source – Lifestyle.

The second surprise has been that it’s challenging to squeeze a group of visionary, inspiring and experienced individuals into a framework of governance and strategy, as I was able to do at Deutsche.

Q) When crafting an executive team and workforce from scratch, what characteristics and/or complimentary skills do you look for? What are the biggest difference in team dynamics between large and small companies?

The founders all have a combined background in global banking, management consulting, marketing and prior successful start-ups. This helps to develop an aggressive agenda, which in turn appeals to investors.

For our operations team, I have hired mainly graduates with an outgoing personality and entrepreneurial spirit. They deal with our members and industry experts and have a genuine desire to provide a seamless service, whilst helping our partners to excel.

Of similar importance are the teams’ working skills and the willingness to not only work hard, but to be very hands-on. In a small team and a fast changing environment there is no room for divas or 9-to-5ers!

Q) What advice do you have for other professionals who have an established career, but are considering taking the entrepreneurial plunge?

Go for it!