IN THIS BUSINESS, YOU NEED A FRIEND
More than a decade ago, two women in private equity met on a deal. The first, Christine Hommes, was a young and ambitious associate at the time who decided to reach out for lunch and advice from the other, Olivia Wassenaar, who was a rising private equity principal a few years her senior at a competing firm. Fast forward 10 years – these two women have moved past a mentor/mentee relationship and now are colleagues, confidants, and friends. Christine Hommes is now Partner at Apollo Global Management in New York. Olivia Wassenaar is Senior Partner and Co-Lead of Natural Resources, also at Apollo Global Management in New York. They believe that when you work long hours, you should do it with people you like. They also believe there need never be only one seat at the table for women in energy or private equity.
ON HOW THEIR FRIENDSHIP BEGAN
Christine: Olivia and I first became friends working on a deal together. We were at different firms at the time (she was at Riverstone and I was at Apollo), which had partnered in a company called Talos Energy. It was a tough deal to negotiate, but we got along well and developed a good rapport. Since I hadn’t met many other senior women in energy private equity, after we signed the deal, I reached out to Olivia to see if she would serve as an unofficial mentor.
Olivia: Funnily enough, I had never actually worked on a deal with another woman in private equity either. We bonded over how rare it was (but shouldn’t be).
Christine: Before Olivia joined Apollo, we’d occasionally meet for lunch or drinks near our offices. Now, I work for Olivia so if she asks me to grab lunch, I’m sort of obligated… [Laughter] But before, that wasn’t the case. There are plenty of “mentor relationships” that I’ve tried – you go to lunch one time and there is no connection. I’m very bad at following up with people in general. But I actually wanted to follow up with Olivia – she offered a good perspective and was also just fun to grab lunch with.
Christine: Both men and women can make great mentors, but there are aspects of the “female professional experience” that are difficult for men to understand. For example, when you show up to a meeting and an executive mistakes you for the most junior member of the team (even when you are the Partner), or assumes you’ll handle the scheduling because you’re a woman.
Olivia: Yes, those kinds of things happen more than men realize – the default assumption that you are more junior than you are.
Christine: While it sounds like a petty issue, it keeps happening and undermines both your standing within the team and your own confidence. Sometimes you just need someone else with that shared experience to offer a few points on how to navigate it. I saw Olivia as a more senior professional who had gone through similar experiences without letting it affect her. And having a person who understands my industry, who knows the personality types, to bounce ideas with and to offer counsel has been incredibly helpful.
WHEN YOU WORK LONG HOURS, FRIENDSHIP MATTERS
Olivia: It is essential to have friends in this business. We work a lot. We work long hours and they can be intense, especially when you are working on a deal. Being able to call Christine after a conference call and to admit, “that was a bad conversation” has been incredibly helpful. Having that informal network and camaraderie which offers support, whether deal-specific or more broadly, is grounding and makes me stronger in my job. Work is so intense – it’s best to do it with people you like.
Christine: Our conversations don’t have to be 100% business, either. This is a demanding job and you can’t maintain that level of intensity without comfort with your team. You should be able to joke and laugh, which allows you to escape the stress. But sometimes, you also really need trusted confidants where you can let down your guard and ask for honest and sincere advice.
Olivia: Like the day oil went negative. Christine and I were texting all day – we were horrified. “It is at $4.25, it is at $1…” Midway through a Zoom call, she finally said, “I can’t follow you right now, oil is negative.” It was a really tough day, but then you pick up the phone and call your friends and commiserate over “what do we do now?” It’s so much easier to speak freely and brainstorm those ideas with someone that’s not just your teammate, but your friend.
THERE’S MORE THAN ONE SEAT AT THIS TABLE
Olivia: When I joined the World Bank, I worked for a strong, smart woman who was a promoter and mentor to many women. She was the first person to instill in me the criticality of forming strong friendships in business with the idea of building allies. Her philosophy was that we all need friends in this industry – women especially. There isn’t just one seat at the table – we need to find seats for as many women as possible.
Christine: Before meeting Olivia, I hadn’t met many women in the industry. Early in my career, I was hesitant to reach out to women simply based on the shared experience of being a woman. And then at some point I realized many of the men in our industry were reaching out to others because they went to the same college or they were in the same fraternity, or whatever. Now, I’ve nurtured my female relationships and I’m better for it because I meet women with such a broad range of experiences.
FILLING THOSE SEATS
Olivia: I’ve always valued the inclusive perspective I gained early in my career, and have focused on helping connect women with their potential “seats at the table”. Whether it is meeting with an investment banking analyst looking to get into private equity or suggesting a particularly impressive CEO, who happens to be a woman, as a speaker at an event, it’s critical to highlight female leadership and opportunity. The more we highlight each other’s successes, the more successful we all become.
Christine: I remember a deal before Olivia came to Apollo where we were concluding some fairly disputed negotiations and three parties, including me and Olivia, were on the line hammering out the final points. After the call, one of us made a comment that it was great that all three of the lead negotiators were women – it was the first (and maybe only?) time I have been in a negotiation with only women at the table, and I’m excited for the day when that’s not even notable.
Olivia: I remember that call and it was very efficient! It’s so great to see women increasingly filling those decision-making and board-level roles. Last year, we started hosting a women’s cocktail hour around NAPE in Houston and each time we look at the RSVP list, we’re excited about the impressive female investment bankers, lawyers, investors, and consultants – the list grows every years. I love that.
HER SECRET SAUCE
Christine: Olivia’s thoughtfulness is not a secret. She is really, really insightful and determined to get to the right answer regardless of what that means. That is really rare in this industry. She doesn’t say, “this is my idea and this is my plan, and this is what we’re executing,” but rather has a commitment to achieving the best result that enables her to be more open to others’ ideas. “I want to get to the right answer, and I don’t really care how we get there.”
Olivia: If I ever have a complex issue, a nut to crack – no one is better than Christine. She is great at driving to the heart of things – quickly and thoughtfully. We’ll have meetings where Christine doesn’t say anything, and we all talk ourselves in one direction. Then, Christine jumps in with an insightful, well-informed comment and we’re all like, “oh no, we should not do that. That was a horrible idea.”
ADVICE FOR OTHER WOMEN
Olivia: Establish trusted relationships – it is important to have someone who you can confide in, who you can use as a sounding board. In the absence of being able to have that in the workplace, find people with at least some sort of shared experience. I have had many informal mentors – sometimes people who didn’t even work in the same industry – who are great allies. You can use all the friends you can get.
Christine: There is literally no industry – whether you are in real estate, or design, or retail, or medicine – where people do not have added stress right now. That world of shared experience is expanding quickly right now. It is so important just to take care of yourself. Find something that you actually enjoy, and give yourself the opportunity to say, “I’m blocking the next hour. It doesn’t matter if somebody calls me or something happens. I am blocking off this time for myself.” Whether it is working out, reading, learning a new hobby, or just watching Tiger King and needle-pointing – all which I’ve done during my quarantine.