Richard Hopton meets Milena Ivanova, founder of a new type of investment firm, Monogram.
The story of Milena Ivanova’s journey from Communist Bulgaria to founding her own investment firm, Monogram, in the City of London, is a parable for our times.
It is a remarkable tale of resourcefulness, hard work and determination, exemplifying the triumph of capitalism, meritocracy and individualism over Communism’s discredited dogmas.
Milena was a teenager when Communism collapsed in Bulgaria in 1989. Milena herself had already begun teaching herself English from books and American films and working – a rare thing for schoolchildren in communist Bulgaria – to save money. In 1993, after her first year at Varna University, she got a three-month British work permit. She arrived in Britain with £50 in her pocket, the air fare having consumed her entire life savings.
Having spent the following summer in Britain, she was determined to complete her university education here but the tuition fees of £5,000 or more a year were utterly beyond her.
Milena discovered that London’s European Business School offered one full-fees scholarship a year to foreign students. Showing characteristic grit, she beat off stiff international competition to win it. She completed the course, working in the evenings and at weekends to pay her way while, at the same time, managing to fit in internships with City institutions to polish her CV.
Armed with her business degree, in 1999, Milena landed a job at Goldman Sachs. Her transformation from communist to capitalist was complete but, she says, ‘I still had a lot to learn about western values and lifestyle.’
From the time she arrived in Britain, Milena had wanted to start her own business. To her, its attraction was the creative process and that ‘you can build something out of nothing’, an alien concept in communist Bulgaria. The question was, what was it to be? Her ten-year career at Goldman Sachs was, in part, an education in business. In 2009, she moved to a medium-sized start-up wealth management firm, Vestra, and then to a smaller one, Signia. As a result, she says, ‘I’ve seen the investment industry from all sides and in different sizes.’
Planning Monogram, Milena says she ‘began with a blank sheet of paper. I wanted to build an investment-led engine, not a sales-led one.’ Monogram attempts to replicate the advantages of the big banks – notably their talent – without the conflicts of interest arising from having financial products to sell. Monogram offers its clients an ‘empirical, evidence-based’ investment strategy which is low cost, transparent and highly liquid. For Milena, the key factors in asset allocation are country, region and sector.
To achieve these goals, Monogram invests only at index level – that is, it does not buy individual company stocks – using Exchange-Traded Funds (ETF) and futures. Monogram is an investor, not a trader – unlike many hedge funds – so does not short sell or attempt to predict how markets will move. As Milena puts it, ‘we are like a sailor at sea, we align ourselves to the prevailing wind’, doing everything she can to limit clients’ risk or, as she puts it, ‘constraining the downside’.
Monogram, launched at the end of 2014, is a lean outfit, employing only five people, three of whom, Milena included, are women. She has said that, as the business grows, she will recruit more people. If Milena’s past is any guide to the future, we will be hearing more of Monogram.
A fund of answers
Who has influenced you most professionally? My parents. If you didn’t work in financial services, what would you be doing? I’d be a doctor, I like helping people. What is your long-term aim for Monogram? To become a global business known by all its stakeholders for its integrity. If you were able to implement one reform in the financial services industry, what would it be? To make regulation less extensive but more effective. Where do you most like going on holiday? I like adventure holidays. For example, I recently went trekking in Nepal and sky-diving in New Zealand.