What makes a student CEO?

Life sits down with Marie-Louise O’Callaghan to speak about her role as Trinity SMF’s first female CEO

Although it often falls under the radar of non-business students, the Trinity Student Managed Fund (SMF) has grown to impressive heights since its conception in November 2010. With a current base of over 1,000 members, SMF seeks to aid the educational development of undergraduates interested in acquiring hands-on experience in investment. The society is unique for operating a real-life financial portfolio and, unlike many student-led organisations on campus, the SMF is guided by a panel of industry experts who work with members to ensure its financial growth and development. SMF claims to represent “some of the most talented and ambitious students within Trinity” and, undoubtedly, its first female Chief Executive Officer (CEO), Marie-Louise O’Callaghan, falls under that remit.

A Senior Sophister Business and French student, O’Callaghan has been heavily involved in the society since 2015. Initially winning its annual stock-pitching competition in first year,  she went on to become a sector leader for one of twelve investment portfolios and, as acting CEO, now guides a group of approximately 300 analysts. Speaking to Trinity News, O’Callaghan described how SMF piqued her interest: “I was your typical eager first year, so I obviously joined as many societies as I could. The SMF had so many events and I had always had an interest in investing. The people involved in the society spoke well, presented themselves well, and all had cool jobs.” It is clear that the professionalism and ambition of former committee members made an impression on O’Callaghan, who remembers thinking, “if I could become half of what those people are like, that’d be really great”. Thereafter, she threw herself into the Fund: “I went to as many events as I could and I became friends with the heads of the society, just out of chance and interest. It wasn’t with any intention of getting onto the committee or anything, it was purely interesting to me.”

“The SMF organises an average of two events per week in tandem with managing an investment portfolio currently worth €130,000.”

Placing first in the SMF’s 2016 stock-pitching competition spurred O’Callaghan to run for a committee position in second year. Having noticed a lack of female representation in the society – “I remember at the time thinking ‘wow, something needs to be done’” – she established the SMF’s first Women in Business conference in November 2016, an annual event which has since catalysed the development of a number of other female-focused activities within the organisation. “It’s just gone from strength to strength, it gets bigger and better every year. There are mentoring programs set up, we’ve built links with industry, with the Thirty Percent Club, we went to the Women in Finance awards at the start of the year in Clontarf Castle – it’s incredible.” Simultaneously, O’Callaghan led twenty-five analysts within the consumer sector of the SMF and was actively involved in the society’s weekly events. Her involvement lessened in Third Year, due to studying abroad in Paris, and thus O’Callaghan is aware that “I was really, really fortunate to have been able to come back as CEO for this coming year”, putting her selection down to the time and effort she invested in the society throughout her first two years.

The SMF organises an average of two events per week in tandem with managing an investment portfolio currently worth €130,000. When questioned on how she balances the responsibility of leading what is virtually a mini-company alongside her studies, O’Callaghan stressed that an efficient approach is key, “it forces you to be organised” and highlighted the benefit of surrounding herself with “a fantastic team”. She lists the multitude of events and activities that form the operational aspect of the society: “We have so many sponsors now that come in and run classes educating our members on how they work and on internship opportunities. We also have the Women in Business conferences, we have a fintech conference”.

The investment side of the SMF adds a constant dynamism to O’Callaghan’s role. “We’re managing €130,000 at the moment, which is real-life money. That goes up and down with the markets every day, so obviously no day is the same.” In addition to her formally defined responsibilities, O’Callaghan has to manage the intricacies of interpersonal relations that accompany leading a large team of highly motivated individuals. “You’re constantly getting emails with CVs, people asking about cover letter help, or just seeking general advice.” When asked if the multi-faceted nature of her position makes for a draining experience, O’Callaghan was quick to reject this notion, acknowledging the importance of giving back to a society that has provided her with a wealth of experience and opportunity. “The way I see it is that I have to take a step back and think of when I was in first or second year. I looked up to the CEOs and they always would help me. The reason I got different internships and the graduate job I’ll have next year is all thanks to them giving me so much time. I’ve met some incredible people, younger students with amazing ideas and who would almost keep me on my toes too. You want to inspire others.”

“Communication is key to her success, alongside delegating tasks and managing the expectations of team members.”

Undoubtedly, leading one of the largest societies on campus presents challenges and, although O’Callaghan admits that she has encountered certain difficulties along the way, she optimistically maintains that “it’s all learning”. When quizzed on her greatest challenge as CEO so far, she contends that she has had to grapple with “learning how to manage people in the most effective way possible”. Communication is key to her success, alongside delegating tasks and managing the expectations of team members: “Communication is so important when you’re dealing with people and everyone has different strengths and weaknesses – how you give people direction is dependent on those. I tend to take a lot of stuff on myself but you have to understand that you can’t do it all.” She says that any initial challenges were overcome by building a “fantastic team” alongside “being respectful of everyone’s time and showing that you appreciate what they’re doing”. As the organisation’s first female CEO, O’Callaghan does not feel she has faced barriers due to her gender, maintaining that “the SMF has always been of the culture that the best person gets the job”. She mentions her aspiration that, as a female leader, she will act as an example to other women who may be interested in becoming involved with the society; “To have more female presidents in time would be great”.

Having played a pivotal role in promoting female leadership within Trinity, it was interesting to discover what O’Callaghan perceives as the challenges currently facing women who want to climb the corporate ladder. She claims that there is a wealth of opportunity in business for female graduates as long as “you are prepared to step outside your comfort zone”. Although acknowledging that companies are invested in improving access to the corporate world for women, O’Callaghan says that a lack of conviction and confidence seems to inhibit female candidates from applying for jobs in the financial sector. “What seems to come up time and time again is that girls aren’t applying for the roles. Even for our committee roles this year, I don’t know how many girls I had to encourage to go for it, who thought they weren’t capable, and that is just not the case at all, they’ve proven themselves to everyone.” The SMF, she mentions, has attempted to instil confidence in female students by working “from the ground up” through the expansion of its Women in Business conference alongside the establishment of various mentorship programmes and networking opportunities. O’Callaghan praises the multitude of opportunities for female empowerment in Trinity, “Since I started in first year, I have felt nothing but a world of opportunity, particularly from the Business school”. She acknowledges that “a culture of openness and inclusivity” exists within College and maintains that such an atmosphere has helped shape her positive experience of leadership.

“The SMF, she mentions, has attempted to instil confidence in female students.”

With interviews already underway to select next year’s CEO, O’Callaghan sees the society as having scope to expand into a variety of different sectors: “We’ve always been very focused on equity research but there’s so many things we can go into: trading, fintech [financial technology], investment. We’re also entering competitions. We’re sending a team to Toronto next week that’ll be trading against the likes of MIT, Harvard, Oxford, and Cambridge. Also, building up the educational side and becoming more of an all-round business and finance society rather than focusing solely on investing.” With an employment offer in a New York hedge fund awaiting her next October, alongside a highly successful term as CEO of one of Trinity’s largest societies, O’Callaghan’s evident work ethic and ambition stake her out as one to watch in the constantly evolving financial sector.