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Introducing Rafael Sarandeses


As he recently discovered, Rafael is a “multipotentialite”. He has raced cars professionally, even winning Spanish F3 in 1998, has worked in Private Equity, developed a 10-year career within the investment banking sector working for two of the most recognized companies of the industry, invested in start-ups and co-founded a merchant bank in Africa.

Despite the different stages he has been through his career path, “A common thread to my non-linear life is my interest to help others get the right job, develop rewarding careers, and master professional change in an increasingly accelerating world”, he confesses.

Oleksandr Kliets, IE Master in Management Career Ambassador September 2018 intake, had the opportunity to interview Rafael in order to introduce him to our readers and to go more in-depth about his interesting profile.

“It’s never a straight line; with the right focus and commitment, you will get there… but it’s never a straight line”.

 How would you define yourself, are you a racing car driver, a banker or an entrepreneur?

I have so far lived a non-linear life, pursuing many different interests, some of them in parallel, some of them consecutive. I recently learned that this would make me a multipotentialite, apparently! I would define myself as someone very curious with a deep love for learning, someone who craves the excitement of a good personal or professional challenge. This has led me through a cyclical progression based on my interest to learn different things. My drive to thrive in challenging environments has taken me to do the things that I do.


Would you consider taking the trait that connects these professions as a risk?


Could be. In simplistic terms, my career could have a polyedric shape. If you look at it from different angles, they all make sense together, but they are all different. They all reflect my character, but you cannot use one side to define the whole shape.


How did you start your career as a racing car driver, why didn’t you continue?

My dad was an investment banker and a racing driver. He offered me to try karting when I was 13, and I was hooked. I raced from 1993 to 2002, winning Spanish Formula 3 in 1998, among other titles.

At some point, I faced a dilemma: dropping my formal education in favor of a longer-term racing career. I realized that getting into Formula 1 was a function of money, and I made a judgement call in which I valued the opportunity cost of not putting my university degrees to work. I realized I was ready to move on, find another challenge and that’s what I did.

“I feel that there is a lot of pressure triggered by Social Media. If you are 23 and not running your own successful company, then you are doing something wrong. But take any college cohort, give it 10 years and check how many of the thousands of people that graduated actually created a company that made it big. I think that we are generalizing something which is not for generalization. Success is difficult and elusive, not the norm.”

How did you end up working in investment banking, how was the recruitment process for you?

It was not easy. I didn’t have the level of support that the IE Talent & Careers team offer our students in terms of Career Fitness and employability preparation, and beyond IE I think there is much more career mentorship now than we had 20 years ago.

I did not do any internships, I had both sports and entrepreneurial background and I did not know much about the sector. Nevertheless, I had developed a passion for financial markets and I wanted to pursue a career in Finance. I had to work my way through the applications, CVs, interviews, etc. pretty much on my own and spent almost a year applying and interviewing. I think this was the seed for my passion for helping others through this process. I learned how crude and lonely it could become.


Were there some rejections on the way?

Of course, yes. The thing I tell our IE students is not to worry about rejections, because they are part of the mix. I got rejected from 3 or 4 banks, even at the initial stage of tests, and then I got 3 offers. You just need to push through those setbacks. That’s why I recommend applying to as many banks as possible. Sometimes you are not even sure about the group or division you want to apply to. But doing your homework and learning what may be the best fit for you may be the difference between getting the job or being one more of the bunch. Commitment shows, you will transmit this energy to your recruiter.

I learned this through the process, and there was a lot of trial and error. I started applying to investment banking (M&A), and didn’t get the job because the person who was interviewing me decided that I was not a good fit for M&A. Despite me doing a perfect interview and getting all the boxes ticked, I didn’t get the job.

Then I met a senior banker who told me I should be applying to capital markets and not to investment banking. Sometimes you don’t know what you don’t know, that’s why applying to different banks and networking is very important as you get to practice and learn from the people you meet. Goals are never a straight line. It’s never a straight line, you will get there with the right focus and commitment, but it’s never a straight line.

Luck is a key ingredient and you cannot control what you cannot control but some things you can actually control, and there you must commit all-in and be as proactive as possible. Networking and finding professionals in the industry who can provide the right information and context that can help you to get what you need is key. It only depends on your ability to learn how to network and then your commitment to meet those people whenever there is an opportunity.

How was your professional development within the financial industry for you, was it quick?

I started as a Junior Analyst at Sales & Trading in Goldman Sachs. I came in a few years later than my peers, as I had invested time in racing and entrepreneurship, so I ended up graduating at 26. When I joined Goldman Sachs, my boss was 2 years younger than me. I got promoted to associate 2 years later and 4 years into my banking career I was recruited by Morgan Stanley to set up and run their Southern European foreign exchange sales team. It was a very exciting period, with a very steep learning curve.


Why did you decide to quit being an employee in banking?

A good friend from Goldman Sachs and I decided that we wanted to create something new where we could put our experience and our expertise to work. We wanted to do something different and challenging, with a lot of upsides but very real and with tangible social returns. That is how we decided to start a merchant banking firm in Africa, “ThirdWay Africa”.


Could you please provide with advice to those current graduates who are not sure whether to apply to a high-paid job or establish their own business?

If you have a good idea and you know that you can execute it properly, go for it. Execution is everything; an idea by itself is just a dream. We have ideas coming through our desk several times per week, but you don’t work with 5 companies per week. You only get involved in those where you can see a team that has the execution under control. I always say this: I would rather invest in an “A” team developing a “B” idea, than in a “B” team developing an “A” idea. If you think that you can execute better than the rest and you think that the idea is niche enough but at the same time is scalable, it is something worth considering.


We are all in our own race

I feel that there is a lot of pressure triggered by Social Media. If you are 23 and not running your own successful company, then you are doing something wrong. But take any college cohort, give it 10 years and check how many of the thousands of people that graduated actually created a company that made it big. I think that we are generalizing something which is not for generalization. Success is difficult and elusive, not the norm.

I may sound counter-trend here, but there is a lot of value in learning how big corporations function, how large teams work together, what experienced leadership is. Jeff Bezos founded Amazon at 31, not at 21. He did more than 10 years of investment banking before. Vera Wang started her career in fashion design at 40, she was a journalist before. Would she be a better designer now if she had started in her 20s? We will never know. Then we have Zuckerberg who founded Facebook at 20… everyone’s in their own race! If you try to standardize some of the success stories around us, you are prone to making costly career mistakes.


Focusing on the right goals in the short term

I don’t think that as an undergrad (and even MBA) student you should obsess on the choice between Entrepreneurship and becoming an employee. There is a lot of pre-work that needs to be done to get to that point in your decision-making.

Before getting to that, it pays to invest time in learning about your strengths and weaknesses, what role or job may fit who you are, your passions and the things you are keen to learn about… and then find a way to learn all those things. Once you know about yourself you may decide if Entrepreneurship is for you, or if the best way to learn what you need to learn is to work in a corporation. But making such decision without the pre-work on yourself is dangerous.

I think this is a common mistake and it is down to the wrong approach to goal-setting. We tend to set the wrong goals for ourselves, not differentiating what we need from what we want. Too focused on the end game while investing very little time in learning and acquiring the tools that will help us tackle the end game successfully. Find out about yourself and what may work best for you while you are at IE, then try to answer the bigger questions as part of the process.


You are also known as an investor, could you please elaborate on few the most notable projects you have invested in and what were the main factors on which you made the decision?

Mostly the ability to execute by the promoting team. Even ideas that are not original may become very good ideas if they are well executed.


In your articles, you state the importance of positive thinking. Do you think that positive thinking in Entrepreneurship could lead to overestimation of the results and undervalue of risks?

I think that if you are going to become an entrepreneur, your best character trait is resilience, the ability to endure, even at difficult times. Albert Einstein said once that “compound interest is the 8th wonder of the world”, right? Well, the time you invest in something compounds over time, but we all have a tendency to make an investment and expect results in two days. What happens is sometimes you invest time without return but then return comes in unexpectedly, later than expected and in large amounts. Your investment in your own skills, your relationships, the books you read… they all compound silently and sometimes they come back in a way you did not foresee. You need to be resilient and allow for time for that investment to pay off. Otherwise, you will give in to anxiety and it makes focusing on the process difficult.

To your point of undervaluing risks, positive thinking and resilience are not at odds with risk management. You always have to take risks under the account. The thing is that there is no business plan which survives the first 6 months, it’s either overperformance or underperformance… They are good for approximation. You apply proactivity to foresee how things could go wrong, and then you apply resilience when things actually go wrong. Because they will go wrong now and then.


In some of your articles (“Social Media is Fooling You: Greatness is NOT The Norm, It’s The Exception”, “How to Stop a Bad Day from Taking You Down”) you say that it is important to be ourselves, identify our own goals and priorities and avoid comparison with others. Don’t you believe that this comparison makes us more productive and motivated to outperform?

As I said, we all are in our own race. It’s very difficult to actually create a career while you constantly compare yourself with others.

A lot of energy goes into building our careers. If you are diverting focus on things that will not make “your boat go faster”, you will waste precious energy. Do you think Bezos is now regretting not starting Amazon 5 years earlier? Does it actually matter to him? It is your path and no one else can walk your path.

Management author Peter Drucker said: “Successful careers are not planned. They develop when people are prepared for opportunities because they know their strengths, their method of work, and their values. Knowing where one belongs can transform an ordinary person — hardworking and competent but otherwise mediocre — into an outstanding performer”.

A very different thing is acknowledging that we all sometimes need help to understand what we really want and how to transform our reality and our approach so that we get what we want. In essence, understanding that as you grow, what brought you here won’t be enough to take you any higher. And that is where performance & career coaching comes in, I think it can be very useful. But just copying what we see around us won’t work because we are all different, with different backgrounds, different skills, and a different mindset and tolerance to change.