Cheryl Lim

Associate Principal at global management consultancy, Singapore, Singaporean, 38

Could you tell us a little about what you do and how you got where you are now?

I have been a consultant for 15 years. My experience is centred around providing strategic consulting on the Technology, Media & Telecommunications (TMT) sector. This has involved working with private equity funds and institutional investors, boards and senior management of media and telecom operators and regulators on developing strategies and assessing the investment potential of possible options. As a consultant, I have lived and worked in various countries in Asia, Europe and West Africa.

After getting a first degree in Computer Science at the National University of Singapore, I joined German software company SAP as an internal consultant supporting various lines of business and functions. I worked for SAP Asia in a regional role for two years. I then switched to external consulting with Arthur Andersen Business Consulting, then PriceWaterhouseCoopers (PwC) Consulting, then IBM Business Consulting Services, for some six years. During my time at PwC Consulting, I was posted in Taiwan for two years, first working within a large semiconductor company, then helping another high technology company with a merger. After IBM took over, I had a chance to work in South Asia as well as to do some work for the Singapore public sector.

After this experience in operations, I wanted to widen my horizons and was attracted to business consulting so decided to do an MBA at INSEAD to prepare for this move. This worked very well since Roland Berger Strategy Consultants made me an offer to work in Shanghai. It would have been hard to turn down an offer to work for a leading company in the biggest economy in Asia. So I went and that was how I made a switch into strategy consulting. After a year and a half with Roland Berger in China, I joined Value Partners Management Consulting in Singapore and stayed with them for close to five years, covering South- East Asia and working mainly within the TMT practice and occasionally within the corporate finance and advisory practice.

Having gained experience in strategy consulting, I felt it was time again to refresh myself and explore another interest of mine: finance.

Why did you elect to do a PhD and how did you choose EDHEC-Risk Institute?

In today’s consulting world, advanced degrees are becoming more and more important. An experienced strategy consultant with PhD training can make a larger contribution and aim to be one of the voices commenting upon the development of the industry. This is something I aspire to.

My brother who is an alumnus of EDHEC Business School introduced the PhD in Finance programme to me and I thought it was a great opportunity for me. Any other serious programme would have required me to leave my job and go full-time in academe, which, at this stage of my career and given my goals would have constituted a high opportunity cost and high risk proposal. The format of the EDHEC-Risk Institute PhD in Finance allows me to get rigorous doctoral training without renouncing my career; this is a very rare opportunity.

What has been your experience in the programme so far?

It has been a very good experience for me and has exceeded my expectations. As far as I am concerned, the programme has delivered overwhelming value on two levels: first, it has developed my knowledge and widened my horizons; second, it has allowed me to grow new professional networks.

The latter is something you may not expect from a doctoral programme, so I will say a few words about this. The first network I have developed consists of other programme participants. The diversity is astounding: you have people who work in the market side of investment banks, commercial bankers, traditional asset managers, hedge fund managers and even entrepreneurs. At this stage of my career, I rarely come across opportunities to meet and bond with people of this calibre outside of the workplace. This diversity and seniority of participants makes classroom discussions as well as group work fascinating. This is a unique platform for learning, but also, networking.

The other group that strikes me is the faculty: it is extremely solid and not short of star professors. Having the opportunity to interact with people who are experts in their fields is eye-opening and raises the bar for students. The interaction goes beyond coverage of the course topics: instructors share their research philosophy and strategies and not only discuss their research ideas but are also willing to listen to and provide feedback on our ideas. This is not only true of the core faculty but also of affiliate professors. For example, Professor Vikas Agarwal recently taught an elective on hedge funds; it was a privilege to have him present his research on multiple aspects of hedge funds, but he went beyond this and shared his views on what kind of work is worth doing, what is a great topic and what top journals are looking for; he was extremely open to making contact and he still maintains the connection with course participants. Another recent example is Professor Peter Christoffersen who gave an elective on financial risk management and built in opportunities to discuss his and our research ideas.

Being mature and experienced, programme participants bring a lot to the classroom and are ready and well equipped to tap the industry knowledge of their peers and to take advantage of the expertise of their professors. It is empowering to be in a position to have in-depth, mature, discussions with people who are experts and have industry experience. This provides for a different learning experience and great opportunities to build and leverage networks in the pursuit of ideas.

Could you be more specific?

What I really appreciate about these class discussions is that we may start from an anecdote on how things are done in the industry, then the instructor and participants with insider knowledge add insights and we end up having a much better appreciation for what is going on in the industry and what may need improvement.

For example, we discussed the performance of the rating agencies with mortgage backed securities in Professor Jakša Cvitanic’s class – it turned out that the models used by the rating agencies were not different from those studied in class, they were not bad models but they were being used unthinkingly: their assumptions and parameters were not questioned and the models were not allowed to evolve; understood and used properly, these models would have turned out the right signals.

People doing an MBA and people studying towards a PhD are very different people. The typical MBA student – and I was this typical student – is at a stage of her life when she is focused on advancing her career, going to the next high, and the MBA is a means to that end. Career advancement is not a motivation to undertake doctoral studies for the average participant in the programme; we have a different calling: we have genuine interest in the subject, want to go deeper and contribute to expanding the body of knowledge and changing practices in the industry. With different starting points, different destinations, and different blocks along the way, the journey is very different – the PhD demands a lot of work from you and a lot of thinking and even in the first year, professors obligingly throw tricky assignments at you. The networking is of a different nature too – where the MBA student builds a network to advance her career and possibly access positions, we build networks to access and advance knowledge.

Your background is not finance; what is in this programme for you?

My closest claim to finance is corporate finance and although the core faculty has more of an asset pricing and investment management focus, I really enjoyed the core course on corporate finance delivered by Professors Pierre Mella-Barral and Florencio López-de-Silanes. They both are corporate finance specialists, did a brilliant work of presenting the state of the art in the area and the personal work they presented was smart and engaging.

Apart from developing my understanding of finance, I hope the programme will help me contribute to the area. Time will tell whether I have the opportunity to do so (besides bread and butter consulting assignments) as a full time researcher in a think-tank or possibly in a more hands-on role managing or stewarding money. Meanwhile, I find the rigorous training of the programme has already made me better at thinking and I definitely see the effects in my daily work. Naturally, most of what I acquire in the programme is not directly transferrable to management consulting, but there are ways of thinking, some concepts and some skills that I am able to use; that in itself is a very interesting outcome of the programme.

Do you have your research ideas firmed up yet

As part of my application, I wrote a proposal on the conditional performance of alternatively-weighted indices in bull and bear markets; this is an idea I still have but I know I need to find a good academic angle. Another idea is to study heterogeneous agents to bring more sophistication to models; Professor Abraham Lioui has mentioned some ideas but also warned that it would be a challenging area to survey in three years, so I need to define my scope more precisely if I want to finish the programme in time. I am also interested in looking at the link between macroeconomics and financial markets, since Professor René Garcia mentioned it is still understudied and macroeconomics is also an area I am interested in. But I still need to identify the market and the effect I want to study as a starting point. I also want to come up with a good topic in corporate finance and look again at some of the ideas discussed with Professor Christoffersen to try and identify something of interest in the area of risk management. My plan is to generate five ideas along those lines and continue the dialogue with the faculty to zoom in on the two of three topics I will be researching.