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Featured Profile: Nicole Connolly
Life's a marathon
Invest Unlisted founder and chief executive Nicole Connolly loves to run, and when she's not training for a marathon she is running her own business, the Invest Unlisted Core Infrastructure Fund (formerly IPIF). Eliza Bavin writes.

Born and bred in Melbourne, Invest Unlisted's Nicole Connolly had always dreamed of becoming a teacher, even studying to become one at Melbourne University.

"I initially studied to be a teacher in the economics, politics and accounting fields which was essentially my foundation in business studies," she explains.

I went down the path of focusing on alternative investment, which includes private equity hedge funds and unlisted infrastructure... To look back and see how well developed those asset classes are now, and how they have emerged, is quite remarkable.
Unfortunately, her timing was off. Completing her degree in the mid-1990's, then-Victorian Premier Jeff Kennett was cutting funding for public schools, closing 350 of them and "feverishly slashing teaching jobs".

Unable to secure a role, Connolly went to work for a small superannuation fund, having received strong marks in her business studies.

The fund in question was the Professional Retirement Fund, for those in the medical industry, which later merged with HESTA.

"During that time, I really enjoyed the investment side of things and so I decided to go back and study economics and finance," Connolly says.

"I love the ambiguity in subjects like economics and politics. The answers are so dependent on so many variables."

After completing her second degree, Connolly joined Telstra Super as an investment analyst, enjoying it so much she stayed for about a decade.

"I went down the path of focusing on alternative investment, which includes private equity hedge funds and unlisted infrastructure," she says.

"Those were asset classes that hadn't really emerged at the time, so I was really learning as the industry was learning. It was a great time to be part of something new and be part of that growth.

"To look back and see how well developed those asset classes are now, and how they have emerged, is quite remarkable."

Connolly worked her way up to become head of alternative investments within the corporate fund, before deciding it was time for a change.

Connolly moved to Russell Investments, where she worked as director of alternative investments for close to three years.

She describes the move, from corporate super fund to global investment firm, as "a bit of a culture shock" - but she was up for the challenge.

Connolly says her time with Russell Investments was filled with a lot of learnings that she is grateful for, but she found herself missing the more customer-centric side of things.

"There's a lot more practical, hands on involvement when you are working within a super fund," she explains.

"Working for an asset consultant, you find there is a higher theoretical component to what you're doing."

Connolly was working on Russell's model portfolio committee, helping to establish the strategic asset allocation for the consulting firm clients, rather than working directly with those clients.

"Having influence in that process is really quite rewarding and I learned so much by having exposure to a number of senior investment professionals," Connolly says.

"The committee included an economist, the head of risk, the head of research as well as senior portfolio managers, so it was really a fantastic time to learn from experts in the field."

Having many variables to work through is a good thing when it comes to devising the best investment solutions, she says.

"I guess it's sort of like problem solving but with a creative element to it. Finance is often seen as something that is very analytical and logical, but there are creative elements that I really enjoy," she says.

Having studied as a teacher, the desire to educate and inform drives Connolly in everything she does.

She is also a self-confessed performer of sorts, always ready to take to the stage - whether it be with friends or clients - to explain a new concept or idea.

"It comes down to the creative side of me, there is a performance element to it that perhaps drew me to teaching in the first place," Connolly jokes.

"I had some good advice quite early on in my career that going down the finance path, as opposed to the teaching path, was probably going to be more suited to my personality type, which in hindsight was a very good decision I think."

Connolly says she has always been more of a risk taker than a safe walker, so when the time came to start her own business she wasn't afraid to jump in.

The idea for Invest Unlisted - which was founded as Infrastructure Partners Investment Fund in 2014 but rebranded this year - came from a contact in the infrastructure industry who, despite being highly respected in the field, wasn't able to access investment in it.

"He was complaining that he wasn't able to put his own money into these funds, despite having worked his entire career in the infrastructure industry," she says.

"The conversation is what triggered the next step and that person is still invested in the fund to this day, which is amazing."

Since its launch in 2015, the fund has delivered net annualised returns that exceed those of the Australian government 10-year bond. Connolly's goal is to consistently outperform that benchmark.

That experience reflects another of Connolly's greatest lessons: the importance of relationships.

It's important to put effort into forming sustainable relationships not just with friends and family, but with co-workers, clients and yourself, she says.

"Mental health is not really spoken about enough in our industry and we work in a very high performing field, with many stresses," she notes.

Connolly says she understands the many pressures facing those in the industry; which she says is probably internally generated as much as they are externally.

"I think what we're seeing with the COVID-19 crisis is that it's triggering for many people. Usually mental health is a very personal issue, so people are reluctant to bring it up, but this shared crisis that we're all going through has helped bring it more to the fore."

Having had her own experiences with mental health, Connolly says running provides her with the release she needs to cope with any mounting pressure.

And the longer the distance, the better. Prior to the pandemic, she had planned a trip to run in the Berlin marathon. In previous years she has also participated in the New York City Marathon and Chicago Marathon.

It has never been more important for people to feel comfortable putting their hands up and letting someone know when they're not coping, she says.

"There are a lot of strengths that come to bear, and certainly those who have been through mental health challenges have a strong sense of purpose with their relationships and activities," Connolly explains.

"There is also a great deal of flexibility to learn new skills and adapt to change. I'd encourage people to talk more about those experiences and to make it okay to not be okay and share what they've learnt." fs

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