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East Capital Partner was leading a Russian bank at the age of 23

A childhood passion for Russia kicked off a longtime career in emerging markets for French-born Karine Hirn, partner and chief sustainability officer at Swedish asset manager East Capital. Being an exchange student in the Soviet Union during the dissolution year in 1991 was a life-changing experience, but she wasn't scared off and managed to become the head of a Russian bank at the age of 23.

At the age of 25, French-born Karine Hirn was part of the team who founded East Capital. | Photo: PR / East Capital

At the age of 25, French-born Karine Hirn was part of the team who founded the Swedish investment manager East Capital in 1997. But her path prior to the birth of the asset manager that primarily invests in emerging and frontier markets was not straight forward.

Hirn spent her youth in a small village outside of Lyon fantasizing about Russia. From a very young age, she had a burning interest for the big country in the east that back then was the Soviet Union. When the opportunity came, she signed up to become an exchange student and went to Moscow.

The year was 1991 and the Soviet Union was about to collapse.

"The first time I went to Moscow, I spent four months there which were a very special period since it was during the dissolution of the Soviet Union. There was an immense food shortage, so I learned to speak Russian extremely quick – in order to get food; and I was completely cut off from my family and friends as there was no telephone," Hirn says in an interview with AMWatch.

The four months in Russia at a very uncertain time did not scare off Hirn. Nor did it cool down her fascination of the country. She returned to her college in Lyon, then spent one year at Hanken School of Economics in Finland before graduating from Sciences Po in Paris with a master's degree in Eastern European Studies and a research paper on Russian banks in 1993.

When Hirn graduated, she had spent half of her student time overseas in Russia and in Finland. An experience she cherishes.

"The international perspectives I received through these opportunities abroad, including the ability to understand and appreciate various cultures, had a huge impact on me. Becoming fluent in Russian did help a lot, obviously, but I learned more by living in Russia than by studying it," says Hirn.

Head of a Bank at the age of 23

After graduating in France, Hirn once again returned to Russia and started her career. She advanced extremely fast.

"My first job was as a financial consultant in Nizhny Novgorod, in the Volga region. I moved on to Eastbridge Bank in Moscow and became the Head of a bank at the sweet age of 23," she says.  

The year was 1995 and she stayed at Eastbridge Bank until 1997 when East Capital was founded.

"When I was working at Eastbridge, I commuted every other week between Stockholm and Moscow. I heard about Peter Elam Håkansson (East Capital chairman and CIO, ed.)  and his interest in the East and I met him to exchange views about these markets. When he left Enskilda, we met again to discuss his plans of setting up a specialized asset management firm with focus on Russia and the Baltics," says Hirn.

Hirn became part of East Capital and she has worked at the company ever since.

Only 25 years when East Capital was founded

"When we founded East Capital in 1997, I was only 25. 23 years down the road, I'm at the same company and we have the same investment philosophy centered around the belief that constant changes in emerging markets imply risks and opportunities that are best tackled by proprietary fundamental analysis – and that they can provide remarkable investment opportunities," she says and continues:

"Throughout these 23 years, I have had a variety of responsibilities, spanning investments and equity research, business development and general management. I have worked in Sweden, Shanghai and Hong Kong and I am also the chairperson of the boards at our fund structures and companies in Luxembourg," says Hirn and adds that working in many different countries also has been feeding her insatiable thirst for knowledge.

"My work with Eastern Europe, and China, and then global emerging and frontier markets has been extremely rewarding in terms of learning new things, these are fast-changing environments with trends that have implications on the rest of the world," says Hirn, who has lived in Hong Kong for the last seven years. 

On a corporate level, Hirn highlights that since East Capital was founded in 1997, the company has transformed itself from being a Russia and Eastern Europe specialist to a global emerging and frontier market asset manager.

Also, the company has become an investment management group with various asset management specialties such as real estate in the Baltics (East Capital Real Estate), Nordic equities and bonds (Espiria) and hedge funds (Adrigo).

In her current role as Chief Sustainability Officer, she oversees all brands' integration of ESG and sustainability.

No more travelling the world

Hirn is used to travel the world but the current pandemic has put a stop to her travelling.

Since her last trip in March to India, she has stayed in Hong Kong focusing on researching with a sustainability lens the implications of the pandemic in terms of changing consumption patterns and business environments and what these changes mean long-term.

She is also trying to focus on the good things that have emerged as a consequence of the lockdown and travel restrictions.

"I always look at the bright side of any situation and in this case, the use of online meetings with companies and clients has been very fruitful," she says, and concludes:

"I have been able to participate in conversations in many different parts of the world without leaving my office, instead of spending countless hours of travelling. On a personal level, this period has seen me adopt some healthy sport habits and spend more focused time on mandarin which I have been studying for several years." 

US election outcome bound to boost emerging market investments, investors say 

East Capital sees Russia as emerging market with most potential 

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