SKALATA STORIES
Meet Justine

Justine Lum arrived at Skalata after a high-flying early career in the legal and finance sectors. But after years in the banking and corporate world, she pulled the rip-cord in search of the next challenge…

After studying a Bachelor of Law (Hons) and Bachelor of Commerce with a major in Finance at Monash University, Justine earned her postgrad stripes in litigation and corporate law at Ashurst. She then transitioned to the Group Treasury team at Macquarie, where she was responsible for debt financing arrangements and hybrid public offerings.

A career shift to banking beckoned, and Justine went on to spend four years in the Global Capital Markets team at Morgan Stanley, raising debt and equity funding for ASX-listed companies and government departments.

Next stop: Skalata.

You have an impressive CV for someone still quite early in their career. Tell us a little about your background.

Sure. After finishing my degree at Monash, I was expecting to travel down that standard path of clerkship to paralegal to lawyer to associate to senior associate to partner. But I quickly realised that I didn’t really want to be a partner at a law firm for the rest of my career.

After some soul searching, I thought ‘screw it’ and moved from Melbourne to Sydney where I joined Macquarie’s Group Treasury Funding team. I worked with some amazing people there and it was just a really fun environment. One of my network connections was at Morgan Stanley, and I was later given the opportunity to work there as an Analyst in their Global Capital Markets team. I wasn’t really seeking that out, but given my finance background, it felt like the natural next step.

Is investment banking as gruelling as they say it is?

Hmm…it’s generally true. If you’re executing deals or preparing for pitches simultaneously, you can be working all the time – 80-100 hour weeks. There are always high expectations and the pressure is on. And when I say I all the time, I mean that sometimes I wouldn't physically sleep – running a deal on European and/or US time will do that to you! But it was a great adrenaline rush and there’s nothing like a satisfied client to make it all worthwhile.

Up until then, I was pivoting a lot in my career and I remember having these interviews about career advancement, and I thought about quitting. My parents were like, “What are you doing?! You have an amazing career. What’s the issue?”. I’m definitely not a quitter, and I always want to do something to the best of my ability. But I guess there’s a limit.

It came to a point where I knew that I had learned a lot, worked with some very intelligent people, travelled to Hong Kong and New York, and was challenged every day. But there was something else on the horizon…

Why the pivot to VC?

I have so many friends who have left banking in the past, and I saw a lot of them make their way into venture capital. Personally, I thought that this was the best industry to use my existing skill-set while maintaining the sort of work-life balance that helps my sanity!

Venture capital is definitely in a growth phase in Australia – and by that nature, is always changing, always in the media, and there’s an incredible opportunity to forge your own path. The long-term incentive programmes are also great!

Banking can be pretty dry and transactional – a whole lot of Excel models, Bloomberg and Powerpoint slides. I wanted a more hands-on role, to actually talk to people (founders and investors) and understand what made them tick as humans.

I had a couple of months off work after quitting Morgan Stanley and I was wondering what I could do. This was in lockdown, so I couldn't travel. That’s when the Associate role at Skalata popped up. And I thought, why not go for it?

What’s your day-to-day like as a Skalata associate?

As an associate, you’re involved in the whole process from initial recruitment through to portfolio support. That means sourcing deals, conducting interviews, and completing due diligence on companies. After we make an initial investment, we like to do a deep dive with our companies and understand what the highest leverage things we can do to help them, quickly. We’re then basically supporting them right through their goal setting, planning and go-to-market strategies. You’re getting a really hands-on experience. Each associate is also teamed up with a coach – someone super experienced who has usually founded and exited their own business. That knowledge and experience is invaluable.

I think most associates in other VC firms are only responsible for sourcing new investment opportunities. Whereas at Skalata, if you’re more interested in roles outside of the deal flow side of things, that’s ok. For instance, my role is now split between venture development and funds management, while I also play an active role in engaging our investors – things I naturally gravitate towards. Skalata has allowed me to pursue the areas that really interest me.

How has your background helped you succeed?

I think law and banking have both given me a really good foundation of analytical and problem-solving skills that I use to help founders every day. I also know what it's like to work hard under pressure and source new deals. I can definitely empathise with founders in that sense.

And what weren’t you prepared for?

I think the transition from a big company, where you’re often told what to do (not because it was a bad thing but it was just the way it was always done before), to Skalata, where you have a very hands-on role and take initiative, was a big change.  

Rather than having a playbook, there’s a lot of thinking you have to do for yourself and you need to have open communication about strategies and the way you’re going about things. What I love about Skalata though, is that the team makes it very clear that it's okay to not know things.

What’s the most important thing you’ve learnt so far?

I think I’m able to deep dive into a company a lot more now. I’m able to figure out what they really need to do to succeed, and to push them. I came from a background of transactional deals, but now it’s more strategic and I can think more broadly. Things are just more high level and I can carve more of a path out of it. I’m basically using all the skills I never thought I had or needed.

Where do you see your career heading?

I like to check in on myself every 3-4 years on what I’m doing. Skalata is a great firm on an incredible mission to transform Australia into a knowledge economy. I actually show up to work now with a purpose in mind! I can see myself here for another few years for sure, but maybe after that, I’ll still work in VC or join a startup. I couldn't really see myself becoming a founder – they are a special kind of person (but you never know!). But I see myself staying in the ecosystem.

You don't have to stay at Skalata forever, and we’re very open about that here. The role can be a foot in the door to working for an incredible startup or scaleup, or transitioning to a later-stage VC firm and working on Series A-D deals.

How do you go about maintaining a work-life balance?

There’s 100% a great work-life balance with Skalata and I think I can say that with confidence – especially coming from investment banking! I suppose the pace of the work in VC is slower, but that’s the nature of it – longer cycles. Sure, networking is a part of this world and there are some events and dinners to attend, but you get to meet amazing people, so it’s all worth it.

Outside of work, I enjoy hanging out with friends, eating good food and wine. I love going down to the Mornington Peninsula, which is where my husband's family's holiday home is. In summer I like to hit the beach (I do miss the beaches in Sydney!). I don't really have a specific hobby like golf or tennis, but I’m a big skier.

What’s a morning routine like for you?

I wake up early and I always read the market news around the world, first thing. I like to look at what's happening in technology and the deals that have come to market recently. Old habits die hard I guess…

I read about 10 articles every morning. I also listen to a few podcasts every day – NAB Morning Call,  TechCrunch Daily and The History of the Australian Startup Ecosystem are the current ones on the playlist.

Any tips for new associates? Who should apply?

I think you need to be proactive, curious, able to ask thoughtful questions and be a team player. It sounds cliche but it’s true. I think you also need to be able to pick things up quickly and apply your learning from the experts around you.

Perhaps most importantly, I think you actually need to be highly interested in the market and that very early stage of company development – it needs to excite you! If it doesn’t, you’re probably going to pivoting soon…(which isn’t necessarily a bad thing!).

Interesting in joining our Associate Program? Apply here.
“The breadth of knowledge you get at Skalata is unreal. The whole team is purposefully trying to level you up in multiple areas.”
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