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Susanna Urdmark

Susanna Urdmark’s optimism draws you in. She has seen both the highs and the lows in business and remains positive about its future. She credits those who came before her with her self-determination, saying that her sense of hope harkens back to her heritage. Susanna speaks of her family as though it is woven into the fabric of her life. She truly believes that our destiny is in our DNA.

“I come from a long line of really hard workers. My paternal grandfather is from Västergötland and, instead of taking over the family farm, he moved to Stockholm in search of a better life. Unfortunately, he died fairly early. As a sea captain, my maternal grandfather worked equally hard.”

“Both of my grandmothers shared the same fate: only seven years of school. They had great hopes for their children though. Much greater than they ever had for themselves.”

“When you grow up and you connect the dots, you realize how you got to where you are. People close to me say that those who go to the Stockholm School of Economics have an inner drive; they work hard and set really high standards for themselves. They say that I have this in me: the will to succeed and the need to achieve something more. I think it comes from a kind of social inheritance. You take the talents and the competence. Then you make the most of the gifts you’ve been given.”

As a musically gifted child, Susanna went to a special school to study singing. The children there came from all sorts of social and ethnic backgrounds from suburbs around Stockholm.

“We were all different yet were united in our love of music. I got a very interesting view of what the world looks like compared to my safe little neighborhood, where all the parents had gone to university and all the kids were similar.”

“I actually thought I would become a doctor. I got into medical school, but first spent time working at a geriatric clinic. It took only three months to decide that being a doctor was not for me.”

Susanna saw people who were extremely lonely in their decision making and who appeared to be so isolated in their professional community.

“Doctors have all these patients and staff relying on them – and them alone. I saw someone who didn’t really have any colleagues. After my multi-cultural experience at school, I wanted to continue being part of a team. So, what do you do with your good grades if you don’t go to med school? I went to the Stockholm School of Economics because I knew it was such a great school.”

“When I arrived at SSE in 1991, I was shocked that everyone was exactly the same; I was surprised there was no diversity. Everyone wore the same striped Ralph Lauren shirt. Everyone was blonde. Everyone looked alike. And only 30 per cent of the students were female.”

Times have, indeed, changed. Several of the students enrolled at SSE now are women.

“I was used to being the minority though because of where I came from. I loved natural sciences and was always one of the few females in the class. But not once did I feel unfairly treated at SSE. In fact, I never thought it was about gender at all; it’s about knowledge, dedication, experience, and achievement. I was actually often more impressed by my female classmates than I was ever by my male ones. But on my first day of work, that’s when I realized that gender matters.”

“I enter the boardroom and the men all look at me. Then, one by one, each tells me what he wants: cream, no cream, sugar, or black. And what do you do when you’re 25 years old and it’s your first day of work? You get the coffee.”

“Those old men have now retired though, and there’s a new generation of boys who have been brought up by mothers who expect to be treated in a different way.”

“Now I’m a mother. I try to raise my daughter and my son the way my parents raised me: to be curious and eager, and constantly expand their knowledge. I want them to know they can achieve whatever they put their minds to and that they are equally capable and deserving.”

After graduating from SSE, Susanna started at Carnegie in a group that focused on life sciences. Many of her clients were either doctors or chemists. Susanna soon realized that, without having a scientific background, she did not know enough to be an authority. Medical school became her goal. She left Sweden to pursue a master’s degree in Medical Sciences at Boston University School of Medicine.

“It’s so interesting because SSE gives you the tools to analyze the world, but there is no right or wrong. The information is given to you, and it is you who decides how to use it. In medicine you obtain knowledge about the science. You are taught: This is how things work. The combination of the two is truly my passion.”

Upon her return, Susanna started working as an equity life science research analyst at Carnegie, providing recommendations on stocks in the biotech sector. Nine months later, she was asked to be part of a large life science team at Handelsbanken.

“I was there for four years before switching to a similar position that I have now: working in asset management and being responsible for the healthcare fund.”

“A few years later, I was hired to be part of a team that started selling generic drugs throughout Europe. It was a lot of work and a lot of fun. I learned so much both about how to problem-solve and address new challenges.”

“Some of my colleagues questioned my decision to leave the fancy bank world. But they also questioned me when I went back to study medicine while everyone else was starting their IT careers. But I did what I believed was right. I think when I sum up these experiences, it made me a better decision-maker and a better person. Doing different things and moving outside your own comfort zone can only be good.”

“Being a mother completely changed my life. Can one ever prepare for what it’s going to be like? Of course, your priorities change, and your children immediately become the most important things. I stayed home with them for eight months; my husband took a month off, then my mom took over. My parents spent a lot of time caring for my daughter until she started nursery school at one year old. The support of my family has been invaluable throughout my upbringing and my career.”

“I’m not the best stay-at-home mom though; it’s just not my natural habitat. I think what has been really important for me is to show my children, you cannot waste your talent and your competence. I want to be a role model for them: to show them that they can feel pride and joy in that they have a job they can go to, which is a fulfilling part of life. I think they understand that they wouldn’t have a happy mom if I didn’t have my work.”

Hard work gives Susanna a sense of purpose. She recalls how she met portfolio manager, Henrik Rhenman: first, when she was working at Carnegie, and then by pure coincidence in Boston. He moved there to run a fund for an American company while she was studying medicine. Her close friend, Maria, re-introduced them. It was serendipitous. Susanna and Henrik have been friends ever since. And Maria and Henrik got married.

Henrik returned to Sweden and established Rhenman and Partners. In 2015, he approached Susanna to work with him.

“I had been at a pharmaceutical company for almost ten years and I was ready to do something different. Henrik and I have always had a very open way of communicating, so we immediately made a great team. I think we have captured what he’s looking for: to create longevity in teamwork, which is what I have always wanted as well.”

Susanna maintains a modest philosophy: One can never be good enough to be the best at everything because someone else always has a different view that has never occurred to you before. This is what creates the foundation for excellent teamwork: Be true and loyal to yourself and others.

“The work I do today has put me on the other side. Now I am the one who is making the investment decisions. I decide whether or not to own a stock. I aim to buy the right ones because I want to create performance. This way, people who have shares in our fund ultimately get that performance too. Whether it’s a new cancer drug or a vaccine for COVID-19, we evaluate the science and identify which companies have something unique to offer.”

“It’s the science that entices me. What fascinates me is understanding what is happening in research and how it moves humanity forward.”

Susanna’s job is about being willing to take risks and being supportive of one another.

“If you are in an environment where you don’t know if you’re going to be punished because you have made the wrong decision, then you will always be afraid of taking any risk at all. As it is with children, if you are in an environment where you feel safe, then you perform better.”

Performing better at work means Susanna performs better at home. Yet this includes a lot of compromises.

“My children make reference to that: ‘Why don’t you drive me to tennis at one o’clock in the afternoon?’ In the long-term, I’m hoping they will be able to see the benefits of our way of living, the choices we’ve made, and how we have prioritized. As long as they know that when it’s something important, I will drop everything for them. I didn’t understand I was an expert in logistics until I had children.”

“I actually think the financial industry is the last outpost where this women minority thing is actually an issue. It’s the long hours and the hard work. A lot of women give up when they have children because it’s impossible to have it all. Well, you can ... but you do have to make compromises.”

Susanna and her husband have always equally divided the days at home with their children.

“I do remember in the beginning ... If one of the kids were sick and if my husband had to stay at home, then his boss at the time would say: “Why can’t your wife stay at home?” This was because his wife always did.”

Susanna acknowledges that a lot of career moms still do most of the child rearing.

“I know that, even with my work, I am the primary caregiver. That’s very selfish, I know. But I wouldn’t have it any other way.”

She smiles as she says these words and wraps her arms around herself.

“This generational shift is only getting better. I am hopeful that if and when my daughter walks into the boardroom, nobody will be expecting her to get the coffee.”


Text: Karyn McGettigan