Meeting Hilary Smart, Winner of ModelOff 2013

Four months on after winning the 2013 Financial Modeling World Title, we caught up with Hilary Smart to see how her life has changed.

The Smart Champ

by Matt Persico

2013-ChampionHilary Smart has never been one to shy away from a challenge. While she was initially unsure ModelOff was suited to what she describes as a ‘very niche’ skillset, Smart followed a friend’s suggestion by registering for ModelOff 2013. Last December, the 26-year-old Senior Consultant at Operis in London made a name for herself in the finance world when she took out the title of 2013 Financial Modeling World Champion at the Live Finals in New York.

In the months that have followed, Smart has been elevated to a kind of industry rockstar: a legion of new friends and fans on social media keen to know her secrets; networking opportunities throughout the finance world, and work colleagues that affectionately dubbed her “Champ”. The question is often asked in a sporting context as to what skills and qualities make a champion. For Hilary Smart, her Financial Modeling crown is a product of technical excellence, years of hard work, an unwavering can-do attitude and an innate curiosity nurtured by her parents from a young age.

So what exactly makes the Champ tick?
The eldest of four daughters, Smart grew up a keen problem solver and enjoyed playing chess and learning maths. While she once wanted to become a farmer and later an author, Smart ended up at Cambridge University following her great passion, mathematics. While others might have questioned her chosen pathway, Smart was unperturbed by being surrounded by so many high-achievers, aided by an optimistic and determined outlook which has been a constant throughout her life.

Smart modestly claims she was fortunate that several questions suited her specific skill-set throughout the ModelOff competition. But luck doesn’t begin to explain Smart’s consistently outstanding results in ModelOff 2013, throughout two online rounds and the Live Finals, beating 3000 of the world’s best modelers in the process.

The Finals Experience
The World Finals marked the first time Hilary and her husband Simon, himself having recently completed a PhD in Chemistry, had ventured across the Atlantic. The Top 16 endured four hours of intense testing at the Bloomberg offices from which Smart emerged victorious. Smart is effusive in her praise for her fellow finalists and notes that “winning was just a bonus” to meeting them all.

Smart’s Strengths
IMG_0938Smart reiterates that her ability to hold clear structures in her head, her intrinsic logical-thinking and creative problem-solving mind have made her well-attuned to the rigors of financial modeling. As for training, Smart says she often spends seven to eight hours a day modeling at work. She speaks of constructing efficient yet elegant financial models rather than just making anything fit. Unlike many of her fellow finalists, Smart doesn’t find speed is necessarily the most important element of modeling. She prefers to first think in conceptual terms before diving into her work. Being highly-structured and deeply attentive to detail has benefited Smart throughout her professional career to date, and she identifies this as one of her key strengths.

What Glass Ceiling?
For many the obvious story out of Hilary Smart’s win is that she is a female, and the only female among the 16 finalists. Smart has mixed views on the gender issue: “There aren’t many doors closed to me because I’m a girl … In terms of what I can do professionally, I don’t see any barriers.” Perhaps it is this refusal to be drawn on gender terms that captures Smart’s unwavering self-belief in her abilities. Rather than being defined by her gender, Smart takes a more progressive view that “[my gender] is a good point of difference”. She speaks optimistically of a future “where barriers aren’t there” but acknowledges this will take time, as finance remains a heavily male-dominated industry and especially while the majority of students completing technical subjects in universities are still predominantly male.

Put simply, being female doesn’t define Hilary, nor should it. To do so would understate the level of her technical excellence, demonstrated not only by her ModelOff World Title but also having successfully completed all three levels of the Chartered Financial Analyst (CFA) Program.

IMG_1060Tips for future competitors
Smart advises entering the competition even if unsure about the level of one’s own skillset. She believes a lack of widespread industry agreement on a definition of financial modeling skills has meant future ModelOff competitions will remain a widely open race. Completing past questions under timed conditions is Smart’s recommendation for those wanting to take the competition seriously. Many past finalists have had a habit of removing keys from their keyboard pre-competition. The 2013 Champion doesn’t subscribe to those cautionary tales, saying, “I’ve never felt the need to vandalise my keyboard!”

As for 2014, will Hilary be back to defend her ModelOff title? The Smart money says it’s highly likely.

If you’d like to pre-register for ModelOff 2014, click here.

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