NEW YORK (TheStreet) -- Roxanne Martino, chief executive officer of Aurora Investment Management, got into the hedge-fund business through the back door.
The 55-year-old, whose Chicago-based firm oversees $10.5 billion as a so-called "hedge fund of funds," graduated high school at 16 and entered Notre Dame with dreams of becoming a doctor, but quickly decided she liked her accounting classes better.
"Accounting was something that the other students thought was very complex, but it seemed like I could understand a problem and get to the right answer," said Martino, a Chicago native. "I liked that."
Graduating with a bachelor's degree in business administration in 1977, Martino started her career as a Coopers & Lybrand accountant in Chicago, auditing books for steel companies and other industrial companies.
But when Coopers acquired a small accounting firm that specialized in audits for the budding hedge-fund industry, Martino jumped at the chance to enter what looked like an up-and-coming field.
"I looked around the industrial world and didn't see a lot of women in theboardroom," she said. "So I thought: 'I think I'll learn about this new industry.' "
Hedge-fund accounting led to a job running back-office operations for Chicago hedge fund of funds Grosvenor Capital Management, where Martino quickly branched out into dealing with clients, investments and other business matters.
"I liked the investment-management side because you really get to use all sorts of skill sets," she said. "Moving beyond the back office meant not only using basic quantitative analysis, but also tapping into personality skills to deal with investors and solicit information from hedge-fund managers."
Martino made partner in just 15 months even though she was also working toward a University of Chicago MBA at the time.
She eventually helped Grosvenor and Chicago's Harris Associates launch a joint-venture hedge fund of funds called Aurora LP, which Harris spun off as a stand-alone company in 2003.
Now a unit of French financial giant
, Aurora Investment Management has some 100 employees and 1,900 institutional and high net worth clients. The hedge fund industry has seen exposive growth, with $300 million in assets recorded in 1970 to about $2 trillion today.
"Being an entrepreneur, I really have pride that we built something from the ground up," Martino says. "And having the ability to control the quality of what you're doing is really very exciting."
Of course, success hasn't come without headaches.
Martino recently made headlines when Notre Dame appointed her to its board of directors, only to have conservative Catholic groups complain when they learned she had made big donations to pro-choice organizations.
The Aurora CEO ended up stepping down from the board after just weeks, even though she and her husband, Rocco Martino, co-founder of private-equity firm LaSalle Capital Group, met at Notre Dame and both earned degrees there.
"I dearly love my alma mater (and) had looked forward to contributing in this new role, but the current controversy just doesn't allow me to be effective," Martino said in June in announcing her resignation.
These days, the Aurora chief spends about a third of her time traveling to financial centers from San Francisco to Singapore, talking to clients and assessing hedge-fund managers.
"It's never boring, because you're meeting some of the most intelligent people in the world," Martino says. "And you really get to use all of your skill sets -- including common sense, good judgment and the ability to evaluate people."
And while she admits financial firms still have more males than females in top positions, Martino considers her industry a good career choice for bright women.
"It's a results-based business," she says. "For those women who can produce (investment returns), it's a great place to be."