Dominique Senequier has been building a private-equity empire in Paris for over a decade, and Americans are finally taking notice.

And for good reason: The founder and chief executive of AXA Private Equity bought a $1.9 billion portfolio of investments from Bank of America this year, a milestone deal.

"The portfolio acquisition was a very big achievement, because it showed that a big U.S. bank considered us a serious institution that it could partner with," says Senequier. "A deal like this isn't just a piece of paper; it's a sign of confidence."

Senequier founded AXA Private Equity, a subsidiary of France's largest insurer, 14 years ago after spending almost a decade running a private-equity firm for another French insurer. Senequier has grown the business almost entirely organically-it now has more than $25 billion under management-attracting institutional and private investors worldwide. Its funds have posted an average annualized return of more than 20 percent since inception, putting it in the top quartile of European competitors.

The secret to her success, Senequier says, is hard work and an ability to focus on the task at hand. But she isn't a stern boss.

"You have to like human nature and accept people for who they are," she says. "I know that people have weaknesses, but I try to focus on their strengths."

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