Rupal Bhansali, 100WF’s North America Industry Leadership Awardee (2019), shares this special message with the next generation
Rupal Bhansali, CIO and Portfolio Manager, Ariel Investments, LLC
and author of “Non-Consensus Investing: Being Right When Everyone Else is Wrong”
Excerpted from Non-Consensus Investing: Being Right When Everyone Else is Wrong Copyright (c) 2019 Contrarian Intrinsic Value Investing, LLC. Used by arrangement with the Publisher, Columbia Business School Publishing. All rights reserved.
A Special Message from Me to You
As a global equity money manager, I have traveled extensively around the world—from far-flung islands in Indonesia to manufacturing hubs across Europe, from poverty-stricken Pakistan to glitzy Dubai, and from capitalist America to communist China. Everywhere, I encountered people, practices, and cultures that seemed vastly different from one another. But on reflection, what my travels really revealed is not how different we are, but how similar: the same aspirations, if not the same ideals; the same values, even if not the same religion; the same basic human needs, wants, emotions, and vulnerabilities, even if expressed in different forms.
One thing I have learned from this exposure is that women are the same all over the world. We make the same mistakes, fall into familiar traps, and hold ourselves back—everywhere. We don’t raise our hand, don’t feel qualified to seek promotions or confident of assuming leadership roles. Many don’t believe they deserve more or better and resign themselves to a lifelong second-class citizenship. Those who believe they could do better professionally choose not to do so for fear it will set them back personally, ruin their relationships, or make them unsuitable partners. Even those who have the ambition often lack the validation; they wonder whether the struggles and sacrifices will be worth it. Often, we don’t see enough role models to believe that it is possible, let alone worth fighting for.
As a woman who has experienced and overcome many of these feelings, I am sharing certain aspects of my own journey in the hope it will help to dispel many of these concerns by offering some advice and encouragement.
Like me, my mom grew up in India and saw women being subjugated in many subtle and significant ways. It was commonplace for women to be financially dependent on their husbands. This dependence meant constant compromise: toeing the line or doing things against your will because you were dependent on someone else for your well-being. On the other hand, she saw the freedom and latitude men had. As heads of the household, they controlled the purse strings and could do as they pleased. Like her, many of her educated and talented classmates were shortchanged, as their parents married them off at a young age. They regret that they were forced to become housewives and were determined not to let that destiny fall on their daughters.
My mother was one such woman. She encouraged me to think for myself and pursue a career so I could stand on my own feet. She freed me up from household chores so I could focus on my studies. She encouraged me to apprentice at a young age so I could learn from the best.
Just as higher education became my passport to intellectual freedom, work paved the way for my financial and emotional salvation. No matter how meager my stipends were, they represented cash flow and independence. When you are not beholden to any- one or anything, it is the most liberating feeling in the world.
While I had my mom’s moral support, I did not have a mentor or role model. My own experience has been that, although I longed for them, they were not a necessity to get ahead in the business world. The fact is you are your own best cheerleader. Your inner strength, motivation, and dedication are more crucial than any person, book, or TED talk. I am not saying you can’t have a helping hand, only that you don’t need one.
However, if you are going to have a life partner, make sure he or she is fully supportive of your priorities and aspirations. My husband knew from the time we started dating how important my career was to me; I neither hid it nor underplayed it. It helps to set the rules of engagement clearly from the start. If there’s one thing married people know only too well, it’s that people don’t really change. It is best to reveal your true self to the person with whom you hope to spend the rest of your life. My own experience of being happily married for the past twenty-five years has taught me that professional success does not have to come at personal cost, provided both sides sign up for it.
Not only did I not have any mentor, I did not even have a master plan. I just kept walking in the direction of my destination until I got there. Here is how it all began.
I had just finished high school and wanted to get hands-on work experience in finance. I did not want to join my dad’s stockbroking business because I wanted to make it on my own. At the time, Citibank was the best foreign bank in India, and it fit my dream of going to America. So I decided to get my foot in the door via an internship there. In the phone directory, I found that the highest title listed was country head. I wrote to him but did not hear back. I called, but his assistant managed to stonewall me. So I decided to plead my case in person. (The internet did not exist back then, so emailing was not an option.) I went to the Citibank headquarters in Mumbai and sat outside his office, waiting. I don’t know why his assistant did not simply boot me out. I managed to get an audience with him by following him to the elevator bank. I rode with him and used those few minutes to express my keen desire to work there. He tried to dodge me by quoting the bank’s policy of only recruiting MBA students and said I looked like an undergraduate. I told him that even though I did not have a formal degree, I was fascinated by the world of finance and wanted to work in it. As we talked, I think he could tell that even at my young age (nineteen), I knew more about markets than the average MBA student. He asked me to come back with a summer project idea, since he had none in mind for me. A week later, I went back with five. He rejected all of them but gave me an internship anyway, because he was impressed with my enthusiasm.
That summer, I worked on Citibank’s foreign-exchange desk, where I learned how to trade the dollar against the sterling, or the “cable” as it was called back then. I must admit, I had no business being on that desk. I could hardly contribute. In hindsight, it was nothing but an act of charity, but it was one that I am eternally grateful for. The lesson I learned from this experience is that life is about taking chances and giving chances; it sets off a flywheel that is unstoppable. One success set me up for another because I acquired self-confidence, among the most important ingredients in the world of business.
“Life is about taking chances and giving chances.”
On graduation, my rookie success emboldened me to seek a full- time job at the premier financial institution in India at the time, Industrial Credit and Investment Corporation of India. They too did not recruit people without an MBA, and I had only a bachelor’s degree at the time. Through a friend, I managed to meet with the head of the investment banking division. I told him that if he gave me a shot, he could lower his costs. I also promised him that I would simultaneously pursue a master’s degree in banking and finance, so that in two years’ time I would have the minimum educational qualification he was looking for. Once again, I was able to persuade my future boss to take a chance on me. It was among the best training grounds I could hope for, from project finance to loan syndications to merchant banking and even venture capital.
Frankly, before this, I had no idea finance had so many facets. Partly that’s because at the time few women explored a career in finance. Unfortunately, in many corners this is still the case. Most perceive it as mind-numbing number crunching or staring at spreadsheets all day long. Many are put off by the lack of work/ life balance. Some think finance is crass and crude compared to the nobler pursuits of, say, medicine or teaching. The less charitable view is that finance is full of dirtbags or windbags who are driven by money and machoism instead of morals. To make matters worse, most women think of money as a taboo topic, and since finance is equated with money, it is easily overlooked as a career choice. This may explain why the proportion of women in finance is staggeringly low; it should be half, but it is less than a quarter. Even in challenging fields such as medicine and law, the ratio has edged up to 50 percent, but somehow women are turned off by a career in finance, especially Wall Street.
It is true that many aspects of the finance profession can be daunting or undesirable. Take investment banking. It requires grueling hours or camping in the client’s office while working on an important deal. Other paths such as sales or marketing of financial service products may require you to be a road warrior or network outside of usual business hours. This can seem unpalatable to people who value a more predictable routine or those who are introverted by nature.
But it does not have to be this way. Your job is what you make it. And finance can be a terrific platform for women because it is a meritocracy. Wall Street cares about performance and results above everything else, so your work can speak for itself—you don’t have to. And you have choices. If you don’t want to travel, you can work in an area of finance that does not require it, such as accounting or commercial banking. If you prefer the people side, you can be in client servicing at a financial services firm. If you are more analytically inclined, you can consider equity or fixed-income research. The possibilities are endless, and there are lots of support groups that can help you navigate your options, address your concerns, give you advice, or offer a head start. In the United States, they range from 100 Women in Finance to Girls Who Invest to the Forte Foundation, to mention just a few.
There is also a misperception that finance is a cut-and-dried field full of boring bean counting and rote calculations. This is false. Learning accounting is like learning a language, except it is not the language of a country, but of business. Financial statements are a window into the underlying business dynamics. Numbers can tell you whether a business strategy is working or not, whether management is executing well or not. Numbers can serve as aspirational targets or benchmarks and help set expectations or milestones to track progress. Numbers keep you in the know and are critical to decision-making. If information is power, numbers are its poster child.
The paradoxical thing is, numbers are brought alive when they are interpreted, not when they are calculated. Unraveling the narrative contained in the numbers tickles both the right (artistic) and left (analytical) side of your brain. And if you are in my neck of the woods—stock picking and money management—you will face some of the most cerebrally taxing and thrilling mind games. If you are up for an intellectual challenge, this profession won’t disappoint.
“Your job is what you make it to be.”
I would especially encourage women to consider money management as a career because they can be well suited to it. Women tend to approach assignments holistically and weigh all sides; this is advantageous when conducting fundamental research. Also, digging up a lot of facts and figures can be tedious and messy. On top of that, the data gathered can be contradictory. Women tend to be both comfortable with and capable of dealing with such dis- order and detail. Also, women are more likely to bring humility than hubris. They also tend to think about and plan far ahead into the future. These are all excellent traits in the wealth-management profession. Best of all, you get to help people in one of the most critical aspects of their life—looking after their savings or pensions. You get to make a difference, not just a living. This is how a career in finance can be morally aligned, emotionally fulfilling, and intellectually satisfying.
It can also be financially rewarding. Finance is a stepping-stone into many plum C-suite roles—chief financial officer, chief investment officer, chief risk officer, chief executive officer, and so on. And beyond helping you climb the corporate ladder, being numerate and financially literate also helps you better manage your personal financial goals and budgets.
If you are willing to give this profession a try, you should know that it is about learning on the job. So, your first step is to get your foot in the door. Once you are in, raise your hand to take on projects even if you are not qualified. That is how I got my first big break. In the late 1990s, when our analyst covering Japan quit, I stepped up and offered to take on the job of researching Japanese equities. I did not speak the language; I did not know Japanese accounting or business practices. But I applied myself and learned what I needed to know. Over the next decade, I went on to cover fifty countries and an equally large number of industries. I graduated from research analyst to portfolio manager. I became part of the senior leadership team. I was never “qualified” to do any of this, but then who is? Don’t shirk from taking on additional responsibilities or difficult challenges; view them as opportunities to prove yourself or to learn something new.
I was fortunate that my mom gave me enormous freedom (which was and remains unconventional in India) to make my own decisions—and therefore mistakes, because things did not always work out as intended. Looking back, this was perhaps the most influential factor in my success. Early on, even though it was never pleasant accepting that I had fallen short, I owned my mistakes, because I had mostly myself to blame. As I fixed what needed fixing, my mistakes stopped turning into misgivings and more into opportunities to figure things out—what would I do differently next time? This is personal growth at its best, organic and experiential.
In fact, I could not have been better prepared to face the world of investing, where almost half your decisions can turn out to be wrong. Get used to making, acknowledging, and fixing your mistakes in your formative years; it is a prerequisite to building confidence and success. The more you put yourself out there, the more mistakes you are likely to make. The more you learn from your mistakes, the more proficient you become, because you now know what not to do. I think this is true of entrepreneurship as well, because most things don’t go as planned. Instead of getting bogged down by missteps, you learn to iterate and pivot. Mistakes prepare you for the rough-and-tumble of the business or investing world. This explains why “fail fast, fail cheap” is a proven Silicon Valley pathway to success.
Which brings me to my next point. Many women don’t raise their hand because they are afraid they are not qualified; they fear they will make mistakes or mess things up instead of sorting them out. Men, on the other hand, are more likely to suffer from overconfidence and believe they are qualified to do everything, so they readily take on responsibilities or projects that they could very well muck up. However, simply by doing more, they improve their odds of success, because every mistake becomes a source of learning for them, which they apply in the next project or role they take on. Expertise is built on the shoulders of mistakes.
There is another thing our gender would do well to learn from men: their knack for keeping it simple. Some might quibble they do it to the point of being superficial or even lazy, but I would reframe it as smart and thoughtful. Women think they are being sharp and diligent when they examine an issue from every angle and weigh all ramifications. However, in most situations, in-depth analysis or painstaking rigor is simply overkill. I myself was guilty of this in writing this book. Even after my final manuscript was ready, I had this urge to constantly finesse a phrase here or a thought there. I kept writing and rewriting because I wanted to make sure I had written the best book I could. After many late nights of doing this, an epiphany hit me: I was falling into the trap of pursuing perfection instead of excellence. That stopped me in my tracks. I let go and turned in the final manuscript.
If you dwell unduly on any one issue or challenge, it often comes at the expense of dealing with something or someone else. And there is only so much time and energy you can spare; best not to expend it all on any one thing. Our desire to go deep is often a cover to be perfect. But we can only pursue perfection, we can’t be perfect. So, it’s best to keep it simple and focus on being excellent instead. This means achieving optimum rather than maximum results. It is a liberating principle to live by. You will accomplish more than you ever imagined.
A deep-seated desire for perfection also makes us afraid of making mistakes. But life is all about making mistakes; otherwise there would be no experimentation, no risk-taking, and without it, no progress. You don’t have to be right every time; only learn from what went wrong. The more you do, the more mistakes you will make, but the more you will learn. So, raise your hand to take on more responsibilities. Don’t be bashful that you are not qualified; most people aren’t. Don’t think you need to have all the answers; most people don’t. Just put yourself out there and let courage and capability work their magic.
“You don’t have to be right every time; only learn from what went wrong.”
As I said before, I did not start out by plotting this path. In fact, I have never managed my life by goals but by principles. If you keep doing the right things in the direction of your destination, you get there. While I did not have anyone to lean on, I did lean in. I chose to work for bosses who were very accomplished and exacting. All my former and current bosses set the bar high and skewed the curve up on me. They did not cut me slack. I would not have it any other way. They helped me stretch and fulfill my potential in ways that I could not have on my own. My biggest advice to aspiring professionals is to look for the best firms and figure out a way to work alongside industry veterans, because you learn through osmosis. At work, as in life, it is all about the company you keep.
My fervent advice to any girl or woman is, even if you are not very career minded, please try working; it gives you optionality should you need to support yourself and financial security if needed. Also, when you enjoy what you are doing, work can be as emotionally rewarding as it is financially. If the mere act of organizing or cleaning out someone’s home can be a full-time and fulfilling job, then any avocation can be turned into a vocation.4 Because self-reliance and self-confidence are critical traits to thrive in today’s world, the more you accomplish, the more confidence it will engender. You will be a better parent, partner, and person for it, if not a better professional.
Also, earning money means you must learn to manage it, from budgeting to saving to investing. This makes you financially literate in addition to making you independent. Women have surpassed men in getting more advanced academic qualifications, but they are woefully illiterate when it comes to managing money. Understanding money is as important and easy as knowing how to cook. Once you apply yourself and learn the basics, you will wonder what the fuss and fear were all about.
Last but not the least, don’t give up. Be patient and know that your time will come, even if it feels interminably overdue. All of us go through some bad phases or experiences. For instance, there were times when I did not get credit for the good work I did; someone else hijacked it and got rewarded for it. I let it go the first few times, but I spoke up the next time. Things changed for the better after that. Don’t feel bashful about doing this in a polite but firm way. If you don’t speak up, you become complicit in the wrongdoing. Also, it is important to set the record straight so that your superiors can remedy the wrong.
I have walked into countless meetings where I was the only woman in the room and felt I did not belong. It was even harder for me to fit in because I am not into sports, which topic tends to be a natural bonding ground among men. I even bought a book called The Smart Girl’s Guide to Sports, but I had little interest in the subject so I kept falling asleep every time I tried to read it. Instead of letting this be a handicap, I turned it into a joke, poking fun at myself for not knowing how defense could be the best offense or mixing up my sports metaphors to evoke a chuckle or a laugh. Once I had their attention, I was typically able to steer to a topic of common interest and become part of the conversation. If you find yourself in this situation—whether man or woman—try to be considerate and focus on topics of mutual interest rather than creating a divide where women congregate with other women and men with other men. Diversity and inclusion are known to improve decision-making and outcomes, so preach it and practice it.
On too many occasions, I have felt overlooked or snubbed. Often in meetings, men direct their pitches to my male colleagues instead of to me. Men consciously or subconsciously assume women are not the decision makers and simply ignore them. I have overcome this bias by making sure I ask good questions in those meetings. Some men get the point and pivot. Others remain dense and lose my attention (and my business).
Many women are diffident or introverted. Men would do well to gently strike up a conversation to make us feel at ease. A simple “what do you think?” would do the trick. Sometimes, merely making eye contact to acknowledge a woman’s presence in a meeting can be a shot in the arm. Women, too, should transcend their fears and introduce themselves with a firm handshake, a warm smile, and a brief introduction to let people know who they are. A little goes a long way to break the ice for both sides.
I am a firm believer that it takes two to tango. The onus should not fall exclusively on one gender or the other to make the room more inclusive. Each side needs to get a little bit out of their comfort zone and not fall into familiar patterns of behavior. On balance, I have had a terrific experience working with my male colleagues. I find that often when men (or women) engage in biased or inconsiderate behavior, it is because they are not even aware of it. It is our job to sensitize them to this and help them sharpen their antennae. Diversity cuts both ways, so I am not rooting for an all-women team but one in which both genders are equally represented and respected.