"The beauty of the markets lies in the fact that it is intrinsically dynamic. This nature of the market is what has kept me hooked to it" - Lakshmi Iyer, CIO (debt) and head of products at Kotak Asset Management
"Preserve capital in bad times and promote growth in good times. We look for long-term sustained growth and management that can deliver the growth" - Sohini Andani, 44, manages the SBI Blue Chip Fund which has consistently outperformed its benchmark (S&P BSE 100)
"I was told to build a brand, and I did that. I kept in touch with the media, appeared on television and this also helped me stay in touch with the markets" - Radhika Gupta, founding principal at Forefront Capital Management
Bhavna Mohite, 22, is passionate about finance. The final year student at IIM Kozhikode has her heart set on investment banking as career. “We have started a student-managed fund and are forming a legal structure for it now,” says Mohite. Her classmate Parul Singh, too, thrives on finance and the excitement of wealth creation. “Each project brings a new learning opportunity; understanding the business of the client, getting an overall view of the sectors it operates in, and analysing the minute details of the project to understand the risks and opportunities involved,” says Singh.
These ambitious young women are every bit as career driven and competent as their male counterparts and are raring to secure their positions in the world of finance and fund management. But, how will their ambitions pan out? It is common in India for women to drop out of the work force owing to difficulties in striking work-life balance. Take Avni Grover from Narsee Monjee Institute of Management Studies (NMIMS), Mumbai, who, like Mohite and Singh, is intent on a career in finance. Currently, the long work hours that her job would entail are hardly a deterrent. “It requires a lot of time,” says Grover. “Right now, I am not married but I don’t know what will happen when I do get married. If I am able to manage my family, I will definitely do it.”
Grover may be unsure about the longevity of her career, but many women today are refusing to give up demanding jobs, mastering the fine art of balancing long hours at work with familial responsibilities. These women are passionate about their work and are determined to grow in their careers despite the odds. It is these women who are breaking the glass ceiling, striding into elite positions in financial corporations, an area once wholly dominated by men.
According to a report in the Business Standard last year, assets and funds managed by women are relatively low. The report states: “The equity portion of the assets under management (AUM) under women managers stands at $19,381 crore, or 1.9 per cent of the sector’s total AUM.” It also says that 60 per cent of this amount is managed by two women fund managers; Roshi Jain, portfolio manager at Franklin Build India Fund and Franklin Asia Equity Fund, and Swati Kulkarni, executive vice president and fund manager (equities) at UTI Asset Management.
Jain, 36, who graduated from IIM Ahmedabad, is also a chartered accountant. She has been in investment banking for the past 12 years, previously having worked as a financial analyst with Goldman Sachs.
Kulkarni, 50, joined UTI a year after completing her MBA from NMIMS, Mumbai. She spent her initial years in the research and planning divisions before becoming a fund manager in 2004. There has been no looking back since.
Kulkarni, who manages Rs6,500 crore, comes across as unassuming and calm, but exudes confidence and authority. Someone you could trust your money with. In college, she had contemplated studying medicine. The thought of spending hours cooped up in laboratories, however, did not appeal to Kulkarni, who loved the outdoors and sports. So, she opted for commerce where she would have enough time to play her favourite sport, volleyball.
Her career dreams began on the volleyball court. Her captain had a great impact on her, both on and off the field. “Our captain was senior to us, and she aspired for a serious career,” says Kulkarni. “That kindled my aspirations. I began thinking that I should also do something on my own.”
Kulkarni begins her day at the office with an 8.30am team meeting with nine analysts and five fund managers. “Every day, we discuss one or two sectors,” she says. “Their valuation, and any news or changes. We have our own models for more than 80 per cent of our holdings, which is an advantage. So, if there is a discussion about a company, an analyst can open the model and see the sensitivity of earnings regarding the changes to estimates.” She and her team look for companies with consistent operating cash flow. “Not all sales get transferred into cash flows and the money may get stuck in working capital,” she says. “The profit after tax of certain size is also preferred. Ninety five per cent of the portfolio is in good quality stocks. In mutual funds, we have various types of schemes and the mandate could be different. If you look at these companies as quality companies, with good brand loyalty, strong balance sheets, the ability to support their brands and having growth potential, then you may have to be accommodative about valuations.”
Currently, Kulkarni is betting on banking, capital goods, IT, pharmaceutical, automobiles and cement industries. She is also fairly positive about the economy. “I would say the economy is in exciting times,” she says. “We have a cyclical recovery. Things have looked up the past year. We might have 7 per cent growth in the near-term if the investment side of the economy starts to deliver. In the past five years, we did not see much progress in that area. Initiatives like Make in India are intended to increase manufacturing. We expect a focus on infrastructure. Currently, projects that were stuck are being cleared. In terms of growth, there are positive vibes.”
Kulkarni clearly loves her job. But, how is she managing a flourishing career and the responsibilities at home? She attributes this to two factors: unwavering family support and an undying passion for her job. “You have to love what you are doing,” she says. “That itself is a driver. In this profession you get to study a lot of companies, understand the strategies. The environment is ever changing.”
How much has she sacrificed on the home and social fronts? “We did not have the kind of online social interactions one has these days,” she says. “When we were at IIT, we used to stay in. Then, when at home [after work], we were busy with the children's homework and assignments. There are social and cultural events or movies that one cannot attend or might have to cancel. But nothing more than what others might have to [sacrifice or forgo].”
Kulkarni is confident that more women will join her profession and be an asset to the industry. “They definitely give a new perspective,” she says. “I see women adding value to a discussion. Because women have to balance work and life, they are a little more patient. They tend to look at the bigger picture, and are modest and good at building teams. Because they need to prioritise their time, they don't while it away. Organisations also need to give women the kind of flexibility they may require. If we want more women [in industry], we need a good support system.”
Sohini Andani, fund manager at SBI MF, manages assets worth around Rs1,000 crore. She is credited with identifying the potential of Pantaloons Fashion and Retail and investing in the company when the share price was Rs50. It grew at a dizzying pace between 2003 and 2007 to Rs700. Similarly, she bought Axis Bank stock for Rs60. Today, the stock trades at around Rs565. Her other successful bets have been on HCL and Motherson Sumi.
Andani, 44, manages the SBI Blue Chip Fund which has consistently outperformed its benchmark (S&P BSE 100). Her philosophy is to be cautious and focus on making fewer mistakes. “Our emphasis is on capital preservation,” says Andani, who always looks for higher margins of safety. “Preserve capital in bad times and promote growth in good times. We look for long-term sustained growth and management that can deliver the growth.”
Andani, a chartered accountant and graduate from Narsee Monjee College of Commerce and Economics, Mumbai, developed an interest in finance when she was made to analyse company reports in class. She thoroughly enjoyed the discussions and analyses about management techniques and balance sheets of companies. Around the same time, she read an interview with finance whiz K.R. Choksey and realised she wanted to deal with equity markets. “I was very impressed by that interview,” she says. “It spoke about the opportunity to create individual wealth in an honest manner. The idea that wealth could be created in this manner was appealing.” She joined Choksey soon after college and a few years later, moved to CRISIL, where, she feels, her thought process broadened. She then worked with ING Vysya as a senior analyst before entering fund management at SBI MF.
Andani’s early fascination with creating wealth has not dimmed in the least. “Just the client satisfaction, knowing that I have created wealth for them, is a big driver,” she says. She was the first woman in her team in equity research. She says that the number of women are fewer up the ladder, and feels that for women to stick with the job and grow, they need to be positive and constantly set priorities in place.
Like Andani, Radhika Gupta, founding principal at Forefront Capital Management [acquired by Edelweiss Financial Services in April 2014], was also the only woman in her team when she started working with a financial firm in the US. The Wharton graduate has garnered many accolades in the hedge fund space. The Forefront India Dynamic Value Fund, created by her, was a nominee for India’s Best Hedge Fund in 2014 by Eureka Hedge Asian Hedge Fund Awards.
For Gupta, fund management is all about the specifics. “You need to have a defined philosophy, a defined set of beliefs when it comes to investing,” she says. “Another thing is to always keep in touch with the markets. You cannot sound lost at all.”
When she began working in India, she was given some advice that she always remembered. “I was told to build a brand, and I did that,” she says. “I kept in touch with the media, appeared on television and this helped me stay in touch with the markets.” Her fund philosophy is to buy stocks of quality businesses at moderate prices. Stocks of private banks, mid-cap non-banking financial companies and consumer goods interest her.
Married to a fund manager, her way of maintaining a work-life balance is not to get too wrapped up in the world of finance and to maintain other interests and hobbies. “There is always a great temptation to read research reports, but I try to keep myself occupied by writing fiction and poetry, and cooking,” says Gupta, who feels that women at the work place are usually good team players as they are good listeners, open to new ideas and they have the capacity to bring the team together.
Women fall out of the race when pressures get to them, feels Lakshmi Iyer, CIO (debt) and head of products, Kotak Asset Management. She compares it to climbing a mountain. “The higher you go, the tougher it is and that is where we see high levels of dropouts,” she says.
Iyer, 38, who was one of Asian Investor's top 25 women in asset management in 2014, thinks a number of factors led to her being where she is, right from having a clear head to the ability to deal with the crests and troughs of the markets. “The beauty of the markets lies in the fact that it is intrinsically dynamic,” she says. “This nature of the market is what has kept me hooked to it.”
What is her approach to managing funds? “We have a three-pronged approach to fixed income management centered around credit, liquidity and duration as the key pillars,” says Iyer. “So, if it's a money market fund then priority will be given to liquidity, credit, and then duration and in case of an income fund, it would follow the reverse order.”
Iyer feels that even though there has not been a spurt in the number of women in asset management, the interest in joining the field is growing; the long work hours and high-stress environment no longer deter women. “I keep going to business schools across the country and see that aspiration levels are rising,” she says. “More women are interested in joining the field.” Mohite, Singh and Grover would second that.