SEBI head Madhabi Puri Buch on why women should let numbers do the talking

Choose careers where performance can be measured objectively, she advises

76-Madhabi-Puri-Buch Madhabi Puri Buch | Amey Mansabdar

When Madhabi Puri Buch took over as chairperson of the Securities and Exchange Board of India (SEBI) in 2022, there were several firsts. She is not only the first woman to become the head of the capital markets regulator, but also the first woman to lead any financial market regulator in India. She is also the youngest SEBI chief and the first from the private sector.

When the numbers speak, there is no debate, no discussion that you are a high performer and then nobody can stop you.

Buch, 58, is also only the second non-IAS SEBI chief. The first one was G.N. Bajpai, former chairman of Life Insurance Corporation of India, who took over in 2002. While many were surprised that the new chief was not from the Central services, Buch was well-qualified to head SEBI at a time when capital markets in India were seeing a huge growth.

Buch, who did her schooling in Fort in Mumbai and in Delhi, graduated in mathematics from St Stephen’s College and joined IIM Ahmedabad for her MBA.

Buch spent much of her career at ICICI Bank in various positions, including as CEO of ICICI Housing Finance, CEO of ICICI Securities, and executive director. From ICICI, she went to Greater Pacific Capital, Singapore. She was consultant for the New Development Bank (earlier known as BRICS Bank) and Agora Advisory. She has served on the board of various companies, including Max Healthcare, InnoVen Capital, Zensar Technologies and Idea Cellular. Buch was also the whole-time member of SEBI for over four years. All that experience of more than three decades has given Buch an insider’s view on how financial markets and institutions function, thereby helping her in her role as SEBI boss.

“I can empathise with the industry,” Buch told THE WEEK. “You know, if a company is wanting to bring an IPO and the environment is good, but there is a delay from the regulator and you miss that window and the market collapses, it really hurts the system a lot. So that sensitivity to say that there is a genuine need out there and we need to be able to respond to it, is something that I bring to the table because I have been on that side and I have experienced the pain of what it means to not get approvals in time.”

Bringing the market regulator up to speed has been one of her focuses since taking over as SEBI chairperson. Not only has she ensured that the internal approval process is quicker, but also that investor complaints are addressed in a time-bound manner. All this has been made possible with the extensive use of technology tools like artificial intelligence.

“One big change that we brought in was saying that whenever anyone applies for an approval to us, any delay in processing that application, whether it is accepting or rejecting, causes a lot of grief to the person who has applied. Time is money, money is time,” said Buch.

Under her watch, for instance, markets have now moved to T+1 trading settlement, wherein trades executed on the stock market are settled the next day. This when many players in the global market are struggling to do it.

While the focus is on speed, there is also a lot of stress on data. “I simply won’t accept a piece of paper without the data and analysis,” she said.

Even as Buch empathises with the industry, she is well aware that tough decisions must be taken. “When you are trying to bring more efficiency, more transparency, more risk mitigation into the system, some incumbents don’t like it,” she explained. “When they argue against it, very often, they find that it’s hard to argue with me, because I have run that business with my own hands.”

Her career has also given her a first-hand view of how India’s capital markets have evolved over the decades. She was part of the team that set up ICICI Direct, the country’s first online share trading platform, in the late 1990s. While most people today trade and invest online, those days people would have to make a phone call to their broker to place a trade request. She remembers investors telling her how the online broking platform had democratised access to stock markets.

“The day we crossed a daily turnover of Rs1 crore, we had a major celebration,” said Buch. “Today, its like a microsecond.”

Those were exhilarating times for her. “The empowerment we had as young leaders to really build out those businesses and to enjoy what we were doing and to see that manifest in terms of growth of the company, the bank, the sector, all of that was a lot of fun,” said Buch.

She says she has been fortunate enough to have not faced gender discrimination. “I have been professionally very fortunate, and I have also been personally very fortunate to have a husband, in-laws, parents, son, who have been so supportive that frankly I haven’t had any challenges,” said Buch.

A lot of her can-do attitude comes from her mother, Rama. A working mother of two children, Rama did her PhD at 40. She wrote multiple books and travelled to many countries. “It was taken for granted that a professional woman will have a professional life and will do whatever it takes to have a meaningful profession. You just absorb these things as you grow up,” said Buch.

A lot of times, women face issues balancing work and personal life. Buch says that on the personal front, one needs to choose a partner who respects you as a professional as well. She calls her husband, Dhaval, a “gentleman”. Dhaval Buch has also had a corporate career, and is currently a senior adviser at private equity major Blackstone.

At the same time, Buch says women should choose careers where the performance can be measured objectively, like sales.

“When the numbers speak, there is no debate, no discussion that you are a high performer,” she said, “and then nobody can stop you.”