Lakshmi Iyer, Chief Investment Officer (Debt) and Head-Products, Kotak Mahindra Asset Management, talks about the power of self-belief and why women shouldn’t buy into stereotypes and give up on their careers.
The world of finance has always fascinated Lakshmi Iyer and her first job at Credence Analytics only whetted her appetite. “As part of my role I worked on software development for the financial services fraternity,” says Lakshmi. “My clients were treasuries, including banks and mutual funds, and my time in the treasury dealing room made realise that this market required a lot of agility and nuanced decision making, and that drew me. It seemed very dynamic in nature and I was intrigued.” Two years later, in 1999, Lakshmi joined Kotak Mahindra Asset Management and there’s been no looking back since. She’s now Chief Investment Officer (Debt) and Head-Products, and one of the few female senior management executives there.
Traversing a male dominated space
“When I joined Kotak Mahindra Asset Management in 1999, I was the company’s 34th employee, now there are over 300. But back then I was the only woman in the dealing room and I continue to be the only lady in my dealing room. Yes, things are changing, but we’re still at the tip of the iceberg. There’s a prevalent notion that it’s a high stress job so women can’t do it. My take is that stress is a very relative word and very subjective in nature. For someone cooking could be stressful, for another it could be sitting in the boardroom. There’s also a tendency to say that to be part of the dealing room and this huge adrenaline rush you need to be rude, abusive, a social drinker, etc. I do none of that, but I’ve still been able to climb the ladder in this organisation. As women we need to break these prototypes. Whether you’re in the financial service or part of manufacturing sector or media, what you bring to the table is your knowledge level, conviction and passion. These are manifested in the work you to do, and to that extent should be gender indifferent.”
“Women are good at multitasking because they manage the home, family, in-laws, work and kids. There wasn’t much of a change in my life post-marriage. But after my son was born the challenges multiplied. You could say that I was running a race with many hurdles, and dealing with motherhood and climbing up the career ladder was a monumental hurdle I had to overcome. I was successful at it, which is why I am where I am today. As women we need to tell ourselves we can do it, that as a woman nothing is impossible. We need to remind ourselves that we’re here to make a difference.”
Providing professional support to women
“Over the last few years there has been an increase in awareness of the need to mentor and encourage women in all levels at the workspace. It’s a type of a funnel approach. At the top of the pyramid is the funnel, where there are lot of junior/entry level women. Mid-level there is some sifting out, leading to the top level where there are very few women in senior management positions. There’s been a conscious change in perceptions and women receive a lot more handholding, help in finding the right direction. When I started my career in 1997, there was none of that. I was lucky because my family had my back and my mum encouraged me to chase my dream. But other than that there wasn’t any professional circuit or support that encouraged a woman and provided an ecosystem she could lean on. That’s something I found lacking. I had to carve out my own trajectory with very limited mentoring or intervention from the ecosystem around me. So now I do what I can to change by mentoring women at the entry and mid-level around me. That’s a conscious effort on my part so that women don’t feel the lacuna I felt 17-18 years ago.”
One crucial piece of advice
“I don’t have any management jargon to give women looking to make a mark. Just one piece of advice—never, ever quit. I say this out of experience; it is all manageable. It only requires a change in your mind-set. Women think that once they’re married or have a kid they should take a break. But that’s being ruthless to yourself, especially if you are a career oriented woman and want to make a difference in your field. I have a 12-year-old son, so I know what the challenges can be. My advice is to meet them as and when they come, and believe me they’re not impossible to surmount. Everyone has 24 hours in a day, and if you want to make time for everything, both family as well as work, then I’m 200 per cent sure you can make it.
“Today, women are heading three prominent Indian banks, whereas 10 years ago I’m not sure there was a single woman out there. No matter what arena it is, financial services, manufacturing, service industry, sports, or management consulting, there are women making their mark everywhere. So never quit.”
“I keep telling myself that I’m as good as anyone else in my field, that I can make a difference. Self-belief plays an important part in your success. Do not rely on external gratification and motivation. Don’t look for solace or sympathy outside yourself in the workspace. I am my own motivator and remind myself of all the things I have achieved. Take pleasure in the small and big achievements. Sometimes you might be the only woman in boardroom, own that achievement. These are the things that motivate and keep you going forward. Keep telling yourself you can do it and you will!
Need for financial awareness
Whether they’re single or married, women have to be involved in every financial decision because it’s as important to be financially aware, as it’s to be financially independent. Even if financial independence isn’t possible because of whatever reason, being financially aware is a choice women must exercise. Gone are the days of dowry being streedhan, in my opinion being more financially aware is the new streedhan.”