Indian American author Nina Godiwalla talks about book "Suite: A Woman on Wall Street."
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(This interview was first published by the International Business Times. Read it on the Khaleej Times site.)
By Isha Roy
Bestselling author Nina Godiwalla won plaudits for her recent memoir "Suits: A Woman on Wall Street", in which she writes about growing up as a second generation Indian American, her pursuit of the "American dream" and the two years she spent as a junior analyst with Morgan Stanley. The book details, from an insider's perspective, the environment on Wall Street and its exclusive corporate culture, which, the writer says, isn't "very open to people with differences." An expert on leadership, women and diversity in the business world, the Austin, Texas-based Godiwalla also runs MindWorks, which advises corporations on stress management. Ahead of her trip to India next week, to promote her critically acclaimed book, she spoke to Isha Roy about her book, her Wall Street experience and South Asian Americans, among other issues. Here are excerpts:
GIN: For those who haven't read the book, tell us about your experience as a woman, a minority, someone who is not necessarily coming from a privileged background, and how you dealt with a male-dominated work culture.
Nina Godiwalla: There are a lot of [organizations that] try and bring in minorities ... and women. But [their] attitude is, "You need to confirm to be like us to actually fit in and be successful here. It was very challenging, and in the end, I think, a lot of the Asians that I saw, South Asians and Asians, they are coming from the bottom ranks. But after a time they tend to leave. And I think one of the main challenges is that you feel after a while that you actually have given up a part of you just to be successful in that culture. And over time, they don't have people that move up their ranks because it is a kind of a difficult environment, and you feel like you gave up some things along the way.
Some of the things I read in your books were quite shocking... the outrageous behavior of your coworkers, the excessive spending, the discrimination towards women and minorities, and the favoritism towards people coming from influential and powerful backgrounds. What you think can be done to change that work culture?
I do and I think it actually comes from leadership. The one thing that I found consistently is that there wasn't a sense of personal accountability amongst the leaders. What happens so often is people just turn a blind eye when they see things that are inappropriate. The culture is so hierarchical that in some organizations you can't really make changes from bottom up.
So you are focusing on the senior management?
Absolutely. I go into a lot of organizations that tend to be male-dominated, that tend to have a hierarchical culture, and I do believe that in those types of environments, you do start with the leadership because if everyone turns a blind eye and doesn't really pay attention to what goes on and condones it, you have an environment that is very difficult.
Why did you decide to write the book?
I decided to write it because I have been part of the diversity programs. A lot of the attitude from some of the male colleagues, from people that are coming from this very elitist background, is: "You know what? They couldn't make it. The minorities couldn't make it. Women couldn't make it." They kind of see it as, "Well, you know, we are just hard workers, we are just doing our job. But they couldn't make it." What I want people to see is I want them to see that it is not that women, minorities - the other person - couldn't make it. It is that the environment that we are walking into, one where we have to actually give up quite a bit of things that make us happy and that could be challenging. So this isn't just about hard work.
There are many young professional South Asian women out there who can clearly relate to your experience. What advice would you give those women?
I do spend a lot of time going into business school, helping women and minorities getting a sense of what it is. And I think the awareness of knowing that these are the challenges you are going to face and they are probably be more challenging than your job is helpful. Picking and choosing what you are going to give up - I felt like there were so many things I had to give up - but if you kind of pay attention to things, I think you have a better sense of who you are and you don't get as lost.
Just like many immigrant communities where success and prestige and power is kind of defined by the profession of the individual, your family and the Parsi community also played a huge role in you deciding your education and career choices. Tell us about growing up in that high-pressure environment. Also, do you think that South Asian immigrant families sometimes put too much pressure on their kids to pick a pre-determined career?
I think it is a mixed bag. On one hand, it is fantastic that they have such high standards for their children. I can compare it to some of my American friends who never even had expectations for their kids to go to college, and they didn't go to college. So I am very grateful that we had that grounding, but at the same time, it doesn't have to be incredibly rigid that you have three career choices, and if you don't go with that, we are not keeping a relationship with you. That's extreme.
What I think interesting is I am seeing a lot of [South Asians who] find the balance. They had the practical route and they are [also] doing something they love.
How did your family react to this book?
As a second generation [Indian American], I feel like many of us don't tell our parents what we do or what our real experiences are like. So my parents genuinely did not know what my experience was like and I have to admit they read about it for the first time in the book and were quite shocked. It took them a while to come to terms with not only learning about my experiences and what it was like but also because a lot of the book talks about the family story what it's like to grow up here and feel what it's like to be a part of two different cultures and not fitting into anything particularly and that was a shock to them. They didn't want so many details about the family but at the same time the reaction has been pretty reassuring to them because I am finding that so many people can relate to the story. I have so many people reaching out to me saying that this is my autobiography including people that are not South Asian or women. So it's interesting that it's such a relatable story. My parents have seen that as people approach them. So they are much more comfortable but definitely the initial shock was there.
What was the reaction of your former co-workers at Morgan Stanley and the investment banking community in general?
I expected a little bit more of a backlash, to be honest, but I feel a lot of people related to it. Even people that went through the experience didn't think too much about it. The reality is that people had a very mixed feeling about it, in terms of the fact that the jobs got us very far, into the top business schools and got us great jobs afterwards. There was always a little bit of resentment that people had and the book allowed them to reflect back upon the disturbing environment they were a part of. Some of the experiences were funny including all the ridiculous things we would say or do. So people were disturbed and entertained at the same time. But overall, it was a very welcoming response.
You have left Wall Street and now you are the CEO of MindWorks. Tell us about the work that you have done with MindWorks and what are some of the results that you have seen.
Well, it's actually incredible because the real focus is helping people be more self-aware, especially in the leadership positions. One of the things we find is that people are stressed by other people, especially in the economy that we are in. Our goal is to help people learn to manage themselves so they can be more effective leaders. And that's where we see top leadership begins to falter. They are having trouble managing themselves so they can take care of their environment. We have started working with businesses such as Dow Chemical but have found an incredible demand within the educational systems and government. I teach in the MBA program at the University of Texas and across the board we are getting incredible responses. We are seeing that people across the board are struggling with the same thing to have a better a work life balance, manage their own stress, and manage their very difficult bosses and colleagues. That's what we really work on, helping people become more emotionally intelligent so that they have a better life for themselves.
What are your thoughts on the Occupy Wall Street Protesters?
What I have seen across the board is that people with different income levels including those that are doing very well feel that Wall Street was not held accountable enough. What I am intrigued with by Occupy Wall Street, is that it was a group of average people, who wanted to be heard. They wanted a sense of power which they felt like they did not have. I do appreciate that have been able to have a significant influence on politicians and people around them. I remember when [Republican presidential candidate Mitt] Romney and thought leaders around the world began trying to cater and speak to their Movement. I'm impressed that everyday people were able to actually have such power.
The workforce in India has been changing quite a bit for the past 10 years. You see more women competing with men for the same positions as men whether it is in IT, engineering or business. Considering your book will be releasing in India soon, what effect do you hope it will have on the female work force in India?
My hope is that people have an awareness of what is right for them. We are always picking and choosing and deciding what we are going to give up for an incredibly stressful work life and demanding job environments. I hope that people just think about what the right balance is for them because if you get the right balance, you're able to stay in your job longer be happier and perform a little bit better. Companies in India have already decided to start having these conversations when I come there and also having women come together and start talking about these issues. I hope that by being able to have conversations about these issues allows people to feel they can relate better with each other and not feel like they are taken overboard with things.
What have you discovered about yourself since you have left Wall Street?
I've discovered how much I absolutely love making a change in an environment. I love having had the experience of working in an environment which I felt was not working well and now being able to have an impact on it by making changes in a broader way. What's surprised me after the book is that so many of the extreme issues we see in Wall Street are universal across so many other organizations. For me what's been most rewarding is being able to go and change something which I saw that I would like to see differently. (Global India Newswire)