Kotak Mahindra’s Lakshmi Iyer: More is More For Female Buyside Leader Development

By Tanvi Singh

Envision walking into a conference room, looking around, and finding yourself to be the only woman in the room — a scenario not uncommon in the investment management industry in the 90s. While India is home to phenomenal female leaders who have changed the face of the buyside, a report by Morningstar brings to light a stark reality.

According to the report, Indian women still represent a meagre 8 per cent of the total workforce across fund houses. Despite the strides that have been made in improving the representation of women on the buyside, including fair recruitment practices, diversity and inclusion efforts, and mentorship programmes, women are still woefully under-represented within the industry.

Setting foot into the asset management industry two decades ago, Lakshmi Iyer, chief investment officer (debt) and head products at Kotak Mahindra Asset Management, moved beyond all social boundaries and emerged as a triumphant leader on the buyside.  As a CIO, daughter, wife, and mother, Iyer’s journey to leadership on the buyside is a story of letting go of societal pressures, challenging the status quo, and willingness to lend a helping hand to mentor future female leaders.

Lynk: You started your career with Credence Analytics as a research analyst, and then moved to Kotak Mahindra Asset Management in 1999 Tell us more about your career journey.

Lakshmi: Credence happened more as an experiment, it was not a pre-thought or planned introduction to the world of finance for me. When I got into the groove of things there, I was given the opportunity to take up a market-facing role of the business, involving a bit of coding, which in those days was very utopian especially when we are talking about a front-facing team as such. That is where the seeds of curiosity crept in, where I thought: If this market is so dynamic, why just curate ideas and be more of an advisor? Why not be a manager and try to manage money for investors?

Kotak was my client at the time and it so happened I was on site, trying to install the software. I saw the kind of adrenaline rush in the dealing room, and that is when I got smitten by the asset management bug; that is how the transition to Kotak happened. Twenty years and no looking back, that is my journey in a nutshell.

Lynk: After setting foot into the asset management industry, what motivated you to challenge the status quo? Do you think women’s representation is increasing in investment management functions?

Lakshmi: Twenty years back, the base was very small, the amounts, the monies, the GDP were small. Today, given the base has expanded, whatever we compare, the numbers undoubtedly look inflated. But if you ask me in percentage: Are we still underrepresented as a gender in the arena of finance or money management? I vote for a bold and underlined yes.

I love mentoring students and keep visiting universities as a guest speaker, talking to students about the world of finance. I also give a lot of educational seminars as part of investor awareness programmes and there too I realised, the female gender is a bit reluctant to get into the world of finance, whether it is money management as a profession or managing money for themselves. On both those counts, though we have covered a lot of ground in the last twenty years, are we still wanting? My answer is yes. 

Four years back, I was a part of the Asia’s Most Influential Women panel in Hong Kong, and the women I shared the panel with had similar grouses, whether it is in Malaysia, Philippines, or Hong Kong, the participation of womenfolk in the financial world is still not up to the mark as one would like it to be. It is a global issue and initiatives have to be very organisation specific to break the mental block, to encourage more women to come forward.

Lynk: Besides being a male-dominated industry, do women in this field also face challenges in the form of striking a balance between work and family responsibilities? Do you think this is because we have grown up in a society where women are still viewed as supplementary bread earners?

Lakshmi: Yes, possibly. I’ve also witnessed in my organisation that when it comes to making career choices, especially when you are about to start your own family, at times women are torn between the devil and the deep blue sea. Certain cultural mindsets also play a critical role. But having lived through it, as a daughter, a wife, a mother, and a working woman, I did have similar thoughts. I thought to myself: Am I going to be able to do justice to both? My honest answer and confession is, we all have 24 hours. It is about trying to utilise your time effectively. No successful man or woman in this world had even a second or a tenth of a second extra. So it is not impossible, yes – you have to make amends, you have to plan yourself a little better, and you need to learn the art of multitasking. 

Most importantly, we need to disband some of the mental blocks. A lot of times, I see aspiring women who take a break during the maternity period, the break is so emotionally overwhelming for them that they don’t want to break off the umbilical cord from the child and get back to work. In that phase in life, it helps to have a very strong mentor. I have physical limitations when it comes to how many women I can reach, but because this is something I am very passionate about, I try to do it to the best of my ability. I would hate to see any woman making her career subservient just because she is caught in the emotional pang. So yes, it is about changing mindsets, and it is about access to the right mentoring at the right time.

Lynk: Today we see a growing recognition of financial independence among women in India. How can each one of us play a role in being advocates for financial literacy among women?

Lakshmi: Every woman should individually be a torchbearer, not only for herself but for people around her. It is like the baton, you take on the baton and you move forward. The only difference is, in a relay race, the first runner passes on the baton and stops. The way I see it is, when one woman passes on the baton to the other, I would urge the woman to run along with her. Though she has passed on the baton, she can not absolve herself of that responsibility. 

Just a few days back, I e-addressed a teaching fraternity in North India. The kind of queries that I still get give me reasons to believe that we are only at the tip of the iceberg as far as financial literacy is concerned. For women specifically, a lot more needs to be done. As I said, it is a game of network marketing, we have to keep passing on the baton. More importantly, we have to find many more torchbearers such as ourselves to actually take on this noble job. It is ex-gratia, you are not going to get compensated for it. There has to be innate passion, a cause and a sense of social responsibility.

Lynk: What advice do you have for young girls and women in general?

Lakshmi: I have had the opportunity to mentor women through one-on-one mentoring sessions. All these women are extremely career-oriented, yet I have noticed a common underlying threat. Imagine it to be like an inverted funnel, at the bottom a lot of people come into it but as you go up, the funnel becomes narrower. In my mentoring sessions, I have noticed women at the midpoint of their careers tend to get a little confused. Multiple questions come to their minds” “Am I doing the right thing?”; “Is this a blunder?”; “Will I get ostracised?”; “Will I be an outlier in my family?”; “Is this the right organisation for me?”.

I always tell these women to never lose sight of what their goal is. It might take a little longer to achieve your goal and get to where you want to be, but the most important message is to never lose focus. 

Secondly, do not give up on patience. Millennials today are getting incrementally unnerved, and they want instant gratification. This is the world of Instagram, you post a story and you want to immediately see likes. In this kind of world, instant gratification is leading to impatience. Careers do not get shaped overnight, the times may have crunched because of technology, but you have to go through the ordeal. There is an information glut that is enabling you to take that decision. Taking the example of Twitter, you can easily make connections with people around the globe, and get yourself noticed. We had none of them. While it’s a boon, the bane is that it cultivates impatience.

Lynk: Do you think despite the stated intent to improve diversity and create opportunities for women at all levels, enough action is being taken to match the talk? Also, would you say there is growing confidence among women to take up leadership roles?

Lakshmi: I often make it a point to tell organisations that they cannot pay lip service for 364 days a year, and on one fine day decide to do something for the women in their organisation. That is not how you get women to say yes to leadership. It is an ongoing exercise, a 365-day process. 

It is important to walk the talk. I am at the helm of two verticals in my organisation. I am the CIO for fixed income where I have women as part of my team, and I also oversee the product piece on the business side, where again I work with women. So for me, it is very clear, women are good at multitasking, and it is important for you to have that mix.

Do not restrict efforts to “a” particular day. There is clear evidence that organisations are working towards a more women-centric approach, the trend is rising. But you can always ask for more, and I don’t think “less is more” applies in this case.

Buyside Power Women is Lynk’s latest interview series that features conversations with female leaders and male allies on the buyside to increase visibility of women in the industry. The series covers the career journeys of female CIOs in different regions, and how advocacy for diversity could influence future capital allocation.

Stay tuned for upcoming Buyside Power Women editorial articles and live events here.