Growing up in a small town in central India, Sangeeta Venkatesan learnt how to be independent at a young age.
“My town didn’t have universities in those days, and I left my home when I was 16 to move to Mumbai to study,” she tells Future Women. “I grew up in a town where women were not really meant to study, take up jobs or be independent. It was normal for women to get married when they turned 18 and start a family right away. My mum never worked, nor did she aspire to.”
But, Sangeeta knew education was her ticket, so she walked for an hour to and from school everyday – often staying behind to study music and arts.
“I ranked sixth in all of India in HSC, had a degree in violin by the time I was 11 and was a gold medallist at my school,” she explains. “Most of my Bachelor of Commerce degree was funded through scholarship. Mum was very supportive and backed me. My father pushed me out of the house to become independent. Perhaps this is one of the key reasons for where I am today. I knew no fear.”
Those early experiences, combined with her unwavering determination, resilience and incredible intellect, set Sangeeta up for a very successful career in finance – starting out at ‘Big Four’ accountancy firm KPMG.
By the time she was 21, with a couple of degrees and her chartered accountancy qualifications under her belt, she landed her first investment banking job at Goldman Sachs in Hong Kong. Roles at Standard Chartered Bank in Singapore along with Morgan Stanley and the ill-fated Lehman Brothers in London followed.
“I was the only women in a team of 52 men,” Sangeeta says of her time at Lehman. “While pregnant I used to work 10 to 12-hour days on average. I remember the time when I told my boss that I was pregnant. His words were: ‘I should have known you’d get pregnant one day given I hired a woman’. I wasn’t sure if I should laugh or get upset.”
Then the financial crisis hit. “I lost my job when I was eight months pregnant when Lehman Brothers went bankrupt,” she adds. “That hit me really hard in every way possible – financially, career-wise and, in general, my confidence in the financial services sector.”
A move to Sydney with her husband and baby daughter in tow “for a better quality of life” came next, along with a stint as Australia’s first female CEO of a stockbroking firm. Something that brought its own challenges.
“When I first walked in to meet the management team, I received anything but a warm welcome,” she says. “My experience and capability were questioned indirectly. However, three months later, the story was completely different. Everyone in my team had become an ally and looked up to me. The same story was true for clients, although, fortunately the conversion was quicker.”
Now, Sangeeta’s putting her financial and business acumen to good use, founding a superannuation fund designed by women, for women called FairVine.
FairVine, she says, was born out of her passion for promoting financial independence among women.
“It all started with a feeling that the traditional financial products do not cater for women – despite the fact that half our population is women,” Sangeeta explains. “They are structured by men for men, with a one size fits all view. They don’t consider the fact that women have different life cycles, live longer, and approach risk and financial decision making very differently.
“At FairVine, our focus is to help secure the financial future for women – through solutions. We spent over a year researching and speaking with women to understand what they liked, disliked, knew, didn’t know and what would make their lives better. Our superfund is designed to allow women the choice of wealth journey they want to take for every stage of their life. For example, our members do not need to pay fees if they are not earning, such as on a career break due to parental leave or any other reason.”
So, what would her advice be for women starting out in finance?
“We are lucky to live in a country where there is a lot of focus on gender diversity across all levels and sectors,” Sangeeta says. “Unconscious bias is a common issue. It’s really in our hands to make it work. We can accept bias and put up with it, or be the change we want to be.”
She adds: “Banking and finance is a large sector with a multitude of opportunities, and there is something that would suit every personality and skillset. Young women often seem nervous or anxious about getting into banking given its history and perception of male dominance. However, this is changing, especially in Australia.”
Here is the ethos that worked for Sangeeta, and she is “sure it applies to pretty much anything and everything in life, at any stage of your career”:
- Be resilient: Don’t give up. Have the courage to take risks, to try new things, to put yourself out there and to ask for what you want.
- Back yourself: Combine knowledge (ensure that you are on top of the game by knowing what is happening in the world, in the market, in your function, and ask for training) with empowerment and networking and, where possible, get a mentor.
- Be authentic: Be yourself. Of course, you need to change to individual circumstance, but you don’t need to change yourself to be successful.
So, what steps should women be taking towards financial independence?
“Firstly, take control and don’t rely on others to take care of your money or future,” Sangeeta says. “Secondly, have a plan. Collect information and make a budget, plan your spending and saving habits. Have a monthly budget and annual goal. Finally, and most importantly, ensure that you have an equal say in financial matters in your family. This is critical. Basically, start saving and plan for retirement!”
If you’re interested in matters of financial wellbeing, join Sangeeta on the 12th of September for a delightful breakfast with Rachel Hamlen (FairVine) and Georgie Dent (author) at The Butler in Potts Point. For more details, click here.
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