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BW Businessworld

Banking On Experience

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In Suits: A Woman On Wall Street (Hachette), once-banker author Nina Godiwalla describes what it means and takes to be a woman in the swashbuckling world of investment banking.  In a chat with BW's Jinoy Jose P., Godiwalla talks about her book, the Wall Street and her future projects.
 
On writing a book on the Wall Street
Once I realised investment banking was not the right route for me, I was quite lost since I had hardly spent time thinking about what I enjoyed doing. Instead, I often focused on what I "should" be doing. As part of my soul-searching process, I went to Dartmouth to do a master program in liberal arts. During my degree, I took two creative writing classes. My first professor pulled me aside and said, "You've really got talent as a writer," and my second, Pulitzer-prize winning professor convinced me that my work was worth publishing. When it came time to submitting a thesis proposal, I was reminded of their encouragement.

My thesis was the first draft of Suits: A Woman On Wall Street. The book started with just two short stories. One about growing up as a second-generation Parsi American and feeling I'd be a failure if I wasn't a doctor or engineer, and another was about my journey from small town Texas suburbs to Wall Street. I then added a few other short stories to it.

There was never an intentional "I'm going to sit down and write a book." Had this been the goal, I may have been paralysed. I was encouraged by hearing from professors I respected tell me repeatedly that I had a lot of potential and the story was worth telling. In hindsight, I think my main motivation to keep writing was that I felt silenced during my investment banking experience and being able to write about it finally gave me a voice.

When I wrote the original draft as a thesis I told everyone it was fiction because I did not want to have to deal with all the personal questions. I was also very concerned about others' reactions, mainly my colleagues and family. When I pitched it to agents I explained that it was nonfiction, but that I wanted to publish it as fiction. In the end, agents agreed it would be much more marketable as non-fiction. It took me a while to come to terms with that, but ultimately, I did.
 
On the title of the book
Even after the book was written I did not have a title. My publisher kept assuring me that it would come to me during the writing process, but it did not. Closer to the end when we desperately needed a title, my editor asked me to give her a list of brainstorming titles. One of them was Empty Suits. She dropped "Empty" because she said it was cliché and we went with Suits.
 
Lighter moments writing this book
After writing the book, it has been fun connecting with my colleagues from Morgan Stanley. We have laughed over how ridiculous some of the things were. At the time, we were straight out of undergrad and so eager to impress others. Some situations seemed like life and death at the time. Now, much of it is just laughable.
 
Other inspiring books on the Wall Street
While writing the book, I tried not to read too much because I did not want to confuse others' experience with my own. Before starting banking myself, I read Michael Lewis' Liar's Poker. It is an entertaining read and really gets at some of the absurdity of the banking culture.
 
Investment banking in the US
In Suits, I write about my experience in corporate finance serving Blue Chip companies. My group was considered one of the most prestigious and known for its hazing culture. I've only worked in the US, but from what I have heard from others, New York, where most of the investment bankers are headquartered, tends to have a harsher culture than the international branches.
 
On India, its growth, banking system and the people
I have grown-up living in the US and going back and forth to Mumbai since majority of my extended family still lives there. Over the last ten years whenever I go back, I say "India is going to rule the world one day." The level of growth/change is extreme. Now, it is more challenging for Indians to get into Indian universities than it is to get a scholarship to an Ivy League university. Ten years ago, I would visit Mumbai and feel like shopping was so cheap and now many things are priced even higher than in America. As I say to my family, it is all a good reminder that I need to get an Overseas Citizenship of India (OCI) card soon.
 
Suits is also a story about family, human bonds and love...
I have more of a black-and-white business mind so I could not understand how a story about banking would have anything to do with growing up as a Parsi American. My thesis advisor helped think about the bigger story. It is not easy to step back and see the bigger picture, especially when it is your own life. I was often caught in the details and relied on others (advisors, agents, and editors) to help guide me.
 
Alternate vocation
I speak internationally about leadership and diversity issues and run my own company. At MindWorks, we teach a broad range of leadership courses focused on stress management, self-awareness, emotional intelligence and diversity. MindWorks clients include Dow Chemical, The Smithsonian Institute, and University of Texas MBA Program. During my Wall Street experience, I saw how detrimental it could be to have leaders who operate on fear. One of the biggest fears in Corporate America is the fear of failure. There tends to be more blame than personal accountability. I have often called Wall Street a caricature of Corporate America. Many corporate cultures operate on fear, but on Wall Street the money, stakes, and the egos are a lot bigger.
 
Next book
My next book will be in the lines of The Monk Who Sold His Ferrari meets The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. At MindWorks, we teach top executives across various industries including government, corporate, and education about becoming self-aware leaders. MindWorks organisational training format is discussion-focused so I learn just as much for those as I teach as they do from me. I plan to take the lessons learned about leading from within and share them through fun entertaining stories. It will not be a dry how-to business book, but rather entertaining stories that share personal leadership experiences.