We all know that the Big Apple is famous for being the financial capital of the world, and investment banking in particular, is a notoriously cutthroat and male-dominated field. It takes a certain type of woman to not just blend in, but thrive in such a hostile workplace. Let’s meet Shaheen Malik Kanda, a banker turned entrepreneur, based out of Short Hills, NJ.
AM: So, tell me, did you always want to be a banker all your life? Tell us a little bit about your academic background.
SK: My education has been in engineering and business, particularly finance. I very much enjoyed engineering, was fascinated by finance when I came to graduate school and decided to work as a banker for about a decade. Since then, I’ve found a way to combine my love for both engineering and finance and now work in FinTech.
AM: Who was/is your role model? Did/do you have a mentor that helped you advance your career in this field?
SK: I have had many mentors and advisors at various stages of my career in banking and now as an entrepreneur. Outside my professional life, I admire several people from several walks of life like Amartya Sen and Ruth Bader Ginsberg, to name a few.
AM: Would you say numbers are your strong suit? Do you consider yourself a math-whiz?
SK: I enjoy math and am glad to be in a field (FinTech) that requires advanced math. I work with very talented and bright people in my company, developing advanced algorithms, who might be classified as math or computer science whizzes.
AM: I happen to know that you love to analyze and critique books and movies. Where did this come from – a love of the written word? What are you reading at the moment? And what have you watched recently that has left a serious impact on you?
SK: I think I really enjoy artistic expression where the creator of art can provide the audience enough stimulation to create their own narrative too. I particularly like thinking about and reading about the human condition, history and politics. I’m currently reading a few books – one is on the life of Leonardo da Vinci that describes his life, work as an engineer/ scientist and artist, and another one called Oceans of Churn which is on the history of trade on the Indian Ocean. The last movie that made a very deep impression on me was Boyhood. It is a coming of age story and has the depth and compassion for each character in the script and direction, that I love in books and cinema.
AM: Would you like to name/describe an achievement that you consider to be your most satisfying and challenging? Something that changed the course of your life?
SK: I went from never having run more than 15 mins until the birth of my son to becoming a long-distance runner. I did my first long-ish run a week after I had my child, since I was low on sleep, exhausted and wanted to lift my spirits, and loved it ever since.
AM: As an experienced banker, how do you think women have advanced in the banking industry? Do you see more women picking this field as a career option and do you think they are progressing at an equal rate as the men?
SK: Banking is a tough and male dominated industry. I don’t work in it anymore, but observe from the outside that the gender imbalance is still skewed towards men at the senior most levels.
AM: There is the famous quote by Madeline Albright “There is a special place in hell for women who don’t help each other”. What do you think about the scarcity of women mentors in the corporate world? How do you think that can affect a woman’s career trajectory?
SK: I would totally endorse Madeline Albright’s sentiment and do believe people should pay it forward when they feel professionally stable. From a company’s standpoint, it’s important to have diversity (gender, racial etc.) at all levels otherwise biases in the workplace are hard to weed out and hurt corporate decision making in the long run. For e.g. if the media companies that are reeling with lawsuits related to harassment of women had more women executives and board members, they may never have come to this situation.
From the point of view of an individual, my view is that an ambitious person needs to take the cards they are dealt – be it their gender, race, economic disadvantage, educational disadvantage, their appearance – and overcompensate using what they do have going for them. People also need to choose which battles they want to fight – some probably are harder to win than others, so one needs to know what to walk away from. I also think each generation of us that pushes through the challenges, moves the needle a little more for the next generation.
AM: How would you say you have balanced motherhood and your professional life? Have you had to sacrifice anything (personally or professionally) at any stage of your career?
SK: I had to make many changes to my life when I became a mother, but I wouldn’t consider them sacrifices. I think motherhood made me a better person, a better professional and forced me to have more balance in my life. The early years were very hard both physically and emotionally, to balance work and childcare. But I changed my work habits, nutrition, exercise to have the stamina I needed, which has been good for me overall. I started to see the world more through the eyes of my child and I realized how our long work hours were cutting off our connections to friends and family, and I fixed that. Professionally, I learned to step back and reflect more than I used to and got a lot more comfortable taking calculated risks. Overall, I think my professional and spiritual wellbeing has been enhanced because of my son.
AM: How has the organizational structure changed for women and working mothers in the recent past? Do you think companies are making changes to the culture to accommodate this ever-expanding cohort of employees?
SK: I see much more flexibility in the workplace in general, than when I graduated from school. Depending on the industry, the amount of effort taken by companies for women varies. Within technology (where I currently work), we are used to providing team members a lot of flexibility, to be able to retain the best talent, men or women. In fact, I am used to seeing both men and women avail of the flexibility that was originally considered necessary to attract the best female talent.
AM: If you were to give a TEDTalk in the future, what would it be about?
SK: Democratization of credit
AM: Are you involved in any non-profits here or in India? What are the issues closest to your heart?
SK: I work with charities that focus on children – which is the number one issue I care about. I support charities that provide for education and shelter for kids in developing and developed countries. Other than that, I support Doctors without Borders, for the work they do in the most hard to reach parts of the world.
AM: What defines you as a person? What would you say are your top three qualities that have tided you through your journey so far?
SK: I like to think of myself as someone who is resilient, passionate (about my family/ work/ politics etc.) and an eternal optimist. I think my general optimism and almost obsessive passion for my top priorities define me.
AM: What are your future plans for yourself? Any more boxes you need to check off? 🙂
SK: I’m certainly not close to checking off all my boxes. For e.g. I want to learn another classical dance form, but haven’t gotten down to it yet.
AM: What are your key takeaways from Sheryl Sandberg’s “Lean In”? Where is the corporate culture in terms of closing the gender gap?
SK: I think Lean In references a very specific section of women – accomplished women who have family support, workplace opportunities and need to step up and ask for advancement more often. In my view that situation addresses less than 20% of women’s issues. There are 2 other major categories of career oriented women it doesn’t address –
1. Women who have challenges rising in the workplace despite their best efforts – old boys’ clubs are hard to break into, insufficient support from spouses to equally divide work at home, implicit discouragement at work for women to have children when they are biologically and emotionally ready, and so on.
2. Women who drop out of competitive areas of study and work much earlier, not having the right support or role models
The gender gap isn’t getting closed anytime soon. The biggest issues will be solved when companies can increase the pool of incoming women in desirable, competitive and lucrative fields of work and then retain talented women. These issues will not get resolved without a systematic effort at all levels of corporations. For now, I would go back to my earlier point about women finding some way to overcompensate using whatever it is they have going for them and not wait for the larger issues outside of their control to get resolved.
AM: If you weren’t a banker/CEO, what do you think you would have become?
SK: I don’t work as a banker anymore, and run a FinTech company. I think I would have wanted to stay in some quantitative field, so maybe I may have also enjoyed being an engineer. And if I could find someone to pay for my reviews, perhaps a book/ movie critic on the side!
AM: What would you say to all the girls who shy away from STEM education? How do you get the message across that it is okay to be a geek?
SK: I can’t even identify with that sentiment – about STEM being male or ‘geeky’. Though STEM should not be a choice for anyone, in today’s world it should be mandatory for everyone.
AM: Finally, any parting words for women entrepreneurs? What are the tools they need in their kit to achieve success in their chosen fields?
SK: I would say, stop focusing on your gender. Think about what product and company you want to build and work to amplify the things that are in your favor, and mitigate risks for the things that aren’t.
Thank you very much Shaheen, and wish you a successful 2018!