Holding My Own
Manisha Girotra
CEO, Moelis & Company                                                                        
INTERVIEW • 9 min read
Sometimes the only way beyond glass ceilings is to go through them. Manisha Girotra of Moelis & Co. has created a powerful legacy of excellence and tenacity. Leaders like her have been fighting the tough battles so that women to come do not face the same hurdles to success.
Q1. Please tell us a bit about your background / career path. How did you get into investment banking?
A: I am an accidental investment banker. I am an economist by training and wanted to go to the UK to do a PhD. However, my father, a government officer did not have the resources so I thought I would work for a few years, save and borrow some money and head out. However I fell in love with the world of banking. I guess my father being a banker, consciously and subconsciously I had loved this career through my formative years.
I started off in a commercial bank and was exposed to corporate, retail and investment banking. And I loved investment banking because you get to be a small part of the journey of entrepreneurs who have so much energy and optimism. The second part was that being a people’s person, I enjoyed being in these rooms and loved the cerebral conversations that happened, how you can actually make a small difference in the journey of these corporates in terms of fund raising, M&A etc. And at a young age you get so much exposure, being in the same room as leaders and decision makers, that you wouldn’t in another career.
I didn’t know what a balance sheet looked like before I entered a bank so it was a very steep learning curve for me. It was long hours and then I had to come home and read corporate finance books. But I still loved it - the journey, the academic, the fact that you learn so much. I think all of us want to be in a profession where we learn. I loved the intellectual stimulus this career provided and here I am 28 years later!
Q2. You became the CEO of UBS in India at a young age of 35. And then left a 20 year stable job at UBS to set up Moelis in India. Please tell us a little about the journey at UBS and what went into the big decision to switch.
A: I enjoy the business of setting up businesses. I set up UBS from scratch in India as also Moelis. The thrill, the validation and the adrenaline rush I get from nurturing a baby and see it blossom is what gives me a high. I don’t enjoy being a small cog in a big wheel. Spending a lot of my time with entrepreneurs, I see how they build from zero with courage of conviction and I like to do the same. Life is an adventure and if not……
They say when God says choose intellect or luck, you should choose luck. Any career needs that in addition to hard work. At the time, UBS, like many other global banks, was downsizing in India, keeping it as an outpost to service global clients. They had seen over the years that I knew enough of the ecosystem and entrepreneurs and people and CEOs in cities that matter to be able to take the journey forward. I had shown credibility – I could hold my own with owners of really large companies and I wasn’t intimidated in a room full of entrepreneurs who were in their sixties. I had shown that I had love for the job and that I could take on a role that was being run at that point of time by a 49 year old. And so I was picked out of 5 people to take the lead.
The time when I quit UBS was the time of the sub-prime crisis and there was a lot of disruption and dislocation in banks, including at UBS. Since I had become the CEO, we had built UBS to a really large scale and even got a branch license – and now none of that mattered and India was going back to being an outpost. I don’t blame them for it but I didn’t want to do that. I had been in touch with Ken Moelis (founder of Moelis) for a few years and now the push became strong enough. In my mind, this was my last run as a banker and I didn’t want to go from one bulge-bracket to another.
I remember having a drink with my father-in-law (while I was still at UBS) and his telling me to walk out instead of taking so much stress. I left UBS before I had signed up with Ken. And that is one thing that I want young people to remember for all of their lives – if you are not enjoying something, just step away from the situation because after a while it is not worth it. You must love what you do and the people you work with otherwise you can’t give it your 100%.
Q3. What is your favourite part of the job?
A: I love working with young people. I strongly believe that every new generation is smarter, building from the base of the previous generation. They are audacious in their dreams and ambitions, full of confidence and enthusiasm. The young girls who join the workforce nowadays are unstoppable. I enjoy being around them and helping and mentoring them to become the successful leaders of tomorrow.
Q4. The investing ecosystem, including investment banking has been said to be an all- male bastion for decades and it is said that deals are sealed in boys' clubs. Please share with us your experiences in breaking glass ceilings and scaling tremendous heights of success.
A: The first 4-5 years were extremely challenging for me, because of my gender. I faced a lot of pushback when I joined this business as the men around me were only used to seeing women as secretaries or admin staff- deferring to the male supremacy. When I challenged it wanting to be an equal I was not taken seriously- clients would not shake hands with me or make eye contact while peers and seniors would not invest in training me as they felt I would not have the staying power for this business. I was given tasks like fetching pizzas, coffee, stock taking of inventory as nobody felt that I could run and comprehend a financial model. There was a lot of trivialization including things like she is here only to get herself a good husband! I have borne the brunt of objectification and silly jokes and audacious comments, especially in road shows when we were out of the country. And there wasn’t an HR that you could take it to and there were just men everywhere – you couldn’t take it to anyone. It was tough.
This thing about being a second rate citizen because of my gender, really took a toll on me. And that is why I hate trivial jokes against women because I know it really hurts us.
But I kept going. It took years of staying at the wicket before I was treated as a credible player. I volunteered more than I could do and even when I was not on those sector teams. I worked extra hours and I remember when I was seconded to London, I would literally go below my desk and sleep there. All I had was my toothbrush! Every opportunity I got, I took it. Because I knew the only way that I could make myself indispensable was by being better than all the guys – not just being as good, but being better. I had to show that I was more committed especially after I was married. I had to prove to them that I could do this. The consistent hard work paid off.
Q5. You have a unique vantage point when it comes to investors and entrepreneurs. What in your view are some of the key things influencing (lack of) gender diversity within the investing world?
A: I think across businesses India suffers from a patriarchal mindset. Women’s primary role in our society is seen as that of a nurturer and caregiver. This spills over at work where men see women as temporary co-workers who will check out as soon as they get married/ have babies etc.. Most men feel that women will not be able to keep up with long work hours, erratic travel and hence feel comfortable having an all-male team.
The world of finance, without having any obvious barriers to entry based on your gender, unfortunately is and continues to be a male domain. It’s basically a boys club which likes to hire its own clones and not step out of their comfort zone to hire a diverse team- which to my mind brings infinite benefits.
People believe that this industry, which requires a deep dive into balance sheets and financial health of a company requires a man’s brain. It is almost like the bias against girls in STEM spills over to the world of finance where a field which is dominated by mathematicians and accounting is seen as too challenging for a woman.
Q6. You are loved for your support and encouragement to young women. What’s your advice to young women pursuing a career in the investing business?
A: Stay the course, stake your claim, seek out role models and mentors and aim for the stars. You have the education, exposure and confidence that previous generations lacked. You have organisations wanting to proactively hire and retain woman talent. You have technology tools which help you to work from home, keep flexible hours etc. Make the most of this new world order. Success won’t be easy, but when it happens it will be all yours and beautiful. The journey will be arduous, but keep going. The universe eventually falls in love with a stubborn heart.
Q7. You've been quite vocal about the importance of spending time with family. Given both you and Sanjay are heading two leading investment banks, how you do strike a balance between family and professional success?
A: A working woman with a family has two full time day jobs. You need to be switched on 24x7. In addition to having a partner who thinks of you as you as an equal and respects your job as a career, you need friends, extended family and neighbours who can help out in times of crises and emergencies.
It is a complex challenge and mine was simplified by the fact that I have a very supportive ecosystem. When meetings happened at short notice and both Sanjay and I had to be away, my mom and mom-in-law would fly down at short notice from Delhi. They did it repeatedly for the first five years and it helped a lot. The other thing that I learnt was to take it one day at a time. You can’t plan for 6 years in advance with a small child.
It is very important to explain to your immediate family members that your job is an integral part of who you are. It makes you who you are, and makes you a better and happier person, a better mom, wife, daughter and daughter-in-law. Make them part of your journey. That way they will also feel ownership for your successes, setbacks and failures and your own journey will become easier.
There is another incident that I remember. Sanjay and I were working on different deals (privatization of GAIL and MTNL), that both converged in London. As everyone knew each other, we hosted a dinner at a Michelin starred-restaurant at the Savoy. A gentleman from my client was a Jain - as I was the only female analyst, I was summoned to go to the kitchen and arrange ‘dal chawal’. I didn’t even know how to boil water! I was in tears. Thankfully Sanjay, who knows how to cook, stepped in. The client had his food but it’s the assumption you know, that you are a female and you are expected to cook.
Q8. How do you see the deal space evolving in the current COVID19 scenario?
A: India unfortunately entered the COVID19 phase already weak as an economy with the IL&FS, Yes Bank and NPA crisis. As an ecosystem, we rely on bank credit a lot and that chain had already broken down for a lot of corporates.
The trend that I am seeing in this one quarter, is that the big will get bigger – you see the Jio, HDFC, Kotak deals. There has been a flight to quality of capital and that will continue as people get more risk averse. We may go back to the old days with 10-15 corporates which become very large. So my worry is that the nice trend that was happening with mid-sized and small companies and entrepreneurs coming through the ecosystem – which is what India needs because we don’t have enough jobs – will get stifled. Sectors like consumer, tech and fintech will be fine but other sectors like industrials, infra and real estate will get choked.
In terms of opportunities, I think there will be enough mid-sized companies which will now be open for consolidation once the moratorium lifts and companies with 8-9% margins are unable to sustain. Tech will continue to play out especially post the Facebook-Jio deal and others like Google and Amazon thinking about what they need to do. Capital there will continue to flow supported by the fact that we are 1.3bn people, and we have vertically embraced technology and digitization. For business, I see more consolidation. The whole argument of “is it too big” has gone away, globally.
PEs will always benefit from disruption and volatility and for them, it is a good phase. There will be more real deals. I hope PE players and structured and equity investors can keep bringing in capital into India, but the problem is that now the US and other markets have good opportunities at cheaper multiples. So I hope Indian entrepreneurs don’t keep looking for that last multiple and lose their business.
Q9. What is your life motto/ favorite quote?
A: “A star is a rock that never gave up on its dream to rise.”
Q10. Favorite sport and how often do you hit the field?
A: Golf, once a fortnight.
Q11. Favorite Restaurants in Mumbai?
A: Koko and Bombay Canteen
Q12. What is your favorite travel destination?
A: Shimla (where I belong) and Italy
Q13. What are some of your favourite books and authors?
A: My current favourites are Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind by Yuval Noah Harari, The History of Bees by Maja Lunde, The Body by Bill Bryson, and the Harry Potter series by J.K. Rowling.