Fiona Fernandez caught up with Nina Godiwalla who was in the city recently. The Parsi author, who harboured and eventually went on to fulfil her banker dreams, gets candid about the life and time of an Indian American in the Big Apple
What was the single biggest reason for you to shift from Houston to New York? Was being a successful Wall Street banker a childhood dream or did it surface later?
Only a few months into my fist-year in college, my mother insisted I attend a career fair to get an internship even though I reminded her that other first-year students were just focusing on passing Chemistry. At the University of Texas career fair, I met a woman recruiting for JP Morgan New York and she described their internship program in a way that sounded like a party for movie stars.
We dine at the finest restaurants in the country, ensure you front row seats at Broadway shows, and get you into the top sporting events with celebrities. Growing up in the small suburbs of Houston and being part of the Parsi American community, which seems so focused on the American dream, this sounded fascinating to me.
I was completely taken in even though I had no idea what JP Morgan did. At the time I'd never even finished a college course, leave alone a business course.
Book cover of Suits
I didn't grow up fixated on being a banker, but I did grow-up fixated on winning the approval of those around me, mainly my parents, who I knew were eager to share each new success with their tight Parsi community. Since I'd seen so much admiration of wealth and prestige in our immigrant community, I inadvertently became focused on that as my dream.
How much of an emotional ropewalk was it for you - juggling between your Indo-Persian roots and your big city banker dreams?
The Wall Street environment wasn't particular welcoming to different cultures or perspectives. Shortly after joining work, I was asked to remove my Parsi necklace - Faravahar - because it looked like a marijuana symbol and may give our clients the wrong idea. The expectation is that you conform to the majority: upper class, white, American male. The faster you assimilate, the more successful you will be.
And because I was a second-generation, I'd already mastered the assimilation process. I knew how to hide my cultural differences when I needed to so it didn't take me long to mimic my manager's behaviours and become successful on their terms. The main thing I lost along the way was my identity and dignity.
So many of the values I'd learned from hard working immigrant parents - don't count your chickens before they hatch, waste not, want not, giving is better than receiving, etc. were not valued in the Wall Street environment.
You mentioned about your dad being in awe of the American Dream; how did you realise this? What were your initial reactions to this?
Almost all my parents' social activity was limited to our local Parsi community. Growing up as a Parsi American, there's a lot of focus on whether people "made it" or not. Often that had to do with the size of their house and whether they were driving a Mercedes or a Toyota.
It felt like my family was always somewhere in the middle, and it was up to us, as the second generation, to stand out one way or another. Watching this, my idea of success was definitely centered on wealth and power. After my Wall Street experience, I realised all the power and money in the world couldn't buy happiness.
Now, my approach is more balanced. For example, I wouldn't give up time with my family to work 80+ hour weeks again. Some of my colleagues who also stayed on Wall Street briefly say that after our experience, we won't have to go through a mid-life crisis since we learned early on that giving your whole life up to a company for money doesn't buy you anything meaningful.
What lessons from your Wall Street banker days have you take into MindWorks?
On Wall Street I also learned that leadership's role is critical in creating a welcoming, inclusive corporate culture. And that in order to retain those from different backgrounds including women and minorities, leadership must actively create an open-minded culture.
This understanding is what led me to found MindWorks. Through MindWorks (http://www.mindworkscorp.com/), I now bring leadership courses focused on self-awareness, stress management, and diversity into major institutions including Dow Chemical, The Smithsonian Institute, and University of Texas MBA Program.
MindWorks has been particularly successful since corporations are finding that their directors have solid technical skills but need to work more on the softer skills that often get ignored through traditional development programs.
Suits, Hachette India, Rs 395.