‘Skeptics had written us off, today we advise 10,000 crore AUA’

A banker turned adviser, Soumya Rajan has built India’s largest non-institution backed multi-family office which caters to India’s most iconic families. She set up Waterfield Advisors, a boutique practice which caters to UHNWIs in 2011 after quitting her job at Standard Chartered Bank. Here’s what she has to say to aspiring women financial advisers.
By Ravi Samalad |  07-03-17 | 
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About the Author
Ravi Samalad is Assistant Manager - Editoral for Morningstar.in.

What challenges did you face in your journey as a banker to an entrepreneur? How did you overcome them?

I was transitioning from a very visible senior management role with a multi-national to my own venture and the main challenge was understanding the value of my own “individual brand”. When you start a venture on your own, after several years in the corporate sector, you are relying on the networks and relationships that you have previously nurtured and the goodwill that you have built over the years to start your business. This can be very testing in the early years of your enterprise. You know you have a great idea, but you need to be able to communicate that idea and vision with both potential employees and prospective clients to create a sustainable and profitable business. It is like starting from the bottom rung of the ladder and patiently working your way up.

In my experience the biggest constraints in any entrepreneurial journey are also related to capital – both financial capital and human capital, and entrepreneurs need to solve that problem early by bringing in good investors and building a solid team.

When I started Waterfield Advisors five years ago there were many skeptics to the advisory model in India and we were being written off even before we started. However, we held a very strong belief that the UHNW space was changing and that the family office space was going to see tectonic shifts in the next 10-25 years. I believe we read the signs right and developed the right platform to support our growth, which even today is constantly evolving as our clients engage with us and share with us the areas where they need greater support.

Waterfield Advisors is today India’s largest non-institution backed multi-family office where we advise on assets of Rs. 10,000 crore (promoter holdings account for a further Rs. 50,000 crore, which we do not include in our assets under advisory) and we work with some of India’s most iconic families. On the investment side, we are completely product-neutral and don’t manufacture a single product – ours is a truly open architecture model for investments. This is a very powerful statement to our clients and allows us to objectively assess financial products and fund managers both from a risk and return perspective. Over the years, our best learnings have come from our clients and we attribute our growth because we did not want to be just another “me-too” in the crowded wealth management space.

What do you think are the reasons for underrepresentation of women in financial services, particularly in wealth management profession? 

Last year, Oliver Wyman brought out a global report on Women in Financial Services. The findings suggested that the exit rates of women in financial services in the mid-part of their careers are not only higher than those of their male colleagues, but also significantly higher than in other industries. Their statistical data, survey responses and interviews suggested that many women face a mid-career conflict. At that point, the costs of a career, especially the sacrifices in their personal lives, seemed much higher in relation to the uncertain benefits of staying on.

The report goes on to say that women face a less attractive career trade-off than men, with the following factors contributing to this mid-career crisis, namely insufficient flexible working options and a stigma for using them; insufficient support for family responsibilities; shortcomings with regard to predictable, transparent and equitable promotion processes and equal pay; and persistent, invisible and unconscious cultural biases and traditional assumptions. I tend to agree with these findings based on my own experiences.

Do you see female family members growing more interested in taking up leadership roles in family owned businesses?

I definitely think there is shift in more women participating in their family businesses. This is coming directly from their parent’s generation and is an extremely encouraging trend. Women can bring in very different perspectives into the family businesses and also contribute to their company boards. In the Credit Suisse Gender 3000 report for 2016, the report reaffirmed its prior findings that companies with higher participation of women in decision-making roles continue to generate higher market returns and superior profits. In particular, for India, the number of women on boards has increased. This number has doubled over the past six years from 5.5 percent in 2010 to 11.2 percent in 2015. This has helped India close the global gap average, which stands at a 14.7 percent. Today many of India Inc’s companies are led by women.

Do you think aversion to taking professional risks may be keeping women from taking up this profession?

No. I think women who enter this industry have the same level of ambition as their male counterparts when they enter the industry. It’s the mid-career conflict that they face of having to invest time at work and not spending time with the family, or not fulfilling cultural expectations that weigh against the income or the chance of career advancement, where the “costs” outweigh the “benefits” and the “conflict” is resolved too often today with attrition.

Do you think acquiring professional qualifications like CFP/CFA could help aspiring women advisers establish credibility among prospects?

I think to be successful in any profession, you must be competent. Being in a profession also means that you have to be a lifelong student. Professional qualifications are one way to keep enhancing your knowledge levels. In the financial advisory space, the client-advisor relationship is built on trust and transparency and credibility is often built on these two tenets. However, if you don’t know your subject, you will quickly be exposed. They say that as a woman you have to work twice as hard to be half as good, so always work on building your repository of knowledge. There is no substitute for putting in the hard yards and investing in learning.

Do you think more awareness is required to demonstrate financial advisory as a viable career option for women?

Yes, I do think this is necessary. This can only come through success stories of other women who have chosen such paths and having more role models in the industry.

What steps can be taken to attract more women in financial planning profession?

I think that the financial services/financial planning industry does recognize the benefits of diversity. Most women and men in the industry openly acknowledge this. It is well recognized and documented that gender balance provides better access to the full talent pool, better decision making, better customer service and a stronger economy. What is slowing the progress is that even the best-intentioned of organizations have yet to find the right recipe for advancing women and the right way of combining the various ingredients, such as flexible working arrangements, sponsorship, and cultural change. If we get some of this right, we can attract more women to this field.

As a role model, what would be your advice to aspiring women advisers? 

I have a few words of advice for aspiring women advisers. Firstly, find good mentors, whether they are men or women. Work with people who will constantly encourage you to raise the bar. Secondly, always be a knowledge seeker and be ready to seize opportunities when you get them. Third, always do the right thing by your clients, no matter how difficult it may be to go against the tide or what others may tell you. Clients will always remember that you put their financial well-being ahead of any other considerations and lastly, if you do make a mistake, learn from it and become a better adviser because of this experience.

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