Lakshmi Iyer on building a legacy while busting staid cliches

By Larissa Fernand |  07-03-22 | 
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About the Author
Larissa Fernand is an Investment Specialist. Follow her on Twitter @larissafernand

What has always impressed me about Lakshmi Iyer are her high levels of energy and enthusiasm. Not to mention the fact that she is hugely successful in her profession.

Lakhmi Iyer -Kmf 23

I caught up with Lakshmi, the CIO of Debt and Head of Products at Kotak Mahindra Asset Management Company, to gain some insight on how this game-changer got her start in the game. I also presented her with six clichés and asked her a question on each.

In a male dominated fund management ecosystem, what was a major impediment?

When I joined this industry 22 years ago, the biggest inhibition, or rather apprehension, was being the only woman on a team. It was so apparent when interacting with peers across the industry and peers in your own organisation. Gender parity was virtually non-existent. I think it was most glaring when it came to socializing after office hours or attending conferences or meetings. That was when it kept hitting home, that you are the only woman on the table, over and over again. One had to consciously hunt for other women to meet.

Eventually, it is about overcoming your own mindset. The inhibitions and apprehensions exist in your mind, battle them there. Once you do that, it is fair play for everyone.

Moving into debt is also something of a novelty. What made you do it?

I was very intrigued by the complexities of the bond market.

And I did like the way decisions had to be binary in trading rooms. You have to react to a market stimulus, and it had to be quick. Let me try. Let me think about it. Let me get back to you. This did not exist. Either a yes or a no.

When I joined the industry, the market intimidated me. But if something intimidates you, tame it.

How did you begin changing the dynamics?

I started off in Credence Analytics in the late nineties when I was assigned the task of researching the bond markets. I started off with hardcore research.  That was the time there was no dearth of institutions paying for research. Now so much is available for free. I used to sell data on floppy disks.

While fintech is the buzzword today, I began marrying finance and technology way back in 1998. We got into providing treasury solutions. I was an integral link between software programmers and the market participants. I used to travel to the client’s location and then figure out ways to integrate their data into a software. I had the domain knowledge of finance and even began grasping the basics of programming knowledge and coding.

Let me throw you some clichés, and ask you a corresponding question. Would appreciate your comments. 

#1. Women are more risk averse. Do you agree?

While that is a blanket statement, it is a mixed bag. But women are smart with calculated risk. They are mindful of the risk.

For me personally and professionally, it is not about generating returns. The driver for me is to be able to generate risk-adjusted returns, knowing that for this additional delta of risk this is the potential return I can make for the investor.

One’s fullest potential can never really manifest if one is constantly risk averse.

#2. Men are insecure with an ambitious woman in the lead. Has that been your experience?

Insecurity can crop up in anyone. As a team leader, I have always emphasized participation rather than domination. Make my team feel part of the entire ecosystem. Foster the bonhomie. Foster involvement. Foster participation. Foster teamwork.

#3. Professionally, women are subject to harsh criticism or barbs. How do you deal with it?

I don’t assimilate or absorb everything thrown at me. People are free to judge or voice their opinions. It is not important to react to every statement or opinion. Why jump at everything thrown at you? I chose not to get unnecessarily provoked. When people saw that I did not get easily irked, it worked. Being passionate about my work helps me maintain this focus and not get unnecessarily distracted.

#4. Women are easily influenced. Are you?

If I want to be influenced, I allow myself to be influenced. I don’t do it to fit in.

I am a teetotaller. Neither do I smoke. When socialising, people would have wagers on whether or not I would be drinking within a few years. If I ever choose to have a drink, it will be because I want to, not because someone would include me in their circle.

#5. Women are women’s worst enemy. Your experience?

Certainly not in my case.

When I confronted being in such a minority, I worked consciously to ensure that I could make a big mark in a short span of time. It helped being passionate about my work, and being very good at it.

I was the only woman in the dealing room. At that time, this concept of mentoring was not prevalent. It was a lot of DIY. So when I decided that I wanted to bring in more women into the workforce, I had to look for the right people to connect with

I met smart women in other institutions, in research houses and even the Reserve Bank of India. All doing well. That’s when I knew it is possible and I made a conscious decision to promote inclusivity for women.

Now I oversee the products team and the fixed income team and have excellent representation of women in both. A dealer support, a credit researcher, the one who handles communication in the products team – all women. Replacements have been women.

#6. Some professions like retail and hospitality tend to favour women. Why is that?

I think it is that women are more comfortable joining the fray there. They believe that their role will be more appreciated there. But if you have an acumen for finance, why get into hospitality?

It is not that one profession is better than the other. I also have to practice hospitality when client facing, or dealing with hurdles and battling criticism. I too have to put my best foot forward all the time. I too have to look presentable every time I interact with others or come in the media.

Women bring that innate quality of exuding warmth in every profession. And that needs to be complimented by their individual skill sets.

Again, it is a mindset. You asked me earlier about the male-dominated ecosystem, well I worked to change that very ecosystem.

My final question. You have risen up the leadership ranks admirably. That too, in a male-dominated industry. Tell us how you define leadership.

That when you quit, there should not be a lacuna. That you leave a legacy. That the organization benefitted from your presence but was not hindered by your moving out. You have to hand over the baton. It takes a lot of self confidence to do this.

Leadership is about empowering others. It is also about giving people the space to fail. As long as it is not costly mistakes, I encourage my team to experiment. It is the only way to build confidence and get new ideas and figure what works and doesn’t.

On March 8 is International Women’s Day. The theme for 2022 is #BreakTheBias.

At the heart of it is the idea that individuals coming together can change the way the world works. So we at Morningstar approached women to talk about their money stories.

There is power in sharing authentic stories from a diverse range of women. Some stories are brief and to the point. Others have a much more descriptive narrative. There is no little story, big story or frivolous story. Our individual actions, behaviours and mindsets have an impact on our larger society. We inspire and empower, and reveal possibilities to those who identify.

A cloak of silence benefits no one. It is time to #BreakTheBias.

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How a 54-year-old woman successfully took charge of her finances


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