It had been a long day. Nina Godiwalla had stumbled home from a bar after work, and collapsed in bed. But she was wide awake in a few hours. She needed to talk to someone, be with someone. Her roommate was still at work. A friend she thought of calling had a crisis of his own. And her parents – Parsi immigrants from India – were too far away in Texas, even for a phone call.
She opened the refrigerator and finished off her stock of vodkas. She needed more alcohol to escape the longing to escape whatever she was doing.
Wall Street had looked alluring from far, even magical. It had appeared to hold the key to success as she then saw success. Money and power is what she wanted, and the Street had both. That was her world, and she wanted to be in it at any cost. Even if it meant devouring sports scores for games she had no interest in. But it was her ticket to the world of investment banking.
Nina went clubbing as frequently as the men, drank as much and tried to be like them. She could have out-manned the men if she could, but how much could a lone intern do, and a second generation immigrant intern at that?
The world of her dreams belonged to men, and they intended to keep it that way.
Nina’s Suits: A Woman on Wall Street, a book on her two years at Morgan Stanley, the top-most investment bank in the world, might have delivered a crippling blow to a distasteful hangover from the past. The book is a runaway hit. Nina has been interviewed and profiled in every US newspaper and magazine of note, and the book has been reviewed glowingly by all. "I am booked for speaking assignments for months," Nina reports.
As a first insider account of the all-male culture of the world of investment banking and its biases against women, the book is being compared to the iconic Liar’s Poker by Michael Lewis. Lewis’s account of work and life at Salomon Brothers (now a unit of Citibank) was the first to show the frat-boy culture of the world of investment banking led by its cigar-chomping high-rolling executives. This was Wall Street in the ’80s. Nina’s Wall Street belongs to the 1990s.
She joined Morgan Stanley as an intern through a two-year salaried scholarship programme for minorities, after spending the previous summer interning with the other Wall Street giant JP Morgan. Soon after joining, all 20 interns – called scholars – were gathered in a conference room for their first lesson, which in hindsight contained all the clues she might have needed to what lay ahead.
"As a minority you will be scrutinised. And if you are a woman, expect 10 times the challenge. If they drink, you should drink. (However) Don’t think you can do whatever they do. They look at you differently than they do themselves. You will be required to prove yourself. You DO NOT get the benefit of doubt. One slip can cost you years of hard work."
Nina listened hard, adding a few lessons of her own as she went along. She was good at copying others to be able to fit in better. This was a trait she found handy as an immigrant – she believes American Born Desis are still quite confused – and one that eventually made her popular at school.
Out of India
Nina’s parents are Parsis from India – her father from Jamshedpur, her mother from Mumbai. All the four Godiwalla children were born and raised in the US; Nina is the third. She recalls spending weekends at one Parsi congregation or the other, which kept the family firmly rooted. And some attitudes that were carried over from India – the daughters were not allowed to go on dates.
When Nina brought home a boy from school once, Mr Godiwalla barely acknowledged his presence. So how did he take to the book? Nina laughs. She and her father have not yet discussed the book. But she ran the book by her family before publishing it. "My father didn’t want to read it, but did so on my mother’s insistence," she says.
There was plenty to have shocked him. Nina’s clubbing for one. And then there is an episode in which she welcomes a blind date to her apartment. She was a couple of Absoluts down already. He turned out to be an Indian, but Nina knew immediately he wasn’t her type. Yet, they kissed and it would have gone on if he hadn’t backed out saying he needed to know her more. No, her parents didn’t bring up all this with her.
What about her husband? "He is from the same world of investment bankers and he knows the culture," Nina said. Does she still drink? "Yes I do," she says laughing. "But not as much as I did then, not with a baby at home."
But again, that was work.
Remember her first lesson at Morgan Stanley: do as they do, drink if they did. For a place not used to women, it was a challenge. Check this bit from the book:
"As soon as they arrived Todd (a senior at Morgan Stanley) asked me, ‘You didn’t happen to catch the Knicks game, did you?’"
"‘Knicks 79-71,’ I said quickly, knowing it was less for his information and more of a test. I was pretty good about getting the sports scores off the Bloomberg machine every morning."
There were a few women at the bank, but the culture was distinctly all-male. Strip clubs were very much a part of after-office activity, just as routine as a visit to the bar around the corner.
"The most shocking evidence of the attitude towards women," Nina said, "came from a colleague who was dropped from a team only because the client didn’t want to deal with a woman."
Nina’s colleague felt dumped by her seniors at the bank. And when word got out, other female workers came up with their stories. They had kept these experiences to themselves, blaming themselves. This was almost 10 years ago. There are many more women on Wall Street now and surely the situation has changed? "I am told it’s not very different now," said Nina.
Nina left all this a few years ago to start a company of her own, offering stress reduction courses to professionals. And she is back in Texas, where it all began.
- From HT Brunch, May 1
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