To be nobody but yourself in a world which is doing its best,
night and day, to make you everybody else — means to fight
the hardest battle which any human being can fight;
and never stop fighting.
The words of this leading 20th century American poet resonate deeply with Aditi Kothari Desai — the daughter of Hemendra Kothari, one of the pioneers of investment banking in India — and the great granddaughter of one of the founders of the Bombay Stock Exchange. As we are about to begin the interview at the DSP BlackRock office in Nariman Point, we notice an amusing list pinned on her whiteboard. Never bullshit, always do your homework, under promise and over deliver, make up the whacky and non-trivial one liners up there. A realistic personification of the sassy and straightforward person she is.
Desai first obtained a bachelor of science degree in Economics from the Wharton School, University of Pennsylvania in the US. It’s here that she learnt the nitty-gritty of finance before graduating in 1998. Post this, she joined the investment banking group at Merrill Lynch in New York, working with the mergers and the acquisitions department, specifically handling financial institutions such as banks and insurance firms. At the time, Merrill Lynch was in a joint venture with Desai’s father’s DSP Financial in India. She later went on to join the fixed income sales team in the same firm in 2000 and worked there for two years before joining the mutual fund business in 2002. Rechristened DSP BlackRock Mutual Fund after Merrill Lynch sold off its stake, the Kotharis continue to hold 60% of the firm, where Kothari is the non-executive chairman and Desai is the director.
Despite the financial stake in the company, she has climbed the corporate ladder step-by-step, rising from being the head of channel in retail sales to now the executive vice-president and head of sales and marketing at DSP BlackRock. For someone who belongs to the family, the 41-year-old is clear that she will do whatever it takes to maximise shareholder value. “Ownership does not equal entitlement. Right now, we have a very capable management team running the business and I don’t see why we should disturb that. Ideally, if I do get the chance, I would like to be on the board and have the most capable person run the business,” she says.
Speaking of capabilities, Desai’s resume includes several professional milestones with launching the first off-shore India fund in 2005 being the most memorable one. She describes how the plan was set in motion. It all began in 2003-04, when India was witnessing good growth and the firm had good managers on board. Desai worked on making the dream a reality, which involved convincing Merrill Lynch and Sebi over long, arduous meetings. After almost a year, she launched the fund, which pulled in an initial $90 million. Within a year, the fund grew to a size of $1.5-billion, and is still going strong. Recognising the need to sharpen her business acumen, Desai went on to pursue an MBA from Harvard Business School, only to return to the mutual fund in 2007.
Ever since she has taken charge of the sales and marketing division, assets under management have more than doubled from Rs.37,378 crore in October 2015 to Rs.85,305 crore as on October 2017. Ask her how she managed to contribute significantly to the growth and she says, “I had a really good team to work with, I just had to make them feel energised, secure and motivate them. And I was pretty strict about holding them to their numbers, which had not been done before. It was necessary to clearly lay out my expectations and ensure the team delivered”. The tough taskmaster firmly believes that leadership is about empowering, trusting, listening to one’s people.
Taking the lead
Desai fondly recalls her first instance of tasting success as a leader way back at the John Connon and Cathedral School, Mumbai as a house captain in the 12th grade. She says she was not a competitive student but discovered she performed better in a supervisory role. Leading the victory of her house across all events was something she was extremely proud of and it continues to motivate her even today. This was also the moment when a young Desai realised the importance of collaboration and that she need not always be the strong one, but sometimes can let her team bridge the gap. She elaborates, “You can’t do everything on your own. You need to have people on your side”.
Desai has also managed to take on additional responsibility during stressful times with ease. This is evident from the seamless transformation she went through in April 2015. At a time when she was to be picking out the wedding outfit for her big day that was three weeks away, Desai was instead figuring out how to go from managing a team of seven to a team with 300 employees as she was given additional charge of the sales division. Being a fifth-generation business leader did come with a sense of responsibility in the beginning, maybe even a degree of obligation. But, today this executive enjoys her job.
Desai, who’s on the board of her father’s Wildlife Conservation Trust, credits her refined people skills to her father’s teachings. She says, “I learnt to trust people and not be cynical. My father told me, to have faith in people’s abilities people but not to be too naïve. My parents were uncompromising where ethics and values were concerned.”
Married to Vikram Desai, the founding director of the India office of Toronto-based Canada Pension Plan Investment Board, she admits that having a supportive spouse has made a huge difference to her life. And despite their hectic schedule, the couple always makes time for each other.
Another contributor to her success has been her ability to be indifferent to gender bias. Desai admits that she never felt her gender prevented her from achieving more, but she adds that often men don’t like to be told what to do by women. Sometimes the aggression in the boardroom feels different coming from a woman than from a man, but she’s used to it now. In fact she’s pushing for more. “I want DSP BlackRock to be among the top five asset management companies in the country in the next five years.” On a parting note, Desai urges women to not let marriage or any other event alter their career trajectory. She advises, “Find a career, not a job and strive to be the best at it”.