She now runs her own company teaching leadership courses focused on stress management and self-awareness, but in a previous life Nina Godiwalla worked on Wall Street. The child of a Mumbai Parsi family settled in Houston, Texas, US, Godiwalla’s double-diasporic origins added a third migration when she moved to New York as a Morgan Stanley analyst, and discovered a culture far removed from her warm, part-Asian, part-Southern roots. Godiwalla writes about the experience in Suits: A Woman on Wall Street, a memoir about life in a shark tank of ambition, where anything can be traded for success. Edited excerpts from a conversation:
At what point in your life as a young Asian-American did you think your story could become a book?
Breaking the bank: Nina Godiwalla. Photo: Raychel Deppe
Once I realized investment banking was not the right route for me, I was quite lost since I had hardly spent time thinking about what I enjoyed doing. As part of my soul-searching process, I went to Dartmouth to do a master’s programme in liberal arts.
My thesis was the first draft of Suits: A Woman on Wall Street. The book started with two short stories. One about growing up as a second-generation Parsi American and feeling I’d be a failure if I wasn’t a doctor or engineer, and another was about my journey from small-town Texas suburbs to Wall Street. In hindsight, I think my main motivation to keep writing was that I felt silenced during my investment banking experience and being able to write about it finally gave me a voice.
Could you tell us a bit about the process of writing ‘Suits’? Were there writers whom you read who influenced you?
My true fascination is with people. Had I been encouraged to study whatever I liked as an undergrad, I would have chosen psychology. But that just wasn’t the kind of major that would have allowed my dad to sleep well at night. I could already anticipate his reaction, “What about electrical engineering or biochemistry? You can get solid jobs with good benefits with those majors.” Growing up, I had always avoided reading and writing, partly because I found it challenging and partly because my dad was much more focused on our math/science grades.
A book I really enjoyed was Jhumpa Lahiri’s Interpreter of Maladies. It is because she articulated the complex feelings I had about being a second-generation Indian American before I even knew how to express it.
Do you think women on Wall Street now face the same issues you encounter in ‘Suits’? Is the culture changing?
After I wrote the first draft for my thesis, I went straight to get a Wharton MBA. I assumed the same thing: Things must have changed. But I’d hear the same complaints from women and minorities interning in investment banks, which helped me realize that the issues I faced weren’t unique to me and not that much has changed. What was more eye-opening for me is to hear so many people across various industries—education, government, non-profits—say that they’ve experienced a milder version of what I describe in Suits.
Suits—A Woman on Wall Street: Hachette India, 350 pages, Rs395.
Your book gives us some human insight into the institutions that are now causing so much public anger in the US. To what extent can we link the culture of Wall Street with its technical mistakes?
During my Wall Street experience, I saw how detrimental it can be to have leaders who operate on fear. One of the biggest fears is that of failure. There tends to be more blame than personal accountability. I’ve often called Wall Street a caricature of Corporate America. Many corporate cultures operate on fear but on Wall Street, the money, stakes and egos, are a lot bigger.
I’m confident the lack of personal accountability and the tendency to turn a blind eye are core issues that brought us to the financial crisis. After writing Suits, many former investment bankers have reached out to share the inappropriate behaviours they saw at various banks, and how they aren’t surprised by the crisis it ultimately caused.