Thursday, August 30, 2007

Manisha Girotra: Banker with a difference

I rarely stay tuned to CNBC for long stretches. Coz I don't follow stocks (on a daily basis) and neither do I care for stuffy corporate types.

But I recently caught a very good interview with Manisha Girotra, head of UBS. Manisha has been the lead investment banker on some of the biggest transactions of the year: Vodafone-Essar, Hindalco-Novelis, UB-Whyte and Mackay, to name a few.

Manisha was relaxed and candid, giving some interesting insights into the deal making process. But the fag end, where the interview got into personal territory was the most revealing. Here's an excerpt from the transcript:

Q: Some day her deal making experiences will make for a best seller maybe with a slim chapter on what it is like to be a woman in the old boys club of banking.

Manisha Girotra: I think it is tougher at the home, in personal life it is tougher because you still have the responsibilities that you have at home. So to that extent, it is a huge personal day-to-day juggle but in the outside world, you are only as good as what you produce. You will be as well regarded or disregarded as a banker whether a male or female if you do not come up with the right ideas, aren't able to come across credibly and knowledgeably and I think that mindset of "oh we do not deal with woman" has changed.

I remember twelve-thirteen years ago in Delhi when I started going to these public sector companies and ministries, nobody would shake my hand, they used to say Namaste to me and they all used to think that I am someone's secretary who has come in to take notes. They used to ask, Sahaab kab aa rahe hain?" When I used to say that no there is no Sahaab, this is it; they used to get psyched. From that, it has come a long way.

Q: You have to ever compensate?

Manisha Girotra: Maybe initially yes, but not now. I think my team will tell you - I work the least. There is some upside of working seventeen years.

Q: Most women would feel pressure to be in a job like this, you are not in straight jacketed suits, you are lot more easy, casual comfortable, friendly, warm, I am just wondering has it been a battle to retain that, keep that, maintain that, did you ever feel pressure that I need to fit into this little groove of heart investment banker?

Manisha Giotra: We have taken for annual trainings to fit into that two years ago, but clearly they did not train you well. When you start training from 1994 onwards, you are basically trained on how to walk, talk, eat, present, everything because you are expected to be straight jacketed, for the first two-three years all analysts go through a very strict training programme.

So I went through that too but at the end of the day, I always wanted to remember this is a job and I am doing it because I enjoy it and I love every minute of it and then if I am not happy through that process then what is the point.

Q: I understand, your husband is in a conflicting space because he is also in the banking business and there are these cute stories we hear of how the two of you stay away from conflict at home, I will allow you to give us the story because I do not want to give it away?

Manisha Girotra: My husband and I met at work and we both compete for businesses. We are used to competing for business because we have been doing it for the last fourteen-fifteen years, all our clients know that we are husband and wife and that is quite comfortable.

It is quite a joke actually, at times. But I think because we are in the same business, we respect each other; we know that professional lives need to be kept away Having said that, we still take our calls from our own bathrooms, we do not let anyone hear anything, so we have double barrel doors. We keep it very seriously; anyway after thirteen-fourteen hours work day, you do not really want to take work home.

Wow. Talk about maintaining your individuality, focus and ambition. Although separate, sound proof bathrooms... and competing for the same deals... sounds super stressful!

P.S. I also like her dress sense :)

from left to right: Falguni Nayar (Kotak), Manisha Girotra (UBS), seated: Dr Swati Piramal.

Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Two great new Indian blogs

... by folks over the age of 25.

The first is by one of my favourite people and market researcher par excellence, Piyul Mukherjee. Piyul runs an independent qualitative research firm, Proact and blogs on her site.

A recent and interesting post: Getting Bangalored, getting Bill Gated.

What I like about Piyul's blog is that she combines personal experience with some larger insights. And she writes in an easy, no nonsense style - which is also how she speaks :)

The second blog is one I noticed through a post made by Gautam Ghosh.

The OD Collective blog is an effort by a group of 12 HR professionals based in Delhi, from companies ranging from Frito Lay to NIIT. The first post by Abhijit Bhaduri (author of 'Mediocre but Arrogant') is a good start. Especially the title...

People Are Our Greatest Asses (oops ...Assets) .

Now if only these fine people would all start posting more often! And keep it candid or provocative, like Abhijit.

Maybe set an example to juniors on the fine line between honest blogging and a little too honest blogging which ultimately creates problems for HR!

Monday, August 27, 2007

Update on IIM Shillong

Just noticed, it's Rajiv Gandhi Indian Institute of Management Shillong. RGIIM? As anyone who's attended an IIT or IIM would know the acronym 'RG' is strangely ironic!

Actually more than the name it's the location which will RG this new effort. That's what happened to IIM Kozhikode. In an insightful column published in Mint Premchand Palety notes :

There is no direct flight from Delhi to Kozhikode. The only Indian Airlines flight goes via Mumbai and it takes six hours. After the usual delay, the flight finally landed in Kozhikode...

...From the airport, it is a 45-minute drive to the IIM-K, which is located at Kunnamangalam, a small town famous for a large number of small, green hills. Situated on two hillocks, the institute is a great place for nature lovers... Had the government set up a resort there instead of an IIM, it would have been an instant success.

Based on feedback from students, faculty and a former director Palety concludes:

“Setting an IIM in a place so far away from industry is a mistake. Setting the same campus in Cochin would have been a relatively better idea.”

I'm guessing the next best option for an IIM Shillong is to combine placements with an IIM Calcutta. But what about faculty? Once again it boils down to social objectives over practical ones. But that's the pound of flesh the government takes for its funding.

So where would I recommend setting up new IITs/ IIMs? In the general proximity of large metros. For example: New Bombay or Pune (near Mumbai), Gurgaon, Jaipur or Chandigarh (near Delhi). Even a destination like Goa with great connectivity.

Meanwhile if we can have an RGIIM we can well imagine an RTIIM (Ratan Tata IIM), SMIIM (Sunil Mittal IIM) and so on and so forth. After all who were 'Harvard' and 'Stanford' but wealthy donors?

More IITs, IIMs: how, why, when

On the 60th anniversary of India’s independence Prime Minister Manmohan Singh announced spelt out his vision for eradicating poverty. This vision rests on ‘a revolution in the field of modern education in the next few years’. And it encompasses:

6,000 new “high quality” schools
370 colleges in districts with low enrollment rates
30 new Central universities
5 Indian Institutes of Science Education and Research
20 Indian Institutes of International Technology
And the icing on the cake…
7 new IIMs, 8 IITs

But let’s forget the specifics of the announcement and look deeper into the spirit behind it. The connection between getting an education and getting out of poverty is finally clear. Not just to the classes, but the masses.

The mai baap sarkar can finally move away from the promise of the occasional fish, to say, “We’ll teach you how to fish instead.” The aam aadmi recognizes there’s an ocean of Opportunity out there . And that an education is the modern fishing boat with which the next generation will chart New Economy waters.

So far, so good. But when and how will this vision translate into reality? Last heard the government was agreed on putting all its eggs in the primary education basket, Most notably, Sarva Shiksha Abhiyaan. Why then is there talk of more IITs and IIMs?

The kindest explanation is that the vision is a far sighted one. When you send more and more kids to school, there will be increased demand for good colleges. And so, the government steps in and expands capacity.

The more cynical explanation is that IITs and IIMs are like the Taj Mahal. While the monument of love is one of the seven wonders of the world, the IITs and IIMs are one of the few wonders of modern India.

These institutes stand for excellence. For ‘merit’. For fairness and incorruptability. The IITs and IIMs are symbolic of the Great Indian Dream. Dimaag ki taakat aur mehnat se har koi is mukaam par pahunch sakta hai. Money or power have no role to play.

Of course, this belief is not strictly true. Access to good coaching (esp for IITs) and fluency in English (esp for IIMs) make a helluva lot of difference. But there is enough popular folklore of poor but brilliant and hard working young men and women who made it to these institutes to give the common man a feeling, “Perhaps I could too.”

The value of a lofty goal in firing the imagination - is never to be underestimated.

Nitty gritties
But how will the government itself get these projects off the ground? To frame it like the typical CAT question:

If 6 IIMs : 60 years
Then 7 IIMs : ? years

Let’s take a look at the case of IIM Shillong for the answer. The proposal to set up an IIM in the Northeast (either Guwahati or Shillong) goes back to the year 2004. The actual IIM – in Shillong – is to come up in the year 2008.

However, things might be changing. The Planning Commission is to meet on August 28 to discuss several important education related issues. The Plan panel proposes to increase public spending on education to around 5 per cent of GDP from the present level of 3.79 per cent. The panel is also expected to take a decision on funding of the newly proposed IIMs, IITs.

One of the proposals put forth is to set up 4 of the proposed 7 new IIMs in the public-private partnership (PPP) mode.

The term ‘public-private partnerships’ in brings to mind infrastructure: roads, bridges, airports and such like. The cost of the project and onus of development is shared between the government and the private party. And the private party, in return, gets a share of the spoils.

I am, however, unclear how such an arrangement would work when it comes to education. Apart from the philanthropic angle (“let’s give back to the community’) and prestige value, how would the ‘returns’ kick in?

And would private involvement necessarily make the IIMs more ‘autonomous’?

Vested interests
"The IIMs should be granted autonomy and they should not depend on the government for funds," said Rahul Bajaj, Chairman of Bajaj group and a member of Parliament in a recent interview.

"Till these IIMs depend on the government for funds, the government will
have the right to take decisions for them," he added.

Mr Bajaj’s statement implies that non-governmental funds will be completely free of vested interest. But nothing could be farther from the truth! The American university system, funded by wealthy donors and alumni, for example, is actually bhai bhatijawaad and paisa power at its worst.

The stench of money and influence has long been concealed by the heady fragrance of ‘High Up There’ college brand name. But a recent book by Pulitzer Prize winning Wall Stret Journal reporter Daniel Golden painstakingly unmasks it all.

‘The Price of Admission’
chronicles how America’s ruling class buys its way into elite colleges. And ‘who gets left outside the gates’. Now I was dimly aware that universities Harvard let in a few rich kids whose great grandfathers may have donated a building or two to the college. But the book tells you just how many such rich kids make their way in – and how. And the numbers are shocking, to say the least.

The book offers insights on:
- “How the ‘Z list’ make the ‘A list’” (or how losers like Albert Gore jr make it to Harvard.)

- “Recruiting the Rich” – how Duke university built its corpus by admitting kids of wealthy parents who pledged to donate substantial monies to the college. These applicants are actually referred to as “development cases”.

- “A break for faculty brats” – Free and easy entry for children of professors

- “Rise of the Upperclass Athelete”- by offering ‘scholarships’ for sports like fencing, rowing and polo, colleges create an easy entry route for elite, white, private school applicants.

And oh, that’s just the tip of the iceberg. The biggest scam so to speak is ‘legacy enrollment’. Or preference given to sons and daughters of alumni. To quote an example, “Harvard, America’s oldest university, admitted 63% of its applicants in 1952. Half a century later, it admitted just 11% of applicants overall – but 40% of legacy candidates”.

And these kids are certainly displacing very bright but non-connected candidates. Most legacies have lower SAT scores and less impressive high school records. A few are downright embarassments.

The Ivy League boasts a lofty ‘need blind’ admission process. But the process ensures that only 3 to 11% of students in these most selective colleges come from the lowest income quartile in the first place.

Golden notes: “Legacy preference provides affluent families with a form of insurance from one generation to the next, which might in turn lead to a decline in wealth and power. Just as English peers hold hereditary seats in the House of Lords, so the American nobility reserves slots at Harvard, Yale, Princeton and other august universities.”

Over the years the alumni donation-offspring admission nexus has become firmly established. Alumni contributed $ 7.5 billion to higher education in 2005, representing 27.7% of all private donations to colleges. No college dares rock the boat!

Clearly corporates, alumni and wealthy donors take a generous share of cookies from the cookie jar. In much the same way as our government has been demanding more and more ‘quotas’.

It could happen here
In India, we’ve historically had two distinct breeds of colleges: the Merit based and the Donation based. Government established colleges like IITs, IIMs, NID, NIFTs, IHMs lead the ‘merit’ brigade. The premier government run engineering and medical colleges also fall in this category.

However, of this lot I think only the IITs and IIMs (and perhaps NID) can boast of never admitting a politician’s son or daughter under duress.

On the opposite side of the spectrum are private institutions where, officially, there is a management quota. Under this quota, most institutes will admit just about anyone who can pay enough money. The smart ones – like a Harvard or Yale - strike a balance between merit entry and money entry. But the short sighted and the greedy go all out for the moolah.

Such colleges fail to attract top notch students and while they may be profitable businesses, their sphere of influence remains stunted.

The bottomline is: Education brands require investment and long term vision. Promoters must build facilities, foundations, faculty and freedoms that result in individual advancement as well as a greater common good.

In the context of India, that good lies in IITs and IIMs remaining islands of ‘merit’. Untouched by quotas – whether government, or ‘management’. We need these ‘Taj Mahals’, to keep our faith in an otherwise fallible system. To keep alive the dream of Ultimate Upward Mobility – for all.

Sons and daughters of IIM grads, IIM profs, mediamen, moguls and mantris – there’s always Harvard and Yale if your kid can’t clear the CAT.

Sunday, August 26, 2007

'Bombay Lawyers': avoidable!

Caught an episode of Bombay Lawyers, NDTV's recent foray into fiction programming. The idea is great and so is the choice of subject. NDTV and 'legal drama' is plausible.

Unfortunately the show is really, really bad. All the actors, barring Mita Vashisht are unknowns. Which is okay except they just can't bloody act. That's probably why the camera keeps a safe distance from their chehras. Imagine a drama in long-shots!

There's plenty of great American shows in this genre. Starting from the one and only L.A. Law to Picket Fences and Ally McBeal. More recently we've had Boston Legal. A variation on the law firm angle is Law and Order: Special Victims Unit which starts from the criminal investigation and ends in the courtroom.

The trick is to create unique and memorable characters who people care about, and weave in unique and interesting cases. Bombay Lawyers lacks both.

Imagine a case where a husband and wife are 'colluding' to get a quick divorce. The judge smells a rat and asks the lawyer to investigate. Turns out the husband is dying and would rather leave behind a woman who is a divorcee. "Kyunki hamare samaaj mein widhwa hona aaj bhi ek kalank hai."

Uh huh.

In an era of 'breaking news'... spicily packaged facts are more interesting than badly acted fiction!

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Brand baaja

Heard a song on the radio the other day. Thought it was pretty cool and idly wondered who the singer might be.

Then I catch the same song on TV and ... shudder. It's Abhijeet 'Indian Idol' Sawant. Full marks for earnest effort. Zero for guy-who-sings-whom-girls-swoon-over. Apna Ahijeet, boy next door, does not make a convincing singer of soulful ballads. Yes, the 'brand' does matter. Ears aren't impartial, they take a cue from the eyes.

A recent study in the US revealed that food in McDonald's wrappers tasted better to kids.

McDonald's-labeled samples were the clear favorites. French fries were the biggest winner; almost 77 percent said the labeled fries tasted best while only 13 percent preferred the others.

Surprisingly, 54% preferred McDonald's-wrapped carrots versus 23 % who liked the plain-wrapped sample. If I were McDonalds I might just add a stalk or two of salad or fresh fruit and offer a 'Healthy Happy Meal'. More attracive to parents!

The bottomline is branding is everywhere, and it's almost everything. Sure, many of us now buy generic products for the cost saving but in that case we put our trust in the store or retailer selling the item. "Usne rakha hai to theek hi hoga".

Which brings me to the curious case of Axis bank. The renaming exercise of UTI Bank looms large on the Mumbai skyline these days. "Everything is same except for the name" explains the hoarding, featuring two identical twins.

I couldn't for the life of me understand the logic behind the campaign. I mean the name was a huge part of the attraction of UTI Bank - 'UTI' being embedded in the public consciousness as a trustoworthy institution. Despite the sad state US64 was eventually reduced to.

IDBI Bank, ICICI Bank, HDFC Bank, UTI Bank - all three had this mix of 'we are old, but we are new' kind of image. Of course ICICI and HDFC are way ahead of the other two in many respects. The UTI branch I visited a couple of years ago was so public sectorish I decided against opening an account even though the location was ultra convenient.

If it really had to change I would have hoped other things would be tackled. The name was not really a problem!

Then I read this piece in Mint and discovered why someone would go to all this trouble. They didn't have a choice...

The bank had to change the name before a January 2008 deadline; that’s till when it had the rights to use the brand name of its erstwhile parent, the Unit Trust of India. UTI Bank was hived off from UTI in 2002.

“The last time a bank actually changed its name in circumstances that did not involve a merger or a takeover was in 1955 when Imperial Bank was renamed State Bank of India,” says Hemant Kaul, head, retail banking, Axis Bank.

A senior executive from a media-buying firm estimates ad spends for the name-change campaign to be in the region of Rs10 crore. Then there’s the cost involved in changing signages at 580 branches and 2,157 ATMs.

Why Axis?

The new name, experts say, will help the bank shed its unintended association with public sector banks and also give it an modern, global feel that could appeal to younger consumers.

I'm afraid the word 'axis' was hardly the most modern or global choice. The bank chairman, P J Nayak, is apparently a mathematics buff and just might have used head over heart when it came to name selection. Although even the head bit might have been exercised more. Looking at the problems...

For example, they did not anticipate how difficult it would be to write a word like 'Axis' in 17 different languages. It took quite a while to get the maatras right.

Ah, the pleasure and the pain of branding!

Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Too much, too soon...

My daughter celebrated her 8th birthday on Sunday. Yes, the party was at home and there was no magician/ juggler/ fancy caterer.

The kids played games involving a lot of jumping around and they later ate cheese sandwich, gulabamuns, mini cutlets, wafers and gobs of cake off a thermacol plate. But the smiles when they left with their return gifts made it worth it all the effort.

Yes, hosting a party at home actually means a helluva lot of effort. The easier option is to go to McDonald or Pizza Hut. Just pay and they take over everything: menu, decoration, games, return gift. "Aaj kal ka fashion bhi to yehi hai," parents nod sagely.

Well, I'm not so sure. A home birthday party is a tradition. It's an excitment that has to be built up. The fun of putting up streamers and balloons the night before. Moving away furniture and planning the games. Deciding which music to play and what food to serve. And in our house, making a very special birthday cake.

I started this tradition when Nivedita was turning four because I wanted her to remember something special I did for her. So we always order one cake from a cake shop and bake one cake at home. It's the same cake every year: heart shaped, chocolate and covered with gems. The ghar ka cake holds its own against the frou frou frosting - most years.

I guess I'm being old fashioned. Recreating the 'just like when we were kids' kind of party. It's just a matter of time before she says,"I'm a big girl now," and wants to organise it differently. Perhaps at a Pizza Hut. And I'm ok with that.

Unless she expects me to host this kind of party. To which the answer is no, nyet, nada, never... period. You have to watch 'My Super Sweet 16' on VH 1 to really understand what I mean. But a wikipedia description should give you an idea:

My Super Sweet 16 is an MTV reality series documenting the travails of upper class teenagers preparing for various coming-of-age birthday parties... Apparent prerequisites for a Super Sweet 16 include:

an outrageous theme no one has thought of
invitations that are "impossible" to replicate
a grand entrance with a gorgeous escort
many glamorous, poster-size photographs
"VIP" group of close friends despite large guest list
one or two designer or specially-made outfits
a well-known musical performer or group
an expensive gift, usually a car

During the planning of the event, the sweet 16er usually gets upset that the parent isn't getting specific details right. In some cases, arguments arise over drapery or center pieces. In other cases, arguments arise over grand entrances, the birthday present, or the musical guest. Usually, it's the parent who is concerned about the cost of specific things, but almost always the sweet 16er states, "But I always get what I want" and does.

The one episode I saw featured 'Sophie', a much-too-plump almost 16 year old planning a Moulin Rouge theme party. Highlights of the show included:
- the girl swearing at her mother while buying her dress (bleep*bleep*bleep)
- snatching an invitation from someone who 'is not invited' (more *bleep* bleep *bleep)
- running after someone who stared at her 'rudely' to ask "why?" (*bleep *bleep *bleep).

She did have the perfect sweet 16 which 'everyone will remember for the longest time and talk about to their grandchildren'. Did I mention, she got a brand new BMW as a birthday gift from mommy as well?

Who can blame Sophie if her parents want her to have 'everything' as soon as she possibly can? If they can stand her abuse and her tantrums and try to buy her love only through 'stuff'. Which you can never get enough of. And which is not what you really need or want.

What Sophie clearly wanted was to be loved, admired and seen as popular. And there are other ways to achieve that. Money is a convenient shortcut but it has nothing to do with who you are. Money is camouflage used by a person who thinks no one will love and appreciate 'the real me'. Sooner or later, it stops working.

Which brings me to the tragic case of 16 year old Adnan Patrawala. 'Living with parents, party every night' reads his orkut profile. And now, orkut is being blamed for the boy being lured to his death. Ironically, one of Adnan's testimonials online is titled: 'Shootout at Orkutwala'.

The website may well have been the medium of entrapment. But the magnet was the lifestyle. Midday reports:

According to police sources, Adnan use to spend huge amount on his friends from Versova and Millat Nagar. “For the last couple of months, he was seen spending time in bad company. He was big-hearted and often spent thousands of rupees playing video and poker at entertainment parlours.

Though, he was not an adult and had no driving licence, he participated in friendly races in his Skoda on Express Highway,” a source who knew Adnan said.

Sophie and Adnan live continents apart but they're really very similar. Sadly, one kid's money bought fame in life. While the other's brought fame in death... God bless the poor kid's soul.

Monday, August 13, 2007

Cultural Blues

Sunday afternoons can be spent in many ways. A visit to the Chhatrapati Maharaj Vastu Sangrahalaya (formerly known as Prince of Wales museum) should not be one of them.

I have a dim memory of visiting the museum in class 2. Kids in uniform and ribboned up chotis walking along in single file. No idea what I saw but I remember the feeling "never again!"

Not much has changed. As an adult I can see there are some spectacular examples of Gandhara art. And a lot of other neaty displayed items of historical and cultural significance. But 15 minutes after entering I am exhausted and listless.

Is it the gloomy lighting, the lack of air conditioning or most importantly, the question,"How does this all matter?"

The classification of things has clearly been made from an academic's viewpoint. There's little or no attempt to excite the ordinary visitor.

You can hire an 'audio guide', of course. This guide comes free with the ticket for foreigners (who pay Rs 300). While Indians who get in on payment of Rs 15 must pay Rs 200 separately.

But that's besides the point.

All great museums are places which showcase the past, but make it come alive. Living monuments like an Aamer fort or Versailles palace of course, have it easier than museums which collect and display stuff from all. That's because you close your eyes and almost feel what it might have been like to be a king 400 years ago. Whereas a musuem only gives you the bits and pieces.

Then again when you enter va great museum there is a sense of grandeur. The British Museum , for example. On a 2 month internship in London I visited and fell in love with it. Of course I knew that many of the exhibits had been plundered and brought back to Britain. Which is why I felt no guilt about not making a voluntary donation which visitors are encouraged to make. (There is no official entry fee).

Another problem with the Prince of Wales museum: there is no Star Exhibit. That one thing everyone has heard of and has to see. The Louvre has the Mona Lisa, the Egyptian Museum 'Tutankhamen'. Yahan yeh bhi hai, woh bhi hai koi Shahrukh Khan nahin.

Agreed, all museums don't have the funding or a 'loot lo and add to your collection' advantage. But surely an effort can be made to connect with the aam junta. Nehru Science Centre for example, is no match to any really great science exhibit in the world. It could be far better maintained and much more innovative. But they are at least trying.

The Victorial Memorial in Kolkata is another fine example. Their exhibit on the 'History of Calcutta' is amazingly and interestingly put together. No wonder it attracts the maximum crowd. However, discount some of it. This is the only section which boasts of air conditioning :)

Lastly, museums are perhaps the shauk of advanced civilisations. Or the final resting place of dead ones. The Egyptian Museum in Cairo showcases a lost culture about which there is constant curiosity value. The things you see in Prince of Wales are not that strange or unknown. Sure, that Buddha statue or miniature painting may be 1000 years old but a similar (knock off version) might very well exist in your home.

Our culture is a living and breathing culture. Unfortunately the museum is suffocating.

Disqus for Youth Curry - Insight on Indian Youth