From the 'pizza delivery girl' to the world's top 50 women in business list
Updated: Jul 9, 2018
Manisha Girotra, with her unmissable Hepburn-like disposition, walks into the conference room of the 15th floor office of Moelis, in Mumbai's Indiabulls tower, and I quickly spruce up to greet her formally. Within 10 seconds, I realised that my little drill was unnecessary. Our ice-breaker, as it turns out, wasn't about the once face of UBS Bank, the puppeteer of many a big-ticket M&A deal that forever altered the landscape of their industries, the golfer, mentor, women's rights champion; no, she made it about me; a mere three-year-old fish in the pond, and my dreams and aspirations.
That was when I learned my first big lesson about her – she had reached this pedestal by becoming a true insider to one's story, and hence, masterminding deals that both entities thrive in. And this characteristic also extends to her interactions as a woman leader – she has taken under her wings, in her personal climb, every woman she meets along the way.
As our time coincides with the Indian business ecosystem at its most fluid state, while it metamorphosises to accommodate a flurry of small and big players, a trait that will define the winners of this generation would be knowing how to raise big money, even while making good money oneself. While Manisha's professional prowess has never left the limelight, our conversation took a more candid turn. Here is the story, not only of her laurels, but also her tussles:
A middle-class upbringing
Fortysix-year-old Manisha's cornerstones were a father constantly rooting for her to excel, and a household where all the women went to work with no frills about it – it was utterly normalised. After getting a post-graduate degree from Delhi School of Economics, she was among a group of 50 that Grindlays Bank had freshly hired. What's more, she was absorbed in their investment banking division.
“As a gold medallist from DSE, I thought I’m going to change the world’s economic cycles. But my first job was making stock statements for companies - I had to register if they had 2,000 pencils, 200 tables, 30 fans,” she recounts. Her second gig at Grindlays was just as disenchanting; besides stock statements, she occasionally doubled up as the pizza delivery girl.
But, in retrospect, she wouldn't have traded up for anything in the world. “They train you through all the aspects of business and want you to see what it takes to build one. And you hang in there until people build more confidence around you,” she says.
'Hanging in there'
Hanging in there, she says, are the magic words. For Manisha saw that while the gender ratio in education was intact—her own course at DSE, had about 40 percent women, after all—once out of college, women opted for roles that had a 'nurturing' quality to them - like teaching or nursing. “Several women I knew would fall off the wagon with marriage, their husbands moving away etc. It was very difficult –people always thought, 'who is this strange creature', and assumed I was the secretary,” she recalls, adding, “People just wouldn’t take you seriously. Having complex conversations around and with women about mergers, acquisitions, fundraising was always an unnerving experience for both parties.”
Her job required her to shuttle between Delhi and London. She had good days and bad days. “Clients would not shake my hands and gave me a namaste instead, asked me awkward questions about when I was getting married etc. I’d be like, 'I’m not here to talk about that!'”
Old game, new player
Manisha was married at 24. But the long hours weren't alien to her husband, Sanjay Agarwal, who today heads the corporate finance business at Deutsche Bank, India. She was even posted to Mumbai for a while, while her husband's job was in Delhi. “No one really had any faith in the concept of long-distance marriage, but it would have meant passing up on a promotion – so, Sanjay urged me to go for it,” she says. Manisha thus stuck around for a year more in Mumbai, and a few more years at Grindlays, which opened up the floodgates for her stint at UBS Bank - again, in investment banking. This would go on to be her longest stint yet, where she would spend 20 years of her life.
By the time she was 33, Manisha had escalated up the ranks to become the CEO at UBS. “Besides my upbringing - where even placing second in class called for deep introspection, I feel I reached this level also because I had consistency, I built relationships and I kept going, while never taking breaks,” she says, of the stellar climb.
This major event in her life coincided with another equally significant start - the birth of her daughter, Tara. However, Manisha welcomed this delightful storm, well-prepared and with open arms “The initial grind and 20-hour days would have made raising a child impossible, but I had her 10 years into my career, when there was more certainty to my days,” she says. And yet, in her entire professional life of 25 years, that was easily the most challenging time, she admits. “The maternity leave then was only three months. After month four, my daughter would get ready and pack up for work with me, and I would tuck her away in a hotel next to the office, and all day I'd juggle nursing her and work,” she remembers.
At the time, crèches were as unheard of as they were considered an unnecessary expenditure - but subsequently, Manisha initiated the conversation and spearheaded their construction at all the companies she came to work at. And gradually, at work and at home, she had built a support system so that people would help and pitch in, which, she says, is the sole reason she survived the grind of being a 'momporate' leader.
The machine delivered, but that is not to say that it wasn't creaky. Manisha's decisions were laden with her own guilt, and then some from family members who pitched in, but somewhat grudgingly and judgingly. “My mother-in-law supported me working, but because our mums were such good homemakers, they expected us to ace both! I once came back after cracking an $18-20-billion deal to my daughter who had to take some puppets to school the next day. My mom made me make those puppets from 3 -7 am arguing that I simply had to do it; it was my job. I asked her, 'what about Sanjay?' and she simply went, 'Sanjay can’t do all this. Poor guy, he’s also tired.' As if I’d just breezed my way back home, and that jetlag doesn’t affect women,” she says with delectable sarcasm.
At times like that, when your daughter is running a temperature but you have to catch that plane to New York, the guilt, she says, is heart-wrenching. But one must learn to reconcile it. “Here’s the truth – it's all in your mind. If the baby has someone caring for them, like your mother or any other nurturing figure, they'll be just fine! It’s really your head that you need to sort out- tell yourself that your work actually makes you a better mom, just like providing for their family makes a man a better dad,” Manisha says.
After 20 years of dedicated service, Manisha left UBS to help her ex-boss set up Moelis. At that time, a lot of large banks were in turmoil given the sub-prime issue, and she had a good working relationship with him. So, she took this opportunity. Sceptics emerged, as UBS was an established name, but Moelis' Indian arm was just a debutant. “But, I felt like I had to reinvent myself, and I was ready to take this on,” she says.
She was invigorated, and yet, torn. After all, in her 20 years at UBS, the offers never did stop pouring in, but Manisha didn't bat an eyelid. Making job shifts is even more difficult for women, she feels. “As women, you tend to get fiercely loyal to your employers - because our jobs and companies become extensions of our lives,” she says.
She was starting from ground zero. It was her, a secretary and a computer, after heading an organisation of 15,000 people. “When we set up Moelis, it was terribly difficult times in the economy; there was a market slowdown, which was actually conducive for us as it bought us more time to find our feet,” she recalls.
On top, and not alone this time
In the post-Moelis era of her career in financial services, women weren't than uncommon a sight. “The new sectors are so programmed to women- whether it’s IT, journalism, banking, retail, these are skewed towards women as employees, which is great, because we have higher EQ as well as IQ. But, structurally, the world is not used to women being on top. So, you’re still dealing with biases in your own home – where you struggle to find acceptance that you are as much of a breadwinner as a man,” Manisha notes.
She feels that our rapidly evolving economy is edging toward being a services economy, and in that bid, women make for better players, because women are inherently empathetic. So, it’s always a more pleasant experience dealing with a woman. “I hope that organisations understand that we do not need women to become clones of their male counterparts and emulate their qualities. Organisations need to see value in letting women be themselves, retain their core qualities, become leaders for those qualities and receive respect for what they are,” she explains.
Besides, putting women on top will have a trickle-down effect, according to her. Women are far more comfortable talking about a lot more issues -- bringing work to home, maternity, paternity etc. “Men find it immensely hard to say they want to go for a parent-teacher meeting, but women wouldn’t hesitate, and women bosses wouldn’t look down upon that. I’ll tell you this -- if my daughter has 102-degree fever, I break much faster than my husband would. I need more empathy from my bosses at that point or I will flip. Women would, thus, make it a more holistic environment,” she points out.
In fact, Manisha believes in giving women a conscious impetus, so that they can undo the centuries of setbacks inflicted on them, and get an equal shot at winning the race. “Women should be promoted – I feel it also helps in the home ecosystem because success brings you more worth and credibility in the eyes of family as well. My daughter will learn from that want to aspire to that level someday. And women need all the help to be promoted to break away from the feudal mindsets that we have been victims of, and all of us must take responsibility. And when you show the required empathy to a woman employee, give her the required impetus, like I said, they will remember, stay fiercely loyal, and become prized employees. It's not altruism, trust me – it's good economics,” she opines.
The Manisha few know
So, Moelis is in its fifth year – India is in a good spot, there’s a lot of M&A activity, with domestic as well as international investors coming in, or Indian investors who want to buy companies overseas. Manisha has been at the helm and nexus of multitudes of big-ticket deals – like Vodafone’s acquisition of Hutchison Essar, United Spirits' buyout of Whyte & Mackey, Hindalco’s deal to acquire Novelis, or the disinvestment of public sector petrochemicals firm Indian Petrochemicals Corporation Limited and its subsequent merger with Reliance Industries.
She is also on the advisory board of companies like Ashok Leyland, Mindtree Pvt. Ltd and Paris-based construction firm Technip. Out of these, the manufacturing company she is part of is a sea of men, and the mentorship she provides there to the women becomes especially crucial. “As a young woman, what you can do is to not feel singled out by the system as a victim. Acknowledge and accept that it will be hard, and tell yourself that there is no option but to keep going come what may, and blaze your trails while you are at it,” she says.
An avid golfer since she was little, Manisha still plays a quick nine-holes once a week, while her daughter and husband are tennis loyals. Her daughter also doubles up as her second boss and mentor. On their last holiday, she asked Manisha with a striking sense of authority, what kind of PnL Manisha was preparing for Moelis! “She is a complete insider, and is proud of the fact that I am a successful working mom. She's helped me have a pleasant work-life balance. Today, she'll be the most horrified if I was at home doing nothing,” she quips.