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Woman Of Influence: Punita Kumar-Sinha

Ranjani Saigal

Punita Kumar-Sinha is the Founder and Managing Partner, Pacific Paradigm Advisors, an independent investment advisory and management firm. She serves on the Board of two publicly listed companies, JSW Steel and Srei Infrastructure Finance. She is also an Investment Committee member of Srei Infrastructure Finance. During her 23 year career in Boston, Punita worked at several leading investment firms in senior management roles. Prior to founding Pacific Paradigm Advisors in 2012, she was a Senior Managing Director of Blackstone Group and Chief Investment Officer of Blackstone Asia Advisors.  

Her investing career on Wall Street has been featured, among other places, on the cover of Savvy and in the book Corporate Divas (showcasing the life stories of leading Indian corporate women). Punita has spoken on career growth topics to various professional women’s groups such as 100 Women in Hedge Funds and Asian Women in Business. Punita has also been frequently featured in the media, including: The Financial Times, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Barron’s, Forbes, CNN, CNBC, Fox News, Star News, Bloomberg, ET NOW and The Economic Times. She has recently hosted shows on ET NOW on economic issues related to the global economy and India.   
Punita has a Ph.D. and a Masters in Finance from the Wharton School, University of Pennsylvania.  She received her undergraduate degree in Chemical Engineering with distinction from the Indian Institute of Technology, Delhi.  She has an MBA and is also a CFA Charter holder. Punita is a member of the Council on Foreign Relations and was a Board member of TiE-Boston.  Punita has been awarded the prestigious “Distinguished Alumni Award” from IIT Delhi.

Punita was born in Delhi was raised in a joint family. A competitive athlete in high school, she was a ranked long jumper in Delhi. She is an accomplished stage performer having acted in many plays in college and danced in troupes in Boston and Delhi. Punita is married to Jayant Sinha, a Partner at Omidyar Network; they have two sons: Rishabh and Aashir.

It was delightful to learn about the life and career of fellow female IIT alum and to discover the commonalities and differences in the navigation of our post IIT life.

Despite having a Chemical Engineering degree, why did you decide to take on a career in finance? 

Well, when I went to IIT Delhi, there were very few women at the Institute. We were just 4 girls in our batch of 250 and I was the only one in my class of 50 in the first two years. In Chemical Engineering, which we specialized in after the first two years, I found that both Professors and employers stereotyped women by putting them in roles that did not require much fieldwork. An example was in our Design course where the Professor asked me to make a Chapatti maker because that is the only design women should be thinking about!  When we looked for jobs, most employers posted “girls need not apply,” and most of the jobs were in R&D roles. So I interned for firms like Larsen and Toubro and Engineers India in their R&D groups, I quickly realized that if I wanted a fulfilling career, I needed to switch professions.  However, I did want to leverage my analytical and math skills so I decided to come to the US to do a business degree.  While doing business, I found that I really enjoyed finance and chose that as my career.

You have been very successful as a woman in investment management making it to senior management in several Wall Street firms. What is the secret to your success? 

My parent's blessings and my husband’s support has been an important factor in whatever success I have achieved. Like most professional careers, working in Finance is intense and requires substantial time commitment. Working 24*7 in some of the firms I worked at was part of the culture. Having a supportive husband, parents, and in-laws to help with the children was critical for me to be able to put in my best at work. 

I was also fortunate to be working on Funds that had an independent board unrelated to the companies I worked at. That helped during periods of organizational transition and when there was M&A at the companies I worked at, I was able to maintain continuity and expansion of my business unit.

What advice would you give women trying to follow your career path?

Generally speaking, I would say that women do well in asset management as performance measurement is quite objective and based on the performance that you deliver in your portfolios. And I would say that it is easier to achieve a good work-life balance in the asset management industry than in some other industries such as management consulting. 

It is possible for people with different profiles to enter the asset management industry, including medicine, as long as you demonstrate the passion to invest and have deep expertise in an industry. From the time I started in asset management till now, there has been a tremendous growth in the number of Indian women who have entered this industry, particularly in Boston. I have noticed that women do better at careers that reward effort, analytical work and insights rather than ones that require a lot of networking and travel. Women also tend to be risk averse, a trait that helps while managing money. 

I would advise women to seek out networking opportunities. Many firms have some sort of “Women’s Initiative” which can work well in getting to know other women in the profession and that can be very helpful. There are a few other programs nationally like “100 Women in Hedge funds” that have interesting lectures and enable women to meet other women in asset management. In New York, the investment banks and “Working Mother” do have women’s networking events where one can get to hear from women in leadership positions. And of course, getting a CFA and being a member of the Boston Security Analysts Society provides both educational and networking opportunities.

What lasting impact do you expect your work to have on the world? 

I would like to believe that I have been part of an extraordinary growth era in India and emerging markets. Capital flows into emerging economies have lifted equity markets, led to investments in great companies, and improved the quality of life of billions of people.  It has been thrilling to be part of this journey and I am sure that there are many more great years ahead!

What are the personal /environmental attributes that have helped you succeed in your career? 

I have always enjoyed doing non-traditional things. So I went to IIT to do engineering. I decided to do a PhD in Finance after an MBA and there too I was the only woman in my class. Then in Finance, I decided to work on emerging markets when they were at the early stages of being discovered and no one was investing in these markets. In fact I worked with the person who coined the term “Emerging Markets” and fortunately I was very passionate about investing in this asset class. So I got to ride the emerging markets wave and as this theme expanded, so did my career. 

And it was quite the same for investing in India. When India opened up to foreign investment very few foreign investors were interested in India, I became one of the first foreign investors to invest in India and that helped me build a unique niche for myself early on in my career. I was also fortunate that being early, I was able to hire my team and chose the people that I would work with. The people you work with can make or break you and I was blessed to have a great team. In summary, carving out your own niche and becoming one of the best at it can make you a valuable contributor and that can greatly help advance your career.

What challenges if any have you faced in your career path?

Everyone faces challenges particularly when one comes to a new country as an immigrant with limited financial resources and it is important to remain tenacious in what one is doing. I have always been very determined about what I wanted to do and that attribute helped me stay the course during tough times. I can never forget how I got my internship at the World Bank/IFC when I was in graduate school. I must have made a 100 calls to almost every group in that Bank, often calling the same person every few weeks to ask them if they were going to hire. That eventually helped and one of them actually remembered my persistence and called me back when a job did open. That provided me a great start in the world of emerging markets. 

When my husband moved to Boston, we did not know anything about the asset management industry in Boston. I had worked in Washington DC at the World Bank/IFC as well as interned in NY at JP Morgan in emerging market investments. I did deep research on various Boston investment firms, searching out those that invested in emerging or international markets. The economy was in a recession then and it appeared that no one was hiring for investing in international or emerging markets. It took a while to break into the Boston asset management industry, and I must say that being an Indian woman was both an advantage and a disadvantage. There were almost no Indians in 1990 in the asset management industry in Boston so I got noticed. The fact that I was doing a PhD at Wharton with a focus on investments as well as my experience in the analysis of emerging economies did help.

I would advise people not to give up and change jobs when they feel that their career is stagnating as these challenging phases happen in every job. We are in an uncertain economic environment where it is better to stay put rather than take unnecessary risks.

What motivated you to host a TV show?  

I felt that after managing an investment business for so many years, I should go beyond just investing and use my capital markets experience in multiple ways. So now I don't just invest, I use that knowledge to help companies as a Board member. 

I also like to share my expertise with the general public on Indian TV. I have been featured regularly in the media in the US and India, and came up with the idea of hosting a TV show in India as I noticed that there was a need for high quality shows on business and economics like the ones we see in the US. But of course I had to customize it for an Indian audience. You can watch some episodes from the two series that I have done “Global Insights” and “Hot Sectors” on YouTube now.

You and your husband have extremely busy lives. What is the secret to your maintaining a work-life balance? 

I don’t think there is a good definition of work-life balance since work-life balance means different things to different people. I think we have struggled through this journey like many others, making difficult trade-offs and compromises at various points in our life. Our toughest time was when my husband got into HBS and moved to Boston a few months after I had my first child and I was doing my PhD at Wharton. Neither of us was earning then and so we had to send our baby to India for six months to be with grandparents while I made the transition to Boston, found a job, and continued with my PhD.

My husband has always traveled extensively and so we hired sufficient help so that we could focus on our work and the children. One thing that did help was having two children very far apart (my children are 11 years apart) and at any given time we were only bringing up one child versus two young kids together.  As my husband says "we have a lot of experience bringing up single kids!" 

What is your approach to parenting? Do you have any special advice for women on parenting sons? 

Like other kids, my boys also had to confront a somewhat traditional image of what mothers are supposed to do for their children. At school, they saw other mothers pick up kids from school and attend lots of their activities and they compared me to their friend's mothers. It took considerable effort to explain to them that I was a working mother and therefore could not do these things but that did not mean that I loved them less. When my older son, Rishabh, grew up, he became much more appreciative of my career and more respectful of women. And he learnt to become independent from an early age, which is something that he now appreciates! Having had two boys I have realized that sons really need their fathers in their adolescent years. They also tend to bond better with their dads, as they grow older. 
Who are the women who you admire?

I admire the next generation of Indian women growing up in the US. These women are adept at fitting into American life, while staying true to Indian culture. They have a lot of Indian friends, learn Indian dance, go to Shishu Bharti, while doing very well at all the things required of American girls at school! They are so versatile and have developed great interpersonal skills. 

Are there male mentors who have helped shape your life? 

It's not easy to find great male mentors. Fortunately, my father, whom I greatly admired, has been a great mentor for all of us in the extended family. I have also had a few great bosses who entrusted me with a lot of responsibility and it would help if more male bosses did that with women. It was particularly useful for me to find good female mentors and leverage their relationships with their male mentors.

What kind of support have you valued most from your husband? 

My husband has provided incredible support and been my closest friend. He has always wanted me to follow my professional career and has supported me every step of the way. While he has had a very demanding career too, he has been deeply involved in bringing up our boys and looking after our home. He has been more than an equal partner in terms of housework and our domestic life. Also, he has provided me valuable advice on many professional and business issues throughout my career.

What support from you has your husband valued the most?

My husband says I keep him grounded and prevent him from taking undue risks. He also appreciates that I keep track of all the important details in our busy lives. I hope that he thinks of me as a sounding board for his professional work.

When there were low points in your life, what advice did you value the most to pull through? 

Best piece of advice I received - “When things are tough, the tough get going.” I try to follow that mantra but it is not easy. Also, as my husband says to me in my low moments: “put one foot in front of another and keep going!”

Do you have a fitness/spiritual routine that you would like to share? 

I am terrible at anything that requires a set routine. I love to swim, dance, and do yoga and I keep alternating between these. I am spiritually inclined and recite the Hanuman Chalisa and Devi mantras when I can. I also follow some rituals like observing Navratri and Karva Chauth.

What do you like to do for fun? 

I love to dance since that helps me unwind and relax. For many years I was part of the dance troupe “Srijan” in Boston and we performed at many occasions. I enjoy collecting art and other interesting artifacts although now I have run out of space in my house so I have to stop! I love to shop and delight in looking for deals. We enjoy traveling to exotic places. I also love to watch Indian soap operas. 

Any special words of wisdom for women? 

We should try to achieve balance and fulfillment in life through family life, work, and personal hobbies.  

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