‘I thrive on intellectual challenges’, Lavanya Ashok, Private Equity, Goldman Sachs

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yourstory_LavanyaAshok_InsideArticle2Lavanya Ashok is an unconventional finance junkie. She is lively, vivacious, full of energy, open to conversation and loves her work. She is the Vice President & Executive Director Private Equity at Goldman Sachs. She joined the team in India as employee number three, returning to India to contribute to the economy after finishing her MBA from Stanford Graduate School of Business.

She sits on the boards of Nova Medical Centers and Global Beverages & Foods. She derives a special thrill when her companies and their products impact lives of thousands of Indians, and she believes that good companies can impact India in a meaningful way. Lavanya left India when she was 18 to pursue undergraduate degree from the Wharton School.

What makes Lavanya’s story so compelling and inspiring? What makes her push boundaries every time and seek something challenging? Let’s find out in this open-heart interview with HerStory -

HS: Tell us about where you grew up.

LA: I grew up in Bangalore and Mumbai. We moved to Bangalore when I was 6, so most of my memories are from Bangalore. The happiest part of my childhood was the time I spent with my grandparents, and the birth of my little brother. He is nine years younger than me, and is the first person who has really expanded my heart and made me a much happier and better person.

My parents, who met in IIM Bangalore, were both working, thus my grandparents played a very big role in my upbringing. In Mumbai, I grew up with my paternal grandparents, and in Bangalore, my brother and I grew up with our maternal grandparents. They have given me my best memories.

I admire my mother for joining a business school during her time despite coming from a small town in Bihar (she is a South Indian, but she grew up there). She was one of the six women of her batch at IIM B and that’s where she met my dad. She is always an inspiration. She had a long illustrious career in finance, and even worked through both her pregnancies. She now heads a non-profit in Bangalore called BPAC. At a time when society did not take kindly to working women, my dad, in his mid 40s, decided that he wanted to be an independent consultant so that he could spend more time with the family, and really let my mom’s career flourish. I feel it was a very radical choice for someone of that generation. Both my parents are very inspiring and have been excellent role models for my brother and me.

HS: What are some significant learnings that have stayed with you from your upbringing?

LA: Whatever you do, work really hard and try to be very good at it. Try out as many experiences and things and find out what it is that really makesyour heart sing. I think that the vision that my parents had of exposing us to many different things has stayed with me. I tried to learn music but I can’t carry a tune to even save my life. I tried dance and theatre too. I went on until I found something I loved.

One thing I have learned from my grandparents is finding what’s good about tradition and preserving it.

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HS: You left for the US to study when you were 18? It is very unconventional. What led you to make this decision?

LA: I left India at 18 to pursue undergraduate studies in the US. That decision really led to my career track. I love India and I thought this was the place that I would always call home. I went to Frank Anthony Public School where no one was looking at college options abroad. So like a lot of other people I started doing undergrad in India at Mt Carmel College in Bangalore. That was my mom’s alma mater, so I thought that was a good starting point. I enrolled for a degree in commerce, finance, and accounting.

This was in 1999, when we were still learning about nationalization of banks and it had been eight years since the economy had opened up. I was used to taking up intellectual challenges as a kid, and I didn’t find college as stimulating as I expected it to be. The curriculum in India is pretty rigid, once you sign up for a path, there is no turning back. So I thought I should take a chance and apply to UPenn for undergraduate studies at the Wharton School. I extricating myself from a situation that I thought was not optimal.

Taking advantage of all the opportunities I got has really shaped my career path.

I had never been to the US before. I was shocked by everything. But what I was most shocked by was the level of academic rigor. In India, once you learn the ropes of a system you can get by. We have learning for an exam but not learning for its own sake. We had a lot of debt. I was the eldest child, and my parents had another child to educate, and they were normal working middle class Indians. Perhaps that fueled me to work really hard. I feel that I loved the way the US academic system worked; the pedagogy was excellent, as was the variety of subjects I could choose from. I majored in economics, but out of personal interest I took classes in psychology, in criminology, economic history of China and India etc.

HS: You have found a career that fulfills you. What is your advice to younger women on career choices?

LA: Talk to as many people as possible who are in the industry. Do lots of internships even if they are unpaid. Show up and ask people if you can help them, more often than not people do not say no to a helping hand. Don’t hesitate to pick up and talk to someone who is doing interesting work and ask them if you could help in anyway.

HS: Despite success at a young age, what keeps you going?

LA: In the longer term what keeps me going is contributing to Indian economy in whatever small way I can. That is why I work in growth equity in India. It is kind of enriching to see our companies impacting India. Every day I thrive on the intellectual challenge of my job, reading about different businesses, and learning about different industries. I am fortunate enough to get an opportunity to work with people smarter than I am.

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HS: Who are the leaders who inspire you?

LA: I really like Marissa Mayer. I have never met her, but obviously heard a lot about her. The one thing she said really stuck with me: “I am a geek at Google, not a girl at Google.” That is how I want to approach how I work. I am may be the only person who is wearing a saree in the room, but it doesn’t matter, because I am good at what I do.

HS: What books would you recommend our audience to read?

LA: One of my favorite books is called ‘Man’s Search for Meaning’, by Victor Frankl. It is about his time during the Holocaust and his search for meaning. I always keep it at my work desk.

HS: Any last words to our audience?

 LA: When I joined Goldman Sachs in India four years ago, I was employee number three at my fund, which is a PE fund within Goldman. I was offered the position to be co-head of Women’s Network at Goldman. I thought that I was very young and inexperienced to take on that role.

I was always one of the very few women wherever I worked. I was at a hedge fund where I was the only woman on the team. In a class at Stanford we were discussing about diversity, and I made a comment: ‘I don’t think I see any of those issues in my workplace and I think workplaces are pure meritocracy. There was another woman who told me that I don’t empathize or understand what women of color go through because I seem to have had this very positive experience. She said, ‘For the rest of us, we have had immense troubles along the way.’ It was a wake-up call for me, and I thought maybe there is more to it than meets the eye. And this got me more interested in understanding some of the challenges that women face in the workplace. I have become a very active proponent of trying to make my workplace very inclusive for women who are going through life transition mostly because we want to retain our good talent. For me it is a personal crusade to find out what makes women drop out and try to keep them.

We wish Lavanya all the best, and we thank her for sharing her personal story to inspire and ignite many young women out there!