We often see glamourous people and aspire to be one of them. But few are the successful people who themselves want to be the inspiration. Such is the story of Sangeeta Agarwal, who did her Chartered Accountancy and pursued a career in the stock market. Later she shifted her focus from career to societal development. Read her story.
Q1. Tell us about your background, your family, education etc.
SA: Jai Gurudev! I hail from a business family and was born and brought up in Kolkata in a joint family comprising 2 brothers and 11 sisters. I was an Ashok Hall Girls High School student and subsequently graduated in commerce from Calcutta University. After that, I pursued the CA course and qualified as a CA in 1989. My husband is also a CA and has had a lifelong association with one of the country’s top multinational companies and is presently mentoring deserving underprivileged students. My son, a national award winner, graduated from IISc, Bangalore with a Government of India scholarship, and is currently a PhD Scholar at the world-renowned Courant Institute of Mathematical Sciences, New York, USA.
Q2. What made you opt for a Chartered Accountant qualification?
SA: After graduating in commerce, I found that my academic acumen required further sharpening, and during the time that I passed out, options were minimal. One usually choose between law, management, and a master’s degree in commerce. Very few women opted for a professional course like CA or CS.
Though I was aware that the CA course was very tough, I took it as a challenge with a pass out percentage of less than 2%. The novelty of a CA qualification is that it makes you an expert with specialized in-depth studies and dramatically improves your analytic skills. Also, being the toughest, it was the most coveted, and I wanted to go for the best, so I chose to qualify as a CA.
Q3. Post-qualification, what propelled you towards stockbroking as a career choice despite lucrative and multiple career choices? In the late 80’s/early ’90s, hardly any women stockbrokers were there in the country. As perhaps the country’s first woman CA stockbroker to head a publicly listed stock broking company as MD, were you not apprehensive of traversing on this uncharted territory?
SA: While undergoing the CA course, I experienced a one year long Industrial Training with ITC Ltd at their head office in Kolkata. Performing up to the satisfaction of my bosses in ITC, they were very keen that I join the company. I did ponder over starting independent practice as a CA also.
What propelled me towards the unusual profession of stockbroking was, I think, partially written in my genetic code. After the Britishers left the country, my great grandfather was the first Indian President of the Calcutta Stock Exchange. Also, many of my cousins are leading stock brokers. Being a part of such an environment since birth, I was constantly surrounded by tales and events relating to it it. So the transition into this profession was so natural for me that it was almost seamless.
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Also, since there were hardly any women stockbrokers when I joined the profession, I was rather excited by being a pioneer rather than be apprehensive. I never doubted my capabilities, as I was always confident that though the nebulous journey to be successful would be arduous, I would ultimately break the myth that women cannot be successful stockbrokers, so I was prepared to take that risk.
Q4.What were the professional challenges you faced in your career? How was your journey from an unknown woman stockbroker, one of the very few, if not the only one in the country, to establish yourself as a leading one in the profession?
SA: Challenges were plentiful. To break into a profession controlled by a dominant male coterie was not easy. Initially, acceptability was a big challenge. Clients had never interacted with a woman stockbroker before. Many times I was refused appointments because I was a woman.
The second challenge was gaining the confidence of clients. Many male clients felt that broking was just a part-time business for a woman stockbroker. They thought I would not continue for a long time in this business. Clients also thought that I lacked experience in this field.
All these led to several other problems and challenges. Gradually, the ice broke, and I overcame all these by sheer hard work, integrity, and research-based technical advice, which made my client base grow. Though arduous and challenging, I enjoyed my journey from an unknown entity to a leading stockbroker.
Q5: How can women make it big in the stock, shares and commodity world? What do they need to learn and unlearn?
SA: The rules, prerequisites and characteristics to be successful in any business are, in my opinion, more or less similar. In my field, the following are necessary. Professional competence, research-based focus, ignoring short term profits for long term gains, placing the client’s interest before and above your interest, continuous self-education, updating oneself by taking relevant courses, completely ignoring the grapevine and gossip-based information, and of course, complete honesty and integrity.
One needs to be aware that finance, especially shares, stocks and commodities, is a highly volatile field and the bookish knowledge gained from structured learning falls woefully inadequate in this complex, dynamic and evolving field. Patience and resilience with one’s decisions are also of utmost importance in financial markets. Still, at the same time, one needs to learn and adapt very quickly from one’s unique environment and nurture the capability to develop unique methods, tools, and techniques to suit that environment.
Q6. Apart from professional and technical qualifications, what other aspect is, in your opinion, essential for a woman to focus on?
SA: Good health is much required, but less focused on the issue, especially for women. Without good health, all other good qualities of a person either become less effective or, in the worst case, fade into oblivion. To achieve success, one needs to be there, with perfect body-mind synchronization. Women largely ignore health, whereas I feel it requires top priority and multitasking, which is the topmost skill set that a woman needs to grow out of the ordinary and achieve success.
Q7. Do you think you need to be a superwoman to be a mother and work simultaneously? How did you do that?
SA: It depends on one’s circumstances and support system mainly, and partly on your capacity, resilience, time management skills etc. I was fortunate to have both my parents and in-laws live in Kolkata, where I was based, and received tremendous support from all of them when I was a young mother and had just begun my career. My husband is also a CA, and since he understood the demands of my profession, he gave me both encouragement and support. Thus for me, the journey was comparatively easy. However, for other women who may not be so fortunate, it is indeed very demanding in balancing the demands of being a housewife, a working woman and a young mother all at the same time. Many women succumb to the pressure and either ignore their career or put it on the backbench.
Q8. Did marriage bring any difference in the balance of your life?
SA: Certainly. I lived in a joint family of more than 20 people as a child. My husband’s family was comparatively small. So after marriage, I was the focus of their undivided attention, which may not have been possible while I was at my parents’ house, with 12 siblings! But the most significant factor in my stability and professional growth has been the steadfast support and understanding of my husband, a CA. Since we share a lot in common, communicating with him was much easier and more attractive. He has always stood like the Rock of Gibraltar during all the ups and downs of my personal and professional life and helped me believe in myself and my abilities. If I did not have his support, encouragement and complete understanding, it would be impossible for me to reach here.
Q9.One of the challenges you faced was repeated personal tragedies and traumatic experiences. Can you please elaborate a little bit on this? How did you get the courage to overcome your unique challenges?
SA: Even before I qualified, my mother was hospitalized a few months before my CA final exams due to a significant ailment and underwent major surgery. A few years after starting my stockbroking business, my young son was diagnosed with a life-threatening congenital disorder. Despite a brave eight-month-long fight, I lost him. Around the same time, while my son was fighting for his life, my mother in law suffered a major heart attack, survived it, only to be soon diagnosed with cancer. To compound matters, my father in law was run over by a vehicle, his right leg crushed, and the risk of its being amputated was very high. Subsequently, both my parents were diagnosed with life-threatening ailments. Personal challenges and tragedies have been an integral part of my life. Initially, I used to get disturbed and troubled by them. But since childhood, I have been practising meditation, so the impact was less. Ever since I have been associated with, inspired and blessed by Gurudev Sri Sri Ravishankar Ji, I have accepted situations as they are and grow from there; I have learnt that for the betterment of both oneself and that of society, one needs to adapt and learn to live with people, rather than change them. So is the same with troublesome situations. Meditation helps me to detach my mind from problems and focus on solutions. This realization and my single-minded approach towards my work to focus and excel led me to leave everything behind and move towards success. I owe my success to the support of my family and inspiration and blessings from Gurudev Sri Sri Ravishankar Ji.
Q 10. Despite hardships, what kept you moving: what would you like to tell women who want to make it big in this profession or any other male-dominated field?
SA: Complete self-belief and confidence kept me going despite facing nerve-shattering personal tragedies and tremendous professional challenges. I had a point to prove that women can be as successful as men in any field; if not better, I did not allow transient problems to overshadow my determination.
Today the field of finance and even the profession of stockbroking is not any more a male preserve. Success is not gender-dependent. My message to all women is that before they venture into any field, they should self-introspect and be self-aware to know their strengths and weaknesses. Once you are aware of the downside, success is easier to achieve. There is no profession where women cannot perform as well as men. I feel women perform better, being mentally more robust and with a strong ability of multitasking.
Q11. How important is a support system, especially for a woman?
SA: Vital-absolutely crucial. Without a sound support system, it is almost impossible for anyone to reach the zenith, and even if one does, it won’t be possible to sustain there. I was fortunate to have supportive parents and in-laws and a most supportive husband.
Q12. You have been awarded over 40 coveted national and international awards, appeared on TV shows, including national news; can you please tell us about a few of the more prestigious awards you received? What do these awards mean to you? Did you receive support and recognition from Industry also?
SA: Sure. Early in my professional career, I was awarded the FICCI-FLO’ Outstanding Woman Professional award” by the then Finance minister of India, Mr P. Chidambaram. I also received the Indira Gandhi Priyadarshni Award from Shri.KC Pant, the then Defence Minister of India, The Rotary Club of Calcutta Award, for outstanding achievements, The Outstanding Young Person of West Bengal Award- 96-97, given by Shri Subhash Chakraborty, the then sports and transport minister of West Bengal, and the Bharat Nirman Award, given yearly to women for their outstanding achievements, by Shri MC. Bhandari, ex-president of ICAI, and several other awards, from prestigious organizations.
The ABI-USA has published my Bio-Data to be among the 1000 coveted business women of the world whose CVs were published for their achievements.
“They nominated me for the prestigious Woman of the Year Award and I also have featured in the Asia Pacific Who’ Who 1999-2001. I have featured in leading magazines, newspapers, and TV, including national news. Each award is unique and a recognition of my triumph over my struggles. For me, it meant an affirmation that I was on the right track, which reinforced my determination to do even better and made me more resilient.”
Post-publication of my success story on the website of The Institute of Chartered Accountants of India, and my talk to about 3500 members of ICAI on the topic “Going beyond the ordinary-being a leader”, several leading industrialists, both from the state and outside, did congratulate me, and further encouraged me to carry on my chosen path. Some prominent ones are Mr Ratan Tata, Sudha and Narayan Murthy of the Infosys Foundation, and Mrs Manjushree Khaitan from the Birla family. Since I am an alumnus of Ashok Hall Girls Higher Secondary School founded by her family and presently overseen by her, Manjushree (Khaitan) Ma’am was delighted to read my success story and personally called me to congratulate and shower blessings on me. Earlier during my professional journey, several leading Industrialists supported and encouraged me, and without the support of captains of Industry, my professional journey would be incomplete. I would not have reached the zenith, so I am thankful to all of them.
Q13. After over 21 years as a stock and commodity broker, in 2011, you suddenly decided to close down your flourishing business, that too at the peak of success, and get associated with Sri Sri Ravishankar and his charitable cause. What made you do so?
SA: I wanted to move on in life, from a life of success to a life of significance. I have been into spiritual awareness and learning from a very early age. After achieving almost everything in the business field, no more challenges were left. Neither was there any scope for personal growth? From a very young age, I desired to be associated with a charitable cause, serve, and do my little bit for society. I wanted to experience the joy of giving. I was delighted to exit the business and be blessed to serve India’s and perhaps the world’s most famous spiritual leader, Sri Sri Ravishankar, and further his cause by involving myself as CFO with the Kolkata unit of Sri Sri Ravishankar Vidya Mandir Trust: Sri Sri Academy School, Kolkata.
Q14.What differences do you notice in yourself, from being a stockbroker and having your own business to giving this up and getting involved with a charitable organization whose founder is the world-renowned spiritual leader Sri Sri Ravishankar?
SA: The difference is remarkable and spectacular. In business, my focus was more on increasing turnover, earning more profits, business growth, and expanding my clients’ growth. Thus the focus was more on ‘getting’. Leaving business and getting associated with a charitable trust made me move away entirely from this. This resulted in a complete transformation in my mindset. I started to involve myself more in self-reflection& introspection, which led to self-awareness. This was the impetus for spiritual awakening in me, leading to my personal growth. Here the focus was not on ‘getting’ but on ‘giving’. Not on earning, but on Seva. Diametrically opposite, If I may say so.
I have become more peaceful and content, and as Gurudev Sri Sri Ravishankar teaches all his devotees to accept situations, both good and bad, as they are, and move on from there, I have further progressed in my journey of learning to maintain equilibrium, during both phases, that are inevitably a part of everyone’s life.
Q15. What is your message to women, especially the younger women, who may want to emulate you? What is your definition of success?
SA: My message to them is to start practising self-introspection, reflection and communication with oneself. Start the inward journey sooner rather than later. Look within, and begin to look beyond. This will lead to self-awareness, which in my opinion, is the essential prerequisite, and the starting point, in achieving anything.
Be at it despite repeated failures once you have taken up a challenge. Failures are a great teacher. Resilience and mental strength are the cornerstones of success.
I will quote my teacher, guide and mentor, Gurudev Sri Sri Ravishankar, who has defined success beautifully. “Even if you lose everything, if you have confidence, then you can recreate everything again. And that is a success.” Jai Gurudev.
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