After The Corporate Years #1.

If I were to capture my professional journey up until this time, this is how I would have to sum it up. Started off flying solo, built an informal network of collaborators which grew into formal associations, reinvention and refinement during market upheavals, founded companies, moved to corporate roles, immersion into the startup ecosystem as mentor and finally back to startup’s. All adding up nicely into an invaluable combination of formal and informal, blended with real world deep immersive learnings and experience across all geographies.

So as you can see, it started off small, and has come full circle to small once again. When I say small, what I allude to is a comparison of the dynamics of startups, vis a vis the scope, sheer complexity, muscle, money power, reach, capability and successes of ICICI and HSBC. I guess “small and “complex” are relative as you look at it from the point of view of someone who has worked in a large corporate and when looked at from the point of view of a promoter or founder.

The stints with the big corporates lasted what like ten years (seems like a lifetime).

Anyway, the first opportunity to roll up my sleeves and get my hands dirty in a startup came almost a year after I left HSBC.

I was back in India, after fantastic international stints at ICICI, starting in Singapore then Abu Dhabi, and with HSBC starting in India, and then doing time in Chicago and London. I’m thinking that I’d lay back, rebuild bridges, get back into the swing of how things worked back home, however, about three months into the sabbatical, I get a call from an ex-colleague, someone I’d stayed in touch with and worked closely with, during my time in the Middle East, with ICICI.

He had started up a fin-tech that was in products and was wondering if I will come join. I was not really looking actively, but in deference to a past professional relationship, I go meet someone that I’m asked to meet. Someone I didn’t connect with. No chemistry, you see. And so I decline despite feeling good about the fact that people remembered my worth and would reach out to me every now and then, both from the head hunting community as well as my ex-colleagues, friends and acquaintances.

Maybe six odd months later, sometime at the fag and of October of 2010, he calls again. He’s signed a really big deal in Nigeria, and needs someone with my skills and experience to drive this, and other initiatives he has in mind. African and Nigeria got me listening, as despite the vast international exposure, Africa was one continent that I’d never worked in.

By now I’ve been spending my time bridge-building with family, friends, chilling, following my passion – cycling, and quite honestly, the knock on the door came at the right time. The timing couldn’t have been more opportune…..I was rearing to get back to work! Qualify that comment though. Here I am thinking that I’d probably work a couple of days a week ….. it is after all just one program management assignment!

But that’s not exactly how it turned out.

The CEO said, go meet the India based ED. I go meet, but I just had this feeling that something was off. But given that I wanted to get back to work and the fact that the one year sabbatical had kinda drained my bank balance and the fact that the numbers in terms of compensation wasn’t too bad, I take the bait and two days after the initial call for help, I come on board.

I’m in the system a few days and figure out that this isn’t going to be consulting or part time in nature, or for that matter a temporary stint. If I have to make this work, it will have to be an all in effort, and I’m never one to go in half hearted, never have been.

I ask for a face to face meeting with the CEO, we talk and pretty soon the remit expands far beyond this programme management involvement, to taking on the Wealth and Fund Management product end to end and in time a whole lot more.

I sort of slid smoothly into the roles, and perhaps the biggest adjustment I had to make is not having the really amazing Executive Assistants I had working for me in HSBC, taking care of all the minutest details, so that I could focus purely on the job at hand. It did take some effort to get back to getting coffee, lunch, etc, etc, for myself yet again, but I guess I did survive that ordeal!

Before you know it, I’ve given the startup seven years of my life, been appointed on the Board of Directors of the Indian and Singapore entities.

Long story short, the seven years haven’t ended well, and finally, much against my will and inclinations, I bail both the company and the directorships, and end up with a fairly substantial hole in the pockets that were supposed to be lined with cash way into their depths? After all, that’s why we go work for startups right? Right?

Staying on in loyalty, despite the cash flow issues are great in terms of committing to a cause, but wreaking all sort of chaos and mayhem.

Ouch! That one really hurt.

Think Black Adder variety hurt …. “At the last it Stingeth Like an Adder and Bitheth like a Serpent”.

Whereas, there were certain events of seismic proportions, there were positives that I am simply compelled to balance both sides of the equation.

  1. By now I’ve become consummate in terms of doing business all across Africa. West, East, South and the Middle East.
  2. Travel was frequent and I added so many new countries to the already long list from the ICICI and HSBC days.
  1. And doing business in Africa isn’t a joke. It is difficult, fraught with risks, and takes nerves of steel, and just dictates that you understand the psychology and DNA of organisations and individuals. It’s a matter of survival, no nicer or gentle way to put it. So notch one up for the African experience.
  1. The remit expands far beyond Wealth and Fund Management, to Insurance, Bancassurance, Lending, Operations, Pre-sales, Legal, and Human Resource’s. So notch one up for cross discipline and cross platform experience.
  2. As far as learning, connections and empowerment are concerned, I have no cause for complaint. So learning galore, stellar senior level connections, and total empowerment.
  3. Forged deep friendships with a couple of colleagues, and one in particular that led to my next role.

Somewhere is 2016, I drop the curtains on that chapter of my professional life and move on.

I spend the year reinventing myself, cycling, reading, listening, learning, getting immersed in the start up ecosystem, but more as a mentor and advisor.

And then it happens again!!!

I am approached to assist with a Singapore based FinTech’s plans to penetrate the India markets. But that’s a new story, and the current chapter of my life.

Let’s end this tale with the first role after my Corporate years, but not before summing up what my years have taught me.

  1. The formative years, probably the first five years during and immediately after school, taught me how to deal with a family business, with imports and exports, international trade, dealing with government departments, legal complexities, labor, costing, financial accounting and taxation. That was when I worked for my father, being groomed to take over his business, being the only son (which for several reasons never did transpire).
  2. The next few years, probably ten years, were spend working for myself, setting up companies and investment trusts in India and Mauritius, financial advisory, funds syndication, fund management, dealing with the worst stock market debacle in Indian history and in general learning skills (unknowingly) that would enable me to enter the corporate mainstream.
  3. Perhaps during this time, the greatest experience in terms of witnessing change was the Indian Stock Markets shifting gear and moving from manual, ring based, open outcry to electronic trading systems.
  4. The next year, and I mention this specifically, was my first job as an official in a body corporate, as CFO. The primary learning from this was dealing with a Demerger and all of the complexities that accompany such a decision on the financial and legal fronts.
  5. Ceasing my association with the CFO role coincided with the fag end of the tech boom, and once again time at hand to sit back and figure out what next.
  6. The next was this colossal misadventure into the food business.
  7. The next ten years precisely, were spent in the large corporate mainstream, with tremendous and deep international exposure, where the greatest learning without a doubt, came from the travel and international financial services business. Learning how the rest of the world worked, how it approached business, how people issues are dealt with, and the crowning glory was regional and cultural diversity.
  8. Done with the mainstream transnational corporate life, I now have a ringside view and quite a few bouts in the ring itself, learning and dealing with the risks, responsibilities, the opportunities, the good, bad, ugly about working for startups.

I will end by saying that the tale keeps unfolding, I keep documenting and I dare say, they will continue to be written, with this, hopefully the first in a series on the Startup ecosystem, this time not as mentor and advisor, but as an insider.

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