Sangeeta Venkatesan is driven and focused. She doesn’t want to sleepwalk into the abyss. She’s a collaborative leader who is deeply passionate about sustainability and diversity. The FairVine Super Chair wants to make a lasting difference. She’s whip-smart and adventurous. Her refusal to be ‘boxed in’ traces back to her rural upbringing in central India.
“I grew up in a little town, so small you knew everyone by name and face,” she says as we sit in an exclusive members-only club in the middle of Sydney, the city she now calls home. “I was the black sheep of the family back then, always questioning the rules, always challenging the status quo. I used to regularly run away from home to avoid studying, but my mum would find me, stick in hand, and I’d be locked in my bedroom for a couple of hours every night, so I could focus on my studies.”
“Now, when I look back, I realise how tough I was and that I was an eternal optimist. You put those two traits together and you naturally take the best of what you have and go from there.” – Sangeeta Venkatesan
However, Sangeeta’s aversion to academics did an about-face when she started high school. “Finally I was able to choose my subjects and I began to love what I was doing,” she recalls. “I was an all-rounder –I did a lot of cultural activities, I was part of my school band, I used to dance and do drama…”
But it wasn’t all play – Sangeeta excelled at her studies, so much so she came top in her school for her HSC, breaking records and ranking a very impressive sixth in all of India. “It’s what led me to Mumbai – I got into one of the best schools in the country for economics, commerce and accounting, on a scholarship for my undergrad studies.”
A fearless journey
Sangeeta would continue to excel, break moulds and set new standards throughout her career. From being only one of handful chosen from more than 2,000 applicants to work for Goldman Sachs in Hong Kong to recently co-founding FairVine Super, a superannuation platform that enables and supports women to save more for retirement (more on that later), she has never been afraid. Of anything, it would seem.
“I remember when I first arrived in Mumbai at just 16 – it was terrifying and thrilling at the same time,” she says. “I was completely alone, managing my own money, and I’d never even been on public transport before. It was tough the first year because I had been uprooted from my comfort zone and thrown into an environment that was so different, but it was so exciting – I loved every single day of it.”
Sangeeta majored in accountancy and economics, and after her Bachelor of Commerce, she became a chartered accountant. “In India, passing the chartered accountant examination the first time is a big deal because only a certain percentage in the country ever pass,” she adds. She did all this while working at KPMG.
If life was a P&L sheet, it would have looked pretty balanced, but Sangeeta wasn’t fully content. “There came a stage after I became a CA that I started questioning if this is what I wanted to do for the rest of my life. So I started exploring other options. I looked at everything from event management to PR to jewellery designing to financial services. I interviewed everywhere – I even got a job in advertising which I was very proud of.”
After seeing an ad for a position at Goldman Sachs, and in true Sangeeta style, she thought ‘why not?’ and applied. “Little did I realise Goldman receives more than 2,000 applications every year from India, and it only selects two to four people for its global offices.”
Sangeeta got the job, but then deliberated over the offer for two weeks, much to her friends’ surprise. “They thought I’d lost my mind,” she laughs. “You don’t think twice about accepting a job with a company like Goldman, you take it straight away. But I knew this decision would define my career and probably my life. By then I had realised that accountancy was a little dull and dry, and I had more je ne sais quoi in me. So, after two weeks I thought, ‘I’m ready. I’m going to sink my teeth into financial services.’ And I’ve never looked back.”
Sangeeta loved her time at Goldman – the way it was run, the leadership and culture, the level of autonomy. “It was a place where you felt like you were valued,” she shares. That’s not to say it was without its challenges: “I worked very hard, but it wasn’t a surprise to me – I knew what I was getting myself into. I worked seven days a week, sometimes until 2am. I’d go home, get three or four hours of sleep, and then go back into the office and do it all over again. I worked solidly for most of my 20s, in fact.”
Does she regret it? Not for a minute. “Now, when I look back, I realise how tough I was and that I was an eternal optimist. You put those two traits together and you naturally take the best of what you have and go from there. I’m so grateful for all the opportunities I received because they defined who I am today. They have given me strength and reliance – I’m not afraid of hard work.”
Sangeeta’s also clearly not afraid to take chances; in fact, she relishes them. After some time at Goldman, she decided to take some time off and move to France, taste some wine, learn the language, live the life. “I think that was another milestone for me – it changed the way I thought about everything.”
After some time, she returned to Goldman, resigned and then joined Standard Chartered Bank in a very unique role, supporting the CEO of Singapore in growth strategy. “I loved my time there,” she says. “I learned about every asset of banking – consumer, private and institutional – and gained a real understanding of how the banks made money from each of their products.”
But it wasn’t enough to keep Sangeeta settled, and this time she packed her bags for London. And without a job to go to. “I quit everything once again – it’s amazing how many times I’ve done that,” she muses. “I’m not going to lie, it was difficult. It’s a market flooded with the most amazing talent so getting hired was a challenge. But I left no stone unturned and was fortunate enough to get a job at Morgan Stanley.”
“Most of my team were men, all very experienced. I arrived, a female of colour, without any particular stockbroking experience, so I certainly had my challenges. It took a few months but I eventually built a team that loved me and was willing to work with me.” – Sangeeta Venkatesan
Sangeeta spent exactly a year at Morgan Stanley before she was poached by Lehman Brothers – yet another life-changing moment for her. Little did she know that the company would soon go bankrupt. “I joined Lehman Brothers in March 2007 and we went bankrupt in September 2008 – I was also eight months pregnant. It was a complete shock. I mean, I knew we were taking massive day-to-day losses on our portfolios and positions, but never did I ever think we would go down that way.”
Sangeeta recalls the day the ground fell from beneath her. “It was a Friday and we were all sitting in front of our screens and the stock prices for Lehman started going down. We went home that afternoon uncertain, but never thought we’d go into administration. I really thought someone would buy us – there was talk of Barclays – but when we returned to work that following Monday it was to pack our bags, exchange numbers and say goodbye.”
At eight months pregnant, Sangeeta knew it would be impossible to get another job. She was left without a salary, let alone the bonus she’d been working so hard toward and, to add insult to injury, she didn’t qualify for government maternity benefits because the company she’d worked for no longer existed.
“I decided to return to India to have my baby and be close to my family and friends. But just six weeks after I had my daughter, I got a call from my then-boss’s boss – he used to run global markets for Lehman in EMEA and he had struck a deal with Nomura to rehire some people and start from ground zero. He asked me to come back with a promotion and salary increase.”
Sangeeta returned to London and full-time work when her daughter was three months old. “Of course, it was hard, but I’m so grateful for that time in London,” she reveals. “My role there changed me dramatically. I was willing to be bolded, to take more risks, and it gave me the most incredible confidence. I had a great boss and a great team. I had a wonderful support system at home – my husband was fantastic – I could not have been happier. I felt very blessed.”
Heading Down Under
Again, was that enough to keep Sangeeta stationary? Hardly. This time she heard the siren call of Sydney. “I quit my job again and we moved to Australia in September 2010. I started working for Commonwealth Bank the following January.
“That was also a very tough market, but I was so grateful for the connections I had made in London that helped get me the job at CBA. I spent six years there, initially at the foreign exchange division, and I enjoyed every day.”
Sangeeta’s next role was as CEO of APP Securities, a boutique stockbroking company – then the only female CEO of a stockbroking company in Australia. “I really loved my time there. Initially, it was very tough, especially in terms of being accepted,” she concedes.
“Most of my team were men, all very experienced. I arrived, a female of colour, without any particular stockbroking experience, so I certainly had my challenges. It took a few months but I eventually built a team that loved me and was willing to work with me.”
In the 18 months she was there, not only did Sangeeta grow the company’s revenue by 20% and reduce costs by 33%, but the experience gave her the confidence to finally go out on her own and co-found the company FairVine Super.
Sangeeta first started thinking about superannuation during her earlier years when she met countless women who were struggling financially after losing their husbands or partners. She realised there was a massive gap in the market when it came to women and their super, and she had to do something about it.
“Structurally, the superannuation system simply doesn’t support women,” she says. “First, women are often paid less than men, so they earn less super from day one. Second, they’re often the ones who take time off work to have children and as a result, end up having non-linear career trajectories, and super doesn’t cater to that structure set-up. And third, women often live longer, which means they need more money when retiring, but usually retire with less. It’s just not good enough.”
Sangeeta and her co-founder decided to set up a platform that enables and supports women to save more for retirement, without worrying about how old they are, what career trajectory they’ve had or how they choose to live in terms of lifestyle. What’s more, they’ve made it easy to understand and even easier to manage.
“At FairVine, we have transparency – members can log in and access all their information whenever they want,” she explains. “The fees, which are lower than industry standard, are very simple.
“We also focus on ethics. If a member takes time off work to have a child, we don’t charge fees for up to 12 months, or if superannuation is split because of divorce, we don’t charge any fees on splitting the super. What’s more, all our funds are 100% ethically invested. These are the many ways we support our members.”
Then come the innovative features. FairVine has partnered with more than 500 brands from Microsoft to The Iconic to create the FairRewards program – for every dollar you spend through one of these partners, you receive an additional contribution of up to 20% in your super.
“The ethos behind FairRewards is that most often it’s women who run the shopping at home, so why not reward them for doing this job, which is technically unpaid?” Sangeeta says. FairVine layers its innovative features with educational seminars, information on how to manage finances, plus a truly supportive community.
It’s clear Sangeeta has found her passion and purpose. “I absolutely love what I do now,” she says emphatically. “I love the autonomy, the agility, the innovation. I also really enjoy focusing on what I believe in – sustainability, diversity – doing things that are close to my heart.
“It’s come to the stage now where my daughter is more aware of what I do and she now plays a role – she gives me ideas, she’s proud of me. Recently she forced me to write a letter to her principal, asking that I go to her school and give a speech about financial literacy and how women need to become financially independent. She’s 11!”
Sangeeta isn’t just a wonderful role model for her daughter, she’s the kind of leader the world needs right now. “I have a simple belief in life that people perform best when they have a purpose,” she says.
“Empower them with the tools, give them the dream and let them fly. I like to lead with authority, because I think it’s very important for your team to have a clear goal and vision, but at the same time I like to be consultative and facilitating. I also like to hire the best. If they’re better than me, it’s better for me.”
Judging by her stellar career and many notable achievements, finding ‘better’ than Sangeeta Venkatesan might be an all but impossible task. However, if there’s one thing you can put your money on, she won’t be afraid to hire them if/when she does.