In the June 2020 edition of Global Spotlights, Certified Financial Planner, Glenn H. Greenberg Yale World Fellow, author to several academic papers and the bestselling book Let’s Talk Money, and Consulting Editor with Mint, Monika Halan talks career, faith, inspiration and a lot more.
“I think Finance is kinder to women than most other professions.”
Tell us about your humble beginnings? Any defining memory…
I grew up in Delhi. I had a happy childhood. Father was a university professor and mother was a homemaker, but she also had a flourishing Hindi-writing career alongside with that. For me, one of the defining memories of my childhood is growing up in the 1970s. A time when India was in the grip of socialism. I remember standing in long queues for necessities like water and milk because they were always in short supply. For a two-wheeler, one had to wait for years in line to buy it, same for a landline. Today, when I scan that time through my economics lens, I realize what this socialism distributed was nothing but poverty and scarcity.
Was a career in Journalism planned?
There is a small story behind it – In class eight, we had to choose between Economics or Home Science and that erupted a debate at home where my mother and sister thought I should take up Home Science, but my father, who was an Economics professor, just crossed out everything and ticked Economics. Possibly, that was the beginning of my journey. But a foray into Journalism happened after I finished my Masters. My inclination towards something more pragmatic led me to abandon these econometric models which were quite distant from reality. However, after a few years, I found myself in a new genre of journalism which is Personal Finance. India was opening up and financial products were coming in. A moment of truth dawned on me, I realized I didn’t want to do Sensex up today or down tomorrow kind of reporting. Today, my work involves building a fair marketplace for all participants in India’s retail financial sector.
What is at the core of your professional drive?
Well, on regular days, you know what basic you have to accomplish by the end of the day. For me, great days are one of those when you allow your creativity to fly free, and you can think more in-depth, write something different – it is like doing some extensive policy work or a video that can take me further. It’s when one feels they are going to achieve something phenomenal!
What is your mantra in times of stress to help you through a situation?
First is breathing and, to recognise that you are stressed which is half the battle won. It requires self-awareness, being conscious of what’s happening to you right now rather than getting swept away at the moment and then, discovering later. Although easier said than done, the idea is to attempt. The second mantra is to know that this too, shall pass. I have always been a solution-oriented person. If there’s something to be done, I find my way out. But there are people or situations beyond control, and so, one should learn to let go on its own. And, once you know it’s going to end, why not as well milk it for some future lessons to deal with it better next time.
Who is someone who believes in you that has helped build your confidence?
My husband, Gautam Chikermane has been a strong support system throughout. He is a go-getter and would never allow you to ask ‘why’. His favourite line is, ‘why not?’ Uma Shashikant is another significant influence. I learnt the basics of Finance from her. She gave me the confidence to do public speaking and the ability to hold training for more than 100 people in the financial sector. I am also a devotee of Mother and Sri Aurobindo. They have an ashram in Pondicherry. In my journey of faith, I have met people who have been instrumental in my growth and transformation. But I would like to mention – Partho, the principal of an alternative education inspired school based in New Delhi called Mirambika, was one of the first people to point me in this direction.
Where do you go for inspiration?
I seek inspiration in the books written by Sri Aurobindo, in Mother’s speeches and her thoughts. Part of their philosophy is that everything that is to be known, is known to you already. You have to plug into it. Quieten your thoughts and concentrate on a problem or an aspect, the inspiration would sort of drop in. So, even as a person, I try and look more inward for inspiration than outward.
“Boys are brought up to believe that they own the world, whereas girls are brought up to think they are meant to serve. Change in gender roles cannot happen in conferences, they need to happen at our homes.”
Why do women struggle to find their voice?
Social messaging, upbringing, the way we raise our girls and boys so differently has a lot to say in it. It all adds to their self-worth. For ages, reports and studies have pointed out that till puberty they score equal grades, and build confidence but just as they reach puberty, something changes. Now unfortunately, we have reached a tipping point. The sexual messaging, gender roles are getting deeply embedded into the choice of colors, toys, or the way we speak about future. Of course, we can’t fight nature, but that doesn’t take away the pressure on girls to conform, which is far more. If you ask, where does that originate from? I would say – her insecurity and fear about physical safety which is valid given our history or the times we are living in. Also, boys are brought up to believe that they own the world, whereas girls are brought up to think they are meant to serve. And this change in their roles cannot happen in conferences, it has to happen at our homes. We have to bring up our boys differently.
In most financial firms, women are in minority, do you think this true? If yes, what are the challenges they face?
I think Finance is kinder to women than most other professions. It helps them get over their fears of Finance. If you see some of the stock exchanges of India, women are over 40% of the workforce. But when it comes to leadership positions, we see a decline. There again, we need to change the way we define gender roles at home and start thinking progressively. Women take an undue amount of burden – taking care of the extended family in case there is a problem or if there is someone sick at home. All of this takes a toll on her career.
What are your goals?
At a professional level, my goal is to work towards a seller beware market, which means the responsibility to sell a suitable product to the buyer should rest on the seller. At a personal level, I want to constantly find the highest point within myself and try and stay there.