Lessons From the Female Titans of Wall Street: Aliya Sahai

I think we have come a long way, but we have so far to go. For the first time in my career, diversity isn’t a nice-to-have, it’s a need-to-have. Some of this progress comes from the natural course of history and the courage of women and men who came before us, like those who campaigned […]

I think we have come a long way, but we have so far to go. For the first time in my career, diversity isn’t a nice-to-have, it’s a need-to-have. Some of this progress comes from the natural course of history and the courage of women and men who came before us, like those who campaigned for the right to vote, and our ongoing movement for equal pay. But the imperative comes from the undeniable fact that with diversity comes more productivity and greater financial success. I’m not willing to forgo that and you shouldn’t be willing to either!

I had the pleasure of interviewing Aliya Sahai, a Principal and Financial Advisor in Bernstein’s New York office, providing investment and wealth planning advice to individuals, families and family offices and their trusts, estates, foundations, endowments and pension plans. Sahai joined the firm in 2005 and was appointed a Principal in 2009. Prior to joining Bernstein, she worked at Sapient, consulting in the financial services industry, specifically to wealth management firms, and Yodlee, a financial services software company. Sahai earned a BS in economics from the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania. She is a very active member of the University of Pennsylvania community. She was appointed to the Trustees’ Council of Penn Women where she chairs the grants committee. She is a member of the Wharton Lantern Honor Society and this year is serving as a chair for her 20th college reunion. Sahai also works with women of all ages regarding job training, career readiness and financial education. She sits on the board of Sanctuary for Families and focuses her time on seeking job placement for women who are victims of domestic abuse and sex trafficking.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us the “backstory” about what brought you to the Banking/Finance field?

My path was very clear to me, really from the time I was a child. My very pragmatic parents encouraged me to focus on the finance field — I told them I wanted to be an architect to build houses for the homeless, but they said if I became a banker, I’d be able to buy them houses instead. I never forgot that advice and then my love of math and the markets followed!

So I applied to and attended Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, all with that in mind. My first job out of school was at Sapient in the height of the tech boom, where I was a consultant working with asset managements firms. After Sapient, I spent 2 years at a financial services software company, Yodlee, focused on financial advisors and their wealth management clients. I knew then that I wanted to be in the business as Financial Advisor and after a lot of interviewing and due diligence, I fell in love with Bernstein — where I’ve been for about 14 years.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?

The kindness, conviction and generosity of time and spirit of others, especially from my female and male bosses along the way, has been instrumental in my success. My boss at my first internship the summer of my freshman year in college helped me realize the confidence that I could learn or do anything. My (very) young powerhouse bosses at my Datek Online internship forced me to imagine the possibilities and push boundaries. Then, my first bosses at Sapient threw me into the deep end with a life jacket — but coached me to not need to inflate it. And my first boss at Bernstein took a big chance (with great conviction) on a very young woman, and encouraged me to trust my instincts, which — at the time — she had more confidence in than I did!

Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?

Oh, I’m always working on exciting projects!

I’m the Development Co-Chair for my class at Penn’s 20th College Reunion. Penn gave so much to me, personally and professionally, and continues to innovate in a way that makes me proud to be an alum. I am so excited to raise money for such an incredible institution and I’m thrilled to reconnect with so many of my classmates.

I’m also the Co-Chair of the nominating committee for a nonprofit I work with, Sanctuary for Families — we’re building out our new slate of board members right now, and are so encouraged by the amazing women and men we meet who are committed to breaking the cycle of domestic violence and sex trafficking.

I am the Co-Chair for the Grants Committee for Trustees Council of Penn Women, and we are heading into grant application season. It is a privilege to bear witness to the amazing change that Penn women are making on campus!

The startup that I co-founded with my husband and a friend is going live in the app store in a few weeks! It has been a labor of love and we are so excited to change the way people give to charity… Donating to and fundraising for a charity has never been so easy. And did I mention that there will be consolidated tax reporting too?! mahalogives.com

And last but not least, at work, I am working on a few things… 1) more robust financial education for the next generation, 2) helping my clients meet their philanthropic goals in more meaningful ways and 3) working more closely with tech founders as they evolve their businesses and work towards liquidity. (Among all the rest…)

What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?

I would say integrity. I have not, in my 14 years at Bernstein, ever seen us not act in the best interest of our clients — we ask that of ourselves each day. Every business has conflicts, but we try to limit those conflicts and sit on the same side of the table as our clients.

Everyone makes mistakes and when we do …even if we are the only ones that notice, we don’t hesitate to address it and make sure our clients are compensated appropriately if necessary. We try to not make errors but if we do, we get out in front of them without hesitation.

Wall Street used to be an “all white boys club”. This has changed a lot recently. In your opinion, what caused this change? What lessons can be learned from that to support this change going forward?

I think we have come a long way, but we have so far to go. For the first time in my career, diversity isn’t a nice-to-have, it’s a need-to-have. Some of this progress comes from the natural course of history and the courage of women and men who came before us, like those who campaigned for the right to vote, and our ongoing movement for equal pay. But the imperative comes from the undeniable fact that with diversity comes more productivity and greater financial success. I’m not willing to forgo that and you shouldn’t be willing to either!

Can you tell us 3 top challenges that many women face when they step from a from mid level position to a senior board?

● Being taken seriously, rather than having it accepted right away that you’re there on merit and not as a “token”.

● Being the only (or one of the only) woman and having to remind others at your level of those optics. Part of this, and of being a senior member, is that it’s your responsibility to call out this unconscious bias — and while you’re calling it out, also convincing them that you’re not just whining, making them understand that it’s in fact a business imperative that you get this right.

● Creating your girls’ club at that senior level. We as women have always been made to feel that we should be competitive against the other women in the room. This challenge is making sure you’re NOT made to feel competitive against those other women — there’s more than enough room at the table for many more of you. And there will always be a boys’ club — there should absolutely be a girls’ club.

I know women who tell themselves that they will not try to take up senior executive roles because they want to prioritize being a “good mother”. In your experience, are the two really in conflict? What suggestions would you give to balance both?

This is an extremely personal choice and it has a lot to do with your own personal success criteria as it relates to being a “good mother.” I can see both sides of it. With any choice, there are tradeoffs/conflicts. My hope is that I am a good mother (and wife) — it is certainly a priority. My mother is the BEST mother and she always worked very hard and was extremely successful. She loved me more than anything and taught me values through example. Those values included education, hard work, trust and integrity. For me, among many other things, being a good mother means being true to myself and understanding that success at work makes me happier at home. I hope my children will always know that it was a priority for me to be a good mother to them.

To mitigate some of the conflicts/tradeoffs, I have made a conscious decision to blend my personal and professional life. That really helps create efficiency and I truly enjoy it — my clients know my kids and my kids know my clients, and this benefits both sides of my life; and I have been more successful because of it.

I am lucky in that a big part of my job involves fostering client relationships — it is my responsibility and my pleasure to become part of my clients’ lives, and to balance my personal and professional circles along with it for everyone’s advantage.

Boards are more effective when there is diversity in its members. What are 3 benefits that bank boards will see if they seek to be more inclusive of women?

● Women are uniquely skilled in the art of connection and we will only broaden the reach of the board — we are, by nature, empathetic, emotionally intelligent, multitaskers, and nurturing — not just in the home, but in every aspect of our lives. We can’t help it!

● We think differently than men and we are successful for different reasons. The skills of men and women are synergistic, not dilutive.

● Attraction of your company to a larger demographic of people. The face of wealth is changing, and we want to appeal to the next generation and meet them where they want to be met.

Sadly there is a gender stereotype that men are “more strategic” than women. This perception may be one of the reasons why boards have a smaller female representation. What should be done for women to position themselves as strategic leaders?

This is an interesting one, because of course strategy is important — but we shouldn’t try to be something we are not. Our strengths and our confidence in those strengths are what make us valuable in leadership positions — there is a fake it till you make it aspect in almost every new job, to be sure, but you have to be able to fall back on traits at which you have continuously excelled. I have always felt that being a woman uniquely qualified me to do my job in a way that most men likely couldn’t. I never felt like I didn’t have the built-in character traits to do my job well because I’m a woman — actually it was the opposite.

I know very strategic men and very strategic women, and I know men who are not strategic the same way I know women who are not strategic — in my opinion, it doesn’t have much to do with gender.

The differences between men and women, however, put an exclamation point on the imperative to get more women in board seats. The value in diversity has become undeniably seen — and this comes from diversity of thought. I want to be surrounded by men and women because the varying opinions and thoughts make me smarter and better at what I do. And at home, I value (sometimes in hindsight) the fact that my husband and I think so differently. It is not always easy but it always makes us better.

Which organization would you encourage a woman aspiring to be on a board to join?

There are so many professional organizations that can help you learn and grow. Start by thinking about what you are good at and what skills you want to hone. Mentoring and philanthropy can be extremely enriching and confidence building. And then as you consider your gaps, ask yourself if you want to network or learn more specific content? Do you want to spend more time with professional women or does a co-ed environment seem like a better fit? Regardless of it being a professional or philanthropic organization that you are considering, I think it’s important to foster your interests and become involved with causes you are personally attached to, not to get involved as a means to an end. I don’t believe the latter will get you anywhere because everyone important who you connect with will recognize the lack of sincerity (AKA BS). Any of this organizational experience will make you better rounded and a more desirable candidate for professional boards.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

“Everyone you meet is fighting a battle you know nothing about. Be Kind. ALWAYS.” — Robin Williams

I try to remember and live by these words everyday. It is so easy to make rash judgements but we never really know why people act the way they do or what they may be going through. And selfishly, it feels so much better to love and to be kind!

You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the greatest amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

It would absolutely be hunger-related. I’m startled and saddened by the number of children in our country who live in food insecure homes. 1 in 6 children in America face hunger. And then there is the food waste… I would love to find a way for us to waste less and feed more! If I were to inspire a movement, it would be the ensure our children are nutritiously and consistently fed.

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