Sonya Thadhani Mughal is Right on the Money

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Sonya Thadhani Mughal (image credits: Bailard, Inc.)

Sonya Thadhani Mughal’s first introduction to finance happened when she was a child, watching her father’s stockbroker at the Bombay Stock Exchange giving or taking certificates from him for shares he had bought or sold. 

Now Mughal is the first woman CEO of Bailard, a 52-year-old wealth and assets management firm in the Bay Area.

Mughal credits her mother for pushing her to pursue higher studies in the U.S. When she was 18, Mughal left her parents and elder sister in Pune, where she had grown up, to major in math at a liberal arts college. 

SEEMA magazine spoke to Mughal about how she decided to pick finance, how her firm dealt with the impact of the pandemic, her firm’s plans for the future, and her advice to young women seeking to make a career in finance.

(The interview has been edited for consistency, clarity, and flow)

Tell us about your journey from Pune, India, to the U.S.

Though people have stereotypical ideas about what it might be to grow up in an Indian household, mine was quite atypical. Both my parents had studied abroad in the ’60s and had decided to go back to India and settle in Pune. My mom was very, very instrumental in pushing me to apply to colleges as an undergraduate – which at that time was quite rare.

Being an immigrant [in the U.S.], I was on a student visa and needed a job when I graduated. My first day (at work) was February 22, 1994. My role was a split role as a junior analyst – on the U.S. equity team, and on the real estate team.

How did you decide to make a career in investment management?

Whether it was a bank or an insurance company, or an investment management company, I wanted to be in finance.

My father, his brothers, and his parents grew up in Sindh in the days before India and Pakistan were formed. They came to Mumbai after Partition. My dad used to take me with him to his stockbroker. I’m talking about more than 40 years ago, when the Indian stock market was far more rudimentary. It was very manual, it was very paper driven… I would see this exchange between him and his broker – where he would hand over the share certificate if he was selling and get a share certificate if he was buying. It was all very fascinating to me.

As CEO, what are your plans for your firm?

It’s been our belief that we should start to specialize, and really focus on the more inefficient areas of the market. Investing has become highly commoditized. We are not necessarily going to try and compete in the large cap, blue chip S&P 500 area. But there are areas where we have a tremendous amount of expertise. On the equity side, it’s the international equities and emerging market equities, as well as our technology and science strategy. We have a small cap value ESG strategy and a dedicated life sciences part.

So those are the areas that we will be focusing on in the public equity side. On the private equity side, we have a real estate division we are going to be focusing on.

How has your business adapted to the realities of the pandemic?

We have been in a remote situation since March 16 last year. We have officially stated that we will start to go back at the end of September. There’s no advantage in rushing it. That being said, you cannot continue to maintain and grow and build upon a great culture over Zoom. It’s those little lunchroom conversations, conversations in the hallways, when you can stop in somebody’s office and check in that really are very important to us. So I think we’ll start to go back, and we will most definitely maintain flexibility as we go back.

What are your thoughts on the current debate at the SEC and other regulatory agencies about ESG (environmental, social, and governance) disclosures?

About 20-30 years ago, any kind of ESG, or SRI investing was considered niche investing. It was values-based investing. There used to be a belief that if you followed any kind of strategy with ESG and SRI restrictions you might be giving up returns.

Things have evolved in the right way, where, today ESG investing, or certainly having an ESG framework to think about [when] picking stocks or constructing portfolios, is more from a risk management standpoint. So you’re looking at factors, whether they environmental, societal, or governance factors. Governance, of course, is easy to understand. We are dealing with lots of different things. Having a very robust framework on how to [think] about this as risk management … is very important. So I think it’s front and center for the SEC – as it should be.

What do you expect regarding America’s economic recovery?

It is really miraculous and commendable that we have vaccines. We are already seeing signs of life and it’s already reflected in the stock market. You are also seeing jobs coming back … You’re gonna see a tremendous amount of pent-up demand being unleashed, particularly with things like discretionary spending, but also with service jobs coming back. We are pretty positive on the outlook.

How can finance and investment firms ensure there is gender parity in employment and in leadership positions?

The world is not so simple to say that everything’s a meritocracy. I mean, that’s how it should be. … People … in leadership positions have to set an example. I think it’s [incumbent] upon all of us to make sure that when [we hire, we] remove any kind of bias. A lot of times the biases are unconscious … Even things like unconscious bias training, honestly, is something to think about.

Do you have any advice for young woman aspiring to make a career in finance?

Don’t let anybody tell you that you can’t do it. That’s not true. You should absolutely follow your dreams. I think it’s incredibly important. If you’re going to be an expert, you should study for it. Get a CFA, get a CFP, look into various industry designations. The most important thing is to join a company that’s going to actually invest in you, just as you’re going to invest in the company. All too often when we’re young – and it’s understandable – we need a job, right? You don’t have the luxury of thinking about cultural fit and values. But my biggest piece of advice to women – and to men – is join a firm that’s aligned with your values. I don’t think you can go wrong.

This story appears in the May issue of SEEMA Magazine, check it out here