The 7 Most Powerful South Asian Women in Banking or Fintech

Mar/25/2023 / by Melanie Fourie
Women in the Banking
Image credits: Pavel Danilyuk via Pexels

Women in Banking

International Women’s Day was established in the early 1900s to honour women worldwide for their accomplishments in a wide range of disciplines, an this is an ongoing endeavour. In addition, it advocates for equal rights for women.

 Women in India have been breaking down barriers and making strides in several fields, including finance.  These women have overcome sexism in the workplace by their inherent abilities, perseverance, and smarts, and have risen to positions of power. We salute all the accomplished women in the fintech industry who have changed the face of business and finance for the better. Here are seven of the top South Asian women who have made their indelible mark!

Women in Banking: Naina Lal Kidwai 

Investment and retail banking are two areas in which Naina Lal Kidwai excels in her native India. The 2022 Alumni Achievement Award is the greatest distinction an HBS alum can earn for their contributions to business and society, and she has received it. She talks about becoming the first Indian woman to attend Harvard Business School and the difficulties she experienced as a chartered accountant in India after finishing her undergraduate degree. She started her investment banking career in the same year she graduated from Harvard Business School in 1982, when she joined the British bank Grindlays Bank in India.

Kidwai talks about how the Indian economy was liberalized in the 1990s, the development of India’s capital markets, and the birth of the National Stock Exchange. Kidwai then elaborates on her career pivot from investment banking to consumer banking, where she now serves as chief of Non-Resident Indian Services. She spent 12 years at Grindlays before making the switch to Morgan Stanley, where she once again engages in capital market activities such as equity and debt issuance, M&A, and debt restructuring. 

She then led the investment banking and capital markets operations of HSBC’s Indian subsidiary as Country Head and Group General Manager of HSBC India until 2009. In the interview, Kidwai elaborates on how the internet, mobile phones, and mobile banking were able to mitigate the effects of the demonetization plan implemented by the Modi administration in 2016, which resulted in a protracted monetary crisis. Kidwai also discusses the disparities between the for-profit and non-profit sectors, and the microfinance movement in India.

 Naina Lal Kidwai, near the conclusion of the conversation, talks about the non-governmental organization (NGO) she founded in 2015 called the India Sanitation Coalition (ISC). The ISC prioritizes programs like behavior modification to encourage clean habits, with a primary focus on teaching kids about proper sanitary and basic hygiene. She describes the ISC’s ability to enlist the help of corporations and the private sector in these efforts and how it helps in the larger goal of enhancing India’s sanitation infrastructure.

Women in Banking: Kalpana Morparia

Former J.P.Morgan CEO for South and Southeast Asia, Kalpana Morparia. Additionally, she acts as an Independent Director for a number of Indian corporations. Ms. Morparia earned a BS in chemistry from Sophia College back in 1970. After beginning her career in education, she went on to get a law degree from Bombay University. In 1974, she began working with Matubhai Jamiyatran & Madon after earning her legal degree.

She began her career as an attorney at Industrial Credit and Investment Corporation of India (ICICI), which later amalgamated into ICICI Bank. In 1996, the bank’s previous managing director and chief executive officer picked her as the ideal candidate to oversee the bank’s treasury operations. In 1975, Ms. Morparia became a senior legal officer for ICICI Bank. She began working there in 1975, and by 2007 she was the Vice Chairperson. A banker in Mumbai said that after that, she “never looked back” and became a key member of (K V) Kamath’s A-team, remaining in that position till her retirement.

She has been the CEO of J.P. Morgan in India since 2007. She oversaw operations for the firm’s four divisions: investment banking, asset management, treasury services, and principal investment management. She also oversaw the Indian branches of the company’s Service Groups such Global R&D, FP&A, IT&O, and O&M. Kalpana is a member of the J.P. Morgan Asia Pacific Executive Committee and the J.P. Morgan global strategy team in New York. Independent Director Kalpana Morparia sits on the boards of numerous major Indian corporations.

Dr. Reddy’s Laboratories, CMC Limited, and Philip Morris International, Inc. all have her on their boards of directors with her serving as an independent director. She oversees the charity efforts of the Airtel-affiliated Bharti Foundation. In 2004, Business Today included Kalpana Morparia in their list of “The 25 Most Powerful Women in Indian Business.” In 2006, she was recognized as one of Forbes’ “The 100 Most Powerful Women.” Fortune magazine named Kalpana Morparia one of “The 50 Most Powerful Women in International Business” in 2008.

The Virtual Branch application, a web-based tool offered by J.P. Morgan, saw rapid adoption in India thanks to her direction. The company’s FY18 profit from operations in India increased by 10%, to 1,043 crore. The bank played a key role in advising Walmart on its purchase of Flipkart, the largest retail transaction in India to date.

Women in Banking: Arundhati Bhattacharya 

Breaking the mould of the male-dominated banking industry, Arundhati Bhattacharya became the first woman to serve as chairman of the State Bank of India, one of the largest and most prestigious banks in India. As of 2016, Forbes ranked her as the world’s number 25 most powerful female.

Arundhati Bhattacharya is the first female to head a Fortune India 500 firm. She’s instituted measures like giving women the option of a two-year sabbatical and deputizing them temporarily. She also instituted shift swapping and telework to help women juggle careers and families.

Arundhati Bhattacharya spent her formative years in the cities of Bhilai and Bokaro, in the states of Chhattisgarh and Jharkhand. She found out about the State Bank of India (SBI) admission exam for the position of Probationary officer while pursuing her master’s degree at Jadavpur University in Kolkata.
Arundhati took the SBI PO entrance test soon after finishing her degree and passed it. She was successful in subsequent stages as well.

Arundhati Bhattacharya’s forward-thinking, inclusive, and progressive outlook transformed the bank. She refocused the bank on its customers, bolstered it with technology, and digitized banking, all of which she sees as crucial for India because of the country’s massive population.

Arundhati Bhattacharya, then 22 years old, began her career in banking in 1977 as a Probationary Officer at SBI. She reflects on the lessons she was taught as a child, including the importance of being creative, working well with others, and not being too proud to ask for assistance when she was stuck.
She is now a Grade-1 junior management executive in the Kolkata office of the bank. She worked at the SBI Kharagpur branch from 1983 till 1992, where she rose through the ranks to Assistant General Manager before leaving.

She worked at SBI’s New York branch as a vice president and branch coordinator from 1996 until 2000. Arundhati Bhattacharya’s experience in several fields, such as human resources, foreign exchange, retail operations, investment banking, etc., served her well in her role as Chairperson of the State Bank of India. She put in over 40 years of service at the bank.

Arundhati Bhattacharya’s forward-thinking, inclusive, and progressive outlook transformed the bank. Because of India’s large population, she made the bank more customer-focused by investing in technology and digitizing the financial system. Fortune ranked Arundhati as the 24th most powerful woman in the Asia-Pacific region in 2014, while Forbes ranked her as the 25th most powerful woman in the region in 2016 and the 30th most powerful woman in the region in 2015. Among her many honours in 2018, she was named “the business leader of the year” at the Asian awards.

According to Arundhati, a successful leader should be able to see both the immediate and far future clearly, and you can’t get your argument through without good communication skills. As per her, if you’re a business owner, you need to be aware of your workers’ skillsets and put them to good use, as assigning them to projects where they can shine can boost the company’s output. Any competent leader, in Arundhati Bhattacharya’s view, must adapt to the circumstances. She also thinks it’s important to adapt your management style to fit the needs of the situation.

Arundhati Bhattacharya wrote an autobiography titled “Indomitable: A Working Woman’s Notes on Life, Work, and Leadership,” which she penned. The book guides the reader through her experiences breaking through in a male-dominated industry. She has been the chairman and chief executive officer of Salesforce India, a subsidiary of the American cloud-based customer relationship management software corporation Salesforce, since April 2020. 

As the first female CEO in Salesforce’s history, Bhattacharya appreciates the increased autonomy and improved work-life balance that come with defining her own position as CEO. Arundhati gained valuable insight by making a professional shift to a field that was so distinct from what she had been involved in for a considerable portion of her life.

Arundhati Bhattacharya compares and contrasts the performance management and incentives in the public and private sectors, finding many parallels but also pointing out key distinctions.
In addition, she discusses her personal life, which she and her husband have steered in accordance with the principle that everyone needs their own room to develop.

She stresses the need of adapting your management style to fit the needs of the organization and the challenges you face. Bhattacharya emphasizes in her Ted Talk, the value of teamwork and the ability to go on with little disruption in the event of an absent member of the team. 

Arundhati Bhattacharya is an advocate of continuing education. If you “approach every circumstance with a questioning mind and a learner’s humility then you can’t go wrong,” in her words.

Arundhati’s mother-in-law once could not understand why her new daughter-in-law wanted to dine before the rest of the family after they had all been up for hours. Arundhati explained her reasoning to her mother-in-law, asking whether there was a particular reason women had to wait for men to finish eating. 

This leader also carried out her professional life without the burden of the guilt that is often associated with working women for not being more present in the home. She motivates us to break through our own personal gender barriers and persevere in the face of ingrained gender norms because she has broken through hers! 

Women in Banking: Shyamala Gopinath

Shyamala Gopinath formerly served as the Reserve Bank of India’s Deputy Governor. She is now serving as the Chairperson of HDFC BANK Limited and as a Public Interest Director on the Board of the National Stock Exchange of India. She is an accomplished businesswoman with a Master’s degree and a certification from the Indian Institute of Banking and Finance. 

Gopinath began her career at the Reserve Bank of India as an officer in April 1972. She has since held a number of positions within the organization, including that of Executive Director of the Reserve Bank of India from June 2003, until her promotion to the position of deputy governor in December 2014. She had previously spent two years (2001-2003) at the IMF while there on deputation.

There was some concern about a potential conflict of interest when Gopinath was named Chairperson of the National Stock Exchange after he retired from the Reserve Bank of India.
After Gopinath’s retiring, she was given the roles of Executive Director of Clearing Corporation of India Limited and Chairperson of the CVC Advisory Board. There was talk that Gopinath, one of the Reserve Bank of India’s deputy governors, was one of the kindest and most empathetic people in the world. After the fraud at the Reserve Bank of India Bhopal in 2003, she was credited with helping Uma Subramaniam rebuild her reputation and resume.

Women in Banking: Shanti Ekambaram

Shanti has worked with the Kotak Mahindra group for more than twenty years, during which time she has established and led a number of profitable business divisions. Shanti is in charge of delivering complete consulting and financial solutions to top Indian corporations, PSUs, financial institutions, MNCs, and the government in her role as President, Corporate & Investment Banking at Kotak Mahindra Bank. Shanti has extensive experience in many different areas of investment banking, such as the capital markets, mergers and acquisitions, fixed income, fixed income syndication and advisory, the proprietary fixed income government securities business, and corporate banking (including working capital and project financing, transaction banking services, and treasury products. 

Shanti was the Executive Director and CEO of Kotak Investment Banking from 1998 till 2002, when she moved on to oversee the company’s Corporate Banking operations. Shanti has been with the company since 1994. She and her colleagues have led the company to the forefront of its industry and built a name for themselves as industry leaders known for their ability to execute ground-breaking deals, such as the first book-built issue in India, which introduced international best practices to the country’s capital markets. 

For a little time before she joined the Kotak Mahindra team, Shanti worked in the corporate banking & treasury department at Bank of Nova Scotia – the Canadian International Bank. Shanti has a Bachelor of Commerce from the University of Mumbai’s famed Sydenham College and certificates in both Chartered Accountancy and Cost and Works Accountancy.

Women in Banking: Ranjana Kumar

Ranjana Kumar is a well-known Indian banker with about 44 years of expertise in a variety of roles. Mrs. Ranjana Kumar is an accomplished scholar with a Bachelor of Arts and a Gold Medal. Having served as the Chairperson and Managing Director of Indian Bank, the Chairperson of the National Bank for Agriculture and Rural Development (NABARD), the Executive Director holding concurrent charge as the Chairman and Managing Director of Canara Bank, and the Chief Executive Officer of the US Operations of Bajaj Auto. 

 Ranjana Kumar retired as a Vigilance Commissioner from the Central Vigilance Commission (A Constitutional Post with Government of India). Indian Bank, the weakest PSU Bank at the time, was turned around and made profitable under Mrs. Ranjana Kumar’s chairperson. Mrs. Ranjana Kumar is now the Chief Executive Officer, U.S. Operations, in New York for the “weak” Bank of India operations in the United States (1995-1999). She made sure that the proper structures and procedures were in place. In 1998, the U.S. Federal Reserve gave the bank a “STRONG” status, its highest possible.

Shika Sharma: CEO and Managing Director of Axis Bank

As the first private Indian bank to be granted permission to do insurance business, Shikha Sharma began her professional life with the Industrial Credit and Investment Corporation of India (ICICI) in 1980, where she eventually became the head of the company’s life insurance section. As a result of her efforts, the firm is still the biggest private sector life insurance provider in India, where it has led from day one. 

She came to think of ICICI as her second family and did her part to advance the company, whose rise paralleled her own. Being the daughter of an Army officer, Shikha Sharma has always been quite disciplined in her life and work. She made her way as a successful businesswoman in a field where men predominated. She’s the kind to see each assignment as a new adventure. Considering this, it’s hardly surprising that she was picked as the head of Axis Bank nearly overwhelmingly.

Daughter to a soldier who served all throughout India before settling in Delhi, Shikha Sharma has lived in the capital of her whole life. She attended the Loreto Convent in Delhi for high school and then went on to get a degree in economics from Lady Shri Ram College in the same city. At Mumbai’s National Institute of Software Technology, she earned a master’s degree in the field of software engineering. Additionally, she earned her MBA at the Indian Institute of Management in Ahmadabad.

Shikha Sharma began her professional life in the financial sector in 1980 with ICICI, India’s biggest bank. After finishing her studies at IIM Ahmadabad, she quickly joined ICICI. She has been a part of the ICICI Group for the last 28 years and throughout that time has founded many different companies. She established the ICICI and J.P. Morgan partnership known as ICICI Securities in 1992.

 She began establishing ICICI’s investment banking and retail finance divisions as part of the company’s overall operations. A member of the ICICI Securities team, she was sent to J.P. Morgan in 1995. She returned to ICICI in 1997, this time as the General Manager in charge of Strategic Planning and Development. She joined ICICI’s Personal Financial Services division in 1998 as Managing Director.

 Additionally, from December 2006 to May 2009, Shikha Sharma was the Independent Director of ACC limited. She also served as the Director of ICICI Prudential Life Insurance Company. Since June 1, 2009, she has held the positions of CEO, MD, and Chairperson & Associate Director at Axis Bank Limited and CEO, MD, and Associate Director at Axis Asset Management Company Limited.

Additional Efforts

A lot of ICICI Prudential’s success may be attributed to Shikha Sharma. That company is the one she founded and has grown to become the industry standard in life insurance. She has been a part of the ICICI Group for the last 28 years and has done a lot of groundwork for the bank’s consumer finance division. It was here that she introduced a novel micro insurance cover of $1 per month for the impoverished in India. As of December 2008, ICICI Prudential was led by her and had captured 13% of the market.

Her wonderful heritage One of two successful woman business owners in India, Shikha Sharma runs a private bank. Even though the banking and insurance industries are mostly controlled by men, she was able to lead ICICI Prudential to become the biggest private insurance firm in India because of her remarkable management skills. Her legacy is being followed by millions of ambitious women today.