Meet Athena member Sharmila Kassam. She’s an independent public board director; a seasoned C-level executive; an investment, and governance expert. Whether it was leading an investment team at a $30 billion state pension or launching a strategic consulting firm right before the global pandemic hit, Sharmila is known for never backing down from a challenge. She now heads the AIF Institute, which is part of an investment industry think tank representing over $50 trillion in assets. Her mandate at the AIF Institute is to launch Centers of Excellence in several areas, including the Center for ESG and Sustainable Investing. Today, she shares her career path, insights, and advice.
Tell us about your executive journey so far.
As a recovering CPA and attorney, I built up my technical expertise as a financial and governance expert. I cut my teeth in the technology sector when the startup economy was booming in Texas by working at high-growth companies until my first career market event — the dot.com bust. I returned to law school, and my legal career began working in Silicon Valley with WSGR. I developed a love of taking on non-linear challenges from working with public and private companies, which really broadened my thinking as I was introduced to the investment industry.
In my next career chapter, I managed a large $30 billion state pension investment program and team bringing a private-sector culture to this public agency. I worked through my second career market event, the GFC, early in my tenure. I repositioned our portfolios to be resilient to attain top quartile investment performance relative to our peers. After more than a decade, I knew it was time to leave to pursue thought leadership in areas I felt there was a need.
What motivated you to leave government work?
I was being groomed to be the Chief Investment Officer, which would have meant another decade of public service. I was working long hours for very little money, and I simply couldn’t see myself making an impact the way I wanted to. I felt I had made the progress I could and wanted a bigger opportunity to have a larger impact on global investors. I’m excited about my current work as the Executive Director of the AIF Institute where I’m working on the pragmatic integration of diversity, inclusion, and ESG initiatives.
What is your experience as a woman in investing?
To be frank, it’s very lonely. I was one of the few women in a senior role at a large institutional investor. I was easily recognizable: I was the bold, short Indian woman in a room of men with a different resume. It was an opportunity to distinguish myself quickly by discussing the hard issues and opportunities in a very conservative industry. I made sure to build a strong network of women inside and outside the industry for support and having that “girls club” by my side was really important.
What boards do you serve on?
I’m an independent board member and Nom/Gov Chair on a NYSE-listed SPAC focused on EdTech. It’s exciting because of its ESG-focus and the sector being propelled by a growing need during the pandemic. I also serve on a hedge fund board that invests in US infrastructure opportunities with a $2 billion asset manager. I am eager to serve on one more board, ideally a late-stage private company or micro/small cap public company. That’s where I bring a lot of value with my financial and governance experience, strategic thinking and robust investment industry network.
What unique value do you bring to the boardroom?
I’ve worked inside companies and also as an investor. Wearing a lot of hats in my career, I offer a comprehensive perspective for companies. This includes a meaningful view on all three components of environmental, social, and governance (ESG). I also have an unique background of governance, financial, investor and operational experience for an interesting view on risk management. I spent years speaking to boards, many years in a public forum, so understand the needs and work to be done by these fiduciaries.
What legacy do you hope to leave through your board leadership?
I’ve developed a strategic vision that I hope prevents people from getting siloed into a particular way of thinking. I’ve often been told I approach problems with outside-the-box thinking, backed up with the practical technical experience to operationalize solutions.
I also want to share my perspective on inclusion. The real promise of inclusion is that organizations can consider different perspectives, teams can work effectively amid uncertainty, and a more innovative and sustainable culture can surface. There’s a lot of talk about diversity on boards, but I actually think the inclusion part is equally, if not more important.
What value have you gained from your Athena membership?
Coco brought me on board after we met at a conference. I immediately loved how the technology component allowing the Athena community to be so diverse and global. After being here for almost a year, I’ve found the best part of Athena to be the salons. They are interactive and engaging. Having successful women talk about their areas of expertise-without the pomp and circumstance that you typically get from conferences-is refreshing. I haven’t seen other organizations replicate this caliber of educational content.
I hope to integrate more of Athena’s boardroom diversity initiatives into the broader investor universe. Private equity and venture firms can definitely benefit from Athena’s executive development and will appreciate the ability to recommend stellar women for board roles. US Investors are currently grappling with how to measure the success of their diversity efforts, so seeing Athena’s milestones would provide them with a much-needed perspective.
What advice do you have for women rising into the C-suite and boardroom?
First, take the nonlinear path to open yourself up to larger, broader opportunities. Second, use your network as a sounding board to challenge you as much as to encourage you. Third, remember to lean into your resilience when trying to move up the corporate ladder.
Athena members are the top women leaders in business. Accelerate your executive journey with an Athena Alliance membership, starting at just $850. Connect with women leaders like Sharmila through Athena’s business services, including board director recruitment and free postings of your board and executive opportunities to the Athena community.
Originally published at https://athenaalliance.com on February 3, 2021.