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Mr. Ashish Chauhan is an Indian executive currently serving as Chief of Bombay Stock Exchange. He is an IIT Bombay and IIM Ahmedabad alumnus with an exemplary CV to say the least. Prior to his present designation, he worked in Reliance Group of Industries as Chief Information Officer. Moreover, he played an instrumental role in development of NSE and is hailed as “Father of Financial Derivatives”. Dive in for more…
Part – I
Career Story and personal philosophies
- Introduction and motivation for management
- Journey to finance and IDBI bank
- Interview in IIM
- Working in IDBI
- Having Faith and NSE
- SATCOM story
- Leaving NSE
- Working as an entrepreneur
- Hired by Mr. Ambani
- Being best CIO in the Petrochemical sector
- Cricket team
- Being passionate for work
- Being BSE chief
Part – II
- What do you think people should wait for opportunities or delve into something?
- What should be the criteria for choosing a career path?
- You didn’t have any peer pressure to improve your grades?
- What is the sense of satisfaction people working under you get in Finance?
- Could you share some words of wisdom on finance?
- What are the plans for BSE in the next 5 years?
- What would be your advice to students who are currently pursuing engineering in IITs, not just IITB but all IITs?
Part – I
Career Story and Personal philosophies
#Introduction and motivation for management
I was born and brought up in Ahmedabad, Gujarat. I studied in a Gujarati medium school till class 12th and attempted JEE in English, a tough thing for me. Somehow, I got into IIT and took admission in mechanical engineering. It took me a lot of time to learn English which is why I struggled in academics for first 3 years. At that time, I thought I’m not a good engineer. Most of my time went in learning English and being involved in extracurricular activities or organizational work like sports fest, footloose, Mood Indigo, Tarang and other kind of stuff from institute level to hostel level like handling mess activities etc. I thought, I would not be a good engineer, but I can perhaps become a good manager. I gave both GATE and CAT and scored good marks.
#Journey to finance and IDBI bank
From early on I liked to read about economics at IIT, I enrolled in elective courses on western philosophy and economics which gave me confidence that I can excel in economics. I chose to opt for MBA. However, MBA doesn’t allow you to learn something in detail. MBA covers so many subjects from accounts, economics, finance, sales, marketing, statistics, behavioral science to strategies, tactics and everything under the sun and just shrink everything into a concise duration of 2 years in the form of little chunks. I had to work a lot to cope up with things like assignments and group discussions, but ultimately, I just skimmed over the surface of all these domains. Unlike MBA, Master’s in engineering, allows you to do a very detailed work in something specific. At MBA I got a little flavour of everything but did not learn much in detail on anything. Anyways I ended up in finance finally.
I was in IIM Calcutta and IIM campus allowed my mind to think differently for those two years. It also gave me the opportunity to join IDBI. There were only three development banks at that time, and I applied to all of them hoping to get selected by one of them. IDBI selected me. That was the first offer I received, and I accepted on the spot.
#Interview in IIM
I was young at that time, and when you are young, you have all sorts of notions. In IIM, like in IIT I was always in slippers and shorts. Colleagues of mine used to wear jackets and suit to put their best in interviews. I believed the interviewers should always see through your talent and not the way you are dressed, but in retrospect, I now realize that I was wrong. Anyways, I ended up going in slippers and T-shirts for interviews. These were the mistakes that I made, and I now believe it was not appropriate at that time. Because when you act funny, the interviewers start thinking that you are not serious or an odd one who may not behave well later. Fortunately, one of the IDBI Interviewers selected me despite all this, after a very long interview.
#Working in IDBI
After joining IDBI, I realized that I had to learn many additional things in Finance, What I learned at IIM was not applicable immediately in IDBI was outdated. I learned things at IDBI by going to the library and understand newer and newer things which happened very rapidly for me. Management is social sciences and it changes fast, unlike stuff like physics and chemistry which stays the same for centuries. The theories taught in science classes can still be implemented after many years because the basics remain the same. While everything in finance and economics depend on action and reactions of people involved, which changes relatively fast with time.
#Having Faith and NSE
When I was in IIT we were trained on FORTRAN IV, using punch cards. Later on, another Mainframe came to IIT which we called CYBER. Also, I was fortunate that my Lab in IIT had some good standalone machines, so I learned a little bit of programming during my BTP ( B.Tech Project). Standalone machines were a novelty those days. It was compulsory in my time to do BTP, so I learned it irrespective of my choice I had made a project on automation. Then in IIM we had PCs to work on spreadsheets and other stuff. All these experiences and knowledge of computers became a strategic tool for me vis-a-vis others, because I knew how to use computers for commercial purposes. I was able to type proficiently, knew how to use spreadsheets and other stuff, which is why people in IDBI thought I was a computers whiz. I ended up working harder and my colleagues started appreciating this. When IDBI was setting up a new automated exchange NSE, and selected five senior people as initial team, one of them dropped out assuming NSE will not work. As a replacement, they selected me (as an afterthought) because I worked hard and knew computer well and because they assumed this guy can’t say “No” as he is new.
All these are quirks of fate or accidents happened to me, and they will happen to everyone. So whatever accidents happen in your life, whatever opportunities come in your life, you should take them up to the extent you can, rather than trying to be adamant on a particular course of action or a career path. You can be little more flexible. Life is about too many changes that are happening and if you are not ready it will hurt you in long term. If you make up your mind in one area that one area itself may become irrelevant with changing time. Be flexible.
At NSE, I designed the satellite communication (SATCOM) network in stock market for the very first time in India. I designed it by reading books. The satellite was 36000 km up in the sky; nobody could see it, nobody worked before in India with satellite technology. I was the first to make it commercial in India, and retrospectively I feel very proud of it. I also worked on implementing screen-based trading. It was new to the world too. I also created Nifty Index amongst many other things including derivatives.
The real difficulty in working in an environment as an engineer where 99% of the work was unrelated to technology is getting accustomed to the work. All the procedures and bureaucracies, handled by other people, leaves you frustrated. So, most of what you study you won’t end up using. In my case, it happened the other way round. I did my B.Tech project, which had IT stuff, and it was the quirk of fate that I learnt it and then used it effectively.
NSE became my identity. Nobody believed that I could move away from NSE because everything from construction, building technology to derivatives everything was done by me. I got a call from Reliance Industries one day while in Washington U.S in 2000 and was asked to start up a new exchange, they’ll fund me. I was interested but told them that my first priority is the job offer I was expecting to receive from World Bank. I was in Washington DC for an interview with the World Bank and was stuck there for about two weeks due to incessant snow. I was staying near the World Bank headquarters itself and had to go there every day for interviews. Eventually, I declined the World Bank offer as they were offering me a job in a different work profile from what I’d applied for.
#Working as an entrepreneur
I went to Reliance after coming back from US and accepted their offer I also told them that I’m not from entrepreneur family. My parents were in government service. I told them that I might have done great things, but I need a decent salary. Since they were pouring so much money in this exchange, they readily agreed to match the World Bank’s offer. It took me a year to get the Exchange up on its feet but after one year the E-Commerce industry went down under and our funding got cut off. We didn’t know what to do.
#Hired by Mr. Ambani
The future was pretty uncertain and from being a successful guy the previous year, I was down on the road in 2001. I had the responsibility of protecting 100s of jobs including mine. Then Mr. Mukesh Ambani told me that they were setting up a new telecom start-up called Reliance InfoComm on which I readily jumped along with my colleagues. We met with a bit of hostility as we were perceived as new comers and a threat to people already working.
There were serious issues of billing in Reliance InfoComm at that time. So, Mr. Ambani asked me about the responsibilities of a CIO. I searched job profile of a telecom CIO on the internet and presented it to him. He told me, “Okay, it looks fine. You are the CIO from now on!”. I was just 35 years old and the people around me were 50 plus with very high salaries. It was a bit difficult to work around. Eventually I was able to manage the people and turn around the billing and other operations plus IT Systems. Shortly after, Reliance InfoComm went to Mr. Anil Ambani and he hired a new CIO for the same. I was on the road again (not literally), but fortunately it wasn’t devastating since I was married, and my wife was working.
#Being best CIO in the Petrochemical sector
Later on, I got a call from Mr. Mukesh Ambani’s office asking me to return to Reliance Industries, this time as a CIO of the entire Reliance group. It was an entirely different work with me handling IT for entire Reliance group including Petrochem, Oil and Gas, Pipeline, Organised retail, schools, Refinery business, etc. I was awarded the best CIO in the Petro-chemical sector in the world and among top 50 CIOs of the world in U.S . I was also assigned to run the Public Relations of the Reliance Group as an additional job. The work was very interesting yet challenging for an engineer, but I got the hang of it pretty soon. Being a “Stock Market Guy”, I also handled the IPO of Reliance Petroleum and many other activities related to financial contracting etc.
Mr. Ambani then bought a cricket team and I was yet again asked to run that division Mumbai Indians as additional duty. I had a passion for cricket, something which was noticed by Mr. Ambani thus convincing him that I would give everything I had to this job. The first task assigned was to increase the currently abysmal sale of match tickets. In a day, I figured out some possible ways which included selling them to our own distributors and employees. For the First match at Wankhede, the entire stadium was filled decently except for Sunil Gavaskar stand which was completely empty because the ticket sale for the stand was handled by MCA. So, Mrs. Ambani requested me to figure out something which I eventually did by handing out those tickets for free among the crowd outside the stadium. Noticing the huge commotion, Police arrived at the scene and locked me up in a van under the pretext of causing riots. After 10-15 mins of convincing by the Reliance security guards, the police came to know that I was the CEO of Mumbai Indians and let me go. The important thing to take away from this is to never shy away from any kind of work. If you have to do it, then do it. The thing about a good worker is that you have to be resourceful. You have to become one of the few who find solutions to the problems created by many. If you are an Engineer or an MBA and also able to figure out solutions, then you’ll always be in demand. The ability to create solutions, at least in my life came out of organising Mood Indigo, Sports and Film Fest etc. at IIT Bombay.
#Being passionate for work
Many people are passionate about some specific field. But, I’m passionate about any work assigned to me and try to give it my all without any bias towards any work profile. The most important quality that you have to possess in today’s world (or even 5000 years ago for that matter) is the presence of Moral Compass. If you can control yourself to not do wrong, you slowly get a reputation as a trustworthy, dependable guy which is extremely important in the corporate world as in normal life.
#Being BSE chief
In 2009, We had a small family firm of our own which was working in parallel. I was funding it but could not work for it because I was working for Reliance at the time. My colleagues were running it, they were also part owners, my wife was a majority owner. We were trying to sell it because it had become a large company, and otherwise it would collapse as it needed full time attention. We sold it in 2007 to someone and it came back with loses, then after some time we sold it again to BSE in 2009. At the last moment they put a condition that I would have to work with them for a year, because I had a great reputation in the stock market. It allowed my family to create nest egg and that is how I left my interesting job of being the Mumbai Indian CEO and Reliance Group CIO. BSE was a different organization, I came in for 1 year initially because of the condition, but it is my 11th year now. If you are happy-go-lucky and flexible, then you can be useful and contribute.
Part II – Questions
What do you think people should wait for opportunities or delve into something?
Opportunities come in myriad ways. It’s not like you’ll be able to take all of them, it’s not that all opportunities will give you the same result. This is what I call path dependent equilibrium. You just happen to walk on a path and wait for the next opportunity to come. You can’t bring back history or go back to the past and repair it. You have to continue on the same path. Most opportunities don’t advertise themselves. You have to develop an ability to sense them.
For example, you may aspire to be IITian. You may think about what happens if I don’t do well or fit into it. After getting into IIT you would rarely go back and start again, and it may not be worth it. So, every opportunity and every decision are path dependent. Also, one story may not happen exactly the same for the second person even if you follow the same path. So many changes are happening to life that being adamant on following only one path itself may not hold relevance. Be flexible, opportunities will come your way. They will not be well packaged. You have to identify and take them.
What should be the criteria while choosing a career path?
When I joined IIT I was asked about my hobbies in the hostel, so what is your hobby? I told them that I liked sleeping. I was unambitious, and I’m still unambitious. I have nothing to prove to anyone. If I had some ambition to get some X thing or become Y person, it would have become too much to bear in the long run. I would have started feeling left out and started worrying and feeling dissatisfied about it. My level of satisfaction with having nothing kept me a little happier. It ensured that I didn’t get frustrated because life is generally about several years of routine boring things and then suddenly something comes out, and then another few years of frustration. Would you be able to take it? How will you motivate yourself to wake up every day, go and fight having the same enthusiasm when nothing is happening? For me being personally satisfied and happy was a very important thing. I didn’t need anything external to be happy or satisfied.
You didn’t have any peer pressure to improve your grades?
It just that I was not worried about any pressure. What can peer pressure do? Life was very tough as a child. At IIT also it was very bad due to lack of knowledge of English. I was never dissatisfied with my salary even if it was lower. I am an unusually satisfied person which I still am. I don’t say that it’s the only correct path for everyone. There are many ways to go about it. In effect, in most student or peer or corporate games, I don’t get involved as a player, I don’t get sucked into competition.
Could you share some words of wisdom on finance?
There are several aspects of finance. Finance is like engineering, we have civil, electrical, mechanical, metallurgy. Finance also has 100s of sub streams, you have to understand where what is possible. An engineer wanting to go into any business just because he/she knows problem solving and knows little bit of IT, will make him/her successful if he/she applies those traits. If you are very good at it, you may become even more successful, not only in finance but also in other areas. For me, finance, is important because it makes societies function. Without money, there is no activity. Money is important hence finance is important. In addition, a lot of people are able to make a lot of money in finance. Finance is the number one consumer of tech because they have money and can make even more money using tech. Engineers have a lot of advantages over others because of speed, calculations and solutions mindset in finance. So, finance is currently ideally suited for engineers and probably will remain so in the future.
What are the plans for BSE in the next 5 years?
BSE has lasted for 144 years, till now. For next 144 years, it has to figure out what to do. Earlier, BSE was a monopoly in Bombay, now it has competition, and has lost ground to NSE in many ways. How does it reinvent itself in the business? Past is important, but the business of the future is more important. You may continue to hold on to your base products, but slowly, the world moves on to newer things. For example, stock market floor was there till 1994 and then screens came by 1995 everything was screen based. BSE lost out because of that. Then they used to trade stocks only, then derivatives came, people moved there, and BSE did not participate, so BSE suffered. So how do you find ways to compete? You have to visualise the future, what different ways the future can unfold, then you can build for it because you can’t sort of dig the well when there is fire. You have to visualise and dig the well before hand. People who can see the future, visualise different things and build for it, they become bigger than past businesses like what happened to screens, derivatives etc. BSE is also looking at other businesses like mutual funds distribution (which has become large now), insurance distribution, power trading, commodity trading and so on. Basically BSE is also kind of ecommerce, how to take advantage of BSE’s network, IT prowess and continue to add value to the place you work say reducing cost for somebody, by increasing profits for somebody and that is when people find you more useful. You need to have patience until success comes, you will have to work and work every day until success comes. You have to pivot a lot. Being a CEO can be very lonely. Very dark for long. You cannot lose your passion and you have to continue to work hard every day. Some ideas may take 10 years to even germinate, and you have to have that comfort, patience and understanding plus lack of frustration. In Mutual funds distribution, it started in 2009 end, now 10 years later people take us as important, but even in 2017, BSE’s own people were thinking about why we were not doing anything worthwhile. In 2017, in mutual funds, nobody was paying. Employees were thinking why we were working for 8 years without fruits. Now, situation is different, Mutual fund distribution has started giving lot of money to BSE. If you can see the future, then you can make the future.
What is the sense of satisfaction people working under you get in Finance?
Mostly, work is a large part of your identity. Your self-worth, even your family life gets affected by your work, because work is pretty much what you make up to be. In addition, most people have to figure out what satisfaction is. It is not outside of you, satisfaction comes from within. So whatever job you do, if you’re generally dissatisfied, you will be dissatisfied in non-finance as well. In finance, the job is high paying, so people are more motivated, and most people have greed, so they make a lot and lose a lot, they run a lot after newer and newer challenges, so materially people are happy. But if you haven’t settled the mental part of yours, you will still remain dissatisfied, despite having a lot of money. Satisfaction is quite an individual thing and has very little to do with money.
What would be your advice to students who are currently pursuing engineering in IITs, not just IITB but all IITs?
Go and experience life, and if you have the capability to separate the hype from reality, see and create the future. But more importantly, create the satisfaction within, then you’ll have a meaningful life. Otherwise, society will make you run and the idea you’ll get is that there’s nothing in the end.
Life has many colors to show you in many many different areas. You have to develop an eye to appreciate those colors – these opportunities work on them. Have a satisfied, meaningful life. Contribute to betterment in the society. It will give you a purpose. Don’t get tired. Don’t get frustrated. Keep on working. Changing. With passion, courage and enthusiasm in the fields you get to work in.