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Penn alumna Nina Godiwalla // In "Suits: A Woman on Wall Street" addresses the status of women in the corporate world. | Courtesy of flickr user Chris Brown

While Wall Street and engineering companies are still considered to be male-dominated industries, many women have succeeded in seeking opportunities and gaining recognition in these fields.

Nina Godiwalla, a Penn alumna who was recently awarded the 2015 Kathleen McDonald Distinguished Alumna Award, has been actively helping to shatter glass ceilings in both finance and law.

Author of a best-selling book

As the best-selling author of the internationally acclaimed book, “Suits: A Woman on Wall Street,” Godiwalla has stimulated discussion on the status of women in the corporate world. The book, described by “The New York Times” as “The Devil Wears Prada” of investment banking, traces Godiwalla’s personal journey through the financial industry as a woman of minority status.

Godiwalla’s inspiration for the book stemmed from a desire to start a conversation on how corporations can create an environment where people want to stay and are set up to succeed.

“I wanted a dialogue around how we could change,” Godiwalla said, mentioning her experiences as an investment banker. “I’ve seen so many women and minorities go into investment banking, and they would leave and not quite understand why they were having such a challenging experience.”

However, Godiwalla emphasized that the book is a personal account, and is not meant to be a generalization of how all women should navigate the workplace.

“It’s about my personal experience, not a roadmap. I want to create a conversation about change,” she said.

She hopes the book can serve as a tool to help others who may not understand the circumstances faced by minority women in the work place.

“If you don’t experience [these challenges], it’s hard to imagine what another person might go through,” she said. “It’s an opportunity for the other people to see situations through a different lens that they would not experience themselves.”

After the book was published, Godiwalla founded MindWorks Leadership, which aims to provide leadership and diversity training programs for major corporations and national organizations. As her book became increasingly popular, her professional options began to evolve.

“At that point, I had two choices: stay in the corporate world, or respond to all the companies that were eager for me to speak and train their staff on diversity issues,” Godiwalla said.

While she says that much has changed since she first entered the financial industry, Godiwalla emphasized that there is still a lot that needs to be done to increase diversity and inclusion.

“Investment banks have already been trying to increase their diversity and inclusion efforts,” Godiwalla said. “Certain industries are challenging because the environment status quo is not very inclusive.”

She added that she was intrigued by the opportunity to start a discussion around changing environments that have historically had trouble retaining women and minorities.

Challenges faced by women across industries

Godiwalla’s personal experiences have shaped her understanding of the minority status in the business world.

“It is easy to be aware of the differences when you are one among the few,” Godiwalla said. “There is no question; as I moved through my life, I needed to be aware of the positive traits my differences brought to the table.”

Godiwalla considers the lack of female presence and advancement opportunities in certain industries as the biggest challenges women face.

“If you have people that are similar to you, it makes the environment a little bit easier but not necessarily as productive,” Godiwalla said. “The challenge is that sometimes there is a bias against you, and you’re not given the opportunity. You’re not perceived as capable of taking the more challenging assignments.”

She mentioned a concept called “covering up” developed by Kengi Yoshino. “If you are not working in an environment with people that are similar to you, you may be spending a lot of energy covering your differences just to fit in,” Godiwalla said.

Godiwalla believes that in order to make effective change, everyone needs to be on board. Part of this includes understanding our unconscious biases. Research shows that in the first seven seconds of meeting someone, we unknowingly make 11 judgements about them.

“When people start to become aware of this unconscious bias, then we can start to make change,” Godiwalla said. “Often when people act in a discriminatory manner, they don’t realize it.”

This underlines the importance of having open and honest conversations about diversity. Sometimes people might not realize that those around them can have similar challenges.

“One of the first steps is to bring people together to get to know each other — to hear that the experiences and challenges they’re facing are not unique,” Godiwalla said. “Other people might be facing similar challenges.”

Diverse academic interests drove her success

Godiwalla has pursued academic interests in a diverse range of fields. After earning an undergraduate business degree from the University of Texas at Austin, she pursued a master's degree in creative writing from Dartmouth College. In 2006, Godiwalla earned an MBA degree from the Wharton School.

Godiwalla considers her multi-dimensional academic background to be incredibly valuable for her career development.

“There is no question that I feel very grateful that I was in two very different disciplines,” Godiwalla said.

At Dartmouth, Godiwalla focused on a variety of liberal arts subjects in an interdisciplinary program. The innovative program brought professors of two varied disciplines together to explore new topics. She found the critical thinking skills coupled with the diverse perspectives to be extremely valuable when she arrived at business school.

“In the business world, ideas are often contemplated in a binary fashion. Often solutions are right or wrong,” Godiwalla said. “When you are in the liberal arts world, ideas become much more complex. I developed invaluable critical thinking skills that I can now apply to the business world.”

But that doesn’t mean that Godiwalla’s time at Wharton wasn’t valuable to her. She appreciated Wharton’s quick problem-solving mentality.

“Wharton’s frenetic environment was amazing because you’re constantly put into different situations and there is no expectation that you will be an expert at one thing,” Godiwalla said. “What Wharton really taught me is how to get comfortable with ambiguity and not fear challenging situations. This education proved valuable in my post-MBA role as a general manager at Johnson & Johnson.”

New chapters unfold — diversity in the legal industry

Godiwalla now serves as the U.S. director of diversity and inclusion at Norton Rose Fulbright, the third-largest global law firm, where she focuses on recruiting, retaining and developing diverse talent within the legal industry. She views her current role as a continuation of her previous experience in workplace leadership and diversity.

Godiwalla was drawn to this role because she knew she could bring lessons from the corporate world to the legal industry.

“I saw it as a great opportunity to make changes within an industry that is known to be behind in diversity,” she said. “The creation of my position and the support I have received is a testament to the willingness to change.”

The firm’s goal is to have 30 percent women partners by 2020. In comparison to the industry’s 17 percent average, this is a substantial goal.

“At Wharton I learned that if it is not measured, it is not managed. Organizations need to set goals and targets,” Godiwalla said. “Our aggressive 30 percent goal has pushed our leaders to really strive for better results.”

Advice for Penn students

Godiwalla encourages students to take risks while pursuing their passions.

"When the governor of Texas inaugurated me into the Texas Women’s Hall of Fame, he asked ‘What do you think made you stand out?’ I realized in that moment that it was my risky choice to move in and out of the corporate world that ironically led to my success in business. First, I left to pursue a liberal arts master’s degree and second, to publish the book. Until then, I’d mostly been above-average, but often just followed the herd,” Godiwalla said.

“I grew up in a risk-averse immigrant family so I had to marry being practical and following my passions. If you feel strongly drawn to something in your gut, don’t ignore it. Passions live within you and are part of a larger purpose that you can’t always envision or articulate in the short term. At Wharton, I was a leadership fellow who designed and led a meditation and yoga program because it was one of my personal interests. I would have never guessed I’d use all of those skills later to develop leadership programs for executives at major corporations,” Godiwalla said.There’ll be some sort of thread later in your life that connects everything together.”

For Godiwalla, finding the intersection between passion and practicality is what paved the way to her success.

“It’s figuring out ways to integrate things that you enjoy doing ... because by the time you get to your thirties, if you’re not enjoying what you’re doing, you’re not going to be very successful,” Godiwalla said. “You stand out when you choose a profession you love because your energy is contagious.”

In addition to urging students to find their passion, Godiwalla also emphasized the importance of choosing the right working environment.

“I’m a business person at heart so I can’t deny that money, power, prestige all factor into my career decisions, but my tie breaker is choosing an organization that is based on how much I like the people,” she said. “If I really don’t like the people, I know I won’t succeed there in the long term."

Godiwalla also stressed the importance of having a growth mindset and living in a world where you can learn from everyone around you.

“As a member of ‘The Wall Street Journal’s’ Task Force and other CEO forums, I’ve had meaningful discussions with the country’s top business leaders, but I’ve come to realize the most important lessons can be learned from the most unexpected sources. Right now, I’m learning about resilience from a friend who cares full-time for her special needs son with violent tendencies. I’ve applied many of these lessons in my workplace. Whether someone is seemingly similar to you or not, the diverse perspective you can gain by actively engaging those around you, is a cumulative knowledge base with unparalleled power.”

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