This woman entrepreneur’s wealth advisory firm handles $3.5B financial assets of over 70 Indian business families

After a 17-year career as a banker, Soumya Rajan founded Waterfield Advisors, a leading independent multi-family office and wealth advisory firm, in 2011.

As the Founder, Managing Director, and CEO of Waterfield Advisors, a leading multi-family office and advisory firm, Soumya Rajan is one of very few women in India who heads a financial services company at a national scale.

The firm advises clients in the areas of financial planning, investment management, corporate governance, business succession, legacy planning, and philanthropy.

Soumya Rajan - Founder of Waterfield Advisors

She has had an illustrious 17-year banking career with ANZ Grindlays and Standard Chartered Bank, before embarking on entrepreneurship. Soumya also serves as the Vice Chair of Reach to Teach, a UK-based charity, which works in primary education for under-privileged children between the ages of 3-14 years in rural and disadvantaged areas of Gujarat, India.

She is a Member of the Advisory Council of the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) Gandhinagar’s Research Park and Innovation and Entrepreneurship Centre, and an Advisory Member of Peepul, a not-for-profit organisation focussed on creating a school transformation platform for Government Schools in Delhi. She was recognised by AIWMI as being one of “India’s Top 100 Women in Finance” professionals in 2019.

In a conversation with HerStory, she speaks about Waterfield Advisors, being a woman entrepreneur in India, and why it’s important to mentor and nurture women to reach leadership positions.

Edited excerpts from the interview:

HerStory (HS): Can you tell us a little about yourself…

Soumya Rajan (SR): I grew up in a traditional upper middle class home. My father was with the State Bank of India, so transfers and studying in many different schools was an integral part of growing up. Between 1975-1980, my father was posted to SBI’s offices in New York. This was a very defining period for us as a family. My mother was a working woman and fiercely independent and free-spirited – very much a role model for her two daughters.

My parents strongly believed that education was the best gift they could give me, and throughout my growing up years, my sister and I went to the best schools in India and overseas.

After school, I went to St. Stephens College, Delhi, where I read Mathematics and then won the Radhakrishnan Scholarship to study Mathematics at Oxford University in the UK. Oxford was a wonderful experience.

HS: Tell us about your banking career…

SR: After finishing my degree at Oxford, I joined ANZ Grindlays Bank as a Management Trainee in 1994. It was a very traditional career choice. In the early 90s, if your parents were from a salaried background, you never thought about entrepreneurship. The preferred career choices in the corporate sector were to either join a foreign bank, an FMCG company, or a consulting firm. With both my parents as bankers, joining a foreign bank seemed the natural choice; and with that a 17-year career stint with ANZ Grindlays Bank/ Standard Chartered Bank started. At Standard Chartered India, my career was fast-tracked, and I was the youngest woman in the bank (at the age of 38) to have an independent P&L responsibility as Head of its Private Banking Division in 2008.

HS: Tell us about Waterfield Advisors, what does it do?

SR: Waterfield Advisors is India’s leading independent multi-family office and wealth advisory firm. Established in 2011, we advise on over $3.5 billion of financial assets on behalf of more than 70 prominent Indian business families whom we serve from several offices in India.

It was one of the first financial services firm in the country to introduce and pioneer in 2011 the concept of a “fee-paid-by-the-client” only for investment advisory services in wealth management. This was in stark contrast to the business models prevalent at the time, which were distributor led and fraught with conflict of interest, where product manufacturers paid distributors (who often masqueraded as advisors) to sell their financial products.

Today, all wealth management firms are talking about advisory services (where the business model is based on fees received from a client), and many openly say that this is the future and pivoting their business models to advisory. I recognised the need very early on; and established Waterfield’s business model on advisory services to reflect greater fee transparency, a lower cost of investment, good governance, and better ethics for a client and employees.

HS: As one of the few women in this field, tell us about your initial days?

SR: Waterfield pioneered a new business model in the wealth management space, so the initial days were extremely difficult; a feeling of a loss of identity, many nay-sayers and sceptics doubting the business model and an environment that didn’t support an advisory business in India. That changed in September 2012 (a year after I had started Waterfield) when mutual funds introduced Direct Plans for MF investments, and in January 2013, when SEBI introduced the formal category of Investment Advisors (entities that were compensated only by fees from clients for the advice they provided).

Coming from a salaried background with moderate savings, the capital was also limited. The two things that kept me going was a very supportive husband and a belief in wanting to build a national and global financial services brand. When I look back at that time, I’m glad I never gave up and continued to believe in what I was building.

Hopefully, over the next 10-15 years, Waterfield will break the glass ceiling of a woman founded, Indian financial services firm that is able to achieve a national and global presence

HS: Who are your biggest clients, and what are the services you offer them?

SR: We work with 70 prominent business families of India, many of them on the Forbes Billionaires List. Our clients include entrepreneurs (both, first and subsequent generations) and ultra-high-net worth individuals who have sold their operating businesses. Typically, a UHNW family has to work with multiple individuals and entities to address their overall financial needs. It was in this context that Waterfield Advisors was founded to be a professionally managed, holistic services provider for families to address all their investment (global and domestic portfolio allocations) and non-investment needs like succession planning, corporate structuring, family governance, and philanthropy.

HS: Is it difficult being a woman entrepreneur in India?

SR: I would hope that one’s gender doesn’t make being an entrepreneur harder or easier.

I think the access to third-party capital though is harder for women; and statistics seem to suggest that VC/PE funding for woman founded companies is far lower than their male counterparts, both in developed markets and emerging markets.

I’ve had a very positive experience in external fund raising. Waterfield has done two rounds till date, one in March 2014 and the other in December 2019. It’s important to have a good alignment between investors and founders. It can make all the difference in the entrepreneurial journey and truly unlock the potential of the business idea. 

HS: What are the women-centric policies in your organisation?

SR: Along with a six-and-a-half month mandatory maternity leave policy, we also have a ‘Return to Work’ programme that allows women, who had to quit their job due to motherhood, to return to work after a long career break.

While it is very common nowadays with COVID-19, for companies to be adopting a work-from-home (WFH) policy, at Waterfield we always had a policy where every fortnight any employee could choose to work from home. This helped us transition to a full WFH during the lockdown seamlessly.

At Waterfield, women make up 40 percent of the workforce and they constitute 50 percent of the senior leadership team. We are very proud that 55 percent of our relationship managers are women and cumulatively manage more than 60 percent of our total Assets Under Advisory.

In India, Waterfield has the highest AUM per RM amongst domestic firms, $350 million/RM. These figures become even more impressive when you consider that a majority of it is managed by women relationship managers. This is something we are particularly proud of. On the international stage, Waterfield was recognised by the Wealth Briefing Publication Asia Awards 2019 for our contribution to women in wealth management.

HS: Why are there few women in leadership positions in India? What can organisations do to nurture women?

SR: Organisations can effectively nurture women in their firms by doing a couple of things. One, create an environment that is meritocracy based and provides for equal opportunities and equal pay. Second, recognise that women will have potential career breaks due to motherhood or caring for the elderly, and organisations need to have employee-friendly policies to help women return to work. Line managers need to be supportive and organisations need to adopt flexible work practices.

To develop a leadership pipeline, organisations should identify high-potential women across all levels in their firms and actively mentor them. For senior leadership roles that are being filled, ensure that at least one of the candidates being considered for the role is a woman (as an internal or external candidate).

HS: What have been your biggest successes and challenges?

SR: Our successes have been many. The first is in establishing that a fee-from-clients only advisory business model can work in India, and this has been validated by most of our competitors pivoting to this model and recognising that the future of Wealth Management for HNI and UHNI Clients is Advisory. Our second success is the thought leadership role we play in the Family Office space, through the multiple initiatives that we have pioneered, namely the Family Office Consortium, VC/PE Benchmarking from an LP Perspective and the launch of a Fund of Funds. Thirdly, we pride ourselves on our growth; we are a Top 5 player in the Wealth Management space in a very short period of time and growing very rapidly.

The challenges have been fewer; but centres around finding the right people who can identify with the vision of what we are building at Waterfield.

HS: What do you think will be the future of work for women in a post-COVID world?

I worry about the future of work for women in a post-COVID world. Women are taking on greater care demands at home and their jobs will be disproportionately affected by cuts and lay-offs. In many countries, the first round of lay-offs has been particularly acute in the services sectors – retail, hospitality, and tourism, where women are over-represented. I believe women will be more vulnerable in a post-COVID world, unpaid care work will increase, and we cannot rule an increase in gender-based violence. Women need to support other women during this period, whether it is through formal or informal networks, help in reskilling or support for entrepreneurship.

HS: What are your future plans?

SR: We’ve largely been unaffected by the COVID crisis, and are continuing with our future plans. We were investing significantly in technology even before the COVID crisis hit, and by the end of this month, we’ll be launching a series of digital touchpoints for our clients.

We are taking Waterfield international this summer, and have developed a global investing platform in collaboration with Zephyr Management LLC, a New York-based asset management company, to advise clients on global investments. Our objective is to set-up an office in New York by the end of the year and then a second international office in Singapore in 2021.

Edited by Megha Reddy


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