Fifteen years ago, when Anu Aiyengar went for an interview to become a mergers and acquisitions banker at a major Wall Street firm, she got a stark, disappointing message. “You have three strikes against you,” Aiyengar, who was born in India, recalled the interviewer telling her. “How can I hire you? You are the wrong gender, wrong color and wrong country.”
Aiyengar, now a managing director at JPMorgan Chase, is seen as one of the rising stars within the largest US bank’s M&A group, advising clients in sectors ranging from retail to industrials.
Over the past 15 years at JPMorgan, she has worked on around $200 billion worth of transactions. Last year, she advised on such deals as auto parts retailer Advance Auto Parts’ $2 billion purchase of General Parts International, and office supply company Office Depot’s $1-billion acquisition of rival OfficeMax. JPMorgan was ranked number 2 in M&A deals by value globally last year.
Being a woman, she said, has proven to be an advantage in connecting with clients, so much so that many become friends or mentors. “Maybe it’s stereotypical, but I do feel that listening skills are pretty important,” she said.
Former OfficeMax CEO Ravi Saligram said Aiyengar gained his trust with her analytical skills and because she spoke her mind.
“She’s not afraid to push back,” Saligram said. “She was not a ‘yes’ person.”
Still, Aiyengar said she rarely comes across other women in her business, a reflection of how corporate America and Wall Street remain male-dominated, even if the kind of overt prejudice that she experienced fifteen years ago has receded.
Women made up 15.6% of top executives and managers at US investment banks in 2012, compared with 17.7% in 2007, according to annual studies published by the United States Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC).
Elizabeth Nesvold, MD at the women-owned M&A advisory firm Silver Lane Advisors, has a similar story to tell. Nesvold, who has been a banker for more than two decades, said it took 16 years until she sat across from another female senior banker during deal negotiations.
Nesvold said she also thinks being a woman helps at times. “Sometimes clients have told me things that I am 100% sure they would have not told a man,” Nesvold said. “The work-life balance is challenging, while we see a lot of young women come into the profession, we do not see that many senior women stay the course.”