Addressing Gender Imbalance Throughout Finance Careers

June 20, 2024 Mimi Torrington

executive meeting to address gender imbalance in finance and accounting company

Vandana Agarwal, a Finance Analyst at Merkley+Partners, joins Megan Weis to explore the key challenges when optimizing financial efficiency, the gender imbalance in finance, and the role of technology in the industry's future.

Vandana Agarwal has worked in finance for over eight years, having started in India and then moved to the United States. She is currently a Finance Analyst at Merkley+Partners, has served an internship at Colgate-Palmolive, and worked at Recro and Deloitte India. Vandana also pursued an MS degree in Business Analytics at Fordham University.

Show/Hide Transcript

Megan - 00:00:18: Today, my guest is Vandana Agarwal. Vandana is an experienced financial analyst, skilled in financial modeling, data analysis, and forecasting, currently working in New York City. Her expertise lies in conducting in-depth financial analysis, forecasting, and providing valuable insights to support sound financial strategies. Vandana is dedicated to helping businesses make informed decisions based on data and analysis. Vandana, thank you very much for being my guest on today's episode of CFO Weekly.

Vandana - 00:01:24: Thank you so much for having me, Megan. It's an honor to be on your podcast and I look forward to your questions.

Megan - 00:01:32: Yes, I'm excited about this one too. So you're an immigrant and started your journey in India and slowly built a career in America. So today we're going to touch upon your journey of being an immigrant and discuss how the basics of finance are the same all around the globe. So I'm excited to hear your story. Let's jump right in.

Vandana - 00:01:56: Yeah, thank you for your question. I started off my career in a local firm in my hometown. So I'm from India, basically. So that was like sort of a family business. After which I got an opportunity to intern with Deloitte. So Deloitte is a multinational company. And that was the first time where I got the exposure of how corporate works. So I would say, yeah, that was my first putting as to what it means to be a professional and a leader.

Megan - 00:02:25: Yeah, that's awesome. I started my career at Deloitte too.

Vandana - 00:02:29: That's nice. Yeah, I feel like any of the big fours are a great starting point for any person who wants to be in the field of finance.

Megan - 00:02:38: I would totally agree. It's a great place to see a lot of aspects. Did you start as an auditor or in tax?

Vandana - 00:02:47: I started as an auditor.

Megan - 00:02:49: Okay. It's a great way to see a lot of different aspects of a business. That's what I found. And the people at Deloitte are really amazing.

Vandana - 00:02:58: Yeah, very, very professional, I would say.

Megan - 00:03:00: So can you share with us a pivotal moment or experience that significantly shaped your perspective on finance and or leadership?

Vandana - 00:03:11: I would say actually Deloitte in itself, because that was my first corporate experience. Before that, I didn't even know the meaning of being a professional. But that experience, that too in a big fall, the learning curve, I would say was very high. So I would say that experience, that internship was a pivotal moment in my life that shaped me as a professional.

Megan - 00:03:35: So what initially drew you to the finance and accounting field?

Vandana - 00:03:40: So for me, I pursued a course called Chartered Accountancy, which I would say is a combination of a CPA and CFA back in India. I wanted to pursue it as, you know, in India, the bureaucratic red tape is such that things are not very smooth and systematic. So a CA has an idea of finance, tax and law. So it gives you a very holistic view about doing a business. And I, being from a business family, it made sense for me to take it up. I was particularly more drawn towards the accounting and finance subjects as I was always good with numbers. And balancing out the balance sheets gave me a high. So that was, I guess, the start of my career. And now I just feel lucky to be practicing it in the finance capital of the world.

Megan - 00:04:26: So you started your career as an auditor with Deloitte. And along the way, you've been in business analysis and finance. So how have these experiences shaped your perspective on financial leadership and strategy? And just talk to us a little bit about, you mentioned where you started, but where are you today? Thank you.

Vandana - 00:04:49: Yeah, so for me, I started off with audit. I did it for over three years. So it gave me immense learnings and I opt for detail because the audit field requires you to be extremely detail-oriented. So the work that you do being an auditor, it's very repetitive and being a young guy, I wanted to explore more and before settling into any particular field. So that's where I transitioned into being a business analyst. There, I got a sense of business as a whole. So currently I'm a finance analyst at Merkley + Partners. So here my role is completely opposite from the auditor. You can actually say that I sit at the opposite table from an auditor and I'm learning new aspects of finance like forecasting and budgeting, which I didn't get into while being an auditor. So I would say basics of accountings are essential in both being an auditor and analyst and also on other fields of finance or venture capital or private equity. I said, I would say that basics of accounting is what helped me navigate through this career.

Megan - 00:06:01: And at Merkley + Partners, what are some of the key challenges that you face in optimizing financial efficiency and driving strategic decision-making?

Vandana - 00:06:13: After this much experience, I can say that always trying to better your current process in order to do the work more efficiently. So financial efficiency is a continuous process and you're always striving to be better than yesterday. And I would like to replace challenges with self-improvement and this is across the industry. To give you a more specific answer about my current role, the main challenge that I've faced is stay up to date with the changing regulations and ensuring compliance. But again, I believe it's a process and taking baby steps is important.

Megan - 00:06:50: And how do you stay up to date in those changing requirements?

Vandana - 00:06:56: Just attending a lot of seminars and conferences and holding company issues, company-wide emails. So that is one way you can stay up to date.

Megan - 00:07:06: And do you live in the United States now?

Vandana - 00:07:08: Yeah, I'm currently based in New York.

Megan - 00:07:11: Okay. And when did you move here and how was the experience of assimilating once you got here?

Vandana - 00:07:19: So I moved here in 2021, actually. I did my master's in business analytics. So I did my undergraduate in finance. So I was pretty confident with my finance skills and I wanted something to supplement it. So that's why I pursued business analytics. Overall, I would say America has treated me well. It's a leveling field everywhere, to be honest. It's the same in India and in America. You have to go through the job market, applied to hundreds of jobs, and then you get that one placement. But I would say it has been good till now.

Megan - 00:07:56: That's good. I'm glad to hear that it's been a good experience for you. Given your background in business analytics, how is it that you leverage data and analytics to inform financial decisions and, again, drive business outcomes?

Vandana - 00:08:14: So my current role involves a lot of playing around with data and its manipulation in order to make a sense out of it. So we receive a lot of raw data spanning across Excel sheets. So it's important to clean it. Wherein tools like Excel and Python comes into play. So currently I'm using these two softwares to leverage data and analyze it. So further, we would compare it with the budgeted figures and see how we're placed on a month-to-month basis.

Megan - 00:08:43: And when you get a bunch of data, where do you start? How do you avoid boiling the ocean, as they say, or trying to do maybe too much?

Vandana - 00:08:56: So we're obviously like, whenever you start a job, it all obviously get trained. So whenever we get a lot of data, firstly, we clean it using Excel or Python, whichever you're more efficient in. And then you can place that data in the models. The models are already created. And your superiors must, or you yourself, must have some budgeted figures. And then you basically, finance analyst is just like comparing the data that you receive to the budgeted figures and then analyzing the variances. And then like you make a report for your superiors that, okay, fine, these were the differences and we can work on this expense and how to reduce it.

Megan - 00:09:41: And I'm just curious to know, but how is it that you personally avoid relying too much on the results of what the models tell you? How is it that you, make sure that what you're seeing makes sense?

Vandana - 00:09:58: I mean, the aim is to get closer to the budgeted figures. And whenever there is a variance, any of the months, we analyze the reason for it. So it's all very systematic. Like we get in the numbers, we compare it with the budgeted figures, and then we analyze the variances. We reach out to the unit heads to ask them why was this expense made or what was the reason for the figure to be more or less than the expected figures. And then we report it and then see how our progress can be improved the next month.

Megan - 00:10:36: And can you discuss a specific project or maybe initiative where you successfully implemented something innovative as far as financial strategy or solutions and what were the outcomes or the impacts of that?

Vandana - 00:10:52: So I talk about one instance. So I was like working as a business analyst. So one of our clients was into the business of food ordering and a delivery platform in India. So I was working with their driver retention team and we were tasked with designing suitable incentives for a fleet of like they had around 200,000 drivers.

Megan - 00:11:15: Wow.

Vandana - 00:11:15: Yeah. So the incentives range from like order level incentives, like determining how much to pay for late night or rain orders long term retention incentives like rewarding certain drivers with bikes or gold coins or flat screen TVs. So I feel I had to analyze a lot of P&L and a lot of expenses and a lot of reports and all of that. And it was a fun project. And it was a very data-heavy project. And so this was a good project that I worked on. And yeah, so we did see a decrease in employee turnover rate over the next quarters.

Megan - 00:11:54: That's amazing. That must have been quite a learning experience and a great example of what the power of data.

Vandana - 00:12:02: Yeah.

Megan - 00:12:03: So as someone who's worked both in India and the United States, how do you perceive the similarities and the differences in financial practices and also leadership styles?

Vandana - 00:12:16: So MNCs, I would say, work in a similar manner all around the world. They're very professional in their day-to-day tasks and similar guidelines have been issued in an organization all around the world. To be honest, now in one team, there are people from different countries working together via softwares like Teams and Zoom calls. So implementing coordination has become very easy. Coming to the second part of your questions, like the differences, I would say it comes in technicalities between different countries and the compliance requirements. Because different countries have different compliance requirements. If I have to give you an example, if you know about the accounting standards, so there are different accounting standards to be followed in India versus like USA has a gap. So the technicalities and the compliance requirements, I would say, is the difference. Leadership and everything else that are intangibles, they are similar like worldwide. Because like all the MNCs issue like company-wide guidelines on how to carry out the task.

Megan - 00:13:24: And although it is improving these days, but finance is still often a male-dominated field. So have you encountered any unique challenges or opportunities as a woman navigating your career in finance? And what advice would you offer to other women who might be listening who aspire to leadership roles in this industry?

Vandana - 00:13:48: So I've never seen this male-female as a setback. But the challenge, I would say, was just getting used to the fact that in every room, there were 16 guys and only two girls. There's a ratio between male and female practicing finance was a bit strange to begin with. And it did take some time getting used to it. But I was always passionate about the field, so I didn't really look at it as a hurdle. If you're asking me that, if a female being, a female gave me an edge over a male counterpart, I would say, like, no.

Megan - 00:14:22: Yeah, did it ever hold you back? Maybe you were skipped over for promotion. And maybe you've never felt. But have you ever felt that there's a difference or you're treated differently because you're a woman?

Vandana - 00:14:36: I would say no, to be honest. So it's a level playing field. And if you're like, you know, best for the job, you'll get it. Like in my company, the director is a female. So like now I feel the world has evolved and whoever is the best for the job, they get it.

Megan - 00:14:50: Yeah. It's nice that the world has evolved in the past, I would say, 10 to 20 years or definitely since I've started my career a long time ago.

Vandana - 00:14:59: Yeah, like I did my internship in Colgate. So there also the CFO was a female. So I feel like now this conversation doesn't need to happen. But I guess like in different fields, it's still an issue. But in finance, it has evolved.

Megan - 00:15:17: And in today's fast-paced business environment, agility and adaptability are both very crucial. So, how do you approach staying ahead of industry trends and regulatory changes?

Vandana - 00:15:32: So I guess like taking proactive measures is important in this regard rather than taking a reactive measure. So just regularly monitoring industry trends and regulatory changes and keeping oneself up to date with the latest reforms can ensure staying abreast with the industry standards. So every company, they issue company-wide emails. So that helps.

Megan - 00:16:00: And looking ahead, what do you envision as the biggest opportunities and maybe challenges for financial leaders in the next 10 years? And how is it that you're positioning yourself to thrive in this evolving landscape?

Vandana - 00:16:16: So in the next decade, I feel that AI, like everyone's talking about it.

Megan - 00:16:21: Yeah, definitely the hot topic of the day, for sure.

Vandana - 00:16:26: Yeah, so I think that is going to play a big role and companies will start adapting it, especially to carry out those tasks which are repetitive. So both in audit and finance analysts, there are certain tasks which are repetitive, but still human intervention is required. And for analysis, obviously, you need a human brain. So I guess it's essential, like in the end of the day, it's essential not to be afraid of the technology and, you know, to be able to leverage it in the best way possible, which will be beneficial for us also and the organization as a whole.

Megan - 00:17:04 Yeah, that's great advice. So I'm just curious, do you have any advice for maybe someone outside the United States listening or even within the United States listening, thinking about going somewhere else globally? But what advice would you give to people who are considering opportunities in another country? How can they prepare themselves for that?

Vandana - 00:17:28: So for me, the biggest advantage was that I already had Deloitte tag on my resume. So having that on your resume, I guess it was the companies that I applied for here, they could trust me that I would know the work because I had worked in a company like that. So I feel like if you want to navigate from country to country, having good companies on your resume is a good way to navigate and get your foot in a door. Other advice relating to finance field, I would say like honing up your accounting skills is very important. Like there are multiple fields in finance as well, private equity, corporate finance, audit tax, whatever, but the basics of accounting should be very clear.

Megan - 00:18:19: Vandana, thank you so much for being my guest today.

Vandana - 00:18:22: Thank you so much for having me. It was a pleasure talking to you.

Megan - 00:18:26: Yeah, I really enjoyed talking with you too. And thank you for finding the time to be here with us today to share your incredible experience and knowledge.

Vandana - 00:18:36: Of course, any day.

Megan - 00:18:38: Yeah. And I wish you all the best as you continue on your journey. And to all of our listeners, please tune in next week. And until then, take care.

In this episode, we discuss:

  • How the basics of finance are the same globally

  • The importance of staying up-to-date with changing regulations

  • The similarities in financial practices and leadership styles among multinational companies

  • The challenges and opportunities for women in the finance industry

  • AI’s role in finance

Key Takeaways:

Addressing Gender Imbalance to Achieve Peak Financial Efficiency

Vandana says that one of the key challenges is trying to better the current process in order to do the work more efficiently. She says financial efficiency is a continuous process, and that she is always striving to be better than yesterday. Another challenge is staying up to date with changing regulations and ensuring compliance, but Vandana says it’s important to take “baby steps”.

She discusses some of the ways she keeps abreast of changing regulations, and recommends “just attending a lot of seminars and conferences”. - 06:14 - 07:06

Leveraging Data and Analytics to Inform Financial Decisions

Vandana receives a lot of raw data spanning across Excel sheets, so she says it's important to clean it using tools such as Excel and Python come into play. She uses these two software to leverage data and analyze it further in order to compare it with the budgeted figures and see how they're placed on a month-to-month basis.

Vandana Agarwal, Finance Analyst at Merkley+Partners Quote

“The aim is to get closer to the budgeted figures, and whenever there is a variance, any of the months, we analyze the reasons for it. So it's all very systematic. We get the numbers, we compare it with the budgeted figures, and then we analyze the variances.” Agarwal said. - 08:14 - 09:42

Challenges and Opportunities as a Woman in Finance

Vandana feels that her company is a level playing field when it comes to the disparity between genders. The only challenge, she suggests, was getting used to the fact that in every room there were sixteen men and only two women. However, since she was so passionate about the field, she never looked at this ratio as a hurdle.

Gender equality and imbalance in finance Quote

“In different fields, it's still an issue. But in finance, it has evolved, and in today's fast-paced business environment, agility and adaptability are both very crucial.” Agarwal claims. - 13:49 - 14:50

For more interviews from the CFO Weekly podcast, check us out on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, and our RSS or your favorite podcast player!

Instructions on how to follow, rate, and review CFO-Weekly are here.

Financial solutions built for every team. At Personiv, we offer a wide array of services designed to help teams of all sizes achieve their financial success. Contact us today!

Previous Article
Beyond the Obvious: 3 Unexpected Accounting Outsourcing Benefits
Beyond the Obvious: 3 Unexpected Accounting Outsourcing Benefits

Overwhelmed by accounting tasks? Outsourcing accounting services can be your secret weapon! Discover 3 unex...

Next Article
Financial Sector Analysis [Infographic]
Financial Sector Analysis [Infographic]

Uncover the top 6 trends & transformations shaping the financial sector in 2024. This infographic delivers ...