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A Zoroastrian’s Walk Through Wall Street

by Nina Godiwalla, Washington Post

“What?!” is usually the response I get when I explain I’m Zoroastrian. It’s that vocabulary word you may have learned in your seventh-grade history class when you read about the world’s oldest monotheistic religion.

It makes sense that it is not a commonly referenced word, since you don’t run into Zoroastrians as often as you would during Cyrus the Great’s Persian Empire. Currently, there are only about 140,000 left in the world, and the ones in the U.S. flock to the five largest cities. My parents emigrated from India and raised me in Houston’s tight-knit Zoroastrian community, where we spent most weekends driving about an hour to rotating Zoroastrian dinner parties and social events. Growing up, my parents and community stressed the importance of economic success and prestige. So when I had the privilege to work on Wall Street, the epitome of the American dream–I was sold. It wasn’t something that people like me – second-generation, middle-class immigrants from the Texas public school system – got the opportunity to do.

The Zoroastrian world is tight – so much so that two degrees of separation usually make you an uncle-brother or sister-aunty to someone you’ve just met. Zoroastrians have also enjoyed significant economic success, primarily in Mumbai, India, where most reside. Facing an unfamiliar country, the first-generation U.S. immigrants seemed even more eager to succeed and carry with them their successful Indian roots. I was a typical second-generation Indian immigrant product, watching my parents navigate a country with which they were unfamiliar. They stuck as closely as possible to their community, and learned as much as they could from each other, hopeful that their kids would revel in the American Dream. They expected their lives would be better than they were in India, but that our lives would be exceptional. As my dad explains, “When you are a foreigner, you take what you can get, and hope that your kids have it much better.”

My parents’ support, coupled with my determination to succeed, got me a full-time job as an investment banker with Morgan Stanley. The Zoroastrian community in New York reached out to welcome me, including an aunty who housed me rent-fee, families who extended invitations to holiday gatherings, and aunties who substituted as my family by throwing me birthday parties. Initially, investment banking amazed me the way a buffet does immigrants – the unlimited food is a privilege. Everything I experienced was foreign and evoked a sense of awe. It was as if someone had flung me into one of my grandmother’s soap operas, yet unlike her, I didn’t believe anyone really lived this lavishly. As a corporate event, we took a field trip to an executive’s summer mansion outfitted with a tennis court. I found myself looking at their children, wondering what it was like to eat fresh baked chocolate-filled croissants for breakfast instead of Pop Tarts and to spend weekends ordering banana splits with chocolate, vanilla, and strawberry ice cream at country clubs that didn’t allow you to wear shorts. With every new place we went, I knew I was out of my element, but my curiosity and excitement for the extravagance I wouldn’t otherwise see kept me hungry.

Over some time, my fascination faded. The investment banking culture’s end-game wore on me. Money. It was tiring to chase only one thing, blind to other costs. The day learned that one of our colleagues was found dead in her apartment, several senior managers crowded in a conference room with fiery faces, annoyed that they were getting paid less than one of their counterparts whose salary was mentioned in the newspaper article. More talk went around about money than about our colleague’s death. In the corporate finance department – one of the most powerful departments in an investment bank – hazing of young employees was the norm. We worked extremely long hours, and we were expected and encouraged to sacrifice our personal lives. Having missed one of my family vacations to work on a deal, one of my senior managers applauded me, noting “I’m sure you’ll get some good projects that you’d otherwise have missed.” Over time, many examples like this wore me down. I’d grown up determined to prosper in this country, but I had enough deep-rooted values to know that money couldn’t be my only goal.

One of the most disconcerting qualities of corporate finance was that the culture tended to shun different backgrounds and ideas. The predominant attitude tended to be the faster you conform, the more likely you will succeed. As a second-generation immigrant growing up in a small, racially homogeneous, predominately Christian suburb of Texas, I was used to adjusting in order to fit in. But this corporate assimilation somehow felt more like a conversion of sorts. The more dissimilar you were – whether it was your race, gender, or class – the less of a voice you had. Having grown up in a tight, supportive family and Zoroastrian community, it was hard to let go of so much of who I was to fit into the cardboard cutout the banking culture often demanded. After a few years in banking, I made a switch for the better, carefully choosing to work for companies that were mission-driven rather than money-driven.

2011 Texas Conference for Women speaker Nina Godiwalla is a recognized expert on leadership, diversity and women in the business world. She is the bestselling author of “Suits: A Woman on Wall Street,” which The New York Times describes as the “‘Devil Wears Prada’ of investment banking.”