I started as an engineer. A lot of Asian kids growing up tend to be attracted to engineering because it’s a “safe” profession and guarantees you a decent job. After getting my MBA, I moved into financial services in 1994 because I was inspired by my sister. She was a foreign exchange trader and what she did seemed very glamorous, exciting and fast-paced – and that appealed to me.
My biggest question about my choice came in the wake of the financial crisis. We saw our industry from the perspective of people outside of it. It was not a narrative I felt proud of and it was sharply in contrast with how I personally felt about the positive impact I was having on people’s lives. I’ve always felt money was a real divider between “haves” and “have nots” – and that a little bit of intervention at the right time by the right person can make a big difference to someone’s financial trajectory. The impact we create, as employees in the financial industry, is in my experience a positive one. I knew that by staying in the financial industry and continuing the work I was proud of, I could contribute to people’s success.
Today, businesses are undergoing an incredible transformation. There is real, enduring and heartfelt commitment that goes beyond profits to focus on the impact on people, society, and the planet. We increasingly talk about the role of a business in the community and weigh our decisions in light of the impact on social good. And more and more leaders across industries have moved past wondering if diversity is good for business to driving toward full representation of the client and population base in our management teams.
Along the way there were a lot of people who helped and encouraged me. When I started in the industry, there was hardly any diversity. I found that as I came up in my career, at the moments when I felt most discouraged, there were people who saw past my differences and saw through to my talent. They took it upon themselves to coach, mentor, and support me with opportunities to grow my career.
When I mentor people, I am especially aware of the need to help employees through moments that tend to fracture careers; for example, young mothers and fathers trying to balance careers with parenthood, illness in an aging parent or a sudden health issue in the family. Growing up, this was a crossroads for many young women, including me. I learned how to manage parenthood at the same time as my career. I find when I’m able to pass along those tips, I help people see that there is a way to balance your obligations at work and home.
I also look out for ethnically diverse employees, as they sometimes go unnoticed for promotions and advancements. It’s difficult to connect with senior leaders when you don’t see them in church, on the golf course or coaching soccer, and when your life experiences have been so different from your leaders. I tend to see these candidates more often simply because they reach out to me – they see a commonality with me; I often look like them. They tell me about immigrating. We talk about their food habits being different. A very different set of expectations for contributions at home. Or a different way of spending the weekend.
Here’s the advice I give them, which worked for me early in my career: Get networked to people who are not part of your existing inner circle. Don’t always hang out with people you’re already familiar with; step out of your social comfort zone and embrace cultural networks by engaging in Business Resource Groups, events and community service opportunities. Simply put, get out there.
Gunjan Kedia is vice chairman of Wealth Management and Investment Services at U.S. Bank. Her reflections on culture and career are part of U.S. Bank’s celebration of Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month. U.S. Bank honors the Asian American pioneers who made it possible, the people who helped along the way, and future generations who continue to raise the bar. Learn more at usbank.com/AAPIHeritage and iam-campaign.com.