In conversation with Mitali Mukherjee, a well-known face in the world of television journalism. From politics to anchoring the busy stock markets for over a decade, Mitali now focuses on spreading financial awareness amongst women. Her journey is inspiring and interesting, especially for women and millennials to learn from. Here are some excerpts from our conversation.
Tell us a bit about your journey into journalism
I joined journalism essentially for politics. After studying Political Science Honours in college and then television journalism, I had to decide between joining a higher paying TV news station vs a smaller production house. And, since I was young I was naturally enamoured by the idea of a fatter paycheck. But after giving it some thought, I felt it was really important to understand the medium I was working with before I ask for more in terms of salary. So I decided to join this small production house called Mini Tech that did some fantastic work in the world of television documentary. I really credit whatever I’ve understood of the craft of television and of telling stories visually to them. Once I did a fair bit of work with them I joined Doordarshan. At that time the head of Prasar Bharti was Mr.SY Querishi who was keen on changing the face of journalism. So he put out an ad, conducted professional interviews and hired 18 of us to change Doordarshan.
You don’t come from a finance background. What piqued your interests in financial markets?
At Doordarshan, I had my first taste of political journalism which made me a little wary. It wasn’t’ everything that I thought it would be. It was made up of a lot of people who had giant egos and I spent a lot of time waiting to have that one conversation. But what it did give me was immense comfort in front of the camera.
After that, I switched to Headlines Today which was a start-up under AAJ TAK. Since they were looking to do something in English they hired a bunch of us and interestingly I was their launch anchor.
So, my foray into journalism was politically driven initially, but slowly over the course of those 2 – 3 years I realized that political journalism wasn’t something I was cut out to be. It required lots of mining of contacts and information and working extremely hard at maintaining those relationships. So literally on a lark I reached out to CNBC and said I’d like to work with them. I walked in with zero knowledge of the stock markets and generally of anything in finance. For the first four months, I was like a student taking down notes diligently. I worked very hard studying and learning about the stock markets. So my conscientious attitude made up for the fact that I didn’t have a typical financial background. That really was the start of financial journalism for me. Once I started, I found it extremely exciting and thought it’s a great space to be in.
So Mitali, what was it like anchoring the busy ‘Indian stock markets’? Especially being a woman in this space, did you feel any gender bias?
While I loved what I did, the industry is a very male-dominated space. You may be very good at what you do but it is very difficult for a woman to be in it. Especially anchoring for equity markets. You have to draw a very wide arch between what is personal and what is professional. For instance, you don’t entertain calls after work, you don’t encourage a lot of meetups with people who you speak to professionally. Ultimately, the onus is always on you to put across the right or wrong picture. And there is also a large sexist tone to it, where they feel – what does she know about stocks. In that sense, the first few years was personally trying to prove myself in conversations and interviews, halfway through which they’d realize okay she seems to know what she’s talking about. So that was the tough and unfortunate part of it all.
That’s why I encourage mutual fund SIPs for women because before you know it, some money is out and invested in a certain space. So it’s okay to slip on your budgeting plans sometimes with impulse purchases as long as your investing before that in a disciplined manner.
Walk us through a day in the life of Mitali Mukherjee
Chaos! From start to finish. But now since I’m working with so many women, going through similar life cycles, it’s nice to know that you’re not alone. Just recently someone asked me, ‘How do you do the work-life balance?’ To which I said there is no work-life balance, it’s a myth!
It is basically a daily struggle, literally like 10 balls in the air and you deciding which one you want to catch. So when your child is sick, work doesn’t take priority, you have to work from home. When you have an important meeting, then your child doesn’t take priority. So I think there is a lot of intense juggling. I took it and they’re the joys of my life.
Since I live in a joint family and my parents live close by, I am extremely blessed to have a lot of family support. So, that’s one of my most important message to other women. Please help each other, be in a community and be a buddy. I mean look at the bro code, even if someone is very super incompetent, the guys just cover up for them! Not that I encourage incompetence, but I’m just saying we should certainly be kinder to each other at work and be more supportive of each other at home. Even for me, I can’t do it alone and I’m grateful for all the help I have from my mother-in-law, my mom, my husband, everyone at work and home. So yes, the day is broken up between a lot of time with the kids, a lot of time at work and sometimes just ideating.
Women, Work & Wealth
Talking about maintaining a work-life balance do you believe it’s easier for men than for women? How does it affect a woman’s career?
I frankly think maintaining a work-life balance is easier for men than women and this is a worldwide phenomenon. No wonder, you’ll find most women falling off the work graph 5 years into the professional world. Also, you know the odds are against us. So typically we join work in our 20s and spend about 7-8 years trying to make a mark for ourselves. But just when we’re at the cusp of our professional ambitions our biological clock starts ticking. The pressure starts – to get married to have children, to get going with our family. All of it clashes spectacularly with our professional career taking off. They have to step back and make those decisions, unfortunately. Then getting back in the work is so tough because institutions are built to discourage women from getting back.
But I think small steps are being taken. There are many great organizations that are helping women come back and work on their own terms. And I believe your generation is to credit for that. For instance, the ability to work from home, the ability to do hours that work for you, these kinds of options are now available which weren’t available 5-6 years ago. But it’s still very very tough. What is most unfortunate is a woman’s role is often taken for granted, meaning out of a couple if there’s one person who has to sit back for child training it’s the woman. Even in cases where she might actually be more successful and a higher earning member because of her gender she is the one who has to sit at home with her kids.
Is this why a gender pay gap exists?
Yeah certainly. But I also think in many cases the gender pay gap is there right from the start. There are many industries which perceive male employees as a valuable member right from the get-go. So you may start off with a skew in your salary which certainly widens when women have to step back and then step back in. A year back we did a survey for Indian Express which showed us that even women who were board members of companies were often paid 50% of what their male board member counterparts were paid. The number was even worse for PSU companies where women were paid between 25%-30% of what the male board members were paid. Now, this is shocking, it is unfair and it is completely ridiculous.
That’s where I come back to the fact that women should back up other women. You have to support women who are asking for more in terms of a salary and you have to respect and reward talent with monetary reimbursement. You have to encourage women to not feel ashamed of asking for what they believe is their worth. Women go to the negotiating table with very different mental makeup than men do. For women, when someone gives a figure, they would agree. But on the other hand, a man would feel no compulsion in saying they deserve more. So women should be encouraged to negotiate harder because they work just as hard. They’re actually even more efficient because they do what they have to within a certain timeline since they that they have 20 other things to do at home.
You have been passionate about empowering and educating women about their finances. What holds them back from investing?
Women are actually very smart at investing & saving. Most households are run by women. They make decisions both in terms of purchasing, allocating and also having the ability to save a little bit from whatever they’re given to spend. This is extremely acute budgeting happening at a household level. The second thing is socialisation, I think women are essentially given this covert context that they don’t understand it, they don’t get it and they’re not responsible enough to take large financial decisions for the household. So I think that’s the largest and biggest problem for women in India and perhaps across the world. The third part is the language that we speak. People mostly from the financial community only talk to people who understand it and not to those who don’t understand it. Let’s say I was trying to understand a heart surgery, if the surgeon throws jargon at me I won’t get it. The basic premise is not that they don’t get it is, it’s that we’re not speaking to them clearly enough.
How do you aim to change this?
I feel like we need to start talking to them at a level in which they would understand. So, once I quit active anchoring with CNBC I did a lot of things. This was so liberating because I wasn’t tied down to a 9-5 job. It gave me the chance to explore and do many other things away from the industry of television and journalism. So I figured there are two ways to do it. One is of course through video stories. For example, at MoneyMile, a show that did really well for us was called ‘Between Us Girls’. It was literally 4 of us girls sitting around a table having coffee or working and someone would start a conversation. For example in one episode when someone would say, “Omg! You know I need to spend for this and I don’t have money saved, we would start talking about the concept of Systematic Investment Plans (SIPs). Or in another episode where someone else would come and tell me that their brother got laid off, so then we would start talking about the importance of having a contingency plan or an emergency fund.
The other way and the best way to do it is really to have smaller and more intimate conversations. So I’ve been trying through CII and other organizations to talk to smaller groups of women to address the nature of investing. The main starting point for any conversation is to understand that financial freedom means giving yourself a voice. When you start earning, you can sit down at the table and say, ‘I have a point of view about this purchase that our family is doing’, or you can say, ‘Here’s my money. I haven’t borrowed it, stolen it or taken it from anyone else and here’s where I want to invest in.’ This is extremely liberating and I think these conversations happen better in smaller circles. Often when I raise this topic, a lot of women don’t raise their hands when asked if they find it difficult. But later 90% of them come up to me for a one on one discussion to say they do find it difficult and need help.
So smaller conversation is one and content that is curated for women to understand is the other.
Advice To Women
Is there a change in women’s attitude towards money over time?
I think it’s a mixed bag, certainly for women who are a few generations ahead of us. It’s a difficult conversation to have because these are women who were not included in any part of the decision making neither were they encouraged to finish their education. You will be shocked to know that there is such a large percentage of women both rural and urban at this point who still don’t own a bank account. When you don’t have a bank account of your own you really have no access to any funds. That has changed with the younger generation they have more access to money. But are they more responsible with their investment decisions? I’m not sure. So we should really encourage a conversation on savings and budgeting with our children. Another big problem between millennials and generations above is a lot of times we superimpose our ambitions on them. For example for my generations or generations before me, we had to own a house, we had to own a car and you had all these 4 -5 goals that you had to check. But that’s not important for a millennial, because assets are shared, They’re very happy ubering to work and renting a home so they can spend a large part of their savings on travel. So you have to talk to them in their language and explain the importance of saving for the goals they have set for themselves. For instance, if 70% of their salary is spent on eating out, it leaves little for them to do anything else. So the concept of budgeting becomes important. In that regard, I don’t think any generation is really there especially with women but I think the needs and ambitions are different so we have to learn to take this conversation in different streams for everyone.
What do you mean by the Gold, Gullak (piggy bank) & FD Trap? If those were the trends earlier what would you say are the investment trends today?
Earlier savings were largely invested in Gold, FD, real estate, or sometimes even stashed in people’s closets. Today any basic search will throw up what returns these have given in the last 5 to 7 years, after adjusting for inflation you could even lose money on these. But in the last 2-3 years, SIPs have become popular and people have realized that even if you invest in the stock markets it is not about one smart tip that will double your money. They know that any investment requires you to be systematic, diligent and you need to do it for a couple of years before you see any impact.
That being said, 2019 is going to be very tricky. Since the stock markets didn’t do well in 2018 a lot of people with 1-year SIP’s saw negative returns. That’s when people start becoming nervous. So I think diversification is not a bad idea at all. When people say chuck the gold chuck the FD I don’t think it’s fair. You need to decide how much risk you’re willing to take. If you’re a millennial you may be willing to take on more risk by investing a larger amount in equity, if you’re living abroad you may dabble into bitcoins (fair warning – that might not end well). What’s done incredibly well abroad in the last year is cannabis stocks which aren’t listed here in India. So I think millennials are a little more experimental with investments because they can take on more risk. That being said, equities are a great way to earn money over the long run. But you got to be systematic and literally belt yourself up for a roller coaster ride. At the same time, I’m not dissing gold and FD. I don’t think it’s a bad idea at all to allocate some part of your money over there.
Any advice for women who want to start investing?
1. Don’t be scared. Don’t get intimidated by 15 year old financial advisors who start throwing jargon at you
2. Ask questions, if you don’t understand something ask again and again. It is absolutely alright to say, ‘No I didn’t get that, tell me what it means in simpler terms.’
3. Start small. Don’t get discouraged by large numbers or with the thought that you need a large pool of cash to start investing. You can even start with as little as Rs.1000 or Rs.2000.
4. Make a list. Put down the 3-4 things that are personally really important to you. The more you talk to other people the more they will tell you what you should save for. But your personal situation is only for you to know. For instance, you may be a divorcee with daughter and you’re trying to save for her future. Or you may be unmarried and you want to take a trip around the world and that is your goal.
So decide your goals, put them down and find out the best way to meet those goals. Obviously, a vacation might be a goal than a house so understand the duration of each goal clearly and make a plan. Lastly, don’t be afraid to ask questions. People are often there just to shoot you down with their gyaan, but just fight the gyaan and ask what you answered!
Mitali Mukherjee is one of the most well-known faces in the world of business journalism. With close to 2 decades of experience in journalism, she has handled a wide range of roles-from political, global & local economic reportage, to live conferences. She is a former Markets & News Editor at CNBC TV18. Over the last 18 years, she has worked with the TV18 Network, The TV Today group, Doordarshan (India’s National Broadcaster) & BBC World. She’s a TEDx Speaker and Steering Committee member of the Australia India Youth Dialogue (AIYD). Mitali is also the Consulting Business Editor at Editorji Technologies. She has also co-founded MoneyMile and samarthan.in. A key focus area for her is spreading awareness amongst women on the need & importance of investing.