“Ask for What You Want”—Aliya Sahai on Being a Female in the Finance Industry

I took one finance class in college (ok, honestly, I was in it for a day and dropped it to take marketing instead), and I was one of three women in the 40 person class. Let me remind you that my university is 70 percent women, so for a class to have more than 25 percent men, it was a big deal.

Finance has long been a boy’s club, so when I first started reading about Aliya Sahai, Principal and Financial Advisor at Bernstein Private Wealth Management and Founder/Owner of mahalo, I knew she was a total badass. She understands the need for women in her field, and she’s taking action to get other women there. A strong believer in connection and networking, Aliya blends her personal and professional life to perfection. We spoke to Aliya about a day in her life, and she’s giving us all the advice and insight on being a woman in finance.

 

Name: Aliya Sahai, Principal & Financial Advisor at Bernstein Private Wealth Management
Age: 40
Location: New York, New York
Education: Wharton School, University of Pennsylvania

 

What was your first job, and how did you land it?

 

I’ve really always worked. The minute I could get working papers, I got them and got a job. From then on, I always had a job — I always wanted to make money.

But in terms of an adult job, my first real, full-time job was for the consulting firm Sapient. It was a tech and business strategy position at the height of the tech boom, so it was an exciting time to be in that space. It was so much fun to work hard — we were learning every minute! I actually met my husband there as well, so it was a professional and personally life-changing experience.

 

Have you always known you wanted to work in finance and business?

 

Yes, actually, I mostly have always known.

When I was a really little kid, around five years old, I wanted to be an architect. My very Indian, pragmatic, high-achieving parents asked why I wanted to be an architect, and I told them I wanted to build houses for the homeless. They instead suggested that I should go to Wharton and then become a banker, and if I did that, I would be able to buy houses for the homeless.

I never forgot that advice.

So, I applied early to Wharton and got in — I always had my eye on that prize.

 

 

 

What skills did you learn in college that have helped you succeed in your career? Alternately, what skills do you WISH someone had told you to acquire before your career began?

 

I was lucky — my education was extremely pre-professional, as well as educational. In my classes, I was not only learning information, but also learning how to apply that information. This meant that my education led me to think about how I could practically apply the academics in my classes to what I was doing in the real world, in internships or potential jobs.

I wish I learned how much more important perception is than reality. You can be right all day long, but it may never help you if people around you don’t perceive your information to be credible, thoughtful, useful, or helpful. I try every day to message information to people how I think they want to receive it. It is an art, not a science, and everyday I get better at it!

 

Tell us about your current position, in your own words.

 

I manage investment strategies for individuals and families — their trusts, corporations, retirement plans, and charitable entities. The source of their wealth may have been multi-generational, or they may have had great success in media, entertainment, finance, fashion, or many other entrepreneurial pursuits.

On a day-to-day, no day is the same, and it all depends on how the markets are doing, how our portfolios are doing, the events I may be invited to, the clients’ needs, and issues in their own personal lives — there is not a minute that I am not responding to an email. Oftentimes my day can get quite derailed — but I hesitate to say “derailed,” because that actually just is the norm for every day!

My job is about connecting with people all day long and making sure, extremely intently, that we’re helping our clients achieve their goals. It’s the management of making sure our every “i” is dotted and our every “t” is crossed. I’m constantly in meetings, on the phone, on emails — every day takes lots of different turns and twists.

I don’t have many personal and professional boundaries. That paradigm works for me, my family, and my business. My kids know my clients, my clients know my kids, and my husband is my wingman — we’re a team in and out of the house.

I am ALWAYS networking. I am constantly on; it’s really just about being out there. I have fun while I’m working, but I’m always bringing 100 percent.

 

Walk us through a typical workday for you.

 

I put my kids on the bus to school and I walk to work every day. I love it — I get to call my mom or my best friend or listen to a podcast, and it’s a really peaceful time for me. If it’s anything above 30 degrees I will walk (even when it’s raining), because it’s better than being stuck on the subway, and that’s my time for myself each day.

Otherwise, every single day is different once I get to the office. The only thing that’s “typical” is that it will not be the same as the day before or the day after.

 

 

When I was a really little kid, around five years old, I wanted to be an architect. My very Indian, pragmatic, high-achieving parents asked why I wanted to be an architect, and I told them I wanted to build houses for the homeless. They instead suggested that I should go to Wharton and then become a banker, and if I did that, I would be able to buy houses for the homeless. I never forgot that advice.

 

 

Your career trajectory is incredibly impressive, and you work with a number of prominent clients. Of which of your many professional accomplishments are you most proud?

 

I was the top producer nationwide at Bernstein in 2016.

 

You believe strongly in the power of connection. Why are you passionate about blending your personal and professional circles together? Should more of us do so?

 

To blend the two is such a personal choice, and I truly enjoy it. To me, there is such efficiency created and it can benefit both sides of my life. Because I’m able to do this and because there is no boundary, it means I’m alway working, but it also means I’m always playing. A lot of people prefer a distinction, but it’s a pleasure to me.

Of course, this also means I never walk out of the house in sweats. I always walk out feeling a certain way about myself, like I’m going to meet an important business connection. However I look, I want to make sure I always feel good about it.

So connecting my two circles is something I love. It doesn’t encroach on my personal space, it just creates efficiency and joy.

 

 

I am ALWAYS networking. I am constantly on; it’s really just about being out there. I have fun while I’m working, but I’m always bringing 100 percent.

 

 

Your field is typically male-dominated. How does that impact your day-to-day life? Do you foresee improvement in this area?

 

I really hope there’s improvement, and I hope for our industry’s sake and for our firm’s sake that we can figure it out. I think women are built to be so successful in this business — with their instincts, their emotional intelligence, their empathy, and their ability to make connections, multitask, to nurture, and to grow other people.

The face of our clients and of wealth in general is changing — they’re young entrepreneurs, millennials, female entrepreneurs, and we need to meet them where they want to be met.  

I haven’t seen a lot of movement in my career throughout my industry, and we need to continue to focus on it. For me, being a woman has been nothing but an additive to my career trajectory; I love being a woman in this business. I feel built to do this job better than anyone, and truly, as a salesperson, being different oftentimes really is a good thing.

I do get better with age (or at least that is what I tell myself!), but being a young woman didn’t preclude me from being successful in this business.

 

I think women are built to be so successful in this business — with their instincts, their emotional intelligence, their empathy, and their ability to make connections, multitask, to nurture, and to grow other people.

 

What advice do you have for other women looking to go into financial services?

 

You don’t need to make a choice between a family and this sort of a business — they can very much complement each other.

Don’t think that just because there are more men in financial services, that you are not more fit for it — women are built to be the best in this business. We do need more female aspirational leaders… but maybe one day you will be one of them!

Ask for what you want, make sure that there is no pay gap, and be persistent!

 

You’re incredibly passionate about supporting and promoting the well-being of other women. Tell us about the work you’ve done in this area.

 

This is an area of passion for me. I have an amazing daughter and I work with amazing women; I want to continue to mentor, grow, and help women who sometimes can’t help themselves. I’m a supporter of many organizations and non-for-profits in this space. I love female-focused organizations like Sanctuary for Families (which helps victims of domestic violence and sex trafficking), and I also sit on the Trustees’ Council of Penn Women (helps with the advancement of female faculty and students both on and off campus).

There is so much of what I do within my work that is about mentoring and career development of other women. I run a lot of events that are focused on women in wealth, empowering women to be the shepherds of their own wealth, and to create more wealth.

I do need to say that I love working with men, too. More of my colleagues are men than women, and it’s a pleasure to work with both. My current boss is a man, and is the best boss I’ve ever had — I’ve never had anyone as invested in seeing me succeed. But, I do spend much of my time fostering and helping other women to grow.

 

 

You don’t need to make a choice between a family and this sort of a business — they can very much complement each other.

 

 

What can we all do to be more supportive of fellow female professionals and their advancement?

 

I strongly believe in the girls’ club and creating your own female network (there will always be a boys’ club, and there is no reason for there not to be a girls’ club!). Look within your firm, within your industry, and across industries within your peer group — not only will this help you with advice and through difficult times, but you can celebrate each other’s successes.

Women can be very helpful to one another, but I think we have to institutionalize this sisterhood. Men have always been part of their own fraternity and I believe we need to create our own.

When I was a freshman in college, my first boss was a woman, and she’s still the most important mentor I have had to this day. She told me, “I’m going to teach you everything I know,” and that was so powerful. At such a young age she gave me an example of someone who wasn’t competing with me, but rather instilling in me the importance of raising up other women to raise yourself up, too.

 

What’s next for you and your career?

 

I really love what I do, and I’m good at it — a lot of times when people are good at something their bosses want them to manage other people’s work, doing the same thing, so they can get better. I like where I am — I’m able to do that for my team, and I want to continue to do what I’m doing for more and more people.

Decades down the road, I can see myself running a wealth management firm, or being a CEO or the head of a division (I love this business, and there’s a lot I can give to it). I can see that as a long-term aspiration, but at this point for me it’s not about being a manager — I love what I do, I’m really good at it, and I just want to keep doing it.

 

What advice would you give to your own younger self?

 

The power of the pause! I think that I’m a do-er and I’m not really a consensus-based decision maker. I’m decisive, and I get things done. So, remembering that there is self-restraint and power in holding something before you react to it.

The power of the pause has served me so well. Write that email, but keep it in your drafts for a while; don’t pick up the phone that minute, take a pause in your communication and realize that time does heal emotions and makes you see things differently.

 

 

The power of the pause has served me so well. Write that email, but keep it in your drafts for a while; don’t pick up the phone that minute, take a pause in your communication and realize that time does heal emotions and makes you see things differently.

 

 

Aliya Sahai is The Everygirl . . .

Favorite show on Netflix?
Right now my favorite show is Handmaid’s Tale on Hulu — that is my ultimate favorite.

Go-to order at Starbucks?
Venti Pike and Sous Vide Egg White Bites — every day!

Typical Saturday routine?
Karate, gymnastics, basketball — and that’s all before lunch.

Guilty pleasure song?
One Dance by Drake

Funniest thing your kids have said lately?
Years ago someone asked my daughter, “How are you?” She replied, “I am my best me!” Wow, I was blown away… talk about self comfort and confidence!

If you could have lunch with any woman, who would it be and why?
Gloria Steinem. I don’t think we’d be here without her — Not that I even think we’re in a great place, but I don’t think we’d be this far without her. Just to even be in the presence of that level of integrity and foresight and bravery would be an incredible privilege.

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