Kanika Agarrwal, Co-founder and CIO, Upside AI

Kanika Agarrwal is the co-founder and CIO of Upside AI, a fintech startup that aims to revolutionise the investment space with the help of machine learning. Kanika is a rank holder Chartered Accountant (All India Rank 18), a CFA charter holder and a Commerce graduate from Mumbai University. She has over 11 years of experience in finance and investing, having worked with companies including Mayfield India, Credit Suisse, and EY. Kanika has always envisioned a future in finance and known that she will be an entrepreneur. In a conversation with Digital First, Kanika talks about obstacles that deter women from actively pursuing leadership roles in India, lessons she learned while building Upside AI, and much more.

Why is gender balance and having a more diverse workforce important, especially in senior management teams?

In 2021, we should no longer have to talk about the importance of diversity in the workplace. In general, everyone brings a different set of skills to a team. If we agree that having a broader range of personalities helps a team, then there is a case for more women, more people from different cultures and backgrounds. Who you are and where you are from changes what you bring to the table.

This need is exacerbated at the senior management level, where if you have a roundtable of men from similar backgrounds, you create an echo chamber of views. A recent study by the International Labour Organization surveying 13,000 companies in 70 countries – almost 75% of those companies that tracked gender diversity in their management reported profit increases of between 5 and 20 per cent, with the majority seeing increases of between 10 and 15 per cent.

What are some of the factors or obstacles that deter women from actively pursuing leadership roles in India?

There is a clear pyramid of women participation at work – at entry-level, roughly equal men and women join the workforce. With time and career growth, women start dropping off. In India, this means 18% participation at middle management, 8% at CXO level and 1% at board level.

In part, as you journey from entry-level to middle management, the reasons are social. We are a patriarchal society, and women end up leaving for marriage, kids, etc. But once you cross that barrier of middle management – how do you explain the drop-off? These are now women working for 10+ years who have navigated their personal lives while building successful careers.

Given the number of men in senior management, there is a strong boys’ club culture that exists. I don’t generally think this is malicious or conscious – you often hang out with people like you, go for cricket matches with other men and want to hire your friends for jobs. Statistically, even more percentage of men have mentors than women in senior roles.

With time this will change – my generation is more gender-neutral and inclusive. There are many more startups with more progressive policies from day one, and larger companies focus on bringing women back from maternity with flexible WFH, etc.

How can women better enable each other instead of competing? What needs to change, in your opinion?

It is human nature to “look out for number one”,, i.e. you, when there aren’t enough opportunities to go around. You will not see women competing only with other women at the entry-level. It gets worse because of the number of seats at the table for women shrink. As our organisations get more gender-neutral, this will naturally stop.

What has made you so successful as an entrepreneur? What are the most important lessons you have learned while building Upside AI?

I think success is relative, and most entrepreneurs will always talk to you about their next goal and not what they have achieved so far!

Building Upside AI has taught me how to sell. This means a better read on people, having a thick skin, not taking no for an answer, and being relentless. I am also learning patience, but that is a work in progress.

Tell us about your work at the Upside AI as the Chief Investment Officer.

Upside AI has been live for nearly two years now and done very well. In 2020, we returned 40% for our investors, and we’re in the top 10% of PMS in the country.

At Upside AI, we are using a combination of fundamental investing and machine learning to pick good companies in the stock market. The thesis is that humans are average investors in the long term and cannot sustainably beat the index. Therefore, our approach is to build unemotional, unbiased systems that can teach themselves

(1) What is good stock? (2) What does the market think is a good stock?

The idea is to build products with their roots in systemised rules-based investing and not rely so much on “gut” or “intuition”.

As a CIO, I am responsible for everything, from sales to day-to-day operations.

What personal sacrifices have you made throughout your journey as a businesswoman?

My sacrifices are the same as all entrepreneurs. As they say, no pain, no gain, right? The biggest for me is leaving a job I loved in venture capital to start my own business. I always knew I would own my own business someday but leaving behind work you enjoy is tough. Of course, your time with friends and family takes a hit, and so do your finances as you start.

What advice would you give women struggling in a male-dominated industry?

Keep at it! Gender does not define competence, and if you are good at what you do and love it, you must persist. The generation of women that come after you, will stand on your shoulders.

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