As CIO of the New York City Retirement Systems portfolio, Seema Hingorani sounded an early call for greater gender diversity on investment teams across the industry, a mission she now champions at Morgan Stanley Investment Management.
Seema Hingorani will be the first to tell you that she didn’t get the idea of working in finance from her Indian immigrant parents. “I grew up in a culture where you were either a doctor, an engineer or a lawyer. That was it,” she says with a laugh.
But Hingorani, who had, in fact, planned to be a corporate lawyer, decided to apply to an analyst training program at a bank before heading to law school. “I fell in love with the markets,” she says. And despite the relative lack of women in finance, she decided, “I didn’t want to go to law school. I wanted to go to business school.” Now, in her new role at Morgan Stanley Investment Management (MSIM), she is helping the firm amplify its efforts to bring more women into the financial industry, particularly in asset management, where decisions about how, where and with whom to allocate investment capital can make all the difference.
Yet, the inspiration to help level the playing field came directly from her mom. “My mother had her economics degree but never worked a day in her life in India,” Hingorani says. “When she arrived in the U.S., she built a residential real-estate brokerage business in Norwalk, CT, where I grew up. Her primary clients were other immigrant families, who like mine, weren’t shown nice homes in nice neighborhoods because of the color of their skin or what country they originally came from,” she says. “My mom was determined to help every family that could afford to live in a nice neighborhood get the opportunity to do so.”
Seeing Who Wasn't in the Room
Her daughter found her own path to helping others succeed. After earning an MBA in finance from The Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania, Hingorani worked as an equity analyst and portfolio manager at various mutual funds and hedge funds, before moving to the public sector in 2010, where she served until 2014, first as Head of Public Equities and Hedge Funds and then as Chief Investment Officer of the New York City Retirement Systems, overseeing assets exceeding $160 billion at the time.
What she encountered there, however, led to what has become Hingorani’s calling: Getting more women into positions of portfolio management and executive leadership within the asset management industry. “I was shocked whenever I met with asset managers and found few, if any, women on their investment teams,” particularly, she notes, “women-owned funds in alternatives—private equity, private real estate, private credit, private infrastructure, and hedge funds—it was basically, ’Good luck trying to find them.’”
The experience spurred Hingorani, who left the New York City pension investment job in 2014, to write an op-ed about the need to create a pipeline of talented women investors through education, mentorship and internships—a program she proposed calling: “Girls Who Invest.”
If It Doesn’t Exist, Build It Yourself
The response was overwhelming. “I got hundreds of emails from men and women in our business, as well as business-school professors and college professors saying I had to start Girls Who Invest,” Hingorani recalls. She launched the organization, which hosts a four-week training program followed by six-week paid internships at leading asset management firms, in 2015. It now boasts 350 alumna—diverse college sophomore women of all majors of study from across the U.S. who have gone on to work at leading investment management firms, including Morgan Stanley.
Her next step was to start a fund focused on seeding women and multicultural portfolio managers. While raising institutional capital for her initiative she came into contact with the Morgan Stanley Investment Management division. She was impressed by how their entrepreneurial ethos and commitment to diversity meshed so well with hers, and the conversation turned into one about her joining Morgan Stanley, an offer she accepted. “People approach things here creatively. ‘OK, that doesn’t work? Fine. Let’s try something else.’ I think with that mentality, you can get a lot of great stuff done.”
Hingorani’s first goal is to create a junior investment talent development program that can help investment professionals succeed in ways that will incentivize them to stay at Morgan Stanley over the long term, thus helping the firm retain and develop its talented investors. “The main objective here is to have more diverse portfolio managers in our business, and to do that through a combination of robust training, mentoring and by building a strong internal community of diverse investment professionals,” says Hingorani.
She is also working with key clients on their diversity goals. Those conversations make clear the industry-wide priority to invest with asset managers with diverse teams and cultures. “One investment strategy that keeps coming up is investing in women portfolio managers, businesses that are founded by women, and businesses that are focused on building products and services that are focused on women and girls and improving their lives,” Hingorani says.
As she notes, “Diversity is not a ‘nice to have,’ it’s a ‘must have' in your portfolio. By not building and investing in diverse firms, we leave money on the table Research has shown that diversity improves innovation and overall business outcomes, and that, conversely, group-think can actually lead to outright failure. I’ve experienced both situations in my career, which is why I am such a believer in the power and benefits of more diverse teams.”
To be sure, this won’t happen overnight. “As investors, we tend to be skeptical. Skeptical is good,” she says. “But we want to make sure we stay open-minded. We are focused on making money for our clients as their trusted partners, and we believe this will continue to happen consistently over time, with an even more dedicated focus on promoting a culture of diversity.”
As it happens, she can soon point to proximate proof of her earlier labor. A Girls Who Invest alumna joined Investment Management as a full-time analyst upon her graduation from Colorado College this year. “She’s joined the Fixed Income investment team,” Hingorani notes. “It’s super-exciting! We’re just going to keep building that pipeline of talent.”