Diversity is more than black and white | Chandrima Das
In today’s episode of the High-Performance Teams Podcast, I am joined by Chandrima Das, a FinTech entrepreneur who shares powerful insights about the current and future of the industry. She has over 25 years of experience in wealth management, financial services, and technology.
As the CEO of Bento, B2B2C Wealth Tech (acquired by Grab), Chandrima found her purpose in the tech space. She believes in financial inclusion and envisions utilising the power of digital technology to reach every single person in the world.
Some of the interesting takeaways from the Podcast were:
✅ The fundamentals that a start-up entrepreneur should know.
✅ The most significant challenges that entrepreneurs face today.
✅ Technology has much power to connect people.
✅ The best ways to attract and retain talent.
More about Chandrima:
Full episode transcript
Rodrigo Canelas: Chandrima, it’s such a pleasure to have you here. Welcome.
Chandrima Das: Thank you so much, Rodrigo. It’s my pleasure to spend this time with you, given the good work that you’re doing on a topic that is very close to my heart.
Rodrigo Canelas: Oh, that’s so nice. Good. So let’s get to know Chandrima. Can you tell us a bit about your journey?
Chandrima Das: I have about 25 years in wealth management, financial services, and technology. So I have worked with the asset managers I have worked with in banks and also I set up my own startup. So what I know best is how people do it and how they should manage their money and the technology around it. So that’s a bit of long and short about what I do. I have worked.
I’ve been very lucky and I have worked in some of the biggest financial centers in the world. I started my life working in Bombay, and then I worked in London, a bit in Hong Kong, and then many years in Singapore.
Rodrigo Canelas: Wow. What a journey!
Chandrima Das: I never believed this could have happened.
Rodrigo Canelas: Good. And I mean your last venture, so you, you launched your startup a FinTech business, and it was a successful business that you ended up selling to Grab. Can you tell us about that journey?
Chandrima Das: You know, and every entrepreneur or many have this amazing story about how they came out with the idea, but I have to disappoint you. I have none of that.
So I took a break from work to sort out some personal stuff in 2015. And I realized that technology in personal wealth management was getting very, very big. And if you went to New York or if you went to London, there were billboards, there were like signs in the Jew. And so I opened the accountant in some of those. And I started to read about it, and I realized it is relevant. It was, it met a certain need for investors, and Asia was about five to seven years behind the US. There was some game in that space and I knew that domain.
Also, if you look at, if you talk to 10 people, nine of them would tell you they’re not happy, with their banks or with their financial advisors. And I would say 10 of them would tell you they don’t know what to do. So with that purpose, I set up Bento. It was wealth management for individuals, but at some point, I realized that you know, getting individuals on board is very hard and it’s very expensive. So we did a little change, keeping the same purpose in mind, to work with banks and brokers to help them provide lower cost and better services for personal wealth management for individuals. So that’s the long and short of the Bento journey.
Rodrigo Canelas: And so in, in that journey, what were the two things that you can see the, I mean, you did a lot, but what are the two things that you did that contributed to the success of Bento?
Chandrima Das: You know, there are four or five things and entrepreneurs. One is to set the vision and the vision has to have relevance for a long period of time. And the second thing, which is a topic, as I mentioned, very close to my heart is assembling a team. And the third thing that you have to do is raise money or bootstrap it. And the fourth thing, of course, is two parts to profitability going to market and, and mainly client acquisition.
So these are the four or five things. And in each one of them, you know, an entrepreneur has many inflection points and decisions to be made and you basically live by the sword.
Rodrigo Canelas: So you had many challenges. What was the main challenge that you faced on that journey?
Chandrima Das: There are many, many challenges and human memory is fickle. So we always remember the good parts. We forget the bad parts. And I always joke that if we remember the hard bits, then most people would not have more than one child. Now, most entrepreneurs would not ever say that I want to be a serial entrepreneur, isn’t it?
So I think the main challenges as the people that you wanted to work for or work with, you cannot afford them. If you want to work for this individual, the mindset matters. And you know that there is a fix that there’s a fit, but they have other priorities in life and you can work with them. So assembling the team is crucial.
So what we end up seeing is in many startups, there are clones of each other. So we went to the same university. We stayed in the same dorm. We work in the same company for 15 years. And those are options, but assembling a team that can take an organization forward is the biggest challenge.
The second one is funding. So there are many different types of funding. You can do angel investors, you can go to VCs, you can go to the corporate VCs. And, but what is the mix that helps you propel forward?
So I think these two were the biggest decision-making points and the things, that I grappled with.
Rodrigo Canelas: And for you. So before you come, you were working for the corporate world for many years. And I would like to ask, what was the difference between your perception of what it was to be an entrepreneur and the reality when you were an entrepreneur?
Chandrima Das: Delta is massive. So, and I talked to a lot of like-minded entrepreneurs, everybody jumps in thinking, you know, I’ll be my own boss and I’ll have control over my time. And anything that I build with the laptop by, by, you know, whoever I’m building it for, none of them happen.
The first thing that I lost as an entrepreneur is control over my time. It is, it is you’re switched on 24 7. And the second thing is you are your boss, but in reality, the consumer for whom you’re building it, you have to build something that has a consumer that has a purpose and consumer delight. So you’re not the boss, the bosses, the buyer.
So as you asked, what is the difference between an employee and an entrepreneur? An employee takes some decisions. Yeah. But may not have to justify them. Whereas as an entrepreneur, you end up taking many and most decisions and you live by them, and nine out of 10 startups fail. So mostly it is the entrepreneur who pays; he or she can lose the shirt off their back. So it’s a different ballgame.
The decision making the kind of, how much you are vested in it. And it is just 10 times. High-octane. But if you see if you type entrepreneurial, I always look at where the biases are and where the imagery is. And if you type entrepreneur in Google. If you look for images, you see the footsie table, and then you see beanbags and you see people lying down reclining. So in reality, people sit in, your call, and you sit with your colleagues and your teams in reasonably cramped conditions. It’s tight. I have taken a hundred dollars in flights, and I have lived in hotels in Bangkok for $50 a night.
As an employee, I would say, even an analyst, when you start up, you don’t do that. So it is the pressure to taking the right decision. It is cost controlled. It is 24-7. These are the three main differences with the corporate one. There are no ping pong tables. Those are imageries that are not real at all.
Rodrigo Canelas: And so you spoke about bias and I mean, you worked in an industry, which is normally more male-dominated. How you have a woman navigated in that world in order to succeed?
Chandrima Das: I grew up in a very small industrial town in Rogerstone, which is a wrong word to use, but it’s a backward state. And so I have, since very young, I have been on tables and in rooms where there are mostly males. So it never struck me that I’m in an area where it is male-dominated because that was the way of life all along.
But, what happens is there are biases in everything, you type leadership and a certain kind of image comes up, then you type software developers. There is an Asian male of a certain age. So I think what we are fed also. It pushes our biases. It ingrains them even more so in that if you talk about the software if you talk about financial services, there are not many. But there are not many women.
Also, there is a lot of ageism in the financial sector. In the FinTech or the technology space. If you type tech founder, the Patagonia jackets, and a certain image, it comes up. But you know, that is a reality on the ground. You and I can work together not to propagate those biases, but we can solve the problem.
And the purpose of when I set up Bento, was not to solve for biases or not to solve for a representation of a certain gender, but it was a different purpose. So I kept my eyes on the ball, and if it was easy for. It was easy for my client. It was more palatable for a competent colleague of mine.
Say, for example, our sales were done by now. He’s a very good friend, but by, by somebody called Martin whom I greatly value, and he was better perceived than me then. So be it. And so I did not fight it because that was not my agenda. And I just worked towards the purpose of the organization.
Rodrigo Canelas: Wow. I love that. So being an entrepreneur, it’s like an adventure. It’s like ups and downs. What did you enjoy the most as an entrepreneur?
Chandrima Das: You know, as an employee, there have been days when I woke up and I’ve asked myself, why am I doing this? Do I really need to peel myself out of my chair, on my sofa, or on my bed? And I don’t want to go to work. And that happens a lot. But when you are in the driving seat, there is the option and it’s a choice. It’s a pleasure to wake up and just keep going on. So there is no plan B and either you make it, or you should shop. So it is not that I can you know, it’s not that I can make a CV. And I think that that was the best part of it.
But as you mentioned, the highs and the lows are highly accentuated. Yeah. So the, you have, and you have the highs and the lows in the same day you have, oh my goodness. Today, I have got a demo with this bank. And then somebody, some VC that I wrote to has written to me saying, ‘He doesn’t even want to talk to me.’ And the person whom I wanted to recruit said, yes, I want to join what hasn’t turned up to work today. So the same day can have massive peaks and troughs, which is in corporate, it is quite attenuated. And it happens over time. It doesn’t happen on the same day. So it’s the whole, I think it’s a, it’s like a sport, you know, it’s the adrenaline that you get on a, on a daily basis that drives most. And then that creates the serial entrepreneurs as well.
Rodrigo Canelas: I was having goosebumps over your answer. I just loved it.
So, there are so many ups and downs. What did you find that worked really well for you in terms of managing your emotions while going up and down?
Chandrima Das: Actually, it’s the wrong answer, but I’m not very emotional to start with. Okay. So, if you have a purpose, if the team is aligned to the purpose, then yeah. There are extreme highs and extreme lows, but just plowed through, just get on with the program.
Rodrigo Canelas: So good. Okay. So you, you said two of the most important things that you did. One of them was to assemble the team. How did you assemble it? Let’s say a high-performance team to help you succeed in your startup.
Chandrima Das: You know, just can’t stop saying this, but the people whom you really want to work with, you can’t afford. Yeah. But what ties humans together is a sense of purpose and its values. So during my journey, one thing that I learned, and I don’t want to unlearn is the power of connectivity, connectivity with other humans. And I did not do that often when I was in my corporate role, I would deliberate a lot about why does this person want to meet me? Why would I want to meet this individual? But that I had to throw out of the window.
And there was this individual who me, ‘You don’t choose whom you meet. If somebody gives you time, you go and meet them because you don’t know what comes out of it.’ And I hold that close to my heart.
So, my team was one person. She was the head of product and whom I have known for many, many years because she was so deep in the domain. And she quit a job at a very well-paying bank. And I think came at a salary. That was a third of what the bank was paying. But I think it was a sense of purpose. It was the vision where we were aligned. Then, then the COO also did sales. He also came from a bank and then he worked for a startup. But what got him onto the journey is again, the vision.
So I think setting a vision that resonates with the team that you want to work with, but also the long-term or medium-term, or maybe short-term prospect of making some serious money, which is important because we all are commercially driven. No, we all have bills to pay her. And so the commercial purpose, the ability to make money, and the vision and the delight that we can bring to a consumer segment, I think that is the glue of the team.
Then another thing that we did is we had no hierarchies and that, that meant that everybody sits at the same desk and everybody travels the same class, the same ticket, the same hotel. And we would eat out. Or we used to go to Lopez actually, which we still go back to quite often. We are working once in a while. So I think it was the microcosm of a classless society with psychological safety, where every voice mattered and with the purpose of vision, which helped drive the blue of the team together.
Rodrigo Canelas: Wow. There’s so much value there. So also in that, so you bring many different people together. What is the role of cognitive diversity in the success of building a team?
Chandrima Das: Diversity has many dimensions. And if you read the papers or if you see what’s going on. We are unfortunately focusing a lot on the visible part of diversity, which is we look at geography, diversity, and we look at gender diversity, but what really matters when you are developing a product or you’re building something from scratch is.
As you mentioned, cognitive diversity and the other part is micro diversity. So, does every woman who grew up in India, have things similar to me, maybe not because I grew up in an environment of scarcity. I grew up in an environment where opportunities were just not there. And so, but am I different from a male who is Indian, Indian male, or a Southeastern, or a brown person who is, who is quite driven and aggressive internally, maybe not so optically, I miss him to be different, but my functioning may be the same.
Chandrima Das: So, whereas if you look at micro diversity, micro diversity is most of our developers were of a certain age group that they were men. I could not try my best, but they were all men developers but they were very different because they had different backgrounds, educational backgrounds, different. And we often don’t focus on bringing. But the way we do decision-making our work attacks, and the way we treat people around us have a lot to do with our upbringing. We don’t focus. We maybe don’t think about that.
So our upbringing, we were just very different. So, because I did not gravitate towards my, just having a group of ex-colleagues or ex-university mates, we ended up not out of intention, but the outcome was this mix of a very diverse group. We had people who different backgrounds who cognitively operated differently. And in terms of micro diversity, they may be the same age group, but the backgrounds were so different.
Generalization is not correct. But I will just generalize a bit and I will, I will extrapolate that. So my head of product was in Singapore. She’s a Singaporean and her eye for detail given the way the education system was outstanding. So in the product, we also had somebody from China who is able to look forward and be quite brave, was there. Then we had engineers from India, we had a Burmese engineer, we had a North Korean engineer, and then we had some from India. So that whole mix was magic.
So then, if I could bring some psychological safety where people could contribute to their maximum potential, it was just it. I did not think of it when I was building it. But in retrospect, I think that’s what the team of 18 was equal to a team of 80 because of that glue.
Rodrigo Canelas: So much diversity in that team! But when you bring so many different people, when there’s so much diversity. How you, as the leader then can manage all that in a way that aligns with the purpose?
Chandrima Das: I think we, humans are curious, and more curious of us end up in places where new categories are being built. So we were literally curious about each other, like, say, for example, you grew up in China and you were the second or third child or whatever. ‘How did that happen?’ And so someone, she was from Vermont with us. ‘What’s going on in Vermont? And how did you come out of it? How did you end up here?’ So I think we were just curious about our backgrounds and then if you are free to speak, whatever it is with the right purpose. I think they were only positives and huge positives.
Rodrigo Canelas: And today there’s so much talk going on around diversity. Do you consider the misconceptions? Is there any misconception happening today? And if yes, what are the misconceptions?
Chandrima Das: You know, perception becomes reality. And one of the misconceptions is if I take a picture of my team and everybody looks a bit different. And then there is geographic and gender diversity. It’s become like that.
As I mentioned that, you put me in a room maybe with a couple of, I don’t know, with a couple of white males, I may be as driven as aggressive and, and as whatever. So am I diverse, but not optically. If you take a picture of me and you and I together, we look diverse. So I think what we are not working on, and we are not spending enough effort, as you said is cognitive diversity.
The way decision-making is done and introversion versus extroversion. So we form teams with chatty people who are extroverted, who are interesting, but innovation and new ideas and well, all sorts of things that we use today have come from deeply introverted people. And that is cognitive diversity. And so we are focused a lot on optics and not on the outcome of micro diversity of cognitive diversity.
And if you go down the path, I have two daughters, I feel bad because they may end up growing quite entitled. But what we need to build up upon is how our minds work differently and that’s where the beauty of diversity is.
Rodrigo Canelas: Well. And you’re as an investor. So you, you also get in contact with many startups, many entrepreneurs. What do you observe as a common mistake that some entrepreneurs they do when it comes to leading teams?
Chandrima Das: So, you know, if you wanted to build something on the domain, you can have clones of yourself who have the deep domain. But if you’re building something, if you’re creating a category, then you meet people who have skills that you do not have.
So you can look at what I’m good at. I’m good at a B, and maybe E. ‘How do I plug in with the others?’ Because we are, we want to, we like to work with people whom we like. So, that ends up in teams that are cohesive, but that are very similar to themselves. I find a lot of that. I find very few teams that are assembled from scratch and built to last. But there is no right or wrong. What works for one may not work for another.
One of the key reasons why startups fail. I think it’s in the top three, maybe the second or the third one is that the first one is run out of money and why they run out of money because of conflict within co-founders or conflict within founding team members. So if you work with somebody whom you like that conflict can be minimized, but if you pair up with a stranger, then your values have to be really aligned.
So, you know, there’s no right, right or wrong. And I would say one thing that entrepreneurs go a lot for is the whole thing about advisors. I believe that if you have your eyes on the ball and your feet always on the field or the court, wherever you’re playing, then you may not need so much advice. Your heart or the compass in your mind knows what to do.
So optically, ‘do you need to sign up for advisors?’ I’m not too sure, but if you need very specific advice on something, then just reach out, but not the broad brush. ‘Can you be my advisor?’ Because as an entrepreneur, you know what you want.
Rodrigo Canelas: Well, I don’t know what you’re going to do for the next two or three hours, but I’m going to keep you here. We’re going to keep going on for two or three hours before.
Chandrima Das: I’m so excited about your journey. There’s so much out there.
Rodrigo Canelas: Yeah. So you already spoke about how to retain and attract talent, but I think it’s such an important topic today. Maybe we can go a bit deeper on that. What do you think is the most important today for an entrepreneur in order to attract and retain people, despite the challenges that you already spoke about?
Chandrima Das: Yeah. As I mentioned that your massive highs and lows. Yeah. So when you have lows than a lot of our human nature, fallacies takeover You can lose it, and then you can get into a whole thing of the blame game. But I think if you control the emotions when you’re going through a very low phase and if you say, ‘We try our best.’ If you, which are the ingredients of building an organization with psychological safety. And if you say, ‘We do our best, we do it for the right purpose and the right intent.’ We may fail. We may fail. But so be it, it is not that you feel, or I feel it is always a B. So the purpose of the organization with where embedded V in everything, ‘If we succeed, we succeed. If we fail, we fail.’
It’s just keeping everybody on the same plane. It is over-communicating on the good stuff and on the bad stuff. And it is not about taking blame or shoving blame. It is about the whole. The power of we is what keeps the team together. What we know is we went down a couple of times now I was sitting at 2:00 AM at night and typing, what should I write to the investor? They will be so upset with me. And, but I think that that kind of lows that you have to manage, and the highs are not about the entrepreneur. It is not about yourself. It is about the whole team that pitches in as much as you do.
Rodrigo Canelas: We are in the middle of a big disruption happening now and a lot of uncertainty for the future. I’m going to push you a little bit. If we look at, let’s say 10 years ahead of us. What do you think is a skill that an entrepreneur needs to start developing now that is going to help him in 10 years to succeed?
Chandrima Das: Its new categories are being created. And consumer behavior is changing on a weekly, daily, and monthly basis. And we have more and more accessible with our phones. We don’t go to branches anymore. We can do all our research on our phones. And if you don’t need to line up for cinema tickets, we may choose not to go to restaurants.
So every day new categories are coming up. So I think unlearning is very important and we often get caught up in, ‘Oh, I know this domain so well.’ ‘Oh, I know this.’ But unlearning what, you know, while keeping some of the domain experts in it, places very important.
The second thing because all the new categories are tackling. So human-computer interaction is critical. So I’m doing a little course on human-computer interaction is the cross-section between data between human psychology and how tech can be built. So I think that I would suggest everybody delve in because that creates an option that creates understanding of who your customers are and how to bring a delight for them in what you’re building.
Rodrigo Canelas: Super interesting. So now there are some people who ask you a lot of questions to you. I’m going to turn it around. I’m going to ask you, what would be a question that no one ever asked you but you would love to answer? Is that any question?
Chandrima Das: Yeah. People think that funding came very easily, but I have to tell you. I had two cases, 80 frauds, and I tell the entrepreneurs that if you make a list of the VCs when you’re starting up, just be prepared, you go fraud after fraud and fraud after the frog. It is the 81st. And it is the rejection, Which hasn’t been when I talked to some of my industry colleagues, they talk about the rejection on a retrospective basis. We laugh it out. We say there are lessons because we forget. But the day when you get the rejection, it is so hard. But then you have to go to the office, you have got your colleagues, and you’ve got to have your smile at how great we are doing. We are building something, this is our purpose.
So there is a duality between what is going on the fear of failure, the fear of rejection, the fear that new you could shut down any time versus the whole, you got to keep the whole thing together and it’s, it’s almost like the smiling joker that facade and that vineyard of purpose. It’s you do have a purpose deep inside because it gets rattled every now and then. And for the purpose, for the sake of the team, for the sake of your own self, and for everything else, you just keep that vineyard on day after day. That’s the hardest.
Rodrigo Canelas: Wow. So now just to finalize, so now what’s next for you?
Chandrima Das: Yeah. I’m in Candyland and I’m meeting up with very interesting people. You’re one of them, and I’m just trying to see my mom.
My purpose, I think lies in the tech space. And I believe in financial inclusion. Financial inclusion doesn’t mean the fishermen somewhere in the Philippines or in Canada. Financial inclusion means you it’s me because most of us don’t know what to do with our money. Most of us, read and we cobbled together something. So how that can be brought together with technology, and how that can be gamified. How do we teach our children about money? How do we push them away from instant gratification? I think these are the several things that are going on in my mind, but really, I don’t know. I’m just meeting people and very interesting people were, who are helping form where I potentially could be next.
Rodrigo Canelas: Wow. What a nice place to be.
Chandrima Das: I know. I can’t complain now, maybe I’d complete it in a year’s time but not yet.
Rodrigo Canelas: So good. So that’s it. So we are, at the end of our time, I could continue here at least for a couple of hours.
Chandrima Das: Absolutely.
Rodrigo Canelas: It’s been such a pleasure. To be honest, it’s such an inspiration. Your journey is an inspiration and you shared so many good values. You know, I learned so much and it was such a pleasure to have you here.
Chandrima Das: You know, Rodrigo, the pleasure is mine, because, for someone like you, we’re putting this whole together. That is my inspiration as well.