Lavanya Ashok

Doing Business in South Asia: A Conversation by the Penn South Asia Center on behalf of Current Penn Undergraduates

Today we are talking with Lavanya Ashok, Executive Director for Goldman Sachs’ private equity investment operations in India. She earned her bachelor’s degree from Wharton and is a member of the class of 2004.

Can you start off by telling us a bit about your current work?

For the last five years I’ve been with Goldman Sachs as an Executive Director for Goldman’s private equity investment operations in India. At Goldman we do fairly classic growth-oriented equity investing. Goldman [is now] looking toward emerging markets, and specifically the burgeoning Indian market, to fuel the next wave of growth. 

Is there a part of your academic or social experience at Penn that you look back on now and feel was really instrumental in preparing you for your work in finance?

The honest answer is that it is hard to say. I don’t know how much anything outside of classes really truly prepared me for my job. Though,  that also means that the classes I took as part of my main area of study at Wharton in finance clearly were really important in preparing me…Perhaps surprisingly, I would also say that I didn’t really do that much networking at Wharton. Even now, in fact, most of my friends from those years are doing totally different things career-wise. So I wouldn’t say there is any one path.

What about historical and cultural awareness? Do you think this is something current students looking to do finance or investment work in India should be trying to develop?

The first thing I would say is that anyone who wants to succeed in India certainly can, no matter where they are from. So the question of cultural awareness is not a matter of being an insider to ‘Indian culture.’ That said, it is equally true that to successfully navigate any business environment you have to understand how people do business in the particular culture and context that the business is being done in. So you do have to understand what matters to them….[O]verall, I think one can say that even though in the end this career, like most, will always be a process of learning by doing, to successfully engage in relationship building of the kind you have to do in investment and finance work always means that cultural and historical awareness are bound to be really important. A last thing I’d add…is that it is also helpful to have a basic understanding of Hindi or some other South Asian regional language. This type of linguistic skill can be very important in building rapport even if most of your business is done in English.

And what was life at Penn like for you as an undergraduate? What aspects of your experience did you value most?

As you can imagine, as a transfer student—and someone transferring internationally at that—I was very busy with the classes that I had to take for my degree at Wharton… That said, I did definitely try to take as broad a mix of classes as my schedule allowed, which I am very glad I tried to do. For example, I had courses in the nursing school and on forensic science as well as the South Asia Studies Department. One of my favorites of these was a class on the diversity of traditions within Hinduism, which was also a cross-list with the Department of Religious Studies. What else? I remember having a great time in an Economic History of India and China class that was offered through the economics department. Perhaps my favorite non-finance class was my Psychology 101 class.Outside of the classroom, I also spent a good deal of time tutoring people in finance as well as on extra-curricular activities like dance.

For a list of extra-curricular organizations at Penn engaged with traditions of dance as well as the arts more generally in a South Asian context see here.

For a full transcript of the extended conversation please click on the following link:  Lavanya Ashok-Full Profile Final.pdf.