About Mr. Praveen Joseph:
Praveen is currently an Investment Officer & Portfolio Manager for the IFC which is part of the World Bank Group headquartered in Washington D.C. He is responsible for managing fixed income investment for the International Finance Corporation (IFC) based in Washington DC, USA and currently in London, U.K. Following his B.Tech in Civil Engineering from IITM (2005), Praveen decided to switch into economics and made his way to London to pursue his Masters in Finance and Economics from the London School of Economics (LSE) with a J.N.Tata scholarship (2006) after which he started working for JPMorgan Investment Banking team in London and New York. Praveen recently also completed an executive degree at Harvard Business School (HBS) in 2015 as a World Bank scholar while working full time for the World Bank Group.
When we started talking to Mr. Praveen, we began with a very open ended question which led to one of the most interesting discussions either of the authors have ever had. The question was – “You decided to go to LSE immediately after your IIT undergraduate degree. How did you make that choice?”
To answer that question, I’ll try to give you some background and context. When I joined IIT Madras in 2001, I didn’t have a clear idea about what I wanted to do with my exciting life except for the fact that I was a ‘newly minted’ IIT’an and I was very proud of it! In an attempt to be honest, I must admit I never really found my passion for engineering while at IIT. I spent most of my time at insti pursuing theatre – Stagecoach and LitSoc; I organized speaking events and Informals during Saarang and was also heavily involved in LitSoc and Schroeter events for my hostel (Ganga). While at IIT, I fortuitously found something unexpected a passion for the field of ‘Financial Economics’ (also popularly known as Financial Engineering or Mathematical Finance) – over the years this has burgeoned into a successful career and has defined many of my achievements to date.
During my 4 years at IIT, my best academic performance was not in my core courses. I excelled in the electives in my ‘minor stream’ (Finance) and the electives courses I chose in Economics. I had serendipitously audited a course in Macroeconomics in my second year– out of curiosity and interest (and if I’m being honest perhaps in an attempt to impress a member of the fairer sex) and to my surprise I found myself deeply interested in the subject and when the time came to choose the minor stream – I opted for Finance & Accounting. The foundation for my interest in ‘financial economics’ was seeded in the courses I took with Prof. G. Arun Kumar, from the HS department. He was my mentor, the professor who really encouraged me to pursue my interest in Finance and inspired me during my time at IIT. This was also the post 9/11 landscape when the Masters ‘app’ opportunities in the US had mostly evaporated. Funding was difficult to get and the only tried and tested option for graduate school was to apply for a PhD program in your chosen field of engineering.
In addition to my extra-curricular activities at IIT, I was also actively involved in a start-up company (operating in Chennai and New Delhi) that I had co-founded with some friends from high school from 2001 to 2004. In 2004, I was invited by Stanford University to attend their annual ASES Summit – Asia-Pacific Student Entrepreneurship Conference which focuses on empowering and supporting student entrepreneurs in Asia. I was lucky enough to be selected as the first Indian to be invited to attend the conference and the IIT Alumni scholarship fund gave me a scholarship to visit Stanford University and present a paper on ‘grassroots entrepreneurship’ in India. The summit was designed to highlight the efforts that are being made by students at leading technical universities such as the IIT’s and IISc to bolster student entrepreneurship and share the experiences of student entrepreneurs. It was also a great opportunity to discuss and share ideas and learn about how entrepreneurship cells were funded and operated at Stanford – which was at the heart of the ‘Silicon valley’ start-up ecosystem.
This was also the time when IIT Madras setting up its entrepreneurship cell (E-Cell/C-TIDES) under the guidance of Prof. L.S.Ganesh (Prof. LSG.). He was a great inspiration to me and many others students at IIT who aspired to be entrepreneurs; he encouraged people to challenge the norm. This wasn’t common advice at IIT, IIT has a very well-defined and structured curriculum and it consistently produces many extremely smart people. Most students who come to IIT are in the top 95 percentile tail of the Gaussian distribution of their peers across the globe.
…people who possess extraordinary ambition, ability and intellect do not follow structured career paths. Their careers do not conform to predefined norms…
Over time I’ve come to realize; people who possess extraordinary ambition, ability and intellect do not follow structured career paths. Their careers do not conform to predefined norms; this is something that a lot of people realise after they leave IIT and embark on many different and exciting careers. In IIT many of us were siloed through the existing framework where we had to choose between a few well established options: Campus placements; Management track through IIM or management jobs; or the Technical track – a PhD abroad.
All other options were the refuge of the brave.
The critical move I made during my final year at Insti was to apply to graduate school in the field of Economics. Before I applied, I wanted to find out more about the world I was venturing into – so I did what many IIT’an before me had done, I sought out the wisdom of my seniors. The last person who had pursued a career in the field of economics was someone from the 1995 batch of IITM (10 years my senior). He had completed his PhD at NYU and was working in Investment Banking in New York City. I was able to track him down using the extensive network of IIT seniors and I spoke to him about my career interests. This highly respected Alumnus and IIT senior – patiently answered my questions and enlightened me about the career opportunities and the challenges of pursuing a career in financial economics. That’s the story of how I decided to apply for my Masters in Financial Economics against conventional wisdom. Many of my peers told me that I was being foolhardy and I had no chance to getting an admit, let alone funding. This was probably a very fair estimate, because I didn’t have exceptional grades, neither did I have an undergraduate degree in the field. In any case, I was always predisposed to taking unconventional risks. Both my parents were entrepreneurs and I had grown up in a family where taking risks and following your passion was encouraged. My entrepreneurial background plus my interest in economics made my profile quite unique – so I decided to try and app, and if it didn’t work out, I would’ve failed trying.
“Tell us about your app process what were the challenges you faced and how did you deal with them?”
Since I was going to try, I decided to go all out. I decided to apply to 19 universities – most people thought I was crazy. I broke the previous IITM app record (12 apps in 1999) by 7 apps! However, since there was no clash with anybody else applying for my same program, there was no problem of RG-ing anyone else. The real challenge was in writing many different SOP’s and more importantly getting professors to write 19 letters of recommendation for me. I am still grateful to Prof. G. Arun Kumar, Prof D.Malathy, and Prof P.R.Parthasarthy who patiently wrote me those wonderful letters of recommendations. Thinking back, I’m also very grateful to my parents who supported me and decided to Bankroll my ‘wild goose chase’ into the unchartered realm of economics. By the time I was working on my 11th app, I started getting replies. By the time I finished all my applications I got admissions from all of my top 5 schools – Stanford, LSE, Princeton, Columbia and Oxford. Everyone (including me) was shocked with the outcome of the app process.
Furthermore, since they didn’t fund the masters programs, I had to apply for scholarships.
I chose LSE mainly because I’d dreamt of travelling all my life, and London had always been the heart of where I wanted to live… I made more of an emotional choice than a rational choice – I followed my gut
So I went through another long process of applying for scholarships and I was a finalist in the J.N, Tata, Rhodes-India and the OXBridge scholarships; I successfully managed to get the J.N.Tata scholarship, and I decided to go to LSE and live in my dream city – London. I chose LSE mainly because I’d dreamt of travelling all my life, and London had always been the heart of where I wanted to live. So, I think I made more of an emotional choice than a rational choice – I followed my gut. If I had been more rational, I would have gone to Stanford or perhaps Princeton. In hindsight, LSE and London has given me a life – both personally and professionally more exciting than anything I had ever dreamt of. I have managed to keep my passion for travel alive. I have travelled to 72 different countries across 6 continents since 2004 and I hope I’ll get to travel to even more incredible countries and destinations over the years.
“How do you compare life in IIT to your working life and how do the lessons learnt at IIT help you when dealing with your life”
In IIT, you are constantly driven by relative performance; the RG framework is a Bayesian system that rewards relative outperformance among peers. The system pushes you to constantly put your best efforts into your work and work independently, very rarely are you expected to collaborate and support your friends and classmates at IIT– which is very different from the corporate world, where team work is appreciated and you are not always competing with your peers but often collaborating and working with them to achieve the same goal.
After graduating from the London School of Economics, I went to work as an Investment Banker for JPMorgan in their London and New York offices. When I got into the world of Investment Banking, I sometimes worked over 100 hours per week basely pausing for food and sleep. This was something pretty common in the heady days of Investment banking before the Global Financial Crisis (GFC). Many of my colleagues came from the best schools around the world and they were brilliant and exciting to work with; they were the smartest students from Harvard, MIT, Wharton, Oxford, Cambridge, Stanford and Princeton. But what distinguished me in my role was something I learnt during quiz weeks at IIT. When it’s 2 AM and everyone is exhausted and things seem hopeless – you have to find new reserves of energy and operate at 100% efficiency before a deadline – partly fuelled by the desperation to succeed and partly driven by the unwillingness to give up in the face of seemingly insurmountable odds; something every successful IIT-an learns during quiz week at IIT – that’s a very valuable lesson and something I am very grateful for!
Life at IIT teaches us to squeeze in some entertainment amidst a hectic work schedule.
“How do you find the time to have travel and other activities when work takes up so much time?”
Life at IIT teaches us to squeeze in some entertainment amidst a hectic work schedule. I used to travel a lot when I was working in London. During my first year, I was basically chained to my desk and worked all the time, but as I got better at my job I applied what I had learnt at IIT – I figured out a way to manage my time better. During my second year, I travelled to 15 countries! Almost every weekend that I wasn’t working, I would try and plan a weekend trip to Europe or add a few days of holidays to a business trip and visit Amsterdam or Berlin or New York. Not all of life was about travel either. I’ve always enjoyed playing sports and even today, I play basketball, Squash and football regularly – sometime as much as four times a week actually! As you grow older, it gets harder; but still the balance between work and creating emotional space for yourself is very important.
I stayed with JP Morgan for 5 years; I had risen to the level of Vice President in their Investment banking/Trading division. Then I took a year sabbatical and travelled. This was a time when the economy was bad; and people were clinging to their jobs with all they had. I decided to take a risk and use my savings to backpack and travel – I decided I would explore far away continents, learn new languages and have adventures that would inspire! I would like to quote Robert Frost here – “Somewhere ages and ages hence: Two roads diverged in a wood, and I — I took the one less travelled by, And that has made all the difference.”