Aditi Javeri Gokhale, SB ’96, MBA ’99
Aditi Javeri Gokhale, SB ’96, MBA ’99, joins Christopher Reichert, MOT ’04, for a discussion on her role as the most senior female leader at Northwestern Mutual, where she holds the title of chief strategy officer, president of retail investments, and head of institutional investments. They also discuss her journey from India to MIT, her dedication to leadership and mentoring fellow women, and her commitment to establishing gender equity.
Christopher Reichert: Welcome to Sloanies Talking with Sloanies, a candid conversation with alumni and faculty about the MIT Sloan experience and how it influences what they're doing today. So what does it mean to be a Sloanie? Over the course of this podcast, you'll hear from guests who are making a difference in their community, including our own very important one here at MIT Sloan.
Hi, I'm your host, Christopher Reichert, and welcome to Sloanies Talking with Sloanies. My guest today is Aditi Javeri Gokhale, chief strategy officer, president of retail investments, and head of institutional investments at Northwestern Mutual. She got her undergraduate degree in business from MIT and then returned for a graduate degree at MBA from Sloan in the class of 1999. Welcome, Aditi.
Aditi Javeri Gokhale: Thank you. Hi Christopher. It's a pleasure to be here today.
Christopher Reichert: A pleasure to have you. So before we start, let me just give some more of your background to our audience. So, bear in mind, Aditi, you are very accomplished, so I'll just hit some highlights; please add anything that I miss. So let's see. Prior to joining Northwestern Mutual, Aditi had stints at Booz Allen Hamilton, right after undergraduate before graduate school, American Express, Nutrisystem, and actually now, I interviewed the past president of Nutrisystem a few years ago. So in a plug for this podcast, look for Dawn Zier, EE ’87, SM ’90, on the list of your podcasts.
Aditi Javeri Gokhale: She is one of my faves!
Christopher Reichert: That was a great interview. So you probably have been to MaGerks as well, if you ever went to Fort Washington.
Aditi Javeri Gokhale: Yes.
Christopher Reichert: We went to the menu with her and I think we chose lots of chicken wings.
In any case, you also spent some time at Shutterstock, and you also have served on a number of boards and councils, including Fast Company Impact Council, The Wall Street Journal CMO COuncil, and one that caught my eye, was a board member of the Churchill Downs Incorporated. Did you ever get to the Kentucky Derby and how did that fit in?
Aditi Javeri Gokhale: Yes, I did. I was at the Derby three times. I own a lot of hats, because it was the Derby and the Oaks. So you've got to dress differently for both days. At that point of time, Churchill Downs was looking for someone with digital expertise, they were in the process of acquiring a company called Big Fish, which was a video gaming company and they needed that expertise on the board. And so, I was approached, I went through the process and it was one of the most fun experiences and also learned a lot about being on a public board.
Christopher Reichert: Interesting, interesting. I mean, that's beautiful country as well, Kentucky, Lexington, Kentucky area at the very least.
So at Northwestern Mutual now, you oversee the strategy to drive growth, competitiveness, and relevance. And you also oversee the firm's general account portfolio and there were what 570 billion policy owners and client assets. And another one, which was interesting was the company's venture capital investment has invested over was it 200 million in innovative companies? So, welcome Aditi.
Aditi Javeri Gokhale: Thank you, Christopher. I'm really happy to be here, both because this is about Sloanies for Sloanies and I owe a lot of my, whatever little success I've had in my career to the foundation and really the experience that I had both at MIT undergrad, but specifically at the [MIT] Sloan School of Management.
Christopher Reichert: That's excellent. I mean, in looking at your background and accomplishments, I would say that it seems that you're adept at confronting and busting through stereotypes of gender, upbringing, ambition, and so I'm struggling on where to begin and I was thinking about one of the most evocative opening lines from a book out of Africa and it goes like this, "I had a farm in Africa at the foot of the Ngong Hills." By the way, I've waited years to incorporate that into a podcast. But the idea, I guess the reason I mentioned, is because it tells a story of someone who came from somewhere else and I'd like to kind of look at those childhood influences and how it led to your journey to the U.S.
Aditi Javeri Gokhale: Sure. So in terms of my childhood, born and raised in Mumbai, India. I come from a middle class family, a very close knit family with two sisters. And in terms of the luxuries of life, we probably didn't have as many, to be honest with you. But what we did have, is I had parents, I have parents, who have been extremely instrumental in allowing both my sister and I to aim for the stars, so to speak. They absolutely encouraged us to focus on the academics, focus on the performing arts, really not focus as much, which at that point was much more of the stereotypical sort of roles that women had. Next fast forward, I applied to MITs undergrad, I'd actually gone and spoken to someone at the United States Education Foundation and the counselor said that, "Your grades and your extracurricular activities, you should be applying to U.S. universities."
I wasn't sure what I wanted to do. And at that time in India, most people were focused on being a doctor or an engineer, that was sort of the professions. And I didn't know what I wanted to do. And so, I applied to MIT and a few other universities. I applied for a fee waiver for my application and my tuition, because I knew I couldn't afford. And next I know as I got a four year scholarship at MIT. So we didn't have the money. We crowdsourced my one-way ticket to Boston's Logan Airport. I packed as much as I could in two suitcases and an instrument that I play called the santur and took my first international flight to the United States.
Christopher Reichert: That's interesting. When I was reading that, I was thinking about what you might have packed in a crowdsource suitcase and how, when you unpacked it, did you find that some people's notion of what you should wear in Boston or Cambridge didn't fit with what you wanted to wear?
Aditi Javeri Gokhale: Absolutely. Absolutely. And as I think about that memory, so first of all, my mom wanted to make sure that I had enough Indian food to last at least six months. So lots of jars of pickles and lentils and things like that. Now, the issue was, I didn't know how to cook. So I knew she had given me all the ingredients, but I had to learn it the hard way. And then of course there was a lot of warm clothing, because it was Boston and Cambridge. And I had never seen snow in my life. I'd never dealt with weather below 60 degrees. So lots of warm clothing, definitely not the fashion that was expected. And so, yes, I had to do a little bit of shopping, which I did in fact at that point in thrift stores, because I didn't really have any cash. So I remember buying my first jacket at a thrift store, a winter jacket, but yes, there was a lot of clothing and food.
Christopher Reichert: Well on thrift stores, my brother is a great fan of thrift stores. And so, many times I point to nice pair of shoes that he's wearing and saying, "Where do you think I got these?" And he loves to drop it that he got it at a thrift store. So yeah, I'm a fan of them as well.
So you did undergraduate and then you did Booz Allen, and then decided to come back to MIT for your graduate school. You didn't have enough of the Stratton Student Center?
Aditi Javeri Gokhale: I love the Stratton Student Center. So here's what happened. So I had a four year scholarship, a grant, a scholarship grant. And then of course I had to work on campus too, for the incidental expenses. As I mentioned, I didn't have the money to afford a business school education. And I didn't want to take an international student loan, which was at an interest rate of about 12 to 13%, besides I didn't have a guarantee. I was one of those unique Indian families that didn't have family in the United States. So it was hard. And so, one of the things I did was, I went to the Sloan School and this is a true story. And I spoke to the admissions' office and basically talked to them about, was there a way for me to do a business school as I was doing my undergrad? And so, it was me and two other students that were selected to do what we call a 3-2 program where I did my undergrad, my bachelor's in three years. I used my fourth year as my first year of business school at the Sloan School. And then I went to Booz Allen and then Booz paid for my second year.
Christopher Reichert: Wow. So showing your quantitative chops already, right?
Aditi Javeri Gokhale: And again, the idea was about being financially sort of secure and making sure that I'm not into loans that I may or may not be able to repay. So the idea was that, and Sloan was absolutely accommodating. Now, the only downside to that was I started with one class and then I graduated with another class, but I see that as upside, because I actually have friends in two classes now, but that's another aspect of how MIT and Sloan specifically accommodated me and really set me up for success.
Christopher Reichert: That's fantastic. That's fantastic. So now, you are at Northwestern Mutual. You're the most senior female leader at Northwestern Mutual. Which is an old organization, about 150, around 160 years old?
Aditi Javeri Gokhale: It was founded in 1857.
Christopher Reichert: So probably has a lot of traditions and a lot of established culture. And not only in both the most senior female leader, you're a woman of color. So how do you advocate for yourself and others as they're navigating their career and bringing them forward?
Aditi Javeri Gokhale: To be honest with you, I have been the only, in many, many circumstances in my career. I've been the only woman and a person of color as I've navigated the last 21, 22 years. Earlier on in my career, I was asked to take notes and sit on the side, bring coffee while the guys sat at the table in the main session. I have not gotten the promotions, even though I thought I was qualified. And I think Christopher, my philosophy in life has been to remain steady, remain strong, and to have that grit and resilience and to overcome challenges. So of course, there has been gender and racial inequity in my experiences in the past, but I've always remained steady and strong. I've always also gone for opportunities and roles that people typically have been afraid of or shied away from.
And so, it's a high-risk high-reward game, but you also do get noticed. And that has been sort of across my experiences, right from when I graduated from Sloan up until now.
At Northwestern Mutual, why I believe this is my home, is because I'm of course the senior most female leader with that it's a privilege and a responsibility. And I take that job very seriously, but I also feel that I have now the ability to create impact and influence. And so, I am the executive sponsor of the Women's Initiative. And let me tell you what that is. That is essentially establishing gender equity within Northwestern Mutual, not by numbers, but by culture, by success. And so, the mission that we have is we want NM to be the place for all women across all levels to join, to stay and to grow.
And we've created intentionality in terms of our recruiting philosophy, in terms of how we promote women. Last year for example, last year was the first year where we had more women new hires than men. We've grown by 60% in terms of our employee base when it comes to women. And I'm not just talking about this is women in finance, women in tech. So it's across the board. And so, as I think about this particular area, I feel like I'm at that position now where I can create change. Of course, I do a lot of mentoring, formal and informal, with women, but I feel like I'm at a place within NM where I'm allowed to do that. I have the ability to do that, and I have my leader and my peers, men as allies, that actually support me and support all the women. So it's been a fabulous experience for me here.
Christopher Reichert: That's excellent. So not to wear out the literature references again, but I'm going to quote another great opening line. This one from Charles Dickens, Tale of Two Cities, "It was the best of times, it was the worst of times." And it goes on a little bit longer, but I mentioned that opening line, because you recently spoke at a conference on leading with trust, and it feels like we're in a similar dichotomous situation right now, whether it's politically, economically with inflation, with a pandemic, with conflict overseas, with trust at large. So in particular I was kind of struck by how you framed our personal relationships as individuals, consumers with institutions, whether it's a public organization or like the government or private organizations like Northwestern Mutual or a Facebook or Twitter, or a fill in the blank. How, when things are going well, we're more trusting and don't really think too much about it, but when the market is down or when conflict is high, one of the first things that retreats is trust. So how do you handle those ebbs and flows in your primary area of responsibility or in your advocacy work?
Aditi Javeri Gokhale: Absolutely. That's a great question. And it was one of those panel discussions that I felt I was very passionate about the topic. So as I mentioned to you, Northwestern Mutual was founded in 1857. We have long history. We've weathered several recessions, the Great Depression, 2008, of course, most recently the pandemic and the Spanish Flu. We've seen wars, all of it. At the end of the day, the company has the highest financial strength in the industry. It is the number one life insurance company and has been for decades. It is now one of the top five companies in terms of independent broker dealers when it comes to investments. And so, to start off with the financial strength of the company itself, that it's rock solid, can weather anything in itself, creates a foundation of trust when it comes to consumers for the next so many years. That's number one.
But number two, I think more importantly, as you think about what's happening in the economy, consumer sentiment is at its lowest—I just read about that a few days ago. Geopolitical risk, inflation at its highest, just slowing economy. The next 18 to 24 months, if we think about it from a consumer perspective, people are going to want to align themselves with a company that they know is going to help them navigate their financial issues. And so, Northwestern Mutual, why I feel so strongly about this company is because we are all about financial security. So it's not about making people rich. It's about making people financially secure. And so, the way we start with that, and we've got about 10,000 advisors and our staff of about 20,000, our advisors start with a financial plan, that plan outlines your short-term and long-term goals.
It incorporates recommendations around insurance annuities, investments, and they basically help you make sure that your financial plan is what you need to do and build on as you navigate your life journey. That particular value proposition around protect and prosper, insurance and investments creates trust because you are not like working the markets on a short term basis. So when I'm talking to clients and when I hear from our advisors, whether the Dow is down 800 points, which it was last week, or the S&P now down 20%, we are there to support our clients. Our clients call us, they have a plan, they know exactly what to do, and that's how they navigate it. The other thing we know in terms of building trust is the fact back to the financial strength is we are always doing outreaches in terms of ensuring that our clients know that we are there for them 24/7.
So as you think about the next 18 to 24 months, building trust is not just about fancy commercials. Building trust is really walking the talk and that's what we do. And that's what we've done. And I think, I mean, our trust metric through the pandemic doubled, and we had the fastest growing trust metric across our peer set. 2021 was a historic year for Northwestern Mutual in terms of its results. Why is that? That is because our clients really believe in our value proposition and they believe that we are taking care of them from a financial perspective.
Christopher Reichert: And you mentioned that you, unlike many other companies, you did not lay off staff. In fact, you grew during that time.
Aditi Javeri Gokhale: We grew staff. So when March 2020 happened, and that was probably the first month where people were like, okay, this is real, everybody started working remotely. We of course did that. First of all, that whole remote sort of situation went off fabulously, not just for our employees, but our advisors. I know I spoke to some of my peers and it wasn't as great from a technology perspective. Why was that? Because, we were investing in our digital capabilities all throughout.
Then in terms of the role that I have, which is around institutional investments, I manage the general account. In March, April, May when everybody else was sort of selling and exiting, we went in. Why can we afford that? Because, we are about the long term. So we played offense during that time and between March and I would say May of 2020, when it came to our multi-year strategy, because we are in a journey of transformation from evolving from insurance and investments only to being a financial services provider with planning as our core sort of go to market strategy. We did not lay off people. We continued to hire. In fact, we were at employee town halls telling our employees that we are going to continue to invest when it comes to digital capabilities and technology. So how can you do that? You can do that, because you're playing a long term game. We are a mutual, we're not publicly traded. That's another difference why you can build trust and why we are able to take the kind of bets. Because, as a mutual, we're all about our policy holders and our clients. We're not answerable to Wall Street, we don't have to deal with quarter to quarter results. And so, we have had a philosophy of looking at things from a long term perspective so that we can then play offense when the time is needed.
Christopher Reichert: So you've been in a position of responsibility for a while now at Northwestern Mutual and prior. I guess I have two questions here and I guess in the context of COVID accelerating remote work, but just in general, in terms of building teams, how do you build and keep your team motivated? Did that become more difficult with remote or were you already kind of on that sort of path before? And then the second part of that, is want to talk about how you build a high performing team that embraces risk in a safe way, that they feel safe embracing risk?
Aditi Javeri Gokhale: Okay. So the first question, is I think we were absolutely investing in our digital capabilities, but our majority of our employees were in person, whether it was in Milwaukee, which is where we are headquartered or in New York. So of course it was challenging when we all decided to move and become remote back in March. In terms of this is sort of a new normal, at first everyone, including you I'm sure, Christopher, thought, "Oh, this is a three month thing and we are all going to come back to work." So it was challenging in terms of how do we create a culture, because our culture was so strong and has been strong, even pre-pandemic. How do you continue to create that culture through a remote environment? And there were a few things that I did, of course, was overcommunicate. The first thing is overcommunicate. The second thing that is important from a leadership perspective is to create psychological safety, whether it is during the pandemic of post pandemic or pre, that our employees, and my leaders especially, are able to air their concerns. There're small instances such as, we're all on Zoom calls, you're dealing with very young kids that need to be homeschooled. The teenage kids are okay. They can sort of turn on a laptop and figure it out. But for the four and five year olds, dogs barking, and one of the things I said very early on in my Zoom calls is, "It is okay, we're all in this together. It is okay if you've got to deal with a child or deal with the dog or open the door for the mailman or delivery; whatever it is.”
Christopher Reichert: Or a gardener across the street.
Aditi Javeri Gokhale: Or a gardener across the street. It is okay. We're all in this together. So that's, number one. But as we went through the pandemic, I definitely instituted far more touchpoints, one on ones, then there's something that I started, which has become very successful, is Ask Aditi session on a Friday morning at 8:00 a.m. where the entire function can just join. We talk about work. They can ask me any question basically. And we started that during the pandemic, and I've just sort of kept that going, because I think it's a way for us to connect.
So it was a challenge. We recognized the challenge, I overly communicated. We also had sort of many group sessions that we did in terms of how do we deal with some of the things that we used to do in person, and how do we do those remotely? And I can tell you, our employee engagement scores over the last couple of years have been the highest.
Christopher Reichert: That's great. That's great. You talked earlier about quantitative focus and I was trying to think about how both your undergraduate and your graduate degrees were from MIT, which is particularly strong in those areas. How did that advance your career and how do you refer back to those educational experiences?
Aditi Javeri Gokhale: Yeah so, I think I have inherently been a numbers person. Probably my strength is math. And so, I feel very comfortable with numbers. So I think that was that. And I think being at MIT and I mean at Sloan, and you know this Christopher, there is a quantitative focus in almost all the classes. So I think what MIT Sloan did for me and undergrad did for me was, it solidified, it probably propelled that quantitative inclination that I had and helped me use that across my career journey.
So I'll tell you how, so there was a question you asked before this, about how do you build teams? And so, one of the things I can tell you is as a leader, one of the things I do is I set up a bold vision, which is important. It needs to be as aggressive, achievable, but also aspirational to a certain extent. Then across my leadership team, I sort of bring them along. But the third part is, I set very measurable targets. So there's no sort of gray area could be, should be, would be, they have to be measurable targets. We all have to align with that. That's the quantitative focus that I've consistently done as a leader across my career journey. When we make decisions, I ask to see that these are data-driven decisions, to a certain extent, to the extent that we have the data. So that's the other angle, and I think that's inherent in me, and that's inherent in the way I lead. And so far, I mean, in my current job, of course, its all now finance, but in my earlier roles, when I was a general manager, I think it was a muscle that I had to build across teams.
Christopher Reichert: Yeah. And how do you keep track of all the important portfolios that you're in charge of? I mean, how do you wrap your head around that?
Aditi Javeri Gokhale: Yeah, so we've got, I mean, I've got a phenomenal team, first of all, with very, very deep bench strength. I mean, we are talking years and years—he combined number of years, it would be in the multiple hundreds, for example. We've got something called an ISD group, which is the investment strategy team. And so, they manage, they sort of oversee both our strategic asset allocations and our tactical asset allocations. We have standups twice a week. We have morning meetings. The leadership team is very, very tightly connected.
Christopher Reichert: Interesting. I remember as a child watching the evening news all the time and just getting this flood of data at me, whatever it might have been and thinking to myself, “but I don't know what it means.” And I guess that's the difference, is that you have this team that can help sift through.
Aditi Javeri Gokhale: Absolutely. And that's the other piece around just data and technology now. It's not just about the data, it's about sort of what that means. What are the insights coming out of it? That's the other aspect that I push my leaders to, it's about asking insightful questions. It's about providing insightful solutions. Don't just come with 50 different spreadsheets and expect us to know what's happening.
Christopher Reichert: Tell a story.
Aditi Javeri Gokhale: Tell a story. It's the insights.
Christopher Reichert: Right. So Aditi, when you look back on your time at Sloan, do you have a favorite class or professor that you reflect on?
Aditi Javeri Gokhale: I think, when I think about Sloan, my favorite class was the negotiations class with Dr. Rakesh Khurana.
Christopher Reichert: Oh, yes.
Aditi Javeri Gokhale: And I think it was one of those, which was that we had MIT students and we had a few from Harvard too. It was so outside of my comfort zone, in terms of negotiation, plus of course we went through sort of business cases and we were put into teams and we had to negotiate. And the skills I developed in terms of the confidence I built through that class, asking questions, defending your position, using data, instead of triangulate a lot of things that I had in bits and pieces, that sort of made me a better leader. And I think that was one, and it was so uncomfortable at first, because I had to really fight for my position, which was… you know what I mean? And so, I think it definitely honed my negotiation skills.
Christopher Reichert: So if you had a do over at Sloan, what would it be? If you think it was a class you missed or anything.
Aditi Javeri Gokhale: I don't think that would be a do over. I think one of the things that I would tell myself when I was there was just to be a little bit more in the moment and in the present. There was a little bit of me wanting to figure out what's next, what's next? How do I do this? Then I do that and there was a little bit around financial pressure that I've got to get all of this done, because I just don't want to be in debt. And so, when I think about my time then, there was also a lack of confidence maybe, that was the other thing. So I think if I think about my time back, I would tell my younger self to sort of be in the moment and enjoy the moment.
Christopher Reichert: Yeah. And so, you said earlier that you had no family in the U.S. And was there any pressure to go back to India after all the education?
Aditi Javeri Gokhale: To be very honest with you as an international student, the number of companies that would hire you were not as many, right, because you had to get a work visa. So there wasn't any pressure to go back. It was sort of a very small select set of companies. And so, I was mentally prepared that I may have to go back. Did I want to? No, I wanted to sort of really apply my education to companies here. So there was a little bit of like whether there was a company that would hire me, and of course, the investment banks and the consulting companies were the ones that were hiring students with a work visa.
Christopher Reichert: Right. I was thinking about family or socially?
Aditi Javeri Gokhale: I mean, my dad and my mom, my sister, they all missed me a lot. My dad and mom made a trip eventually. Of course, I missed them, and I wanted to go back, but I felt like I wanted to really start my adventure when it came to my career over here.
Christopher Reichert: Makes sense. I spent 13 years in Australia, so I understand. I understand that sentiment. So this might be a funny question seeing as how successful you are, but what is your definition of success?
Aditi Javeri Gokhale: My definition of success is very different now than it was probably six, seven years ago, or probably 15 years ago. My definition of success, is about what I call my sources of happiness. And if those sources of happiness are in balance, I feel successful. So my sources of happiness are spending time with my 14-year-old, spending time with my friends, delivering and exceeding on the job that I have in my hand, ensuring that my family in India and I feel connected. And so, as long as I have those sources of happiness in balance, I feel successful.
Christopher Reichert: That's great. So do you have any advice for prospective Sloan students as they consider whether to do business school or not?
Aditi Javeri Gokhale: Yes. So for prospective Sloan students, I think the advice would be, first of all I've heard people say, "Well, a business school degree is just like a stamp of validation." I've heard that. I think what Sloan did for me was really honed my strengths and helped me overcome some of my weaknesses or opportunities and sort of taking advantage of that experience, not just on the academic side, but on the social side, I think is important. I think in general, for students taking risks, failing and learning from that, I feel like when I see the next generation and I don't mean to sound super old, where I see the next generation, it's that the pressure and the anxiety of being perfect, I feel sometimes is highly overrated. You've got to fail. You've got to fail fast. You've got to understand and learn from that. Taking risks and going for opportunities that others shy away from. I think that tends to make you stand out. And I think that's something you should do. And confidence, I think confidence is key. We tend to talk ourselves out of situations and I think talking yourself into a situation, especially when it comes to women, I think is probably critical.
So that, would sort of be my advice in terms of make the most of your business school education, but make it both personally, socially and professionally, don't just focus on one, like get out of that and say that this was the best experience I ever had. And then from a career perspective, take some risks.
Christopher Reichert: Well, that's fantastic. Well, I want to thank Aditi Javeri Gokhale, Sloan class of 1999 and an MIT undergraduate class of 1996. She's the chief strategy officer, president of retail investments, and head of institutional investments at Northwestern Mutual.
Aditi Javeri Gokhale: Thank you, Christopher. It was an absolute pleasure to talk to you. Hi, to all my Sloanies, both past, present, and future. It has been a fantastic experience for me. And thank you for inviting me on the show.
Christopher Reichert: My pleasure, and thank you for joining us on this 40th episode of Sloanies talking with Sloanies.
Christopher Reichert: Sloanies Talking with Sloanies is produced by the Office of External Relations at MIT Sloan School of Management. You can subscribe to this podcast by visiting our website, mitsloan.mit.edu/alumni, or wherever you find your favorite podcasts. Support for this podcast comes in part from the Sloan Annual Fund, which provides essential, flexible funding to ensure that our community can pursue excellence. Make your gift today by visiting giving.mit.edu/sloan. To support this show or if you have an idea for a topic or a guest you think we should feature, drop us a note at firstname.lastname@example.org.