#13 Ashish Agarwal - Investing & Digesting

Ashish Agarwal manages a private equity fund at Edelweiss now but he talks to us about his 5-year stint in Silicon Valley, why INSEAD is truly one of the best places to do an MBA and his summer internship at Navis Capital Partners in Hong Kong.

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Transcript

Ashish: Yeah, that was very fortunate. I was able to get an introduction to a senior partner at Navis who happens to pass through Paris. I went to business school at NCAD, which is also near Paris, and it was a meeting at a cafe there where I got half an hour with him. 

And then he invited me over to Hong Kong to work with him over the summer. So that's how I landed the internship. 

 

Aamer: That was Ashish Agarwal, the managing partner and head of private equity at Edelweiss Asset Management Limited. He talks us through his computer science stint in Silicon Valley, how he met the senior management of Navis Capital Partners at a cafe in Paris while he was studying at the famous University there, and how he's taken on raising and managing a multimillion-dollar fund at his latest company, Edelweiss. This is his story.

 

{groovy intro music} 

 

Hello.Hello. Hello. I'm Aamer Khan, and this is the Zed Medium podcast, a podcast that talks to people and about them, too. We take out the most significant experiences of an individual and package them in the form of a story, sharing those with you. 

 

We narrate people's journeys in the simplest way we can. There's a new person every episode, so do check out the previous ones. I'm sure you'll find someone to relate to. Let's start with this one, shall we? So, we have to set the context, and to do that, we must first completely understand what Ashish does. And who better to explain it than Ashish himself? 

 

Ashish: Essentially, what I do at Edelweissis look to invest in small and mid sized companies, which are unlisted and therefore private, and work with them over a period of three to four years to help grow those companies and then look to exit. That's, in a nutshell, what I do. 

 

Aamer: So how many companies do you look to invest in this certain period of time? 

 

Ashish: So, we look to create a portfolio of twelve to 15 companies for a fund. And a fund tenure is typically five years. Okay. And so, essentially, it's the first 18 months of the fund where we do a lot of the investing, and then after a few odd year holding period, the last 18 months is when we do the divesting. 

 

Aamer: Everyone on board. Okay, cool. I'm assuming I have no way of finding out, but we'll continue. So, as we all know, parents are a huge influence on us when we are kids. And what Ashish remembers of that is, number one, the ability to make decisions on your own. 

 

He has an engineering degree in computer science, which is common today, obviously, but at the time, it was new. He never knew if his parents were skeptical about it or not, because they didn't show it. He was told to make his own decisions, and that's exactly what he did. 

 

And number two was the work ethic. Ashish has built himself from the ground up in all the fields he has been in and the hardcore work ethic, he saw it as his father at a very young age. You tend to be observant as a kid and you tend to learn things that are relatively unspoken. 

 

Did you learn the work ethic by looking at them? Because I'm imagining they were hard working people. And that's where you got it from? 

 

Ashish: Absolutely. I recall vividly in the late forties and early 50s, my dad picked up law. He was a very senior person in the IRS department. But he picked up something completely different and started as a student learning law late as that. And seeing him work as hard as a student really rubs off when you're a student yourself. 

 

Aamer: And that did rub off. He went on to complete his engineering degree from the University of Mumbai and then moved to the US. The University of Illinois, to complete his Masters in the same field. And for all the students listening to this who are either on their way or planning to go to the US, I guess this should help your cause. 

 

Ashish: It was just an incredible experience being in a large campus, just truly multinational, and this was my first international exposure. I found that to be just in terms of broadening one's perspective, meeting new people, new way of thinking, a lot of that transformative learning was what defined their experience. 

 

Aamer: I am personally a huge advocate of students completing their education in a place that is not familiar to them. It really opens up a variety of different perspectives and it enables several opportunities to open up. It gives the opportunity for a boy from Mumbai to actually work for a company in Silicon Valley on the other side of the world. How exactly?

 

 Well, he tried it out first. Before an employer can test you, you've got to test the environment you'll be working in. And the best way to do that are internships. 

 

Aamer: Yeah. So I did an internship with a company called Veritas Software in California, and then they extended an offer to join full time after my Master. I really liked the people and the work I did there, so I took the offer. That's how that came about. Right. So was it a startup back then? 

 

Ashish: No, it wasn't actually. It was already a fairly large company. It was a lifted company. Right. And what are some of the key things that you learned in Veritas? It might be related to your work or it might be related to the environment, the culture, the soft skills that you learned over there. 

 

Basically, one of the things that has stayed with me is the approach to problem solving. The work we did was to develop a product that provided disaster recovery solution. And the product was used by very large financial institutions and banks so that their transactions are backed up to the last one. 

 

And when something went wrong in the product, it was obviously always a very urgent priority. One issue that had to be immediately fixed. And I was fortunate to work with some folks who, when they approached a problem like that, you got what was relatively an unintelligible piece of system state to look at. And you had to pretty much work like a detective to investigate, to imagine what could have gone wrong and then get into problems. 

 

Aamer: Solving the job came with a lot of pressure because, as he said, several banks relied on the system offered by Veritas. So everyone had to be quick on their feet to fix a certain glitch. However, it doesn't mean he took everything in his life seriously. 

 

Ashish knows how to have fun while working and he's made sure of it. Is it too early to ask you what's the best advice you would have ever gotten at this point? I think the best advice I've got is to ensure you have fun along the way. Let me expand that a bit. I remember asking my dad that if he were to go back 30 years and relive those, what would he do different? 

 

And his response was:

 

Ashish: I would ensure I have more fun. I think a lot of us, of course, spend most of our time as we should on careers or other responsibilities, but along the way, it's important to carve out some time just doing what you like to do. And then over the last half-decade or so, I've discovered a love for the outdoors. So I ensure I take my two weeks and go checking in the Himalayas every year and taking time out to enjoy, to do the things you love is not taking time away from work. It's actually adding to productivity. 

 

Aamer: And Ashish's trekking example is a lovely way to have a proof of concept of what I just said. If you had to analyze yourself, what is the difference between the Ashish that goes before the trek and the Ashish that comes after the trek? 

 

Ashish: The one that comes after the trek is a few kg lighter. But I think the more important piece, is it's just a very refreshing experience because one of the nice things about these techs is you lose connectivity to the rest of the world. There's no data, there's no mobile connectivity. 

 

So you can neither be reached nor can you reach anyone. And what's very interesting and observable is once you're back down to where you get a mobile signal again within half an hour, once you've got all the messages downloaded on your phone and you start going through, you realize that you're mentally a different person. 

 

See mentally a different person. You're more able in that moment to take on the work that lies ahead of you. Breaks are important and we've deviated from the story a bit. But it was worth it, wasn't it?

 

Aamer: Until now, it's just the computer science part of his life. But why this is important is because it was at Veritas that he caught a glimpse of the business world towards year three at Veritas.

 

Ashish: I had opportunities to interact with people from although it was a technology firm, people from the more commercial or business side of the company. And I realized every time I did that, I was very enthusiastic to be a part of that. 

 

Aamer: From that evolved the desire to get into the business side of the world in any case, rather than purely the technical and engineering side of it. 

 

That's the limited thought that drove the desire for an MBA. Any guesses as to what he did after that? It's not that hard. He went for his MBA and he went to a university many of us dream of going to in Sierra and not the Singapore campus. He moved from the US to France and there he had one of the best times of his life. So the options? 

 

Ashish: Well, I had already done a large university experience in the US in Sierra with a school I had heard a lot about even when I was back in India and I was quite keen to attend in Siad, so I was very glad when I got admission there. And within Sierra the options were Singapore versus France and coming from Asia, I think there is a lure to spending a year in a forest in the middle of France versus another large Asian city experience. 

 

So that choice is obvious. What is the experience like? I know it's ranked one of the top ten in the world for a reason, but from someone who's been over there to do their MBA, what are some key things that you noticed over there that you absolutely love that was very different from what you had experienced before? 

 

Ashish: Fantastic experience and I'd extend actually doing an MBA from a top ten school, at least in my view, it's highly recommended for anyone considering it specific to institute. I think what is very unique about the school is how diverse the classroom is. In any cohort, they have close to 65 to 70 nationalities represented and so the interactions that you have with your classmates, I think it's very hard to replicate in any other business school. I'm not aware of any other business school that has that level of diversity. 

 

Also the ethic in NCAshish:, it's a very work hard, play hard ethic. It's a one year condensed but very intense MBA program. Makes me want to leave everything and go there for an MBA and see the more you're exposed to the world out there, the more chances you have of bumping into an opportunity. There was no clear game plan he had after NC Ad, but he didn't need one. 

 

Either call it chance or things lining up for him, but he scheduled a meeting with the senior management of Navy Capital Partners, an investment firm in Southeast Asia. And that in itself is a pretty interesting story. Yeah, that was very fortunate. I was able to get an introduction to a senior partner at Navis who happened to pass through Paris. 

 

I went to business school at NCAD, which is also near Paris, and it was a meeting at a cafe there where I got half an hour with him. And then he invited me over to Hong Kong to work with him over the summer. So that's how I landed the internship. 

 

Aamer: The pattern in Ashish's journey has primarily been relying on internships to judge whether he is suited to the job or not. And in both cases, he's managed to fit right in. He couldn't have met the senior partner at a better time because they needed someone on the ground in Mumbai to set the office up and running. 

 

They saw a young, bright man in Ashish who was willing to take on the responsibility. And so after the summer internship in Hong Kong, he went on to join Navis Capital Partners, where he worked for the next 15 years of his life. 

 

Ashish: So after the summer in Hong Kong, I came back to France to complete Miami and then post-graduating from there. 

 

I joined them, but I joined them back in Mumbai because they were earlier investing in India without having an office in India. So they wanted me to be physically on the ground, set up the office, and scale up the office. So you were one of the first people over there? Yes, I was the first person on the ground. When I joined. 

 

It was investment manager. 

 

Aamer: Investment manager. And what were your roles and responsibilities as the first and for a while, the only person in the office? You were doing everything from deal origination to evaluating deals diligence, so the entire gamut of private equity activities. And so you spend another 15 years from an investment manager. You moved on to becoming what, before you left? 

 

Ashish: I was the senior investment director. That was my designation before I left. 

 

Aamer: So what made you stay for those 15 years over there? It's a fantastic firm. I would turn the question on its head, why move? People move either because they're unhappy with the work or with the people, or they feel they are unfairly compensated. If there are no push factors like those, then why don't you continue on a good thing? And he did a lot of good things over the 15 year time span that he was there. 

 

But it's not always success. I mean, failures are a part of success. They're not two separate things. One just precedes the other. In the majority of cases, the experience is what counts. And in Ashish's case, it was a roller coaster ride. Some were not very fruitful investments. And he was not making these decisions on his own. He was a part of a team that analyzed and invested in these companies, signed off by the senior partners. 

 

So it was a collective failure. If a company that they had invested in didn't do well and that taught him a lot. In fact, his time at Navis is where he essentially learned everything he had to in relation to private equity investments early in his investment career as well. 

 

Ashish: Some of the investments I was part of didn't do well but that's part of the learning journey of an investment professional. So you learn from those mistakes and then avoid them subsequently. And these were substantial amounts In some cases yes, in one particular case yes. But there is always a probability of things going wrong. Well of course there is and particularly in investment, we will not have a portfolio where every single one of them is a winner.

 

 But what I'm referring to is more learnings that help you improve the probability in your favor and avoid mistakes because you've done them in the past. I've seen them being done in the past. 

 

Aamer: Do you remember any significant investments in Navis that you had made in companies that are well known out to the world that you could share with us? 

 

Ashish: Yeah sure. The last investment it was a company which is now called B Medical Systems. It was carved out of Swedish company called Domestic and they are the global leaders in making equipment for vaccine coal chain. Okay. And as I mentioned this was something which we had invested in 2015 at that time but of course after 2019 as the pandemic has hit us the relevance of what they are doing has simply exploded. 

 

So they have played a very important role in ensuring COVID vaccines are distributed to the furthest corners. 

 

Aamer: This is just one of the many examples that Ashish had to offer in reference to some of the great investments that they had made. The time at Navist put him on a platform to become visible to other fund management companies and one of them that was eyeing Ashish's expertise was Edelweiss and as we come to the end of the episode let's listen to the offer that Edelweiss made which he obviously couldn't refuse. 

 

Ashish: So I received an offer from Eidelweiss to start this business from scratch which in a sense is an entrepreneurial opportunity within the umbrella of a large organization and that for me was very exciting to be at the genesis and start to build a business by myself. 

 

So that was the main trigger or excitement for taking up that offer. 

 

Aamer: What's your outcome or what is your goal for this fund that you're handing?

 

Ashish: Yes, so I'm very excited to raise this fund. We are close to the starting point, it will take some time for it to be raised but at a broader level excited to create a business that is a sustainable private equity business within little whites. 

 

Aamer: So just one last question who do you fundraise from? Are there other corporates or individuals? 

 

Ashish: Yeah so in the first fund it would be a lot of high-net-worth individuals. It would also be a few corporate. It would be a mix of those two for the first one. And then let me change the subsequent parts. 

 

Aamer: Hey, if you like that episode, share it with others. You never know how you sharing. It could impact someone in the most difficult of times. And you never know, you might just share something life-changing for someone else. And yes, the common drill. 

 

Follow us for the latest updates on LinkedIn and Instagram. We're here to stay, we promise. And we're bringing a whole lot more for you. Next up, we have a very special guest. Someone, I think most people would be familiar with. He's someone you've seen dancing the dance in movies like ABCD and Street Dancer Three. And he's a household name in choreography in the film industry. Salman Yusuff Khan. Let's have a snippet from that conversation. 

 

When I've decided this and I've quit dancing, it's been three months, I'm starting really hard. I get a call from my ex company owner. Salman. There's a show called dancing. Dance coming to India. It's on the lines of So You Think You Can Dance. I think you should really do it. I just heard that. 

 

And So You Think You Can Dance It's been one of my favorite shows. And with a heavy heart, I said, Arthi, I'm sorry. I don't think I can do it. he's like, no, don't say that. You're different. You're amazing. You'll do something, you'll make something out of it. 

 

I really need to finish my exams and I don't think I can do it. Something inside me kept telling me, salman, Salman, Salman. And I said, what do I do? So then the first thing I did is I called my wife, my girlfriend back then. She's the only one, my first and last girlfriend.

 

 So I called her up and I'm like, listen, so things come up as I do it. She's like, Are you mad? Just get that degree then do whatever you want to do. Get that degree. You're so close to it. Just get that degree. And I cut the call. And I called my five friends individually. 

 

What should I do everybody said, no, get that degree. Do whatever the hell you want to do. Just get that degree. I said, okay, then. I have my one cousin, this guy. He's a year older to me. His name is Razak. I told him, Listen dude, karu? this guy is always in his leather jacket. He likes his cigarettes.

 

I'm talking about an audition. He's telling me I'll win this show. What an ass. What an idiot. Why did I even come to? He's like, you're not like any one of us. You're different. You are born to be different. Whatever you choose to do, you will will win it. This show, anything else in life. If this show, mark my word, you'll win it. And listen, thank you so much. My fault. I came to you bye. 

 

Find out more about him in the next one. Stay tuned and goodbye for now.