Nina Godiwalla: A Zoroastrian’s walk through Wall Street

“What?!” is usually the response I get when I explain I’m Zoroastrian. It’s that vocabulary word you may have learned in your seventh-grade history class when you read about the world’s oldest monotheistic religion.

By Nina Godiwalla / Washington Post

It makes sense that it is not a commonly referenced word since you don’t run into Zoroastrians as often as you would during Cyrus the Great’s Persian Empire. Currently, there are only about 140,000 left in the world and the ones in the U.S. flock to the five largest cities. My parents emigrated from India and raised me in Houston’s tight-knit Zoroastrian community, where we spent most weekends driving about an hour to rotating Zoroastrian dinner parties and social events. Growing up, my parents and community stressed the importance of economic success and prestige. So when I had the privilege to work on Wall Street, the epitome of the American dream–I was sold. It wasn’t something that people like me – second-generation, middle-class immigrants from the Texas public school system – got the opportunity to do.

The Zoroastrian world is tight – so much so that two degrees of separation usually make you an uncle-brother or sister-aunty to someone you’ve just met. Zoroastrians have also enjoyed significant economic success, primarily in Mumbai, India, where most reside. Facing an unfamiliar country, the first-generation U.S. immigrants seemed even more eager to succeed and carry with them their successful Indian roots. I was a typical second-generation Indian immigrant product, watching my parents navigate a country with which they were unfamiliar. They stuck as closely as possible to their community, and learned as much as they could from each other, hopeful that their kids would revel in the American Dream. They expected their lives would be better than they were in India, but that our lives would be exceptional. As my dad explains, “When you are a foreigner, you take what you can get, and hope that your kids have it much better.”

My parents’ support, coupled with my determination to succeed, got me a full-time job as an investment banker with Morgan Stanley. The Zoroastrian community in New York reached out to welcome me including an aunty who housed me rent-fee, families who extended invitations to holiday gatherings, and aunties who substituted as my family by throwing me birthday parties. Initially, investment banking amazed me the way a buffet does immigrants – the unlimited food is a privilege. Everything I experienced was foreign and evoked a sense of awe. It was as if someone had flung me into one of my grandmother’s soap operas, yet unlike her, I didn’t believe anyone really lived this lavishly. As a corporate event, we took a field trip to an executive’s summer mansion outfitted with a tennis court. I found myself looking at their children, wondering what it was like to eat fresh baked chocolate-filled croissants for breakfast instead of Pop Tarts and spend weekends ordering banana splits with chocolate, vanilla, and strawberry ice cream at country clubs that didn’t allow you to wear shorts. With every new place we went, I knew I was out of my element, but my curiosity and excitement for the extravagance I wouldn’t see otherwise, kept me hungry.

Over some time, my fascination faded. The investment banking culture’s end-game wore on me. Money. It was tiring to chase only one thing, blind to other costs. The day we found out one of our colleagues was found dead in her apartment, several senior managers crowded in a conference room with fiery faces, annoyed that they were getting paid less than one of their counterparts whose salary was mentioned in the newspaper article. More talk went around about money that about our colleague’s death. In the Corporate Finance department – one of the most powerful departments in an investment bank – hazing of young employees was the norm. We worked extremely long hours, and were expected and encouraged to sacrifice our personal life. Having missed one of my family vacations to work on a deal, one of my senior managers applauded me, noting “I’m sure you’ll get some good projects that you’d otherwise have missed.” Over time, many examples like this wore me down. I’d grown-up determined to prosper in this country, but I had enough deep-rooted values to know money couldn’t be my only goal.

One of the most disconcerting qualities of Corporate Finance was that the culture tended to shun different backgrounds and ideas. The predominant attitude tended to be the faster you conform, the more likely you will succeed. As a second-generation immigrant growing up in a small, racially homogeneous, predominately Christian suburb of Texas, I was used to adjusting in order to fit in. But this corporate assimilation somehow felt more like a conversion of sorts. The more dissimilar you were– whether it be your race, gender, or class–the less of a voice you had. Having grown up in a tight, supportive family and Zoroastrian community, it was hard to let go of so much of who I was to fit into the cardboard cutout the banking culture often demanded. After a few years in banking, I made a switch for the better, carefully choosing to work for companies that were mission-driven rather than money-driven.

Nina Godiwalla is the author of “Suits: A Woman on Wall Street,” which will launch in late 2010. Her work has appeared in the Houston Chronicle and Austin Business Journal. She has a Wharton MBA and has worked for several major Fortune 100 corporations.

By Nina Godiwalla |

  • Homiyar Bilimoria

    Very nice n interesting article, Nina. However, I have one observation to make. You say that there are only about 140,000 Zoroastrians left in the world, which is not correct. There may be only about 140,000 Parsis left in the world, but when you talk about Zoroastrians, the number is much higher. Regards, Homiyar

  • Zenobia

    Are we really 140,000 in the world? I thought the number was around 90,000.

  • KAWAS K MISTRY

    WELL DONE NINA, YOU HAVE MADE IT! I AM REALLY PROUD OF YOU SINCE LIKE YOU HEMA AND MYSELF ALSO MIGRATED TO U.S.A. BLESSED WITH OUR TWO PRETTY AMBITIOUS BOYS TONY (CHERAG) AND MIKE (CYRUS) TO ACHIEVE AMERICAN DREAM. INITIALLY FOR ELEVEN MONTHS WE SPENT OUR TIME STAYING AT HOUSTON, TEXAS AND SINCE THEN FROM JULY 2000 WE HAVE SETTLED IN A PLACE CALLED VICTORIA, 125 MILES SOUTH OF HOUSTON, TX. NO WONDER OUR BOTH THE BOYS ARE DOING WELL IN THEIR SELF DEVELOPED BUSINESS AND NOW PRETTY SOON BOTH OF THEM WILL SETTLE IN THEIR FORTHCOMING MARRIED LIFE!

  • Munshi

    Nina-
    Well done, once again! Your style and insight is (and always has been) amazing. Although not all of us get to work on Wall Street and see that game from the inside, I suspect that your writing resonates with so many more than you know. Your family and mine are proud of you and are happy that you are sharing your voice.
    -Shyam

  • Ava

    Nina
    Great article…I love your writing style. I too am a second generation Indian (Zoroastrian). My parents came to America for the their masters degrees and stayed. I currently live in Dallas-Fort Worth and am about to graduate with my master’s degree and work for a Consulting Firm. I’ve lived in a few countries, but was born in the states and grown up in that tight-knit community you described when I lived abroad in New Zealand.Your story really resonates with me. Great Job!
    -Ava

  • D.J.KATRAK

    Hi Kawas are u ashamed to call your sons Cyrus & Cherag that you have given them American namesdo not forget that Cyrus the Great was the greatest king of Persian Empire that we are proud of

  • Maharukh Billimoria

    Nina, firstly I am happy to know that we are 140,000 in the world and per Homiyar we could be much more. Congratulation on all that you have achieved and will achieve in the future.

    My son lives in Connecticut since the last 2 years working for the american arm of an australian Capital Investment company; however unfortunately he has not fond the parsees in NY friendly.

    Congratulations to you again and best wishes….

  • This is an interesting article, thanks for sharing Nina. While you have a knack for writing, I am not sure if your experiences are that original – seems like the upcoming book is a female version of Monkey Business:

    http://www.amazon.com/Monkey-Business-Swinging-Through-Street/dp/0446525561

    I am struggling to see how being Parsi made your experience “different”. Close knit communities are everywhere, especially in the Indian and Jewish diaspora.

    Perhaps money doesn’t drive us Zoroastrians as much as impact? Perhaps we don’t like conformance and lean towards creative and entrepreneurial pursuits more than others? What makes you different from the other women of Wall St.? There have been plenty of successful ones!

    Hopefully your book focuses less on the tried and true “female empowerment”, “greed is good” themes and uncorks something more original and insightful.

    Feel free to ping me zubin@civiguard.com

  • Joseph Christie, Ph.D

    How come the highly educated Parsi Zorastrians won’t marry anybody else other than a Zorasrfrain ? I friend of mine, highly educated, has been lookinhg all over to find a bride for his 35 year old sone, who may be 50 at the rate of negative results so far !!! It is kind of stupid and primitive, don’t you agree ?

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