Raymond James’ Sunaina Sinha Haldea: GPs making ‘excuses’ on diversity

Sinha Haldea believes that the switch from a fundraising boom market to one where investors call the shots will help the push for diversity.

Sunaina Sinha Haldea, global head of the private capital advisory group at Raymond James, is no stranger to fund allocations. But as part of PE Hub Europe’s series of interviews with senior women in private equity, she had strong words on how general partners can better allocate top positions to women.

Her own journey began with an undergraduate and masters in engineering at Stanford University, then an MBA at Harvard Business School. She then worked for two large hedge funds, raising capital internally.

In 2011, she founded Cebile Capital, an independent boutique advising GPs on fundraising and secondaries. Raymond James bought the firm in May 2021.

Sinha Haldea built her life at the same time as the business. Since launching Cebile, she married and had three children. And a dog – “a very important member of the family”, she stressed.

“I got a piece of advice when I was 20 years old from Tina Seelig, a professor at Stanford: ‘You can have it all, just not all at once.’ Life is full of daily choices, daily prioritisation.”

Some priorities are constant, however.

“I sing this from the rooftops to anyone who will listen. If you’re a man or a woman, but especially if you’re a woman, you’ve got so much coming at you from so many different parts of life. Proactively invest in building the mind muscle to be resilient. Preventative mental health is so important.”

Her preferred method is a form of meditation called Vipassana, which has come in useful during her time in the industry.

“If working in financial services as a minority woman is hard, being an entrepreneur in financial services is very much in the extreme zone,” she said.

That view spurred her to build diversity into her business. More than 50 percent of employees are women and of minority background. The management team is entirely female, as is the operations team.

“I’m very proud that I could be the change I wish to see in the industry. My mantra was, if I can’t do it, how can I expect anybody else to do it?”

Pretty dismal

Unfortunately that change is still a wish away, with the stats on women in private equity “pretty dismal”, but especially at senior levels. She added: “Sub-5 percent of senior folks in private equity are women. The industry knows it’s important, but it’s not materialising into the representation figures that we really should be seeing.”

The covid pandemic made matters worse, as it put “inordinate pressure on women, who felt the burden of looking after the household and the family, even more so than they usually do. As a result, we’ve seen women resigning from senior corporate roles”.

Even the increased acceptance of remote and flexible working since the pandemic has limitations.

“We’re back to 2019, in the air more than on the ground. That’s the reality if you’re senior. In the junior and mid-levels, yes, Zoom is a huge boon, if you’re in listening or notetaking or analysis mode. But if you’re trying to convince someone to give you their business, it’s very much back to face to face.”

Market conditions – in particular interest rates – are a far cry from 2019, though, making fundraising more difficult, while seized-up credit and IPO markets have quietened M&A. Those difficulties could indirectly impel GPs to think more about equality.

“Investors have had one arm tied behind their back because it’s been a GP’s market. We had bonanza fundraising for many, many years. Now it’s an investor’s market, where an investor gets to decide who they want to back, who they don’t want to back. Investor scrutiny on DE&I in general, and diversity in particular, is going to help make the shift.”

Off and on ramp

In the meantime, Sinha Haldea hears the same arguments from GPs on diversity, including that they can’t find any women. “Really? It’s 50 percent of the population last time I checked.” The other is that not enough women apply.

“I hear all those remarks. Most of them are excuses. You have to be deliberate about how you seek out female talent.”

First, she said, identify potential women hires, introduce yourself and track them. Second, recruit from pools of talent where diversity is higher, such as female-only universities. Third, be more patient. “I’ll often say to the recruiters, this talent pool isn’t diverse enough. Take a few more weeks, find a few more resumes to bring diversity to the talent pool.”

Retention is also key. Senior level is “where the rubber meets the road, when women want to go off and have children, when they want to live their lives. That is the compromise that GPs have to make. They must have an off and on ramp for that talent or it won’t come back”.

Editor’s note: PE Hub Europe’s interviews with senior women in private equity will appear throughout March. Read our interview with Actis’ Jaroslava Korpanec here.