Wells Fargo EVP Madhu Narasimhan: How I Got the Job
Many of us aspire to reach the executive level at a major corporation, but the career path to get us there can be unclear. The truth is, there is no one right path or trajectory to achieve this goal. The Financially Savvy Female had the opportunity to chat with Madhu Narasimhan, executive vice president, head of innovation and chief operations officer of strategy, digital and innovation at Wells Fargo about her own career journey. Narasimhan grew up in India and received a degree in dance before transitioning into the engineering and fintech sector. Here, we chat with her about how she worked her way up to become an EVP at Wells Fargo, her experiences as a woman working in male-dominated fields and her best advice for other women who aspire to rise in the corporate ranks.
When and how did you make the transition from dance to tech?
Growing up, my dream was to be a professional classical dancer. I studied Bharatanatyam, a major Hindu form of Indian classical dance, beginning at age 4 through 21 — and in fact, earned a diploma for my work. Dance provided me with the value of discipline, as well as a creative outlet.
The cultural norms in Indian society at the time set the expectation that women pursue a career in medicine. While I was an excellent student and offered admission to medical school, I was seeking a challenge beyond what was expected of me. And when I discovered that computers were kept in an air-conditioned space — a luxury in hot and humid India — I chose to pursue a degree in computer science.
With computer science, I was intrigued by the bits and bytes, and the similarity to mathematics, and soon found that coding became a creative endeavor.
Engineering and technology can still feel like ‘boys’ clubs.’ Did you have any hesitation to enter this field?
Admittedly, there was minor hesitation in pursuing an education in technology, yet the feeling of taking on a challenge superseded any doubts I had. I enjoyed the competition and earned the respect of my male peers, and even garnered allies who understood my position.
In many ways, the engineering/technology field is very much a “boys’ club” today. I was aware of this in college, as there were more than 250 boys working to earn degrees in computer science — and only 12 girls. That said, I’m encouraged by progress.
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Did you face any challenges due to your gender?
I got my first taste of gender discrimination during my first campus interview in which the interviewer inquired if I would leave my job if I got married in the future. Taken aback, I asked him if he was inquiring the same of the male applicants. It was no surprise when I didn’t get the job offer.
Throughout my career, I have learned to pre-empt any questions regarding pregnancy, work travel and caregiving. For example, whilst pregnant with my first child, I proactively alerted my manager that I was available and interested in tackling a big assignment.
Also, in South Asian culture, women are expected to serve as caregivers to not only their immediate families, but also their parents and in-laws as well as manage social activities.
Is it easy being “all things to all people?” Definitely not.
Tell me a little bit about where you started in your career journey and your progression all the way up to EVP. What were the steps you took along the way?
During college, I worked as a dance instructor. After graduation, I began my career as a software developer in the healthcare industry. From there, I worked in software architecture and design roles before moving into management. Prior to joining Wells Fargo, my career focused on digital, data and innovation in the healthcare industry.
Given that both healthcare and financial services are both heavily regulated, it was an easy transition, and I brought a great deal of experience to my role at Wells Fargo.
Knowing engineering is merely table stakes; you have to understand the business. I excel at viewing technology and innovation through a lens that is empathetic to the customer and helping to ensure the best experience at each interaction with us.
What did you do to ensure that you kept rising up the career ladder?
I embraced the idea of being uncomfortable on a daily basis. Specifically, I try to be in constant learning mode and have developed a growth mindset.
To that end, I accept challenging assignments in order to grow, and in turn, I adapt easily and take risks, when warranted. This mentality is what has driven me to help create and execute what hadn’t been done before at the companies I’ve worked for — and the sense of pride and accomplishment is priceless.
I also leaned into the soft skills that are innate to most women: empathy, good communication, collaboration, respect and being able to focus on attention to detail as well as the “big picture” at the same time.
What moves have you made that have been the most impactful in your own career journey?
Having a great team is critical to success, so I feel it’s very important to plan for the future and to curate talent for your team as well as others. It’s my belief that women leaders have an obligation to groom the talent of other women, to strengthen the workplace, overall.
Also, I can’t stress enough how important it is to build long-term relationships across your networks and to recognize the value of being a role model to others.
What advice would you give to other women who want to make it to the executive level at a company like Wells Fargo?
First of all, DREAM BIG. Set no limits and have no regrets.
Convert your perceived “differences” to your strengths.
Develop a strong group of mentors. Establish your support structure — partner, caregivers, for example — in a thoughtful manner.
GOBankingRates wants to empower women to take control of their finances. According to the latest stats, women hold $72 billion in private wealth — but fewer women than men consider themselves to be in “good” or “excellent” financial shape. Women are less likely to be investing and are more likely to have debt, and women are still being paid less than men overall. Our “Financially Savvy Female” column will explore the reasons behind these inequities and provide solutions to change them. We believe financial equality begins with financial literacy, so we’re providing tools and tips for women, by women to take control of their money and help them live a richer life.
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Jaime Catmull contributed to the reporting for this article.