Meet a Member: Raj Sharma
Continuing with our feature series on the members of TiE Boston, we spoke with TiE Boston Charter Member, Raj Sharma, Managing Director, private Wealth Advisor of Merrill Private Wealth Management, about his journey and what led him to TiE.
Tell me about yourself.
I’ve had five careers. I’d say I’m in my fifth career. I’ve always loved media and theater. For seven years in the mid 70’s, in India, I was a DJ at a radio station. I enjoyed talking to my listeners and playing music. To this day, it was the best job I’ve had. My father told me, “Son, there is no future in radio. If you can remember Dustin Hoffman, in The Graduate, saying the future is in plastics, my father said, “Son, the future is in banking.” To which I replied, “Dad, you don’t know anything.” Ultimately, he was right, I am in wealth management and banking.
Heeding the advice of my father I went for an MBA in economics and finance. I worked for a bunch of companies in marketing and finance, but the media bug never got out of my system. So when I got a chance to come to the United States, I said, “I’m going to learn media and learn film.”
Believe it or not, that’s what brought me to Boston. I went to Emerson College and got a Master’s in Mass Communications with a specialization in film. For the next seven to eight years, I was involved as a documentary film producer and creative, as a storyteller for ad agencies, producing commercials.
Around the late ’80s, I decided it was time to change my career once again. This time I wanted to be entrepreneurial and start a coffee business. I made a lot of coffee and had a few people taste it, but I had to drink all the coffee by myself. It didn’t go anywhere, although it was good coffee, believe me. I didn’t know any venture capitalists, I didn’t have any capital. So I was prompted to assess and use the skill set I had: my communication skills and understanding of business and finance. That’s how I stumbled into wealth management.
What is it like navigating the entrepreneurial climate from the corporate side? What is that perspective that we often don’t hear about in Boston?
An entrepreneur is somebody who gets things done with little resources. You put an entrepreneur at an office and provide them company objectives, they get the clients, they develop the product and can achieve the goals. Entrepreneurship involves creativity, initiative, a lot of hard work, and determination. Every entrepreneur is a dreamer in many ways. You essentially are creating your own reality.
When I joined Merrill Lynch as an advisor, they gave you the basic training, the licenses and the basics, and a yellow pad of paper, put two books in front of you (white pages and a yellow pages), and told you to, “go get your clients.”
One of the things I learned from my career in management was you need to define what you’re all about: what your mission is and your overall vision. You had to define your business philosophy, your investment philosophy. So I struggled with this for a few years. It didn’t come right out of the box. My mission at that time after a few years being in the business was to impact the lives of people in a positive way. Enhance the lives of my clients and to do that, I need to help them with financial planning, retirement planning, by addressing their dreams and aspirations, whatever those might be. I had refashioned the way I constructed my narrative. It wasn’t a product, my mission was to help achieve their goal.
Over the years, Boston has evolved. Having been in Boston for over 41 years, I’ve seen the city evolve in all kinds of directions. In the 1980s, it was a different Boston. I remember one of the companies I interviewed for and the guy said, “Raj, you’ve got a couple of master’s degrees, but do you have an uncle in a country club?” I said, “What’s a country club?” He said, “Where they play golf.” I said, “Oh, you mean that kind of club.” I said, “No, all my uncles are back in India. I don’t have an uncle here.”
His argument was, unless you were part of a country club and you knew other rich people, you could not succeed in business. I reiterated that I could work hard if I had the opportunity and he still told me to come back in two years. It was a tough environment in Boston at that time. Breaking into wealth management was not easy. It was a province of a few people who had done it through their family and through generations. That’s how wealthy families trusted other people. So for me to break into it, I had to have a unique story. I had to have my vision, my mission, and my strategy very much nailed down.
What was the transition like of going from this DJ job, which in most people’s minds is about the furthest thing you can get from wealth management? Did your mindset change at all or was it just exploring different skill sets, so to speak?
Two things: number one, I knew how to communicate, from experiences selling and marketing. From my working in industry for several years and because of my MBA, I had a good understanding of marketing, segmentation, and finance. With this background it was simple to combine the two — competence and communication. When I made this transition the word entrepreneur didn’t exist. In the early ’80s and late ’70s, the wealthiest people in Boston were all doctors. There were no entrepreneurs around that time. My seminal break channel in the world of prospecting was through the hospitals in Boston.
I remember going to Mass General Hospital attempting to meet somebody face-to-face, tell them my story in hopes that they’d perhaps be attracted to my proposition and do business with me.
The first time I spoke to the receptionist, I said, “I’d like to meet the head of human resources. This is Raj Sharma from Merrill Lynch.” She called up and said, “John, there’s somebody from, says Merrill Lynch, shows interest in meeting you.” He asked, “Why?” And I interjected, “I’d love to talk to the doctors about financial planning.” He said, “I’m not interested.” So I went there twice. Second time, the same lady was there. I thought, “My goodness, it’s my bad luck.”
The third time I waited for her to change the shift at three o’clock. I went back and I said, “I’m Raj Sharma from Merrill Lynch, I want to speak to John so and so.” The new receptionist asked, “Dr. Sharma?.” I did not correct her and she sent me straight up. I convinced the Doctor in five minutes that I can provide free financial planning seminars to help them with insurance, retirement, and children’s education planning. I continued specializing in the needs of doctors, who are fundamentally very busy people. They don’t have the time to manage their own money or do their financial planning.
Then I shifted to the corporate world. In the mid-’90s, companies in biotech and the high-technology area were coming into being, and people were getting stock options. Stock options were an unknown thing of the 1980s. This was something completely new and I became determined to become an expert. That was my second pivot point.
Where in this journey for you, did TiE come into play?
In the 1990’s, I met a young fellow called Desh Deshpande. Desh at that time was just beginning his entrepreneurial journey. One day talking to Desh, he said, “I’m thinking of starting a chapter for TiE in Boston. Would you come in as a charter member? Would you support it?” I said, “Absolutely, I would.” Desh was one of those great visionaries. He could see the future and he could see people needed help in shared resources and ideas. I became a charter member and a sponsor.
Over the years, I’ve made phenomenal friendships with the people at TiE. I’ve always loved hanging out with creators of wealth because I’ve always believed them to be visionaries with a kind of electric dynamism about them.
How has TiE changed and how has entrepreneurship changed over the years? Looking at today’s landscape, what has that transformation been?
Today, entrepreneurship is truly democratic and meritocratic. Years ago, it was different; you had to know the right people and how to get to the venture capitalist. In the early ‘90’s, organizations like TiE were very responsible for highlighting success stories. And it certainly started with the Indian community, but it extended far beyond that.
Other organizations like the MIT Enterprise Forum got into the entrepreneurship mindset saying, “We want to share this knowledge because entrepreneurship is good for society.” From being an exclusive plan, it became democratized in a massive way. Today, this democracy is spreading around the world, not just the United States where it’s entrenched, but in India and China. Nothing could be greater for this world than invention, innovation, and entrepreneurship. Creating something out of nothing. Entrepreneurs use only a little bit of capital, the rest is done through sweat, equity, and hard work.
This is a golden age of entrepreneurship and entrepreneurship certainly means wealth creation. There’s a change in mindset. When I was growing up in India in the 1980s, my parents would tell me that look around you, the most successful people are engineers or doctors. That was the aspiration. So a lot of careers were not open. Now, the field is dramatic. You can be an entrepreneur, you can be an artist. You can be a filmmaker, you’re an entrepreneur. You can be a media personality. You can be somebody doing fashion design or somebody having a tech company or a healthcare company. So the definition has broadened dramatically.
I’m a strong believer that good wealth management is good for society. If you manage your wealth responsibly, you are going to leave a substantial amount of your wealth to perhaps a philanthropy or your charity, or perhaps you’ll teach your kids how to invest money correctly, or teach them how to invest money according to the principles of say, environmental, and social, and governance principles, which are important for all the world’s problems today. So I really believe that wealth creation is the fundamental capitalist, but wealth management is a conduit for society as a large and it makes all of us better.
How have you seen the evolution of TiE?
When TiE started out there was an incredible amount of buzz and success stories. People would come and listen to venture capitalists and entrepreneurs who had done well. How did they do it? How did they quit their job at Intel or any other company, start a company, get some capital? TiE was the information source and knowledge sharing place. It was also a community where people could share ideas freely. One of the best things about TiE was, nobody held any secrets. Entrepreneurship and success was something to be celebrated and shared.
Over time, TiE has become more sophisticated and more holistic. It started with entrepreneurship: how to start a company, raise money, set up the company, sell the company, take it public. Now it’s becoming holistic. It’s not just about making money. It’s about philanthropy and giving back. TiE is the vanguard of that.
This past year has been unprecedented for money. So what has 2020 and 2021 meant to you in terms of impact and how is that shaping what you’re thinking about for the future?
2020, nobody expected it, this was the ultimate black swan or a gray rhino. I think it has fundamentally altered the world. There are many negative sides to it: certainly, the incredible loss of lives and the devastation it has caused, the unemployment that we all know and sympathize with. On the positive side, it has taught us that we can all communicate in a variety of ways. I was afraid at the beginning of the pandemic that it would be tough to develop relationships, but I was completely wrong. This year has been the best year for our business. We’ve been able to tell our story. We’ve been able to connect with people.
So it shows that the world can operate on several different dimensions, a digital dimension and a physical dimension. Operating on the physical dimension contributes to climate issues. Do you need to travel to New York for a one-hour meeting and spend seven hours getting to New York and back? Think about it. You could do it on a Zoom call. People are going to be much more deliberate on travel in terms of meetings. 2020 accelerated the adoption of several technologies like Zoom. Would you imagine? What was Zoom two years ago?
I think we are at the vanguard of a new industrial revolution, maybe call it a digital revolution.Cloud networking is now ubiquitous. The adoption of digital technology has developed in a variety of ways. Telemedicine, areas like cloud, 5G, robotics, people have realized that you don’t need hundreds of people working in a factory. You could do it through intelligent automation and use people where their skills are needed.
What’s your advice for the person who’s starting their career or careers now, who’s looking at this digital transformation that we see on the horizon, whether it be for an entrepreneur, whether it be for somebody looking to pursue your typical career, what advice do you have?
We have to discard all the old concepts we have learned. It’s not as if they’d teach you something, but you have to approach the world with a different mindset, in my opinion. We don’t know the businesses which are going to exist tomorrow.
First, you’ve got to understand what your skills are. Skills are one thing, but what’s your passion? What gets your juices flowing? What gets your energy flowing? It’s important to do a self analysis and a discovery to analyze that.
In the journey of entrepreneurs and intrapreneurs, there’s always some struggle. What challenges have you faced and how did you overcome them?
When I started with my company, we had zero assets and zero clients. I consider myself an entrepreneur, a boutique within a large firm. But to entrepreneurs today, I think it takes 20 years to become an overnight success.
Entrepreneurship is a very tough journey. You need to be good at financial planning. The best advice would be talking to other entrepreneurs, sharing realities, acknowledging it’s not a bed of roses. But when you do strike it, it is incredibly gratifying. The most successful clients all have one quality in common, humility. They never take their success for granted. They’re always curious and open to criticism.
The other thing with entrepreneurship is it’s not a solo venture. It’s teamwork, it’s collaboration. You’re getting together with other people and you’ve got to be flexible. You’ve got to adapt and sacrifice. There’s a good amount of time you must sacrifice before you see the rewards. So at the end of the day, whether you make $20 million or 200 billion. It is still gratifying. You are the CEO of your own company. You shape your own destiny. You don’t have a boss.You answer to yourself every day. How much more powerful could that get, all right?
Where and what do you hope for the future of TiE? Where do you hope to see it go?
I’m successful because somebody packed my parachute and so I was able to land with my feet intact. All of us have somebody who’s done that. Because of TiE people have made connections. Community is an important thing, but community is only relevant if people in the community help each other. It has got to be synergistic. You’ve got to freely share ideas, direct people to resources, and help others become successful. In some ways, TiE makes that happen.
I have found in other organizations, once somebody is successful, they don’t show up as often. I think it’s incumbent on people who are successful to give back.
The other hope I have for TiE is to continue incorporating philanthropy as a major tenant of the organization. I think wealth creation is phenomenal but along with wealth creation comes an important responsibility, which is a societal responsibility. I always thought, would it be great if every entrepreneur from TiE can donate 1% of their profits to something which TiE does, which could perhaps help people in the inner city of Boston, in Lowell and other places, where people don’t have access to the same kind of neural network we all have. So philanthropy, engaging more in the local community. We all live here and we’re going to die here. So enriching the community we live in and TiE, I know is doing a lot in that direction, but more can be done.