Rathnakala Kumaragurunathan comes from a very conventional Jaffna-Tamil background where, for young women, a lot of focus is placed on education but not necessarily in the pursuit of a career. “Fortunately my father challenged this and, for as long as I could remember, he persuaded me to push boundaries of gender equality and cross the hurdles of society’s perceptions of how women should act or be seen – it was always about leaving my comfort zone and doing more,” shares Rathnakala. So she went to a mixed international school for her education, also pursuing CIMA and a degree soon after. Today, she celebrates 13 years at Acuity Knowledge Partners (formerly Amba Research), climbing up the ranks from a trainee to Associate Director.
Rathnakala tells me she owes all this success to passion, and amazing mentors from her father to the bosses she’s had from the get-go. “It’s been a wonderful experience during all of my 20s and now my 30s!” enthuses Rathnakala. “For the longest time, my father was my guiding light, constantly raising the bar, until his passing. And at work, I’ve had the privilege of being mentored by great managers who did the same. All of them helped bring out the best in me.”
“There are two elements about investment research that I’m passionate about — learning and contributing,” she continues. “It’s an extremely fast paced and pressure-packed industry and consistency in delivery determines your credibility. Even with many years of work experience and proven capabilities, you need to be absolutely focused and can thrive in a dynamic environment. I love working under pressure and that’s when my best comes out!” Rathnakala firmly believes that no matter what you do (even if it’s something as simple as note-taking during a meeting), you need to do it excellently with high attention to detail.
Throughout her journey, Rathnakala has learned to fall in love with the process and not the victory. “I know it’s cliché, but if you love what you do and enjoy each day, hour or minute for itself, you will emerge a winner,” she says. “I’ve always loved mentoring juniors. I always believe that freshers look up to mentors to mould their careers. Doing that gives my job so much more meaning and the process is fulfilling. So you need to enjoy it.” Rathnakala became a supervisor as early as 23-years-old, which meant a large part of her team was either her age or older, making the first few years very tough. “Many of the men were older than me and that presented a challenge,” she says, thoughtfully. “It was very hard to get my point across, be heard or given respect. I was also naïve and afraid to be assertive—I thought the easier path was to be loved and popular. But, I eventually realized (through great mentors!) that my role was not to be loved but to be respected. To be loved by your team— that was a bonus.”
What Rathnakala started doing then, and that subsequently helped with her mentoring role, was being very direct. “Now, my team knows, good or bad, they will know right away,” she shares. “I won’t wait 6 months to talk to someone about something they did. I believe in candid feedback and, sure, at that moment they may hate me, but that’s okay. It’s not easy, but that’s a natural consequence of doing the right thing. Then it becomes contagious—you see the team doing the same! But not with everyone. You will always have a percentage of bad eggs, but that’s okay as long as it’s a minority.”
The challenges kept coming, but Rathnakala kept dealing with them, learning from them and evolving into the self-assured woman I see sitting across from me. “In 2017, I faced one of the darkest times of my life. We lost our son, a few hours after he was born” she recounts. “I had borderline depression, and couldn’t make up my mind to return to work. My bosses were extremely supportive and asked me to take my time and come back when I was ready.” But, five months later, with no visible light at the end of the tunnel for her, Rathnakala’s boss met with her realizing she was not healing. He insisted she return to work and a month later she did. “He gave me a new role, besides my existing one—I was to take over the training and knowledge function at Acuity,” she shares. “And let me tell you, it was one of the best things he did for me, and I for myself by accepting it.”
Her new role required her to build strong relationships with universities and professional bodies. “This meant making students aware of what we do, the careers available in investment research and what they need to do to pre-prepare to take on this profession,” explains Rathnakala. “From creating a good CV to dressing well for interviews to setting time aside to learn additional skills, we get them work-ready. That role paved the way for me to get into meeting young aspiring finance professionals. It helped me divert a lot of energy and, subsequently, allowed me to heal. Here’s the thing,” Rathnakala tells me. “What I’ve learned is that no matter what you do, you’re going to face dark times, often darker than you expect. You need to put a smile on your face, slap on your lipstick, wear your favourite heels and march forward. Always forward.”
Photography by Amitha Thennakoon. Art & Direction by Ricky De Silva. Videography by StoryWorks.