Women of Substance: Business Leader Aradhna Dayal on Empowerment and Writing a Memoir
It’s difficult to pin Aradhna Dayal down to just one title. She’s an investor, a leader, an entrepreneur, a philanthropist – just give her name a Google search and you’ll find countless profiles on this multi-faceted Indian businesswoman.
Now, Dayal is also a writer – a co-author of My Voice: A Collective Memoir by Women of Substance, which features 23 women from across the world sharing their stories of courage and strength.
With over 25 years of experience in Asian financial markets (a male-dominated industry), it’s no surprise that Dayal’s name is often said in junction with female empowerment. She runs her family office, Regal Ford Asia, out of Hong Kong and she’s the founder and CEO of Access Alts Asia – an international membership-based investment club with meets in Hong Kong, Shanghai, New York, Dubai, London, and San Francisco.
And she’s passionate about women succeeding – in leadership roles, education, and in their health; having served on the committees of Teach for China, Sohn Conference, and Youth Diabetes Action, and being involved in her family’s two charity organisations, Move4Migrants and ModernMigrants that provide targeted aid to and empower ethnic minorities and those with a migrant background in Hong Kong.
I have spent much of life guarding my privacy fiercely: be it at work where discretion is the name of the game, or in personal life where I follow our family motto of simplicity and humility. But receiving the American Chamber of Commerce ‘Woman of Influence Award’ last year, and consequently being approached to write my memoir, forced me to reflect on my journey so far; in doing so I found myself better understanding what I set out to do, who I was, or rather, who I had become in this journey.
You see, we are a culmination of our experiences in life, and often the whole becomes greater than the sum of the parts. My Voice: A Collective Memoir is a reflection of that.
Tell us about your personal story – and your chapter in My Voice: A Collective Memoir.
I grew up in small-town India, climbing mango trees, flying kites and absorbing life in the now-forgotten, technology-free world. My father, however, was the eldest son of a large landowning family from the pre-Independence days, and far from a typical Indian dad.
An ocean of wisdom, high on empathy, he refused to bring me up as his “little girl”; instead, he raised me to be a “thoughtful soldier,” observant of everyone and unafraid to speak my mind. In his quiet and firm way, he gave me the self-assurance to chart my own path.
My chapter in this book is really about my passion for people and how that formed the cornerstone for both my investing and my entrepreneurial journey. It is also about my personal journey that made me redefine my life mission; I now realize that often it is the peripheral things we do – build global communities, spark conversations, create safe ecosystems – that allow us to leave a meaningful legacy.
What does ‘a woman of substance’ mean to you?
I truly feel a woman of substance is one that has the confidence to speak up, stand up, believe in herself, and not worry if someone thinks she is “too ambitious” or too “confident”.
This is something I emphasise to all the young women I mentor. The other important thing is challenging the idea of always being perfect, something we as women are taught from an early age. We try and be perfect wives, perfect moms, perfect daughters, in addition to being perfect professionals. But that is not possible in real life. To me, a real woman of substance is one who realizes that it is okay to be persistent not just polite, strong not silent, and driven not docile.
How did you approach writing your memoir?
I distinctly remember writing this on the night of the Super Blood Moon eclipse. I watched in awe, as the crimson crescent rose over the sea, thinking through my life events, my personal struggles – each steeling my resolve and in the process propelling me higher – and then writing my story out in a stream of consciousness, words coming hesitatingly first and then in a rapturous flow. I finished as dawn was breaking, and a full proud moon (now all silvery) lighting up the clam sea in front of my balcony. It was truly a moment of reckoning.
You’ve mentioned going from failure to success and exclusion to inclusion – can you tell us about a time you experienced a grave challenge and how you overcame it.
It’s funny how we measure our success from name and fame at work, but in reality, it is our small wins in personal life that take us towards a path of true happiness. I got married very young and sadly never enjoyed the acceptance from my marital family. While being educated and progressive in many ways, the new family found my independence of thought and action difficult to comprehend, resulting in hilarious (and often hurtful) encounters.
My moment of reckoning came one winter morning when I returned from a Bloomberg interview that facilitated my work, to find my family members complaining about a chipped teacup. I walked over to the mirror that day and promised myself that I would no longer pretend to be someone I am not and that I would no longer waste my years pursuing what was unattainable.
It was at that moment that I felt unshackled. It was at that moment that I found the desire to be unapologetically myself. And it was at that moment that I gave my ambition a free ride. I felt my spirits soaring. I decided that I wanted “everything” and saw the road to a global empire – clear and shining.
Tell us about setting up your own business.
Honestly, as a life-long investor, I didn’t expect the entrepreneur bug to bite me in my forties. But it is an exhilarating feeling, something everyone should try at least once. Today’s world is superbly democratic. You can build a business and take on established brands with considerable ease as long as your product resonates; the consumer of today will give you a chance.
For me, the idea came from having had a front-row seat to Asia’s transformation. My investment club Access Alts Asia creates an East-West bridge to bring capital and ideas to Asia, where billions of lives are changing due to digitalisation, consumerism, increased mobility, and financial inclusion.
As a female entrepreneur in finance – what can you tell us about being a woman in a leadership role, especially in a male-dominated industry.
That you gotta go into it “like a man”. Wearing heels and make-up if you are so inclined. Funnily enough, this epiphany came from a 4 am conversation with my then 16-year old son. I wasn’t sure what it meant at the time, but in retrospect, what he was telling me was to not hold myself back, to wear my femininity like a badge and not worry about dinner being on the table at 8 (not something dads would do, right?). I am now a passionate lobbyist for women in leadership roles, and I often laugh and pass along this wisdom to my mentees.
How does this book connect to you, as a mother?
Writing this book has really made me reflect on my journey as a mother, and my kids’ resilience. I used to feel guilty about not being around much, but now when I see my daughter Pankhuri amplify the voice of the disenfranchised – whether it’s lobbying for sex workers’ rights, taking on the controversial FOSTA/SESTA bill, or supporting fellow students fighting mental illness – I feel a sense of accomplishment. For a parent, there is no better legacy to leave behind.
You’re something of a philanthropist – tell us more about your passion for charity and development.
As a family, making an impact is in our DNA – we are passionate about creating just and diverse societies of tomorrow. My kids Pradyumn and Pankhuri Dayal, run Move4Migrants and ModernMigrants, two aid organisations that empower migrant and minority communities of Hong Kong.
Apart from that, I have served on committees of Teach for China, Youth Diabetes Action and Sohn Conference amongst others. I also run Women On Boards – an initiative within Access Alts that brings together inspirational women in business, finance and investing to guide the next generation of female talent in the boardroom.
What is one line that’s stuck with you from someone else’s memoir.
“It’s fab to be flawed” – Priyanka Chopra, from her memoir Unfinished.
If a reader had to take just one thing away from your chapter – what would you want it to be?
That every trough ends in a crest. In 25 years of trying to please my marital family (and equally at work), I learnt invaluable skills. In trying to imitate them, I learnt to be elegant. And in trying to advocate for myself, I learnt to speak up. When life throws you a curveball, it’s actually igniting a spark for your growth.