The Brave Ones

Chandrika Tandon: Dealmaker, singer, philanthropist

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Chandrika Tandon was one of McKinsey’s best-known dealmakers who started her own investment business before a musical epiphany led to a Grammy nomination. She told CNBC’s “The Brave Ones” about her life’s purpose and why she and her husband donated $100 million to New York University.
Slippers and a sari

Chandrika Tandon went to her first job interview at consultancy McKinsey & Company wearing a sari, slippers and a borrowed winter coat that was much too big for her. It was winter 1978 in New York City and snowing heavily.

“I was in the worst blizzard in American history … And I was walking around in slippers with open toes in the streets of Manhattan saying, ‘Wow, this is snow, and this is crazy. And how am I going to survive?’" Tandon told CNBC’s “The Brave Ones.”

“Once you've been through experiences like that you feel you can handle anything in life. Nothing seems that difficult anymore,” she said.

Tandon had traveled to New York from India, where she grew up in Chennai (then known as Madras) in the 1950s to a musician mother and banker father, where music was big part of her life. “I sang before I could speak, I sang before I could walk … In my home, music would be playing all the time, from the time we woke up to the time I went to sleep. All kinds of music, whatever came on the radio station,” she said. She and her sister, Indra Nooyi (the former PepsiCo CEO), had music lessons as children, but Indra would distract her, “so the training wasn’t anything serious,” Tandon told the New York Times in 2013.

“My mother was inviting people for my wedding, which was non-existent with a non-existent bridegroom at that time.”
Chandrika Tandon

Life was sheltered and traditional. “My mother is a brilliant woman who hadn't gone to college, and a great musician, and very duty-bound to maintain the honor of the family by making sure I made a good marriage and did well. So that was her primary objective,” Tandon said.

“I was the oldest girl … A girl immediately means you have to collect for the dowry. So, my earliest memories are, on the one hand, my mother sort of building a dowry to try to get me married and that was what she was focused on, that she wanted to really provide for me.”

But her grandfather also lived with the family, a larger-than-life character in her childhood, who would read Shakespeare and other writers with her. “We would sit with him every night with a cup of raisins and I'd memorize lengthy poems like, you know, (Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s) ‘A Psalm of Life,’ or (Thomas Gray’s) ‘Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard,’ which are very heavy poems, but which have carried with me for a long time and which kind of created a whole other vision of possibilities.”

That vision included going to the prestigious Madras Christian College (Tandon had to go on a partial hunger strike to convince her parents) and then the Indian Institute of Management in Ahmedabad, aged 18, when Tandon’s mother had other ideas for her future. “My mother really was, you know, inviting people for my wedding, which was non-existent with a non-existent bridegroom at that time,” Tandon said. Yet she was determined to go to her choice of school.

“I think 100,000 kids apply and I think 100 of us is what they take. And it's an incredible acceptance … So it wasn't like I was trying to get anywhere, I just wanted something beyond, and I didn't know what that was at that stage … Business school was the first time I left home and left the confines of my fairly restricted childhood.”

A strange bird

By 1975, Tandon was working for Citibank, which sent her to Beirut when Lebanon was going through a terrible civil war. Snipers would shoot from the rooftops near her apartment at night. “It was a very, very traumatic period, but we didn't quite feel that because I was in Beirut learning an extraordinary amount with about 30 or 40 people from different parts of Citibank around the world. And … I was learning trading and I was having the time of my life intellectually, which was a great deal of fun.”

After three years at Citibank, she was climbing the corporate ladder, but then she met Anupam (“Tino”) Puri, who had just been made partner at McKinsey.

“A colleague at McKinsey who had met Chandrika suggested that she was an unusual person and I ought to meet her,” Puri told “The Brave Ones.”

“(It was) 1978 … before the very large influx of Indian students to the U.S. business schools. So, if you were looking … for talent, you actually had to go interview in India to find the best Indian students.” Puri said. He met Tandon in India, and their interview lasted for several hours over three consecutive days. Puri was impressed by the MBA she gained at just 20 years-old and the fact she had been president of the student union, as well as her empathy, curiosity and energy.

“I was a bit of a strange bird in the sense that I was a foreign woman. So, clients were curious.”
Chandrika Tandon

Then McKinsey flew Tandon to New York, where she wore that sari and slippers to her first interview, in the middle of a blizzard. She spoke to around 16 people before landing a job at the firm and bought a thick brown wool suit to wear to the office, even during the summer.

“I'd never seen snow and I didn't know you had to wear winter coats and summer coats, and there were different clothes for different seasons … I would show up in a very thick brown wool suit, which I wore with great pride until somebody pulled me aside and said, ‘You might want to change that suit because you are a little bit … you feel like you are a little hot.’ So that was my learning to say, ‘Oh my God, yes. I guess I do need different clothes.’ And I learned a lot.”

Puri and Tandon didn’t work together directly, but he looked out for her, New York being far from the multicultural place it is now. “She describes it as being ‘big brother’ to make sure that she knew how to navigate life, that she adapted culturally, and that she didn't make any serious mistakes,” Puri said.

Tandon carried her love of music with her, spending most of her $5,000 signing-on bonus on an expensive stereo system and a Martin guitar. She had nothing left over for furniture, so she lived in an apartment with no furniture for around two months, eating boiled rice when she ran out of money for food.

She had to adapt fast. “I'll never forget walking in and somebody saying to me, ‘Well, next week you have to show up in New Jersey for an 8 a.m. client meeting.’ I didn't know where New Jersey was, I had never driven a car by myself,” she said. She took an intensive driving course and left for the meeting at 4 a.m. “I would stop (on) the fast lane. I was really happy that nobody was on it. And then everyone was giving me the finger and I didn't know what they meant by that. But I just thought they were waving to me, and I would stop and wave back.”

But along with the “life mishaps,” as she describes them, Tandon was welcomed by the Americans she met: Strangers would give her quarters for payphones, while others invited her to their Thanksgiving celebrations. Clients would also try to get to know her. “You know, I was a woman, but I was also a bit of a strange bird in the sense that I was a foreign woman. So, clients were curious, my colleagues at McKinsey were interested and I think there would be an awkwardness sometime(s),” she said.

She and her partners found common ground intellectually and around the business problems they had to solve, and her job took her around the world. She became the first Indian-American woman to make partner at McKinsey, and the first woman partner to have a baby — her daughter Lita Tandon was born in 1988.

The musical epiphany

Tandon helped to transform the fortunes of Banco Lar Brasileiro, a Brazilian bank bought by Chase in 1986. “This bank was bleeding money, was literally losing money (and) nobody understood it. It was bought by Chase (and) the new CEO had taken over.” Brazil was transitioning between its cruzeiro and cruzado currencies. “Translation gains and losses were unbelievable. You couldn't calculate anything; you didn't know what was happening to assets, liabilities, the balance sheet,” Tandon explained. She spent around eight months restructuring the bank.

“It was the most exciting business experience of my life … We had to almost take it apart and put it together at every level, from the mundane to the sublime.” By then, she had become a well-known dealmaker, according to Martin Lipton, a partner at law firm Wachtell, Lipton, Rosen and Katz.

“Her forte was to understand the operating systems of banks and to be able to put two platforms together, so that there was no loss of time, and no problems in integrating two banks, or two financial institutions,” Lipton told “The Brave Ones.” “And she was so famous that almost every deal that was done, people would say: ‘Well, is Chandrika on that one?’"

Tandon left McKinsey to start financial advisory firm Tandon Capital Associates in 1992. “I thought I should just invest in these institutions rather than going out and being an advisor. We should actually buy some of these banks,” Tandon said of her decision. Clients have since included Chase, Unibanco, a Brazilian bank that merged with Banco Itau in 2009, and Bank of Boston, now part of Bank of America.

Lita, now 30 (and a McKinsey executive herself), remembers her childhood as a time when her mother was famous in the business world. “I remember she was all over a bunch of magazines at that point. She was all over Forbes and Bloomberg and all sorts of things. And I remember bringing in a bunch for show and tell, which I think gave me a lot of kindergarten cache,” she told “The Brave Ones.”

“She was so famous that almost every deal that was done, people would say, ‘Is Chandrika on that one?’”
Martin Lipton, partner, Wachtell, Lipton, Rosen and Katz

For Tandon, life was hectic. “I was on this absolute breakneck pace with Tandon Capital. I was doing deal after deal and creating, I think, billions of dollars in market value.” But one day she was working on one of her largest deals yet, which would demand most of her time. She was about to sign the contract, but froze.

“I just was paralyzed … and I couldn't do the deal. Then I started to think … ‘Well, what am I doing? What is this about? What am I trying to do next? Is this what my life's going to be, I'm going do one deal after another, after another? And so, what happens if I die tomorrow?’"

It was almost a “crisis of spirit,” Tandon said. “I had locked my door and I just wanted to understand, I wanted to think. And I cried. I just was trying to figure out who I was, what was success, why was I put on the planet? What was my greater purpose?”

She thought about when she was happiest. “A lot of my happy times had to do with music. And I wasn't really singing that much at that time, I wasn't in the music world. I was really working, I didn't see the light of day, I was working that hard.” Tandon’s focus had been on the impact her work had for clients and her business, but she shifted her attention. Now she wanted to concentrate on her own happiness, and on places “serving a higher purpose.”

“I’m happy when I sing and I want to sing,” she realized. “That's what started this journey when I went through this … epiphany of figuring out what is success for me. I said, if I was going to figure out how to spend my time, I want to spend conscious time with music.”

She went to India to persuade music masters to teach her. “I became a music beggar because I wanted to have the masters teach me, but the masters, you can't pay them to teach you … They get students when you're four years-old or three years-old … And, here I was, an old lady trying to learn music from them.”

Tandon would travel to India, or fly her music tutor to wherever she was, in between client work, and sing for 12 hours a day. One of her teachers, Vijay Kichlu, urged her to take up singing professionally. “Her desire to learn, her capacity to absorb, her capacity to reproduce was so exceptional … But she was only interested to learn, to absorb,” he told “The Brave Ones.”

She also learned with T Viswanathan, an Indian master who taught at Wesleyan University, she told the New York Times in 2013. “I was working full time and had a two-year-old daughter who used to sleep till 11 a.m., so on Saturday mornings I would leave Manhattan at 4 a.m. and make the two-hour drive to school to be there for a 6 a.m. class. I worked with him till 8 (a.m.) and drove back to the city to be there for when my daughter woke up,” she said.

Tandon went on to make an album. “My father-in-law was turning 90 and I wanted to give him a gift. And what do you give somebody who's turning 90? He's not interested in material possessions. So, I said, ‘Why don't I just make an album, just a homegrown album of my own compositions of his favorite chants?’ And that's what started my album-making career,” she told “The Brave Ones.”

In 2011, she was nominated for a Grammy, for her album “Soul Call,” and has since made three further albums, most recently “Shivoham – The Quest,” in 2017, releasing music on her own not-for-profit label.

Creating the American Dream

Roger Brown, president of the Berklee College of Music in Boston told “The Brave Ones” that Tandon didn’t doubt that she could be known in music as well as business.

“In American society, we tend to think you have to specialize and you're either a musician or you're a businessperson, or you're a lawyer or something else. But I think Chandrika brings to what she does this spirit that, ‘Well, why? Why do I have to do that? I care about music,’” he said.

Berklee and Tandon launched the Berklee Tandon Global Clinics in 2014 to train students in music and help them get jobs, and has held programs in India, Brazil and countries in Africa. Tandon has also run a community choir for seniors at the Hindu Ganesha Temple in Queens.

“Music is so much more fun when you could share it, when you could sing with other people … My idea was Indian music is always a very solo experience ... you can listen and admire. I wanted to create music that everybody can sing and can sing together.”

Music helped Tandon realize she didn’t have to strive for perfection, as she had done in her business life, after one of her teachers asked her to perform. “I said, ‘Oh no, I'm not good enough.’ And this was almost the record that would play in my head … And he said to me, ‘If every bird in the forest was a nightingale it would be the most boring forest because everyone would sound the same.’ He said, ‘You are all uniquely perfection.’”

She learned to accept herself. “All the ridiculous chatter that goes on in your head before you show up for a meeting or you show up for a performance has simply gone out of the window because you're saying, ‘Whatever happens … I've done my best, it's a perfect moment.’”

Tandon also became involved in education, after a chance meeting led her to New York University (NYU) in 2002. “I just said, ‘I have enough, and I want to really do something meaningful, something that can consciously refocus impact not on clients, but on institutions that were serving a higher purpose … When I was having these very determined thoughts, I had a chance meeting with the dean of the business school at Stern (part of NYU).”

“If I died today, I would die complete … I would not say that I wish I had done this differently.”
Chandrika Tandon

She continued to chair Tandon Capital Associates while teaching at the university, before joining the board of Stern and then the NYU Wagner school, and becoming a trustee of NYU. In 2015, she and her husband, Ranjan Tandon, donated $100 million to NYU’s engineering school and it was renamed the NYU Tandon School of Engineering.

Many of the students at the school, previously Brooklyn Poly, are from first-generation families or receiving financial aid, and Tandon wanted to help them realize the American Dream, she told “The Brave Ones.” This month, the school opened its “MakerGarage,” a place where students work on engineering projects over several years. Other initiatives include NYU Tandon Motorsports that is building off-road vehicles, an aerospace division and a team that is working on designs for Hyperloop, a transportation project dreamed up by Elon Musk.

Now, Tandon says she feels content. “I describe myself as a very happy person inside. It may not be how I’d describe myself 20 years ago, but if I died today I would die complete … I would not say that I wish I had done this differently. I really live every day as my last.”

The full episode of “The Brave Ones” featuring Chandrika Tandon is available on CNBC International’s YouTube channel.

Writer: Lucy Handley
Design and code: Bryn Bache
Editor: Matt Clinch
Executive Producer, The Brave Ones: Betsy Alexander
Producer, The Brave Ones: Jamie Corsi
Images: CNBC & Getty Images
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