How I got here: Mitesh Popat on how forks in the road forged his path to Business CFO at Citi

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Mitesh Popat is currently the CFO for Citi's Global Equities Sales and Trading Business. His experience at Citi spans more than a decade, and he’s found success across multiple disciplines, within diverse geographic cultural settings, and through changing economic environments.

In my professional life, I’ve come to many forks on the road. The choices I’ve made during these times have shaped my perspectives, philosophies and most importantly, my life goals. One of the most significant forks in the road involved the choice I had between taking Citi's Sub-Saharan Africa business COO position based in South Africa, or continuing down an FP&A path in New York. 

In order to appreciate the choices I made at this fork, I need to take a step back and explain the foundation.

Like any kid from a middle-class Indian family, I chose to study engineering at IIT Kgp, one of the top engineering schools in India. After spending four years studying engineering, I spent two years at Johns Hopkins University pursuing my master's degree. During those years, it became clear to me that I wasn't interested in limiting my professional journey to a specific major. This was my first professional lesson: it's much more important to know what you don't want than what you do want. 

That decision put me on a path of consulting, a classic profession that can help you keep your options open. I consulted for big banks and started gravitating toward the financial services industry. When it was time to move on, I had a choice to make. I could continue working in consulting at a competing firm, or I could join Citi in my first job at a bank. I chose to take a position with Citi and learned the lesson that would define my career: when you come to a fork in the road, old skills can be applied to new opportunities. Always choose growth. With this mindset, I spent over a decade at Citi, building a career that spanned eight different roles across three continents and at least six different areas of the bank.

A picture of Mitesh Popet in front of an amazing scenaries

Find ways to bring old skills to new roles

I started off in Citi's Treasury division in 2007, right before the financial crisis hit. Early on, I had to develop new skills to perform ad-hoc analysis for various asset classes in order to assess the impact of the crisis on the balance sheet. Experiences like this are rare, and working during the financial crisis so early in my career put me on a path to constantly seeking challenging and unique situations and environments. After working in this challenging and rewarding environment for a few years, I had an opportunity to move to London, managing Financial Planning and Analysis (FP&A) for Europe, the Middle East, and Africa (EMEA). 

What an experience it was! The role exposed me to a melting pot of different cultures — professionally and personally — covering 54 countries across developed countries in Western Europe and developing countries in Eastern Europe, the Middle East, and Africa. To be successful I had to understand the varying business models in these 54 countries, along with the macroeconomics and the culture and values of various nationalities. This further fueled my desire to stretch and widen my perspectives. 

After a couple of years in London, I moved back to the United States. I continued my journey in FP&A, this time at the firmwide level. The perspective I learned here was completely different. Storytelling and analysis were internal in London; however, in New York, it was all about external investors, the board, rating agencies, and other stakeholders. This taught me how to tell the story of the same numbers in unique ways depending on the audience and their viewpoints. 

When you find a fork in the road, choose growth

Soon thereafter, I connected with a contact of mine who had moved from London to South Africa with Citi. His story was so inspiring and motivating that I applied for Citi's Sub-Saharan Africa business COO position in South Africa. 

The decision, of course, involved a fork in the road. I had the opportunity to continue the FP&A path in New York instead of taking this leadership role in South Africa. The path in New York would have taken me through a more traditional moving up-the-ladder route while doing a similar role. It was a safer option, and in my comfort zone, but comfort zones have always made me uncomfortable. I became COO for the Sub-Saharan Africa business at Citi, based in Johannesburg. This amazing experience took my desire to experience and learn from new cultures to a whole new level. The office environment in Johannesburg along with visiting other offices of Citi across ten countries fueled my curiosity. I absorbed many different value systems, business models, incentive programs, and even family dynamics. This experience exposed me to the raw enthusiasm of small business, dealing with widespread fraud and corruption, and constantly educating the head office about the opportunities and challenges of the continent.

The experience brought the nuances out of my life philosophies. It made me realize my love for working in an environment that, while smaller in the grand scheme of things, exposes me to a wide range of experiences and problem-solving. My professional life was gravitating towards being a generalist leader rather than a specialist. Personally, the family enjoyed the hospitality of these African nations, and we learned the importance of health and fitness. It was hard not to be impressed by the focus on work-life balance this culture encouraged. 

My professional experience in Africa was magnified due to the oil price-driven fiscal crisis. Similar to my experience during the financial crisis in the United States, Africa's challenging macroeconomic backdrop led to a unique experience of getting involved in innovative opportunities for the bank while addressing operational challenges. 

With its hustle culture and entrepreneurial spirit, this stint sparked a fire in me regarding the startup ecosystem and building new things from scratch. I started thinking about the best framework to learn about the expanding opportunities by new-age entrepreneurs. I realized the best way to learn was to have some skin in the game and to have access to entrepreneurs, and that's how I got introduced to the concept of angel investing. 

After a couple of years of an extremely enriching experience, we decided to return back to our de-facto home base of the United States, coinciding with the expansion of the family with our second daughter on the way. We brought back very fond memories as a family and very different perspectives for life goals.  Again, I met a fork in the road. I had the option to jump back into the traditional FP&A world, but I was hungry to do something different and keep expanding my knowledge and operating skills. So instead, I took up an opportunity to work on digital transformation.

I spent four years in Citi's Treasury division doing all sorts of leadership, operator, and "fix-it" roles while expanding my knowledge, perspective, and problem-solving skills. One such role even involved leading an effort in the detailed planning of resolving a bank the size of Citi if it ever had to file for bankruptcy without impacting the rest of the financial system and without any bailout from the U.S. government. I learned about every nook and cranny of the bank—including legal contracts with vendors, clauses in financial instruments, alternate real estate strategy, communication during a crisis, creative incentive systems for critical employees to stay on when their employer is insolvent, and more. In that role, I had to imagine everything possible that could go wrong when such an extreme situation prevails. All of a sudden nothing seemed unthinkable or surprising. 

Never stop learning

With this toolkit, I was ready to take on my eighth leadership role at Citi as CFO for Citi's Global Equities Sales and Trading division. While I didn't have direct experience with this area, the role appealed to my hunger for learning more and leveraging skills from one area to another. I grew professionally in this constantly evolving environment and expanded my network to a whole new set of very smart individuals who thrive in the fast-paced, high-risk environment of Equities trading.

At the same time, I continued my angel investment journey and built up my portfolio to six startups on three different continents. In addition to learning about the startup ecosystem, I felt like I could also contribute a different perspective to these firms, especially as they went through very unique challenges during COVID-19. 

Now, I'm considering the broader set of challenges I would like to solve in the future. Maybe I'd love to solve the information asymmetry in various different contexts—from the corporate environment to fintech to healthcare and personal finance. There's never a dearth of opportunities for true leaders with unsatiated hunger to keep learning and offering expertise curated with rich experiences. My metamorphosis of ideas continues to shape my life goals, perspectives and philosophies, and I owe it to the amazing forks in my life.

"When you come to a fork in the road, take it." - Yogi Berra 

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