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Desi Making Waves
By Elaine G. Flores

Manisha Thakor: Helping Women Live the Life That Makes Their Hearts Sing

Could there be a link between a blemish on your face and your earning power? Manisha Thakor, a personal finance expert, says that may be the case, and she’s on a mission to help women build confidence on both fronts. Thakor is a regular guest on ABC News Now’s Good Money, a contributor to NPR’s 51% The Women’s Perspective and blogger for The Huffington Post. She is the co-author (along with fellow financial expert, Sharon Kedar) of two books, On My Own Two Feet and the just-released Get Financially Naked: How To Talk Money With Your Honey.

I saw you speak very eloquently recently on a panel for the National Rosacea Society, so let’s start there.
I think for any woman of any heritage, having a facial blemish is something that is a cross-cultural ball-and-chain. For better or worse, I think women are held to a higher physical standard than men. I say that reluctantly as a feminist. One thing that a lot of us South Asian women face is that with our skin coloring, often times there are certain conditions - and rosacea is the classic one - where it may not be so visible as it might be on someone with porcelain skin, so it’s easier to misdiagnose or to try and treat with over-the-counter remedies and you miss the opportunity to get to the root cause and go to a doctor and get your confidence boosted right away. That’s why I feel so strongly about the work I’ve been doing here. The skin coloring that we, as South Asian women, have lends itself all the more to misdiagnosing conditions like rosacea.

And we should emphasize that rosacea is a disorder that can affect South Asian women.
Yes, all women. All women. The thing that I noticed is that if you have really, really light, very porcelain-type skin, a rosacea flare-up will be incredibly obvious. What I noticed with my skin color is that it’s slightly less, so it’s easier to say, “Let me just put some makeup on. Let me go to the drug store and see what I can do.” It’s easy to miss what might send someone with porcelain skin running to the doctor’s office. We need to encourage the South Asian community to be sure that we’re getting checked out, as well, at the first sign of anything.

Manisha Thakor

You spoke of how skin conditions can negatively affect self-confidence and impact a woman’s success in the workplace.
What’s happening that I’m noticing with women is that when we don’t feel confident, others are able to pick up on those vibes. We have enough headwinds in the workplace, but then we’re perceived as not as competent. And that’s the linkage between women’s economic empowerment and facial blemishes and confidence.

You have had personal experience with skin disorders.
It’s hard being a woman in America, it’s hard being a woman on the planet, it’s hard being a minority woman in America and it really is hard to be a minority woman when you have visible facial blemishes. Growing up, I had psoriasis and adult acne and now with my mom dealing with rosacea—and knowing that it’s possibly around the corner for me, I can’t stress strongly enough that while medical bills can be expensive, it is such a phenomenal investment to take care of yourself, and I mean that from the bottom of my heart and not as a pitch or anything like that. From my own personal experience, I can’t say enough about what a boost it’s given my confidence. I feel good about the physical package that I’m coming out to the universe with.

You discussed the fact that women who are viewed as attractive, do better in the workplace.
Again, it pains me to say that. If you go back throughout history, especially if you look through South Asian lore, the tales and the stories were human, and as humans we’re very aesthetically oriented. And it’s not just women. Tall men are perceived as more authoritative, and attractive women are perceived to be more competent, more skilled and more successful. And conversely, women with facial blemishes, as the study we talked about showed, are perceived to be less secure, less senior. And the keyword here is “perceived.” It’s not that they are less than anything, but they are perceived to be.

Manisha Thakor

Let’s talk about women and financial success because I know that you want to help women make the most of their money, learn about money and learn to live with money.
Growing up, you get conflicting messages, I think, as a South Asian growing up in America. On the one hand there is such a strong focus - a wonderful focus - in our community on family. But also we’re in this great country where … you can be anything you want to be. What I worry about for women is that if you don’t have some money of your own, you’ll get caught between those two trends in a way that doesn’t give you choices. And so I want the mission of the women to be able to live the life that makes their heart sing and to be able to move back and forth between family life [and career] on their own terms, at their own pace. And the only way to do that is if you are on top of your finances. Otherwise, you’re going to be stuck in a job you don’t like or potentially stuck in a relationship that isn’t working for you. I see one of the best ways to meld the East and the West [is] for women is to become economically empowered.

What are some ways that you would suggest that women improve their financial lives?
First off, many times we are not taught about money. Our brothers are, but we’re not because they’re assuming that at some point we’ll get married and somebody will take care of us. That’s something that happens in many cultures, but particularly a very family-oriented one like the South Asian culture. A lot of women, we’re not getting the information in our household, so I’m encouraging women to self-educate. That’s the first thing.

Additionally, if you can do a few simple things right with your money, you can avoid 90% of pain. Step one is living within your means, spend less than you earn, and ideally, you should be setting aside 15% of your gross income. If that number makes you want to hurl because it just seems way too big right now, understand that’s your goal. Like my goal someday would be to be a single-digit dress size. Maybe I’ll get there, maybe I won’t.

Step two is to make sure you understand how much is reasonable to spend on large items: home, car and education. Many women get themselves into financial distress because they spend too much. I have three simple rules for each of those topics. On a home, don’t buy a home that is more than three times your annual income. On a car, don’t buy a car that has a purchase price of more than 30% of your household income. And on education - and this is a big one in our community - don’t take out more student loans than you think you will earn on average in your first ten years out of school unless you are positive that you are going to have a massive acceleration in your earnings. In other words, don’t take out $100,000 in student loans on a job that’s going to pay you $30,000. I see that a lot with the pressure … to attend prestigious schools that cost big bucks, but if your chosen career path is one that is not high-paying, that is not a good economic investment. If you make smart decisions on your big areas of spending, you’ll have enough left over for … saving 15% [of your gross income]. If you don’t spend too much on your home, your car [and] your education that can help you avoid a lot of the classic pitfalls: credit card debt and so forth.

A third piece of advice, a tougher one in our community, is to start talking about money with your honey when you start coupling up with someone. This financial element is a huge component of the success you will have in the long-term nature of your relationship, but it’s not one that any community encourages women to speak up about. Looking back for a moment to skin conditions, money is one of the main causes of stress, and of course what causes rosacea flare-ups and skin flare-ups? Stress. So it really all fits together.

Tell me how you became a financial expert?
I’m an Indian from Indiana. My dad is from Gujarat, and my mom grew up in Upstate New York, and I grew up in a small town in Indiana. There weren’t very many Indian families. I think there were six Indian families in our town and we’d all celebrate Diwali together…. A couple of big influences on me were my father, who taught me about money early on because he worked in finance. And being part of just a handful of Indian families in a small Midwestern town, I had the positive of a strong community and the negative, if you will, of feeling like an outsider, so that just fueled me to want to have control over my destiny and to have a voice. It was clear to me that in this country, money gives people a voice and it especially gives women a voice. I didn’t fit in. In my town, cheerleaders and football players ruled, and I was a nerdy bookworm. It seemed to me that my ticket out was education and learning to be financially independent. I was blessed that my parents encouraged me with both of those paths. I guess they looked at me and said, “We’re not going to marry her off! We better get her educated.”

You say it facetiously, but do you think it was an actual concern?
Honestly, no. I have such loving parents. They are the people who always had faith in me even when I didn’t.

Manisha Thakor and co-author Sharon Kedar's second book together

Now we see you on cable news and getting media attention. What would you say was your first big break in terms of “getting discovered” as they say?
It’s really true, follow your passion and good things will happen. I spent 15 years in corporate America, working for a variety of financial services firms, primarily in investment management. I was an analyst, a portfolio manager and a client service executive at money-management firms with billions of dollars under management. I started writing on the side and the first book I wrote was fictional, The Other Side of 30, which is particularly apropos to the Desi community. It’s about a modern-day bachelor gal. That was my response to Sex and the City, sort of like, “Let me tell you something, if you’re a real, working, Indian woman in America, that is not what your life is like when you’re single and you’re 30.” And then I started getting the same questions over and over again from my really smart female friends who worked in operations or marketing or other industry areas where their work didn’t involve the nuance of personal finance. I thought “Wow, there should be a book out here for smart women who want to learn the basics of personal finance … not being put to sleep.” And so that’s how the first [financial] book came out—and because I love to talk, the universe aligned and the media came to me, I wasn’t seeking it out. It became so strong that I thought, “Wow, I’ve hit on something here.” It became very clear to me that I think it’s my calling. I think it’s my dharma. I really think it was what I was put here to do.

Who inspires you?
Without a doubt, my parents: My dad, who inspired me to be economically empowered and take advantage of everything America has to offer and my mom, who raised me very uniquely on gender-neutral toys that encouraged me to be anything I wanted to be. Also, I spent my junior year in college at Oxford and I stumbled upon the quintessential British book, Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own. That really struck me because it was written back in the early 1900s and she basically says in it that a woman cannot have space to create and be who she’s meant to be if she doesn’t have some money and a room of her own. And I still think it’s important for women to carve out a place for themselves, physically and financially.

What advice would you give to a woman who would like to have a room of her own, so to speak?
I feel strongly, and this will be somewhat controversial, but I think in a relationship a woman should always understand and know where the money is [and] what’s going on and have some money of her own. If she’s in a more traditional marriage where she is working hard on the home front, I think it’s very important that that be recognized and that she has some money every month to do whatever she wants with. I encourage women to start that conversation with their spouses. Way too often, I see women doing the bulk of the family work and not having compensation and not having space.

Is there anything else that you’d like to say?
I have always been so proud to be Indian, but my pride has never been stronger than it is right now. I think the future has never been brighter for Indian women whether in India or over here to the extent that we can empower ABCD ladies including all the women in our families, our younger cousins and our sisters, our mothers and our friends to keep learning more about money. That is one of the best investments, collectively, we can make. This is a time for women to shine and we need to encourage each other to discuss this taboo topic.

For more information on Manisha Thakor, visit http://ManishaThakor.com. The site includes a blog, links to her books, as well as a sign-up for the Get In$pired newsletter.

To find out more about rosacea, visit the National Rosacea Society Web site at http://www.rosacea.org.

Elaine G. Flores is a New York-based writer and editor, who specializes in covering beauty, style and entertainment.


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