Smita Conjeevaram ’85 was born in Mumbai at a time when a college degree for Indian daughters was generally a means to one end: A marriage arranged by her family. But Conjeevaram, describing herself as “intense and serious” from her earliest days, had a family that helped her focus on her own goals, rather than on others’ expectations.
For instance, she joined India’s National Cadet Corps at age 18 and became South India’s first female glider pilot.
“My mother was very progressive in how she raised me and my siblings,” she said. “She wanted us to be able to rely on ourselves when we grew up.”
Conjeevaram has relied on herself all her life. As an adult, holding senior positions at prominent investment management firms for over 25 years, hundreds of other people learned to rely on her, too. Now retired, she continues to keep her finger on the pulse of business and the financial industry by serving on corporate boards, including a public financial tech company, SS&C. And a new endeavor has another audience counting on her: young artisans hoping she can revive global interest in handloom textiles.
A Midwestern Butler Welcome
Her father’s electronics and plastics manufacturing company inspired Conjeevaram to pursue a business career. In India, she had earned a bachelor’s degree in Economics and was working toward a master’s degree when she met her future husband. He accepted a job with Allison Gas Turbine in Indianapolis to design military aircraft engines, and Conjeevaram packed up and moved with him.
She had no intention of altering plans for her life, however.
“Ideologically, I was very much about building a career and making the most of opportunities that came my way,” she said. Conjeevaram enrolled at Butler University to pursue Accounting and Business Administration. She remembers how welcome she felt.
“Butler had a very comfortable and approachable ambience, and the professors were fantastic,” she said. “People were curious about my background … but never did I feel like I was different. Everyone had an equal interest in my success and gave a lot of care to making me feel like I belonged.”
Conjeevaram adjusted to the informality of an American campus, where it was OK to call professors by their first names and keep your seat when they entered the classroom, and she appreciated Butler’s approach to academics.
“While at Butler, I felt I was not only learning through courses directly related to business and finance, but also through a curriculum that included liberal arts classes that brought perspective and provided a well-rounded education, something I missed in India,” Conjeevaram said.
Since earning her Butler degree magna cum laude in 1985 and becoming a CPA in 1989, Conjeevaram has held senior positions in some of the most sophisticated Wall Street financial services companies: PwC, Long-Term Capital, Fortress Investment Group, and others. Among other things, she was actively involved in growing the business and designing and bringing about efficiency and controls in operational infrastructure.
Business of a Different Sort
Now that she’s retired, Conjeevaram has time to devote to her other passions: textiles and philanthropy. She visited every textile center in South Asia, spending three months with weavers and artisans and the nonprofit groups and governmental agencies that support them. She realized that the centuries-old craft of handloom was dying and, with it, the life and culture of the weavers. During a three-year weaving course in Florence, Italy, she also realized her textile books had little visual documentation of old weaving techniques.
She later captured her journey on film and turned the footage into a trailer, Threads of India, from which she plans to make a documentary.
Meanwhile, Conjeevaram launched online retailer Esse et Cie to create a marketplace for artisans she met and to continue visually documenting textile arts. She hopes that by educating consumers on how products are made, they will appreciate them more.
‘You’ll Never Regret Finance’
In addition to advising young textile artisans, Conjeevaram also has some advice for Butler students.
“Finance and Accounting are two courses which you’d never regret studying. They present career options in a wide variety of industries,” she said. “While it is great to plan out your career path and future early on, it’s important to be flexible and nimble to make the most of opportunities that arise. At most times, how you respond will dictate your career path. So go with the flow, take a few risks, and enjoy the journey.”