Interview: Nitish Sharma, InstarAGF Asset Management Inc.
Waterloo Business Review had the privilege of sitting down with alumnus Nitish Sharma to speak to him about his experiences in middle market infrastructure private equity, management consulting, as well as his time at the School of Accounting and Finance (SAF). Nitish graduated from the Mathematics and Chartered Professional Accountancy (Math/CPA) program in Fall 2013 and is currently serving as an Associate Vice President at InstarAGF Asset Management in the middle market infrastructure investments group in Toronto. He previously worked as a Senior Consultant at Oliver Wyman in their Toronto office upon graduating from the University of Waterloo.
Early on, when considering possibilities regarding his post-secondary education, Nitish was looking for an opportunity to enter a program in Mathematics, a discipline and subject he deeply enjoyed. In addition to expanding his knowledge and developing his mathematical aptitude, Nitish also wanted to apply that knowledge within a business context, which brought him to the Math/CPA program at the University of Waterloo. Similar to many students, Nitish was unsure of his end goal when coming into school. However, he was quickly drawn to the world of accounting and became interested in the idea of working for a prestigious accounting firm, which ultimately led him to completing his four co-op placements with Ernst & Young (EY) in their assurance practice auditing financial institutions.
Although Nitish didn’t continue working with EY when entering the workforce as a full-time professional, he credits the firm for providing him with the opportunity to further his business acumen. Additionally, Nitish mentioned, “Accounting knowledge truly forms the backbone of most things in not just finance, but the general business world. Being able to understand financial statements and how accounting was completed by the companies we were supporting, provided me with a leg up compared to my peers in better understanding client needs or evaluating deals.” The skills and abilities Nitish developed as an auditor truly supported him in his time in consulting and complements his skill set now in private equity.
During his time at SAF, Nitish had the opportunity to work with and learn from influential individuals and was involved with extracurriculars such as the Accounting and Finance Student Association (AFSA) and the hEDGE Financial Services Conference. He held multiple leadership roles within AFSA, including President during his third year. He explained that AFSA, “gave me the opportunity to take on leadership roles and work on my communication and relationship skills in a way that would not have been possible within the day to day academic experience.”
Nitish also attributes his success to the University of Waterloo and the greater SAF community, as they played a key role in his growth and development. He explained, “Formally, the school provided lots of opportunities by way of in-class learning experience, the ability to participate in events such as case competitions, the Student Investment Fund, and plenty of sponsored conferences to learn about finance. However, the absolute highest value opportunity was that of the co-op program which I think offers outsized value compared to other schools, where you’re given the option of working with a wealth of companies every term.”
Through his experiences in SAF, Nitish discovered other interests and his career took a different path from what he had originally envisioned when he started working in the assurance practice at EY. He explained, “I learned that accounting was but one facet in the world of business and a good starting point to understand the backbone of all things finance, but not where I necessarily wanted to spend the rest of my career.” He explained that he always viewed investing as interesting, which guided him towards participating in a variety of extracurricular activities like stock pitch competitions, the School of Accounting and Finance Student Investment Fund (SIF), and personal investing. In addition, Nitish also began thinking about his career more broadly and came to the realization that the CPA designation was something that he was not intending on using in the long run. As a result, he began preparing for a role within management consulting.
A career in consulting was enticing to Nitish because it gave him the opportunity to solve some of the most critical problems that C-Suite executives of major companies face. Additionally, consulting was a career that provided him with the opportunity to gain a breadth of experience which would help him to gain exposure to a variety of industries and elements of business. Furthermore, a career in consulting also greatly helped Nitish develop a problem-solving mindset explaining, “Working in consulting results in a mindset where you’re thinking of structuring problems to be able to effectively address them. Many companies can draw simple insights from data, but the management consulting mindset really does help provide clarity and draw true insights from the data that is provided.”
After spending 3 years at Oliver Wyman serving financial institutions, technology, media, telecom (TMT), and non-profit clients, Nitish began to think about next steps in his career knowing that he was not necessarily best-suited for a long-term career in client services. With his interest in investing and desire to work in a buy side role at an investment firm, Nitish prepared for his second major career change. By leveraging his experience at Oliver Wyman, Nitish joined InstarAGF Asset Management Inc. as an Analyst in their middle market infrastructure private equity group in 2017, where he is now an Associate Vice President. With regard to his professional goals, Nitish hopes to continue to advance within the private investment field and is looking to expand his knowledge and technical ability within the deal making environment by taking on increasingly important roles within fundraising and other disciplines. When asked about how he measures success in relation to his goals, Nitish explained that it is very important for professionals to set goals and monitor their progress, but at the same time individuals must also evaluate other opportunities that are presented and keep an open-minded thought process.
In addition to the primary responsibilities in the various roles he has undertaken in his career, Nitish is also very passionate about creating social impact. He is currently a Director and Chair of the International Affairs committee for the World Parkinson’s Program and also completed a non-profit project when he was at Oliver Wyman. When asked about how his career has helped him pursue this passion, he explained, “I would say my career has enabled skills in critical thinking, project management, and learning about how organizations work which has helped me navigate the environment of reaching out, securing, and helping fulfill medication needs for the various chapters I have worked with as part of the World Parkinson’s Program.” Nitish encourages students and young professionals with an interest in social impact to reach out to alumni and other professionals who’ve participated in charitable causes and seek opportunities to work with non-profit organizations through their employer. He mentioned that accounting and finance professionals have strong budgeting and financial management skills that can be directly applied to the finance committees of non-profit organizations. Nitish also highlighted that balancing social impact and non-profit work with your career is not so much a balance as it is a prioritization. If an individual truly has a passion for social impact and providing meaningful change to the world, then they must make time for the causes they are interested in and put in the required effort to create the impact they will value.
Nitish also highlighted the significance of having a healthy work life balance in one’s professional career. He elaborated to say, “It is always too easy to keep working for hours on end in the fields of work I am in. There are endless lists of tasks to complete and the people you might work for are often too busy with their own work to help you navigate what is high priority or not. I would say that maintenance of healthy work life balance comes through your personal prioritization and understanding of what you need to do versus what is nice to have. It may also result in times where you have to say ‘no’ to certain things or decide to push back.” With regard to prioritization, Nitish mentioned that when he was an undergraduate student at the University of Waterloo, he would often try to do everything, whether that be participating in extracurricular activities, networking or competing in case competitions. As a result of his hard work, he was recognized by different organizations and professors at the university, but he was unable to maintain a healthy work life balance. He started to feel the effects of burnout and eventually had to turn down opportunities, but has since been applying various strategies to achieve a more healthy work life balance.
Looking back at his professional career and his time in the Math/CPA program at the University of Waterloo, one piece of advice Nitish would like to give current undergraduate students is to, “try and use the co-op experience as it is intended – to try out different things and think less about being at the top or in the lead of a specific company or area.” In his personal experience, Nitish explained, “I thought it would be most important to quickly accelerate my career as an auditor, but now that I am in the workforce and have worked in three different industries and career paths, I realize that mindset is foolhardy because it would have hindered my growth in these other disciplines.” Additionally, Nitish encourages students to heed the words of alumni and apply those teachings and knowledge, “because the wisdom they are trying to impart is done with the goal of helping people navigate their careers.” By doing so, students can avoid making the same errors as those professionals and can use their decisions to learn for themselves. Nitish also highlighted that students should understand that just because the options they see are available, doesn’t mean that those are the only options out there. It is very easy to get caught up with predefined paths at Waterloo, but there are many opportunities to create your own path, as well.