Kara Tan Bhala

Founder of Seven Pillars Institute for Global Finance and Ethics

Dr. Kara Tan Bhala is the President and Founder of Seven Pillars Institute for Global Finance and Ethics, USA, the world’s only independent think tank for research, education, and promotion of financial ethics. The Institute’s quest is to put ethics back into the theory and practice of finance. Kara’s latest book, Ethics in Finance: Case Studies from a Woman’s Life on Wall Street, gives a refreshing and instructive view of the world of global finance. The book recounts entertaining stories of an immigrant Asian American woman’s journey through the top echelons of Wall Street, with enduring lessons about ethics from her 30 years of experience. Kara has been a sell-side equity analyst, a sell-side equity salesperson, a buy-side equity analyst, a portfolio manager, and a lecturer in finance. She is an Honorary Research Fellow at Queen Mary University of London, UK. Kara therefore, has a rare combination of professional training and extensive experience in both global finance and moral philosophy. She has five degrees across three disciplines: a Bachelors (City, University of London, UK) and Masters (Oxford University, UK) in Business, a Masters in Liberal Studies (New York University, USA), and a Masters and PhD in Philosophy (University of Kansas, USA). Kara has lived and worked in London, Oxford, Singapore, Hong Kong, New York, Washington DC., and currently resides in Kansas City, Missouri, USA.

Where did the idea for Seven Pillars Institute come from?

I worked on Wall Street in the 80s and 90s when ethics in finance was not derided, as it currently is, as an oxymoron. I completed my PhD in moral philosophy in 2009 right after the Great Financial Crisis. That event shook me. Greed, regulatory capture, and moral indifference resulted in financial catastrophe. So I decided to do something about putting ethics back into finance, both at the theoretical level and in practice.

What does your typical day look like and how do you make it productive?

Lists and triage. I always make a to-do list. I prioritize the burning issues that require immediate attention. On a typical weekday, my favorite time is tea in the morning. I make teh tarik, a sweet, strong, black tea I drank as a child growing up in Malaysia. I try to meditate for 20 minutes after breakfast unless the burning issues set my thoughts ablaze and I get antsy to work. “It’s OK”, I tell myself, “Be compassionate with yourself”.

How do you bring ideas to life?

As an entrepreneur of ideas, the key to success turns on making sure my work and ideas, expressed through the online content of the Institute and through my books, spread as widely and deeply as possible. I believe influencing the zeitgeist of a society takes time, belief, and continued retelling of the idea. The idea must be encapsulated in a story, a parable, or in modern parlance, a case study.

What’s one trend that excites you?

The move from shareholder capitalism to stakeholder capitalism.

What is one habit of yours that makes you more productive as an entrepreneur?

I take genuine rests between bouts of intense work. When my brain is fried, I usually take a walk, or putter around the garden or kitchen. During these periods (there may be several in a day) of respite, the conscious mind regenerates and the subconscious discovers solutions.

What advice would you give your younger self?

Don’t be so hard on yourself.

Tell us something that’s true that almost nobody agrees with you on.

Merchants i.e., businesspeople were scorned in ancient Greece, when Athens ruled the known world.

As an entrepreneur, what is the one thing you do over and over and recommend everyone else do?

I’m always thinking, consciously or unconsciously, about the next step, how do I progress, what should I achieve next?

What is one strategy that has helped you grow your business?

I work according to the adage, “It’s a marathon, not a sprint.” So, I pace myself. My business plan spans over years, and I make the one-year plan, the five-year plan, and the ten-year plan. There is always an overarching goal that drives these plans but I work at a rate which doesn’t lead to burn out before I can reach the chosen end.

What is one failure you had as an entrepreneur, and how did you overcome it?

Where do I start!? One instance comes to mind. I trusted a colleague and (I thought) a friend to have my back. I was injudicious in my choice of backers. She did not support me when I tried to sell an idea to an all-male committee that turned hostile. I moved on. The incident motivated me to succeed because I felt they wanted me to fail.

What is one business idea that you’re willing to give away to our readers?

A gun neutralizer. With way too many guns in the US, many of us would pay for a device (worn on the wrist maybe?) that would send an electric pulse or laser heat to a gun thus neutralizing it.

What is the best $100 you recently spent? What and why?

I bought a Tibetan singing bowl for what I thought at that time, was a hefty sum. The bronze bowl produces a gentle, soothing note, reminding me to take three breaths and to release the stress.

What is one piece of software or a web service that helps you be productive?

Seven Pillars Institute is largely virtual, and we began working remotely from around the world long before the practice became a pandemic necessity. An outstanding, content rich website conveys our ideas to everyone, everywhere, all the time.

What is the one book that you recommend our community should read and why?

Finite and Infinite Games by James Carse. He taught at New York University and ranks as my all-time favorite professor across the universities I attended. The book is a profound lesson on the two types of games in life and leads the reader to gain transforming perspective.

What is your favorite quote?

I have a few, one is, “Behind every great fortune lies a great crime” – Honore de Balzac.

Key Learnings:

• Have a true purpose, which you own.
• Work at your own pace towards that purpose.
• Don’t underestimate the power of rest as a means of generating new ideas.
• Always contemplate in your conscious and unconscious mind the next steps, how to progress, and what to achieve.