ACFCS Member Spotlight: For PwC’s Vikas Agarwal, advice to ‘choose the harder right than easier wrong’ has fueled convergent stratagem, drive to master AML tech, training, auditing, data divination, cyber disciplines

PwC and AML, fraud, cyber

The Skinny:

  • For Vikas Agarwal, even decades ago, he seemed predestined to become a fincrime fighter and compliance champion – even though he didn’t know it yet. But looking back, there were early signs. A gift with numbers. At ease with deconstructing data. Being able to pull back and see what it all means.
  • But now, nearly 20 years later as principal in PricewaterhouseCoopers U.S. Financial Services Advisory Practice, leading the Financial Crime Technology & Analytics team, he sees that his decision to choose the harder path, to take the rockier road less traveled to grow knowledge in all areas of compliance, has made all the difference.
  • The result: Agarwal is a model for the fincrime fighter of today – and tomorrow: An individual with the mind of a data scientist, the heart of a creative, curious and courageous investigator, the instincts of a systems engineer and mercurial fluidity to go virtual, buttressing defenses in the real and cyber worlds.

By Brian Monroe
bmonroe@acfcs.org
August 8, 2022 

For Vikas Agarwal, even decades ago, he seemed predestined to become a fincrime fighter and compliance champion – even though he didn’t know it yet.

But looking back, there were early signs. He always had a knack for numbers and seeing the big picture hiding in diffused connections in the swirling data stream.

Agarwal currently serves as the leader for the Financial Crime Technology & Analytics team at PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC), which focuses on helping clients deal with matters related to money laundering, fraud, sanctions, know your customer and trade surveillance.

Agarwal also serves as PwC’s Risk Products and Technology Leader for the Cyber, Risk and Regulatory platform.

But rising to be a top fincrime compliance leader at one of the Big Four auditing and consulting firms had humble beginnings – looking for potential tax infractions and financial reporting flubs.

As an accountant early in his career, he just thought he was helping the auditors better uncover fraud – or what a regulator or investigator might consider fraud, when it was just a corporate slipup – or helping client companies comply with often convoluted, complex and confusing tax laws.

“I started working in financial crime really early in my career and I didn’t even know” that auditing, fraud finding, tuning advanced technologies like transaction monitoring and screening systems and data analytics would form the foundation of the modern financial crime compliance program.

Learning and sharpening those skills so long ago, he didn’t realize he was crafting his future identity: A professional that is a glimpse of the fincrime fighter of today:

What does that look like?

An individual with the mind of a data scientist, the heart of a creative, curious and courageous investigator, the instincts of a systems engineer and mercurial fluidity to buttress defenses in the real and cyber worlds.

But now, nearly 20 years later as principal in PwC’s U.S. Financial Services Advisory Practice, he sees that his choices to take the rockier, thicket and bramble-strewn road less traveled have made all the difference.

“Always choose the harder right than the easier wrong,” he said.

With more than 18 years of experience, Agarwal works with financial services firms to develop interwoven technologies that build, evaluate and better scrutinize the systems and human training and decision-making that underpin the anti-money laundering field.

A tall order as banks must find a delicate balance between the regulatory duties set out by anti-money laundering (AML) examiners, not missing potentially risky alerts on aberrant actions, while engaging in thorough and detailed reviews to create reports for law enforcement that could be the foundation of an investigation.

Agarwal’s current position, overseeing thousands of professionals and advising on what can be widely watched and high-profile fincrime compliance remediation projects, is a testament to some of the best pieces of advice he received in his career. 

“Often, people look to how to be successful and the advice I’ve seen recently is first to be fearless, because luck favors the brave. Be humble, because growth happens when you look at yourself vs. others. Be flexible, because there’s no substitute for hard work.” 

Who inspires you?

My parents, as first-generation immigrants to this country, came here with very little, and found a path to education and career success as a professor and physician making tremendous sacrifices along the way to help build a better future for me and future generations of our family. 

What is one thing - industry-related or not - that you learned in the past month?

Often, people look to how to be successful and the advice I’ve seen recently is first to be fearless (because luck favors the brave), be humble (because growth happens when you look at yourself vs. others), be flexible (because there’s no substitute for hard work). 

What is something about you that not many people know?

On the weekend, I’m an avid runner, and enjoy getting outdoors for a few miles. 

What do you do in your current role

I wear two hats at PwC.

First, I lead our Financial Crime Unit, which is a multidisciplinary team of more than 2,500 individuals and related technologies that help lead the fight against financial crimes like money laundering, sanctions evasion, fraud and market manipulation and rogue employees. 

We bring together people, process and technology to innovate and improve how clients comply with regulations and also lead with purpose on these important issues.

I also serve as our Risk Products and Technology Leader for our Cyber, Risk and Regulatory platform, where I work with our team in leading a software as a service business model to transform how consulting is delivered to our clients. 

What does your career trajectory in financial crime look like?

I started working in Financial Crime really early in my career and I didn’t even know.

When I started as a staff accountant, I built my career on helping auditors detect account fraud and helping companies comply with tax laws.

I then pivoted to take advantage of my ability to analyze large amounts of data, a skill that can help clients implement large scale technological systems in money laundering and fraud.

Before serving as our Financial Crime Unit leader, I was previously our Financial Crime Unit Technology leader and was heavily involved in helping banks, payments companies, and insurance companies on these types of issues. 

What is the best advice you have ever received?

Always choose the harder right than the easier wrong. 

What is the worst advice you have ever received?

Go at it on your own. 

What would you say are the most important attributes for someone in your position to succeed?

I believe in servant-based leadership and seeing myself as a transitory conduit to help our teams succeed.

Every action I take should be in service to our teams and our clients and helping bring quality and innovation to succeed.

I’m also a firm believer in grit, and the need to be able to keep going through muddy situations to achieve the outcomes regardless of the obstacles that get in your way. 

How has (compliance, investigations, etc.) changed and evolved during your career?

When I started my career in Technology, Financial Crime was a separate entity that was nice to have.

We’ve moved to where every decision in a Financial Crime shop needs to be technology-driven and data-led with a focus towards outcomes around efficiency and effectiveness. 

What do you see as the key financial crime challenges in your role or in the sector overall?

I think it’s remembering that our ultimate goal is to serve a great purpose to fight crime.

Complying with regulations can be grueling at times and it’s hard to see through the forest and through the trees that the micro actions add up to macro actions which impact topics like human trafficking, wildlife endangerment, scams and tax evasion.

Helping make a difference in these topics should be the purpose we serve. 

What motivated you to become a financial crime professional?

Honestly, I fell into the career, but I stayed because of the feeling of leading with purpose and the type of work we do and constantly being challenged with solving complex problems that make a difference. 

Is there anything that surprised you in your current role?

The need for a leader to be patient. 

You realize that change takes time and you can only push so hard for outcomes and at times you need to wait, see and listen. 

What is the most rewarding part of your job?

Working with our junior team members and helping them find their path earlier in their careers. 

How did you get your first job in the field and what advice what you give other job seekers to land their first position in compliance?

I started out in a Big Four accounting firm and honestly found my first job running into someone at a bar and getting his card.

My advice is to always be networking and putting forward what your passions are.  You never know what will hit and when. 

For professionals with 5-10 years of experience, what advice would you give them to help advance to senior management roles?

Be patient and be aggressive.

Keep working hard and innovating and realize that every action you take may not be explicitly noticed, but leaders do take notice of repeat performance and you never know when your moment will come. 

Why did you join ACFCS or become CFCS-certified?

To gain more knowledge in financial crime!