Interview with Amnah Ajmal, Head of Merchants & Digital Partnerships, Mastercard

Magdalena Petryniak, Story Seekers:  You were recently listed as one of “Top 100 women in the Fintech in 2019”. What does this recognition tell you?

Amnah Ajmal, Mastercard, Dubai:

I started my career as a traditional banker 15 years back and the world has changed so rapidly that I had to unlearn what I knew and reinvent myself. This recognition acknowledges that it is important to reinvent yourself every now and then. Humility and surrounding yourself with people who are smarter than you enables you to disrupt yourself. If we can’t disrupt ourselves we can’t drive any innovation in today’s times.

What stepping stones did you have to take to become who you are today?

I remember when I was being interviewed at my university campus I was asked where would I like to see myself in five years and my answer was I don’t know. However, I do know where I want to be in 15-20 years. I always had a dream and vision of what I wanted to do with my life. I wanted to break away from the wealthy, traditional family I came from where women’s source of identity is the men in their life- the father, brother, husband or son.

People often define poverty as lack of access. I was so rich yet so poor because I did not have access to my dreams but I always had a 15-20 year plan.

I knew I would like to have an international career and be a senior leader where I can impact other people’s lives by helping them achieving their goals. I froze my vision at the age of 18 and kept refining my approach everyday as I fought the battle of challenging the cultural and social norms to be where I am today.

Have you always wanted to work in finance and banking? Tell me more, where your journey began?

Interestingly I am where I am today because two Polish individuals believed in me and took a huge risk. They also taught me to be a risk taker when it comes to giving opportunities to people.

My journey started when I decided to do a MBA after failing to get into any medical school in the country as my parents had decided before I was born that I should study medicine. When I didn’t get admission into any medical school I was advised to get married as that was the next best option. I fought hard not to give up on the vision for my life and went to do my MBA. I wanted to work at an FMCG and when Unilever and P&G rejected me it was only Nestle left. I went to a walk-in Citibank interview to help a friend as he really wanted to be a banker. I was interviewed by a panel of three people. One Polish Hr person and two local business people. I gave the interview with no intention of getting the job but did talk about my long term vision. The Polish person saw something in me and my phone rang the next day. It was a call from Citibank Dubai offering me an international job of a Management Associate with rotations of 6 months each in 3 different countries. Only then I realized it was an international job from day 1 and my ticket to freedom from the prison I was in. Five years later another great Polish leader gave me a job at the age of 28 when I had four years of total experience whereas the job required 15 years of experience. I would always be grateful to these leaders who went against the traditional norms to hire me. I didn’t fit in any of the requirements of the job description but I was given a chance. I do the same when I hire people.

What was the toughest (leadership) decision that you made?

I have been involved in two massive restructuring during my banking career. One involved laying off 30 people and another laying off 300 people. The second time around I did not believe in the company strategy and after I announced the layoffs in the town hall a lady walked in my office to see me. She told me that she makes 1500$ a month and what would the company achieve by firing her. That day I realized this was not for me. I left the company and my banking career at its peak. I was just promoted to become the youngest consumer bank head. It was my dream to get there but it didn’t feel right and I quit. So many of my team members came to me and asked me stay as they had hopes I would be able to lead them and the business back to growth.

Risking your success is part of leadership journey.

What was the most painful mistake you made? And what did you learn from it ?

The price I paid for having a career and independence was very high compared to most of my colleagues. For the first 8 years of my career I worked 18 hours every day including weekends. I had an accident but went to work on a wheelchair, my asthma became horrible in Cairo but I went to work with an oxygen mask.  I just wanted to learn much more beyond my job to make the most of the opportunity. I prioritized my career over my friends, my wellbeing and health. Ten years later in Poland one day I had a terrible stomachache and had to rush to the doctor. After several trips to doctors between London and Poland I was diagnosed with severe stomach ulcer. A lot was to do with my lifestyle. It was a wakeup call. I felt all I had achieved was meaningless if I didn’t have health. I started sleeping more than my regular 3-4 hour sleep. I exercised regularly and never skipped meals. I recovered in a year but it was a tough year and taught me a lifetime lesson.

What are your core (leadership) values that you follow in your business journey, travelling across  the world and working with different / diverse teams (in different cultures)?

Part of who you are as a person reflects in your leadership style. We don’t all of a sudden transform into different individuals when we become leaders. For sure organizations can coach and groom you but your core values are hard to change.

My life has been all about courage, decision making, risk taking, empathy and achievements. I remember very vividly that at the age of 6 I was standing outside the car in 50 degrees Celsius and I told my driver to open the door. I said it in a rude way as I was feeling the heat and also called him by his name. My mother made me stand in that scorching heat for a long time to teach me a lesson. Respect is taught at that age. Courage, risk taking, walking the talk, decision making, sense of urgency, humility and empathy are the values I live by. However I learnt them much before I started a corporate career. I believe, being in a senior leadership role, I am in a very privileged position to make people feel good or bad when they return home to their friends and families. I have a responsibility to make an impact on how their day went by and how much they achieved in their life.

I have turned around businesses by always being an expat in a country -an outsider. How can you learn a market so quickly, come up with a strategy and also execute it.  You listen to people who know it better than you, surround yourself with teams that are smarter than you and win them over!

Recall an event in your life that changed your point of view or behavior. What has changed?

When I was 18 I saw a dream that I live on a waterfront apartment that I come back to from work. The door had a self-lock and having seen Hollywood movies I knew this wasn’t the US. I told my mother about the dream and she said well your husband would be a rich man and you could be on a holiday with him somewhere in the world. I told her that it wasn’t the case. It was my apartment and I was coming back from work. No woman in our family had ever worked and being financially independent was never a thought that came to women’s mind. She told me I can’t have such dreams. I told my dream to few others and they said it was a stupid dream as it would never happen. Exactly ten years later I bought an apartment in Canary Wharf London. I took the key from the agent and I knew the feeling of opening that door before. It was a self-lock door! No dream is stupid as long as it is yours! Life has many ups and downs but this incident taught me never to give up on your dreams. There is no force other than your own fears that can stop you from achieving it.

What helps you build the internal power needed to survive in the business jungle?

It is tough. At times there is passive aggressiveness and insecurity that you are surrounded with. Being an outsider among the local people, the youngest among my peers, having a different perspective and telling people there could be a different way of looking at things isn’t always appreciated especially if that’s the only way they had always done things.

Reminds me of a beautiful saying “Those who were dancing were thought to be insane by those who could not hear the music”

So what keeps me going is the smile on my team’s face when they see me or I help them solve a problem or remove an obstacle. My team’s achievements, their admiration and respect for my leadership keeps me going. The real joy of leadership is to make people achieve the heights they never thought they could go to. It makes me believe I have filled my purpose of making a difference in people’s lives hence I need to stick to my values.

What is your definition of success?

It has been evolving but it has always been around achieving my dreams be it traveling the world or excelling at work. I always compete with myself and try to be a better version of what I was and continue to learn. A very important component that got added to it was when I started having senior leadership roles and I was leaving the country. I realized my successor would definitely have a new point of view and change the business strategy so my impact on the business may change. However the impact I made on people would never change. That’s everlasting. Seeing individuals from my team going to take bigger, better roles and be so successful makes me feel happy. That’s part of my success. It brings a joy. Now being a mother success would also include making sure my daughter has all the choices available that I had to fight for.

The price we pay to be successful and to realize our dreams is usually very high? What was your price?

On the surface my journey looks like I had it all. I remember once a senior HR person in my prior company said wow you became the youngest cards head the company ever had, youngest and only woman asset business head of such a large market and then youngest retail head.  You have been so lucky! I told her if there was one thing that was not on my side it was luck.  A lot of people congratulate me on my achievements and some do mention how my journey has been so great! True it has been great but I fought hard for it and I fought alone.

My dream was to be financially independent, make a difference to other people’s lives and travel /live across the world. I have lived in ten countries across the US, Europe, Asia and the Middle East. I wanted to live a life full of experiences and that was unheard of in my family. My perseverance led me to live the life I designed for myself. I have burnt a lot of bridges and sacrificed important relationships in my journey. I wish that was not the case. I lost connection with my parents and siblings, actually almost everyone in my family. My father’s last words to me still echo in my mind. I am not the daughter he wanted. I had such a loving childhood and amazing parents as well as an extended family. However my idea of my life was dramatically different from their idea of my life.

If you could make one decision to change the world, what would it be?

As a kid I worked at refugee camps and I had always felt pain for children whose eyes were so empty. Now that I am a parent myself I cannot comprehend the problems we have created for the children. These are man-made problems. Every child deserves to be loved and be with their parents in a comfortable environment. All that’s happening in the world today is disturbing at many levels and it is very heart breaking to be part of the generation that is seeing this. I wish we could change it.

Thank you.

 

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Story Seekers Hero Stories is a series of interviews with business leaders led by Magdalena Petryniak, Story Seekers Poland Managing Partner. She is looking for leaders of the future skillset, being particularly interested in finding inclusive leaders, who build their organizational culture based on collaboration, empowerment, and inclusiveness. lThe interviews highlight leaders’ career path, turning points, failures, and lessons learned, their definition of leadership. These stories inspire others to thrive in a fast-changing business landscape.

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