Interview : Leadership Insight From Ram Chari

Interview : Leadership Insight From Ram Chari

Entering the last week of July, we are pleased to share our latest Team Spotlight and Power Hour!
Episode 4 features Ram Chari, our Board Member & Group Director, shares his insights on why he values experience over education. Hear from him why both the founders and the team were both critically essential when he created his first Fintech Unicorn in 2010.

“I value experience. With experience comes risk-taking ability. Make as many mistakes as you want to, but not the same mistakes, take risks.”
Ram shares his insights on why he values experience over education.

Head to our Youtube Channel to listen to his insight.

You have 30 years of experience building numerous businesses; what is the one value that is most important for entrepreneurs while building companies?

You are smart; the first question tricked me, but anyway, I’ll answer this. You know, building businesses and the experience that you gather as you go along, is to say I’m very fortunate, especially at a time when there has been, you know, 10-year chunks within my 30-years of experience or so; three chunks of significant changes have happened both in technology and how the world is reacting to servicing consumers and providing propositions and capability.

One thing very early on in my career that I learned was integrity. If you’re integral to what you’re doing and you consciously ensure that every time integrity is kept in mind while engaging in conversations, engaging in a task, or engaging in an outcome: you will realize that you are very truthful about what you want to do.

Integrity is being integral to what you believe in and what you’re doing and is truthful. That was one of the traits that have helped me do well in my career also on respect and at the same time ensure that I’m able to influence and collaborate more effectively when I display integrity.

How do you manage your time? Can you share how your typical day is?

I can reflect on the early part of my career was all about trying to find a place for yourself in the place at work or home or within your new set of friends or professional colleagues. And a lot of time would go into executing things that you believe is building credibility for you, and the typical day would be that you get up early. You have got to be first in the office. You have got to be first before your boss. You have got to be first in the meeting room. You have got to be first to come in, last to leave, right and things like those matter a lot because they made a difference. And that was a belief probably over the years.

I realize that, uh, probably it was not a good set of values to start engaging your day on. As I grew along and with experience, I did realize that there needs to be a lot more balance. You also need to give time to unwind yourself and get into a physical sport and activity. Now there’s one thing interesting about me: if I show you a picture of mine two years back, at any phase of my life, I would be at least 20 kilos heavier. I was 20 kilos heavier than what you see me today, so my regime changes how I want to balance myself in terms of my physical appearance and lifestyle.

The good thing was that working for American multinationals generally, you’re running around all the time, especially if you started your career in a place like Hong Kong or India or especially Mumbai. Everybody is running to someplace to do something that creates value. That sometimes made me sit back and think and realize that there are other things that I need to do to balance my life. Certainly, when my kids were born, it was a phase where I had to reflect on some of the time that I need to give, which we call quality time at home. I did give time for my children; however, I quickly realized that I forgot myself as an individual or myself as an identity.

I was getting lost earlier because I wanted to do well, then it got lost because I was too occupied with making everybody happy around me. And then I’m at a phase now where I reflect back and sit back and make a lot of investment of time on myself. So, a typical day today would be I get up early, go to the gym, walk for an hour, and then I get into a routine of getting ready to go to work.

With multiple assignments and different objectives in each of these assignments, you also need to ensure that your brain and physical ability do what you’re supposed to do for that particular objective. That puts a lot of rigor into my thinking and approach to what I want to do in the day, but certainly from 9 to 1–1:30, I do spend a lot of time thinking, planning and engaging on conversations and trying to build options of the outcomes of decisions that I make during my work life. After lunch, I do spend time on having food and proper lunch.

So, after lunch, I then get into doing some execution work and around 6 is where I pack up, and then I have time for calls. I do make a lot of calls to people all over the world chatting through work-related, family and catching up, and then around 8–8:30pm I start again on my work which I do for an hour. Around 10pm is when I sleep. I try to pack in around 7 hours of sleep at least a day, balancing it between the physical activity, and executing what I wanted to do during the day. I know it’s a pretty long calendar, but it’s been very effective for me.

Is there any quote that motivates you and who inspires you?

The inspiration over the years has been because the phases of life that I was in, have come from different sets of people? Like if I look at the phase that I mean, my kids inspire me. Now the kind of things that they do with the fungibility of what they want to do in their music or what they want to do with photography, and trying to do many things socially. I don’t think I would be able to do it during their days.

So I get inspired because they’re living in a very tough age and have many things to juggle: peer pressure, a lot of societal push that they get about how they interact and engage, so they inspire me now. But one thing that kept me going and one thing that primarily I look for myself doing is creating a legacy for loved ones.

I believe that you have to become all that you want it to be. Make it into a legacy for your loved ones; you need to make it as a purpose of your life, so that is, that is the quote: I know it’s anonymous, but certainly, that’s what I’m inspired with. A purpose in life to create a legacy for people who are dependent on us and the whole environment in the community.

Which has been more valuable in your career, your education or your experience?

Reflecting back, and it’s probably a 30–50 year catchment time, and 30–50 years of work-life of an individual. So during my days, it was essential that you had a good education and the pedigree of where you came from gave you the first job. Hence, the access for you and the entry to a great job was always education. Now that was probably a very different era, especially since I come from India, where education is critical in the early period of any individual’s life up to 20–24 years.

But certainly for me, I value experience and nowadays, like if you see that there is a lot of risk-taking ability and with the risk-taking ability comes experience. So for me, I would value ability to take risks with the experience that comes in. Makes as many mistakes as you want to, but not the same mistakes. Take risks, and therefore gaining experience becomes more valuable for me.

How do you like to unwind from your busy schedule?

You’re looking for an active answer, but for me, unwinding is eating food — and then doing nothing after eating food. And that’s what I love doing. However, I get very few opportunities to do it, and that’s why Friday for me, which is a holiday here in this part of the world is a big day for me. That’s the day when you have a big, sumptuous breakfast and a big lunch…and then you sleep for a day, so that’s the way I would unwind.

But on a lighter side for me, or on a more serious note for me, I think my unwinding is through the regime that I go through on my walk exercise. So, I walk on an average of around 25,000 steps a day. I split between the morning and evening, and it always happens that either if I’m away in the night and I have to do the 25,000 steps in the morning, which basically means close to 20km walk. So that means then it’s around 3.5 to 4 hours of work that you need to do. So, my unwinding is not a typical way of unwinding. It’s more physically walking and taking that stress off, and that’s how I unwind out of their busy schedule. But I do ensure that I do get my walks done. And very rarely, I’ll miss it. I’ll take the time I’ll give up my sleep I know it sounds like a busy activity, but that’s for me is unwinding.

Power Hour
In our Power Hour section, we ask WadzPay’s executive leadership in-depth questions about the fields of Fintech, digital currencies and beyond.

Being worked with numerous companies and 30 years of experience, how do you see WadzPay playing a part in changing the global payment landscape?

OK, I can tell you, based on my experience, that commercialising and opening new markets has always been challenging. However, in my last 20 odd years, I’ve put in a lot of effort towards expanding and getting into new markets. One of the big lessons for entering a new market, apart from the nuances of each country or location or ecosystem that you’re going to, is the cultural alignment.

It is an essential factor, putting your head down and your ears to the ground; many times, when we are trying to commercialise, we look from the product’s strength to the services we want to take to the new geography and overlooking what is there on the ground and what’s required in the environment.

Interestingly, I know things have commoditised, and whether it’s a product or a service, you try to look at minimal variance to the intrinsic value of that product. When it was being built, and fairly when it’s a powerful commercialisation approach, you do slight variance to that product.

I have learned that your customer comes first; if you don’t manage it well, and if you don’t fulfil what you promise, don’t keep your commitments to what you say your product and services can do or your brand value.

It won’t be easy to establish in that market; culture plays a vital role and nuances.

Look for engaging people and more people-centric than being a lot more professional towards the outcome. Sometimes you need to drive those decisions in the long run for sustenance and existence in that market. The Middle East, a lot more reflective of Asia’s culture, has some similarities because of the trade route. But certainly, it’s a lot more family-oriented.

Sometimes they call it the Bedouin culture, which is primarily a large family living in that ecosystem, supporting it and then working along to see where you can make a difference in value enhancement and then grow with it.

Similarly, my Africa experience has been exciting where I have numerous stories of sharing the breakthrough that came in when I was not expecting it. It’s primarily because I was present when the customer needed me or not; you will realize this pretty soon when you start working in engaging in these markets; it’s the availability all the time.

So, if you’re available to them and the recall is much easier for them to reach out and engage with you. You’re sure to get your first. The large deal, small deal. Entry to a market, perseverance, the ability to stay there with a longer horizon in mind will make a difference. And that’s what I have learned over the years. You know, working in different markets and different landscapes and ecosystems, but certainly, a lot is expected to be given before you get.

For sure, I sometimes know the economic and the commercial model doesn’t allow us to do it, but certainly, in the Middle East and Africa, the investment made over the longest period with integrity, which I’ll go back to the first value that I gave with integrity, and ability to listen, influence and collaborate, you will certainly get the optimal result with your customers.

Revenue, Geographic Expansion and Employee Satisfaction– what is the most important category for WadzPay right now? How do you find “Culture” playing an important role here?

So obviously, it’s a startup, so we’re trying to do a lot more by creating this capability and this ecosystem. I don’t think any founder or set of founders will shy away if you get the revenue and geographical expansion. But the criticality of it is that whatever is the promise that you made towards the product and the value you’re creating through those competencies and capabilities that you’re building is important, so we need to balance between the commercial and product side of things.

What we’re trying to do, being a startup, that’s the fun part. You try it out, you try to push some of the levers much harder than the others. And when the success comes in, you try to align to that success and then ring-fence everything around, which is not accretive and creating value. So definitely focusing on that anchor customer focused on the first set of revenues, and along that journey, we all have to realize that is what all startups do.

The people first philosophy can enable startup success too. If you do not have your people engaged in that startup with full heart, soul, and mind to create that capability, you will not have the startup succeeding. Certainly, the people’s satisfaction depends on the founders’ environment and the strength of the leadership team. For that, a startup is critical.

And people are willing to give more than they’re getting because they know what they believe in will create much more value and generate competency and capability for them. Because it’s a startup, it’s a breakthrough. It challenges the status quo and makes a qualification that will displace things that have been there in existence for you and break the monolithic. If the people are not motivated, they are not energized and don’t feel as if they are entrepreneurs; it will not work well.

What are some of the challenges you foresee for WadzPay?

The pressure is that you need to get your revenues in. It’s already in that phase. We need to transport it to an ecosystem that will be accepted and also create that capability because it’s a heavily regulated environment that our product and services are operating, so we need to get along in terms of education, the understanding and the ability to see the value and also the disruption is going to be positive as compared to replacement.

What is in the ecosystem today, and the investment relating to it, in terms of education and taking people along to accept that the future certainly likes it if we keep waiting and keep reflecting on saying is it the right time?

It’s critical for us at WadzPay to ensure that we keep our heads down and get the first commercialisation set. We quickly replicate rather than reinvent and reinvest in creating the same set of capabilities in new markets and new customers. Replication is the key. How fast we could replicate it. How quickly we could, deploy it and ensure that there is acceptance and work with regulators to build their credibility. It is going to be key for us to succeed.

What is your take on the Middle East and Africa expansion for WadzPay?

You know it’s fascinating with the technology and with what the Fintech ecosystem enables and all kinds of support you have in the regulatory framework.

I think we are well placed; this is a market that I believe because of my experience and built. And incidentally, I made the first Unicorn Fintech in 2010.

And I believe that when I was making that journey, I had very few believers who believed that it’s possible and there is an ability to do it. I think we’re in the same set of frameworks that we are.

We have built a platform that enables the old with the new that enables an exchange that can happen seamlessly and without friction that uses some of the new age.

Work processes and technology frameworks that replace the monolithic now it is,
I challenge but good talents to get into two displays or supplement in terms of consumer proposition and consumer behaviour, pushing us to move towards what we want to do. There are many use cases there; however, its scalability and acceptability are where I think a lot of education and labouring with the ecosystem exists today.

The regulators and the operators would enable us to establish well in this part of the world we see some early interest. There have been conversations, and I know for sure that you know there are.

I won’t say skeptical, but some people are waiting in the wings to see. Who makes the first move? And I think we’re positioned well and with Anish and the great team that he’s built in Singapore, we are well placed to bring those capabilities. He’ll run very soon; you’ll hear some successes; I’m pretty confident.

Brian Jacob, a co-founder of Emergence Capital, once said, “I have never seen a venture success for which one person deserves all the credit. The winners always seem to be the founders who can build a kick-ass team.” — What is your reaction to this statement? What matters most — the founders or the team?

I am damned for whatever answer I give, but jokes apart, it is important that you need a set of founding values and a set of frameworks that the founders bring. It is also essential that sweat and a belief in capability that the founders funnel and energize.

However, there are sets of people who believe the founder and the leadership around the whole framework. That builds the capabilities of the startup; that is what makes the difference. If you don’t have the people, you believe that the team is not along with you as much as you believe in the team, it will be challenging for you to succeed in the cause.

People will be running in different directions, so the founding team must be important. Founders are essential, but the set of people who come along the journey and who translate that vision into an acceptable capability and create and compete viably and commercially scalable are also critically important.

So, I would balance it. And that’s why, as I know, 30 or 20 years back, it was challenging for equity creation for the team, and it would always be self-centered around the few sets of people who would extract the maximum value.

There’s nothing wrong with that philosophy, but things have certainly changed with the risk-taking ability and the appetite to engage in a difficult and sometimes incomprehensible. And if you’re able to persevere and create that capability, you win, and the stakes are very high for it, and certainly, the people who are in the team that matter as well in this journey.

I know I try to balance it because I’ve been on both sides of the equation, but I can certainly empathize and sympathize with the founding team and the founders. That heat is their sweat. It is the sleepless nights that they go through, is the pressure on the cash flow.

Execution builds the pressure on competing and seasons capabilities that are newer in form and fashion to be coined into what you have already done. Commercializing pretty quickly and getting your first set of revenues is a very tough task. No doubt the risk and the return equation are probably, you know, probably in that same wavelength as what you will see. Most of the success stories reflect these principles.