As part of our series about the “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Became CEO,” we had the pleasure of interviewing Hany Fam, CEO and founder of Markaaz and a transformational leader with a track record of building global platforms and businesses. He is an official member of the Forbes Business Council and a member of the World Economic Forum’s Global Innovators. Fam is focused on creating positive and sustainable impact for small business owners through the world’s first global platform to verify and connect small businesses and the network of partners that support them. Prior to founding Markaaz, Fam held global leadership roles in business transformation, value creation and technology, gaining depth of experience in payments, B2B platforms, enterprise partnerships and SaaS.
He served as CEO of AXA Global Enterprise & Partnerships, Founder & President of Mastercard Enterprise Partnerships and President of Mastercard UK & Ireland Markets. He also held roles in Applied Technology including as the CTO of Toshiba International’s Heavy Industrial business in Australasia. Under Fam’s leadership, Mastercard Track was launched, the first and only global trading platform connecting every supplier and buyer on the planet to simplify and automate the exchange of payments and related data.
Thank you so much for your time! I know that you are a very busy person. Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you got started?
I’ve always been inspired, excited, and motivated by making things better in a big way. That came from my early childhood — I moved around a lot as a kid, and I saw my parents making a lot of sacrifices for my sister and I to have a better shot at life. They always encouraged us to go beyond and make the most of our opportunities despite adversity and challenges.
I always did well in my earlier life, but then something happened in early 20s that flipped the switch — my sister passed in a car accident. That gave me a front row seat view of how fragile life can be, and gave me the fearlessness and courage to tackle things that other people thought were impossible. I really took that to heart — I’ve found that this helped me to be fearless in the face of challenges that would make many people sit and evaluate their chances of failure. Instead, I think about what it would take to succeed.
By taking chances and being fearless in this way, I got good at three things:
- Identifying the one or two things or patterns in different opportunities or challenges that need to be solved, that hadn’t been solved to date
- Asking myself: do you have enough within yourself, those around you, and partners to be able to deftly address those one or two challenges in a unique way, and in a way others have not been able to (regardless of size, wealth, ability, etc.), and to answer can we do this better than anyone else.
- Asking the question: “What does the team need to look like to be able to do that? What is the psychological DNA, profile, and skillset that the team needs to do that?”
This led me to think about these things in an unconventional way, and be able to create things that make people think, “How on Earth did you do that? How did you think of that and how did you get that done?” That way of thinking afforded me a career path in a number of industries where people used me as a “Mr. Fix-it” or a transformational guide.
One of the more notable things that a former CEO of Mastercard said to me about something very audacious that we were doing, “I love what you’re trying to do, but remember what got you here isn’t necessarily going to get you there, so you’re going to have to think of something different.” And we did.
More recently, another CEO who I admire very much, challenged me — at the time, I was running the UK and Irish business for Mastercard, just having completed a big turnaround project. He said, “Take some time and think about what we can do next as a company.” I took almost a year and came to the conclusion to create an enterprise business to create new value, taking spare capacity and making it into new equity. We ran with that idea, and in the first year, we ran it at 96% operating margin, transforming the travel, transit and ticketing, Smart Cities platform, and launching the first global trading platform, connecting every supplier and buyer on the planet. This allowed me to get comfortable with large, complex, global environments and spaces where almost everyone else was uncomfortable or would not dare to tackle. I also started building a track record for creating transformational solutions to make people’s lives better and easier, typically built on the back of one or two key challenges or problems. My differentiator is that I can take these challenges or issues and solve them at both a large scale and solve them globally, thanks to my international experience doing business, travelling, and living all over the world.
That was the bug that really got me on this path.
In the last few years, I found the courage to not only build and turn things around, but to create them, in partnership with likeminded individuals as well as key partners. We are doing just that at Markaaz. I found like-minded individual in Fabi, our Advisory Board and our team and our key partners, who can see the vision as well and wanted to go for it. I’ve had the pleasure of building some great, trusting relationships over long periods of time that allowed me to really take our vision with Markaaz forward. The advisory board of Markaaz is made up of people with whom I have mutual trust and we’ve worked together for many years. Finding these people who see the opportunity and mission of Markaaz has been an honor and a privilege.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?
A few things — I think we broke the assumption that companies like Markaaz can always be challenged by big companies with a lot more people, money, presence, etc. We found something really wonderful, that a lot of big companies are looking to partner with companies like Markaaz that are agile, nimble, innovative, strategic, and have a track record of doing things that have taken them years to figure out or years to get to. We have big partners who haven’t done transactional deals with us, but rather strategic, top-of-house partnerships. Companies believe in Markaaz and have bet big with us and our likelihood of success. We’ve had a number of people say, “How did you figure out and get done what you’ve done so quickly and well, things that we haven’t been able to for a long time?” That has been edifying, powerful, and wonderful to hear as a leader.
Another thing that has been very satisfying is thinking about how you create a team and build a team of people who behave as owners of a business, as opposed to just employees. This has been difficult, and we’ve gotten it wrong a few times, with people coming in with great ideas and realizing this isn’t the place for them.
I often think of this quote from Men in Black, where Will Smith is asking Tommy Lee Jones about joining the Men in Black. He asks, “Is it worth it?” And Tommy Lee Jones answers, “Oh yeah, if you’re strong enough.” I think that’s the defining characteristic of people who thrive in this environment and drive transformation. Transformation requires strength. You can build up that strength, but you have to have a certain amount to begin with to be able to take things to the next level. So much of an impact is possible, but it takes time, patience, strength, resilience, and a good measure of humility.
People who have that innate strength and humility are a rare commodity, especially because everyone says they’re strong enough and humble, but few people actually are. And I wish someone had told me that. I kind of always knew it, but I wish someone had told me, and said to not be disappointed if you have to make a lot of changes early on, that it’s normal.
Another interesting thing I’ve found is that making a dollar go further than anyone else is really key in this environment. This is how you create value. In my life at big corporations, I always had to make my dollars go further than other people because I did audacious things. I’ve found that’s even more important now as a business leader, and our strategic partnerships also help make this possible.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
There were lots, but not many of them were funny.
Is there a particular person who you are grateful for, who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?
I have many! I’m grateful to people in my career who saw my drive and energy early on. Those who believed and gave me enough space to try big things out. There are a number of those. I’m grateful to the people who believed and supported me when others mocked or laughed. They became life-long friends, and some are also on Markaaz’s advisory board. I’m grateful to my family, those both with us and those who have departed, for their undying love and encouragement despite the challenges and hardships to really take on big things.
On this particular journey, I’m grateful to Fabi, the co-founder of Markaaz, who’s been here since day one. She walked away from some major opportunities to come and do this, but she has believed, invested, and has been driven from the beginning. I’m also grateful to our team, who has made sacrifices to do something that’s really changing the world.
As you know, the United States is currently facing a very important self-reckoning about race, diversity, equality and inclusion. This may be obvious to you, but it will be helpful to spell this out. Can you articulate to our readers a few reasons why it is so important for a business or organization to have a diverse executive team?
I’m a huge believer in inclusion and diversity for lots of reasons. I’m living proof that diversity drives exceptional results and I’ve always built teams based on this. This is from my time living all over the world and my experience as a minority. Diversity and inclusion is in my DNA, it’s how I see the world.
I’ve lived places that are diverse and places that were not diverse, and I’ve seen poor performance in companies that were not diverse and great performance from companies that embrace diversity. The future success of the US and the thing that will give our economy a quantum leap forward is our ability to turn diversity into a defining differentiator, and I believe we’ve got a better shot at it than just about any other country in the world.
As a business leader, can you please share a few steps we must take to truly create an inclusive, representative, and equitable society?
We must think about everyone having equal access rights to what is created, and we must think about wealth distribution differently than we do today. We need to think about this based on contribution and not as an entitlement. I believe that creating inclusive opportunities and wealth distribution based on contribution is key. This comes from technology, equipping people with tools that provide them access, from access to education, both formal or informal, and from companies like ours wanting to make an impact on the inclusion landscape, basing our worth on our contribution to society. It is necessary to generate opportunities as much as we are generating wealth for owners and investors.
In just a few words, can you explain what an executive does that is different from the responsibilities of the other leaders?
The buck stops with an executive in a business, especially when you’re behaving as a co-owner. You don’t have lines or boundaries as far as what your job is. “Not my job” disappears from your language as an executive. Everything is your job, and nothing is yours to own.
What are the “myths” that you would like to dispel about being a CEO or executive?
Here are some things I’ve learned in my time as a CEO:
- It’s harder than you think
- You’re going to make a lot of mistakes
- You’ve got to develop the art of finding out truth vs. what people want to tell you
- You have to leave yourself open and vulnerable, so people tell you everything
- You have to walk in the shoes of your partners, employees, investors, and your target audience
- You have to make the money go further than you ever have before, than you’ve thought possible
- As you build success, you’re going to encounter more and more ‘green-eyed monsters’
What is the most striking difference between your actual job and how you thought the job would be?
- You do more and work more and longer hours
- There’s no such thing as a weekend
- There’s no such thing as work/life balance
- You find a harmony and a way to live life that is balanced — one authentic life. Not a separation between work and personal, but everything together. This is both exciting and unexpected, in my experience.
- You process things and think through them much quicker than you expected or have ever had to
- You don’t always get it right
In your opinion, which specific traits increase the likelihood that a person will be a successful executive and what type of person should avoid aspiring to be an executive? Can you explain what you mean?
A person that has themselves at the center of their universe should never aspire to be an executive. I believe that you have to live 90% outside of yourself, in the shoes of others and in the environment you’re in. If you’re the center and you evaluate everything based on how it affects you, you should never be an executive — this is a recipe for disaster for you and the people around you.
A successful executive has to have well-developed EQ skills — you need to develop consistently and repeatedly how you deal with people and relate to them. You also have to be able to deal with harsh and often unwelcome feedback and process it positively. When you lose this ability or people stop giving you feedback for whatever reason, that’s when you know you’re in trouble.
If you’re doing it for a quick dollar or to prove that you’re right or to validate something, don’t do it. This is not the arena or stage or forum to do that. This is the stage where you get to be your most authentic, vulnerable, and constantly evolving self, both dealing with the cheers of accolades and boos of dismay. Through all of that, you need to believe that ultimately, you are having a positive impact on the world and the people around you. If you don’t believe that, you shouldn’t do it.
What advice would you give to other business leaders to help create a fantastic work culture? Can you share a story or an example?
Pick people who share your passion and believe in the mission, who are equally open to change. When you find you’ve made a mistake, don’t be afraid to call it out and move quickly to resolve it.
How have you used your success to make the world a better place?
A couple of things:
- I have invested heavily in the Markaaz vision and charter.
- We have built this business to specifically have a quantifiable impact on the world. Our mission is to improve the lives of small businesses, security, transparency, and economic lot is our true North.
- I am providing people who have strength and fire in their belly the opportunity to come and excel.
- I am also always looking at various constituents and making sure I can have a real impact for everyone who is involved with me.
What are the five things you wish someone told you before you became CEO and why?
- It is going to be harder than you think.
- It is going to take longer than you think.
- People are going to surprise you, positively and negatively.
- It is absolutely worth it and you will wish you did it sooner.
- A Message I hear from CEOs constantly: I wish I had not given so much of my company away so easily and stayed the course and persevered.
If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good for the greatest number of people, what would that be?
Create more businesses that provide greater access and more affordable access and address more challenges in the market before you think about how much money you’re going to make.
We have a mantra, and many others do as well, we borrowed ours from Mastercard — “Do well by doing good”. I love that mantra and it’s really stuck with me, which is why we’ve brought it to Markaaz. Focus on finding like-minded people who do that and create great things with them.
Can you please share your favorite life lesson quote? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
There have been so many; I don’t have just one. Three main things:
- Life is short, seize the moment.
- Stay vulnerable, humble, and open, even when it hurts and is hard. Linked to that, have something other than yourself as the center of your universe — don’t be a narcissist.
- Sometimes looking very simply at the most complex problems allows you to see the patterns and opportunities that others missed.
People describe me as the guy who can see around corners and take on challenges that make others’ hearts melt. I’m humbled by that and can relate to it, but that really comes from these three things.
Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why?
There are many!
I’d like to have a drink with President Biden. I’d like to say that there is so much that we have that the rest of the world and that our country needs that we can get to in a very quick way if we can simply throw away the old ways of thinking and have a fresh point of view. I’d say that we need to encourage and incentivize new entrepreneurs to grow and not be at the mercy of greedy, old establishments. I think we’d probably start with one drink and probably end up having four, talking about how we can transform our efficiency as a trading hub, as an economical power, transforming our tech, and provide benefits for our citizens. I think we can take a leaf out of Singapore and their government — they have a Committee for the Future Economy that I had the opportunity to work with. We looked out 50 years in terms of what would make Singapore positive for growth and their citizens, and then worked backwards and looked at what we can do to make that happen. The most edifying experience and I wish we could do it here in the US.
That brings me to my second person that I would like to have lunch with — I’d like to have lunch with Lee Hsien Loong, the Prime Minister of Singapore. I’ve had the privilege of hearing him speak about the lessons along the way in forming such a great nation and with such dedication, pride and humility.
Last but not least, I really would like to have had dinner with Beethoven in terms of his impact on music, Einstein in terms of his courage to think differently about relativity and other things that changed our lives, and Madam Curie for how she thought and how she worked on something that would have such a major impact and saved so many lives.
These are, of course, all not including the people whose presence I love to be in every day — my team, company, family, etc.