As part of my series about the “How Business Leaders Plan To Rebuild In The Post COVID Economy,” I had the pleasure of interviewing Hussein Ahmed. Hussein founded Oxygen in 2018 to address the financial needs of freelancers, a large and growing segment of the economy. As CEO, he oversees engineering and product as well the company’s vision and overall business strategy. The mission is simple: provide financial freedom, flexibility, and predictability through innovative banking services to the nearly 60 million people that make up the U.S. gig economy.
Prior to Oxygen, Hussein co-founded and served as CEO of collaborative software company Transpose Technologies. He has started successful businesses; raised millions in venture capital; and built and managed large cross-functional teams in engineering, marketing, and data analytics. He writes and speaks regularly on the future of work and financial inclusion.
Hussein received his MBA from the University of California, Berkeley Haas School of Business, and holds a Ph.D. in Computer Science and Applications from Virginia Tech.
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?
Absolutely. Thank you for speaking to me. Well, for one, I am originally from Egypt and came to the U.S. to study for a graduate program. This means I have a slightly different perspective than some, and it is this diversity of thought that I believe is core to the American experiment. Second, I am an entrepreneur and an optimist, which probably goes without saying. Before I came to the U.S., I sold a company back in Egypt, and after finishing my Ph.D. program in Computer Science at Virginia Tech and a brief stint in engineering at Amazon, I founded and sold a collaborative software company. After that, I knew I wanted to get back to running my own company but didn’t have a solid idea. I decided I’d freelance consult in the interim, freeing up my time to think about what I wanted to do. It was as a freelance consultant that the idea came to me. Despite being quite successful and making over six figures, I kept on getting denied basic financial services like a line of credit and was finding my options limited to “alternative” lenders. “How could this be?” I thought. “I have great credit and a good income, why am I being shut out?” It occurred to me that if I was having these challenges maybe I wasn’t alone. The more I spoke to freelancers, the more I realized that I wasn’t. It seemed most traditional financial institutions were focusing on the higher end of SMBs, and this other segment wasn’t being served. Next, I looked into it and found that not only was this segment already quite large — 35% of the U.S. workforce today, but it was growing rapidly, with some estimates saying it could reach a majority of U.S. jobs by 2027. At that point I knew what I wanted to do next, and Oxygen was born.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lessons or ‘take aways’ you learned from that?
When I first started I did not have a background in financial services or banking. As an outsider, you hear a lot about the innovations happening in FinTech in the U.S., with a host of ecosystem players offering banking as a service (BaaS) offerings that promise to get you started in a matter of weeks. (U.S. bank regulation means most FinTechs work through a partner sponsor bank, which holds the license, as well as a number of third parties.) As a tech entrepreneur with a bias for speed, this resonated with me, and we originally started down that path. It became clear soon after that if we wanted to build the best experience and financial product for freelancers, we’d have to build this from scratch, owning the full stack. It may be a bit of an inside joke to those in FinTech, but at the time it was a really painful experience that required making some hard choices. Lesson learned: there are no shortcuts in FinTech, and the right partners matter.
Is there a particular book that you read, or podcast you listened to, that really helped you in your career? Can you explain?
There are a lot. But one that I recently read that comes to mind is “The Hard Thing About Hard Things” by Ben Horowitz. It certainly dispels some of the romantic notions of running a company and instead has practical advice on what it means to be CEO and, more importantly a leader; the difficult choices you have to make; and how it can be a lonely place.
Extensive research suggests that “purpose driven business” are more successful in many areas. When you started your company what was your vision, your purpose?
Our mission since starting Oxygen has always been one of financial inclusion, which entails both the classical sense of upward mobility and participation but also protecting the core of the middle classes from falling behind. If it is true that there is a monumental shift from employer-sponsored work to one of self-directed work and traditional FIs are not set up to cater to them, how can we best support these workers to ensure they do not fall behind and become under banked?
Do you have a “number one principle” that guides you through the ups and downs of running a business?
Yes. The no asshole rule. Running a business comes with the highest highs and the lowest lows — not unlike life. Considering this emotional pendulum and the amount of time you spend with these people, wouldn’t you want to make sure you are around people who aren’t jerks? We have high talent standards for sure, but this point is not negotiable.
Thank you for all that. The Covid-19 pandemic has affected nearly every aspect of our lives today. For the benefit of empowering our readers, can you share with our readers a few of the personal and family related challenges you faced during this crisis? Can you share what you’ve done to address those challenges?
In many ways my story is similar to a lot of people. San Francisco took the step to call a state of emergency early, and as CEO I followed soon thereafter. Oxygen has been working remotely since the first week of March. Aside from that, my life has been pretty much the same as the lives of everyone else. I am shut inside with my wife hoping we can help flatten the curve and get back to normal soon. Sure it’s scary and at times lonely, but I consider myself one of the lucky ones. To all the people who are out of work, to the small businesses that have been crushed, to the freelancers who have been among the hardest hit economically yet last to learn how to navigate assistance, I realize I am actually quite fortunate.
Can you share a few of the biggest work related challenges you are facing during this pandemic? Can you share what you’ve done to address those challenges?
Well, aside from keeping the plants alive, it’s been fairly smooth business wise. I’ve got a great team!
Many people have become anxious from the dramatic jolts of the news cycle. The fears related to the corona virus pandemic have understandably heightened a sense of uncertainty, fear, and loneliness. What are a few ideas that you have used to offer support to your family and loved ones who were feeling anxious? Can you explain?
This is certainly an unprecedented time that has elevated our collective anxiety. The most important thing I have done is just to try to be more present. We are all so busy, as CEO I am pulled in a million different directions. But it is important to set aside time to just be with loved ones. It is also critical not to overindulge in the news cycle. We all have extra time on our hands now, and it can be easy to get sucked in, which is not healthy. Last, take time to recharge. For me that means reading; whatever that means for you, take time to prioritize it.
Obviously we can’t know for certain what the Post-Covid economy will look like. But we can of course try our best to be prepared. We can reasonably assume that the Post-Covid economy will be a trying time for many people across the globe. Yet at the same time the Post-Covid growth can be a time of opportunity. Can you share a few of the opportunities that you anticipate in the Post-Covid economy?
Absolutely. We are in unprecedented times, and many people are facing economic uncertainty. It can be a terrifying place for many. But crises oftentimes present opportunities, and Covid has led many to relook at many aspects of our lives and started conversations about how we want to be as a society moving forward. A big opportunity I see that will require a rethinking of a lot of things is the democratization of when and where we work. Freelancing has enabled that. According to the Freelancing in America:2019 study jointly published by Upwork and the Freelancers Union, 71% of freelancers believe they have the freedom to work from anywhere, and seven in 10 are interested in living outside of a major metropolitan area. This mobility and flexibility presents both economic and quality of life benefits, allowing us to spend more time with our loved ones.
How do you think the COVID pandemic might permanently change the way we behave, act or live?
I think at its most basic level, the crisis has forced us to reexamine what we value most. For me, that means family, health, and future opportunity. From that lens, you then say: What changes do I need to make to ensure what’s important to me is prioritized? Two themes I am particularly interested in that relate to that are digitization and the future of work. COVID-19 has done away with many of the artificial barriers to moving more of our lives online. Older generations, traditional laggards in digital technology adoption, became digital adopters overnight. As a digital-first bank, we are seeing this every day. As for the shift from employer-sponsored employment to one of self employment that looks to be the model of the future, how do we capture the benefits I described above? To do that, I think we’re going to have to answer some big questions about a related subject that we’ve long associated with employer-based employment: benefits. The corona virus pandemic has revealed gaping holes in this model, as millions of American families have been forced to navigate this crisis without a safety net. Is this the model we go forward with considering this massive change?
Considering the potential challenges and opportunities in the Post-Covid economy, what do you personally plan to do to rebuild and grow your business or organization in the Post-Covid Economy?
At Oxygen, we have been fortunate in that the increased digital adoption has benefited us in many ways. We do recognize, however, that is not the case for everyone, not by a long shot. I am going to continue to do what I have been doing: building the best financial services platform that recognizes we must think differently about this important and growing segment of the economy, especially if we want to create sustainable prosperity going forward.
Similarly, what would you encourage others to do?
I would say two things. First, understand what the future of work means for you, both the opportunities and the challenges. Second, get involved, make your voice heard, and join the conversation. By doing these two things, you will be best prepared to thrive and ready to help shape the future you want to see.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
There are so many. But this one gets to the core of entrepreneurship: “Our greatest weakness lies in giving up. The most certain way to succeed is always to try just one more time.” — Thomas A. Edison
I think that says it all.
How can our readers further follow your work?
I am a member of the Forbes Finance Council and regularly publish my thoughts there. You can also read the Oxygen blog, where we amplify the voices of freelancers who are helping shape the conversation. Also follow us on Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, and Linkedin.