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Driving Change through Influence with Afterpay GM North America Zahir Khoja

Updated: Dec 2, 2022

This is the Authentic Avenue podcast cover for Driving Change through Influence with Afterpay GM North America Zahir Khoja

This is a link you can use to find Authentic Avenue, a marketing podcast hosted by Adam Conner, on Apple Podcasts. Remember to subscribe, rate, and review!

Today, I interview Zahir Khoja, who is the General Manager of North America for Afterpay. Afterpay is among a few major players in the booming "buy now, pay later" financial trend -- and its $29 billion acquisition at the hands of Square (now Block) indicates that it's here to stay.

Zahir took the role in 2021, a few months before the Block announcement.

On today's podcast, we focus on authentic human leadership -- specifically, how to drive change through influence rather than force.

I find Zahir's perspective incredibly interesting because the only reason we met is because I was brought into the Mastercard (Zahir's previous tenure) family via an acquisition. I experienced what it was like to be acquired from an entry-level perspective -- and today we get to learn what it's like for a leader.

That, plus we learn a little more about Zahir's role models, what he's learned from them, and the all-too-important definition of authenticity from his POV.

Check out Afterpay:

Enjoy! Full transcript below.


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TRANSCRIPT BELOW (powered by Descript; accuracy not guaranteed):

Adam Conner: Hey Zahir. How you doing?

Zahir Khoja: Good morning, Adam. Nice to speak with you as well. All is going well over here. How about you? Well, all is

Adam Conner: going well. Things aren't as hypergrowth is where you are right now. Um, podcasting has, you know, uh, to my favor has been in favor for the last couple of years, but my God, this year has been an absolute rocket ship buy.

Now pay later. I want to talk about that right off the top. We met during your time at MasterCard during my time just after MasterCard. You surely were aware of this trend before a lot of other people, because you were in the payment space. What about right now? The team at Afterpay, the people convinced you to make that jump?

Zahir Khoja: Yeah. Thanks for having me on, uh, on the podcast today, Adam, it's a pleasure to be here with you. Um, let me first take a step back by telling you a little bit about. About Afterpay. So we're a global leader in buy. Now pay later, as you say, it's, it's a rocket ship. Um, and I, and I truly mean it, it is a rocket ship because, um, it's a space that offers at, at its very basic level interest, free installment payments for goods that consumers need and want.

But more importantly, it allows consumers to use their own money to pay over time. And. What I mean by using their own money is consumers want the benefit of, um, of having credit, but they want to be able to pay with their own money. And today 90% over 90% of our customers repay with debit. So there's a tangible shift away from credit cards.

Um, similar to what we saw in 2008 and the millennials and gen Z. They're the ones demonstrating this aversion to financial risk because they want to live in a world where they can, um, borrow, but they also want to live in a world where they know they can make a repayments and they can use the tool to buy.

In a way that makes sense for their lifestyle, which is really important to the millennials and the gen Z, because they've seen their parents in 2008 and what they went through and they don't want to be part of that as well. Our, um, if, if you look at our, like our mission is an economy in which everybody wins, right.

And we do this by. Recalibrating a global economy that's accessible, sustainable, transparent, and equitable than the one we inherited. And when we succeed, that's where we create a flywheel in which customers have more freedom and control merchants have the ability to trade better. And the burden of debt is eradicated from society.

That's where you get an economy where everybody wins that. Going back to your original question about why did I join after. Of course, I come from the payment space and I saw, you know, the rocket ship that was happening in buy now pay later. And I was super excited about joining a leading edge company.

In fact, the company that virtually created the industry of buy now pay later as we know it today. Uh, and I saw the potential there, but the main reason I joined was because of the authenticity and the humility of our two co-founders Anthony Isen and Nicole. Um, I had the privilege of meeting both of them during my days at MasterCard and the passion that they brought to their business, the passion that they brought for the consumer, for the merchant, but more importantly, the passion for their team is really what drew me in.

They're both very successful as you well know, but extremely humble. Enough to know that as they're building and growing, they're continuing to learn and they continue to lead with a people first mindset. And for me, that was the biggest drop because despite the size of the business, the growth of the business, it's important to have leadership that.

Has that passion to grow has that vision, that insight, but also has the humility to understand what they don't know and ask for support to take this to the next level. And, you know, putting people first is something that a lot of organizations will say, something that I've lived witnessed, and I'm continuing to be a part of here at Afterpay is exactly that it is not just words.

It is real.

Adam Conner: I got to ask you then about you join this team and by the way, it's cool that you met them before you joined. I mean, obviously that happens in due course of taking a new job, but to see them in a different light, like while, while working elsewhere and while sensibly judging the, like the whole industry, that is a little bit different.

I think because that's something that I always got checked for is like the ego of a leader. Are they actually humble? Do they show empathy? And, and, Hey, I'll be honest. A lot of times I see that more readily. In organizations which have been started in which have grown like crazy, uh, outside of the U S like, and I don't know if it's just like mentality of leaders outside of the U S if it's just like the poll of like crazy money in the U S which makes it happen or what, but that, I don't know if that had anything to do with it, but that's, that's cool that you were able to see that then you come in and boom, massive news of this.

Acquisite. Yeah, with the express purpose, as least as is stated in the PR. And you can help me clarify of growing and developing the market that you are the GMF. I mean, what a wild responsibility to get thrown in your lap, although I'm sure you knew that it was, you know, going to be of importance, maybe not at the level that it was immediately.

Well, what was that like? I mean, what was open in that email like that morning?

Zahir Khoja: Again, going back to a, maybe a bit of a cliche that says change is the only constant we have. Um, but again, the co-founders of this business are, are true to the mission and an economy where everybody wins. And I think when you look at the sum of the two organizations coming together, That is really what they, that they're striving for.

So, you know, as I, as, as that started to unfold and, you know, I know it became, uh, public in, in, in August. Um, it's really meant a lot to the organization in leading through change. And I think one of the things that, um, after PE has done phenomenally well, and I'm excited to be a part of. This to lead this in north America is the business has continually had to evolve.

Um, if you look at, when we started in the U S it was in a pre COVID world, and then all of a sudden COVID hit and it was the unknown of what's going to happen. And who would have known that online shopping would have taken over as fast as it did, and it fueled the rocket ship to go to new places. So, um, you know, This organization and the people, um, are just always open for that opportunity to, you know, absorb change.

And I think it's a good one because I have the opportunity now to work with amazing leaders and with an amazing team to really help lead through that change. And, you know, I think one of the key things around that is it's easy to, uh, It's easy to lead with force it's different to lead through influence.

And one of the things here is that, you know, everybody from the founders down to the executive leadership team and everybody involved, uh, really roll up their sleeves to get involved so that everybody knows that you're you're along for the ride. And so it's important to help people see and understand why we're doing this.

Um, why it's good for the end merchant, the end consumer, why it's important for our people and for their careers, um, in a joint organization as well. And by articulating that and showing them the light at the end of the tunnel there, I think that's what excites them. Uh, it, it definitely excited. But it's what excites them and bring them along for the journey.

So, you know, th this is something that I'm practicing with the team now. And I would say while after pay has experienced huge growth in the last few years, what we're going through is unlike anything else right now. And I'm sure two years from now, I'll say that about the next challenge that we take on, um, because we, we continue to evolve.

And adapt to the environment that we're in. And if you know, it's been our goal as a leadership to really help the team understand the opportunity that this will bring to the extent to which they can learn more, uh, and how the business will be stretched in new ways, quite honestly, in ways that we didn't even know.

And we probably still don't know even exist out there today. So I'm super excited about, you know, what's ahead of them. I think it's going to stretch us as people. It's going to stretch us as a business, and it's really going to make it more exciting for our merchants to want to do business with us and for our consumers to want to use our, our

Adam Conner: product.

Well, I mean, yes, hopefully, hopefully that, that happens in mom. I mean, what a wonderful influx of resources to do it, and also a directive to grow yes. In these ways that you may not know which may stretch you in ways that you cannot possibly predict even today for the next few years, two places, I want to take the.

Uh, one with regard to the people that you are now leading through that charge and to, for the people that perhaps led you through it in your career and who you look up to. I'm going to ask that one second. Now, now the reason I want to ask the first, which is basically going to end in a question about what's the hardest part about leading people through this massive event where some people will perceive it as a great growth opportunity.

And some people will perceive it as pressure is because. You are no stranger to, um, having, uh, new companies come into the fold of whatever your organization you're with. And the MasterCard did that all the time. My career with MasterCard began as a retail analytics firm that got acquired by them. So I experienced this from like the employee side, from the, from the side.

Absorbed. And I had to look up to the people that I'd been working with as a team prior to that event. And then all of a sudden, also having to, you know, respect and catered to the will of the acquirer, you know, the people who are w over the top of the, even my leaders. So now you are in this position.

Where you are now, when that happened to me, I was like nine months into the job. It was my first job. So really I didn't, I kind of didn't know what was going on. Let's be honest. I was, I was like, okay, new boss, fine. That's really how I looked at it and still selling the same thing, at least for now. You've got all of these folks who, whether they are in the job for six minutes or like six months or several years, maybe looking at this in one way or another for their own personal trajectory, you have.

As to where the business needs to go and, you know, that's going to affect people in different ways, but then you also note the need, at least in the long-term to drive this change through your influence. Well, I want to then ask, I'll go back to the question that I started with at the beginning of that long, long monologue.

How do you lead people broadly through this sort of immense event, which may either be presented individually as an opportunity or as a pressure point?

Zahir Khoja: Yeah. You know, with any change. And especially, uh, in a hypergrowth industry and environment that we're in today, it can bring, uh, it can bring upon pressure and that is not an unknown or unseen, but I think what's important is you got to help people get across the line and to do that is you have to be empathetic to their challenge.

No two individuals are created the same. Um, they have different roles, different backgrounds, different upbringings, different, different emotional responses. And I think as a leader, it's important to understand and seek to understand before being understood around what are the, what is it that the individual is going through from a business sense?

You know, it, it means coming together to work through a lot of the issues and. Being vulnerable to say that I am going to make mistakes. We are going to make mistakes, but to be transparent, uh, so that we learn as a team. It's also having the ability to say, I don't know. Um, and putting your hand up when you need help, because as you, as you said at the top of the, of the podcast, you know, buy now pay later is on a trajectory or on a rocket ship that is going super fast.

And we are learning as we grow. And there are times when we're going to put our hands up as individuals or as teams to say, how do we solve a problem? And I think it's important for people to see that the leadership, um, are also trying to solve some of these tough problems that are on, on the teams. So, you know, as we go into.

Uh, meetings and conversations with our teams and individuals. It's communication is not only verbal. It's also important to see how the person is showing up, showing up to that meeting. Um, we're, we're going through interesting times right now as a society, right. We had COVID that started back in March of 2020.

Um, we've had multiple variants of that, that. Slowed down or shut down different parts of the world. And each individual has going through their own journey, um, as we go through that. So it's important for us as leaders to take notice that they may be going through something personally or professionally and putting a handout to really help them through that and give them the space as well.

Um, and be respectful around what they may be going through realizing. Sometimes you're going to have to get into the trenches and do the work. And that's okay. Because as I mentioned earlier, if they see that you're in it with them, I think that motivates them, that inspires them and that, you know, elevates them to want to, to jump in and be part of that change.


Adam Conner: Something I'll note here for the listeners is something which, uh, I uncovered with you in our prep, which is that it seems that mentality extends all the way to the top, um, to the point that you could like text Nick and Anthony and they'll be available, they are there and they are not afraid to getting their hands dirty.

And we're not gonna speak for here, but from your experience, it seems like, uh, it seems like they are emulating the same mentality that you are putting forth here and. It extends into the way that people grow and other great leaders get brought on, which I will also ask about two questions from now, cause that I do want to come back to the, to the first one that I mentioned prior, with regard to folks that you've looked up to who from your career, do you think you've taken the most from when it comes to leading these teams wherever they may be through massive change, whether that be at the company level.

And industry level. Basically what I'm trying to do is get your head a little bit and be like, wow, you got these. I mean, anybody who goes by the way, listeners, anybody goes on to his profile is going to see that, you know, he's an outspoken champion of authentic human leadership. I like that because it starts with the word authentic, but the leadership parts really important, but you don't just grow that overnight.

You got to find that somewhere. A lot of it's self-driven who do you look up to in that respect? Who taught you? Who helped you build that for you?

Zahir Khoja: Yeah. You know, I've been fortunate at that. I've had multiple amazing, um, mentors and leaders throughout my life. One that I, one that sticks out in my mind that I've looked up to up until now, to be honest with you is a gentleman by the name of Darren and whistle.

Who's the CEO of Telus. Tell us as a telecommunications company in Canada, similar to a Verizon in the U S in 1999, Darren took over the company, uh, as a young 35 year old and came in with a vision to transform a landline and a long distance company, an organization that made money out of landline and long distance and transform it into a company that has data, IP and wireless.

And you think about that back in 1999, when dial up internet and maybe high speed was just entering, that is transformational. And the way Darren did it was not through force, was by bringing the people along through the journey. And I watched him develop his leadership team. I had the opportunity to work with him and build a channel within the business.

Um, I got to learn a lot from his vision and why he believed that data, IP and wireless was going to be where the world was going. And, you know, fast forward 22 years, um, here we are in a world where you couldn't live without data or wireless. In fact, most of Telus's revenues are, are from there today, but it was also an organization where Darren was very focused on.

The development of the people, um, and doing what's right within the value equation. And so while it was important to drive results, it was also important to drive results in a way that was respectful in a way that was development developmental for the team. And in a way that allowed the community around you.

To benefit from it. And one of the things today that Telus continues to do under Darren's leadership is give back to the community and develop on that. And so for me, I look at that as I look at Darren as a, as a true leader, that I take a lot of the, um, a lot of the values that he has created within that organization.

And I try to live those values within my own. The second person, um, more recent obviously, and you will know him too. Adam is the current chairman of MasterCard, a gentleman by the name of RJ Banga. Um, you know, he took over the organization, which was essentially an association, um, that was run by the banks and he took over this organization and really changed the narrative.

For the company and why that's important to me is, you know, we're in a, we're in a fast paced world today, where there is a lot of competition and you have to be able to differentiate yourself amongst the competition and how you do that is by having great people. And the only way you get great people is if you've got a strong vision, you've got a vision that people buy into.

And you are demonstrating that you are leading to drive that vision. And the vision that RJ brought to the table was a world beyond cash. And if you think about that in its simplest form, that is how do we eradicate cash from a world where, um, how do we eradicate cash from a world where it is very prominent?

85% of the world is transacting in cash. And what are the products and services that we can bring that will help to reduce that and drive financial inclusion, both for the developed and the developing world. And again, so I take a lot from that because in the world that I'm in today with Afterpay leading the north American business, we've got people who are emulating to be like us all the time.

And what we're trying to do is continually offer differentiation both to our merchants and to our consumers, but also a place where our employees and our team feel like they're part of the, of the mission and the vision. And they want to drive the differentiation in the market as well. And both of these two, uh, individuals have really helped.

Uh, forum a lot of the values and the way I think about leadership in my own life from

Adam Conner: here, I got a mini question I'm going to put in the middle here, cause it like begs itself to be asked, you know, Darren pushed forward a world beyond the landline. RJ pushed forward and still is a world beyond cash. Is there a world dot that you could sum it up as?

I I'd be curious because that would be a really cool way. Tell your own story. I mean, what better way to emulate those people who you consider as role models than to take a similar form? I mean, maybe the next person beyond you will have their own. I'm just curious. Has that crossed your mind

Zahir Khoja: before? Yeah, absolutely.

I think we're, we're moving into a world where personalization and privacy are two very key and important things and, you know, consumers want to have things that matter to them presented to. Uh, merchants want to present what matters to a consumer, but at the same time, my information, um, is my information.

And I want to, I want it to be used for ways in which it can benefit me. And so, you know, very, you know, we are, we are very keen on bringing our consumers, um, things that matter to them. And helping to drive our merchants business, but we're also, you know, very cognizant and aware that we want to make sure that our consumers, um, data and information is dealt with in a way that is not, uh, compromising in any way to them.

And so personalization and privacy are two key things that are, think are gonna lead the way, uh, into the future. And, you know, um, I know. A little bit about blockchain to be able to, to be dangerous with it. Um, but blockchain really allows for a lot of that to come to life. And I think we're going to see a lot more around that technology over the coming years and how it plays into the experience.

Adam Conner: And isn't it inappropriate that very recently the organization that declared they were requiring after they changed its name to block. So, yes, I think you probably know a lot more than folks pretty soon. That's what I'm, that's what I'm guessing. That's my speculation, not yours, but, uh, I would, I would hope so.

All right. We talked plenty about human leadership here about role models and the way that you, uh, make change through influence, not force, but that first adjunct. That appears in your LinkedIn profile that drew me to this conversation. Well, actually drew me to meet you a couple of years ago. Is that word authentic?

It's the word that I love. It's the word that I try to define on a daily basis, but more so I listened to it through the lens of the leaders that I get to talk to. So let me try and put this as plainly as I can, if there were a dictionary, uh, that was on your shelf and it was every definition of every word as you saw it, and you flipped open to the page that started with the word authentic.

How would you define it? It's

Zahir Khoja: a, it's a great question. Um, I would put it into a few key key components. I think the first one is self-awareness to realize that your positives, that you bring to the table, um, your opportunities for growth and where you need to develop. So self-awareness is key. The second one I would say is, you know, the ability to lead with.

Um, it's very easy to lead with an iron fist, but it's not easy to lead with passion and you have to love what you do. And people can see that. I see that in Nick and Anthony all the time, they love what they do, and they love the change that they're bringing to the world. And that excites me and it, and it makes me love what I do in this organization to help, uh, to help grow it in the north American business.

Um, You know, the, the focus on, on the long-term is extremely important as well, while it's, it's great to have the short-term wins, um, having that vision and sharing that vision and demonstrating what we're doing for that longer term is extremely, extremely important. Um, and then the last piece is really around integrity.

You've got to be able to do things with integrity and people can see right through. If you are not being genuine to what you do and you don't have integrity. And so for me, that is that defines authenticity. The second thing, if I can say is, you know, I talked about why I joined Afterpay and how amazing our two co-founders are the humility that they bring to the table, the transparency that they bring to the table.

And it's great. But for me to try to emulate that. Would not necessarily be authentic. I think what I bring to the, to the table is the ability to compliment them and those great qualities. And the, some of us all in this organization is truly what is going to make and continues to make us that organization, that people want to be a part of, both from a, uh, employee perspective, consumer perspective and a merchant perspective, but it has to come naturally.

And I think if you, if you're trying to be something that you're not, people will see through it, and it's important to drive. What's important to you from, from your perspective, um, as a leader into the organization and have people buy into it, it's also important to show that you're vulnerable and that you make mistakes and that you also are here.

And that just because you're leading an organization or a region that does not mean you have all the answers. And so it's a long way of describing authenticity, Adam, but I think it encapsulates all of those different concepts.

Adam Conner: Last question, which I'll throw at you directly on that list, um, after giving that definition and thank you for doing so, what advice can you give to others about how to carve their own paths to it?

What I'm really asking is how would you advise that other pave their own Authentic Avenue as we close out today?

Zahir Khoja: Yeah, we move, you know, we're in a, we're in a fast paced world. There's a lot of, um, moving pieces around us all the time and it can be hard to stay focused. And true to your, your vision or your personal mission or your organizations.

Um, especially, especially with all of the change that's happening around us. There's so many distractions and you know, you see a success on one side, you see a success on the other. I think the key thing here is to remain focused and define your success. Write it down. What is success to you as an individual?

And to you as an individual within that organization. And how do you then bring that out to help drive the change that you want to see or that you want to be. And, you know, one of the greatest things I've learned from, from Nick and Anthony is how they just balance a lot of these opportunities while growing the business in a responsible way, but continuing to get.

You know, the, the rest of the leaders and the team, the rope to make the decisions to deliver at that, at that high level. And so I go back to it, it, it requires focus. It requires you identifying your level of personal success and how that, um, translates into what you want to deliver within the organization from a success perspective.

And most importantly, it's surrounding yourself with people. That buy into the vision and have the same value system that you do. Successes can be counted in many ways, but I think it's important to have, um, you know, success where, how you do it, what you do and where you're going is transparent and where people feel like they are part of the journey with you.

And that as you go through ups and downs, you're all in it to you.

Adam Conner: Well put can't wait to see what y'all do. Um, as part of the block family, and as this buy now pay later continues to explode. Thank God you're at the helm as a hero. Really appreciate your thoughts here, especially on that. A word. Thanks so much for you.

Zahir Khoja: Thanks, Adam. Good to speak with you.


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