February 17, 2019

Varun Sakhuja is Director, Innovation Management for Mastercard Labs in Asia Pacific. Varun has been with Mastercard for over 3 years and he has held key business development roles: first in Acceptance Development followed by Merchant Development. In these roles, Varun and his team were responsible for leading the top merchant relationships and merchant-led co-brands, accelerating the value and relevance of Mastercard.

Prior to joining Mastercard, Varun spent almost 8 years in American Express where he held multiple positions in product development and sales. In his last role, Varun was Heading Digital Partnerships for American Express India.

Varun Sakhuja was a keynote speaker at the Bangladesh Innovation Dialogue 2018. Varun had an interesting tête-à-tête with Bangladesh Brand Forum excerpts of which follow.

Bangladesh Brand Forum: How would you define innovation?

Varun Sakhuja: People look at innovation through their own lenses. Throughout the dialogue, you have heard people talking about the amalgamation of innovation and invention. In my personal opinion, innovation is nothing but making sure you are gearing up for the future – making sure of the processes, the platforms and the team that you have, bringing them together and looking at how you can create a sustainable future. 

In your opinion, how are FinTech Initiatives driving Financial Innovation?

The pace at which innovation is happening and the speed at which FinTech companies and Banks are growing together, is phenomenal. An interesting fact: it took the Internet 4 years to reach 50 million users, while Pokemon Go achieved that same feat in 19 days. So, is it something that we have learned from the past or is it something we are preparing for the future? It is again an amalgamation of people coming together, it is a convergence that you are trying to achieve to make sure you are working with FinTech organizations and established players to co-create a solution. Nobody in this industry can make a solution on their own. At Mastercard, we work with so many startups, which are a part of our Start Path program as well. We have to make sure that whatever we are working on is sustainable. Safety and security should be our top priority. So, it is about looking at what you have now and also look at the bigger picture. 

How important do you think collaboration is in the process of innovation?

The great thing about ideation and design thinking, what we use as pillars for our innovation, is that I can come up with an idea and I can launch it on my own, definitely. But there is a flip side. To scale something up, to truly innovate for the customers, you have to do it together with the ecosystem, you really cannot work alone.

What is Mastercard currently doing for financial inclusion?

“Doing well by doing good” is our moto apart from our tagline, “A world beyond cash.” So, financial inclusion is something we take pride in. We work on various initiatives when it comes to financial inclusion alongside international organizations. At the same time, at a regional level, we work on initiatives separately. So, we have a financial inclusion lab as a part of MasterCard Labs, Nairobi. We work on projects which are not just direct benefit transfers but at the same time help farmers sell their produce directly. In India, we launched a MasterCard farmer network called ‘e-Rythu’ in the state of Andhra Pradesh. Our efforts remain constant to make sure that we are not only focusing on all payment-related things with established players but also working to include others as a part of our core objectives.

What made you interested to choose this career path— where you are having the blend of sales and marketing with strategic acquisitions?

Career paths are often a result of some choices that one makes and some arise from the opportunities that you get along the way. I have been lucky enough in the last ten years of my career working in roles ranging from sales and products to co-brand launches. Enough, and more when it comes to payments – acquiring merchants, to selling cards, to creating digital wallets. I have had the privilege to work with the wonderful teams. This particular transition to innovation management is a result of the same journey that I have had. I saw the opportunity and within MasterCard, the way departments and teams function, I moved across divisions, working with different partners across the globe. It has, indeed, been an interesting journey.

Do you think it’s easy to promote innovation in this industry?

Nothing comes difficult or easy when it comes to promoting innovation. It is a journey. The fact that there is more awareness about what other organizations are doing, what we are doing, is creating a better and more secure environment when it comes to payments. It is also making sure we lay the foundation for a world beyond cash. I believe the entire ecosystem makes it easier when you have your fundamentals in place.

Would you like to share few words for our readers, on practicing innovation?

Just keep it simple. If you are clear with the basics of what you need for your organization, make sure you have the customer at the center of what you are creating. Think about the future but don’t leap into anything without proper foresight. For instance, a lot of people talk about incorporating blockchain into their business without first questioning if it is going to add value to their customers or bottom-line. So those are the questions to ponder upon. Again, keep it simple, know what your core business demands are, know what your customer needs are. Alongside the journey within the ecosystem, you will be able to decipher which of the elements work best for you. This way you can innovate solutions and create a platform for your business and your customers.

Interviewed By Syed Ahnaf Bakht

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