Sabrina Tharani, a female leader in the technology and venture arena, feels personally accountable for developing a gender-balanced workforce as well as a gender-balanced portfolio of firms. She is Vice President of global startup, venture, and crypto partnerships at Mastercard.
Sabrina is a visionary leader on a mission to bring innovation to the world of payments and commerce. She asserts, “I proud to say that much of the senior leadership on our new digital infrastructure and fintech teams are led by brilliant women, and that our portfolio of startups is ~30% female founded, far exceeding the venture industry average.”
Below are the highlights of the interview conducted between World’s Leaders and Sabrina Tharani:
Brief our audience about your journey as a business leader? Tell us about your background and what did you do before you started/joined the Mastercard?
My career has always been about building and commercialising new payment products – first through propriety Mastercard technologies and now through my work with cutting-edge fintech startups around the world. Over the last decade I’ve had roles in technical product development, strategic account management and operations which have allowed me to collect valuable skills and knowledge I now use as the lead for Mastercard’s internal venture team, Start Path.
How do you diversify your company’s cutting-edge services/solutions for people, entrepreneurs, and business leaders?
Mastercard Start Path is a unique, award-winning program that connects high-potential startups to bespoke and curated commercial opportunities with Mastercard’s businesses, channels, and partners. Our model is designed to support the specific needs of the entrepreneurs we work with, and our suite of programs – emerging fintech, crypto and digital assets, open banking, and under-represented founders – are meant to provide relevant and immediate value to our portfolio companies. We are also strategic partners with long-term ambitions; unlike accelerator or incubator programs, we support startups through their scale journeys. Many startups that joined our portfolio at the seed or series A stage are now large, successful companies that Mastercard has worked with throughout.
Have you been exposed to competition in the industry? If yes, tell us what makes the company different from its competitors?
Of course there is competition in every industry – Mastercard is a large, global technology player in payments and financial services, where there are many organizations of all sizes operating.
We are in a business where even today,1.7 billion do not have a bank account and, therefore, access to the formal economy. Solving this goes beyond just ensuring consumers and businesses have a Mastercard card in hand – it extends to identity, novel ways of acceptance, new payment form factors, and more.
So, while we consider competition in the 15% of global transactions that are already electronic, we have a broader window of competition and opportunity in the 85% of cash transactions, where there is still much work to be done.
Tell us about the vision for the company. How does Mastercard ensure a culture of integrity and innovation in the company?
Mastercard’s purpose is to connect and power an inclusive digital economy that makes transactions safe, simple, smart, and accessible. Our data, technology, and partnership assets are core to this mission, and when combined with our ‘doing well by doing good” cultural mantra, we are able to advance equitable and sustainable growth around the world. Of course, our people are at the heart of everything we do, and Mastercard’s unique Decency Quotient, or DQ, allows us to foster a culture of fairness and integrity in all our endeavours – which promotes inclusion and is a force for good for our teams, our communities, and our partners.
What’s the greatest risk you’ve taken as a professional?
Moving from a leadership track in product and technology to the VC and partnership world. For the vast majority of my career, I focused on building, commercializing and scaling innovative new Mastercard products such as Apple Pay and Mastercard Send. In doing so, my skill set was highly technical, and my career trajectory pointed to leadership in our product organization.
It was in these product roles that I started to understand a few fundamental things: 1) the velocity of innovation in financial services was accelerating rapidly, and startups were driving much of that change, 2) Mastercard had unique technology that would benefit startups and vice versa, and 3) I was personally very passionate about the venture, entrepreneurship and innovation ecosystem.
Stepping away from a product role and into a venture career was a risk, but I fundamentally felt I could leverage the deep knowledge I had of Mastercard’s strategy, technology, and products to uniquely identify, partner with, and invest in high-potential emerging companies that could help us build the future of commerce together.
How do you balance work and life responsibilities?
If the last two years have taught me anything, it’s that the line between work and life has become increasingly blurred (like many of you, my kitchen table is also my desk and my quarantine puppy is the accidental soundtrack to many important calls!). For me, it’s now less about an intentional balancing act between work and life, and more about a new approach to time management and resource allocation. I believe many of us are navigating the end of the traditional 9am-5pm model and adopting new, more flexible ways of being present and strong contributors at work and at home.
I’m also personally very passionate about the type of work I do helping entrepreneurs, particularly underrepresented founders, scale their companies, and outside of work, actually spend time thinking about similar challenges. For example, I’m on the leadership council of The Resolution Project, which is the world’s largest accelerator for undergraduate student social entrepreneurs. I feel fortunate to have a ‘day job’ that allows me to work on causes I care deeply about, which further blends the work/life balance.
What advice would you give to the emerging entrepreneurs looking to work with corporates?
Our team works with hundreds of venture-backed founders across the world working on a diverse set of domains in the fintech value chain from crypto to open banking to financial inclusion to cybersecurity and more. Regardless of their location or value proposition, there are a few consistent partnership principles we share that lead to stronger outcomes:
Corporates provide valuable assets to unlock scale. Rather than thinking about incumbents as competitors, understand that the right partners can be fantastic collaborators that provide meaningful benefits to your business – scale, commercial deals, brand endorsement, investment and much more.
Authenticity is key to long-term relationships. Like in any other partnership, a key ingredient is ensuring mutual commitment and alignment on objectives from the onset.
Partner with organizations that have the same values and commitment to diversity. Diverse teams perform better, so partnering with companies that carry the same ethos as Mastercard lead to positive long-term collaborations.
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