‘Meet the Boss’ is a How we made it in Africa interview series where we pose 10 questions to business leaders across the continent.
Ismail Ahmed, founder and CEO, WorldRemit
1. What was your first job?
It was working for a World Bank agricultural development project when I was still living in Hargeisa [capital of Somaliland]. That ultimately led to me gaining a World Bank scholarship to study in the UK.
2. The parts of your job keeping you awake at night?
WorldRemit has grown at an astounding rate, especially since we received a US$40m investment by Accel Partners in March last year. In such a fast-paced and high-growth environment, it can be a tough task to make sure everybody is working together smoothly.
3. Who has had the biggest impact on your career and why?
I’ve been lucky to work with many talented people in different environments – in academia, at the UN, with business partners. Today, I am proud to be the CEO of a rapidly growing company that’s turning a global industry on its head. In that sense it’s only fair to say that I’m where I am in my career because of a talented team at WorldRemit.
4. The best professional advice you’ve ever received?
Let me answer this question slightly differently – I draw much motivation from criticism and from people who challenge my vision. Coming across sceptics in professional life can actually be more useful than advice. It makes me work even harder towards my vision, and where I want to be.
5. Top reasons why you have been successful in business?
It is important to have broad interests and look beyond your own industry – I like to take an interest in where human behaviour and technological trends are heading. Sometimes you don’t have to look very far for these insights: long before I started WorldRemit, people had been shopping or booking travel online. It was only logical that the remittance industry would come online, and I seized that opportunity.
6. Where’s the best place to prepare for leadership? Business school or on the job?
Nothing can fully prepare you for the experience that is running your own company. I was fortunate enough to have worked in remittances for more than 20 years before I started my own company. But I’d also say my MBA at London Business School was an important stepping stone to becoming a CEO and leader.
7. How do you relax?
Where I find myself with some spare time, just going for a quick walk often helps me clear my head and organise my thoughts. Outside of the office, I enjoy spending time with my family; they help me relax.
8. When in the morning do you like to be at your desk?
The great part about work at a technology company is that I can be involved with all parts of the business anytime and anywhere. Having said that, I tend to be in the office and at my desk around 9am.
9. Your favourite job interview question?
In interviews, I often find that a person’s track record speaks for itself, so I like to challenge candidates on their achievements. That tells me a lot about their entrepreneurial attitude – at WorldRemit we like people who seize the initiative and are eager to make a difference.
10. Your message to Africa’s aspiring business leaders and entrepreneurs?
Be courageous with your ideas and passionate about your business. The opportunities for entrepreneurs in Africa have never been bigger. The explosion of mobile money services is but one example, and you can already see the knock-on effects this is having on companies with the courageous ideas and the right leadership.
Ismail Ahmed is the founder and CEO of WorldRemit, an online money transfer firm that allows people to send money to friends and family living abroad, using a computer, smartphone or tablet. It allows money to be received as a bank deposit, cash pick-up, mobile money, or mobile airtime top-up. The service is currently available to senders in 50 countries and offers transfers to more than 110 destinations worldwide.
Ahmed is originally from Somaliland, and was previously the financial services compliance advisor at the United Nations Development Programme.