The Zuckerberg generation: In conversation with Yasaman Hadjibashi, BAGL Chief Data Officer

03 November 2017

I have to admit that my preconceptions were entirely off-target when I met with the muse of the big data world, Yasaman Hadjibashi, Chief Data Officer for BAGL (Barclays Africa Group Limited). Having been supplied with a wealth of articles profiling her and the exciting work that she’s involved in, I couldn’t help but feel intimidated by the prospect of picking her brain. As the youngest C-level leader in a big corporate powerhouse like BAGL, armed with a Harvard MBA and UC Berkeley Bachelor’s, and a string of credentials and glowing references that would put any CEO to shame, I expected steel and ice.

Imagine my surprise, then, when Yassi walked into the room entirely without airs of formality and the biggest, most genuinely ingratiating smile on her face, exuding a palpable sense of energy and dynamism: it was impossible not to like her. I was instantly set at ease, though somewhat embarrassed by my previous assumptions.

Yassi had also brought a colleague of hers along to join in the conversation, Rani Shah, millennial Growth Hacker and Data Product Manager. I might have mistaken Rani for an undergrad, was I not informed of her impressive empowered accountability within the Bank, and it soon became clear that Rani was something of a prodigy in her own capacity and perhaps a bit of a protégé, drawing many parallels to Yassi herself, but providing a uniquely millennial perspective on the big data boom and culture that Yassi was pioneering within the Bank.

Global DNA

Yassi assuredly defines herself as a global citizen, moving between Iran, Germany and America in her youth and being shaped by these cultures and experiences including having experienced the atrocity of the 7-year Iran/Iraq War when she was in first grade in Tehran. Her future studies and subsequent career saw further travel throughout the United States, London and now South Africa and she openly admits to the challenges of constantly forming connections and building new social circles from scratch in each new locale. “Thank God I’m an extrovert, otherwise it would have been impossible and lonely!” she laughs.

Growing up, Yassi found a natural inclination for Math and analytical thinking, though curiously enough she also excelled in the creative arts, as an accomplished painter and actress in high school. This left and right brain crossover perhaps explains the way in which she is now bringing a fresh sense of creativity and innovation to her leadership and to the traditionally dry, rigid world of big data practice.

“I think that we all grapple with internal prejudices and assumptions in our daily lives. We have preconceived ideas about people, things, and moments. When someone tells me that they don’t, I’ll insist that they prove it to me,” she says earnestly, “I’ve always found that challenging my own assumptions with the help of my honest smart team members constantly nurtures and stimulates my creativity.”

Like many hungry young professionals taking the first tentative steps in their careers, Yassi wasn’t always primarily focused on creating and innovating. Starting out her career towards building her resume at PricewaterhouseCoopers in San Francisco, she felt under-compensated and, she admits, driven by her youthful ego at that time, she left for a short stint at Deutsche Bank in New York, working as a Trader on Wall Street to satisfy said ego. Though she saw an immediate and significant increase in her salary, she found herself unhappy. She knew that she could continue in sales and trading after her Harvard MBA and make lots of money, but she recognised the deep need within herself of wanting to build and create bigger sustainable things that would make a difference.

It was around this time, in 2008, that the surge in the start-up culture began to take hold and Yassi’s passion for entrepreneurship was reignited. Unfortunately, having just graduated from Harvard with over $100K in debt, she wasn’t comfortable in taking the risk of starting her own business and instead joined Barclays in London, telling herself she would pay her dues at the Bank until she was debt free, and then leave to pursue her own path.

A paradigm shift

“I really do put my hands up for Barclays,” Yassi says with a smile. “I frankly expected to come and work here for two years max and pay my student loans before moving on, but they really managed to nurture my thirst for growth!”

When Yassi first joined Barclays she was thrust out of her comfort zone, being placed in areas such as digital and mobile development with new colleagues of hers: developers from India. This was entirely foreign for someone who, apart from only two undergrad college courses in C++ programming and an MBA course in Technology & Operations Management, had no other computer science or engineering background.

“Within my first few months of working in digital and mobile I found myself sat at a desk between two developers, and here I was fresh out of business school with zero knowledge of their world. I can honestly say it was probably one my biggest challenges in the workplace to date, trying to connect with them on a common level and bridge our mutual knowledge gap. But I have to admit that that experience and others like those only served to grow my love and appreciation for the power of technology in helping business innovate and disrupt itself.”

Her time at Barclays London saw her exposed to digital, mobile, customer experience, design, and product innovation across various business units within the Bank, and Barclays were always proactive towards her personal growth and need to express her creativity and execution remit.

Her biggest career leap was yet to come, however.

“Usama Fayyad (celebrity data scientist and former Chief Data Officer at Barclays) unexpectedly approached me when I was in the Group Design Office via referral from our previous Barclays Group COTO, Shaygan Kheradpir, and convinced me to enter the mysterious field of big data and help him drive our bank’s data agenda. I was really hesitant as it was all so foreign to me, like a foreign language! But he persevered, saying I would learn it rapidly and my deep analytical thinking would make me a natural fit.” Yassi recalls favourably. “He was right, and thank God I took that bet. I soon found a never-imagined respect for the field of big data and began to see the way in which it fundamentally drives pretty much every aspect of our lives.”

She had found her calling.

Leading by example

Having found a long-lasting, real passion, Yassi soon made the move to South Africa, after her appointment to Chief Data Officer for BAGL. This would, of course, come with many new challenges, which she relished. Apart from building a BAGL-wide new function entirely from scratch, which she treated as founding an internal lean start-up, she had to then start managing a rather sizable and diverse team of data evangelisers within the year. But, having always been a natural leader, she rose to the challenge spectacularly.

“Yassi brings a constantly progressive, but also a real human element to leadership,” Rani, from her team, says affectionately, “she’s open, approachable and genuinely cares about the growth and wellbeing of the team. We’ve got WhatsApp groups where we all communicate constantly, we have Tai Chi Tuesdays."

“I actually got that idea from ‘The Intern', the Robert De Niro movie!” Yassi chimes in with a hearty laugh. “We even have beach volleyball outings!” (Yassi is just mad about beach volleyball) Rani continues with a smile.

Yassi believes that leadership should be a holistic approach that doesn’t focus solely on work and performance around the clock. Bonding with the team and creating a fun, vibrant and transparent atmosphere at work is core to her leadership approach. It clearly has the desired effect and her team is duly devoted to her, always going the extra mile for her and for each other.

“Recently one of my team members came to me and told me that I’m such a source of motivation and energy, that when I’m away it’s like winter sleep in the office! (perhaps Bill Withers said it best? Ain’t no sunshine…) But I told them that’s really something they should reflect on. It’s up to them to find their personal motivation and rise to the role of leading and motivating others in the same way that they appreciate that in me. Ultimately if your motivation is dependent on the organisation or other people, you’ll be left in the lurch when those things aren’t around. Self-motivation and positive attitude are core to everything,” Yassi states unequivocally.

Yassi is also a firm believer in finding one’s motivation outside of the basic needs for money and success, and it is that self-actualisation which can truly only be achieved in the pursuit of the greater good in society, by creating new value that will help others and make a difference.

“If I were to die tomorrow, I would want to know that I’ve made a visible difference, changed the world in some way. I know I’m not there yet, but it’s what I strive for, that’s what keeps me going every single day.”

“The one rule I live by is to be real and genuine in everything I do, both inside and outside of work. If you can’t keep consistent across both worlds, you’ll have a tough time reconciling what you do with who you are as an individual, and life is just too short to be a hypocrite,” she says.

The Zuckerberg Zeitgeist

When it comes to millennials, Yassi has a deep respect and affinity for this maverick generation. She believes that there is more opportunity and greater scope to ‘change the world’ than ever before.

Rani nods and agrees.

“As millennials, we don’t just want a good pay cheque and a respectable job. We want to change the world, for ourselves and for others. It’s about approaching your career holistically, working towards self-fulfilment, through helping others around you to collectively achieve even bigger and better things. Yassi is amazing at finding meaning in the small, day-to-day stuff, tying it into the big picture and showing us how this will impact our world and future.”

There’s no denying that the millennial generation feels a weight of expectation. the goalposts of success have been shifted astronomically and, more exposed than ever to obscene levels of wealth and achievement through social and other media, there’s almost a belief that if one isn’t a millionaire in their thirties, they’ve failed in their life.

“Yes, I want to change the world, I want to be a Zuckerberg. We expect and chase stratospheric success and global impact, and we can’t settle for anything less.” Rani confidently states.

Yassi responds soberingly, “We can get intoxicated by success. It’s like an addictive need to constantly achieve more, to make a bigger impact. We’re always looking up and seeing others above of us, but sometimes you need more perspective. Sometimes you will need to look down and just appreciate where you are and what you’ve achieved, no matter the size of that achievement. We need to appreciate that there are so many others who don’t have a fraction of what we have. The fact that we can focus on our personal growth and success is a luxury in many parts of the world and we take that for granted all the time. Shame on me, but I’m guilty of that too.”

The big data-driven difference

Of course, I couldn’t let Yassi go without getting her thoughts on the topic she’s most passionate about, and her eyes really light up as she tells of the work she’s doing within the big data field.

She describes how Absa’s affinity for big data began back in 2013, with the realisation that they needed to bring their offering back to the customers in a more authentic and intimate way. There was a clear and pressing need to ensure everything the Bank does is tailored to the customer and driven by their needs.

“We understood that we had to focus on our customers and find ways in everything we were doing to give them the best value, otherwise what was the point of it all?” says Yassi. “The true power of data is in making our customers even happier and to give them peace of mind, so instead of going home and feeling uninspired by their interaction with the bank, they go home and say ‘wow, what a bank! They really understand me as an individual and my needs.’

We really aim to leverage big data to return to the days of intimate connections with our customers, when there was just one banker in the small town and he knew every aspect of his customer’s life personally. He knew their financial situation and their banking needs. Rani, as an example, could come in and he would know, ‘oh, she’s got two young kids now, she’s going to need to start saving for their education’ then he would talk about the products and services he specifically prepared for her in the most personal way. This has been lost with scale, but with the help of big data and technology, more than ever, it can become possible again.”

This is becoming essential as customers are evolving and their tolerance for bad experiences is almost non-existent. Yassi makes a habit of personally calling randomly selected Absa customers every two weeks – She laughs as she tells of how positively shocked they are when they find out Absa’s CDO is calling them personally – but she gets a lot of value out of these human connections.

Generally, she finds that the older demographic (40+) is very happy with their service and remain very loyal, but millennials aren’t as easily impressed and wouldn’t hesitate to switch banks after one bad experience. There’s no time for sentiment in the contemporary market.

Yassi specifically mentions the example of predicted overdrafts, wherein instead of allowing customers' accounts to just go into overdraft without a head-up, the bank now utilises their cross-organisational data to anticipate and predict this event and prevent it from happening, warn the customer with a 3-day window and offer individually tailored options, such as shifting funds from another account that they are aware of and save the customer from incurring non self-driven overdraft fees.

“We have the capability to do this, and therefore the natural obligation to do it. We have to do the right thing for our customers and show them with our preventive actions that we are serious about prioritising their care over anything else.” Yassi states with certainty.

When she looks to the future, Yassi has two immediate goals for her team.

“First, we need to become a fully-compliant bank from a regulatory standpoint. We can’t claim to be delivering the full real value to our customers until we achieve that. In parallel, we continue forming consistent, real human relationships with our data-driven experiences, where every customer associates us with an actual person that they can connect with, someone that deeply understands their financial needs and concerns, rather than a big corporate with no distinct personality.

Currently, that’s only truly possible thanks to our great personal bankers and branch colleagues. Our Data teams together with our Bank’s digital and design teams will work really close to make this a scaled reality for every single customer, all the time. This is something we’ve started to explore with our ChatBanking Bot (an African first) together with our aim to connect with newly on-boarded millennial customers through Facebook Messenger, about a range of product Q&A where we saw a 5% increase in activation amongst our pilot population, compared to non-pilot users. We want to build this out.”

“Ultimately we want to become an intelligent bank on the forefront of innovation that really cares for our customers and clients. To do that we need to really understand them, communicate continuously with them about things that matter in their lives and continuously utilise new and existing data to better pre-empt their needs. This way we can then satisfy their needs. This is the banking of the future.”

And as she delivers that last line with her steadfast confidence and infectious energy, you wouldn’t dare bet against her achieving exactly that.

Disclaimer: The advice contained on this blog is for general purposes only and does not take into account individual circumstances, objectives or financial needs. Accordingly, readers are advised to seek appropriate advice from licensed professionals prior to making any investment, or taking up a financial product or service.