The Finance Futurists are an elite group of leaders who embrace constant evolution as a necessity in the ever-changing world of finance.
More than number-crunchers, these leaders represent a new era for finance—one defined by a shift from pure analytical expertise to emotional intelligence and strong communication skills as well. Here, we speak to Aqsa Zubair, FinTech Specialist at the Bermuda Monetary Authority (BMA), about what the future holds for the finance function and her advice for ambitious finance leaders. Aqsa’s drive, determination, and unique skillset are sure to serve her well as one of today’s leading young finance visionaries.
Aqsa is a twice–nominated Rising Star for Ascend Canada, a FinTech 30 under 30 nominee by the Digital Finance Institute, and one of the world’s first and youngest Blockchain regulators. She has been instrumental in building a FinTech and Blockchain regime in Bermuda as a FinTech Specialist to the Bermuda Monetary Authority. With Blockchain in its early stages, Aqsa’s FinTech and Blockchain thought leadership and blockchain regulatory framework development are moving the dial on FinTech and Blockchain regulation globally.
In her free time, Aqsa also serves as a FinTech Learning Facilitator for a FinTech course catered to global executives on FinTech disruption and innovation at Harvard University. Aqsa is an innovation change agent and believes in the power of passion, empowerment, and teamwork to serve as driving forces to achieve outcomes.
She is currently writing a book catered to business women across Canada on best practices to navigate the corporate world as a young millennial in a brand new industry.
We recently chatted with Aqsa regarding her growth and evolution as a finance leader, being solution-oriented to further her industry, keeping financial inclusion top–of–mind as a major world issue she wishes to solve, and seeking advice on what young professionals can do to cultivate change in the finance world.
When and how did you start your career in finance? Why did finance appeal to you at the start of your career, and why does it appeal to you now?
Aqsa Zubair: I stumbled into a finance career accidentally. As a child, I was always very ambitious, keen to learn and solve, and extremely passionate about my projects and relationships. When asked what I wanted to be when I grew up, I didn’t respond with a professional title, but instead with problems I wanted to solve for, or ideas I wanted to explore.
I was born in Pakistan, and my childhood experiences continue to shape the work I do today in finance. Let me explain – growing up I saw first-hand how laborers without access to technology would rely on cash payments for survival. If a natural disaster occurred, limiting ease of access to the working site, payment would be delayed and subsequent downstream implications would follow. This is the type of issue I wanted to solve for, and I did not know what career or specific learning journey I needed to indulge in to further achieve my objective. This, and the fact that I saw very little representation of people like me as leaders in this space, drew me even more so, as I am not one to shy away from a challenge. This was a challenge that I had to accept.
My alma mater was the University of Waterloo – an educational institution that cultivated my entrepreneurial mind by allowing me to take courses in all subject areas, while also providing me with an opportunity through a co–operative education to gain practical work experience before even graduating. In my university life, I embedded myself in many start-ups, serving as a founding member, advisor, consultant, and so on. I found a certain thrill in being able to solve problems, build new things, and remain on the cutting edge of new innovations.
This thirst for knowledge and building led me to a career in technology strategy and architecture consulting in the financial services industry at Deloitte Canada. I worked with all types of people and institutions, all across the world, on exciting projects marrying the worlds of finance and emerging technologies. Each new consulting project taught me about how to develop strategies to future-proof organizations, build complex financial products, design new processes, and take an innovative idea from blueprint to implementation. As I continued to grow my portfolio of work in this space, I became more and more passionate about building FinTech and blockchain strategies and product offerings.
The blockchain industry has intrigued me since the early days of my involvement in the space. The idea of reimagining the manner in which we transact, share information, and think about value beyond what we have historically understood, is incredible and extremely empowering. Blockchain technology has enabled the individual person to take control of their data and finances, while improving access to financial services for the masses. Today a wide range of use cases, proof of concepts, and live applications of FinTech or blockchain solutions exist that create efficiency gains, reduce costs, and develop innovative products that cater to global markets.
With the accelerated rate of change happening in this space, it’s more exciting than ever to be in a blockchain regulatory role with a globally renowned regulatory institution – the Bermuda Monetary Authority, the sole financial regulator in Bermuda. My work at the Bermuda Monetary Authority is focused on creating a novel regulatory framework for digital assets that is setting a standard for blockchain regulation globally, as well as cultivating an innovative culture within the organization and with the external FinTech and blockchain ecosystems. With this, the aim is to strike a balance between protection and pragmatism – upholding our high standards while acknowledging innovation and market needs as important factors. A breeding ground for financial market innovation.
To support my work (and much to my delight), there is a strong emphasis on cultivating an innovation culture at the BMA – prioritizing the development of thought leadership to understand new blockchain and FinTech phenomena as they arise, collaborating globally with regulators and industry participants to benchmark progress and provide and solicit feedback on regulatory and market innovation, and conducting risk–based regulatory supervision against principles–based regulatory frameworks.
Finance always did and will continue to appeal to me because of the problems it addresses and the solutions it can enable. It is one of the most fundamental cornerstones of our societies and I know if we push hard and innovate, we will redefine how we emerge and operate for generations to come.
What do you view as the biggest impact technology is having on finance today?
AZ: Technology is helping us fundamentally reimagine finance. Data-driven decision-making is enabling institutions and entrepreneurs to build financial products that serve an array of market segments, more than ever before. Whether it be the way we operate as consumers or as developers, we are seeing efficiency gains and maintaining the ability to have specialized services that meet our evolving demands.
The rate of technological evolution and adoption has also become exponential in nature. We are increasingly seeing more companies indulge in innovation to produce more products and services that fit our individual needs. Emerging technologies – like blockchain, artificial intelligence, and the internet of things, or a combination of the aforementioned – are automating, securing, and innovating our existing processes.
For innovation to occur in a safe and sustainable manner, there will need to be rules and regulations developed to effectively provide guidance and room for growth and development. This is where regulatory sandboxes and other innovative regulatory approaches can make an impact that matters, like those I work on at the Bermuda Monetary Authority.
What advice do you have for other finance leaders and up-and-comers?
AZ: Do not let the fear of being wrong keep you from asking the tough questions. A lot of practices in finance (not dissimilar to other professions) have been developed by our predecessors because that may have been the best way to solve a problem at that point in time. However, just because it worked then, does not mean that it is the best solution now. Challenge yourself to identify where you’d like to see your organization in five years, 10 years, 15 years, and the type of projects you wish to work on or have in your portfolio – and start now. Dedicate a few hours every week to build and innovate and you’ll be surprised by your progress and learnings along the way.
Do not be afraid to draw parallels to other verticals within your organization or pursue collaborative efforts. Gone are the days of siloed organizations and thinking – the more diverse your stakeholders, the better solution you may develop. Have an idea? Discuss it with your colleagues in marketing, executives within your organization, student interns, etc. By doing so, you not only achieve a better outcome, but build a cohort of professionals that have bought into your cause.
Nurture an entrepreneurial mind – whether or not you have a formal leadership title or not. The ability to think of the company and any project you work on as your own, will alter your approach, as well as your investment into it, and will allow you to think bigger picture.
Regardless of level or tenure, seek out mentor and sponsor relationships within and outside your organization – and make them reciprocal! These relationships, if cultivated, can allow you to build a circle of trusted confidantes that will prove to be rewarding throughout your career – whether it be as trusted allies, project sponsors, or even sounding boards.
Be comfortable with the idea that the manner in which the industry operates may fundamentally shift throughout your career – always be willing to learn, grow, and adapt. Someone once told me to “ride the wave” and undoubtedly so, when you do, it takes you to new opportunities you would not have imagined unlocking.
Always focus on and try to build your personal brand. This brand can be your work persona coupled with your passion areas outside of work – this becomes your identity and what makes you unique to any project or organization you with to join.
What professional opportunity in the coming months or years are you most excited about?
AZ: I am really excited about using blockchain and FinTech as vehicles for building innovative solutions for greater social impact. One step closer to solving for financial inclusion!
Meet the Finance Futurists
Meet the Finance Futurists and discover their advice and insights on how to become a trailblazing CFO.