January issue 2004

By | Business | People | Q & A | Published 16 years ago

From local boys that made good abroad to die-hard patriots and former expats, the following high-fliers prove there is no one route to making it big.

Study in Success — Rizwan Tufail, Regional Manager, Education, Microsoft Middle East and Africa; Co-founder, Clickmarks

“One day soon, everyone in this world will be able to talk to each other over the computer,” said 14-year-old Rizwan Tufail excitedly to his mother, back in 1982. Recalling his wonder years, the now 35-year old co-founder of Clickmarks, one of the most successful software start-ups based in the US, and current head of Microsoft’s educational and business initiatives in the Middle East and Africa, chuckles as he says, “My mother looked at me with the same expression she had when I had told her I had learnt how to fly — a mixture of sadness at my mental state, resignation and compassion — after all I was her son, crazy as I may be.”

Precocious at best, little Rizwan was never afraid of taking risks, translating his “crazy dreams” into reality: his first invention, a programme run on a brick-box PC, the Sinclair Spectrum, designed to hook up to television in order to download files on a cassette recorder. But like the white noise that was the product of that love’s labour, many years later, Tufail found himself an unlikely engineering graduate. A driving ambition to do something different with his life led him to switch gears. Predictably, he shone once again, winning the marketing gold medal at IBA. But unlike his friends who urged him to climb the corporate ladder, Tufail chose to tread the path less travelled, turning down job offers from multinationals like Proctor and Gamble to join the Dawn Group of Newspapers.
Although the decision seemed nonsensical to friends and family at the time, Tufail definitely had the last laugh. “This was the first in a series of decisions that made no sense to people around me, but proved instrumental in taking me to the rather happy place I am in today,” he says. It was at Dawn that Tufail made the acquaintance of Altamash Kamal,who introduced him to the wondrous world of the internet, while designing the publication’s newsletter and website. A couple of invigorating years at the Graduate School of Business at the University of Chicago followed, where he read an MBA in econometrics, statistics and quantitative marketing. The dot-com boom of the late 90s propelled our home-grown IT whiz to start his own software company, in partnership with virtual friends, Umair Khan and Christine Odero. Merely a week after initial ideas were exchanged, the entrepreneurs found themselves finalising details on equity stakes, possible partners and financing options. Umair, Christine and Tufail met for the first time two months later, and gave birth to their baby — Clickmarks.

Four years and a few financing rounds later, the trio managed to raise more than 25 million dollars in venture funding from key Silicon Valley venture capital partners, and turned the company that started out of their bedrooms to a global entity employing more than 70 people worldwide. Says Tufail, “The company’s first address was a mailbox rented at Mailboxes, Etc. in a suburb of San Francisco, but replacing the “box number” in the company address to a “suite number” meant that the mailbox served as our official swanky address!” Today the company has a mature product line including middleware software, portal infrastructure and an integration platform, more than three-million technology subscribers worldwide and customers ranging from Vodafone in the UK to NTT in Japan. Along the way Tufail and partners sold and acquired at least two software companies, propelling them to the exalted ranks of dollar millionaires.

Despite his spectacular financial success, Tufail remains surprisingly down to earth. Asked if his most treasured memory was when he successfully negotiated essential venture capital funding which kept Clickmarks in business at a time when only one month’s worth of operating expenses remained in the bank, Tufail maintains that particular high pales in comparison to memories of bumping into an old friend, whom he later made his wife, on a company business trip.

Itching for new challenges, Tufail moved out of the US late last year. And since opportunity always knocks for those who recognise it, a chance meeting with a friend led to Tufail joining Microsoft, with responsibilities of managing their education initiatives and business across 79 countries, including Pakistan. Says Tufail, “I feel the same zeal, excitement and passion while helping countries and regions chart their education strategies,policies and tools that I felt when I was setting up my own company. I am a different sort of entrepreneur today — a social entrepreneur.”

rizwan-tufail-jan04Q: You went through a potpourri of professions and qualifications before setting up your own software firm in the US. How did you manage the transition from employee of local newspaper Dawn to software mogul?

A: I found myself graduating with an engineering undergraduate degree, with the strong realisation that this is not what I wanted to do for the rest of my life. So I decided to learn my ABCs in the world of business. Two years later I found myself proficient at the ABCs, and walked out of school with a gold medal in marketing. Like everyone at IBA, I am ashamed to admit that I was all set for a life lived in corporate oblivion when I was plucked out of nowhere by Hameed Haroon, the then Deputy Chief Executive of Pakistan Herald Publications Limited. Hameed wanted me to help him execute strategic projects that he was working on there. Many sleepless, agonising nights later, I turned down offers from Procter & Gamble to take up Hameed’s offer. Dawn ended up teaching me much more than I had originally bargained for, mostly positive. It was here that I began to appreciate how managing a business was all about managing people and teams. It was also there that my interest in gaining a better understanding of business ignited a desire to go back to school for a PhD. A couple of invigorating years at the Graduate School of Business at the University of Chicago followed, studying econometrics, statistics and quantitative marketing.

It was the boom of the late 90s that finally made me jump into the fire. Through mutual acquaintances I got in touch with Umair Khan, one of the co-founders of Chowk, and discussed some ideas. His first reaction was that it was an interesting idea but had little juice in it, so the search for other partners continued. Then two days later Umair called and said he wanted to talk business. That’s how my own software start-up, Clickmarks, started out.

It would be difficult to pin down exactly which memory I treasure most of the time spent running Clickmarks. Was it the time Umair and I sat in Starbucks trying to convince the first software engineer to join us, or the weekend spent at the office putting together modular furniture for the engineers who would join us the next day? Then again, I have some brilliant memories of sharing hotel rooms because we did not have enough money to pay for travel expenses for two, and the time I had to maintain a straight face while telling one of our partners that we had moved out of our previous premises because they were too cramped, when in fact we had actually moved into our first real office from the mailbox serving as our workplace previously. However, something tells me that my most treasured memory of those days was actually the time I ran into an old friend, now my wife, on a business trip.

Q: Why did you decide to leave Clickmarks?

A: All good things have to come to an end. Late last year I decided to move out of the United States because of personal commitments, and told my friends at Clickmarks I was moving on to pursue other things. I was already fully vested as a founder at the company, and was by then itching for new challenges.

It was at this juncture that I came across an opportunity that would fundamentally change what made me tick. All of a sudden, the objectives of my life expanded beyond the personal and extended to the community. I had always been interested in education, and one of my friends asked me if I would be interested in contributing to Microsoft’s increasing interest in education, particularly across my region. So late this year I joined Microsoft doing just that. Today I feel the same zeal, excitement and passion while helping countries and regions chart their education strategies policies and tools, that I felt when I was setting up my own company. For me, every day holds the promise of a better future — for me, my region, and my country.

Show Me the Money — Amir Zafar, VP, ABN Ambro

Providing one seizes the right opportunities,” says 31-year-old Amir Zafar, “there is no limit to what one can achieve.”

Still at what he calls, an “early stage of his career” this investment banker has certainly always seized his. Bagging a scholarship to read for an MBA at IBA, Zafar graduated as one of the top players of his class — and the field, as sportsman of the year, with various medals in squash and hockey to his name — and he simply has not missed a goal since. “I went into banking because I appreciated its global aspect,” he says. A wise move perhaps, given that he has been on a roll — in more ways than one. Pushing himself up the corporate ladder from assistant manager at Citibank Karachi to Vice President at ABN AMRO, Zafar has enjoyed stints in Singapore, Malaysia, Hong Kong and London in the short span of his banking career. A strong desire for “personal growth” mixed with a liberal regard for drive and ambition, led Zafar to pursue another MBA from INSEAD in France, seek British residency, and accept a painful paycut upon moving base from the financial capital in the east, Hong-Kong, to its epicentre in the west. However, for Zafar, “the perspective that experience brings is tremendously valuable.” Having recently conducted a merger of his own, wedding 30-year old Karachiite Noreen Kazim — new-media manager with Ford of Britain who also has two MBAs to her name, last month — Zafar says, “other aspects and interests will now also assume importance in my life, particularly as I start my marriage. However, there are a number of professional goals that I would like to achieve over the next few years.” So what does the future hold for this corporate-climbing couple? For the moment, a new leaf in Amsterdam, where Zafar joins ABNs European Healthcare Unit.

amir-zafar-jan04Q: The usual motivation for pursuing a career in banking is the money involved. Is the cliché true in your case?

A: I went into banking because I appreciated its global aspect. There are few professions where the connection with the rest of the world is as immediate. Aside from the confidence that I worked well with numbers, that was the main reason for me to join the industry.

I started my career in 1994 in Pakistan with Citibank before moving to ABN AMRO for which I have since worked in Singapore, Malaysia, Hong Kong, London and now in Amsterdam. Last year, I took a year out from work and went back to school for an MBA at INSEAD before returning to the sector. All in all, I’ve spent nine years in banking and I must say, for me the profession certainly defies the ‘boring’ stereotype associated with it.

As time has progressed, I obviously developed a much stronger affinity with the profession. To cite but one aspect, I find interacting with my clients and working with ideas and structures to be fascinating.

Q: What’s the secret of your success: timing or hard work?

A: I feel that there could be two approaches to building careers. One is specialisation where there is a tendency to build careers around a small niche or market. I, on the other hand, have changed my job function, level of responsibility or market every second or third year. I believe provided you seize the right opportunities, the perspective that such an experience brings is tremendously valuable. I have been fortunate to have had those opportunities. Currently, I work with European healthcare clients. It is a very interesting industry where on one hand you work with corporations who are working on cutting edge advancement in medicine and technology and on the other hand the governments who are facing the challenges in financing the expenditure related to the provision of medical services.

Q: Was working in Pakistan ever a consideration?

A: I moved out of Pakistan in 1996. It is something that I sought and even though I loved living and working in Pakistan, I seized the opportunity purely out of a desire for personal growth. It is a value that I hold close to my heart. Over the years, I have had some incredible opportunities. For example, at the age of 26, I built a large corporate client business for my employer in Malaysia managing a team of eight.

I have found living and working in different countries to be a very rewarding experience. One must, however, be open-minded and demonstrate some degree of cultural adaptability to truly enjoy the experience. It also challenges you on various levels, both personal and professional. For example, on a personal level, the biggest challenge in raising a family abroad is in identifying and adhering to a core set of values. It is a challenge, as you have to exercise discretion in what is core and part of yourself that you wish to pass on to the next generations, recognising that a dogmatic approach is probably going to frustrate your family and lead to misplaced priorities.

Q: Have you experienced any discrimination post 9/11?

A: The world is indeed a different place since September 11 and things like travel, etc., are becoming more difficult for a Pakistani national. One the other hand, there is wide difference in public opinion in the west and state policy on a number of these issues. I have not noticed a significant difference in the attitudes of the people that I work and socially interact with who, by and large, still value diversity. Unfortunately, it is the States that seem to be the main actors in matters of foreign policy rather than people, and all Pakistanis, without distinction, are facing increasing pressures on many fronts.