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For The Greater Good: Amnah Ajmal, Executive Vice President, Market Development, Eastern Europe, Middle East, and Africa, Mastercard Mastercard's Executive Vice President For Market Development Across Eastern Europe, Middle East, and Africa, explains the company's mission to empower individuals, businesses, and economies.

By Tamara Pupic

You're reading Entrepreneur Middle East, an international franchise of Entrepreneur Media.


Although the topic of gender parity has risen in prominence over the past few years, momentum is key. And Amnah Ajmal, Executive Vice President, Market Development, Eastern Europe, Middle East and Africa, at global technology payments giant Mastercard, is someone who highlights the need for more progress. "When it comes to gender parity, the world is moving in the right direction, but we're not where we need to be yet," she says.

A few barriers that impact women can be put in numbers. At the current rate of progress, it will take 169 years to close the economic participation and opportunity gender gap, as per World Economic Forum's Global Gender Gap Report 2023, which raises concerns. Ajmal highlights the subtle biases against women in the workplace today. "For example, a study performed on attorneys found that anger increased influence for men, but decreased influence for women during group deliberations," she explains. "The study had implications for group decisions in general, and jury deliberations in particular, by suggesting that expressing anger might lead men to gain influence, but women to lose influence over others, even when making identical arguments. These diverging consequences might result in women potentially having less influence on societally important decisions than men, such as jury verdicts."

According to Ajmal, who leads multiple business verticals across 80+ markets, women's empowerment is not just a moral imperative, but a strategically sound business approach. She points out that empowering women translates to empowering the next generation as well, which can ultimately lead to the development of business or economic growth of a country. "To ensure our economic engines run on full capacity, we need to ensure that we include and enable 100% of our possible economic contributors, and not just 50%," Ajmal explains. "This means we need to give them access to training, insights, tools and solutions to thrive as professionals, as business owners, and as individuals who are contributing to a better society."

This explains why Ajmal is spearheading a number of initiatives at Mastercard that are aimed at achieving optimum momentum for gender parity. One is the Social Innovation Incubator (SII) for women's employment, a program Mastercard is supporting, powering, and scaling with the international organization Women Choice. The aim is to create one million jobs for women across the MENA region in the next five years.

Another project is the annual Mastercard Women SME Leaders Awards, designed in partnership with Entrepreneur Middle East to recognize and empower women-owned and run SMEs across the Eastern Europe, Middle East, and Africa region. "Women entrepreneurs, for example, have faced more barriers compared to their male peers when it comes to both networking and celebrating their own achievements- this is why we launched this project," Ajmal notes. "Not only do they face barriers and biases, women also have a self-confidence challenge. Research shows that a man and woman with identical credentials, who both lack experience for a higher-level position, come to different conclusions about being prepared for a promotion. A man is more inclined to assume that he can learn what he's missing while in the new job. He says to himself, 'I am close enough.' The woman is inclined to be more wary, and less willing to step up. Therefore, it is important to instill this confidence in women."

Related: The Mastercard Women SME Leaders Awards Returns On June 6, 2024, In Dubai, UAE; Nominations Are Now Welcome

Amnah Ajmal took part in a panel at the 2024 edition of the Women's Empowerment (WE) Convention, hosted by the WE Council in Dubai. Source: Mastercard

In 2023, Mastercard had also collaborated with the Global Summit of Women conference in Dubai to host many ambitious women, presenting them with an opportunity to share their stories on stage. "I often speak to women entrepreneurs who believe they have very ordinary stories," Ajmal says. "However, when they share them in a conference room filled with hundreds of people, there are often extraordinary anecdotes that inspire others. It's amazing to see these women engage with other successful entrepreneurs, grow their networks, workshop some challenges, and generate learnings."

Ajmal adds that putting one woman in the spotlight has a multiplier effect on many others. "When you help women develop their personal brand, they also inspire other women. I am obsessed with the idea of empowering women," she says. "As a mother to a daughter, I've been able to give her choices that I didn't have. It's important for me to uplift women and make them believe in their dreams." All of these projects are aligned with Mastercard's global commitment to build a sustainable, inclusive digital economy where everyone can prosper. "When Mastercard pledged to connect 50 million small businesses to the digital economy by 2025, an integral part of this objective was equipping 25 million women entrepreneurs with the tools and resources they need to grow their businesses," Ajmal says. "This is a milestone which Mastercard achieved in June 2023- two years ahead of the original plan."

While working on Mastercard's ambitious goals, Ajmal does not shy away from pointing to other, often hushed, conversations playing out in the background in many workplaces. "Regarding the topic of motherhood, it's also a pity that mothers with young children often leave their jobs, because of difficulties in balancing work and childcare," she says. "We must take more pragmatic steps to create programs that bring them back to the workforce. When I speak to women who want to rejoin the workforce, it's often about increasing their self-confidence."

Here, Ajmal adds another important point, which is that companies should rethink today's hiring practices. "We shouldn't just recruit based on past experiences, but also based on the potential to create a better future. There is a way to gain new perspectives, and that is by activating a diverse workforce. After all, in today's rapidly changing times agility and curiosity are the required traits to succeed- and the more diversity, the more curiosity."

Our conversation now turns to how the lack of diversity in terms of gender, background, culture, and experience can eventually stifle innovation. "Diversity means that we can better serve customers, and better innovate solutions, because we tap into diverse perspectives," she says. "That's why we are committed to having a diverse workforce at Mastercard."

In Ajmal's opinion, organizations should hold themselves accountable to progress in this area. One example, Ajmal continues, is Mastercard's Women's Leadership Network, through which the company helps grow future female leaders. "All organizations should look at how they can add value to an industry," she explains. "For us, as a technology company, we also help fuel a future pipeline for women in tech through our Girls4Tech program. Over the past 10 years, this award-winning program has given 6.8 million girls exposure to science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) subjects, and as a result is encouraging more young women to pursue studies in STEM fields."

At the end of the day, Ajmal encourages businesses to fully acknowledge that diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) programs can invariably impact the bottom line. "If you understand that, and accept that, you can develop goals, track your progress, and benefit from that," she says. "Also, it must be everyone's responsibility to help achieve those goals. At Mastercard, we've tied our employee compensation to key environmental, social, and governance (ESG) goals, like pay parity, carbon neutrality, and financial inclusion, making everyone focused on spearheading progress."

Related: The UAE's Empowerment Of Women Is An Example For The World To Follow

Amnah Ajmal spoke at the World Economic Forum Special Meeting in Riyadh in April 2024. Source: Mastercard

By the same token, Mastercard also balances the potential of new technologies, with the responsibilities they bring, for example artificial intelligence (AI), which the company deploys to fight fraud and enhance security. "We have a responsibility to act for the greater good as creators and guardians of safe digital networks that increase business confidence, and drive trust in digital commerce," Ajmal adds. "When it comes to the development of new technologies, it's essential to design appropriate safeguards from the start, and to understand how technology can replicate in ways not initially intended. For example, early AI systems insufficiently represented gender diversity due to biases in training data. The reality is that AI can scale anything, and that includes inequality. It includes biases, and that can be dangerous, so we need to be aware and proactive at every turn and iteration. Fortunately, there are great organizations who are tackling this challenge, guiding future developments of this technology in ways that add value to humanity."

This segues into the themes of leadership, where Ajmal sheds light on her career journey, where prior to her time at Mastercard, also included C-suite roles at Standard Chartered Consumer Bank Malaysia, and Citigroup in UAE, Egypt, UK, and Poland. "Through my own personal experiences, I have seen the value of confidence in oneself, courage to do brave things, humility, and perseverance to continue along what is sometimes the best path, but not the easiest road," she says. "Having worked in the US, Asia, Europe, and the Middle East, I have also learnt the importance of empathy, which plays a critical role in innovation and leadership." Leaders, Ajmal adds, also need to take informed risks and challenges outside their current comfort zones. "This can be one of the most powerful ways to drive positive change at scale," she notes. "And to achieve it, one needs to be passionate for knowledge, but it needs to be informed by a healthy dose of humility. Humility and empathy will enable leaders to drive big bold changes that can transform their business."

As Mastercard continues "to power economies and empower people, so everyone prospers," Ajmal highlights that the company does this by addressing real needs and real pain points to make commerce seamless and digital transformation simpler. "Many of our clients are venturing into new lines of business, for example, financial services, and to help them do this, we lean into data, innovative co-creation, and distribution with telcos, retailers and marketplaces," she says. "We support them in bringing their visions to life." The financial services industry is complex, but, Ajmal concludes, Mastercard offers simple solutions to complex problems "to fuel the bold ambition of its clients."

Related: Digital Transformation Means Little Without Leadership

Tamara Pupic

Entrepreneur Staff

Managing Editor, Entrepreneur Middle East

Tamara Pupic is the Managing Editor of Entrepreneur Middle East.

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