MasterCard CEO discusses diversity, technology, unpredictable world and personal incidents

Ajaypal “Ajay” Singh Banga, CEO of MasterCard, addresses the Jim Blanchard Leadership Forum Monday at the Columbus Convention and Trade Center. --
Ajaypal “Ajay” Singh Banga, CEO of MasterCard, addresses the Jim Blanchard Leadership Forum Monday at the Columbus Convention and Trade Center. --

Kicking off the 11th annual Jim Blanchard Leadership Forum in Columbus Monday, the chief executive officer of MasterCard touched on the need for diversity in the global workforce, embracing rapidly changing technology, and operating in a world that has become very unpredictable.

Ajaypal “Ajay” Singh Banga, a native of India who became a U.S. citizen in 2007, also talked of incidents overseas and in New York after being asked about them by fireside chat moderator Marc Olivie, president and CEO of Columbus-based W.C. Bradley Co.

Olivie recalled traveling with Banga, 56, to Turkey a couple of years ago on business. As they were crossing a street, some men in a vehicle passing by shouted at the MasterCard CEO — who wears a turban because of his religion — that he was a member of the terrorist group Taliban and other derogatory words.

“Here you are the CEO of one of the largest companies in the world, serving on several committees of the president of the United States,” Olivie said, setting up his questions: How does he deal with such ignorance and bigotry, and what will it take to change it?

“You have to shrug it off because you’ve got two options at that time — you can either shrug it off or you can get angry. Angry isn’t going to change it,” said Banga, who displayed a sense of humor during the fireside chat, drawing laughs several times. “By the way, there were four of them in that car and there was only you and me. I learned as a kid you don’t take on a fight that you can’t win. And I wasn’t sure you were going to fight with me, Marc.”

Responding more seriously, the MasterCard executive said the best thing is to smile and take such incidents in stride. He also referred to a couple of moments at a New York City airport after Sept. 11, 2011, when Transportation Security Administration checkpoint staff pulled him aside and told him to take his turban off. At the time, the U.S. government had not addressed the headwear issue.

“My belief is 99.9 percent of people do not wake up in the morning wanting to exhibit behavior that shows them out as being less than tolerant,” Banga said. “That’s my belief. And I also trust that the 99.9 percent of people like you who are walking with me will put your hand and arm on my shoulder and say don’t worry about it. And that happens every single time.”

In terms of business, Banga joined MasterCard in 2009, rising to CEO a year later. That was after working with Citigroup in the Asia-Pacific region. Today, living in New York, he serves with the U.S. presidential advisory committee on trade policy and is a member of a commission on enhancement of national cybersecurity.

MasterCard is a financial juggernaut, with 2.3 billion of its cards in circulation around the world. The company handled 48 billion card transactions in 2015, with $4.6 trillion being charged on that collective plastic. The company employs nearly 12,000 people, with 143 offices in 67 countries. It does not do business in Iran or North Korea.

“That’s probably a good thing,” joked Banga.

Asked by Olivie what it takes to run such a diverse corporation and the benefits that doing so brings, the CEO said it is important for leaders to surround themselves with different people who have had different life and work experiences. It is also very important to embrace all races and cultures and genders, with a focused emphasis on bringing more women into the technology industry and paying them equal to their male counterparts.

“At the end of the day, if you surround yourself with people who look like you, who walk like you and talk like you, and grew up in the same places you did and worked with you in your prior jobs, then you will have a sense of comfort of hiring people around you who have that familiarity,” Banga said. “But you will also have the same blind spots. You will miss the same trends. You will miss the same opportunities.”

Discussing challenges on the world stage, the CEO said the issues include navigating various political and technology topics now in the news. Britain’s vote to exit the European Union and the rise of cybersecurity threats are among them.

Asked specifically what it was like for MasterCard to comply with U.S. sanctions against Russia following that nation’s invasion of Crimea, Banga said his company had to do so, which angered President Vladimir Putin, who had close ties with two large banks there. It was a matter of explaining to the Russians that forcing MasterCard to leave the nation completely was not the answer for its people and economic growth. Instead, it helped the nation set up technology to serve its financial needs.

Banga said his company also is working to develop financial tools, such as basic bank accounts, for those 2 billion people in the world who do have access to them, with Africa an emphasis. With the world becoming Internet-based, it is a priority to spread technology to the masses in order to help them become relevant in the global economy, he said.

The CEO closed out his chat with Olivie by confirming the need to embrace the so-called millennial generation — roughly those born between 1982 and 2004 — in order to business successfully. About 42 percent of MasterCard’s employees fall into that generational timeframe.

“The reason we brought millenials into the company is they’re the only adopters of new technology,” Banga said. “We’re in an industry where technology is changing at a rapid pace, so it is as important as having any other form of diversity in the company.”

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