From Citibank to UAE-based startup Postpay as a CFO – how Varun Gehani made a bold switch to ride the fintech wave. Should you?
After a 10-year fulfilling career at CitiBank, Varun Gehani decided to join the UAE startup scene with Postpay. Postpay is the only BNPL company in the Middle East to have its own virtual card. A virtual card that sits in your wallet and allows you to shop anywhere and use us as buy now, pay later.
- CA Varun Gehani’s professional journey began with Citi India.
- For 10 years, he kept climbing the ladder, but he changed track to join the exciting startup space in the UAE, with Postpay.
- He tells us why the bold move was worth it.
From aspiring to be a pilot to qualifying as a CA
I was born and raised in the suburbs of Mumbai, India.
I never aspired to be a Chartered Accountant (CA). Instead, I wanted to be a pilot. Unfortunately, finances could not allow me to pursue my first choice of career.
After deep contemplation and discussion with seniors, I decided to pursue Chartered Accountancy as a profession. I always had a flair for numbers hence CA resonated with me.
While choosing my career, my father did not encourage me to follow my instincts as the entire Gehani clan was (and still is) truly business-minded. He urged me to follow the same route.
Despite the reservations, I chose to explore the area that lay outside my boundaries and enrolled at the Institute of Chartered Accountants of India (ICAI) for my Chartered Accountancy course.
Here comes another turn… during my CA articles, I realised that auditing was not really for me!
What should I be doing now?
Luckily, there is an option to pursue industrial training and I decided to switch industries.
I interned with Citibank Mumbai, in the credit risk management services function of corporate banking at Citigroup.
I was now enjoying my work, and this proved to be one of my best decisions.
Fast forward, after a lot of tears and perseverance, I qualified as a Chartered Accountant.
Growing at Citibank and looking for global opportunities
The most encouraging factor of pursuing a career with Citi is that you can explore different opportunities across geographies, functions, and products.
That was the most exciting part for me and thus I continued my journey at Citi even after qualifying as a CA.
I started off in the Credit Risk Management Division and subsequently moved to securities and fund services as a relationship manager - from a mid/back-end role to a front-end role.
For those who do not know about securities and fund services, it is the custody business of the bank that allows mutual funds as well as debt partners to trade in the market.
It was an exciting profile but in 2012, after almost four years at Citi, I wanted to challenge myself further.
Also, around the same time, I got married and we (my wife and I) started exploring opportunities abroad.
Starting in the UAE from scratch
Instantly, a couple of opportunities came up with Citi, one of them in Malaysia.
I decided to not pursue the opportunity as it did not tick all our boxes, instead, we were keen on Singapore or the UAE. However, at that point, Citi UAE had no new openings.
I did not relent and continued pursuing a career in the UAE and on my third trip to UAE, I eventually cracked a role in Abu Dhabi Commercial Bank (ADCB) as a Credit Analyst.
Everything seemed perfect but the only hiccup was the job was in Abu Dhabi while my wife’s office was in Sharjah.
Nonetheless, I took up the role.
We both worked in two different Emirates but lived in Dubai. It was truly a long drive to work, almost 200 kms a day, for both of us but we enjoyed the journey.
After 10 months when an opportunity came up, I returned to Citibank as a Credit Manager in Dubai. I worked for about two years before pushing myself to take the next challenge in the coverage division.
From an MNC to a startup
After spending a while in the coverage space at Citi, I pushed myself to take on yet another challenge and hopefully, a much bolder career move.
In 2018, Citi was setting up its digital footprint within Commercial Bank. Being an avid follower of the digital space, I decided to give up my portfolio to enrich the product and client profile at the Bank.
Somewhere in 2018, I met Tariq Sheikh, Founder and Chief Executive Officer (CEO) of Postpay - a Buy Now Pay Later fintech.
I still remember that conversation with Tariq when he came down to Citi, “Hey buddy, I am looking for some assistance on my products and I am looking for someone from the banking sector to join us at Postpay.”
Our conversation went well, but we did not connect for about a year-and-a-half after that day. Understandably, he was busy building his business and I was busy with my career at Citi.
As destiny would have it, almost three years later in 2021 our paths crossed again and we had a casual conversation over coffee. By now the digital ecosystem had taken off in the UAE and I was closely observing the space.
Given my experience and interest in the payments and risk space, I was naturally driven toward the fintech revolution.
However, the big question was– should I jump into the startup world from a flourishing career at one of the largest global banks?
The decision-making process was not easy!
On the personal front, it was not difficult to have this conversation with my wife because she belongs to the same field.
Coming from a close-knit family, I had a more challenging conversation with my mother who said, “You are working for Citi now and moving into fintech, please explain it to me first and help me understand what you do. What do I tell others about my son’s profession? Which company are you working for? Postpay? What does it do?”
On the professional front, while taking such a step, the first consideration is - whether the industry and my timing of entry was ideal.
The second was the business model. I had to consider if it was a future-looking one and truly solving a problem or was it just me suffering from the fear of missing out (FOMO).
Third, it was the company itself. Whether it was the right setup, with a decent structure and supported by strong board members. So, I had several questions for Tariq, the Founder of Postpay- about the governance, financials, future goals, and ambitions. And believe me with every subsequent meeting I had with him, all of my questions were answered.
Lastly, I would be dishonest if I were to say I did not look at compensation. Instead of just being stuck on an extremely high remuneration, a handsome Employee Stock Options (ESOPs) is a good bump from a financial angle because you can expect returns, once the company grows.
What also helped me was the fact that the UAE startup culture has been growing phenomenally over the last couple of years. This growth is attributable to the government’s decisions to support the startup ecosystem. It has established a $100 million-plus fund that invests in startups in the country.
All of it combined made the decision easy and I made the move... one of my best decisions.
Should you join a startup?
I think if you want to get a 360-degree learning experience across every aspect, startups are the right place for you.
Whether you are an entrepreneur or joining an already existing startup, this is a great ecosystem to learn and expand your boundary in every function of the company, including sales, marketing, operations as well as compliance.
Having worked across functions at Citi – I have experienced risk management, operations, governance as well as compliance. Most importantly, I have led business and strategy.
I think if you have seen all this, it is truly the time for you to switch on as an operator, roll up your sleeves, get your hands dirty and contribute in a wholesome way.
When you enter the startup space the sense of creation you experience will satisfy you for the rest of your life.
I have always challenged myself. This is because I believe learning stops when we refuse to get out of our comfort zone.
Ultimately, we are a product of our choices. If you are making the right choices at the right time, then I believe you will surely be successful.
To all my fellow CAs, if you do not change your path or do not get out of your comfort zone, you will not learn anything new. You may keep honing your skills, but these will reach their capacity sooner than later.
(Transcribed by Liza Akhtar and video by Subhankar Dutta)