From Finance to Real Economy, Chowdhry Launches Web Portal

Our featured member for July 2015 is Sajjad Chowdhry.  Sajjad has been a Muppies member since the early days of the group. He has a diverse background with professional stints in several areas of finance. Most recently, he was Senior Vice President & Head of Operations at Capitas Group International (CGI), where he helped to establish multiple financial services platforms and to raise several hundred million dollars for the company’s various projects. Prior to CGI, Sajjad served as Vice President/Area Manager at the Zayan companies which were launched to provide Shari’ah compliant financial services to American Muslims.  Sajjad was the co-founder of DinarStandard.com, a leading web portal dedicated to covering issues related to the business environment in the Muslim World, and has published and lectured widely on topics related to Islamic finance, foreign direct investment, and business environments in developing countries.

Sajjad is now focused on building real economy businesses. He is a partner at a new firm focused on waste oil refining, is advising other entrepreneurs on their ventures, and developing other ventures with a social aspect.

Read more about Sajjad’s experiences below.

Background

  • Current Venture: Falcon Lubricants Company
  • Previous Employment/Ventures: Capitas Group International, Zayan Finance, Dinar Standard
  • Education:
    • Master of International Affairs, Columbia University
    • Master of Arts in Islamic Studies and Christian-Muslim Relations, Hartford Seminary
    • Bachelors of Arts, Hofstra University
  • Industries: Oil & Energy, Education/Training
  • Location: New York

Throughout your career, you have held a variety of roles where you’ve directly launched, or helped to launch, new initiatives or companies.  What skills do you think have been integral for you to accomplish this and how did you go about developing these skills?  What tactical advice do you have for others looking to cultivate similar skills?

I think there are several traits or skills that have helped me in my journey. While I have the type of academic training that allows me to see details, I tend to be a generalist overall. Having been part of a team that launched multiple platforms and now working on my own businesses I think the generalist mindset has been critical. I also try to be a methodical thinker which helps me problematize issues in an organized manner and helps me to think about potential solutions. In addition, resourcefulness, organization, persistence, a commitment to teamwork, and a very simple drive to get things done have all been traits that have helped me.

Tell us about your shift from finance to the real economy.

To date, I’ve spent the majority of my work life in jobs related to finance. I think finance is a critical part of the economy. But I personally think that over the last 25 years finance has “reared its ugly head”. The result is that we now live in a hyper-financialized world. Partly due to the transactional nature of the finance industry and the disproportionate growth of financial assets, finance has exacerbated systemic flaws in the misallocation of resources and the distribution of wealth. Finance should serve as a means to fuel the growth of the real economy, backed by real assets and real people. Too much of the exact opposite is happening. Financial assets themselves, backed by very little “real” assets have caused massive shocks to the global economy. It’s one of the roots of the current state of “disequilibrium” that we find the world in. Money is a tool, not a commodity. I don’t see it as an end in and of itself.

My father, a medical doctor, has a particularly apt analysis of this. When he migrated to the United States in the mid 70s he says that three industries were safe from hyperfinancialization – health care, education, and housing. Today, all three have faced, or are facing, crises due to the unsustainable/excessive levels of debt and over financialization put on them. Look at the skyline of any major city in the world. The banks and insurance companies are among, if not, the tallest.

So I shifted into the real economy. I’m focused right now on a business that re-refines waste oil and creates multiple products for use in industrial lubricants. We create real products. I am also looking at opportunities in the education and employment sectors where I see gaps that can use viable solutions.

You were a co-founder of DinarStandard, which is now a growth strategy research and advisory firm.  What is the story behind its foundation?  What inspired you to start it?  

DinarStandard was born as more of an online magazine/portal. The founder, Rafiuddin Shikoh and I had a shared sense that there is a tremendous amount of potential in the economies of the Muslim World and that it needed a new lens to be discussed and profiled. When we founded the effort in 2004 we took some novel ideas to the market. First, we wanted to rank the top 100 business across the Muslim World. Second, we wanted to highlight trends that seemed to support the development of these markets. Third, we wanted to rediscover some lost gems from Muslim history that could apply to business. We were fortunate to have a very good following globally. I had to leave the practice in 2009 to focus on my work overseas. Rafiuddin Shikoh has continued to develop the business and successfully pivoted into advisory. He is doing very good work with a global client base. I am proud to see that something I had a direct role in starting continues to develop and have an impact today.

What do you see as one of your greatest professional accomplishments?  What was the biggest obstacle you faced in accomplishing this goal?   How did you overcome it and what did you learn from it?  

I don’t recognize a dichotomy or division between the religious and professional spheres. A central part of any Muslim’s belief is enshrined in the concept of Tawhid, or Unity. While technically, this refers to the Unity of God in all His attributes and qualities, I think the concept has wide implications for our lives. So I have always tried to view life in a very holistic manner. Further, this is what God teaches us in the Qur’an where we read, “Say, ‘Indeed my prayer, and all my acts of worship, and my living, and my dying are for God, the Sustainer of all the worlds.’”  Based on this, I see Islam as an enabler for my life because it frees me from doing anything for other than God. I also don’t see Islam simply as a set of do’s and don’t’s. For me, Islam is a problem solving methodology. When I encounter a situation I apply that methodology to come up with a result. Sometimes that means I have to walk away from a situation while I take others on fully. I’ve been in some very tough situations where I have had to make compromises that didn’t sit well with me. I try everyday not to let that happen again.

What is the best career or leadership advice you’ve received and how has it shaped your decisions and enable you to reach where you are today?   

The best advice I received is clearly from my parents. My late mother, God bless her, would always ask me, “Who did you go meet today?”, “What are your plans?”, “Did you find out something new today?” She was always pushing me outside of my comfort zone. My father’s example continues to be a motivator. He always had two pieces of simple advice – 1) Do something that you can do independently, i.e. try not to be in a job situation, and 2) try to be the best at what you do. I keep these ideas with me every day.

In your view, how are Muslims faring in America today?  
Overall I am proud of the strides our community has made with respect to articulating their identity in a very challenging environment. American Muslims are building, or have built, institutions focused on policy, advocacy, education, and spirituality while negotiating numerous endogenous and exogenous variables as best as they can. In addition, our community has produced leaders in business, academia, activism, and beyond. That being said I personally think that we need to focus our efforts around a three-point agenda including religious literacy, human resource development, and financial sustainability. I am devoting personal time to thinking about solutions for each.

What is one of your current personal or professional development goals, and what are you doing on a daily/regular basis to achieve this?

This is a good question. Personally, I am working toward a more balanced life. This means giving time to work, my family, and myself. For the last, I am reading a lot more, trying to take care of myself physically, and have restarted some of my long lost hobbies. I try and interact with the Qur’an and the Prophet’s (s) Sunnah every day. This is something I sincerely recommend all Muppies do. With regard to my business my vision is to build enterprises that have an integrated social element in their structure. Over the next 8-10 years I see that resulting in a diverse set of businesses that have directly benefited critical institutions needed for the Muslim community.

Connect with Sajjad through his Linkedin profile or on Twitter at @SajjadChowdhry.

Each month, Muppies features one of our members to share about their professional development story and the insights they’ve gained along the way. This interview was originally conducted in July of 2015. Opinions are of the member and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of Muppies, Inc.

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