Mudassir Sheikha Bio

Mudassir Sheikha is the CEO and co-founder of Careem, which started out as a ride-sharing company and has expanded to deliver a range of services to customers in the Middle East. In January of 2020, Careem was acquired by Uber for $3.1 billion. Before starting Careem, Sheikha was an associate partner for McKinsey & Co. A native of Pakistan, he has a master’s degree in computer science from Stanford and spent a decade after graduation working on start-ups in Silicon Valley.

Episode release October 31

How Mudassir Sheikha’s Rideshare Company Careem Became a Unicorn in the Middle East

A near-death experience led Mudassir Sheikha and his business partner to a deep sense of purpose in creating the rideshare company Careem. It became a rare startup “unicorn” in the Middle East.  

Transcript

Ranjay Gulati:

People across the world spend an enormous amount of their time getting from place to place. This is especially true in many developing countries. Car ownership can be quite limited. And public transportation is often poor or non-existent. That’s where Careem rolled in. Careem is a ride share service now owned by Uber, but it began as an independent startup founded in 2012 by two business consultants. One grew up in Pakistan. The other is a fellow from Sweden. Careem quickly became a business unicorn, a private startup valued at a billion dollars or more. My guest on this episode is the Pakistani side of the duo, Mudassir Sheikha. He says that having a clear and embedded sense of purpose was critical to Careem’s founding and will continue to serve as its driving force into the future.

Welcome to Deep Purpose, a podcast about courage and commitment in turbulent times, I’m Ranjay Gulati, a professor of business administration at the Harvard Business School. About a decade ago, Mudassir Sheikha was working at the business consulting firm McKinsey. So was Magnus Olsson. Despite their vastly different upbringings and life experiences, one being forced to reconsider their place on the planet, following a life threatening scare, and the other drawing inspiration from the difficulties of everyday life in his home region, the two united around a shared vision. They wanted to strike out on their own. They also wanted to create a company that was big and would impact the lives of others, nothing trivial or easy. They wanted to make a lasting mark on the world. So Sheikha and Olsson looked around them at the Middle East and North Africa, where they found a unique market opportunity.

Mudassir Sheikha:

In most of the places we operate, there wasn’t a public transportation system to begin with in our cities. So most people were not able to avail transportation systems that you might be familiar with in other parts of the world. And what ended up happening was people that could afford cars, they were able to sort of get around, but many people were not able to move as frequently as they wanted to because the right options were not available. Especially women were not able to get into crowded buses or get to the top of buses, which is sometimes required in these parts of the world to go from point a to point B. So that’s one thing that is different. There is a void that had to be filled versus something that had to be displaced, which creates pretty interesting dynamics in how the society approaches you.

The second thing that is different is in most of these ride-hailing businesses or any technology platform, you build on top of existing systems. To look at ride-hailing as an example, you need a reliable mapping infrastructure for you to identify where to pick people up from and where to take people. You need some way to collect payments from customers and disperse those payments to captains or drivers. Now, in more advanced societies, these things have been built, have been matured, and you can just tap into existing infrastructure and build your services on top. What ends up happening in places like the Middle East, these things don’t exist at the same level of maturity as they exist in other parts of the world. So mapping infrastructure is not as reliable. We have to build our own locations databases to make these services reliable.

People didn’t have credit cards or digital payment methods, which basically meant that we had to figure out how do we work with cash in efficient ways that don’t compromise the user experience too much. So there’s a lot of building blocks like this that is not present at the outset that you need to build so that you can actually offer the same kind of experience that you are comfortable and familiar with in other parts of the world. So those are, I think, the two high level differences, I would say, compared to the rest of the world, more developed parts of the world, I’m sure these experiences are similar to what you see in other emerging markets.

Ranjay Gulati:

Now, when you started, you were not only looking at the customer demand, but you were also looking at the driver experience. And I found interesting. You are naming the business, Careem, which for those who don’t know means generous. Could you explain how you came to decide you were going to call the business, Careem of all things, not ride share?

Mudassir Sheikha:

There is a story before Careem started, Ranjay, which I believe is a gift to Careem at birth. And the story was basically Magnus’ story. Magnus was my co-founder, his story with life in 2011, a year before Careem started, he had a near death experience, which had him reflect on life and build a view that if he makes it, he’s going to build something big and more importantly, build something meaningful, that’ll be his legacy on the planet. So literally on day one of Careem, we were not answering the question, what are we doing and how are we doing it? We were answering the question, why are we doing it? That kind of thinking made us want to build something that can be around for decades and centuries to come. And we wrote down our first version of values and the name that we started looking for also had to be something that had to be a little bit values driven some way.

And Careem, as you mentioned, means generous in Arabic. It’s a very core value in this part of the world. And when we talk about the name Careem, we say, we want to be Careem to our customers, to our captains, to our communities and to our colleagues. So those are four Cs of Careem, and Careem to customers basically means deliver outstanding customer service. Careem to our captains means looking after captains holistically, not just after giving them work, but looking after their families, looking after their welfare, number of holistic way. Careem to our colleagues means looking after their professional development and finally Careem to our communities means making sure that we feel a sense of ownership and responsibilities for the communities that we serve. So let’s do the right thing and make sure that we drive progress in our communities versus take society in a different direction because of our profit motive or otherwise. So the starting of Careem and wanting to build something lasting, created a desire to build something which was values oriented that can be around for decades and centuries to come.

Ranjay Gulati:

You’ve taken us in an interesting direction here with us, because this is part of a huge debate going on in business schools, academics, even in the public sphere, in the media about the purpose of business. Every one simple answer, as well as win-win, customers win, employees win, communities win, and shareholders win. But not everything is win-win, right? There are real trade offs. Okay, how much do I give to my captain? How much do I charge my customer? How much do I pay my employees? How much do I do for my communities? So every day as a leader, you are having to trade off shareholder value in the short term, maybe not in the long term. So there is also time horizon issues. How do you with these four Cs, many times having conflicting demands, how do you reconcile that?

Mudassir Sheikha:

In our minds, it’s a bit simple at the highest levels. At the highest level, the view is you focus on driving impact and the byproduct is profits. The byproducts is shareholder value, but you don’t solve for those things. You solve for positive impact in the direction of our purpose, which is simplify the lives of people and build something that inspires. And that for me personally, has been a big departure from the way that I looked at businesses in the past. You know, I spent some years in the Silicon valley in the early days of the dot com bubble, we were being sold a dream that worked for a few years. You buy some island in some part of the world, you don’t have to work for the rest of your life. And I come from a pretty humble family in Pakistan.

All of that felt pretty unreal at first. And then it kind of swept me away. And I feel that a lot of businesses get started for those kind of reasons, right? Material benefit, material gains control, fame. But I feel that the Careem starting point with Magnus’ journey was just an incredible gift to Careem where yes, all of those things are important and especially important for people that are going to invest in us and people that are going to come and work for us. But what’s most important is impact. And if we focus on delivering something that makes a positive impact, everything else will follow. And yes, the next level of detail, it’s not as simple, right? There are trade offs that need to be made day to day. And yes, there are times when we have to protect Careem and secure Careem, and that may require reducing the payments to captains or making decisions that impact some stakeholders in a negative way.

But at the back of our mind, we’re always making those decisions with the view that survive… A stronger Careem is good for the society in the long run, because we will do more that will benefit these stakeholders, even if in the short term, this is a bit difficult for them.

One of the things that I watched a couple of years ago was this documentary that Netflix had, Social Dilemma. And for me, frankly, that was such an eye opener where businesses with all the right intentions can create a slippery slope, which end up resulting in outcomes that are not great for society. So we do discuss that in Careem quite a bit. What are the guardrails that we need to put in place that prevent this from going down the slippery slope? So in addition to the day to day and the long term thing, I think there’s some explicit guardrails that we at least mentally have put in place that ensure that we are not going to go down a path which may be profitable, may be the right thing to do for the business if I just take a profit lens, but will not take the society in the right direction. And we try to explicitly protect against it.

Ranjay Gulati:

Careem grew from being a ride share service into what’s called a super app where a mobile device user can do a bunch of commerce related things in one place, like food delivery and electronic payments. As Careem expanded into a super app, the company needed some guardrails to stay on track. Purpose helped them do that. Purpose in entrepreneurial ventures can be closely intertwined in the lives of founders. Those who see it as central are deliberate about their purpose from the earliest days of a new enterprise. They work hard to sustain it as they scale up. Purpose not only informs their strategy, it’s also a way to connect with employees, customers, and other stakeholders in their community.

Speaker 3:

Careem’s purpose: to simplify and improve the lives of people and build a lasting organization that inspires.

Mudassir Sheikha:

So purpose is the ultimate north star. This is the guiding force. The guardrail would be things that we don’t think are good for the society in the long run. I’ll give you a couple of examples to bring it to life. There’s a whole wave of buy now, pay later platforms that have come up and they’re a big thing in the Middle East now as well. And we’ve looked at this topic multiple times and yes, there are very, very good reasons to have it on our platform and give our customers the ability to buy something now and pay for it later. But there’s a feeling that this is a slippery slope, right? We start offering something similar. People start living above their means for basically daily services. These are not investment products, or these are not productive assets, and this is consumption, right?

And then it starts creating certain habits that are not productive for the society long term. There is another example where we’re building a super app, and a super app can have all kinds of services on it that people need, or people use. For example, stock trading services. We’re building a view that putting that on the platform is not necessarily good for society. We are happy to build an investment product, one that allows people to invest and take a long term view on things. But we don’t want to make gamblers out of our customer. We’re taking a view that even though this might be good for business and we’ll create engagement on the super app, that’s valuable for a business like super app, but this is not something that we go down on. So internally there’s a colloquial phrase that we have that we use, that we are not going to sell dope on the super app. And this represents all of the things that I’m describing and more.

Ranjay Gulati:

You talked about purpose as your north star. How did you and Magnus come to this realization that you needed a purpose? How did you draft it? And then how did you communicate it to the people you were hiring as you grew? Because at McKinsey, I’m sure not every business you were advising had a purpose that they took seriously. Even me, I’ve written a book now on purpose, but five years ago, if you told me I was going to study mission statements of companies, I would say you’re crazy. No one listens to, reads mission statements at all. But clearly you came to a realization that this was going to be important for how you were going to build a new business. So I’m curious to hear, and you are ahead of the times, in some ways, even now not many businesses think this way.

Mudassir Sheikha:

Yeah. We got lucky at birth, as I said, right? So it’s the reason why Careem started in the first place. It was the why that got us that gift. And just to give you a state of fairs at the moment, if you pick any person at Careem today and ask them to recite Careem’s purpose, 95% of the people will give you the same answer. So it is quite deeply embedded in Careem. And I actually believe that this is our superpower more than anything else. We do many things wrong, but I feel that this is something that we got right as a result of our starting point. Now, how did this come about to your question? Magnus resolved to himself, when he was told that he had a brain bleeding and he had to get operated upon, and the surgeon before he treated him, told him that there’s a 15% chance that he’s not going to survive. One five percent.

He was 30 years old at that time. Magnus is a very thoughtful and reflective person. So reflected on life and reflected on what he could have done differently. And he promised himself that if he survives, he will one, call himself Magnus 2.0, but more importantly, he’s going to build something big and build something meaningful. So this big and meaningful was the starting point of figuring out Careem’s purpose. And those are two words that we started with on day one, what is Careem’s purpose? Why are we doing it? And we realized that this region we were in, I’m from Pakistan, so I consider myself to be from the region. Magnus is married to a Palestinian. So he jokes around that, even though I’m from Sweden, I’ve literally married to the region. So there is some affinity to this part of the world.

And just before, while Magnus was having this experience, I had been a part of a team that was tasked with opening the McKinsey office in Pakistan. So one of the assignments, one of my work streams was, who can we serve in Pakistan? And when I made a list of all the big companies in Pakistan at that time, I was a bit shocked and a bit embarrassed that there was only one company in 2011 in Pakistan, that was worth more than a billion dollars, outside of the state oil and the state gas company. And then Magnus came and said, I want to build something big and meaningful. I was like, I just came from this assignment, and I was a bit surprised that there aren’t that many big companies in our part of the world. And then we said, why is it not happening? And we realized that there’s no shortage of potential.

There are people from this part of the world that go other parts of the world that build incredible businesses and do incredibly well. But for some reason, things don’t happen for that same potential in this region. And what you realize very quickly is there’s a lot of friction in daily life. I woke up in Pakistan when I was young. Sometimes there’s no water to take a bath or a shower, right? You have to figure out how do you get water? Then you have to heat it. And then you realize that power is out. Then you realize you have to go to work and buses are crowded. By the time you get to work or get to school, your brain is already fried, right? You don’t have the capacity, the mind share, or the time to think of big things and do those big things.

So that was a big sort of insight that big things are not happening in the region because the daily friction of life is wasting potential. So that was the first part of our purpose, simplify and improve the lives of people. And then we also realized that even if you functionally simplify lives, it’s not enough. This is 2011, before all the tech mania gripped the region. We felt that this region needs a self-belief. It needs confidence that can build big things and do amazing things. So we also added a second part to our purpose in addition to simplifying lives, which was to build an awesome organization that inspires. And it was meant in a very humble way. Not that we felt we had any license or right to inspire people, but we felt it had to be done by someone. So the purpose of Careem became simplify lives of people and built an also organization that inspires. And it was all the double click on Magnus’ desire to build something big and meaningful, not just in Careem, but hopefully many more such platforms in the region.

Ranjay Gulati:

So Mudassir and Magnus had their inspiring purpose, but how did they embed that inspiration in their employees? It’s one thing for the founders and a company to be full of purpose, convincing everyone else to embrace the cause is something else entirely. This is especially hard when you are starting out and selling nothing more than a dream. How do you get investors, customers, and also new employees to buy into that dream?

Mudassir Sheikha:

Yeah. Look, I think hiring talent for a startup in the Middle East in 2012 was like climbing Mount Everest, because as you can probably appreciate, all the smart people in the region want to work at the likes of McKinseys and Goldmans of the world. No one wants to work at a startup, especially a startup that cannot even pay them a competitive wage. So we had to put our best selling caps on, and since we believed so much in Careem’s purpose, that was the thing that we were selling. We were basically telling people why we were doing it. And for some people, it just became a blah, blah. It didn’t sort of connect with them. And they’re like, how much money are you going to give me? And in most cases we were not able to pay them what they were getting outside.

So it was a dead conversation to begin with. With other people it was, yeah, I really like what I’m hearing, but I have some needs in life that come before the mission and the purpose that you guys are on. So it doesn’t make sense for me at the wages that you’re offering me. And for other people, it was like, wow, it ignited something in me. And this is something that I would love to be a part of, even if it means getting half of what I’m getting elsewhere and believing in some paper equity that you’re offering me, which frankly more likely than not, will not translate into anything. And those were the real believers that came on board because back in 2012, ’13, Ranjay, equity in the Middle East didn’t mean anything because the largest exit that had happened was the sale of Maktoob to Yahoo, which was a $150 million exit.

And if anyone did any math with equity that we were giving them, they were better off remaining where they were at and not joining Careem, because we were paying them in cash one third or half of what they were getting elsewhere. The true believers where the flame was the sharpest, was the loudest, sort of came on board really on a leap of faith. So that really worked out well for us. The fact that purpose was the only thing that we could sell. The fact that we could not pay them a competitive wage. And then all of a sudden there was a momentum because we start surrounding ourselves with more people who were here for the right reasons, who believed in the purpose and then more and more got added. And we start believing in the purpose even more so, because there were people around us that were reinforcing that purpose. So it really became magical in the early days and passion became the fuel for many things that happened since then.

Ranjay Gulati:

So Mudassir, why do you call it your superpower? Is it because it energizes employees? Or what else does it do for you? You refer to it that way. I’m curious about the benefit, having studied it by the way, so I should, full confession. I have a chapter in my book on the hidden benefits of purpose. So I’m curious to hear how you think about it.

Mudassir Sheikha:

If you articulate your purpose and use it when you’re recruiting people, you just get the right people on board and you also don’t get people that you should not be getting on board. So I think it’s super, super effective in that process. So that’s one. Second, it gives you a long term orientation that sort of cuts out the noise in many places. If you take the purpose lens and make some big decisions, they become much simpler because they’re cutting out all the noise of everything else that’s going on around you. We have a Careem operating system. And the first principle in that operating system is guided by purpose and values. All our biggest and most important decisions should be tested against what they mean in light of our purpose. And so it really makes a lot of decision making easy, makes decisions more long term oriented, and gives some clarity to what you want to do and how you want to do it.

And the one other thing that I’ve realized purposes done for Careem is resilience. Man, why the hell are we still here? My mom, my wife, Magnus’ family, everyone is asking us the question, what the hell are you guys doing still? You build this thing, you sold this thing. Your families need you. Kids are growing up. Why the hell are you doing it? And we are doing it because we believe that in the journey to Careem’s purpose, we’re still very, very early. So it really gives you a lot of resilience and we are doing it for the larger good, the mission is larger than us, and we believe it is worth our life in some shape or form.

Ranjay Gulati:

Do you think purpose also connects to your customers? Do you think they trust you more? Does it help your brand? Do they say this company really stands and believes in something? Purpose branding is, and not to be crass about it, but purpose branding has become a huge thing in the US now. Companies are sometimes even not honestly even portraying a purpose to their customers, but the idea being that it elicits trust and loyalty and commitment to, and as you’re trying to go into a super app mode, saying we’re more than a ride share, do you think having that creates a sense of virtue signaling or integrity signaling that we really are good people. In a world where people don’t trust anybody, does that matter?

Mudassir Sheikha:

I definitely think it matters, but frankly, I think there are some prerequisites for that to matter. So if you’re a ride hailing service and you’re not showing up on time and the cars are not clean and I cannot trust your prices, then all of the above purpose stuff is going to look like you should be focused on delivering the basics versus talking about your purpose, right? But once you have that in place, and this is something that is checked off, I totally agree with you that figuring out a way to communicate your purpose, not to necessarily elicit trust from customers, but to make people a part of your journey is super powerful. But it is everyone’s responsibility to move the region forward. This is not something that the Careem colleagues should shoulder alone, and the customers also care about it.

So if we can figure out a way to make them a part of our purpose, make them a part of pushing our purpose forward, that’s exciting, right? We launched a donations mini app on the super app. So now with a couple of clicks, any customer can go in and donate to their favorite charities across region. That’s fantastic, right? This is now bringing them into the purpose. In Ramadan, we encouraged our customers to give tips to captains. And we said, we’ll match all the tips. Now customers are coming on board and basically giving tips to captains and pushing this thing forward. And there are many such things that we can do that I feel create more momentum towards the purpose versus just use it for selling more products.

Ranjay Gulati:

Bermudas told me that Careem has more than two and a half million drivers, or as Careem calls them, captains. I wondered how many of them really believe in the company’s purpose?

Mudassir Sheikha:

It’s hard to bring it to life in that segment, at least in this region. Because if you think of the socioeconomic pyramid, many of the people that are serving as captains are at the lower end of that pyramid. And for them basic functional needs and the satisfaction of these function needs is a lot more important. If you can check that box for them, then other things become important. But we keep hearing from our captains, that earnings, reliable and predictable earnings, getting the right support when they need, is way more important than other things that we do with them. When those things were equal, the earning ability were equal. Then the fact that we were who we were as an organization, they could come to our office, they could hang out with us. They got the respect, they were able to influence and build Careem with us, which one could argue got them a little bit closer to our purpose and the intentions why we were doing it.

Yes, it mattered. And in those cases, they were more forgiving. They were more loyal. I’ve had calls with captains in the early days, who basically said, look, I love you. I like what you guys are doing. I want to work with you, but I’m just getting two X from another platform that I’m getting from you. So please accept my deepest apologies that I have to work with them and not with you. So yes, it mattered because it created this bond between us that made them feel somewhat responsible to us, even though financially and economically, it didn’t make any sense. But it’s hard, and we have not been great at making it happen at scale across the region.

Ranjay Gulati:

Why refer to them as captains? Language is very important. And you were very deliberate about calling them captains, not drivers or anything else.

Mudassir Sheikha:

Yeah. We love the word captains. It’s very, very unfortunate that the society in our part of the world is a bit hierarchical, right? That’s a nice way to describe it. When people had drivers working for them, the way that they would get referred to, the way they would get treated was like, yeah, it’s my driver. It’s almost like the person is not worthy of the same level of respect as someone else. And that really bothered us, because for us, captains were the reason why we were doing it in many ways, right? If it weren’t, by the way, for an interaction that Magnus had with a captain in Abu Dhabi, we would not have done this business. We would’ve probably done something else, because we were like, let’s find something big and meaningful to do. One of our ex colleagues suggested the idea of ground transportation.

And I got super excited. I’m like, yeah, this is a big gap. We can solve this thing. It can be something big. I took this idea to Magnus and Magnus is like, man, what the hell is wrong with you? I get a second chance in life. And you’re telling me to build a taxi service that transports consultants around. So it didn’t really resonate how something like this could be meaningful until he had an interaction with the captain in Abu Dhabi, who he spent a couple of hours with. It was in Ramadan when things were very, very slow. And the captain was from Bangladesh. He told Magnus how 90% of what he makes here goes back home to support his kids through school, to look out for his family. He only keeps 10% here. And 10% is not even enough for him to get a room with a bed.

He has a bed that he shares in different shifts with other people. This is how he saves money. And in Ramadan things are very, very challenging. He has no idea if he’s going to make enough money to even pay the financing cost of the car and it’s eating him alive because the family’s depending on his earning to sort of pay the bills. It really impacted Magnus in a very sort of deep way. And at that point, the fact that we could build this platform that gives predictable and respectable earnings to these captains became meaningful from just being big.

Ranjay Gulati:

One really challenging issue for Careem’s business in the Middle East has been serving women customers and hiring women drivers. Some countries in the region adhere to very conservative views about the role of women in society. This is true in Saudi Arabia where until 2018, it was illegal for women to drive. Mudassir Sheikha says this was a big challenge, but also an opportunity for the folks at Careem.

Mudassir Sheikha:

And one of our colleagues in Saudi, when we first hired him, he said something very interesting to me. He said, look in different parts of the world, when people hang out socially, they talk about different things. So in the US, people may talk about sports or some TV shows. If you talk to people in Dubai, they talk about real estate. He said, when women meet in Saudi, they talk about drivers. It’s a big, big problem for women in Saudi. Yes, they have a driver that they work with, but sometimes that person goes on leave. Sometimes he goes on vacation. Sometimes he’s not available. Sometimes we have one driver in the entire family. There are multiple family members. They need to take different people around. And you’re constantly trying to schedule who’s going to use the driver at what time. So he’s like, dude, this is a big, big issue for women in Saudi.

So we very quickly realized that this segment is underserved and this is a big segment and that we should build a product that serves the segment well. So many things were done in the product to sort of make this product a good fit for them including, for example, things like we will not share customer’s phone number with the captain. And we built some masking ability where the customer’s phone number was hidden from the captain. When we gave training to our captains, we told them that even though it may be a little bit unsafe, but that rear view mirror, do put it down. You can’t keep it on in a way that you can look at the passenger at the back. And the woman is sitting in the back. We train them on language to use because in the conservative society, as you said, for many captains, for many drivers, it wasn’t every day that they were in such close proximity with someone who was a non-family female.

Most of their interactions either happen with their sisters, their mothers, their wives, or kids, or then with other men, right? This was not every day that they would get in such… And so sometimes terminology in the vocabulary was not there, right? One captain, for example, in Pakistan used a word to sort of address in a woman passenger. And from his perspective, this is the word that he uses to address his sister. But somehow that’s not a word that he used to address a strange woman, right? So we had to train them all these things to make sure that the product market fit was there for women customers. So that’s how really the journey started. And then we got a lot of encouragement on the way.

I had one discussion at a university campus three to four years after we started and this one woman in a large forum basically explained how there was a pre-Careem Saudi and there was a post-Careem Saudi for women. She said in a pre-Careem Saudi, we were dependent on our male relatives and on drivers to take us around. And we felt a bit trapped. Whereas in a post-Careem Saudi, we felt empowered. We felt liberated. Every time I need to go somewhere, I can just call a Careem and go there. I don’t have to depend and feel trapped. So for them it was a big, big, liberating force. And then what happened is, and by the way, in our fundraising discussions, every time this topic came up, people are like, yeah, women customers in Saudi are a big segment. What happens if that law changes? What if women can drive in Saudi? And our response consistently was, we will celebrate it because this is something that moves the society forward.

And again goes back to our purpose, right? Our purpose was not to sort of make profits from women customers. This is the right thing for society. This should happen. And when that happens, we’ll adapt to make sure that we can serve others or serve that segment well. So the day the decree was announced that women are allowed to drive in Saudi. In half an hour from that announcement, we actually made a pledge that we will hire X number of captainas, women, captains in Saudi, and we’ll bring them onto our platform and make it even better for Saudi women passengers to drive around with women captainas. And today 5%, of our captains in Saudi are women captains. We’d love to do a lot more, but as you can imagine, this is a somewhat recent change. And while the decree has been passed, the society still needs to embrace it and be open to it in a bigger way than it is at the moment. So it’s been an incredible journey and women empowerment in the broader sense is one of the things that makes us very proud.

Ranjay Gulati:

Very nice. Now I want to talk about a slightly different subject with you, which is environment and ride sharing companies have taken some heat in terms of adding cars to the road and potentially harming the environment and the whole notion of, well, should we have electric cars, which is not economical and viable, or at least doesn’t seem to work as effectively yet. How are you thinking about this particular issue and how are you trying to kind of reconcile your environmental footprint, which I would imagine is significant, with your sense of we need to be making a positive impact?

Mudassir Sheikha:

For us, this is a recent addition of things that we care about. Because up until recently. Ranjay, our view was that there are more basic things that are more important to solve than this topic, even though it’s a big topic and many parts of our region are on the frontiers of this topic, if you look at things like Jordan Pakistan, climate change can impact these countries in a pretty existential way. So these are important topics that were on the third horizon for us, but we are like, first we need to create jobs. We need to give people lives that are simpler so that they can go about their ways in a productive way, in the absence of any public transport infrastructure. So we felt there were way more basic things that had to be cracked before we start caring about these things.

Now more recently, this topic has become a little bit more important to us. And what we have started doing is in places, in parts of the region that are let’s say more advanced, more developed, we start experimenting with things that over time can hopefully be scaled. So for example, in Dubai, the government of Dubai is very, very committed to this topic. There is a big push on electric vehicles, sustainability. And if you open the Careem app in Dubai, you will see a hybrid car option. We’re making it possible for people to book hybrid cars and overtime electric cars. So that, and we price it well, we create awareness around it. So that’s one thing that we are doing. We have a large corporate client base as well, and many of these corporate clients are now looking to offset carbon credits. So we are looking at ways that we can offer a product that allows them to offset the carbon footprint from their usage of our services.

On the delivery side, because we have a food delivery and a grocery delivery business as well, we are currently in partnership discussions with a player that can electrify our entire fleet. So that’s going to be pretty disruptive both for the environment and also for the economics of running that business at scale. And lastly, we have a micro mobility business that again, for a lot of short trips, it is more environment friendly to start using bikes and scooters versus cars, which is doing quite well in Dubai and the idea is to start scaling it. So many of these things are currently present in Dubai as sort of the lab for us on the topic, but products and services are being built that very easily be expanded to other parts of the region as and when they make sense.

Ranjay Gulati:

In 2020, Uber bought Careem for $3.1 billion. Uber kept the Careem brand, with Mudassir Sheikha and Magnus Olsson stayed on as the company leaders. Mudassir says that when the offer came up, he and Magnus looked to their original purpose for guidance.

Mudassir Sheikha:

The purpose is to simplify lives of people. In a good month, we were simplifying the lives of four to five million people back then. And as we know, there are 500 million people that live in the region. So we were one divided by a hundred on our first part of the purpose. And the second part of the purpose was built an awesome organization that inspires while the fact that Careem became a unicorn, created some inspiration, but we felt there was a lot more that Careem can become and Careem can do to raise the ambition level of the region that can actually build things like Careem but way bigger things. So when we did that analysis, we were like, man, this is super early, and this is not the time to end this ride, but this is the time to double down and see how we can accelerate and hopefully achieve our purpose in our lifetime.

So our first reaction was, this doesn’t make sense. Until Uber came up with an option to keep us fully independent with our purpose, with our culture, with our technology stack, everything else would remain the same. So that’s really what made this decision a bit easier, but it still wasn’t as easy, right? Because as you can imagine in a deal like that, things can change, right? It may have made sense for Uber back then, but two, three years, four years down the road, if you are fully owned by an external company, that independence, that alignment can be easily changed based on strategic priorities that may evolve over time. So that risk remained.

And it wasn’t until we had a discussion with one of our investors who basically reminded us that if your purpose truly is to move the region forward, turning this deal down would be a huge setback for the region. He said, you’d be selfish to turn this deal down because this region’s ecosystem needs an exit to validate everything that we’ve been saying for the last so many years. And this exit would be an incredible validation of the opportunity and would set the ecosystem on fire. And when we heard that, I think we felt we had to do it. We were getting what we needed ,the right to remain independent, the right to keep pursuing our purpose. Yes, we’re taking on some risk, but the sort of impact on the ecosystem from this exit would be worthwhile and would make this whole thing worth it.

Ranjay Gulati:

Mudassir, I want to turn to a another topic that we talk about, entrepreneurship, a lot. That to be an entrepreneur, you have to have courage, even for you to leave McKinsey and go into uncertain territory requires courage. Who are some of the most courageous leaders you have come in contact with that really have inspired you to do what you do. Are there people you have met that really have shaped you as the person you are today? And you’ve worked in Silicon valley, you went to Stanford and USC, grew up, anything in your upbringing somewhere, you can tell us?

Mudassir Sheikha:

There’s not one person that comes to mind, Ranjay, on this question. Some element of the early upbringing, my mom is what they now call tiger mom. So there was a sense of you have to always do really, really well, come first in class, and anything is possible mindset. Silicon valley in the late nineties was also quite a special time. All of a sudden, I’m in college. I’m looking at people around me who look like me, who are not that much older than me doing crazy things, makes you feel anything is possible. And then the couple of people that, of course, I don’t know them and I haven’t met them, but I do feel the likes of Bill Gates and Elon Musk and the ambition level also directed towards a good cause. Feel like this is the ambition level with a direction of moving the society forward, moving the world forward, moving humanity forward is something that I find quite inspirational.

Ranjay Gulati:

You shared about Magnus’ story, his near death experience, his meeting a person in Abu Dhabi. You grew up in Pakistan, came to America. What do you think has given you purpose? what is your personal purpose and how has that evolved over time? All of us, I’ll speak for myself, I think of my life purpose as being a journey. I came from India. I also came to study in America that has then shaped, there were moments and events and people that have cumulatively changed and made me who I am today. How would you say your personal, were there any kind of moments in your life? Was it even Magnus, maybe it was Magnus who inspired you, or were there others that kind of connected you to your personal purpose, if you will?

Mudassir Sheikha:

There are probably two things that happened in my last year at McKinsey and McKinsey is pretty interesting. Like most of the consulting firms, every two years, they would send us on a offsite with some people that would force you to think deep and come up with things inside you that didn’t exist. And in the last year there was an exercise, what is your purpose in life? And I distinctly remember, there were five things that I’d come up with. These are the five things I want to achieve in life before I move on. And one of them was to leave a lasting legacy that’ll be around in a more corporate organizational way. So that was something that came out as something that’s important to me. The second thing was to make sure that I’m there for my parents and sisters. The third was make sure that I am there for my wife and give the right upbringing to my kids so that they can be successful and impactful in life.

The fourth was, do something with Pakistan. I felt there was some sense of responsibility to the country that gave me the opportunity to get out and do the things that I was able to do. And lastly, more on the spiritual side, I had to secure my hereafter. I had to do things in this world that would see me in a good place in the next life. So those are the five things that I had written down as part of that exercise. And I met Magnus a few months after that exercise and his story with a lot of conviction… His life was about to come into an end, right? So he had so much conviction that he had to do something big and meaningful in life. I felt it ticked off a few of the boxes in my list and that sort of ignited that passion and gave me a road that I could be on, which could see this come to life.

Ranjay Gulati:

What’s next for Mudassir Sheikha?

Mudassir Sheikha:

The next for Mudassir Sheikha is take Careem to the next level and hopefully realize its purpose over the next decade or two. We have an opportunity, I believe, to build a lasting institution from the region. The region’s own Google or Amazon, or institutions like this, the opportunity is there. The secular trend of rising digital adoption is a massive tailwind. We have made a lot of mistakes, but we’ve learned a lot from these mistakes. I believe we can do it. And once we do it, it is something that I believe can fundamentally change the course of the region.

Ranjay Gulati:

Mudassir Sheikha is the co-founder and CEO of the ride share company and super app Careem, based in Dubai. Many great business founders look for their past for the inspiration to start a venture in the first place. To take a big risk. To set off into uncharted terrain. Many start not just with a big idea, but a grand ideal. Sure, these charismatic leaders want to achieve financial success, but they also want something deeper. To advance societal goals. To make the world a better place. Their fixation on deep purpose isn’t mere posturing. These entrepreneurial leaders are true believers. You’ve been listening to Deep Purpose, a podcast about courage and commitment in turbulent times. You can go to my website for more of my conversations with leaders in the business world, navigating the 21st century business environment. You can also find out about my book titled Deep Purpose. That’s deeppurpose.net. This podcast is produced by Steven Smith with help from Lauren Modelski, Melissa Duncan, Craig McDonald, and John Bath. The theme music is by Gadi Meister. I’m Ranjay Gulati.