|Meet the Inner Circle of Square CFO Amrita Ahuja|
An all-star panel of advisers have helped the fintech executive climb the corporate, um, lattice
PRESTON GANNAWAY FOR THE WALL STREET JOURNAL
July 24, 2021 12:00 am ET
In Personal Board of Directors, top business leaders talk about the people they turn to for advice, and how those people have shaped their perspective and helped them succeed. Previous installments from the series are here.
When Amrita Ahuja accepted a job offer in 2018 to become the chief financial officer of payments company Square Inc., she was making a pair of professional leaps.
Ms. Ahuja, 39 years old at the time, had never been part of the C-suite of a publicly traded company. And, up until then, her career path wound through the worlds of digital media and videogame publishing—not the most obvious background for a top executive at a financial-tech company.
The daughter of Indian immigrants who owned a day-care center in a suburb of Cleveland, Ms. Ahuja said she was drawn to Square because of its focus on empowering small-business owners like her parents. Best known for its white tablets and card readers that adorn coffee shops and hair salons, Square makes tools that help small businesses accept payments, manage payroll and borrow money.
Age: 41 Education: A.B. in economics, Duke University; M.B.A., Harvard Business School
Family: Husband Harpreet Marwaha. Two sons, ages 7 and 4. First job: Summer camp counselor at her parents’ daycare in Cleveland Heights, Ohio
Favorite videogames: “Guitar Hero” and “Candy Crush”
Favorite pandemic binge watch: “The Great British Baking Show.” “Because of that show I now have pavlova in my repertoire.” Fun fact: Her older brother, Ravi Ahuja, is currently chairman of Global TV Studios for Sony Pictures Entertainment and was once her boss at Fox. Worst career advice: Pick a job title you want in 15 years, then write the plan for how to get there.
“I felt the strongest purpose and calling in Square in helping that entrepreneur,” Ms. Ahuja said, “because of where I grew up.”
Navigating digital transformation has been a theme of Ms. Ahuja’s career, both at Square and in prior strategy and finance roles at Walt Disney Co. , News Corp’s former Fox division, and Activision Blizzard Inc. (News Corp owns The Wall Street Journal.)
At Fox, she played a role in launching the streaming service Hulu. At Activision Blizzard, maker of “Call of Duty,” “Candy Crush” and “World of Warcraft,” she helped the videogame company transition its business model from one dominated by in-store sales around the holidays to one defined by an online, always-on, multiplayer experience.
During Ms. Ahuja’s time at Square, the company has helped small-business customers build online storefronts to make up for the shortfall in foot traffic caused by the coronavirus pandemic. Square’s digital consumer banking service, Cash App, thrived as millions of Americans used it to accept their stimulus and unemployment benefits and trade slices of individual stocks and bitcoin.
“Being able to adapt and pivot quickly, being consumer-led, being iterative, learning from your customer base—those are all things that we have to do at Square and game developers have to do continually,” Ms. Ahuja said.
Here are four of her most trusted advisers:
Jack DorseyChief executive officer of both Square Inc. and Twitter Inc.
Even though Mr. Dorsey splits his time running two big publicly traded companies, Ms. Ahuja said he’s readily available to give her advice about topics internal and external to Square.
She prizes his skills as a “future see-er” who is able to spot trends before they go mainstream, whether it was being an early evangelist for bitcoin or championing a geographically distributed workforce before the pandemic made that a reality for most companies. (Mr. Dorsey had planned to spend part of 2020 working remotely from Africa. In March 2020, the onset of the pandemic and Twitter’s battle with activist investor Elliott Management Corp. prompted him to rethink those plans.)
Ms. Ahuja said she personally benefited from Mr. Dorsey’s clarity of vision and willingness to break inertia. When he was recruiting her to join Square, Mr. Dorsey viewed her lack of a track record in financial-tech as an asset since it would push his executive team to think differently.
“Jack, when he hired me, saw something in me before others did,” Ms. Ahuja said.
Mary MeekerGeneral partner at Bond Capital
Both Ms. Ahuja and Ms. Meeker, a member of Square’s board of directors, are alumnae of Morgan Stanley. Ms. Ahuja joined the investment bank as a junior tech banker after graduating from college in 2001. By then, Ms. Meeker was a celebrity stock analyst at Morgan Stanley’s research division, earning the nickname “Queen of the Net” for her early buy ratings on dot-com stocks including AOL and Dell Computer. “I remember absolutely people hanging on Mary’s words,” Ms. Ahuja said.
Now, Ms. Ahuja can tap Ms. Meeker’s wisdom in the boardroom and her ability to map out industry landscapes and quantify risks. These days, Ms. Meeker is known for her influential “Internet Trends” report, each edition of which is densely packed with hundreds of pages of charts and data on the future of technology.
“She has an uncanny ability to identify thematic trends in a data-driven way,” Ms. Ahuja said.
Humam Sakhnini President of King, a unit of Activision Blizzard Inc.
In 2010, Ms. Ahuja took a job in the strategy department of Activision Blizzard, a department then run by Mr. Sakhnini. After about two years in that role, Ms. Ahuja felt like she was settling into a groove. So she was taken aback when Mr. Sakhnini recommended that she switch over into a job in the finance and operations team.
“Coming from traditional media where you were viewed to be disloyal if you wanted to try something different, it was new to hear someone who was a supporter of mine asking me to leave the team and try something else,” Ms. Ahuja said.
She ended up following his counsel, embracing the discomforts of a job she had never considered in hopes of finding personal and professional growth. Ms. Ahuja eventually was promoted to lead Activision Blizzard’s investor relations department before becoming the finance chief of its Blizzard Entertainment unit, which set her up to become Square’s chief financial officer.
Mr. Sakhnini “helped me learn some of the best career advice: It’s not a career ladder, it’s a career lattice,” Ms Ahuja said.
Sarah Harden Chief executive officer, Hello Sunshine
During her three years at News Corp, one of Ms. Ahuja’s mentors was Ms. Harden, a senior vice president overseeing strategy and business development for Fox’s entertainment and sports networks and digital properties. Nowadays, Ms. Harden is the CEO of Hello Sunshine, a media production company founded by actress Reese Witherspoon whose titles include the hit HBO drama “Big Little Lies.”
One of the most senior female executives at Fox Networks Group when Ms. Ahuja worked with her there, Ms. Harden modeled the importance of being vocal in sharing her points of view with other executives while also balancing family duties. Ms. Ahuja remembers negotiating a deal alongside Ms. Harden late one Friday night when Ms. Harden left to go home and bake a cake for her daughter’s birthday the following day.
“She just demonstrated to me that perfect combination of badass businesswoman and mother,” Ms. Ahuja said. “She rarely thinks about boundaries or limits and brings that to the world of storytelling now in the work that she’s currently doing.”
Write to Peter Rudegeair at Peter.Rudegeair@wsj.com
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Appeared in the July 24, 2021, print edition as 'Amrita Ahuja.'
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