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When J. K. Khalil, ’10, faces a critical decision in his work overseeing Mastercard’s business across the Middle East and North Africa (MENA), he often returns to his Booth notes and references on entrepreneurship, strategy, and general management. The three concentrations defined his career.

Khalil, who’s Lebanese and based in Dubai, worked for global consulting firm Booz & Company (now Strategy&) and at Barclays before joining Mastercard in 2016. He steadily worked his way up from head of consulting in the region to cluster general manager, MENA East, an area of the world undergoing a massive digital transformation. He is also an active angel investor and advisor to high-growth MENA tech startups.

Tell us about your work at Mastercard.

For the past seven years, I’ve worked to put Mastercard’s “multi-rail strategy” into action, bringing to life the complex matrix of cards, remittances, e-commerce, account-to-account, cryptocurrency, and other payment rails. It takes a huge investment in people, partnerships, and organizations to lay down infrastructure for such complex flows.

How did your time at Booth influence your career?

Concepts from Richard Thaler’s Behavioral Economics course had a particular impact on the way I think of new partnerships and frame new ideas both internally and externally. These concepts have helped me educate and influence our key partners without overburdening them with information. Overall, the Booth approach to “challenging everything” has been a defining factor in my corporate brand. I’ve been asked time and again to take on tricky mandates that required nontraditional thinking and an ability to turn around subpar businesses or develop complex ecosystems.

What leadership lessons have helped you in your career?

I have worked hard to build a brand of leadership that cherishes diversity of thought while forming a close-knit team driven by solidarity and decency. During the pandemic, I remotely managed a team of over 60 people across 5 markets. Seeing them successfully weather the crisis together was a true testament to the importance of team culture.

That said, leadership, like life, is a journey only understood backwards. What got me here won’t get me there. So I try to always keep an open mind as I seek new ideas, experiences, and learnings that could help me break my own limitations and push the boundaries of my team. 

“Our role as future leaders is to work together to keep our world open, connected, fair, and inclusive—and make sure that technological progress doesn’t ever take precedence over the collective values that make us human.”

— J. K. Khalil

You’ve had an active role in the UAE alumni community as president of the alumni club there. What’s it like?

The community here is strong, tight, and diverse. We’re in banking, consulting, energy, data and tech, venture capital, real estate, and of course entrepreneurship. More than 100 of us are connected through a WhatsApp group. We even have a separate metaverse group. We host many events each year for the school or jointly with other MBA programs—like the Joint MBA Clubs Annual Polo Brunch.

How is digital transforming financial services?

Digital has been the great equalizer. Small banks and fintech can now compete with large banks. People today no longer want to go to branches. They just want their day-to-day needs met. We’re helping institutions, merchants, and governments develop and roll-out next-generation solutions and experiences—like replacing training centers with metaverse solutions. Some groups are going “phygital,” blurring the lines between physical and digital engagement.

What does this transformation look like in MENA?

In smaller, agile economies, the needle is moving very fast. In Dubai, the government unveiled a new metaverse strategy that includes supporting up to 40,000 virtual jobs and adding $4 billion to the city’s GDP by 2030. That’s the kind of thinking that drives acceleration.

Digital payments are making organizations more efficient and connected to the global economy, which means increased digital financial inclusion. This could translate to improvements in quality of life and financial access for, say, a farmer in Pakistan or a trader in Oman.

How do you see technology shaping our future?

Whole new industries are being created every day as technology becomes more verticalized, as new services make our lives easier, and as new B2C and B2B platforms increase connectivity, efficiency, and cost-of-solution delivery.

Amidst all these disruptions, I’m looking at how we can evolve toward a technological value system that allows for sustainable growth while protecting us from ourselves. Our role as future leaders is to work together to keep our world open, connected, fair, and inclusive—and make sure that technological progress doesn’t ever take precedence over the collective values that make us human.