For Fahim Ahmed, the newly-appointed chief executive officer of Pathao, life seems to have come full circle.
He started his career in investment banking with the pre-eminent Goldman Sachs in 2003, a few months after the dot-com bubble had burst on Wall Street.
And now, in the biggest role of his career yet, his first charge is to successfully roll out a fintech product -- one that will steer Pathao onto its next trajectory.
"It will be a gamechanger for us," Ahmed told The Business Standard in an interview recently at his spry office in Gulshan.
Called PathaoPay, the compound will form the basis of the company's future direction.
"Using this, we are building the next-generation platform for digital and mobile commerce. If you can bring convenience to the customers, if you can give them a seamless experience, you can build customer loyalty."
PathaoPay will help the customers and consumers to access more services: help them spend more responsibly, help the merchants to grow, commerce to thrive and enable more earning opportunities for hundreds and thousands, if not millions, of unemployed youths in Bangladesh.
The company got the no-objection certificate from the Bangladesh Bank for PathaoPay in April. And upon the final approval of the central bank, PathaoPay will be rolled out on a full-fledged basis in the first quarter of 2022.
But later this week, Pathao will be rolling out one of the features of its flagship fintech product on a test basis to a select group of existing Pathao users.
The company is partnering with financial institutions and harnessing its data engineering and machine-learning capabilities for PathaoPay to expand access to digital credit for its consumers.
Ahmed, who majored in economics from the US's Middlebury College, feels Bangladesh's young and emerging middle-class is ready for a product like PathaoPay, thanks to the pioneering work of bKash and the others that have followed.
"Kamal Quadir [bKash's CEO] has simply been a torchbearer. Mobile financial service has improved the lives of so many, but there are still big problems to solve. And Pathao is excited to build upon this foundation."
Ahmed, who has recently closed a fresh round of funding deal for Pathao, is particularly excited about the investment bKash has been able to draw from SoftBank, arguably the world's preeminent venture capital fund.
"When new investors come into Bangladesh, or for that matter any other country, they look at who else has invested in the country and how those investments fared, and what were the impacts. That full investment cycle gives validation, a track record and encourages other investors to come into the country.
And that is what bKash has been able to achieve for Bangladesh and its start-up ecosystem."
For Ahmed, his association with the bubbling start-up ecosystem was serendipity.
Well-settled into his role as the managing director of SEAF Bangladesh Ventures -- an investment vehicle for growing businesses with funding from the International Finance Corporation -- a chance meeting with a visiting friend from New York in early 2016 stirred up an urge in him to get involved.
"He was looking into a company that he described as 'one that has outstanding potential' and going to change the logistics landscape in Bangladesh -- that people can use technology to enable more services and access more income. It got me very interested and excited. I didn't know at that time that he was talking about Pathao."
That friend is Rahat Ahmed, the founding partner and CEO of Anchorless Bangladesh. He was the earliest backer of Pathao, arranging for funding that kickstarted the journey in earnest for the digital service platform.
By the time Ahmed met with the founding team of Pathao, the start-up had just rolled out its ride-sharing service on motorcycles.
"During the meeting, I was absolutely blown away by the imagination, innovation, clarity of purpose and vision of that team. It was almost audacious. There were so many reasons it could not work in Bangladesh. But this was a team that had the belief and audacity to pursue their vision."
He left the meeting energised, inspired -- and with a burning desire to join the revolution.
"I truly felt inspired to be with these people who passionately focused on making a change. I absolutely saw myself as part of this journey."
He wondered whether he could help spread the Pathao story outside of Bangladesh or help mobilise resources that would transform the venture from a start-up that captured the youth into a sustainable, viable business that addressed the larger population: the mass market.
By early 2018, many of his professional contacts from the 10 years came into Pathao as investors -- and the start-up was looking for a full-time chief financial officer. Ahmed filled that position.
"That is how my official journey with Pathao began. It is a self-starter workplace. We are not only the most entrepreneurial, imaginative and talented team, we are also a very resilient team in the face of overwhelming challenges."
And challenges do Pathao have in spades.
While it is the undisputed market leader in motorcycle ride-hailing service, it is jostling with global giant Uber for dominance in ride-hailing by cars.
"We are continuously trying to improve our technology, and part of it also includes the map. We are trying to make sure that our pricing algorithm is accurate and the routing is accurate."
Accuracy in routing is imperative in this highly-competitive market.
"It brings convenience to you as a customer as you can easily spot the location and it is also important for the driver. If he gets the most accurate and reliable pricing, he gets the most accurate routing from point A to B, which means the fare is accurate."
So, the driver is more likely to stay on the Pathao platform than others, he says. And if he is more likely to stay on the platform, that means Pathao's reliability is also guaranteed.
In food delivery, it's another prominent vertical, it is competing with the global giant Delivery Hero/Foodpanda, whose deep pockets got Uber Eats to retreat from the market and HungryNaki got sold off at cut-price.
Ahmed, who had stints in Royal Bank of Scotland and American Securities, feels quality service is of the essence in on-demand food delivery.
"If you can give customers the wealth of options that they are looking for when it comes to ordering food, if you can ensure the quality and delivery time, you can build customer loyalty. There is no shortcut."
In parcel delivery and e-commerce logistics, which sit nicely with Pathao's other offerings, it is gaining market share faster than others and is now among the market leaders.
This comfortable foothold was gained during the pandemic, which turbocharged digitalisation in Bangladesh like never before.
And it was during this challenging time did Ahmed's involvement with Pathao deepened.
In the middle of 2020, he was promoted to the post of president in Pathao, a role that saw him oversee the day-to-day operations and execute the company's strategy to address the accelerating demand for digital services during the pandemic.
In the past year, Pathao's key operating and financial metrics hit record highs: it now has more than 8 million users, 300,000 drivers and delivery agents, 30,000 merchants and 10,000 restaurants.
So much so that Ahmed's elevation to the post of CEO and MD of Pathao became a natural progression.
"I couldn't be more thrilled yet humbled to have been chosen to lead the company and our amazing team. We challenge each other with respect and clarity -- and that brings out the best in us. I work closely with my team members -- they can raise questions about the manner something has been done."
Ahmed, who did his schooling at Scholastica, feels completely aligned with the current government's vision for digital Bangladesh, which is what compelled him to make the move back home from the US in 2010.
The other thing that appealed to Ahmed about working in Bangladesh versus working in the US is that one can see first-hand the impact one's work is having.
"And why does one do what they do? For me, it is the intersection of skills (what you are good at), passion (what you are really excited about), purpose (why you do what you do) and the impact (seeing the result of all of the factors combined)."
And building Pathao, he feels, is his true calling.
A start-up's purpose is to identify a problem that is apparently insurmountable and needs an immediate solution and come up with a solution that is scalable and sustainable.
"We believe, in our own humble way, that we are leading the digital transformation in Bangladesh. We truly believe that we are looking at our moment," says Ahmed, who does 14-hour work days seven days a week.