Whatever you do, go big: In conversation with MD Careem


“Disruption hits you so hard, and so quickly, that you don’t even get a chance to wake up. By the time you wake from your slumber, it’s already over,” says Junaid Iqbal, Managing Director of Careem, a ride-hailing platform based in Dubai, with leading market share in the Middle East and North Africa region (MENA), Turkey, and Pakistan.

While Iqbal divides his time shuttling between Careem operations in Karachi, Dubai and Riyadh, he still found time to sit with VCast Online to discuss the vision for Careem and its approach to helping transport problems, the company’s values, disruption, his bullish view of the economy, and his five economic game-changers for Pakistan.

Born and raised in Karachi, Iqbal obtained his schooling from St. Michael’s and then Lyceum before heading to the University of Michigan.

He unwittingly started his career in Pakistan as a business journalist. While visiting Karachi to stamp his US work visa, he met with the team at GEO, who eventually asked him to anchor and produce Tezi Mandi, a daily show on the stock market.

“Loved every minute of it. Learned about every aspect of the economy.”

Iqbal credits his journalism experience for much of his professional growth at the time.

“I learned to question.  I learned the importance of finding and telling the truth. I learned the power of a narrative and saw how some people/companies did well, while others didn’t.”

He later served as CEO of an equity and brokerage firm, leading the company’s financial turnaround, before joining Careem in his current role in 2015 – with an aim to help create 10,000 jobs in Pakistan.

The story of how he joined the company started in a Karachi cafe, where he first met with Careem co-founder Muddasir Sheikha. “Blown away” by the humility and intelligence of Sheikha and his co-founders, Iqbal was also drawn to Careem’s potential impact on much-needed jobs in Pakistan. He also knew it would give him an opportunity to learn.

“I thought this would be a free MBA into the new world economy of tech.”

Three years down the road, the company’s stated objective is to create one million jobs on its platform by year-end 2020.

Iqbal believes that ride-hailing with carpooling variants is one approach to alleviating public transport problems in big cities – as existing mass-transport projects are neither sufficient for catering to existing demand nor scalable to cope with its increase. Careem’s user base greatly expanded when it introduced motorcycles, but Iqbal envisions a cheaper solution featuring buses with bookable seats running on the same platform.

“Everywhere people need to move, we have to serve them, and at all price points.”

In its marketing efforts, Careem is known for its risky campaigns – whether it’s poking fun at political slogans, or hiring a cricket legend like Waseem Akram as ‘CEO-for-a-day’. Some of these backfire, but the company’s MD takes it in stride as a learning experience. Watch his interview to hear his thoughts on experimenting and learning.

An advocate for an open feedback office culture, he believes in empowering people to fix problems they’ve identified, following the principle: ‘if you see it, fix it’.

With a belief that entrepreneurship is the single, most proven way of growing the economy, Iqbal looks forward to development across what he calls the “holy trinity” of startup success factors, specifically in e-commerce – dynamic platforms, supporting delivery infrastructure, and tech-enabled payment mechanisms.

With entrepreneurship, however, comes a host of failures. But Iqbal believes Pakistanis need a shift in mindset, where they learn to celebrate failure and “fail forward”. Identifying what works and what doesn’t, and moving forward with better ideas, are essential components of success.

Not a stranger to entrepreneurial ventures himself, he co-founded Salt Arts with Raania Azam Khan Durrani in 2015, which is an arts management and production agency, focusing on bringing live music to the city by the sea.

He predicts the near future will bring a new crop of tech-savvy investors experienced in the startup space, who will be able to address the current gap in funding. Likewise, his biggest concern for the government is enabling regulation that can allow online marketplaces to grow, create jobs and add value.

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Junaid Iqbal’s current read: “To Obama: With Love, Joy, Anger, and Hope” by Jeanne Marie Laskas


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