M. Tad Tilahun

Home/M. Tad Tilahun
M. Tad Tilahun 2017-06-12T01:45:43+00:00
headshot-tad tilahun-sq-165.jpg
SVP, Digital and Mobile Product Development
Visa Inc.

Every successful person thrives when given the right amount of guidance and support.

Technology – Focus on Leadership and Inclusion

1. How did you get your start in technology?

I’ve been working in technology for over 25 years, and I’m passionate about problem solving. I gravitated towards engineering originally, as a way to tackle the big issues for humanity. Working at a technology company like Visa gives me the opportunity to make a positive impact at a massive scale. The division I lead within the company is Digital & Mobile Product Development. Many people find it especially exciting to work here as we build products like Visa Checkout that millions of consumers use every day.

2. As you progressed in your career, what drove you to seek leadership roles?

Some of the smartest and most driven people in the world are in the tech industry. I noticed early in my career that many of my peers were great technologists, but those skills didn’t necessarily translate to advancing the careers of their own team members – knowing how and when to provide the right guidance and leadership. Every successful person thrives when given the right amount of guidance and support. Based on my experience, I felt there is a critical need for strong mentorship in technology.

Seizing the opportunity to solve complex challenges and taking risks has helped me advance my career and take on leadership roles with increasing responsibility. I’m a people person at heart, and one of the most fulfilling aspects of being a leader is helping people who show initiative be the very best they can be. It’s always a win-win situation when someone I’ve helped succeeds.

3. What does Visa do to empower everyone in the company to affect change?

The attitude starts from our CEO on down. Executives across our company truly believe – everyone is a leader. They’re all-in on empowering every Visa employee to take initiative and do what they believe is right for our business every day. People are recognized and rewarded here for leading by example, communicating openly, valuing inclusivity and diversity, and acting collaboratively and decisively.

You see the results when this globally distributed workforce aligns to execute in sync and reach great solutions quickly. I’ve experienced a dramatic change in our culture since I came onboard nearly six years ago. We’re a much flatter organization and nimbler out of necessity, as we’ve shifted towards not just participating in, but driving this massive technology transformation going on in the payments industry.

Personally, I make a point to empower people within my organization by surrounding myself with natural leaders. I trust and rely on my team to help drive us in the right direction every day. I never aim to be the smartest person in the room. It’s really hard for some people to be OK with that, especially in tech. I’m driven by being part of the group, by being in that room, not by proving I’m the best person there.

Why is it such a challenge to find diverse talent in Silicon Valley?

Honestly, if I had to point to one primary issue, it’s pipeline. How do you find yourself pursuing a career in technology if no one in your life has ever taken that path? It’s a massive social hurdle, even if you have the resources to pursue a four-year degree. I found my way here through my attitude and aptitude, and a strong passion for problem solving. But that wouldn’t have been enough. There were also a few key instances in my life where the right people took the right chances on me at the right times. Paying that forward, I’ve made a point in my career to sponsor people with non-traditional backgrounds when I can see in them a capability and drive to help solve the complex problems we face. It’s a calculated risk that has paid off more often than not.

As far as the industry goes, I want to be realistic: This is a long haul. There is no quick fix, and competition for diverse talent in the pipeline is fierce. This is a complex problem to solve, and we’re learning along the way. Everyone at Visa realizes we need to live and breathe diversity and inclusion, and to focus on a person’s potential, not just his or her credentials. As a society, as a company, as a team, I really see us beginning to make a meaningful difference.

What most excites you about the work your group is doing to digitize the payments industry now and in the future?

There are many initiatives we are pursuing that are exciting from a technical standpoint, but what’s closest to my heart is the social impact we will have around financial inclusion. Digital payments and commerce have the opportunity to elevate the lives of everyone around the world, particularly in emerging markets. I feel like we’re on the right path, but we have so much more to accomplish.

Cash is still king in many countries, and that needs to change. People need to optimize their income to better their lives. Governments want to improve distribution of funds to citizens to prevent loss. Merchants desire protection against theft, losing funds that could be reinvested to grow their businesses. Access to digital and mobile payments will really help elevate humanity, in my view, because it’s auditable, it’s measurable and much safer.

I’ll always remember a moment from my childhood growing up in Ethiopia where I encountered an older gentleman who had been robbed. He was carrying his monthly wages home on a bus and lost it all to a pickpocket. In an instant, the results of all his hard work disappeared, and it brought him to tears. There is no good reason he had to be carrying all that cash on the bus that day. That memory has stuck with me all these years, and it continues to fuel my passion around the work my group at Visa does to drive global financial inclusion.

There is a bright future ahead for everyone, everywhere. I’m excited to be a part of the team at Visa solving big problems for humanity and bringing this vision to life.

Published: June 2017