In this podcast, Christopher Reichert, MOT '04, and Jawad Ahsan, EMBA '14, discuss the value of the MBA experience, how it impacts career choices, and how the MIT Sloan experience specifically has shaped Ahsan's professional journey.
Jawad Ahsan emphasizes the importance of being purposeful about what an MBA can do for an individual and how this clarity helped him choose MIT Sloan. He shares his professional trajectory, starting with a 13-year tenure at GE and moving into more senior roles in various companies, growing Axon's market cap significantly, and eventually venturing into board and advisory roles. Ahsan identifies himself as a creative at heart, using finance as a lens to impact organizations and make his mark on the world.
Reichert and Ahsan talk about Ahsan's creative pursuits, including his book What They Didn't Tell Me, which became an Amazon bestseller, and his involvement in producing books, movies, and investing in startups through his ventures Light Mountain Creative, Light Mountain Capital, and Light Mountain Craft.
Ahsan recounts his journey from GE to more entrepreneurial ventures, crediting his time at MIT Sloan for inspiring this shift. He discusses the significance of framing questions correctly, the impact of organizational processes, and the importance of aligning one's career with a "North Star" or personal mission.
The conversation also delves into Ahsan's role at OfferPad, his approach to balancing various commitments, and his creative work, including investing in a film project. He concludes by reflecting on the reasons he chose MIT Sloan for his MBA, with the course on System Dynamics being a pivotal factor.
In summary, this podcast episode offers insights into how an MBA can be a transformative experience when approached with purpose and how it can propel one's career in new and impactful directions.
Sloanies Talking with Sloanies is a conversational podcast with alumni and faculty about the MIT Sloan experience and how it influences what they're doing today. Subscribe and listen on Apple Podcasts, Google, and Spotify.
Jawad Ahsan: “You have to be very clear about what the MBA is going to do for you specifically and when you do that, then you get very purposeful about which school that you choose, and for me, when I looked at all the different schools, the course that did it for me, the one that sold me on Sloan was System Dynamics.”
Christopher Reichert: Welcome to Sloanies Talking with Sloanies, a candid conversation with alumni and faculty about the MIT Sloan experience and how it influences what they're doing today. So what does it mean to be a Sloanie? Over the course of this podcast, you'll hear from guests who are making a difference in their community, including our own very important one here at MIT Sloan.
Christopher Reichert: Hi, I'm your host, Christopher Reichert, and welcome to Sloanies Talking with Sloanies. My guest today is Jawad Ahsan, a 2014 MIT Sloan Executive MBA graduate. Welcome, Jawad.
Jawad Ahsan: Thanks. Thanks for having me.
Christopher Reichert: Let's see, how do I describe Jawad? In looking at your work trajectory, there's a long initial period with GE lasting roughly 13 years, so very much in a big corporate environment, although within divisions, so maybe it didn't feel quite like that. And the roles you always had a finance edge, they're in financial planning audits and moving into more senior roles as the chief financial officer for various divisions like Aviation Services and GE Health Services later at Market Track and Axon, which I want to circle back on.
You continued with finance roles, CFO for both of them, but also a few other roles. At Axon, you were responsible for leading the finance corporate strategy, legal and IT functions, and you were instrumental in helping grow Axon's market cap from 1 billion to over 13 billion, which is huge, and raised 600 billion through two follow-on offerings including a pre-IPO from TASR to Axon, I think that was the call sign. Later, you started to add board and advisory roles at Freepower and Store Capital, with executive components and some of those. So how am I doing so far in describing your professional background at least?
Jawad Ahsan: Yeah, that's exactly right. As it reads on paper, I will say I'm the least financial finance person you've ever met. I view myself as a creative at its core. That's how I view myself as a creative and the way found I can have an impact on organizations that I'm a part of and really leave my mark on the world is through the finance lens. But ultimately how I view myself is really more I love to create.
Christopher Reichert: Yeah, I think so. I was thinking about exactly what you said that on paper so far, finance guy type of thing. But I agree with you. I don't think it really tells a complete picture of who Jawad Ahsan really is and what motivates you. You've also written a book, What They Didn't Tell Me about building resilience as a leader and building teams you can trust. And this became an Amazon bestseller and was featured in Entrepreneur Magazine. And you have a creative side, which you just mentioned, which is expressed through your Light Mountain Creative producing books and independent movies, but also Light Mountain Capital, which invests in startup businesses including Free Power mentioned earlier, and Light Mountain Craft, which provides executive advisory and professional development services. So you have lots of energy and is the Light Mountain...? So tie this together as a person who's experienced and continues to evolve through this sort of firsthand, walk us through that a bit.
Jawad Ahsan: Sure. Yeah. For a large part of my career, I had sort of the standard trajectory where I was at GE for 13 years, was a divisional CFO three different times. And then I left in 2014 to go be a private equity-backed CFO. And then after that I went to Axon, did the public company thing, and in 2021 had an opportunity to invest in Free Power. Some of Free Power's, origins, its founders have ties to Axon. And that's how I got connected with them. And I was really enamored with this idea of investing in a business. And not only that, but I wanted to be very purposeful about how I did that and set up something that I thought could lead to a broader investment portfolio. And so I created Light Mountain at the time in 2021, and that's how I invested in Free Power.
The idea was that for me, I wanted to, I think everyone's dream to some degree is to be their own boss. And I viewed Light Mountain as the springboard for that and really the avenue to be creative. And so initially it started with just an investment in Free Power. And then over time I realized, look, there's more I want to do here. My book was released in 2021 as well, and my son has released a book as well through that. And I have another book, and I'm working on the film.
I've always been a big movie buff and had an opportunity to help finance a film that we're taking out the festivals now. And there's some other projects I'm looking at there. So the idea was I wanted Light Mountain to be something that I could basically use for all my different creative outlets.
And ultimately I was doing that for, I left Axon last year and was doing this for, I took a president role at Free Power, but I was also kind of standing up these other ventures. And I got to OfferPad by way of one of the parents who is at my kid's school, we've known each other for six years. He's the chief legal officer at OfferPad. And I'd followed his journey over to OfferPad and watched them go public, was fascinated with the business, but didn't really feel like it was something I wanted to do. And then I met the CEO a few months ago and got to know him as well. Actually it was about a year ago. And more I learned about the company and their mission and what they're trying to do and also what they're struggling with. I felt like this is exactly the kind of thing I can come in and help with.
I feel like they haven't historically done a great job selling their vision to investors. I do consider myself a storyteller, right? Really if you want to get down to the heart of what I view as my creative sort of strength, it's storytelling. And so that's where I felt like I could add value also, again, building high-performing teams, I felt like they had a good team in place, but I could come in and maybe with stronger leadership help supercharge them. And so I see a company. The other thing I love about OfferPad is that real estate is the largest asset class in the world. And from a finance perspective, I love a good TAM (total addressable market) and I love a big TAM. It just means lots of ways to grow. And so for me, I looked at this and saw a lot of opportunity and decided to join full-time.
Christopher Reichert: I'm trying to think of the transition from GE and ever-growing responsibilities at a company that's renowned for its executive training and Six Sigma and all of the stories about GE to smaller companies, but with more responsibilities. So tell us about something that you still carry with you from your time at GE.
Jawad Ahsan: My very first day on the job at GE, somebody handed me a laminated business card and on the back of it were written GE's values. And I can still remember to this day, 22 years later, I can still remember it was the four Es,
Energy, Energize Edge, and Execution.
It's like your personal energy, what you bring to work every day, how you energize others, the edge that you show, the ability to make tough decisions. And then execution. And really execution was table stakes, right? You have to show up and do your job every day because people are counting on you. And that was it. Those were GE's values for a long time and they had everyone carry them around.
Christopher Reichert: So what gave you some of the confidence to pivot from that journey to this more portfolio type of career?
Jawad Ahsan: So my answer to this question, Christopher, would be the same regardless of the audience. And really it was Sloan, it was my experience at MIT. I went to MIT and the executive program, and the idea was to go do this for a couple of years, differentiate myself relative to my peers, maybe augment my learning a little bit, and then come back and I was going to spend the rest of my career at GE. I really enjoyed my time there.
While I was at Sloan, I just got bit by the bug. I wanted to be an entrepreneur and more than anything I really, I wanted to have a bigger impact on the world and leverage my skills and talents in a way that I could have a broader impact. For a long time, I've tended to have this giant ticking clock in the back of my head where I recognize there's only so much time that all of us have here and I want to maximize my impact while I'm here.
And it just became increasingly clear to me that my scope of impact would've been limited within a company like GE, and I wanted to go out and start to have that impact felt in different places. And that's one of the great things about joining a smaller organization. So when I went to Market Track in 2014, much, much smaller company, but as CFO for the entire company, my scope of impact was much broader, and that was the first time I also had a function that I owned. Other than finance, I also own the HR function and legal as well. And that trend has continued. At Axon, I had multiple functions. At OfferPad, it's the same thing. So I love having an impact across an organization.
Christopher Reichert: So is there anything that you learned at Sloan or is there a course that you took that really sticks with you and you come back to as a foundational, I guess, thinking process?
Jawad Ahsan: Yeah, there are a few. I'd say organizational processes was a really interesting one just to the different lenses that you view your environment through. And I think I always kind of knew that intuitively, but to have it structured, and that's one of the great things about Sloan is that just the mental models you get just stay with you forever. And they're so powerful, even to this day, still every day I think about how the most important part and maybe the most difficult part of answering any question is how you frame it. And so a big part of my day, every day when we're in meetings talking with executives, board members, investors, whatever it is, I want to make sure whatever discussion we're having, it's framed the right way. And that's how I really view my role as making sure we frame it right up front and then you're having the right discussion. Otherwise it's a lot of wasted energy and wasted motion.
Then I'd say another one was negotiations. Actually, it was in some ways very tactical, but it just speaks to the human psychology that's involved in everything you do. Actually today, I don't read a lot of business books. I mostly read books about human psychology and how the mind works. There are a couple of great books that I recommend. One is called "You Are Not So Smart". And the second follow-up, the sequel is "You are Now Less Dumb". And they're basically a compendium, a collection of cognitive biases. And that's another thing for me. I also, every day I show up to work and in all my meetings, in all my one-on-ones I am looking for and listening for cognitive biases. Everyone has them, right? You can't avoid them. I have them as well. I'm not immune to that, but just being aware of them I think also helps you very quickly get to what people's motivations may be. Also, how you can steer a discussion to make sure that you're getting to the right answer.
I think that's another thing that I took away from Sloan was always making sure you to the right answer, I think. And now the way I articulated, I've sort of learned this over the years. There's three things that I focus on. One is always work hard. Just that work ethic has been instilled in me from childhood, always do the right thing. And this is a really big theme at GE, just operating with integrity. And then the third one now is always get to the right answer. And that one's probably the toughest because everyone can work hard. Everyone can control their own work ethic. Everyone can control doing the right thing. There's a very clear line, everyone knows it, right? You don't want to cross that line. But the third one, getting to the right answer is really hard because it requires you to admit when you're wrong.
And a lot of people can't do that. You not only have to admit when you're wrong, but even to get to the point where you can admit that you're wrong or you're maybe not right about something, you have to have enough experience to know what the right answer is. And this is another thing I see now. I'm now into the third decade of my career and I see people starting off, and I'm sure I was like this at one point too. They're just so confident that they know the right answer. They're so confident that they're right, and they've got maybe five years, maybe 10 years of experience under their belts, and they just don't have enough life experience in general. When you're 30 years old, you may think you've seen it all, it all just because you've read every substack and every post out there that you could possibly read, and you're like, okay, great. I'm ready to go. Conquer the world. You're not. You're not. Right. And this is where you really need to lean on people with more experience. And so that's another thing that I've just crystallized from Sloan, was really being inquisitive and humble enough to ask the tough questions to get to the right answer.
Christopher Reichert: Yeah. So when you said with the third one being get the right answer, what about the process of asking the right questions? How do you go about that?
Jawad Ahsan: Yeah, that's really the core of getting to the right answer is asking the right questions. And again, going back to framing the question the right way here, I'm very much a principal and mission-driven person. So if you go to my website, you go to jawadahsan.com. The very first thing is you see my North Star. And when I'm in interviews, the first question I ask everybody is, what is your North Star? What are you driving towards in your career? And you'd be surprised how many people struggle with the question. I think a lot of people don't think about it, but for me, it guides everything. You have to have a North Star as an individual, you have to have a North Star as a company, as an organization, whatever it's that you're doing, you have to have something that you're driving towards. You can change it, you can update it, you can refresh it, you can overhaul it whatever you want, but you always have to have one.
And the analogy I like to use is if you were walking down the street and somebody pulled up next to you in a car and they roll their window down and they ask you, Christopher, could I please get directions? The first thing you're going to ask them is, where are you going? And if they can't answer that question, how are you supposed to help them? And it's the same thing for an individual or for a company. If you can't articulate where you're headed, how is your organization supposed to get aligned with you? How are other people supposed to help you? So the North Star is really important because it just guides everything that you do. And when you're now trying to get to the right answer, it should be in service of driving towards that north star, right? You have to always keep in mind what your core values are, what your principles are.
Christopher Reichert: It's like your personal mission, the mission statement of an organization. So I see here that your North Star is to build and develop high-performing teams that will drive transformative societal change.
Jawad Ahsan: Yes.
Christopher Reichert: So there's a profit component, but also it really talks about transformation and it there's a moral element to it.
Jawad Ahsan: Yeah, I would say I never had a profit element in mind when I wrote that. The two aspects, one is the high-performing teams, and the second one is transformative societal change, because I found that I've built high-performing teams, but I've done that in environments where you're not really having much of an impact on society. And for me, that's not fulfilling. And so it's the two together that are really important. I also serve on the board of my children's school. It's a nonprofit, and I think about that as well. When we think about when we're in our board meetings and we're having discussions about the future of the school, there's no profit involved there, but we very much want to put the right team on the field and help the head of the school be high performing and build high performing teams.
Christopher Reichert: So, what was it at Sloan that flipped you from going back to a large corporation which had opportunities for further growth to saying, you know what? I'm going to go off and really go a less beaten path.
Jawad Ahsan: It was really the energy you get on campus and you see the energy. One of the first things, actually, it was, I think the very first day on campus, we got addressed by the president who said very clearly, I'll never forget this, MIT is an institution, right? We take the I part of our name very seriously, and you are here as part of a broader group of people that are looking to learn and advance technology, and there are more graduate students than undergrad. And you look across all the variety of graduate programs that are there. What I loved about being at Sloan is that there was, yes distinctions between, okay, I'm here for business or I'm here for electrical engineering or nanotechnology. But there wasn't a lot of, I'd say distinction between an MBA versus an EMBA versus a Sloan Fellow. We were all there for a common cause, and I love that, right?
I love that aspect of it. And then you get to have discussions with folks and think about, okay, what brought you here? Why are you here? What are you looking to do with your career, with your life? What's the impact that you're looking to make? And having those discussions with people you realize like, look, there's just so much that I can do, so much I want to do. And GE looks smaller and smaller by the day, and I just felt like, look, I want to go out there. And for me, it was always taking another CFO role and another one after that, there were more stepping stones to doing something else down the road.
Christopher Reichert: When you get up in the morning or you start your week, how do you plan your week given that you've got this role at OfferPad and you've also have these creative vehicles?
Jawad Ahsan: It was one of the things I talked about with Brian Bair, the CEO at OfferPad before I joined. I said, look, I've got a lot of things I'm involved in and they're very important to me. Obviously I know OfferPad is my number one job, and that's going to be a key focus, but I am on another public company board. I'm still on the board of Free Power. I'm on the board of my kids' school, and that's important to me, and then I have these other outlets that I also want to continue to invest time in. And he was really supportive of that. Just having that alignment and having that understanding upfront was very key. I live by my calendar. If it's not on my calendar, then it basically doesn't exist. And when you think that way, you realize, okay, there's so much time that you can use in a given day. Everyone's got the same 24 hours. How you use that time is just so key. And so I use the screen time on my phone, I make sure I keep myself, give myself 15 minutes a day of social media, and I just try to limit where I'm not being productive. I have this sort of informal counter in my head of how am I basically being creative versus consuming?
Christopher Reichert: So the creative work that you're doing, you've got this movie that you mentioned that you're starting to shop around to the film festivals, I suppose. Tell us about how that came about.
Jawad Ahsan: Yeah. So my older son, he is 10 years old now, but he's been in theater, in local theater for a couple of years, and one of his friends in the program, her mother was trying to basically start this production company here in Arizona. She's a real estate scion, and she wants to break out from the shadow of her very successful father. And so she started this production company and she asked us if we wanted to join her in investing in this one film. So Lilly Singh, she's a Canadian comedian, she's an actor. She started on YouTube and has had quite a bit of success over the past few years. She had a late-night show on NBC. She was the star of the Muppets Show on Disney recently and has been a number of different things over the past few years. And she's now trying to get her first feature-length film made, and she wanted creative control over the project, and so wanted to try to raise financing through a venue other than the typical Hollywood financing route.
And so that's how she found this woman, Anita, who started the Camelback Productions Company, and that's how we got attached to that. And so we ended up investing alongside Anita in this program because we liked Lilly, we wanted to support South Asian comedian and just in general, we were very curious about this side of making film. So like I said, I've been at movie buff my whole life. When I was at GE, I had a stint in Universal Studios, so for a while GE owned NBC, which owned Universal Studios. And in 2006, I did a stint out in LA auditing the film business and was just fascinated by the business of movie-making. And so this was just an accelerated version of that, just way more in depth. I got a crash course and what it means to produce and finance a film, and it was fascinating. I'm just a very curious person. And so I just loved learning it, just learning about a production bond and a CAMA (Collective Account Management Agreement) and how the different pieces come together and what it means. The executive producer relative to a producer meeting the director, hearing her vision for the story, meeting Lilly and what she was looking to accomplish. Just the entire process was really fascinating. So the film shot over the summer and it's now in post-production, and we've actually mostly wrapped it, started shopping it to different festivals and hoping that it's going to sell sometime next year.
Christopher Reichert: In one of your blog posts, you asked the question, should I get an MBA? You went through and in your blog post, you talk about your thinking process. How did you decide on Sloan given all the different business schools that are out there?
Jawad Ahsan: Yeah, it's interesting. At the time I was CFO for a division, we had spun off into a joint venture with Microsoft. And that process of standing up a company from scratch working with external consultants and lawyers, bankers, et cetera, I realized in that process that that was part of what went into me leaving GE, where I realized I'm not going to learn everything I need to know. Hey, I should probably go augment my learnings with an MBA. Up until that point in time, I actually felt like I was learning everything I needed to learn at GE and an MBA wasn't really going to do anything for me. And at that point in time, I realized, you know what? Actually, no, there are some things I probably can go learn. So that was part of it. But the other thing is that you have to also think about, you have to be purposeful about what is the NBA going to bring to you, right?
It can't just be a check-the-box exercise. I've met so many people, and actually I was like this at one point where I viewed an MBA, like a panacea, where I said, you know what? I'm not happy with where I am in my career, my career growth, my advancement has stalled. I don't want to be in finance anymore, or I don't want to be in marketing anymore, so I'm just going to go get an MBA and it's going to solve all my problems. And if that's your mindset, you are 100% going to fail or you're not going to be happy not how it works. You have to be very clear about what the MBA is going to do for you specifically. And when you do that, then you get very purposeful about which school that you choose. And for me, when I looked at all the different schools and the course that did it for me, the one that sold me on Sloan was System Dynamics.
That was, for me, the most powerful course that it not only got me to Sloan and got me really interested in the program, but as an economics major, I just love understanding how systems work and how they fit. And being able to think at a macro level and going down into the micro level system dynamics was an evolution of that. And so for me, I felt like, look, I can go to Sloan and the things that I'm looking to, the holes that I'm looking to fill in my experience set, I can get that at Sloan.
Christopher Reichert: That's great. Well, I think with that, I want to thank Jawad Ahsan Sloan class of 2014 for joining us on this episode of Sloanies Talking with Sloanies. You can learn more about Jawad and connect with him on his website, jawadahsan.com. So thanks for joining us today.
Jawad Ahsan: Thanks again for having me, Christopher.
Christopher Reichert: My pleasure.
Christopher Reichert: Sloanies Talking with Sloanies is produced by the Office of External Relations at MIT Sloan School of Management. You can subscribe to this podcast by visiting our website, mitsloan.mit.edu/alumni, or wherever you find your favorite podcasts. Support for this podcast comes in part from the MIT Sloan Annual Fund, which provides essential flexible funding to ensure that our community can pursue excellence. Make your gift today by visiting giving.mit.edu/sloan.