Chicago Booth's London campus is in the heart of the city of London Image Credit: Supplied

In today’s fast-paced business world, success often hinges on one’s ability to adapt, innovate and challenge the status quo. An inspiring example is J.K. Khalil, Mastercard’s General Manager of MENA East, responsible for the UAE, Pakistan, Qatar, Kuwait and Oman. Khalil’s ability to constructively challenge conventions—a skill he honed at his alma mater, the University of Chicago Booth School of Business—has enabled him to bring fresh perspectives and his own brand of radical candour to the financial industry in the region, and shape his agile approach to problem-solving and innovation.

His ability to think critically, question legacy norms, and analyse emerging data and behavioural trends has made a tangible impact on the strategies he implemented at Mastercard. One instance where Khalil’s Booth-honed qualities made a significant effect was his proposal to revolutionise Mastercard’s payment gateway system in Saudi Arabia. He recounts, “With the rapid developments taking place in the kingdom, driven by its pioneering Vision 2030, we believed this market had transformative potential. Four years ago, we worked together with key Saudi stakeholders to develop an innovative localised payment gateway model that would seamlessly integrate with the domestic infrastructure and enable online payments to a hungry and fast-growing Saudi market.” Khalil meticulously built a compelling business case supported by data-driven insights and new consumer behaviours to implement this new model. The result? Saudi Arabia emerged as one of the largest gateway businesses for Mastercard globally and remains so to this day.

J.K. Khalil, General Manager, MENA East, Mastercard Image Credit: Supplied

Another testament to the impact of Khalil's innovative mindset is his venture into collaborations beyond traditional payment realms. Building on Mastercard’s 35-year legacy in the UAE, Khalil and his team have been supporting the UAE government in executing its vision. Engaging with the Ministry of AI in the UAE, the Mastercard team worked on a groundbreaking concept—a centre of excellence in artificial intelligence in Dubai. This move also demonstrated Khalil’s knack for envisioning wide-ranging strategies that help shape the future landscape of commerce beyond payments but also into consumer behaviour and cybersecurity.

Khalil says his bold approach, driven by deep market and consumer understanding, was nurtured at Chicago Booth, where his professors and classmates encouraged him to think beyond established standards. It underpins his capacity to take calculated risks and pursue innovative solutions, yielding great success for the company. “It’s a very strong value at Booth to Challenge Everything, which has stayed with me,” he says. “And this is not about challenging the status quo by just being contrarian or a louder voice. It’s really about understanding how ideas stand on their own, going back to the basics, and not being afraid to think differently about things in a dynamic world where realities around us change all the time.”

This trait is deeply ingrained in Chicago Booth’s educational philosophy, encouraging students to get an excellent grounding in theory alongside looking at the applications. “As crypto and fintech have grown, we spend more time exploring systemic risk issues as well as the implications for the competitive landscape in banking and financial institutions in the classrooms,” explains Prof. Randall Kroszner, Norman R. Bobins Professor of Economics at Chicago Booth, a former governor of the US Federal Reserve, and current member of the Bank of England’s Financial Policy Committee.

As crypto and fintech have grown, we spend more time exploring systemic risk issues as well as the implications for the competitive landscape in banking and financial institutions in the classrooms.

- Prof. Randall Kroszner, Norman R. Bobins Professor of Economics at Chicago Booth

Whether he is teaching at Booth’s Chicago, Hong Kong, or London campuses, Prof. Kroszner’s approach has evolved to keep up with the industry’s rapid growth. This adaptability ensures that Booth students across the globe receive the most relevant and up-to-date knowledge in the field.

“The frameworks we develop in research and bring to policymaking help us better understand risks, for both fintech operations and the financial system as a whole, and competitive implications, for both existing players such as banks as well as new entrants and start-ups. They can also help students identify possibilities for innovation and assess the opportunities and obstacles that regulation can generate.” Armed with these frameworks, Prof. Kroszner feels Booth graduates are well prepared to navigate the swiftly changing landscape of fintech.

Khalil echoes these sentiments and emphasises that understanding underlying trends, regulatory considerations, market dynamics and the disruptive potential is key to success in the fintech sector. The ability to disrupt and pivot quickly is vital, given the industry’s rapid evolution. Moreover, Khalil suggests that fintech leaders should build for the future, not just for the present. Anticipating the next big trends and developments in the industry and crafting solutions accordingly is crucial for sustained success.

While experiences and perspectives are valuable, coupling them with data analysis elevates decision-making to a whole new level—a key takeaway from Khalil’s Booth courses. “Nothing trumps data,” says Khalil, underscoring the importance of always looking at the data, identifying patterns, and using this insight to make informed and sound business decisions.

It was at Booth that Khalil also gained the courage to trust his instincts and follow his vision when he had data and a strong case to back it up. He recalls a moment when he boldly proposed the idea of a Middle East track. “I was maybe just a few months in, and the school was presenting to us all the business tracks that we can join in the first few months to start exploring new career tracks,” he says. “There was a venture capital track, a private equity track, and even New York and Silicon Valley tracks. I raised my hand and said, ‘How come we don’t have a Middle East track?’ And the very quick answer from one of the associate deans at the time was ‘Well, there isn’t because nobody has ever led one. Would you like to lead one?’” Khalil says this moment inculcated a willingness in him to challenge the system without seeking permission, to think big and to explore solutions that don’t conform to traditional norms, which have since become guiding principles in his career.