In this edition of our spotlight series, we sat with Samim Abedi, Chief Investment Officer at Wahed, who gave us insights into his role, living in New York City and how volunteer work shaped his values as a financial services professional.
Tell us about who you are, what you do and how you got here:
I am formally the Chief Investment Officer, which means that I manage the portfolios across all our robo advisory businesses, including the US, the UK, Mauritius and Malaysia. This will soon expand to Nigeria and other countries. In addition, I am the portfolio manager for our inhouse investment products, the most prominent being our US Equities ETF. I also chair our investment committee quarterly, discussing portfolio changes, market events, and future outlook.
Could you tell us a bit about your career journey?
I graduated with a liberal arts degree, but I always knew I wanted to go into finance, specifically something that involved the markets. My career started at JPMorgan in New York, and I was there for about six years. Initially, I worked in sales and trading but then moved over to asset management, where I managed portfolios for institutions and ultra-high-net-worth clients. Eventually, I focused on fixed income research/trading. After around six years, I spotted an opportunity at Google in California for a similar position on their investment team to manage their in-house fixed-income portfolio. I did that for just under two years before I was approached about the role at Wahed. At the time, the team was relatively small, only operating in the US with a modest AuM. Nonetheless, it seemed like an opportunity to take the skills I built from the conventional space and directly apply them to the community. I joined in May 2018 and have been with the team for three and a half years at this point.
What do you like most about your job?
My favourite thing about my job is that I no longer have to compartmentalise my identity with my professional identity. The wall has collapsed at Wahed. For the people that are here, it isn’t just a job for them. It is something that has personal value. We are a part of the communities that we seek to serve. It removes that compartmentalisation between the personal and professional and enables us to embed our identities into our jobs. I always think it is a privilege and benefit for anyone who can do so.
What is it like running a fintech company like Wahed in New York City?
New York is known for the older financial services firms like JPM and Citi alongside the more senior Fortune 500 companies. What is underappreciated about New York is its fledgling tech scene. It’s not just a finance hub, and it is also a tech hub with many of the prominent tech names establishing significant offices here. Many start-ups have also been founded here, with accelerator programmes and VC funds specialising in the space. Wahed is undoubtedly an asset manager, which aligns with the established New York City brand. Still, we are also prominently differentiated by being a tech firm with our platform and digital experience. In essence, Wahed encapsulates what we’ve expected from the Ci and the innovation and changes going on here.
What sets Wahed apart from all the other players in the US market?
You may consider anyone who manages money a competitor to Wahed to a certain degree, but we don’t necessarily see it that way. We use proprietary and third-party funds, whatever is best for our clients. In some sense, other asset managers could be considered competition. For another reason, we think competition is great for the community. It results in more optimal investment products and more competitive pricing. When it comes to having competitors in the digital space, we don’t have a direct competitor internationally. Many banks and FIs are focused regionally catering to the community, whether in the US or the Middle East. Still, no one has catered directly to the community as a whole. In terms of competition, I don’t think there has been any direct competition for us, which is partly why we have been so successful.
What are the biggest challenges that Wahed faces as it expands globally?
Despite regulations and landscapes differing from country to country, the end need and the end client still require the same thing. They need an efficient way to access financial markets, grow their wealth, and pass it on to the next generation. The challenges are that the regulations and rules are different, and the availability of investment products vary significantly between regions. Finding an optimal solution for clients with the available products is crucial, considering operational elements (ex: custody, accounting, and legal). We can launch in countries quite nimbly and quickly once we have the licensing and infrastructure to do so and have become increasingly efficient.
Could you tell us a bit more about your volunteer experience?
By background, my family is from Afghanistan and over the past four decades, the country has been in a series of humanitarian crises. That requires a lot of people in the diaspora to gather resources and develop networks to help people in need of evacuation, food and clothing, or advocacy for the voiceless. The ultimate purpose (which is embodied in Wahed’s ethos) is that we are here to use our position to serve the community. The endgame to me has always been about giving back and having some element of service embedded in my job and personal life. My parents came here as refugees in the eighties, so experiencing that deja vu recently fuelled the drive to do what you can, however limited it may be.
Are you multilingual?
I speak two languages, including Farsi, fluently and a few others rather poorly, though I’m working on my Uzbek… In contrast, my parents can speak/understand 7-8 languages, which is humbling.
What’s the one thing that could help improve the future of financial services for the everyday consumer?
Having access to products that people understand provides them with competitive market returns, and products are priced accordingly. These are relevant to every community, not just the Muslim community. Before we talk about investments, we need to look at financial literacy and demystify these terms. We are at an age where transparency is at an all-time high regarding products and services, and people know what they are investing in now. They have information in their pockets and so making sense of the data is step one. And then being able to implement that learned knowledge is step two. And this is instrumental to every community.
How can we attract more diversity in fintech?
There are two elements to it. More often than not, many of us have had to start our careers in the conventional finance space (because there initially were not enough opportunities to get into the Islamic fintech space straight out of college). Coming to fintech is reasonably risky. It’s a big jump, and it comes with a lot of uncertainty. People are conditioned to believe the more secure careers are the path to take (be that medicine, law or professional services). I think the way we bridge the question of diversity is outreach, tapping into local networks and stressing that opportunities in the space could be professionally, financially, and personally rewarding. This isn’t something that can be resolved instantly, and the meaning of diversity will evolve beyond superficial classifications. So crucially, it needs to be embedded in a business’s DNA and everyday process to be done well. It’s not something that you can set and forget. You constantly need to take a pulse check on and do constant soul searching to be headed in the right direction.
You live in New York – what do you like to do in your spare time?
New York is the most fantastic city in the world. You have the globe distilled into one place. You can get almost every ethnicity, every food, every language at your doorstep. You can be artsy, a techie, finance-oriented, and there will be something for everybody. My favourite part of New York isn’t the shows or the rooftops or attractions but the fact I can transport to a different country through exploring other neighbourhoods. One of my favourite things to do is grab a cup of coffee and people watching. Our sports teams have had a rough few years, and I am a self-hating Knicks fan, so I try to keep tabs on them, as painful as that can be.
In your opinion, where is the best place to eat in New York City that is not in the travel books – a hidden gem?
The pizza. There are some great spots outside of Manhattan. Favourites include some Brooklyn spots like Di Fara Pizza in Midwood or Best Pizza in Williamsburg.
If a tourist had only one hour to spend in New York City, what would you recommend them to see?
I recommend you grab a coffee, and you sit in the middle of Washington Square Park and take in your surroundings. Even if it’s the only thing you do here, it will be time well spent and worth the trip.