Globally Successful Pakistani

Zeeshan Ali: Celebrating the Spirit of Entrepreneurship and Giving Back

an inspiration to many, raised in Karachi; moved to Canada. VP Salesforce after working at Oracle, BEA Systems & built multiple businesses.

Zeeshan Ali, an inspiration to many, was raised in Karachi, Pakistan and moved to Canada, where he has had an incredible career progression. Zeeshan has been the Vice President at Salesforce Canada for digital transformation technologies since March 2015. He’s responsible for Salesforce’s products portfolio, with a focus around financial services, telecommunication and retail verticals. He has spent 12 years at Salesforce and previously, he has held various positions with technology giants like Oracle Corporation and BEA Systems. Zeeshan has lived in Canada since 1998.

Arzish Azam, CEO Ejad Labs and Director Startup Grind Islamabad conducted a fireside chat with Zeeshan to talk about what excites him in life; the beginning of his journey; dabbling with his entrepreneurial spirit; being the most qualified shelf cleaner at BestBuy; his journey from Oracle to Salesforce; giving back to the new immigrant and refugee community and playing a role in upskilling the Pakistani youth — “what excites me the most is my three boys — I spend a lot of time with them. I try to work from home as much as possible pre-COVID so for me, this is not new; I enjoy spending time with them and raising them. Post-Corona and post-Salesforce, I plan to focus on my non-profit work. It’s two-fold; firstly, it gives me a lot of personal satisfaction and secondly, while my boys are young and want to spend time with me, I want to take advantage of that and spend as much time with them as possible.”

The Humble Beginnings

Zeeshan is a self-made professional who has seen many struggles since his childhood, “I was born in Karachi, Pakistan; I lived in a very impoverished neighborhood, it was a place called Shah Faisal Colony, located close to the airport. I was born below the poverty line and I had no business being where I am had it not been for the sacrifices made by my parents, especially my mom who made sure that all three of us siblings went to a really good school, away from home. I went to St. Patrick’s school and that’s where I did my O’levels from.”

After graduating from St. Patrick’s College, Zeeshan went to NED University. The tale of Zeeshan choosing a major in university is an interesting one to say the least, “for younger folks, this is a great story because most people think you should have your life figured out by the time you’re in your 20s — my story is completely different. I got into NED University because my dad was an engineer and he thought that one of his sons should follow suit. I got in and hated it; dropped out. After that, I started my bachelor’s in Statistics and Maths because one of my brothers was really good at both and thought I should do it — I hated that and dropped out. Then I went to IBA to do my bachelor’s.” Zeeshan remembers the hard times his family went through while he was undertaking his undergraduate education, “during that time, my father passed away so we couldn’t afford it anymore, so I dropped out of there and started selling encyclopedias door to door in Karachi. My mom had a stall in Friday Bazar to make sure we could put food on the table. I transitioned to various disciplines and then finished my MBA from what we now call Greenwich. All my education has been in Pakistan.”

The Makings of an Entrepreneur

Zeeshan was able to complete his master’s degree after a gap of eight years, which marked the beginning of something new, “the company I sold encyclopedias for went bankrupt. There was this company that I bought after borrowing $5000 from someone. This company still runs in Pakistan — we sell various educational products. I gave that gentleman his money back and made him a 50% partner twenty years ago — that I believe was the best decision of my life.” After that, he went into the job market, “I was interviewed by Oracle many many years ago. They asked me what I know about Oracle and I said besides how to spell it, nothing. Fortunately, they didn’t throw me out. I started in their sales department — when I came to Canada, I continued in sales. They’d told me that for a short period of time, no one there would hire me. So for four to five months after I came to Canada, I was cleaning shelves at BestBuy — I was the most qualified shelf cleaner at BestBuy”, he reminisces.

From Oracle to Salesforce

Zeeshan joined Oracle at a very junior role; “I took it because I had to pay the bills and I needed the money. So, fortunately, I took the job and did well.” Zeeshan shares how he landed a role at Salesforce, ”I was able to join Salesforce because of two reasons — luck and network. I was with a company called BEA Systems which was getting acquired by Oracle and at that time, I didn’t want to go back to Oracle. When Salesforce reached out to me, I had no idea what it was. I called up a friend of mine and told him that this company has reached out to me. We did a little research and discovered that the company has an interesting value proposition and I just went for a conversation with them. They came after me very strongly because they were building out their enterprise sales department at that time. I joined them and I remember at that time, they gave me stock options and the strike price was $35, and I remember thinking who would ever buy this stock at $35… it went on to hit $140, did a 1:4 split and then went to the levels it’s at today around $170.”

“I joined Salesforce — I was mainly responsible for selling to banks and they didn’t want anything to do with cloud; no one wanted to put any data into the cloud and it was all about building relationships and providing them the information they needed, it was a lot of networking and a lot of luck and I did very well over the last twelve years at Salesforce. Over this period of time, I ran the teams that worked on financial services and digital transformation. Now I’m working with a team that works on delivering Salesforce solutions to government and other public sector organizations. We’re currently helping design a solution for COVID-19 tracking. Salesforce has made that technology available for free for a lot of healthcare organizations and governments and we’re implementing a lot of these solutions, as this crisis unfolds.”

Secret to Success: Network, Network, Network

Zeeshan attributes a lot of his success to building meaningful relationships, “One thing I have to stress upon for your audience is building out your network. A lot of times when I mentor people, especially from India and Pakistan, they misinterpret networks — they think LinkedIn network and Facebook network are the same. For anyone in North America or Pakistan who is trying to build a career, network, network, network — and network is not about collecting hundreds or thousands of contacts, it’s about how well they know you and so, keep those networks alive, nurture them and spend time with them. My entire career has been all about my ability to build and maintain a network.”

He continues, “I’ve spent years in sales; people, especially those in Pakistan look down on sales. There have been typical occasions where I have walked away from multi-million or multi-hundred dollar transactions because I didn’t believe it was delivering value to my client. That’s how you build meaningful relationships. When building relationships, be authentic; don’t suck up to people just because you want to get close to them. If you’re authentic, it always comes through and if you deliver value for that individual, they would be more open to building a network.”

Living through Corona Times

Zeeshan has been at home for the last 5–6 weeks, “Life is definitely going to be different and it is going to be that way for a long time to come; this is not a short term phenomenon. I believe there will be a transition towards people going digital in various aspects of our lives. I believe the impact of this will be clear not just for the next few months, but for the next few years. Whenever there is a crisis, there is always a bigger opportunity. For those of us in the tech space, this is the time to either re-skill and re-tool ourselves or if you’re in the business of building and developing solutions for remote working, this pandemic is not the first and the last — from what I’ve read and what I understand, there’s going to be a lot more of this. This might just become the norm.”

The Entrepreneur who Gives Back

Giving back to the community is a highlight of the work that Zeeshan is doing and planning to do in the future, “life has been extremely kind to myself and my family and we’re doing better than any of us had imagined, so there has to be more to life than making money and that’s what the next 10–15 years of my life would be dedicated to. To be honest, I’m almost 50 — I don’t have a 10-year plan as such. What I do know is that I want to transition out of making money and do things that give me more satisfaction as an individual. So, I could still be working with a company like Salesforce, but money won’t be the driver and I might take on a different role, which is more philanthropic. Many of the folks who know me here in Canada know that almost nine years ago, I announced that at 45, I will fiscally retire — I had said I would do it at 45, but I did it at 46. So, the post-Salesforce plan is not a 10-year plan, but a series of short term plans for the foreseeable future… 2–3 years out.”

Zeeshan saw some difficult times, which brought out the entrepreneur within him; he attributes this not to his personal choices, but the choices made for him. “I had the good fortune of dabbling with my entrepreneurial spirit and I’ve created two, three companies. The one I would love to talk about is a non-profit called the Rainbow Cloud Initiative — I founded it about two years ago. We work with new immigrants and refugees coming to Canada. We work with other larger non-profits and we focus on cloud computing technology. I convinced my leadership at Salesforce to allow me to do a few free training for various Salesforce certifications. The idea is to take these new immigrants and refugees with tech backgrounds coming into Canada — we transition their tech backgrounds into cloud computing technology and we help them become a part of the ecosystem and find jobs.”

A few factors have played a vital role in inspiring and motivating Zeeshan to give back to the community — “I draw a lot of my inspiration from the founders of Salesforce, especially Parker Harris and Marc Benioff. When they started Salesforce, they instituted a 1–1–1 model, 1% of employee time; 1% of the product and 1% of profit would be put into non-profit usage. In addition to our vacations, we get 6 days off where we can take time to volunteer for causes that interest us, and Salesforce actually encourages us to do that. It is one of the greatest reasons I have worked at Salesforce — this is the longest I’ve worked for any organization.” Zeeshan also talks about Trailheads, which is a learning management system by Salesforce, “it has training material, which is open for everyone to use free of cost. There’s technology available that you can make tweaks to. We’ve recently also done a partnership with AWS, where people can go and take AWS certifications. People can just start going through the badges and trails and re-tool themselves.”

Zeeshan continues, “the reality is that I started this non-profit, firstly due to my own personal background. Secondly, when I moved here, I was a new immigrant and it was difficult — currently, while there are a lot of organizations who help new immigrants and refugees with careers and resumes, etc., there aren’t a lot of organizations working on enhancing their technical capability to help them find jobs. We go to our Salesforce customers and ask them what roles they’re looking to fulfill and then based on those roles and their requirements, we place these people after training them.”

Zeeshan is a strong advocate of the role women can play in tech, “there is a huge role for women in tech — 50% of almost every country’s population is women and their talent in most countries is under-utilized and in most countries they’re underpaid. What’s worse is that in most countries the hiring managers are men so they hire more men. It’s one of the huge assets globally and in Pakistan as well. In the companies that I’ve created in Pakistan, we do some reverse sexism (for lack of a better phrase) — we hire women as a tribute to my mother who raised three great boys. With this training initiative, we can cater to a lot of women who are educated, but are not able to work — for them getting training virtually is a great opportunity.”

Technologies of the Future: Role of Pakistani Diaspora

It’s incredible to have so many Pakistanis who are willing to help their country. We asked Zeeshan how there can be more collaboration with the incredibly patriotic Pakistani diaspora. “I’m not an exception and there are so many people like me who want to do something for their country because we’re the product of our country and most of us have received our education from Pakistan. I believe that it’s almost my moral obligation to give something back to Pakistan. Having said that, I don’t live there and I don’t have a vast network. The idea is to partner with folks like yourself and other ecosystem players in Pakistan; if there’s anything I can do, I would be more than happy to. I’ve had many conversations with other Pakistani Americans as well who would also be happy to jump in where required. Since we don’t have a network there anymore, if someone like you were to do something, we would be happy to invest our time, effort and resources into it.”

There are a lot of things that could happen, but don’t happen because of the system in place. At the same time, there are a lot of private initiatives that are emerging, like Startup Grind. A lot of other initiatives are also led by tech companies. Sooner or later, even if the government doesn’t take a lead, private organizations and individuals would come together. On this idea, Zeeshan comments, “think trainings that help people land jobs. Gone are the days of 4 and 5-year degrees; we should focus on nano-courses. If someone has an existing technology skill, help them build upon it with further complementing skills and find them jobs. In the West, there are jobs open in these areas, but companies are struggling to find people with the right skill set. Pakistan is full of really sharp and talented people — let’s train them and make them viable candidates for landing good jobs.”

This article is derived from the virtual fireside chat hosted by Arzish Azam with Zeeshan Ali on April 24, 2020 and transcribed by Shehab Farrukh Niazi, Editor in Chief . You can view the original video on youtube.