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Suneera Madhani

Jan/15/2023 / by Abhijit Masih
Suneera Madhani

It was one of those rare but intense snowstorms that sweep across Texas that did it.

Stuck in Dallas, and unable to return to Orlando, Suneera Madhani decided to spend time rerouting her subscriptions so she could continue to enjoy them when she finally got back. That’s when she had the a-ha moment for a subscription-based payment platform, the idea for her payment startup, Stax.

Madhani is the co-founder and CEO of the company, which attained a $1 billion valuation earlier this year.

The daughter of Pakistani immigrants shared with SEEMA how she grew up in the U.S., overcoming hurdles and achieving a lot nonetheless. Just in her 30s, Madhani helps other women find their voice and their place in the exclusive unicorn club.

Harking back to the day she had her great idea Madhani recalled, “I was actually visiting my nanima in Dallas and was trying to reroute my subscription based boxes. This is pre-subscription economy. That’s when the light bulb went off: Why isn’t there a subscription based credit card processor? So quickly I changed my flight to Houston, to pitch this idea to my bosses.”

Suneera Madhani

At that point she had no intention to become an entrepreneur. She just passed on the idea to the fintech company she worked for but was not taken seriously.

“I was just trying to do what’s right by my company,” Madhani said. “I was excited about this idea. I thought this would really work in our industry – and for my company. I pitched the idea to an all-male team… and I got laughed out of the room. I was told that it would never work and that I didn’t have the experience to run it. I just left really disappointed.”

The men in Madhani’s family – her father and brother – thankfully were different from those in the boardroom. That very night, she discussed the matter with her family at dinner, where she decided that she didn’t want to work for a company that didn’t believe in her. Her brother, who was then working for a startup in California, was part of the discussion.

She remembered, “We were all together as a family. We were all around the family dinner table, and my dad goes,  ‘Sonny, why don’t you just go do it.’” Madhani has that line emblazoned on office wall, a constant reminder for her to tell the world to bring it on.

“It was their push. And I said, I’m gonna go do it,” she added with pride.

Now, the entrepreneurial genes run in the family.

Suneera Madhani

Madhani credits her parents for providing an in-house MBA at home for her brother and herself. Like many South Asian immigrants, her parents had little choice but to start a small businesses. Madhani learned all about running a business from them.

“I’m an entrepreneur today because my parents were entrepreneurs,” she said. “Today, being an entrepreneur is sexy, it’s exciting and the whole world wants to talk about entrepreneurship and startups. They were entrepreneurs out of necessity, because they weren’t educated. They worked hard to provide my brother and me with an education. My parents owned convenience stores, gas stations and a pizza shop. And at one point, my father had a marketing company. It was this endless endeavor of businesses. My brother and I were always involved in the family business and had responsibilities.”

Under Madhani’s leadership, Stax has become one of America’s fastest-growing fintech companies, managing integrated payments and payment processing for small, large business and SaaS companies. She admits that her success owes much to her family’s work ethic and the values.

Suneera Madhani

“What I learned from my family was that hard work is the shortcut,” she said. “There is no other way around it. The second thing I would say is that there’s no big or small job; you have to do it with a smile on your face. Those are some of the values that were just natural around us. Now, as a leader of 300 people, these are the things that I try to instill in my team.”

The first in her family to graduate from college, Madhani grew up within a strong ethnic culture. She even lived in Karachi for four years between the ages of 8 to 12. She speaks of the importance of retaining one’s culture and how it’s working for her in the running of her company.

“Pakistani culture, values and heritage was something that I definitely grew up around and is a huge part of who I am today,” she said. “It was a really important part of my growing up years. I got to firsthand experience the culture, experience the language, learn how to speak, read, and write Urdu and just really immerse myself in the culture.”

Madhani graduated from the University of Florida with a degree in finance and marketing. She began working for Fortune50 companies and was steadily climbing the corporate ladder, despite being the rare woman in fintech.

Suneera Madhani

“I was always wanting to challenge the status quo and ask why things are the way that they are today,” she said. “In a company as large as a Fortune50, when you’re just a serial number on a laptop, your ideas are never taken seriously. Especially as a young woman, especially when you are barely out of college and don’t have the experience. I just wasn’t ever given that platform for anyone to take my ideas and go run with them.”

In an attempt to find the right fit, she took up various corporate positions. She was fascinated by the credit card processing industry while working at a payments company. This was in 2008, when the world was just recovering from a recession and becoming an increasingly cashless society. Madhani braced herself for looming disruptions in financial institutions and the credit card processing industry.

Quitting a comfortable job and diving into the unknown is not for the fainthearted. Even though Madhani had the support of her family, including brother Salman, with whom she co-founded her company, She wasn’t prepared for the challenge of being a brown woman seeking funding for her company.

“It’s hard not to be intimidated,” she said. “Less than 3% of venture capital ever goes to female-founded companies, no matter your skin color. Half of the gender is not getting funded. That’s still a huge issue today. The system is designed for women to fail. So you’re up against a giant hurdle already, whether you are a South Asian or not. Less than 1% of capital goes to minorities in America. So there’s definitely a huge disparity in the way that male – white male – startups are treated.”

There were internal demons to vanquish, too. She had to wrestle with her own apprehensions, self-doubt and the impostor syndrome. Even with family support, she was still unsure about starting something on her own.

Suneera Madhani

“My first challenge was myself,” Madhani said. “The biggest hurdle to get over was my own fear. Once I let go of it and thought, what’s the worst that’s going to happen? I’m going to fail and being okay with failure and accepting failure. To say, it’s actually not failure, I’m going to gain experience. I think that was a big mindset shift that I had to make. That was like the first lesson.”

Being in Orlando, far from Silicon Valley, was another challenge for a nascent company trying to raise capital. And then Madhani was recently married, with her first child on the way, and working between her first two rounds of funding.

“I was just experiencing it firsthand. So me being a woman out of Orlando, a Pakistani, and raising capital. When I look back, it was all stacked against you,” she recalled.

The young Madhani took refuge in her father’s mantra and confidence of her own business idea. The biggest lesson she learned was that men got investments based on their potential, and women for what they had already done.

“Lucky for them, I had done incredible things and our business was growing in leaps and bounds,” she said. :Our demand was high, our technology was wonderful, we were doing an excellent job and were outpacing the industry.”

Business is personal for Madhani. She treats her company like her first-born and takes care of it like she does her two daughters. Her passion for her company is so intense that she refused a lucrative acquisition offer in the early stages that even her board was really excited about. After all, the offer was for more than the value of the raised capital at that time.

“It was the best decision that we ever made,” said Madhani. “Our value went from that amount, which I believe was 17 million at the time, to over $1 billion. So it was the right call.”

Madhani encourages others like her through her podcast, “CEO School.” One of the top 100 podcasts in the U.S., it focuses on female entrepreneurs. The only male guest featured so far is Faisal Madhani, her husband, who is also an entrepreneur.

They met in college and have been together ever since. Though he plays no formal role in Stax or “CEO School,” he has been a rock for her, Madhani said.

“He is my best friend, my life partner and the world’s greatest dad,” she said. “Somebody who loves my family, probably just as much if not more than I do. He’s the one that always encourages me to keep shooting for the moon. He is also a very confident man. It’s hard to stand next to a woman who is always in the spotlight.”

Under Madhani’s leadership, Stax now boasts more than 270 employees and earns $100 million+ in recurring software revenues. But there’s more to her than just business.

“I’m a mother. I’m a wife. I’m a daughter, I’m a sister, I’m a philanthropist. I’m an author. I’m a podcast host, I’m a CEO,” she said. Admittedly, being a mother tops the priority list.

“I know that God made me a girl-mom for a reason,” Madhani said. “I have two little ones. My eldest just started first grade. They’re growing so fast. Being a mother is like probably the greatest title I wear.”

Suneera Madhani

SIDEBAR – 1

What is Stax?

A payment technology company that does credit card processing, for small business, large business, and for SaaS companies for integrated payments. A platform to help small businesses accept payments in any which way the customers want to pay – in person, online invoices or recurring billing. One of the first platforms that tied all the ways a customer wants to pay into a single platform. The secret sauce is the technology that builds everything together and makes it seamless and simple. The best part is that it’s a flat subscription and you only pay a monthly flat fee and get unlimited processing based on your threshold based on your volume. Stax serves 30,000 customers on their platform and has over 1000 that get on boarded every month. Stax also does integrated payments for software companies.

Sidebar – 2

Advice for South Asian women trying to make it to the 2% Club (female founders breaking $1M revenue mark)

  • You don’t need a seat at the table, you don’t need any fancy degrees, you don’t need to be the smartest person in the room.
  • What you can do is get about what you know – your product.
  • Focus on what makes you unique, your product unique.
  • Cultivate and find people around you that really complement the things that you don’t have.
  • Build an amazing team around that supports you and your vision in areas that you are not great in.
  • Don’t be afraid to ask for help. Raise your hand, ask for help and own your story.
  • As a woman, you’re constantly going to be told that you can’t do something. You have to believe harder than anyone, that you can.
  • So shut out the noise, stay focused and go get it.

PQ Suggestions

PQ 1

“In a company as large as a Fortune50, when you’re just a serial number on a laptop, your ideas are never taken seriously.”

PQ 2

“The systems are designed for women to fail. So you’re up against a giant hurdle already, regardless of being a South Asian or not. Less than 1% of capital goes to minorities in America. So there’s definitely a huge disparity in the way that male, white male startups are treated.”

PQ 3

“So me being a woman out of Orlando, Florida, being a Pakistani and raising capital, when I look, it was all stacked against you.”

PQ 4

“He’s the one that always encourages me to keep shooting for the moon and is also a very confident man. It’s hard to stand next to a woman who is always in the spotlight.”

Seema

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