Over a career spanning 30 years, Subba has invariably sought to challenge his own status quo and constantly escalate personal benchmarks for success.
Sanjib Subba’s storied and multi-faceted career speaks to one of his fundamental tenets as both an individual and a professional - the yearning for a challenge; the drive and desire to learn, adapt and break new ground at every opportunity. It is perhaps that inherent hankering for a challenge, along with several other factors, that has seen Subba scale meteoric heights professionally.
Subba started his career as a Retail Banking Officer at Grindlays Bank (now Standard Chartered Bank Nepal) in 1991 and over the next three decades, his varied trajectory is a testament to his affinity for risk-taking and a constant desire to evolve. Subba, who was CEO of the National Banking Institute (NBI) for close to a decade, currently serves as the CEO of Nepal Electronic Payment Systems Ltd (NEPS).
In a conversation with Sarthak Raj Baral, Subba provides valuable insight into his thought process as a professional, his fascinating early years and a few words of advice to today’s young professionals.
Formative Years and Education
Subba was born in Baluwatar, Kathmandu. Since his parents were both civil servants, Subba’s family shifted base frequently. “At a very young age, my brother and I shifted schools quite a lot. We studied in many places – Bhairawaha, Butwal and even Mahendranagar,” reminisces Subba. After completing his SLC, Subba went to Lucknow, India for further education. “During that time, maybe 95 percent of students would go to India to study Physics or Biology. I was one of the few that went to study Commerce,” he recalls.
Subba was always lucid to the fact that unlike many of his fellow students, he wasn’t keen on becoming a doctor or an engineer. “I was not designed for that. I knew that early on and I never attempted it. And thankfully, my parents didn’t force it on me,” he states.
He credits his schooling experience in Lucknow for fostering a sense of self-independence in him. Subba was an active individual from an early age, seeking out new opportunities. “I never learnt to say ‘no,’ and that isn’t by design, and sometimes it is not the wisest thing to do. But I was always eager to learn and take risks,” he says.
Upon returning from India, Subba immediately cleared his interview at Grindlay’s Bank and began his professional journey. “After working for some time, I realised that the banking sector was not growing. At that time, the economy was progressing slowly. In turn, my growth was also painfully slow. So I wanted to attempt something else,” he explains.
“I didn’t have my MBA as well and coincidentally, through a chance encounter at an event, I discovered that a new American University was being established in Thailand. The gentlemen I spoke with asked me about my plans and I said that I was exploring my options,” Subba recalls.
A month after that conversation, Subba received a phone call from him stating that the University was up and running. “He asked me if I would be interested in working for them,” says Subba. At this point, Subba had worked for around nine years and was primarily focused on completing his MBA. Subba took the plunge. “It was a huge risk. I remember people used to tell me ‘You’re leaving a bank like Grindlay’s to work for a University, why don’t you just study in Nepal?’ but I went ahead nonetheless,” he says emphatically.
Subba did his MBA while simultaneously working for Webster University. He completed his education in 2001. He recalls how his work and efforts were readily recognised by his senior colleagues. After the Registrar of the University vacated the position, Subba was appointed as the Registrar, a massive jump for him in terms of challenge.
“They took a risk on me. Even I wasn’t sure if I could do it because it was a very senior position. But I felt since they have taken a risk on me, I must perform to my absolute best. And I worked diligently, learnt all the systems,” Subba recalls. His diligence and dedication meant that every time the organisation encountered hurdles, Subba was called in to solve it. “And I never said no. I would go in and do the necessary work,” he says.
Return to Nepal
After working at Webster University for around 10 years, Subba returned to Nepal. “During the time of my return, there was talk of establishing NBI. I was contacted by a representative of the Asian Development Bank who asked me if I would be interested in working at NBI,” Subba mentions. He was open to the idea despite the fact that he didn’t have significant experience in the field.
“I was the only Nepali for the interview, the rest were all foreigners,” he says. Subba was hired in January of 2010 and had a major hand in building NBI from the ground up over the next decade. “When I left last year, the revenue size had reached USD 1.5 million,” Subba says.
Subba, elucidating on his desire to seek out new challenges, explains why he left NBI – “I left Thailand for similar reasons. At one point, you realise that what you’re currently doing is not what you want to do for the rest of your life. I need variety. If I’m doing exceedingly well, it means it’s time for me to leave. Because from that point on, I will not be adding any value and I am not interested in merely collecting my paychecks every month.”
Further, Subba mentions that he is guided by his intuition rather than planning and has always been willing to experiment and seek out new and interesting challenges. “You stop growing when you stop learning. My goals aren’t materialistic, they are more inclined towards a learning perspective,” Subba clarifies.
A New Challenge
That desire to learn drove him towards accepting the position of CEO at NEPS, despite having never worked in the IT sector prior to his current engagement. “A lot of my friends and well-wishers expressed their concerns regarding the fact that I don’t have a very firm understanding of this technology and payment solutions in general. And then they also mentioned the recent hacking situation. “Why are you going there”? They said,” mentions Subba.
“But that’s the challenge,” he says. “Besides, no one is immune to hacking. Most importantly, the team is strong and the technology is one of the best. We are leading in terms of the technology, resources and talent. And when you’re given these three ingredients, you must be able to do improve,” Subba states.
“I had no idea how to start,” he says frankly. Subba began learning, designating himself as a ‘CEO-Intern.’ “I go out and learn from the young minds that we have. These 22, 23-year-olds have mastered what they do. And they are my gurus. They are helping me in knowledge transfer every day,” Subba says. “The learning journey never stops. I have been on that journey and will continue to be on that journey,” he adds.
When asked if he considers his fruitful time at NBI the pinnacle of his professional journey so far, Subba delves into his thought process with an interesting analogy – “8848 metres is the height of Mount Everest. I constantly keep raising my own 8848. If I reach that point, then what’s the fun of climbing the same mountain? I create a new 8848; a new challenge, constantly. 8848 is not just about the organisation’s growth, but inner satisfaction in terms of your own role. And that hasn’t come for me yet, and it may never come. Or it may come in the professional sense; my 8848 could be seeing how my kids grow.”
Advice to Youth and Finding Balance
“I want them to know that there is no shortcut in life, no matter what,” Subba states. Currently, Subba is engaging with the young members of his team and helping them conduct a personal SWOT analysis. “Look for a mentor,” he advises. Subba laments the fact that there is a lack of people capable or willing to mentor young talent in Nepal.
“Those of us who are experienced must take it upon ourselves to ensure that the youth of today do not repeat the mistakes of our past,” he explains. Subba encourages the youth of today to be focused on discipline and work diligently on building their brand. “Just like Samsung and Apple, you are a brand and you have to invest in your own brand in terms of skills and knowledge,” he declares.
When asked about striking the balance between work and life, Subba offers a refreshingly honest perspective – “So many people say that they are so busy with work that they can’t spend time with family or meet friends. I don’t believe them, those people are lying. That can’t happen; it doesn’t happen with anyone. Unless you are working in your room for 24 hours without meeting anyone. How you balance your time is entirely up to you. Everybody has time.”
Lastly, Subba’s outlook on his professional journey is perhaps best crystallised by his card analogy. “In a deck of cards, a joker can fit into any sequence. I’m not a made sequence. I’m Jack the joker - adaptable and can fit in anywhere,” Subba declares. The man for all seasons, indeed.