How to lead a fintech from the heart

Jason Gardner on leading from heart

It’s been nearly a year since I joined Marqeta after a career in cybersecurity that spanned the United States Marine Corps, the National Security Agency, a global consulting firm, and most recently, Netflix. Marqeta was not quite a household brand, and for some of my Netflix colleagues, I’m sure it seemed like an odd choice. But I was intrigued by the challenges of maintaining global payment security, and Marqeta had a reputation of being a technology company that put people first.

This is not easy to do. It’s easier to come up with a good idea than to bring it to market, and in many ways, it’s easier to lead from the top down rather than the bottom up. Many companies say their people are their most valuable asset. But it’s rare for companies to treat individual employees that way. It requires a different kind of leadership — one that is focused on service.

Jason Gardner and I talked about this during the inaugural Marqeta Leads podcast, and I wanted to share parts of that interview that I found particularly inspiring.

Chris Cochran: When I was in middle school, I stepped into entrepreneurship as the class candy man — 9 cent margins on a Pixy stick, which is actually pretty incredible. I’d love to hear a bit about how you stepped into your leadership ability. What was that like, and how was it different from what you thought it would be?

Jason Gardner: You talk about making money selling candy. There’s something really wonderful and exciting about that transaction. You are not working a regular job: you are getting paid for something you are doing yourself. For me, that’s really addicting. Even as a little five-year-old kid that was shoveling a driveway or raking leaves, I knew that the effort I was putting in was going to put money in my pocket directly, and there was something that fascinated me about that.

In terms of stepping into leadership — in the early days, you fake it ‘til you make it. You read books, you read magazines, you read articles, you talk to people — but at the point, leadership is not coming from your heart. It’s coming from your head, and you don’t really feel it. You are not finding that cadence in how you speak, how you act, how you operate, what your values are. You believe these things in a way that is a bit disconnected from your heart and how you lead. But over time, you begin to understand. Part of that growth comes from the sensitivity you feel toward other human beings as a founder and CEO.

Most businesses fail, especially in the tech industry. And so people look at the emotional side. They want to make sure that they are going to be okay, that they are going to be safe. They are putting in their time — their personal time, their professional time, their time away from their families and their significant others — they want to be able to trust that you can handle this and that you know where you are going. It’s an extraordinary amount of pressure.

Over time, you feel leadership in your heart. It begins to feel natural to you. You’re like, “I got this.” It’s not about faking it anymore to maybe impress people or give people a sense of safety. You step into what I call a true leader, and that reflects the work you do, and how you talk, and most importantly, how you treat people.

Chris Cochran: When did you start leading from the heart?

Jason Gardner: In the early days of Marqeta, we were three weeks from running out of money. I was out raising money, and it was very difficult. We were getting a lot of nos, and I found a power that I didn’t really have before. I felt really steady. I knew in my heart that Marqeta was on to something, that we were finding product/market fit. I saw how we were going to grow, and it had a calming effect on me. Eventually, we raised the money. We closed a pretty significant round. And very soon after that, we launched the open API, and that really solidified us as a first mover.

Chris Cochran: This is the first episode of the Marqeta Leads podcast. And in this series, we’re going to discuss different types of leadership, different leadership philosophies, and leadership tactics. Could you tell us a story that exemplifies your style of leadership?

Jason Gardner: I have a strong belief in servant leadership. When I see an org chart of our company — we have 500-plus people, and I’m at the top — it feels, in a way, uncomfortable to me. I feel that I should be at the bottom of the org chart. I’m in service to everyone in this organization, and part of that is about my heart and how I feel about other human beings. People at Marqeta are spending most of their time thinking about Marqeta, whether they are working with other Marqetans, whether they are working with our customers or for our customers. They are talking about it with their partners, their loved ones, and their families. They might be sleeping and thinking about Marqeta or dreaming and thinking about Marqeta. I take that very seriously. I need to be supportive of everybody in this company. I need to be there for them and give them not only a sense of safety but of pride and purpose. That is incredibly important to me, and it’s reflected in the value that we call One Marqeta.

Listen to the entire podcast:

This transcript has been lightly edited for clarity.