IAM1776 – Accidental Entrepreneur Helps Level the Playing Field for the Financially Vulnerable

Podcast Interview with Safwan Shah

Why it was selected for “CBNation Architects”: In this episode of the I AM CEO podcast, host Gresham Harkless interviews Safwan Shah, the founder and CEO of PayActiv, a financial wellness company that helps level the playing field for the financially vulnerable. Safwan shares his insights on entrepreneurship, financial wellness, and how businesses can save the world one worker at a time.

Throughout the interview, Safwan emphasizes the importance of financial wellness and how it can help individuals and businesses improve their overall well-being. He also discusses the challenges of entrepreneurship and how he accidentally became an entrepreneur after selling a previous company and committing to his golf game.

Safwan shares his CEO hacks and nuggets, which include spending 2-3 hours doing deep immersive work and having no fear. He defines being a CEO as working for others.

Overall, the episode provides valuable insights into the importance of financial wellness and how businesses can help improve the lives of their workers. Safwan's experience and expertise in the field make this episode a must-listen for anyone interested in entrepreneurship and financial wellness.

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Safwan Shah Teaser 00:00

You don't notice all the other trouble that is in the middle. So, but you're so fascinated, you're so focused on that. So, it's never what you think it is, but if your purpose and your focus is laser-focused, then you find a way to navigate all the stuff that is thrown your way.

Intro 00:22

Do you want to learn effective ways to build relationships, generate sales, and grow your business from successful entrepreneurs, startups, and CEOs without listening to a long, long, long interview?

If so, you've come to the right place. Gresham Harkless values your time and is ready to share with you precisely the information you are in search of.

This is the I AM CEO podcast.

Gresham Harkless 00:49

Hello, hello, hello. This is Gresh from the I AM CEO podcast and I appreciate you listening to this episode. If you've been listening this year, you know that we hit 1600 episodes at the beginning of this year. We're doing something a little bit different where we're repurposing our favorite episodes around certain categories, topics, or as I like to call them, business pillars that we think are going to be extremely impactful for CEOs, entrepreneurs, and business owners. Or what I like to call the CB Nation architects those that are looking to level up their organizations.

This month we are focusing on knowing thy numbers. I could hear the phrases from Mr. Wonderful on Shark Tank, and if you understand or don't understand exactly what numbers is, think finance, economics, accounting, capital, investment funding, bootstrapping, anything that's around numbers. So, we have to understand how important it is to know your numbers and how important that is for you to forecast, make decisions, and to be able to truly strategize around your business and do that successfully.

Things are gonna be a little bit different obviously, this month. So look for CEO hacks and CEO nuggets and interviews that focus around this. But more than everything else, make sure that you know your numbers because they're extremely important to the life of your business.

Hello, hello, hello, this is Gresh from the I AM CEO podcast and I have a very special guest on the show today. I have Safwan Shah of PayActiv. Safwan, is awesome to have you on the show.

Safwan Shah 02:14

Thank you very much, Gresham. I'm excited to be here.

Gresham Harkless 02:17

Super excited to have you on as well. What I wanted to do is just read a little bit more about Safwan, so you can hear about all the awesome things that he's doing.

An engineer by training an entrepreneur by accident, Safwan is the founder and CEO of PayActiv. After selling a previous company and committing to his golf game, Safwan pulled himself out of retirement to launch PayActiv and level the playing field for the financially vulnerable. Safwan's work connects the dots between math, economics, history, and music.

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His first book, It's About Time, how businesses can save the world one worker at a time, turns conventional wisdom on its head and calls for businesses to embrace the mantle of saving the world.

Safwan, are you ready to speak to the I AM CEO community?

Safwan Shah 02:59

Yes. Very ready.

[restrict paid=”true”]

Gresham Harkless 03:01

Awesome. Let's do it. So to kick everything off, I wanted to hear a little bit more about your background and your CEO story, and what led you to start your business.

Safwan Shah 03:09

Yes. So, as the bio said, I'm by training an engineer and ended up in Silicon Valley after my PhD. One thing led to another. I just, frankly couldn't get a job, or a job that I liked to be more accurate. So, I ended up like most people in Silicon Valley, Northern California, people become entrepreneurs. I started one company, didn't get anywhere, started another, another, another, and so on and so forth until I had a very successful payments company.

After finishing that, I thought I'd never work again. I actually did that. I was retired for two and a half years and discovered the mysteries of golf. I literally played 300 days a year for a couple of years and did the usual thing trying to figure out, it's almost like you lose your bearings when most of the things you thought you were going to do, like education and a good job, a better job, a good job, you've done all that. Your worries are different and that's what led to PayActiv.

So the foundation of PayActiv is introspection and realizing the state of the human condition and trying to answer the question that why is it that in the richest country of the world, we have a huge number of people living paycheck to paycheck. So PayActiv was created, operated, and grown to solve that problem.

Gresham Harkless 04:43

Nice. I find that the engineering skill, the ability to be able to problem solve is integral to being an entrepreneur and business owner. So even though you know that you transitioned from being an engineer to that, it seemed like it went seamlessly for you, maybe.

Safwan Shah 04:55

Nothing goes seamlessly. Sometimes, if you see a destination imagine that you're looking at a mountain in the distance, but you don't notice the ravine that is in the way. When you get to the mountain, you don't notice the water. You don't notice all the other trouble that is in the middle but you're so fascinated, you're so focused on that.

So it's never what you think it is. But if your purpose and your focus is laser-focused, then you find a way to navigate all the stuff that is thrown your way.

Gresham Harkless 05:32

Absolutely. That definitely makes sense. If your why and your purpose is that strong, then you find a way to fix those problems and navigate all through that.

So, I know you've been able to do that with PayActiv, and I know you have a very strong mission there, I wanted to hear a little bit more about that, what you're doing, and how you're serving the clients that you're working with.

Safwan Shah 05:50

Yes, so PayActiv has a very well-defined purpose, and that is to alleviate financial stress for the way we word it, alleviate financial stress for hardworking Americans with financial security, dignity, and no additional debt. So the underlying premise is that two-thirds of America is living paycheck to paycheck. Many of them are hourly workers, about 78 million, and they're borrowing between that paycheck period. The two-week period, or the one-week period, they're borrowing money from payday lenders and all kinds of other alternative financial services.

My whole thesis or underlying premise of PayActiv is that why are they borrowing it when they already have some money earned every day? So if you're on the seventh day of a 14-day pay cycle, you have seven days of income that you've already earned. It's just not accessible to you. In a way, in a manner of speaking, it has been loaned to the employer. The employer owes you that money, and in anticipation, you're getting hit by an overdraft or taking a payday loan, which costs you $35 each time. So my whole underlying thesis was that money should move faster between the worker and their employers, especially when they need it.

There should be no embarrassment to ask that, Mr. Miss, employer, I earned $300, can I get a hundred out of it? Because it's their money that is being held. So that was the underlying premise of PayActiv when we started it. And of course, for the first few years, everybody thought that it would never work, and I made a conscious decision to go to business. So it's a B2B thing, and I said to businesses, Hey, your employees need it and I can provide you the technology to accomplish it.

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So my company funds that money and then the employer reimburses us on payday. So we assume the biweekly cycle and the lower income worker employee paycheck to paycheck person can get the $100, $200 when they need it without having to do these little loans and so on and so forth. So that's the business that's PayActiv. It activates your pay.

Gresham Harkless 08:09

Nice. I love that. I love how that definitely, solves a problem because like you mentioned, if the money's already allocated or earmarked, maybe that might be a better word within the company and organization, you're doing the work and you already know you're gonna do the work to get there.

Then being able to get that if you need it at a certain point is a lot better than going to potential alternative funding.

Safwan Shah 08:29

So, Gresham, this is not even earmarked, this is already earned.

Gresham Harkless 08:32

Oh, okay. Ah, okay. Money worked seven hours. Got you. Okay.

Safwan Shah 08:37

We're never giving money that is from the future. In fact, we are correcting, it's already there in a timesheet that Safwan has worked 37 hours this week, and if he's making $20 an hour, he's made whatever $700. That money is owed to Safwan by the employer. If he quits, you get that money. So all I'm saying is if they needed, let them access it, it's theirs anyway.

Gresham Harkless 09:07

Yeah, that makes sense. Because you've already,  put in a, I don't wanna say the monkey wrench, but in the whole, like two-week cycle because like you said, yes, you've already worked this seven hours or seven days of a week.

Then if you need it, then you can get it and have access to it.

Safwan Shah 09:20

Yeah, I usually give this like 32nd example that we pay our landlords in advance. We pay our vendors upon delivery or we have terms that, I'll give you 30 days later and 2% more, and our customers pay us the moment they get the service.

You can't walk into a Starbucks, get a cup of coffee and not pay them and say to them, Hey, I'll send you the money in two weeks. Doesn't work that way. But the person who's serving you behind the counter will wait two weeks to get paid and it hurts them sometimes. So it's a strange system, right?

Gresham Harkless 09:54

Yeah, yeah.

Safwan Shah 09:55

The one who needs it the most has to wait the longest.

Gresham Harkless 09:58

Absolutely. I wanted to ask you now for what I call your secret sauce. This could be for you or it might be for your organization. You might have already touched on this, but what do you feel sets you apart and makes you unique?

Safwan Shah 10:07

So number one is the power of the idea. The fact that everybody thought that the employer was doing a favor to the employee. They do in some sense because they give them a job. But the fact that employees are actually loaning money to the employer for two weeks, nobody had thought of that before. Because it's a legacy of kingdoms and generals and you got paid when the war was won, or you paid your subjects when loyalty was needed by royalty. So the secret source of doing this was to solve three different problems. Which nobody had thought of.

One was how to figure out a way to work with businesses where they have time and attendance systems, clock in, clock out, all that stuff where time is sitting, how many hours so and so has worked. So finding a way to link to so many different types of systems and do it seamlessly.

Also, talk to every payroll system so that when the paycheck goes to the employee, It is reflected that, hey, this is your paycheck of a thousand dollars. You've already taken 220, so that everything is compliant in the regulatory world to build all this technology together and to move money to employees in such a way that if on a Thursday night at 9:00 PM, the person has done the hours needs a hundred dollars, how do you move that money to the person instantaneously.

So it was pretty much like building a complete financial infrastructure.

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Gresham Harkless 11:44

Definitely appreciate. So I wanted to switch gears a little bit and ask you for what I call a CEO hack. This might be an app, book or a habit that you have, but it's something that makes you more effective and efficient.

Safwan Shah 11:57

So to me, a CEO, there is no single hack for me, every day is a starter day. I start very early, like it's early in the morning and I'm talking to you. I'm on the west coast. I start very early in the morning and spend at least two hours, if not two to three hours, just working like deep immersive work, and every evening I switch off completely and I only think.

So mornings are to do things, and evenings are to think through things. Because I'm in a purpose-driven business, I don't see my personal and professional conflict ever. I do what I love, so that is my only hack to do, spend mornings focused and immersed in doing things, starting things.

Gresham Harkless 12:56

Exactly. That makes perfect sense. Now I wanted to ask you for what I call a CEO nugget. This is a word of wisdom or a piece of advice, or if you could hop into a time machine, what would you tell your younger business self?

Safwan Shah 13:07

I think the first thing I would is that have no fear. Fear only comes when you have doubts about what you're doing. And if you have doubts, then you're not yet committed enough.

Gresham Harkless 13:20

I truly appreciate that. I know you touched on this a little bit as well too. I wanted to ask you what being a CEO means to you. We're hoping to have different quote and quote CEOs on the show, entrepreneurs, and business owners.

But what does being a CEO mean to you?

Safwan Shah 13:32

For me, it is working for others. I'm a big, big proponent and believer in servant leadership. I will never say that I have employees. I'll also always say they're my colleagues. And so never seeing anyone as an employee, but always seeing them as coworkers, partners and team members.

Being a CEO means to me that I've just got a different responsibility. I have to absorb more pain than others, and I have to lead by example and lead from the front, which is fearlessness.

Gresham Harkless 14:06

Appreciate that definition. What I wanted to do was pass you the mic, so to speak Safwan, and see if there's anything additional you can let our readers and listeners know.

And then of course, how best they can get ahold of you, get a copy of your book and hear about all the awesome things that you're doing.

Safwan Shah 14:18

I rarely have good ideas to give advice with but I believe in the power of entrepreneurship. One thing that I would say, I want everyone to hear is that don't do two things at the same time, either commit. So those people, because entrepreneurship is not easy, you are, as I said, you're trying to handle resources that you don't necessarily control. The most important thing, in my opinion is do one thing and commit to it completely.

So I'm on LinkedIn. I rarely tweet, but I'm Safwanshah one word on Twitter. I'm on LinkedIn of course, and my book is on Amazon. It's called, It's About Time. So if you search for my name, Safwan Shan on Amazon, you'll find the book. It'd be great if review it, and read it. It's an intellectual autobiography of my school of hard knocks and observations and my view of the world.

Other than that I'm safwan@payactiv .com. Send me an email. I love to talk to entrepreneurs, love to hear their ideas and to my, to the best of my ability to, help and assist as much as I can.

Gresham Harkless 15:36

Nice. I definitely appreciate you, appreciate your time. Appreciate all these nuggets and knowledge that you provided. What we'll do is we'll have those links in the show notes as well, and I appreciate you again, and I hope you have a great rest of the day.

Safwan Shah 15:47

Thank you, Gresham. Have a great day.

Outro 15:49

Thank you for listening to the I AM CEO podcast, powered by Blue 16 Media. Tune in next time and visit us at I AM CEO is not just a phrase, it's a community.

Be sure to follow us on social media and subscribe to our podcast on iTunes, Google Play, and everywhere you listen to podcasts.

Subscribe and leave us a five-star rating. Grab CEO gear at This has been the I AM CEO podcast with Gresham. Harlkess. Thank you for listening.


Dave Bonachita - CBNation Writer

This is a post from a CBNation team member. CBNation is a Business to Business (B2B) Brand. We are focused on increasing the success rate. We create content and information focusing on increasing the visibility of and providing resources for CEOs, entrepreneurs and business owners. CBNation consists of blogs(, podcasts, ( and videos ( CBNation is proudly powered by Blue16 Media.

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