Amrita Ahuja’s career route may look somewhat typical for a rising star in finance — with stints at consulting firm McKinsey and Wall Street bank Morgan Stanley.
But Square’s chief financial officer had a few quirkier stops along the way. After leaving Morgan Stanley, she spent two years in strategy for Disney before later pivoting to business development at Fox.
“I joined Morgan Stanley to get the finance bootcamp experience and just learn as much as possible,” says Ahuja, speaking from her home, about an hour outside of San Francisco.
Following Fox she changed tack again to spend almost a decade at gaming giant Activision Blizzard, holding positions ranging from vice president of strategy to CFO of its entertainment arm.
Her time with the creators of Call of Duty and World of Warcraft now lends Ahuja a unique perspective on the way investing has been gamified in recent years. Particularly in the wake of the GameStop saga, regulators globally are assessing whether digital stock trading is being engineered in a way that can be as addictive as a game and harmful to consumers.
“There’s a fine line between making products accessible, understandable and relatable, to making them entertainment,” says Ahuja, adding that in gaming, there’s “a desire to hook people in, like if you do this, you get one more of that… It’s a very fine line you have to walk.”
Robinhood launched a host of changes to its app including a feature that sprinkled confetti over a user’s screen in March, following a complaint by Massachusetts regulators which alleged the fintech firm used “aggressive tactics to attract inexperienced investors [and] gamification strategies to manipulate customers”.
As the operator of Cash App, a payments platform that also offers the ability to buy and sell bitcoin, Square is conscious not to fall into the same traps.
“This is serious, as opposed to entertainment,” says Ahuja. “This is our customers’ livelihood, and we want to take that and be focused on ensuring our customers have the best information to make decisions in a clear-headed way.”
Ahuja’s unique career path has meant that she was present for some of the country’s biggest businesses’ transformation to a digital world. Ahuja was at Disney during the bitter boardroom battle between Roy Disney and Michael Eisner, “which was fascinating to see from a junior perspective”. She was at Fox when it created streaming platform Hulu. At Blizzard, she watched the shift from retail business strategies to the evolution of selling directly to consumers through digital marketplaces.
“When Square called, I wasn’t looking to leave gaming, but it was really the purpose that called me. This came back to my roots of growing up in Cleveland, Ohio, in a small town where my parents were small business owners,” says Ahuja.
“I got to see their struggles, the sweat and the hustle that they put into it on a daily basis for decades… [Square’s purpose] was something that even though it was a total pivot in my career, I could not let that opportunity go by.”
Now she leads the startup’s financial decisions as it seeks to get ahead of the pack in other ways, such as by including bitcoin as an investment on its corporate treasuries. Square has bought $220m worth of the cryptocurrency to date, which Ahuja says is approximately 5% of the firm’s cash on hand.
In its first-quarter earnings last month, Square said it had taken a $20m impairment on its bitcoin investment so far, even as its fair market value increased to a total of $472m by the end of March. Despite moves by others such as Tesla and MicroStrategy to up their bitcoin holdings amid a wider crypto boom, Square is holding fire.
“We don’t have any plans at this point to make further purchases,” Ahuja says. “We’re always evaluating and as ever, I think we’d be customer-led. As we see the evolution of the bitcoin product or crypto products in general, I think we’ll make further assessments at that point.”
An excerpt of her statement published earlier by Financial News led to a decline in bitcoin’s price, as Dorsey turned to his Twitter to intervene with some positive messaging about bitcoin’s potential. Square has regularly promoted the cryptocurrency as a solution to some of the world’s pressing problems, including in payments where it offers Cash App users the ability to buy and sell bitcoin, and most recently for the clean energy crisis.
The fintech firm launched a joint report with bitcoin advocate and fund manager Ark Invest last month, in which it argued bitcoin’s carbon-intensive mining process “incentivises” renewable energy production. Tesla chief executive Elon Musk initially concurred with the report’s findings, before later deciding to stop accepting purchases made with bitcoin due its sizeable environmental impact.
“Our position has always been that this is an area that needs innovation in terms of renewables and clean energy, and we want to be a part of that,” says Ahuja, claiming that Square’s $10m initiative to invest in companies which promote using clean energy for bitcoin’s supply chain helps to offset the carbon impact of its cryptocurrency activity.
“There’s a broader supply chain question around how renewables and clean energy become a greater part of the blockchain in general, and a greater part of the overall mining and transaction network… It’s the overall fixed footprint of the network that we need to address.”
Square is also a founding member of the Cryptocurrency Open Patent Alliance, a non-profit which seeks to ensure the patents developed for cryptocurrencies by itself and others remain a benefit to all parts of finance. The organisation has an ongoing lawsuit against Craig Wright, a Surrey-based computer scientist who claims to be the inventor of bitcoin Satoshi Nakamoto, which Ahuja declines to comment on.
But despite working for a startup that easily adapted during the pandemic, there’s one part of corporate life that Ahuja can’t shake off: a love of the office. In the early months of lockdown Ahuja says she had no childcare arrangements, creating “a juggling act” of trying to manage a three year old and six year old at home with her husband.
“This has just been an unbelievably unprecedented time from a business perspective, and from a personal perspective,” she says. “I don’t miss the flight delays at airports. I don’t miss the crowded commutes. But I do miss having some of that separation between work at home. Many of us need that now.”
1999-2000 LSE, general course in economics
1997-2001 Duke University, BA in economics
2005-07 Harvard Business School, MBA
2019–present: Square, chief financial officer
2010-19 Activision Blizzard, various roles including: vice president of strategy and business development, vice president of finance and operations, senior vice president of investor relations, Blizzard Entertainment chief financial officer
2007-10 Fox Networks Group, business development director
2006 McKinsey & Company, summer associate
2003-05 The Walt Disney Company, strategic planning senior analyst
2001-03 Morgan Stanley, investment banking analyst
To contact the author of this story with feedback or news, email Emily Nicolle