How I became a… crime predictor

Being held at knife-point in his dad’s cash-and-carry set this technology leader on a path to rooting out crime on a global scale
Hiba Vishalmarria

“Some are born great, some achieve greatness and some have greatness thrust upon them,” wrote Shakespeare. Talking with Vishal Marria, founder and CEO of global data analytics company Quantexa, it becomes clear that all three can be true in business. 

Born into a family of entrepreneurs, business was the main topic of conversation around the dinner table. It also took priority when it came to Marria’s free time – and that of his three siblings. His parents moved to the UK from India in the 1960s and both started their own businesses, first in deliveries, then off-licences and, finally, cash-and-carry stores. 

“From about five years old, you’d finish school and then go to the cash-and-carry and help the family business, seven days a week,” he explains. “Even on Sundays, I would work there from 10am until 3pm.”

Naturally, there was an expectation that Marria would take over the family business. But he had other ideas. 

“I wanted to run my own business right from a very young age,” he says. At school, his twin passions for business and technology were apparent early. His GCSEs and A-levels focused on IT and economics, before he went to study computer science at Royal Holloway, University of London. After gaining a first-class degree and then a distinction in his master’s, Marria knew it was time for a new challenge.

“I knew I had a foundational, entrepreneurial background in my DNA,” he says, “but I didn’t have a skill for working in large organisations, working for someone else. You get discipline by doing that.” 

His first job outside the family was for technology consulting firm Detica (now BAE Systems Digital Intelligence) as a tech lead in the data science department. Then it was off to software development company SAS, then EY. 

After almost two years there, he felt he had learnt enough from working in other organisations and it was time to launch something of his own. Quantexa gathers and processes information that can be used to detect risks. The central aim is to connect data from as many sources and systems as possible, both internal and external, then apply AI and machine-learning techniques to provide accurate information. Banks typically use this information to identify and combat financial crime, while firms in sectors from insurance to telecommunications use it to understand their customers better. But the data can also be used to help to catch criminals.

You cannot be stubborn as a CEO. If you’re going down a path and it isn’t working, you need to course-correct

This is something that has always been important to Marria. Crime was prevalent when he was growing up. He attended what he describes as the “roughest school in South London” and at age eight he was held at knife-point when the cash-and-carry was robbed.

Once he started working, he noticed how technology facilitated crime on a grand scale, and how many hiding places the internet offered wrongdoers. 

Rooting out these criminals has been a thread in Marria’s career. At Detica he worked on NetReveal, a fraud detection product still used today. At SAS, he led the fraud and financial crime efforts across EMEA and Asia-Pacific. At EY he was an executive director across the compliance practice. When he founded Quantexa, the vision was to stitch together data to give organisations, from government departments to major banks, a clearer picture of any given situation. Predicting crime may not have been the only goal, but it was certainly one of the first. 

Some might see fraud and money laundering as low-level in the scheme of things. But, says Marria, this underestimates the damage they can do. “The proceeds of financial crime feed into human trafficking, into terrorism,” he explains. “We’ve worked with partners and clients to detect and prevent sex trafficking, child trafficking, and wildlife crime. There is a huge ethical and moral responsibility here and we take it seriously.” 

It is tussling with these big problems which Marria enjoys most. “Nothing gives me more joy than to have a hard problem and to work with groups of talented people to solve it.” Pressed to find something he dislikes, he muses that he works long hours, starting very early in the morning and often not returning home until late at night. Any entrepreneur needs time to think and reflect to see the big picture, he says, and sometimes he doesn’t have as many opportunities for that as he might like. But, ultimately, “I genuinely don’t think there’s anything in my job I dislike!” he says.

“‘In every job that must be done, there is an element of fun,’” he says, quoting that unlikely business hero, Mary Poppins. “I think a lot of CEOs would probably say the same thing – you need to find the fun in any job you do.” 

What else does a crime-fighting business leader need, in terms of skills? When it comes to tackling financial crime specifically, the first thing to do is ask why, says Marria. “Why is this customer only having certain payments coming into the account? Why do they look like an outlier? Why don’t they behave like other customers? Challenge what the data is telling you.” A mindset that constantly seeks to push back against received wisdom and a radar for anomalies are crucial for this type of work.

Taking these qualities and building out a programme which can spot outliers at scale, of course, requires considerable technical skill. The drive to challenge the norm is essential for any entrepreneur, however. “You need to be able to take a risk-based approach and follow through on that.” 

Self-reflection is also key, he says. “You cannot be stubborn. If you’re going down a path and it isn’t working, you need to course-correct constantly. If you’re not meeting your objectives, then stop.” 

And, finally, any CEO must acknowledge the power of listening. “We listen – to the market, to our clients, to feedback from prospective customers and analysts. You have to be prepared to act on feedback.” Humility, it turns out, is the first step on the path to greatness.