My path in payments with Rakhi Seth-Forrest at Warner Brothers Discovery
We can find proof of how the world of payments and technology have become so intertwined in the career of Rakhi Seth-Forrest. Starting her professional life as a software developer, she now leads direct-to-consumer payments operations for Warner Bros. Discovery, the global media company.
Her role, which also covers fraud prevention, can go largely unnoticed in an industry where attention is everything. But without her team's work, household brands such as HBO, CNN, DC Universe, and TNT could not serve their audiences.
Her story begins with a degree in Management Information Systems, followed by a decade of roles at blue chip companies such as Accenture, Synapse and GLG, mainly in web development projects.
So far, so traditional. Then came the jump to payments in 2015, when Rakhi was working in technology governance. "Warner needed someone to look into payment fraud, and because that loosely falls within governance and safeguarding, I was a logical choice."
Tech know-how that's worth shouting about
That logic has proved right. Rakhi's recent promotion to VP demonstrates how important her work has become to the company. She reflects how crucial her technology background has been to that success, most obviously in understanding how malicious actors execute fraud in the digital era.
And she puts equal weight behind how she has been a natural advocate for technology. "I came into payments knowing what technology can achieve. That's a very different starting point to someone you need to persuade to trust technology, whose inclination is to go slow and put controls in place because they're scared that the tech will go wrong."
Rakhi's advocacy has clearly worked. Today, technology permeates the end-to-end payments workflow built under her watch. This includes the tools and systems that enable every stage of the checkout flow, to the data analysis that seeks clues to improve retention, acquisition and conversion.
With time has come the trust of her peers, she says. "We had to start with the basics, making a case for healthy payments and selling in the concepts of things like anti-fraud and payments verification — and pushing back against claims that we risked losing legitimate customers due to the over-zealous systems rejecting their transactions. We must still justify our priorities, but that has become much easier."
Educator, collaborator, crusader
Education is a crucial tenet of Rakhi's approach to work; the understanding that bringing people willingly with you on a journey reaps better results than forcing them to follow.
In 2018 she co-authored a paper with peers from her industry explaining how to monitor unauthorized digital content consumption. As the technical leader for the paper, her role was to explain how data could be collected and analyzed to identify where people were sharing accounts. Her recommendations—a complex set of data protocols—have since contributed to today's industry standards. Since then Rakhi has also co-authored a patent on a similar topic: US Patent 11350174 Co-Inventor - Method and Apparatus to Profile Account Credential Sharing.
It is an example of the ecosystem that Rakhi not only operates in, but has done as much as anyone to develop. It includes the day-to-day partners and vendors her team work with, and the various boards and committees they are represented on. Rakhi understands that the best way for Warner Bros. Discovery to progress is to ensure the industry is moving in the right direction.
"We are always tapping into pools of specific expertise, especially when considering a territory we know less about. That external knowledge base and validation are essential, so we must contribute to its health."
Alongside the grandstand moments of industry-defining papers is the learning culture she has created in her team. "I don't want people to be in meeting after meeting. There needs to be time for thinking set aside in the schedule." What form that thinking takes is not important, she says. It might be strategizing about a project, or it could be reflecting on life outside of work. What's important is that it takes you away from the busyness of the job, even for a short time. She says of her own experience doing this: "I come back de-stressed, fresh-minded, far more creative. That's what I need from my team too."
Her work on payment fraud is not simply about protecting a company's commercial interests. There is a moral aspect to Rakhi's work; a mission to combat wrongdoing and protect customers by protecting the companies that serve them.
She explains this mission is made easier and more complicated by payment innovations. Easier because payment professionals can now call on sophisticated technology that makes it possible to spot and stop fraud in its tracks. But innovation has also seen new payment methods emerge that present fresh opportunities for fraudsters. Security is also up against higher customer expectations to transact faster. The key, she explains, is not to see innovation as a trade-off between good and evil but instead to take a holistic approach, where fighting fraud is part of the transformation. "We've seen it's possible to transact quicker and also safer. This shouldn't be an either/or conversation."
The focus on getting this right has reached new levels of interest in recent years, explains Rakhi. COVID lockdowns had the double whammy of turning people onto streaming services while making them more reliant on digital payment options. Neither is going away anytime soon.
Champion and cynic
Her job is to be a champion for digital payments—digital wallets, open banking, BNPL and even crypto are all on her radar now. But she must also be the company's chief critic, Rakhi says. It's not good enough to just plow on with innovations. "I must always be monitoring the safety of everything new that we do."
As well as observing new payment methods for opportunities and threats, Rakhi also considers how the landscape shifts between different countries. "You get very comfortable operating domestically. As we extend globally, people interact with our platform differently. That can create challenges, with people bypassing our security in ways we haven't seen before."
But overthinking can be a problem. "Some attack methods are quite unsophisticated, and we can overlook these. For example, across the industry we're seeing a regeneration of phishing attacks lately, one of the older forms of hacks. We need to be just as aware of the smaller, older level threats because they can be the entry point for bigger attacks."
The right stuff
One of her priorities is ensuring her team is packed with the right people. Technical skills are essential but meaningless without passion, she says. "I value people who can identify a problem, then run towards it, and not stop until they've cracked the solution."
Rakhi says her team "lives in the data". Security is just one beneficiary of "a culture where data is king, where everyone is consistently looking at how our data changes." She says data gives everyone the mandate to be persistent in raising topics or issues that can be uncomfortable to talk about. "You learn to be driven by the proof points instead of personnel dynamics.." Payment verifications, acceptance rates and chargebacks are some other metrics that set her team's agenda.
She also values realism; the honesty to say what's not possible. "We can't expect to boil the ocean on our own. It's much smarter to look across the company and find people who can do something better than you." Key collaborators are Warner Bros' product and security teams. "You need people on your team who welcome more eyes on their work. They are the people that have made my team successful."
Knowing who you want in your team is different from getting them, explains Rakhi. "It's been hard to find people with the right balance of technical, payment and fraud expertise who can bring drive and the willingness to be collaborative. I think we'll find it easier as the value of these sorts of roles becomes more appreciated and the skillset less niche."
In that sense, Rakhi has become the architect for what—or who—she is looking for. Her story is not simply one of a trailblazer rising through the ranks but of a pioneer readying her profession for the next generation of stars.