manhattan office building from below
Finance is one of several industries where women have found it hard to rise to the top. Fintech may have shaken things up, but in terms of diversity, much remains to be done. On International Women’s Day, three leading female business leaders in finance share their experiences and their success stories.
Canadian tech entrepreneur Michele Romanow is a cofounder and CEO of Clearco (previously Clearbanc), a provider of revenue-based funding to ecommerce businesses. Launched in 2015, Clearco marked her first foray into financial services, an industry that in itself lacked equal access to funding.
“Over 2014 and 2015 I took 200 meetings on Wall Street to get access to capital for Clearco and I got 199 ‘no’s, mostly all from male bankers and VC’s,” she says. “I was often the only woman in the room. It was a lonely place, and it still feels that way for women in fintech today.”
However, Romanow believes that tech can be a real enabler for women not just in finance, but across other sectors, and says that the ability to leverage technology – Clearco uses AI to assess funding applications – to remove human biases against underserved communities all over the world has been transformative.
“Today we fund 25 times more female-owned businesses than traditional VCs, while 50% of our current global portfolio is made up of businesses led by a woman,” she says. “I’m optimistic that we will see a huge new wave of female entrepreneurs. The ideas are already there, it’s just a case of unlocking the access to capital.”
Her advice to other entrepreneurs is to avoid getting trapped in a cycle of waiting for the perfect time to start a business and to jump in, get the ball rolling, and accept there will be rejections. She says: “When I started at 21, I wasn’t sure why I was getting rejections. Was it because I’m a woman? Too young? Lack of experience? But I didn’t let that spook me and now we’ve built a $2billion business where we get to support entrepreneurs and fuel their dreams and grow their businesses with them.”
Jayne-Anne Gadhia is the founder and executive chair of fintech Snoop and was CEO of Virgin Money from 2007 to 2018. Earlier in her career, she worked at Aviva (previously Norwich Union) which she describes as ‘no worse than any other big organization in financial services at the time’ in terms of gender equality.
“Women holding down senior positions were few and far between,” she says. “My early experience of getting promoted, or not, always had a hint of sexism. The old boys’ network was in full swing and was predisposed to recruit in its image. Not to overgeneralize, but women were assistants, or middle management at best, and men ran the show.”
Recognition of the societal, productivity and economic benefits of diversity in the workforce has seen progress being made, but as Gadhia points out, achieving diversity and equality isn’t a numbers game. “Having a balanced organization on paper is one thing,” she says. “To reap the benefits, diversity and inclusion must be truly embedded in the business.
After 11 years at Virgin Money Gadhia went on to found Snoop. She says: “We thought about creating a new bank from scratch, but deep down we knew that a proposition based on open banking technology, rather than a traditional banking model, could be a real gamechanger for consumers.”
The fintech era has created more opportunities for women to progress in the financial services industry, and Gadhia sees technology as a facilitator of that. “Whether it’s fintech or any other sector, your business needs to reflect the society it serves,” she says. “Technology is shaping the world around us and increasing the number of women in tech is essential for the industry to innovate and benefit everyone in society.”
Anne Boden is founder and CEO at Starling Bank, and previously held a string of senior financial positions, including Head of EMEA at RBS and COO at Allied Irish Bank. Her first job was as a graduate trainee with Lloyds Bank.
“When I chose a career in banking, it never occurred to me that I would have to work harder to prove myself because I was a woman,” she says. “Then I saw that all the bosses were men and women didn’t seem to rise above junior positions. I didn’t get paranoid about it. I quite like it when I’m told something is not possible. Proving people wrong motivates me.”
Boden doesn’t recall a single Eureka moment that led to her launching Starling Bank in 2014, rather it was a series of events that made her realize banking was broken.
“Hardly anything had changed since the 2008 crisis, banks had simply snapped back to business as usual, prioritizing their own best interests,” she says. “I also found it frustrating that my sector was still relying on old IT systems, while the rest of the commercial world had moved on and the focus was 100% on customers. There was no equivalent in banking.”
Today, many tech firms are scaling and trying to attract more women to tech roles. Starling is one of them. “Diversity is at the heart of everything we do,” says Boden. “When we signed the Women in Finance Charter in 2017, marking a commitment to gender balance in the industry, 27% of the senior roles at Starling were filled by women. That figure grew to 40% by the end of 2021, and we are still committed to doing more.”
To any woman who has tried the sector in the past and decided the industry wasn’t for them, her advice is to try again. “There’s a good chance you’ll find something more inspiring on offer,” she says. “Either that or find a company you want to work for and put everything into getting a job there. I am always prepared to listen to a pitch from an ambitious, determined woman seeking to break into fintech.”
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