With women making up just 7 per cent of total global fintech founders and are often not afforded the same opportunities as their male counterparts, it’s about time the industry did something about it.
Suneera Madhani, is CEO and co-founder of Stax, a Florida-based payments unicorn. As a minority woman and a fintech executive herself, Madhani is no stranger to the unfavourable terms of the fintech industry, and frequently addresses the gender gap and the barriers that exist to close it.
As a female founder who built a fintech unicorn, Suneera is passionate about championing women founders and fintech leaders. In an interview with The Fintech Times, she outlines what steps women founders and investors can take to empower themselves and each other.
What does the fintech industry look like in terms of gender representation in your opinion?
Right now, diversity and representation in fintech are nowhere close to where they need to be. There need to be more women included in conversations, especially in leadership positions of organisations so their voices are heard. Fintech right now is a boys club where knowledge is shared on golf courses, at country clubs and in locker rooms. Women represent half the customers and are consistently not given the same access to the tools for success that men are. As a result, there are fewer women leaders in the fintech space to be role models for younger female employees. Early in my career, I realised women in fintech need to build their own seat at the table because there is not one for us right now as it is.
What is the importance of closing the gender gap in fintech?
Closing the gender gap needs to start from the top, and diverse leadership will naturally sponsor more diversity. Women and diverse CEOs end up having more diverse companies and that is a huge reason they’re more successful. They will foster higher collaborative environments, creating a more inclusive workplace culture that generates a higher ROI than male-led companies. In fact, private tech companies led by women achieve 35 per cent higher ROI and outperform companies founded by men. Women will champion other women and people of diversity in the industry showing they can be just as effective leaders, if not more so, than their male counterparts.
How can we increase women’s representation in fintech?
Venture capital firms and larger organizations need to be held accountable for having women in leadership positions. Less than 3 per cent of venture capital goes to women founders, and less than 1 per cent of venture capital goes to minorities at all. It does not have to be 100 per cent, but it should be a lot higher than 3 per cent. If venture capital funds are not going to women-led businesses at the same rate as male-led ones, they are not going to grow at the same rate. I raised venture capital funds twice while pregnant, so I saw firsthand the bias the industry has towards male-led companies and the disrespect that female founders face while trying to raise capital. While this was very frustrating, it is a problem that can be solved if venture capitalists start committing to invest in women founders.
Employees also need to hold their own organisations accountable for having different voices in leadership positions. It’s pretty easy to look at a company’s decision-makers and tell whether or not that group is inclusive of different voices. Employees can be the change by supporting women leaders in their companies and encouraging their employers to be inclusive of everyone.
What are the biggest stumbling blocks for female fintech founders?
As I mentioned above, the lack of venture capital that goes to women founders is a huge issue. Women need access to funds early so they can grow their businesses. We’re not asking for more than male-led companies, we’re simply asking to be treated equally and given the opportunity to grow our companies in the same way. I’ve heard there is a rise in momentum for women-led businesses but so far the numbers do not show it.
The current lack of diversity is also a big issue. The longer we go without making progress, the bigger the gap is. Just as diversity fosters more diversity, exclusion fosters more exclusion. If we are only seeking to attract the same kind of leaders and investors, those people will only do the same thing in the future. Working in the payments space, there have been so many times where I’ve been the only woman in the room. That continued lack of representation only makes the situation more discouraging for women currently in the industry. Women are constantly made to feel like we have to prove ourselves in this industry and being treated equally is not just a step in the right direction, it’s the basic respect that all employees deserve.
What are the challenges to this?
People’s underestimation of women is a major problem. Men will speak directly to the men in the room even if the women are in charge. The number of times women are cut off is absurd. I see it every single day in this industry. People often label women as distracted and emotional and thus incapable of making important decisions. Women need to be respected as leaders and we shouldn’t feel like we have to prove anything just because we are succeeding in a male-dominated industry.
Should the fintech industry be doing more to promote gender diversity?
Absolutely the fintech industry should be doing more. Right now the industry is doing so little to promote and champion diversity that the only way to go is up. Diversity is not about just checking a box, it’s about bringing in other perspectives that are proven to make companies more successful. Talking about diversity is important, but actions speak way louder. The industry is more successful with more women in leadership and embracing that proven fact will be critical to breaking decades-old biases in the industry.
Is this a women’s issue, or should everyone be concerned about diversity?
Everyone needs to be concerned about diversity because it’s not enough to not participate in sexism, you need to be actively against it. Building a culture of equality takes everyone and everyone who is not helping to build that culture is part of the problem. However, this isn’t just a diversity issue — limiting women in fintech also limits the fintech industry’s potential for innovation and disruption. This is because true innovation is only possible with a diversity of perspectives and thinking. If fintech wants to break the mould like other industries, it needs to do a better job of making space for different perspectives and backgrounds. We all have to be mindful of equity. Including different ways of thinking leads to a more successful workforce and a better ROI.
At Stax, we have almost 50 per cent diversity equity. We champion diversity and actively seek to bring in new voices and different perspectives. We strive every day to walk the walk and create a diverse environment that welcomes new ideas and sets an example for other companies in the industry.