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How fintech is a game changer for women

by Matthew Smith | 26 Apr 2017

The next generation of women in finance might be busting through glass walls instead of butting up against glass ceilings, as some of the most prominent women in Australia’s burgeoning fintech startup scene are proving.

InFinance - How fintech is a game changer for women

While the glass ceiling analogy continues to be relevant to the struggle for equality in the traditional corporate setting, there’s a different mindset being taken into the startup arena, speakers at the recent Power Women in Fintech event at fintech hub Stone & Chalk in Sydney, recently are highlighting.

“I think when I resigned, my bosses thought I was going to start up a stationery business or stay at home to look after the kids. They don’t believe you when you tell them you’re going to launch a startup,” says Katherine McConnell, founder and CEO of Brighte, the no-interest consumer payment plan originator for smart home technologies.

A year and a half since quitting her job at Macquarie Group to become a fintech startup founder, McConnell has passed a number of significant milestones, including completing one of the country’s most significant ($3.5 million) seed funding-round capital raises; building a technology platform which has since gone live; achieving 300 per cent month-on-month loan volume increases over the last six months.

Now McConnell counts prominent investors – including Atlassian founder Mike Cannon-Brookes as a debt investor – with other well-known startup backers fighting over equity stakes in the business.

Describing herself as an “accidental entrepreneur”, McConnell acknowledges it was her frustration with not getting a promotion at the end of the day in her old corporate job, which led to her starting her own fintech disruptor.

Now, McConnell is encouraging other women to make the leap to consider entrepreneurship as a possible pathway to further their career goals.

“People who are frustrated, if you want to get further and get there faster, if your corporate life is not giving you that, I’ll take you in a heartbeat,” McConnell says, to a room full of mostly women [aside from your correspondent] who are professionals in banking, venture capital and financial services.

Game changing

Women like McConnell are leaving the big-end-of-town corporate world – where customs are anchored in male lore – and changing the rules of the game on their own terms.

Seventy per cent of Brighte’s employees are female, quite a bit higher than the approximately 13 per cent of leadership roles estimated to be held by women in fintech in Australia currently.

Stone & Chalk startups boast a higher than average number of female founders, at close to 30 per cent, according to Alex Scandurra, Stone & Chalk’s CEO.  

“I’m recruiting now... if you’re looking, I’m offering flexibility. I’ll take you,” McConnell says to a receptive audience.

More risk averse?

But McConnell, along with other participants in the Stone & Chalk women in fintech discussion, agree women can have innate aversion to risk, which can be a deterrent to plunging into the startup world.

The apparent gap between men and women’s innate risk aversion is not so much a reflection of different risk appetites, but rather a confidence issue that ends up leading to a lower appetite for risk, reckons Stephanie Gillon, a startup founder and director of Flare HR, the platform designed to make employees work smarter and happier.

For the panel discussion, Gillon and McConnell join HashChing COO, Siobhan Hayden; former ANZ and Bank of America Merrill Lynch global banking executive, Carole Berndt; and Fiona Boyd, CEO of Heads over Heels, the advocacy and networking group for women in high growth businesses.

“I use the analogy that if I go abseiling without a rope. I’m less inclined to do that than if I have a rope. It’s the rope that gives me the confidence to tackle the risk. The aversion to risk is not because we don’t like risk, but because we lack assurance and confidence,” Gillon describes.

This innate “risk aversion”, which could be a barrier for women to leave their corporate roles even though they may not be progressing “up the ladder” can be overcome through actual risk taking, the panelists discuss.  

Growing confidence

“I look back at myself a year ago and I didn’t have the confidence, just how I approached my life and my work,” McConnell recalls.

“That confidence in yourself grows when you’re doing. Now I’ve got the luxury of people funding me, I’ve developed that sense of confidence and trust in myself,” McConnell says.

“I don’t think it’s about saying some people don’t have what’s in them to be an entrepreneur. The question is how do we bring that out,” comments Flair HR’s Gillon.

“I think we bring it out in ourselves through instilling confidence and assurance. This is self-perpetuating. The thing we need to do is to take risks to either succeed or fail, which brings resilience, which creates confidence. I would say start small building confidence and that will increase your risk tolerance,” Gillon describes.

The wrong ladder?

Berndt says a lot of women who are frustrated with corporate life are now looking with interest at the startup route.

“The challenge for women is it’s still damned hard in corporate life,” Berndt remarks. Berndt draws on her years of experience leading global businesses in banking and finance to make her point - most recently she was head of global transaction banking for ANZ based in Hong Kong. Previously she had a leading role in delivering the integrated global corporate banking financial plan and market share growth for Bank of America Merrill Lynch as Head of Global Transaction Services for EMEA based in Hong Kong. She’s worked in leadership roles in transactional banking in New York and London for RBS and Citigroup.

“We can pretend we’ve solved it, [gender issues in business] but I’ve always found that, while no one closed the door or made it difficult because I was a female, I had to step into it because there are cultural things that don’t allow you to be yourself in the context that is different to the normal culture,” Berndt comments

“What running your own business does is it leads to a sense of creation,” says Heads over Heels’ Boyd.

Buried within the gradually improving statistics of women representation on executives and at the board level, Boyd argues there remains an unconscious bias in the corporate world against women. Unless they’re leading revenue-generating businesses, they’re perceived not to matter.

“My advice to women frustrated with the corporate is to take risks, but more importantly, manage your own career,” Berndt says.

“Banks, corporates – these institutions will no longer do that for you,” she says.

“If you manage your own career you can be well positioned to make that transition from corporate to entrepreneurial,” Berndt says.


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