This October at The Fintech Times we are championing the fantastic females in the fintech industry. Around 30% of the fintech workforce are women, and we want to spotlight those who have not only made it to the top, but those who have overcome hurdles, bulldozing a path for the women to follow.
Here we hear from Roxane Herrera, Kelly Palmer, Catherine Berman, Claudia Stankler, and Liat Aaronson as they share with us how they smashed the glass ceiling.
Roxane Herrera, Director of Corporate Development at Camino Financial
“During the course of my career, I’ve worked across industries spanning finance, insurance, and community development with financial institutions and general industries clients. After receiving my Business Administration and Economics undergraduate degree after receiving a full scholarship from the University of Southern California, I started my career at Bank of America Merrill Lynch in San Francisco. I underwrote Senior Credit facilities for Paper, Packaging, and Forest Products clients and built my financial analysis and credit underwriting skillset. I chose to pursue a corporate banking track, despite the fact that it was challenging, and sometimes caused me to question whether or not I belonged there. Ultimately, my love of the work and determination to master the intricacies of portfolio management, propelled me forward.
“I then transitioned to a state impact investing role at the California Department of Insurance. At the California Organised Investment Network (COIN), I helped deploy insurance capital into California projects that created impactful jobs and benefitted underrepresented communities while delivering sound financial returns through a state tax credit program. I then pursued my Masters in Business Administration from Duke’s Fuqua School of Business concentrating in Investments, Innovation, and Entrepreneurship. At Fuqua, I co-authored “The Role of Big Society Capital in Growing Impact Investment” at the Center for Advancement of Social Entrepreneurship.During my Duke MBA summer internship, I worked as an MBA graduate intern with Dimensional Fund Advisors (DFA). Within the DFA Broker/Dealer group in Financial Advisor Services, I worked on business development and presented a final business recommendation related to the 2016 Department of Labor Fiduciary rule. After business school, I worked as a Senior Associate Consultant at Charles River Associates within the Transfer Pricing team. I worked with multinational clients advising them on their full documentation of Internal Revenue Code Section 482 regulations and conducted economic and financial due diligence to help guide clients through strategy on ongoing worldwide tax regulations and government litigation/policy issues. Thereafter, I worked as a Senior Manager of Community Development Lending at Charles Schwab Bank where I structured loans to top Community Development Financial Institutions (CDFIs) to deploy $2billion in capital across Western State CDFIs under a three-year CRA Strategic Plan. The goal was to fund affordable housing, education/healthcare facilities/other, and small businesses through community partner intermediaries. In my new role as Director of Corporate Development at Camino Financial, a neo-CDFI FinTech, I am focused on developing strategic partnerships and raising flexible capital to grow our micro and small business lending portfolio centered on scaling underbanked businesses nationally.
“As I look back on my educational and career trajectory, I attribute my success, in part, to perseverance, maturity, and a willingness to take risks on tough projects. My advice to those graduating from college or embarking on a professional career, is to network, volunteer, and pursue the thing that drives them. ‘Fight for your dreams as only you truly know best what motivates you, and what you are capable of, don’t let others make that decision for you.’
“In this environment, attending remote events and networking is more challenging yet not impossible since I find myself listening in to more strategic webinars while asking questions to continuously learn more about the industry. This is crucial to diversifying one’s skill set and becoming more well-versed in this industry.”
Kelly Palmer, Executive Vice President of Client Transition at RenPSG
“I believe that a woman can achieve anything that a man can achieve, but it usually requires a very strong will and a lot more effort on the part of the woman. Hard work, dedication and continuous learning are the most effective ways for anyone to overcome obstacles that may be difficult to identify or withstand. But for women to truly smash the glass ceiling, they often must make more sacrifices than men do. As a single mother, I sacrificed significant amounts of family time to dedicate myself to not only my career, but my education. I began my career at RenPSG as an administrative assistant and worked my way up, completing my education later in life and ultimately graduating with an MBA. Now, as EVP of Strategic Growth Operations, I realise that smashing the glass ceiling or bending traditional boundaries not only requires a higher level of personal investment, but also surrounding yourself with great mentors that can help you develop skills to reach your goals. Several years ago, I was asked to lead the IT development and infrastructure department, which was a huge sign of trust on the part of the company because at the time, I had no experience in IT and the team was predominantly male. This didn’t faze me or RenPSG, because I had developed a good management skillset that I could rely on to be successful. It was a turning point in my career that I believe came from a place of not only personal sacrifice but paying close attention to those around me and recognising who I could learn from along the way.”
Catherine Berman, CEO and co-founder of CNote
“In 2017, my cofounder and I—two finance women—competed for Fintech Innovation of the year at SXSW. We were bringing a very different solution than the others: a way to turn cash into a strong return and positive social impact. Cash? Impact? Those certainly were not as sexy as the AI and other platform strategies we were competing against. But we made it to the finals and we won—not just the Fintech Innovation category, but the entire SXSW Pitch Competition. It was a testament to what happens when you bring new voices to the table to design the next generation of finance.
“Since then, we’ve launched and grown three products that drive capital to financial institutions that help underserved communities thrive: the Flagship Fund, for retail investors; the Wisdom Fund, which supports loans for women of colour entrepreneurs; and the Promise Account, an FDIC-insured cash management solution for corporations and other institutional investors.
“During that time we also raised several funding rounds, the most recent one last year, in the midst of the pandemic. That added a layer of complication—we wondered how we could build trust with investors and really get to know one another over Zoom. What got us over the line was the fact that our investors made the effort to get to know the team and our business over time. They saw that when we say we’re going to do something, we do it, whether it’s getting SEC qualification or releasing a fully insured FDIC product.
“We also took the time to have in-depth conversations with investors to make sure their values aligned with ours. That’s essential because we want investors who are committed to our mission—closing the wealth gap for those often ignored by traditional finance, including women and people of colour.
“That mission is what gives us the energy and persistence to push through barriers. The entrepreneurs CNote drives capital to face an array of obstacles, including outright bias and structures that put them at an inherent disadvantage. But as our quarterly impact reports demonstrate, when women and business owners of color get the capital they need, their businesses grow—generating wealth for their families, jobs for others, and needed products and services for their community.”
Claudia Stankler, COO of Connectd
“I have got to where I am today through self-learning and sheer hard work. Having graduated at 22 with a psychology degree, I was aware that this degree doesn’t always naturally lend itself well to a career in business, certainly in the eyes of many others.
“I quickly realised that to get ahead, I needed to learn more, work harder, and know more than those who might have had traditional institutional training in business management.
“That is when my desire to learn kicked-in to overdrive to make sure I broke through the glass ceiling. I would read business books and listen to podcasts until 2am and I would attend every event possible to meet people I could learn from.
“I successfully navigated positions where I have run operations for all three of the London-based tech startups I’ve been involved with. I may have lacked experience at the start of my journey, but I always believed that if I put the effort in then the rewards would be there.
“It hasn’t always been easy. I am acutely aware that my journey to the senior leadership team has been different from my male counterparts. When it comes to raising funds, I have experienced instances where I have been overlooked because of my gender.
“In one particularly damning incident, I was in an investor meeting with three men who were speaking among themselves. When I chose to put my opinion across, they all paused, looked at me, then continued as if I hadn’t spoken. It was so blatant that it was almost comical.
“This is just one example, but discrimination is still unfortunately rife. I have now reached a point in my career where I have proved myself enough to no longer encounter this day in, day out, but I am always surprised when I encounter the occasional person for the first time and feel the need to prove myself all over again.”
Frances Zelazny, CEO and founder of Anonybit
“I haven’t always thought about my role as a female tech leader as “smashing the glass ceiling,” although today I’ve come to appreciate and respect this turn of phrase. For me, I was always the only woman in the room so I was more focused on doing what I had to do to get the job done. I’ve worked with startups my entire career so by definition everybody in the room, including the women, were expected to contribute and punch above their weight. This environment helped to drive me, see past gender, and rise up the ladder. Working with Israeli startups for so long, I can also say that they have a more egalitarian culture – that helped me to avoid some of the roadblocks women in more traditional corporate environments have faced.
“Looking back on my career, there were certainly times where I was challenged by male colleagues, though. One time, early in my career, I was faced with a situation where I thought my male boss was acting out of line. I called him out on his behaviour – I tried to be assertive while also staying polite and empathetic. I actually wrote him a letter so I could flesh out my thoughts more clearly and less emotionally. He reacted very positively to this feedback – I think I still have his reply somewhere in a drawer – and we worked through the issue while deepening our mutual respect for each other. This gave me the courage to further stand up for myself in future roles and to point out behaviours that I thought were also disruptive to others.
“What’s most important for other women leaders is to acknowledge we’re not alone in the challenges we face professionally and personally. We should lean on each other for support and we shouldn’t be afraid to connect and share our experiences. I’m lucky to have had both female and male mentors along the way who helped me raise the bar in my work. Nobody gave me a break because of my gender. And I’m thankful for that. But like I said before, I also had to be assertive and make my voice heard. Behind it all, too, was a strong support system at home, which cannot be ignored or underestimated. Growing up, my parents never held me back because I was a woman, and today my husband is an incredible partner who has been my biggest cheerleader and supporter when it comes to my career.”
Liat Aaronson, Chief Operating Officer and co-founder of Horizen Labs
“Barring a clerkship interview that basically ended when the interviewer learned I had a child, I’ve been fortunate in my career to work with leaders and partners where there was no glass ceiling to break. Luckily for me, the supportive role models I had the privilege to work for, or with, over many years and many industries including law, venture investing, academia and tech start ups, never made me feel my gender and family priorities were an issue.
“I have had more general experience with glass ceilings in academia. When I took on leadership of the Zell Entrepreneurship Program, an academic accelerator at Reichman University (formerly IDC Herzliya, a small private university in Israel), there was a lot of push back. I managed to override the concerns and create a thriving venture creation program that helped launch some great startups over the 10 years I ran it.
“That experience of breaking the academic glass ceiling was a formative experience for me. Today at Horizen Labs, I am always inspired to see the many strong women in our team and believe my co-founders are giving them the same springboard with no ceilings based on gender.”