Jun 13, 2023

Breaking the Code: Women Who Are Redefining Fintech

A tribute to the pioneering women who are not only breaking boundaries in fintech—but also shaping its transformation.

Breaking the Code: Women Who Are Redefining Fintech

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In the traditionally male-dominated field of fintech, women leaders are on the rise. Women are challenging established norms and creating innovative pathways in the fintech industry with increasing gusto. From creating networks, to founding startups, to leading organisations, their collective efforts are breaking down barriers and fostering a more inclusive and forward-thinking industry: women are redefining fintech.

But it is an uphill battle. Women are disproportionately underrepresented across the fintech sector: one, as workers within fintech, two, as fintech leaders and founders, and three, as consumers. Just 30% of those who work within fintech are women, and the numbers are even more dire when we look at leadership: women only hold 17% of senior positions in fintech. Worst of all, just a dismal 1.9% of all venture capital funds in 2022 went to female-led startups. As Louise Brett puts it, “It starts to look like an industry founded for men, run by men, making products for men.”

In this industry environment, highlighting women is vital, and this is reinforced by increasingly compelling business evidence. An HBR study found just how important diverse leadership is—without it, women are 20% less likely to have their ideas recognised, which costs companies opportunities in the long run. A survey by the International Labor Organization (ILO) found that two-thirds of companies reported improved business outcomes through diversity initiatives.

According to the ILO, these initiatives translate to a 63% increased probability of higher profitability and productivity, a 60% enhanced capacity to attract and retain talent, and a 59% rise in creativity, innovation, and openness. Including women is good for consumers, too: women-inclusive companies report a 58% boost in their reputation and a 38% improvement in their ability to gauge consumer interest and demand. And finally, companies with balanced boards are almost 20% more likely to achieve enhanced business outcomes.

A final point, before we celebrate a few of the women forging this path. This list is by no means exhaustive—it is chapter one. There is a desire, within patriarchal society, to pit women against each other, to compete for the limited spots and opportunities available to women. This is not the case here; our goal is simply to highlight and celebrate what women can and are achieving. In fact, it is safe to say that every woman in the fintech world is navigating challenges and opportunities—and simply by doing so, she opens doors for future women, further representation, and a more inclusive fintech world that fosters innovation, disruption, and change for everyone.

The women featured in this article are not only breaking boundaries in a traditionally male-dominated field but also playing an instrumental role in driving these improved business outcomes through their influence and innovation.

Rukayyat Kolawole

As the CEO and founder of PaceUP Invest, Rukayyat Kolawole is at the forefront of a movement that seeks to democratise wealth-building and financial literacy across diverse geographies and populations. She serves on the board of Kassavex, a social impact agricultural company, and contributes to the advancement of women in finance as a founding committee board member of 100 Women in Finance Germany.

Rukayyat is deeply steeped in the powerfully pro-woman ethos of Yorùbá culture from her native Nigeria—it has helped her thrive in the cut-throat world of international finance. “Finance has traditionally been a male-dominated realm, leaving women and underrepresented groups in the dark…Fuelled by my own experiences and driven by compassion, I founded PaceUP Invest within three years of arriving in Germany.”

Rukayyat is quick to point out how disproportionately difficult financial literacy is for women: “The gender gap in financial literacy is often underestimated,” she says, “and the statistics highlight the urgent need for change.”

The statistics are dire: 61% of women would rather discuss their own death than talk about money. 60% of women who don’t invest cite lack of knowledge as their reasoning, and 34% cite lack of confidence. And it is clear that women want to invest: 41% of women regret not investing more.

Through her work, Rukayyat is embodying change and financial inclusion for women—both as a female leader in fintech and as a founder promoting women’s participation in finance. "Representation helps individuals develop self-esteem, confidence, and belief in their capabilities," she elaborates. "When we see people who resemble us achieving financial success, we too can envision ourselves on a similar path."

Dr Efi Pylarinou

Dr Efi Pylarinou is an exemplar in the fintech and technology sectors, recognized as a Top Global Fintech & Tech Thought Leader. Her credentials are marked by an illustrious academic and professional journey. A seasoned Wall Street professional with a Ph.D. in Finance, she has ascended the ranks to emerge as a leading voice in the realm of fintech and blockchain.

Regarded as a domain expert, Efi's proficiency is widely sought after by global tech and financial service giants, including Microsoft, NVIDIA, Oracle, SAP, Huawei, and Seba Bank, among others. Her insights have led to her recognition in Onalytica's 2021 & 2022 Top 20 Fintech Influencers and their Top 20 ‘Who's Who in AI’ professional influencers 2021, and Refinitiv has named her the No.1 Global Woman Influencer in Finance for 2019 & 2020.

In the digital landscape, Efi's influence echoes with over 200,000 followers on LinkedIn and 22,000+ followers on Twitter. As an advisor focusing on capital markets, wealth, and asset management transformations, Efi’s insights are invaluable. Her rich experience and deep knowledge continue to shape the future of fintech, making her a compelling figure in the sector.

In a highly recommended read, she writes, “There are major gender gaps even within the innovative Fintech ecosystem which is no longer at its early stages. I was actually struck by the Fintech female gender gap reported in the recent report ‘Fintechs serving the Female economy’ by the Financial Alliance for Women, in collaboration with Finstep Asia and the Global Fintech Fest. Only 27.6% of women use Fintech financial services.”

Nicole Valentine

Nicole Valentine serves as the Fintech Director at the Center for Financial Markets (CFM), part of the esteemed Milken Institute. Launched in October 2014, the program was a vanguard in its field, aiming to explore market innovation, scrutinize alternative regulatory models, and advocate policy amendments that would aid the responsible growth of Fintech.

With a remarkable portfolio that spans across financial services, international M&A, and technology, her stewardship has seen the Fintech Program contribute significantly to the industry discourse, with nearly 100 written reports, op-eds, and comment letters. Furthermore, Nicole has ensured that the program's discourse does not remain confined to academia but permeates policy circles through 80 private roundtables, public panel sessions, and congressional staff briefings.

Nicole also founded Synergy Business Development, Inc., where she has served as President and Chief Strategy Officer since 2009. Here, she wears many hats - from devising business strategies for Fortune 500 companies to aiding the growth of smaller enterprises. Her acumen and vision have propelled Synergy to become a trailblazer in business consulting.

In 2014, Nicole founded Winly. This innovative business strategy app aims to bring the experience of strategy and growth planning to the fingertips of entrepreneurs and business owners, creating a digital microcosm that democratizes strategic planning, irrespective of a business’s size or pedigree.

Her advice for female entrepreneurs is grounded. “Be acquisitive in your business. Plan to acquire another company, property, assets, platforms, teams, technology, etc. The process of building your enterprise must include the desire to constantly engage in major transactions to grow.”

Read more here.

Helen Yu

Helen Yu stands at the crossroads of tech innovation and financial growth, championing digital transformation and groundbreaking technologies such as AI, Cybersecurity, IoT, and Supply Chain management. With over 25 years of leadership under her belt, Helen's experience ranges from early-stage startups and pre-IPOs to Fortune 500 enterprises like Oracle, Adobe, and Marketo. Her impressive board experience includes roles with The KeenFolks, Global Cybersecurity Association, Pypestream, Verras Capital, and Jebbit.

In 2017, she harnessed her expertise and expansive network to found Tigon Advisory, a growth accelerator dedicated to bridging the gap between ambitious startups and industry giants like IBM, AT&T, Qualcomm, and Microsoft. As a result, Helen has become a trusted advisor, guiding these companies through the labyrinth of digital transformation, cybersecurity risk management, and market strategy optimization.

Helen’s influence is globally recognized. Named a Top 10 Global Influencer in Digital Transformation by IBM, Top 33 Women in Finance by Onalytica, and Global Top 10 AI Thought Leader by Thinkers360, her leadership extends to her 33.5K+ Twitter followers where she engages in discussions about technology, fintech, and startups.

In an interview with Aspioneer, Helen remarked,  “I grew up as the youngest and only girl in a house with nine boys... Being the only girl and the youngest, grandma always made sure I grew up strong.”  When she left Adobe after graduating from “Women Unlimited” in 2011, Helen’s offer to return to speak to the group was rejected, and she was told she was “unfit.” Her response? “‘Unfit’ is sometimes code for trailblazers. I decided to mentor and coach other ‘unfit’ female leaders since then and take pride in seeing their success over the years.”

Helen's journey, marked by constant learning, adapting, and inspiring, testifies to her belief in leading with values and empowering others – a true mark of a leader in fintech.

Elizabeth Lumley

A formidable figure in the world of fintech, Elizabeth Lumley is recognized as one of the leading global commentators in her field. With over two decades of working in financial technology, her illustrious career has spanned multiple roles, including Director at VC Innovations, Managing Director at Startupbootcamp FinTechLondon, and Editor at the newswire, Finextra. She was also the mastermind behind the highly successful Fintech Talents Festival.

Currently working at The Banker as Deputy Editor, Elizabeth's exceptional contributions to the industry have been acknowledged with numerous accolades, including the coveted Journalist of the Year for Technology and Digital Finance at State Street's UK Press Awards for 2022.

On being a woman in fintech, she doesn’t mince words. “When I left journalism to work with startups I thought I had experienced sexism. I had not even scratched the surface. I have had men say, to my face, in a crowded room that women ‘cannot be trusted’ to found companies. I have been screamed at, twice, that female founders DO. NOT. EXIST. There is a huge diversity problem with fintech and startups in general. And it is not because diverse founders do not exist – they do and they are plentiful. It is because the people with the money to fund these startups are not diverse – and they feel zero compulsion to look outside their worldview or bubble.”

Her solution? “Fund women. Fund people of colour. Fund people who grew up in a different culture or country from you. Fund people who did not go to that school etc. Just do it. I have no time for anyone who doesn’t start from that point.”

We at Machinelab were lucky enough to sit down with her and ask her some questions, read more of her frank and vital insights here.

Theodora Lau

Theodora Lau is an influential founder, speaker, writer, and startup advisor, and is making strides in reshaping the financial landscape to better cater to underrepresented groups. Her organization, Unconventional Ventures, aims to foster an ecosystem where financial institutions, corporations, startups, venture capitalists, and accelerators come together to address unmet consumer needs.

As a leading figure in fintech, Theodora has been recognized as LinkedIn Top Voice for Economy and Finance in 2017 and a top influencer in Fintech, Digital Transformation, and AI by Onalytica. Beyond her roles in leadership and innovation, Theodora is also deeply involved in mentoring fintech and healthtech startups, and fostering a partnered portfolio of innovative solutions.

Theodora is a compelling public speaker and writer, lending her expertise to industry events, publications, and podcasts, such as Money20/20, Finovate, the Harvard Business Review, and the MIT Tech Review, among others. She also hosts One Vision, a podcast on innovation and fintech, and publishes a weekly newsletter, Fintech Prose, on emerging technologies and innovation.

On International Women’s Day (IWD), Lau told FintechTalents, “there’s a long way to go until we have diversity parity at every level across our major financial services and fintech firms, and we’re the only ones who can change that. If I had one ask of our community, men and women, it would be to find a female star in your organisation and become her champion. IWD is a great opportunity to shine a spotlight on our amazingly talented women but keeping that going all year round is even more powerful.”

Gemma Livermore

Gemma Livermore has deeply influenced the fintech space for women. She is the founder of Women of Fintech, an award-winning community that has grown to over 10,000 members. This initiative is not just a networking platform but a movement that actively advocates for gender equality within the fintech industry.

Gemma told the Fintech Times, “I remember the pressures of having to return to work full time with no flexible options, as a woman wanting a family you had to not talk about it and then almost pretend you didn’t have constraints at home as it would hold you back.”  

Through Women of Fintech, Gemma spearheads various initiatives, including mentorship programs for early-career women, STEM projects, and diversity and inclusion training sessions. She provides female speakers for industry events to ensure balanced panel discussions and hosts regular fintech events featuring prominent industry speakers. In a sector often dominated by men, Gemma is a vocal advocate for change and equality, turning talk into action to shape the future diversity of fintech.

She holds a pivotal role as the Chief Growth Officer of TechPassport, a fintech firm designed to simplify and accelerate the process of connecting suppliers with global financial institutions.

Gemma operates at the intersection of sales and marketing, ensuring these critical business areas harmonize to achieve the company's strategic objectives. She acts as a vital conduit facilitating collaboration, measurement, and support for growth initiatives, always focusing on staying ahead of the buyers' needs.

Sarah Biller

Sarah Biller, a dynamic entrepreneur, executive, and educator, has built an impressive reputation for being at the forefront of problem-solving. Currently, she serves as the Executive Director of Vantage Ventures, where she champions the expansion of the Appalachian economy by providing support and capital to founders. She also co-founded the Fintech Sandbox, a Boston-based non-profit giving entrepreneurs access to high-quality data sets, and previously launched Capital Market Exchange, a predictive analytics platform.

Sarah’s accolades speak to her impact and influence in the industry. She was recognized by Innovate Finance as one of the Top 150 global women leaders in fintech, listed among Lattice80’s Top 100 Women in Fintech, and honoured by NY Fintech Women as a Top 20 inspiration. Her transformative work in West Virginia is featured in a Harvard Business School case and the book "Silicon Heartland."

As an investor and director, Sarah extends her reach to companies like Thread Bank, Rialto, and Kalyp, contributing her expertise to the private asset markets and digital securities sectors. Her well-rounded skills in corporate leadership, competitive and complex analysis, entrepreneurship, and innovation, along with her proficiency in emerging technologies like AI and Blockchain, make her an influential figure in the Fintech sector.

For women in fintech, Sarah told American Banker, “it is difficult to get up and keep moving the ball forward, but connection to a higher purpose envelops us in the empathy, resilience and strength we need to succeed in spite of the challenges we face.”

Helene Li

Helene Li is a seasoned finance industry professional and management consultant—and has made substantial strides in Sustainable Finance and Fintech as the CEO and Co-Founder of GoImpact Capital Partners. A highly accomplished leader, Helene has held senior management roles at renowned institutions such as BNP Paribas Wealth Management, J.P. Morgan Private Bank, and Boston Consulting Group.

Prior to founding GoImpact, a platform designed to accelerate the adoption of Sustainable Finance, she served as the Managing Director and Head of Strategic Planning, Brand and Communications Asia Pacific for BNP Paribas Wealth Management.

Helene's influence in the industry has been widely recognised. She has been named as one of the top 5 influencers in Asia Pacific, a top 2 influencer in Sustainable Finance globally, and received several accolades including Top 100 Women in Finance from Fintech Times, and Top 50 Hall of Fame Global Fintech Leaders.

Her expertise is often sought after in fintech and sustainable finance forums where she serves as a speaker and moderator. With GoImpact forging partnerships with major players like Temasek Foundation, UNDP, Financial Times, and Bloomberg, Helene continues to play a pivotal role in promoting sustainable finance and impact investment globally. She holds a First Class Honors degree in English and Economics from the University of Hong Kong.

Anna Maj

Anna Maj is a fintech powerhouse. Currently serving as a Senior Advisor for Truffle Capital and Expert at the European Innovation Council, she was previously Fintech Leader at PwC and was recognized as one of the Top 10 Fintech Innovators in 2021, a testament to her extensive expertise and innovation in the field.

With over 20 years of experience in the European banking and payments industries, including roles at Citigroup, AFS, T-Mobile, PayTel, mBank, and others, Anna's particular expertise lies in innovative payment and banking solutions. She has been instrumental in introducing some of the first online payment gateways, digital wallets, and mobile payment platforms in the CEMEA region.

A sought-after keynote speaker at fintech, digital, and payments conferences, Anna also co-authored The PAYTECH Book and The AI Book. She extends her knowledge as a lecturer on Fintech and Open Banking at various institutes.

In an interview with FIS Global, Anna said, “The female perspective is very important, especially in a tech-oriented world and a fast-changing environment. When I started 20 years ago, I didn't realize women are that underrepresented. I worked along with the male peers, and my gender wasn’t an issue. Progressing in the corporate ladder, I started noticing how the financial services are male-dominated.”

“Women should see female role models. Role models in different areas, not only in fintech, in all domains. It's important to see the role models and believe that you can be part of female leadership.”

Ghela Boskovich

Ghela Boskovich is an unparalleled fintech innovator and the founder of FemTechGlobal™, a network dedicated to enhancing inclusivity and diversity in Financial Services. The network sponsors the annual Women in Tech, Banking Technology Award, in line with Ghela's commitment to challenging the status quo.

A frequent keynote speaker and editorial contributor, Ghela specializes in accelerating internal innovation and facilitating the commercialization of fintech/bank collaborations. Her specific interest lies in modernizing legacy banking systems, fostering the adoption of emerging technologies in banks, and developing disruptive business models.

Her accolades include being named in Fintech's Top 100 Influencers and Silicon Republic’s 20 Influencers You Need to Know. Additionally, she was recognized as one of the Women Leading the Way in Fintech by BBVA, and among the Top 50 RegTech Influencers by Planet Compliance.

Ghela actively bridges the gender gap in fintech through FemTechGlobal. Based on the premise that diverse teams yield better solutions, the network fosters creativity and collaboration. Currently, Ghela serves as the Head of Europe for the Financial Data & Technology Association, where she continues to inspire change and digital transformation in the financial services industry.

Ghela told the Fintech Times: “Lists are exclusionary by construct, and they risk becoming popularity contests and ego stroking mechanisms. At the same time, they can call attention to people who do great work but don’t always get the attention. Lists are a double-edged sword. I think every list should come with a disclaimer: ‘This is our opinion of who to pay attention to at the moment and is subject to change, is contextual, and is clearly not exhaustive.’”

Agreed, Ghela!

Photos courtesy of: Rukayyat Kolawole, Elizabeth Lumley, Sarah Biller, Ghela Boskovich, Helene Li, Helen Yu, Nicole Valentine, Efi Pylarinou, Theodora Lau, Anna Maj, and Gemma Livermore

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