The experience of fintech's female leads

Published on February 13th, 2019

Fintech is a marriage of two traditionally male-dominated industries: finance and technology. Women are fast becoming a force to be reckoned with though, and their skills and insights bring a much-needed diversity of thought to many a fintech venture. Often the journey to success is made harder by gender bias and stereotypes, but there are some highly successful women making their mark on South Africa’s fintech industry.

Women in the minority

There is much data available that suggests women are woefully underrepresented in the fintech industry. For example, research by global executive search firm DHR International, finds that on a global basis, just 8% of fintech directors are women, compared to 22% at the world’s 30 biggest investment banks. While research on female representation in South Africa’s fintech industry is hard to come by, anecdotal evidence suggests the picture is just as bleak here.

Tlalane Ntuli is COO and co-founder of Yalu, a cost-effective digital credit life insurer. “Women in financial services are mostly found in areas like marketing and human resources”, she says. “Fintech is an even worse manifestation of this reality; I often find myself as the only female or one of only two or three on fintech forums comprising ten participants”.

Jozette Chetwynd-Palmer says she’s the only woman she knows in the cash advance sector of the fintech industry. She recently founded AirAdvance, an innovative cash advance company which offers AirBnB hosts easy access to finance.

Women well-received in fintech

Despite being clearly outnumbered, the women we spoke to have generally found the fintech industry to be a welcoming environment.

Jaclyn Prior is operations manager at JaSure, a digital on-demand insurer through which consumers can create their own short-term cover solutions. She has had a positive experience as a female in fintech. “I’ve experienced support and encouragement to advance under both male and female leadership in the broader financial services industry as well as in the fintech industry”, she says. “I never questioned entering the fintech industry from a gender perspective, which may be down to my positive prior experience in financial services”.

Benji Coetzee is founder and CEO of logistics technology firm EmptyTrips. Part of EmptyTrips’ offering is a much-needed, intuitive and instant cargo insurance cover service (SureFOX) which is how she found herself in the world of insuretech. She says that compared to her experience in the logistics industry, the fintech environment has been far more accommodating. “The comparative hospitality of the fintech ecosystem in South Africa has been far more conducive to successful entrepreneurship, regardless of gender”, she says. “The industry has made good progress in lowering barriers to entry in general, and I think this has made it more conducive to the entrance of women. In fact, I think this is one of the reasons we see so many more female founders in fintech compared to other industries”.

Chetwynd-Palmer believes it’s actually an advantage to be a woman in fintech today. She hasn’t ever felt discriminated against or exposed to any negative experiences on the basis of her gender. “If anything, people in the industry (9 out of ten of whom are male) have probably been a bit nicer and more accommodating to me because I am a woman”, she says. “Most incubators and accelerators are male-dominated so women are welcomed in order to obtain higher female representation”.

Soft skills are particularly important

For both Coetzee and Ntuli, another advantage of being a woman in fintech is what they believe to be a natural affinity for softer skills. Both cite this as a key strength of theirs and of many other women, and believe it to have been highly beneficial to their success as women in fintech. “I believe empathy paired with a steadfast strategy and an ability to adapt when needed has seen SureFOX progress”, Coetzee says. “There are many situations in which if I had chosen to be stubborn and not shown compassion, we would not be where we are today. This compassion is embedded in many women”.

Similarly for Ntuli, the ability to tune in to people’s needs has been integral to Yalu’s success. “My inherently female ability to easily tap into my emotions has played a significant role in both our product design process and the crafting of our brand positioning”, she says. “Creating a proposition that truly resonates with customers required acknowledgment and understanding of customer needs, something being attuned to my emotions helped us achieve”.

…but beware the soft skills stereotype

That being said, being viewed as more emotive than men can have a down side too and the stereotype can prove a hindrance. “I find that because women are generally more emotive than their male counterparts, this is usually misinterpreted for weakness”, says Ntuli. “There have been situations where I have had to be extraordinarily firm to command the respect I deserve”.

Coetzee has also encountered this problem in the boardroom. “The stereotype that women are more emotional than men has been used against me in a heated boardroom discussion when I was told to ‘stop being emotional in business’”, she says. “Being undermined based on my gender was frustrating but I reverted with a tactical response to resolve the matter and still succeeded with my proposal”.

Chetwynd-Palmer is keen to see this stereotype done away with. “People do tend to expect women to be soft skilled-focused, and are often surprised when you are direct and to the point”, she says. “However, I think the idea that women are naturally more inclined to soft skills is a narrative that needs to be rewritten because the other side of the coin is that men are naturally better at hard skills like tech and finance”, she says.

Other surprising stereotypes

There are, of course, other stereotypes that many women have to contend with. The perception that a man’s authority is somehow superior to that of a woman’s has been a particular challenge for Ntuli. “In general, my partner and I have faced a credibility deficit by virtue of being young and black; I find this is even worse for me as a woman”, she says. “When we walk into a meeting together, the expectation is almost always for him to carry the conversation, particularly when meeting with other males”.

She has faced similar challenges from staff members.“I have also faced situations in which the direction I give is deliberately questioned or second guessed; staff will go and ask for confirmation from my partner on something I have given direction on”, Ntuli says. “Other examples include blatant disregard for forums or meetings that I chair – people either coming late or don’t bother to participate”.“These experiences are not necessarily specific to fintech, but given the forward thinking, advanced nature of the industry I have found them surprising”, she says.

More work to be done

Fintech may be more evolved and progressive than other industries, but there is still much to be done to encourage more women into the workforce. “Women need to be adequately represented in order for the financial services industry to achieve true diversity”, says Prior. What’s needed is a combination of lowering the barriers to entry and empowering more women with relevant skills and greater conviction. Both the industry and women themselves have an important role to play in achieving this.

More mentoring

“In general, women are more risk averse than men and when you consider the high incidence of failure in starting a tech company, it is perhaps conceivable that this puts many women off”, says Coetzee. “This can potentially be overcome by initiatives such as value-adding strategic partnerships and incubation hubs which incorporate the mentoring of women so as to develop their emotional quotient (EQ) in business. Exposure to deal structuring is particularly important, in my view”.

Better education, including about entrepreneurship

For Ntuli, the process of empowering women should start further back, at the tertiary education stage. “We should look at the issue right from grassroots level to ensure that the foundational basics exist; from what female students are encouraged to study at tertiary level, to how they are supported and mentored”, she says. “We must help women build the confidence and conviction to think outside the box and challenge the status quo – this is not easy for females when we are already dealing with societal stereotypes. Part of this has to do with showcasing entrepreneurship as a viable option for work”.

Celebrate success

While Coetzee and Ntuli’s suggestions centre on the industry’s responsibilities, Chetwynd-Palmer believes that the way to ensure greater female participation in the industry is more to do with women motivating other women through their own accomplishments. “I don’t think it’s up to the industry to encourage more women into fintech, but rather up to women to continue to be great examples of success in the field”, she says. “The industry has some great female founders and in time I think there will be even more. These examples are what will inspire more women to join the industry”.

Ask for help

Importantly, women need to be more vocal in asking for help. Many women are put off asking for help because of the fear of being refused, or because they believe their request will be viewed as a sign of weakness or inability. These inaccurate perceptions are unhelpful. “Women need to ask for more”, says Coetzee. “Ask for mentorship, ask for a pilot, ask for free office space, ask for help. Women don’t need to rely on their own devices so much – there is so much help in the market if one simply asks.”

Solve true problems

Furthermore, women shouldn’t feel as though the industry is impenetrable for them. “Being a technology-enabled industry shouldn’t intimidate women to get into fintech”, says Ntuli. “The industry has become too fixated on technology solutions at the expense of solving true consumer problems. As women, our intrinsic ability to tap into human truths and understand consumer needs will add the most value to fintech”.

“As 20th century African-African activist W.E.B. Dubois once said: ‘There is no force equal to a woman determined to rise’”, she says. “If we can reach this level of determination, we become unstoppable and no industry or career choice becomes inaccessible”.

Heading in the right direction

While there is clearly still a lot of work to be done in encouraging more women into the industry, there are still some truly inspiring success stories to celebrate. It may be a long road to achieving genuine gender diversity in fintech, but South Africa does seem to be broadly on the right path. The passion, commitment and leadership of the women we spoke to bodes well for the future of the female fintech flag in South Africa.