7 highlights from the Women in Payments Leadership Exchange

The Women in Payments Leadership Exchange is a platform for prominent female executives to share not only their expertise and advice for their peers, but also to share the defining moments in their own careers.

In many cases, gender still plays a role in the opportunities available to women for advancement. This was true of many of the Most Influential Women in Payments and other speakers at the Leadership Exchange, which took place May 21 at SourceMedia's Card Forum in New Orleans.

As more companies embrace diversity and more women establish themselves in key roles — overcoming significant obstacles along the way — the financial services and fintech industries benefit from an influx of fresh ideas and a stronger culture.

Melissa Smith, CEO, WEX
Melissa Smith, president and CEO, WEX
"I think when you're different you have to be exceptional. The being exceptional part is being fierce and bold. The thing that makes you unique and different is also the thing that allows you to stand out in the pack. Quell that little negative voice in your head and be yourself and own it," said Melissa Smith, president and CEO of WEX.

Among her other achievements, Smith is known for circulating a memo in 2014, shortly after becoming CEO, about becoming pregnant with her first child. After five years as CEO, she now has three children.

Since the beginning, Smith has worked to support flexible leave programs enabling employees to support families, with generous benefits men particularly appreciate. "The thing that surprised me was the number of [grateful] notes I got from men with daughters," she said.
Debra Tenenbaum, Executive Vice President and Chief People Officer, Yapstone
Debra Tenenbaum, chief people officer, Yapstone
"I had my first head of human resources job and I thought I had great credibility and was doing really well in the job.

"And I traveled to New York with the CEO and a founder and we were the three of us, we came out of the airport, talking business and stuff, and when we got to the taxi — and this was my defining moment — the two men got in the taxi, shut the door, and drove off," said Debra Tenenbaum, chief people officer for Yapstone.

The experience motivated her to make sure she would never be treated that way again.

"Afterward I was very angry and went through all the hierarchy stuff, but this was my takeaway, that I held for the next 20 years: No one can drive off with my power.

"And so I held on to that moment, and I learned that that didn't define me, and so I'm going to show in my actions and the results I get in my job that I'm as valuable as anyone else at that table.

"So I would say that sometimes it's not the what we do, but how people treat you, that become the defining moments. If I can carry that throughout my career ... I also see that no one can tell you what you can't do."
Suneera Madhani at Card Forum
Suneera Madhani, CEO and founder Fattmerchant
Suneera Madhani remembers a lot of frustration as she pounded the pavement in her 20's, looking for investors for her startup.

"I was shot down for my idea about 12 times. I experienced so much rejection, and I think it's something women have in common--sometimes we don't believe in ourselves," said Madhani, now founder and CEO of Fattmerchant, which launched in 2014.

A wife and mother of two, Madhani recently launched a "MomBoss" Instagram handle to collaborate with other young entrepreneurs.

"I don't really have a lot of people that I can look up to that look like me, that talk like me, that act like me, that are 32 and moms." But given the momentum women are getting in the payments industry, she's hopeful of finding more peers at the top.
Carolyn Homberger, President of Global Sales, ACI Worldwide
Carolyn Homberger, president of global sales, ACI Worldwide
Drawing female technology talent in payments is a challenge, but ACI Worldwide is getting traction in this area, said Carolyn Homberger, the company's president of global sales.

"Within our development team, our chief technology officer is a woman, and over half her leadership team are women and 35% of our developers are women — which is a really not easy to do, but something that's really important to our women's initiatives within the company," Homberger said.

It's even more difficult to find women for key sales positions in this field, Homberger said. Two years ago, less than 10% of the sales team were women. Since then, Homberger has helped recruit four women as sales managers.

"Some of our highest potential reps are women — at least 30% of our top 10 performers are women...and we're starting to build female sales talent now."
Prashanthi Ravanavarapu, Director of Product Architecture for Financial Participation and Health, PayPal
Prashanthi Ravanavarapu, director of product architecture, financial participation and health at PayPal
"It's not just about gender [in terms of driving diversity] because I've never really related myself to a woman in terms of my overall capability. I relate to people on the ground and people up above," said Prashanthi Ravanavarapu, director of product architecture, financial participation and health at PayPal.

PayPal's recently diversity initiatives promoted leaders including women, people in LGBTQ groups and those with disabilities, but the priority is on driving diversity of thought, Ravanavarapu said.

"I lead a product design team that's heavily made up of women, but we have people coming from various backgrounds, with different ways of thinking," she said.
Karen Elinski (Wells Fargo).jpg
Karen Elinski, senior vice president of government relations and public policy, Wells Fargo & Co.
"Then there are the so-called micro-aggressions.

"According to a study, women are two times more likely to be mistaken for junior associates; two times more likely to deal with gender discrimination; two times more likely as likely to need to show more competency and expertise; two times more likely to have their judgment questioned or become targets of demeaning remarks and 35% of women in the corporate world have experienced sexual harrassment.

"It's pretty staggering when you think about it. More women see gender as an obstacle than men, no surprise, but that's starting to tick up on the men's side and there are reasons for that too. It's not just that fewer women are getting higher up, or that they're promoted less frequently than male peers. Nearly a quarter of women believe that gender has played a major role in missing a promotion, a raise, or getting a high-profile assignment."
AnaLiza Grandner (The Bancorp Bank)3.jpg
Ana Liza Grandner, senior vice president and director of private label banking, The Bancorp
"If you take home messages, my first request would be: Don't close the door behind you. Find another woman, partner with them, or mentor them.

"They need somebody like you," said Ana Liza Grandner, senior vice president and director of private label banking at The Bancorp.

"Foster growth. More women getting ahead in business is a good thing. We can't and don't want to fight it. Promote a culture where there is room for everybody. Develop a network of mentors and advocates. Take note of other executives' projects that you could help with, that could be critical stepping stones to a permanent or lasting leadership position.

"Recognize that biases exist and learn how to navigate them. Stay out of the fray. Don't go and gossip about new women bosses and presumptions about how they got to the top."