Donna Embry, Evolve Bank & Trust
When Donna Embry was growing up, there were no computer classes or sports teams for girls. But as an adult, Embry found a way to apply her brains and a fearless desire to compete, building a path for herself as a top payments industry executive over five adventurous decades.
Embry, senior vice president of global payments strategy at Evolve Bank & Trust, returns this year as one of PaymentsSource’s Most Influential Women in Payments following a storied career full of “firsts.”
As the first person in her family to go to college, Embry put herself through school working in the back office of a bank. Upon graduation, a supervisor thought her "foreign language background” might be useful in the emerging field of computer programming.
Read more: The Most Influential Women in Payments, 2020
“He actually said that,” Embry laughs, noting the scarcity of women working in technology fields in the 1970s.
The bank gave Embry a computer programming aptitude test with questions that got progressively tougher. Realizing she couldn’t possibly finish within the time limit, Embry scanned the page and noticed a pattern to the questions and answers. Quickly devising an equation, Embry filled in all the answers and got 100%.
“The vice president and I were both stunned and the bank sent me to an IBM school to learn programming,” she said.
The timing was perfect. Banks were just beginning to develop ATM networks and debit cards that worked with new point-of-sale technology, and Embry’s learning curve followed the industry’s adoption of these services.
“I helped put our bank at the forefront of technology, and I must have been in the right place at the right time, because I had great male mentors who rewarded me with promotions and opportunities,” Embry said.
It wasn’t such a coincidence that Embry could hold her own in that male-dominated environment.
“My dad was a sport fanatic and coach, and when I grew up prior to Title XI there were no girls’ sports, so he organized coed teams in the neighborhood so I could play,” she said.
Embry pitched baseball alongside the boys, played running back in football games and learned to hold her own.
“My dad toughened me up, teaching me that it was all about hard work and most of all, practicing, to improve my game,” she said.
In the workplace when men went off to play golf, Embry got a set of clubs and learned. Eventually she formed women's golf groups that led to further industry networking.
Embry found her niche in payments, advancing through various banking and payments jobs that have included being executive vice president of product and marketing for the Vital line at TSYS Acquiring, serving as senior vice president of electronic banking at PNC Bank, and putting in 12 years at Payment Alliance International, where she was senior vice president and chief payments officer through 2018.
Early on, Embry was tapped to give a presentation on the new area of ATM network management to a group of executives, and she was deathly afraid of speaking in public.
“I prepared my slides, got up in front of the group and promptly fainted from stress,” she recalls.
Her boss called her into his office and instructed her to practice the speech over and over until she could do it with complete confidence, a discipline she continued to use over the years as she became an accomplished public speaker.
An admitted payments geek and longtime participant in many payments industry associations, Embry lays claim to having written one of the industry’s first bibles, “The Encyclopedia of Terminology for the Acquiring Industry,” which she produced for the Electronic Transactions Association.
“To move upward, you’ve got to get out of your comfort zone and volunteer to take on any challenge,” Embry said. “It may mean you’ll have to quickly master new skills and undergo higher scrutiny and responsibility.”
Embry also advises that women who want to advance must put an organization's goals into practice and demonstrate willingness to be a team player, without being asked.
“You need to establish a trusted pattern, so executive management can see you,” she said.
Women on the rise also must be ready to bounce back after any career setbacks, Embry believes.
“Even in the best of circumstances, employees may be downsized or see their jobs eliminated. Do not let these events define you or leave you bitter. Move on!”