Kikelomo Lawal, Interac
Kikelomo Lawal didn’t know a ton about the payments industry when she arrived at Interac more than a decade ago, a particularly daunting perch given the transformative change in Canadian payments and for Canada's debit system.
“I did not ‘grow up’ in payments as many in the industry have, so certain nuances, ecosystem relationships and technological capabilities were new to me,” said Lawal, chief legal officer and corporate secretary at Interac Corp. and one of PaymentsSource’s Most Influential Women in Payments for 2019. “Add to the fact that I am a Nigerian-born, New York-bred, U.S.- trained lawyer, a woman—and a woman of color—in what has historically been a male-dominated industry, and it paints a picture of the steep learning and social curve I had to climb.”
Lawal has scaled that curve and well beyond, helping to drive a seismic shift in how Interac works, which means an evolution of how payments happen for Canadians. While Interac has been a pillar of the Canadian financial system for decades, the pace of change is accelerating.
The Interac Association and Acxsys Corp. were organized into Interac Corp., a move that made it easier to respond to changes in retail payments quickly and to provide a boost for Interac—which already had a long history of early adoption of technology such as mobile payments.
“The reorganization was a necessary one, driven largely by the highly competitive and rapidly changing payments space, but it was also a complex one given the unique role Interac plays in the Canadian economy,” Lawal said. Interac is the nucleus that connects Canada’s “big five” banks and dozens of other financial institutions, she added.
That reorganization has given rise to a development center to explore new project management and technology techniques, international expansion and partnerships with fintechs to improve user experience for Canadians in new commerce and payment venues.
Lawal’s legal team works to ensure every product, deal or transaction proceeds seamlessly with the organization preserving its assets, reputation and industry credibility. That can include taking input from industry stakeholders and working to frame issues and seek direction from Interac’s board.
Her duties have also included working on strategy and execution against the medium- and short-term operations of daily business.
“I was, on many occasions, able to see the almost immediate manifestation of the work I was doing behind the scenes in Canada’s economy,” Lawal said. That includes the widespread adoption of Interac Flash, the growth of Interac e-Transfer, the launch of Interac Debit on Google, Apple and Samsung Pay, the extension of e-Transfer to encompass Request Money and Auto Deposit, in-app debit payments and the licensing of Interac’s products.
“I’m proud to say I’ve had a hand in bringing every single one to fruition,” Lawal said.
Lawal has been with Interac for 11 years and in her current role for three years. She is also responsible for guiding a team to support Interac’s evolution. “I exhibit the work ethic and accountability that I expect to see in others. And while that may not endear me to everyone, it means those who work with me know where I stand.”
It also means empowering the lawyers in her team, getting them to think creatively to enable smart outcomes, and not just identify potential problems.
“I was frustrated with perceptions of the legal function as insular and restricting what people can or can’t do,” said Lawal, who instituted a direct engagement system where each business unit is designated legal representative, creating regular dialogue and ensuring all parties are working toward a common goal.
Additional lessons have come from executives such as Erminia Johansson, the group head of U.S. Personal and Business Banking at BMO, who is also on the board of Payments Canada, where Interac is a Payments Canada Stakeholder Advisory Council Member.
"As a woman in what is traditionally a male-dominated industry, it can be difficult to find a place of your own," Lawal said. "Ernie gets it right and her positive reputation in the industry demonstrates to me that others think so too."
In addition to mentoring other lawyers, Lawal is a member of Women General Counsel Canada, an organization that helps women in law and executive legal leadership roles succeed through networking, skills development, advocacy and mentoring.
“The payments industry is changing, and while more women have a seat at the table, women of color are still few and far between,” Lawal said. “It can be daunting to enter an industry where you do not see yourself represented."