The risks worth taking: Lessons from the most influential women in payments

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If you’re keeping a low profile and playing it too safe, you might never make it to the top as a female in the payments industry.

Fear is not an option if you want to succeed in payments, said Debra Rossi, vice chair of payments for First Data, during SourceMedia’s Card Forum in Miami. Rossi was on a panel that included several women honored this year as PaymentsSource’s Most Influential Women in Payments.

“Early in my career, working for Wells Fargo, I was involved in a venture for a freewheeling startup"—developing Billpoint to work as eBay’s first payment mechanism—"and I realized that failing could mean the end of my career,” Rossi said.

Though eBay eventually phased out Billpoint when the company bought PayPal, Rossi’s experience developing a new concept was pivotal for her career. “What I learned was the value of taking chances and being willing to fail. It’s OK to rock the boat,” she said.

Rossi, who was named president of the Electronic Transactions Association in 2015, urges women in payments to grab chances when they appear. “Women often say they want a seat at the table, but sometimes when I make that happen, they say nothing. You must have an opinion, you must speak up. That’s what it means to be at the table,” she said.

Madeline Aufseeser, CEO and co-founder of Tender Armor, reflected on the challenges of launching a startup in a male-dominated industry. “After years in this industry, when I found myself raising money and making sales, I realized some of this has never been done before. And what I found out is that it’s not hard, but it just takes a heck of a lot of tenacity and perseverance.”

Kim Schwendeman, Elavon’s chief of staff, global revenue, gradually realized a big part of her personal brand was her hard-working but upbeat style. “One of my skills is turning a vision into a reality, and getting people on my team to trust me. And one of the secrets to succeeding in big projects is making sure people feel good and have fun while they’re doing the work, and surrounding yourself with like-minded people,” she said.

Building a career in the payments is usually a long game, said Schwendeman, who’s spent 18 years in the industry. “You’ll meet many of the same people over and over, so work on developing relationships and keeping them intact, because you never really know who’s watching,” she advised.

Amy Parsons, senior vice president of global acceptance and customer experience at Discover, said opportunities for women in payment are rapidly expanding. Looking back over her 26 years in the industry, Parsons said originally it seemed there were very few executive slots for women, but now women are expanding roles for one another. “We’ve learned to reach a hand back to help other women move forward, and we’re also starting to reach across, to work collectively as a group to help each other,” she said.

Other women who can inspire and reinforce a female colleague’s career are invaluable, according to Parsons. “Find a cohesive group of women you can really trust, who boost you up,” she said.

A big career in payments doesn’t mean you can’t have a well-rounded personal life, said Patty Watson, senior executive vice president and chief information officer at TSYS. During her rise as a financial institutions technology executive at organizations including Bank of America, Watson didn’t compromise on her personal goals. “I decided I was going to do it all—be happily married, have a big career and have kids,” said Watson, who has five children.

She did it with plenty of help and encouragement from others. “I set my sights on these achievements, and I had a lot of people pulling me, pushing me—in some cases dragging me—into challenging situations, and I owe so much to these mentors and sponsors,” Watson said. A key takeaway: “You’ve got to ask for things. If you never ask, you’ll never get that opportunity,” she said.

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Career advancement First Data Discover TSYS Elavon