Women in Fintech: Breaking Barriers with Alisa Ellis
Women in Fintech: Making their voices heard
As the push for gender equality increases, women are making their mark on the fintech industry
Fintech is an exciting sector that’s enabling digital transformation throughout the payments industry and the broader economy. But fintech has been a challenge for women to break into. The global share of fintech firms with women founders averaged just 10-15% over the past 20 years, while the share of women executives in all fintech firms was around 7%. (1)
At Discover® Global Network, we have a long history of championing women at the highest levels of leadership. But we recognize that as an industry, there’s more to do.
That’s why we recently sat down with Alisa Ellis, Vice President of Operations Modernization at Discover. As part of a series of conversations with senior women executives, Alisa shared a candid look at what steps in her career shaped her success, how important it is to work for a company that supports the advancement of women, and what women can do to maximize opportunities.
What was your career path?
It definitely wasn’t a straight line. My undergrad degree was in journalism and magazine writing. Eventually, I got my business degree and worked at a large insurance company post-MBA.
When I got to Discover, I started out in the emerging payments area, which was really undefined. This is going back to the early days of mobile wallets, when it was a nascent thing in the industry. We were building out our participation and learning along the way.
Shortly after I came on board, the person who hired me left, so there was a leadership gap. There was no one between me and three levels up in the organization. I started looking around and saying, “What’s my next opportunity at Discover?” That’s when I learned about the Chief of Staff role for the President of the Network, Diane Offereins.
I was new enough to Discover that I didn’t understand it was unusual to just throw my hat in the ring. So, I did just that. Diane ended up giving me a chance and acting as a true mentor for me, and that's been one of the accelerators in my career here.
How did that role propel you forward in your career?
Being Chief of Staff gives you a very broad understanding of the business, but also at a very detailed level. The part that energized me about the role was the opportunity to be part of strategic conversations with the leadership team, and it was part of my responsibility to facilitate those.
It was risky, because you're dealing with people who are more senior than you. But if I didn’t take the risk, I wouldn’t be fulfilling my mission, right?
What are your views on finding a mentor, with or without a formal mentorship program?
Even if there isn’t a mentorship program, if you build trust in a relationship and confidence about somebody's abilities, what that allows them to do is to express their support for you in places where you are not in the room. I find that it happens organically, and I was lucky enough to experience that.
What are some of the big wins you’ve had at Discover?
Around 2017, we built our digital platform to be able to connect Discover Global Network cards to digital wallets. One of the leading tech companies was our first. We ended up working with this Big Tech company to white label our platform for a virtual card. It was trial by fire, because it was taking the platform that we built for ourselves and needing to scale it almost 1,000 times practically overnight to accommodate the size and the requirements of a client of that size. Those are things that I take with me as we build the next set of platforms.
What have you done more recently at Discover?
My recent foray in the last few years was starting our Innovation & Emerging Products Team. Discover is quite good at finding external partners and finding exciting early-stage companies and engaging with them.
A lot of what I am looking at is how we transform our developer environments and our developer and partner engagement. In order to unlock innovation, we need to unlock the pathway of not only finding these partners but making sure they're able to work with us in a way that they're expecting.
What are the challenges you’ve encountered being a woman in the tech space?
We are quite fortunate at Discover that we have a lot of female leaders in technology. It really hit me recently when we were working on our Advanced Payments Summit. It’s a conference we host annually for the partners we work with in the payments business. There was a panel. I don’t recall the topic, but there were a bunch of us on stage presenting. And, all of a sudden, I realized it was an all-female panel. Everyone else on the panel noticed, too. I thought, “If this had been an all-male panel, it would never have occurred to anyone to notice.”
What will it take before an all-female panel is unremarkable?
Women judge themselves by a higher standard. If there is a job opening and they don’t believe they have 100% of the qualifications, they will self-select out and not apply. Women have to believe they have a place at the table and say to themselves, “I’ve got 70% of the qualifications and I can learn the other 30%.”
How do we maximize the opportunities for women in fintech?
We’re seeing more women in fintech in leadership roles, but not necessarily in the founder roles. Why not? Why not at the top?
There are a couple of things I recommend that women do. First, you have to figure out to what degree you need to understand technology. More importantly, I think you have to understand the implications of technology. You need to understand the context.
For me, that mostly came from leading Digital Products and a number of other product portfolios, including data, fraud and authentication. Through these roles, I was able to focus on expanding digital transformations to include how we do things internally and how to design our onboarding, client support tools and processes from the partners’ perspective. Then, I applied those learnings—or that context I mentioned—to the Operations Modernization role I have now.
Finally, I encourage everyone to make themselves a little bit uncomfortable. Take a role where you're not exactly sure what it looks like around the corner. Understand that nobody is a 100% expert. But have the confidence to say, “I’ll get there.”
What are you most excited to see in the fintech industry in the next five to 10 years?
Fintech has been great at demonstrating to larger, established competitors what is possible. The advancements in technology now are enabling the next generation of solutions and lowering the barriers to entry. Some fintechs don’t have all the tools to take those experiences to large scale. What they are really great at is demonstrating the art of the possible.
The input and the creativity of those experiences and showing the world what's possible is what I'm excited about.
(1) International Monetary Fund, July 2022. “Women in Fintech: As Leaders and Users.”
The information provided herein is sponsored by Discover® Global Network. It is intended for informational purposes, and is not intended as a substitute for professional advice.