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 Emily Foshee, Vice President for Core Products at Discover. As part of a series of conversations with senior women executives here at Discover, Emily discussed her career and provided her thoughts about how women can forge career paths in tech and how they can help capture the opportunities.
What was your career path? Did you always know you wanted to work in tech?
No. I was an English literature major and initially planned to be in academia long term, but during college I interned at a large company in the oil industry. One of the best parts of a big corporate environment was the ability to experiment and learn early in a career. I worked in several capacities during my time there. Early on, I was looking at financials, which might sound completely out of place for an English major, but I was good at pulling out insights. Because of that, I had the opportunity to try a lot of different things, and as a result I learned what I liked and didn’t like.
How did I get into tech? My first taste of technology work was working on technology projects as a project manager. After I finished my second project as a manager, the company was starting a new practice called product management. It seemed like a really cool, end-to-end thing—starting with an idea, and then figuring out how to build it and bring it to market. It also added accountability and ownership from start to finish. When I hit that product management role, I was hooked—and for the next 15-plus years, this English lit major spent her career in tech.
How transferable were the skills you learned in product management when you moved to a completely different industry?
Very transferable. Fundamentally, product management is about a framework of thinking and an approach to taking an idea all the way through to implementation. I took my product management expertise and was able to apply it to financial services in the B2B space. But I did have a financial services learning curve at Discover, and I think I under-anticipated how steep that would be. Even though I’ve been here nine years, I'm still learning.
In addition to the technical learning curve, there was also a learning curve around culture. Culturally, the oil industry was very different. But part of product management is understanding how to get work done, whom to approach, and which levers to press to get the work done—no matter where you’re working. I then had to reestablish the networks I needed by learning the culture at Discover.
What is working at Discover like?
I had some strong impressions of Discover starting with my first walk-through. My first impression was how diverse Discover was when it came to age, gender and race. My second impression was how friendly and welcoming the culture was. Those first impressions, it turned out, were accurate. I am still at Discover nine years later because of the quality of the relationships and culture.
How has Discover supported your career development?
In big and small ways. The biggest was that Discover sponsored my MBA. Not only did it support me financially, I was also able to get in the Discover-sponsored cohort, so I also benefited greatly from an expanded network. That investment provided me with an incredibly rich network of peers throughout the enterprise that I still connect with, because we spent three and a half years together.
In terms of small ways that have led to big outcomes, I've had some of the best sponsors and mentors here, because people cared about my personal development.
What experiences shaped the executive you are today?
I can point to three key experiences that set me up for where I am today. The first one was the role I had in lean transformation early in my career. I learned a lot about process and how impactful operating models can be to the success of a business. It sparked an interest and an awareness in understanding how processes affect how work gets done and the importance of design, as well as how transformational process change can be for a business. I learned how to be a change agent—by first understanding existing processes, and then by helping to transform and improve them.
The second experience was my project management role. Now to be fair, I hated most of it. But the piece that was foundational and anchoring was the experience of taking something from start to finish and understanding how to get work done within an organization. Understanding how work was done and understanding the criticality of stakeholder identification, communication and management were foundational experiences for me in my career.
Finally was my experience in taking professional risks. When I was at the oil company, we started an initiative in a brand-new area—there was a distinct possibility that this would fail and never go to market. It was the first time the company had ever done a product management discipline, and I got to take all of those pieces of what I had learned and bring something to market that showed up in a $30 million advertising campaign. I could go to a gas station and use my product. That was very gratifying.
As a woman in fintech, what challenges have you faced?
When I first started my career, I was working in petroleum, and there was not a lot of diversity there. There were engineers, and they were white and male for the most part. When you don't see people who look like you, who have similar experiences doing the kind of work that you're interested in, it can act as a barrier.
Then, there are the stories we tell ourselves. For me, in particular, being an English literature major, the story I had a lot of times in my head was that financial services and product management were “too technical.” Could I do it? I didn’t have the right degree. Even when I’ve done similar roles, sometimes I still hesitate. This story is still there some days, despite the successes I’ve had and the decade-plus of experience I’ve had in this industry. I’ve talked to a lot of women who can be thinking like this.
So how do women tell themselves different stories?
I’d like to hope the next generation of female tech leaders start from a fundamental place of belief, based on their experiences in education, as well as seeing executives like me in roles they aspire to. For those women still struggling to change their story, I’d recommend you have to take a step back and look realistically at what you’ve done. Have you delivered when you’ve tried new things in the past? Do you have the interest and the passion? If you were a friend or advisor, what advice would you give yourself? This part is key because you need to create a new narrative of possibility. Trusted advisors and colleagues can be critical to challenging the story you’ve created, and to potentially helping you shape a new one.
What would you like to see women doing to advance their careers in tech?
I encourage women to create a network of peers they can talk with about the things they might be uncomfortable with, like salary or benefits. Imagine if we had more open conversations about that. I also think women should seek out coaches, mentors and sponsors. They all play a slightly different role, but they are all important.
Another thing I would love to see women do more is take risks and actively advocate for their careers. When I was a senior manager at Discover, I had a boss who was a coach, mentor and sponsor for me. She would say to me, “Why do we meet and have career-development conversations, but you never ask me how to get promoted here?” I said that I assumed that my work would be enough to get promoted. She helped me understand that it wasn’t enough. She helped me understand that you still have to take risks and ask for the promotion. That changed my point of view on everything.
(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.