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 Claudia Schaefer, Vice President of Strategic Client Management at Discover Global Network. As part of a series of conversations with senior women executives here at Discover, Claudia shared her thoughts about how women are increasingly taking their place at the table.
Before we discuss your career path, what is your responsibility as Vice President of Strategic Client Management?
In my role leading the Technology, Merchant and Acquiring relationships for the North American region, I focus on developing a deep understanding of the commerce experiences that companies want to create for traditional banking partners leveraging our network for acceptance and scale. In our more technical relationships with fintechs, it is our responsibility to deepen our engagement beyond payment acceptance to ensure we are working with them to enable the latest payments solutions. To that end, we often are called upon to engage across the enterprise for marketing, product development and business development.
What stands out in your career path that led to your current senior position?
I am what you would call a Discover boomerang in that I started my career with Discover, but then I left to pursue new opportunities. After being away for a few years, I jumped at the chance to return to Discover, because the foundations of my career were so deeply rooted in my first few roles during my time, and it always felt like home to me. Discover has a mantra of doing the right thing, and that’s a value that’s stuck with me throughout my career. I carried those values with me even when I joined a different company. It was this foundation then, combined with the breadth of my experience and the many leadership opportunities that Discover provided, that led to my advancement and current position.
What do you regard as key experiences that supported your professional development?
There were several. First, I’ve been able to learn by experience. Early on in my career, and continuing through now, the leaders I worked with had confidence in me to allow me to jump in and learn as I went. They would just throw me in and provide opportunities to take on bigger projects and expand my skill set. I’ve been able to learn from the mistakes along the way, which fueled my long-term growth, not just teaching me what had to get done in the moment but preparing me beyond the initial task.
Because of that, I also had visibility into different functional areas, which raised my understanding of the broader organization, which then exposed me to different ways of doing things. This enabled me to build strong relationships across the organization and raised my ability to be resourceful in getting things done.
Second, I’ve had the privilege to access formal and informal mentoring and coaching. I believe this is really important for women and people of color to have, because it means you have someone within or out of your organization to seek candid advice on your progress as well as take your challenges to, for problem-solving without worry or judgement. Sometimes you don’t want to talk through an issue with someone on your team or even organization.
Finally, I’ve benefited from participating in a formal sponsorship program where I worked with a senior leader to clarify my career aspirations, learn to frame my value to Discover and grow in my exposure to other leaders across the organization. These types of programs, along with the Employee Resource Groups that Discover has established to offer assistance among peers and provide professional development, are vital. I think we as women underestimate the importance of growing the awareness of both our work and our abilities to leaders outside of our direct line of sight.
What were some of the foundational roles you had that helped you become the leader you are today?
I was assigned to develop the gift card program at Discover really early in my career and was told to “go figure it out.” I was just three years out of college, but I was given a project budget and tasked with building a business case, identifying resources and making decisions about how to approach a new product launch. I didn’t have the experience in how to build a gift card, let alone run my own book of business, but I had the support of my leadership team and the know-how to figure it out. That early experience has stayed with me and made me unafraid of big challenges. Now I look to build new things, fix processes or business that are broken and embrace ambiguity.
That project was also instrumental in helping me see the big picture of how we operate. That’s become part of my outlook as I approach our work. It helps me understand how we are perceived in front of external partners—always the underdog but eager to figure it out.
Based on the experiences you had, what advice do you have for women entering the fintech industry?
First, I would say, don’t be afraid to try something new. Although I eventually returned to Discover, when I left, that was the right decision at the time because it opened up other opportunities. I learned to take a risk and try something new, and by doing so, I enhanced my leadership skills, grew the ability to take critical feedback and expanded a whole new network of valued colleagues in a different industry.
When I left Discover, I had a real culture shock. There was an adjustment where I had to understand how to leverage my experience to work in a new way to navigate a very different environment. It was a struggle at first, but I knew I could figure out how to succeed. Part of that was to seek feedback on the things you do well and on the things you are struggling with, and in doing that, I learned to accept feedback as a data point in the many factors I had to consider as part of my performance, leadership and growth. This helps you develop thick skin. You hear critics, and instead of curling up in a ball, you think about the request they are making or the actions that could change the dynamic. I think it is important to have a thick skin and embrace listening openly to even the most difficult of criticisms and/or feedback.
What unique challenges have you faced as a woman in technology?
When I was working in the prepaid role with fintechs, I definitely faced that sense of imposter syndrome. I wasn’t comfortable with the venture capital partners we worked with. As entrepreneurs, they faced challenges I did not understand. They had ideas that were ambitious, and often I didn’t necessarily support or was unsure of how to best assist them in achieving their goals. I thought I had to align with their vision completely in order to be an asset to their business. Instead, I was discounting the value that I brought, which was the experience in what it took to succeed in a very crowded space. I knew all the partners they needed to engage with, and I could share the steps needed to move forward in a systematic way, while also sharing the benefit of our network assets and how they could leverage them to grow their business. Looking back now, I realize I had a lot to contribute in my own way as a consultant, but in the moment, I lacked the confidence.
Another thing, working in a male-dominated world, there’s a temptation to fit in and maybe not be true to ourselves. But it’s so important to bring our authentic selves to work. More companies are recognizing and celebrating the diversity that exists in their talent pool.
What could improve for women in fintech?
I’m still not seeing a lot of women entrepreneurs. Fintech is a mix of finance and tech, still two very male-dominated industries. We need to find ways to leverage the people who are already at the table and encourage women to lean into the areas where representation tends to be lower. If we don’t do that, we’re missing out on great talent that’s right under our noses.
Do you have any advice for women entering the fintech space?
Have confidence that you know more than you think you know. We are all consumers of financial products and services. As consumers, we have ideas about how to make things better. Bring that lived experienced with you and recognize that it’s relevant.
Also, stay curious, especially in areas where you might not have as much knowledge. It’s easy to want to lean in just into your comfort zone if you have a lot of competency there. But being curious about things you don’t know will get you far. It might be uncomfortable at first. But if you are curious and ask lots of questions, you will find people who will take you under their wing and help you learn the things you need to be successful.
Finally, find your support network. Women love sharing and helping other women. Connect with them. Someday, you’ll be in a position to return the favor.
(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.