What can we learn from Iceland, the most gender-equal country to date...

We talk to Eleni Vlami, Head of account management at Meniga, about gender equality in FinTech...

What can you tell us about your business and its views on equality?

Currently I am Head of account management at Meniga, a Reykjavik-based FinTech  company and I have 15 years of experience working in banking, from FinTech  startups to large corporates.
I am originally from Greece, but my career path has allowed me to work in Greece, Sweden and UK.
My perspective on diversity has changed rapidly when I moved to Sweden. When you discuss diversity and equality in Scandinavia, there is no issue.
These things are taken for granted by most people. In Iceland, where our company originated from, laws guaranteeing that women and men with same qualification get the same salaries are strictly enforced. I got spoiled working in Scandinavia and in a company with Icelandic standards, and then when I moved to the UK, the situation changed again. I still remember the first questions I was getting when we were interviewing people in London. They were asking about gender pay gap. Having to answer questions like this in London made us realise that as a company, we have the potential to set an example in the UK, where the gender pay gap is wider than in Scandinavia.

What has been your own journey to current position?

When crisis hit the country in 2008, it was a good opportunity to move abroad but also to shift career path, so I start working as an Area manager for a large retailer in UK. Later on, I have tried going back home, but this was not successful due to the economic situation, so I continued my working adventure in Stockholm where FinTech and start-up industries where booming. I start working in Meniga in 2012 as a Sales manager in the company’s office in Stockholm. The company grow rapidly and in 2015 we opened our 3rd office in London, where I am based now. For the last 4 years I am I am responsible for our Account Management department. Our team focuses on customer relationships and engagement.

What interested you in this space?

My career started in Banking, I was working in Citibank and Piraeus Bank, supporting digital banking projects. Coming from a country that had an economic crisis, I moved to a company from Iceland- where their economy was also going through similar issues.

I can't begin to tell you all the politically incorrect comments I got when I decided to work for an Icelandic company. Everybody was telling me that ‘you left Greece because of the banking crisis, and now you work for a company from Iceland that is experiencing the exact same problems’?

It was good timing for me to move out of the country and for me to pivot, working in a FinTech industry offered me the chance to experience another industry.

Working in FinTech and start-ups you get the chance to experience different markets, cultures, countries, products & projects. That is something I’ve learned to appreciate and cherish during my journey in this field.

Did you find it difficult to break into this area as a female?

I am fortunate to work in an Icelandic FinTech company. The most gender-equal country to date is Iceland. It has closed over 85% of its overall gender gap. Iceland is followed by Norway (83.5%), Sweden and Finland (82.2%),(source: Global Gender Gap Report, 2018). With that said, we are covering 30 markets and the main challenge is that -most of the times- I am the only female in the room during customer meetings. Internally this is not an issue, due to the culture of the company but externally it is challenging.

How have you seen the landscape change in FinTech in terms of equality?

Tech and FinTech companies demonstrate a strong push for women in the industry through new division in their existing structure that are purely focusing in Diversity and Inclusion. A few examples, Cisco has a network called ‘‘women action’’ that evolved into Global women organisation with many members.
Microsoft started a pipeline by promoting the study of computer science at female colleges and other universities. They also invest in women focused organisations, seek out women suppliers and provide support to women once they are employed at Microsoft. Apple is teaming up with educators for blind and deaf communities to bring accessible coding to their schools to ensure they are given the opportunity to succeed in the tech industry. (source: DiversityinTech)
There are also many organisations & groups to support women and men from different background, education, gender, nationality and age.
A few examples of great teams and organisations that are following closely are: Women in Banking and Finance (WIBF), Women of FinTech, Innovate Finance and their Women in FinTech Initiative and of course the newly established DiversiTech Hub that look at the real issues in the industry and build tangible processes and ideas to overcome these challenges.

What do you think are the reasons for this change?

The world today is undergoing its biggest transformation, so now is the time to ‘’exit’’ the bubble and challenge the ‘’normal’’. Companies realised that in order to be relevant & productive they need to pursue employees with a diverse mix of voices, age, race, nationality along with working experience & background.

In FinTech, gender stereotypes are challenging, but this can be changed. There will be no silver bullet solution to this change. But by identifying some basic steps, we can start improving the numbers on gender diversity gaps. Topics of gender equality and promotion of diversity in our sector cannot be ignored and surely are not a distraction. On the contrary, they should be addressed as main objectives on our everyday performance.


Where do you see the future of the market heading?

The FinTech scene has changed drastically in the past decade.
We have seen a surge in FinTech VC investments – in Europe alone it has grown from a 100m USD annually- to more than 2.5B USD in the space of 5 years
With PSD2 and more generally the Open Banking movement – retail banks are now at real risk of customer fragmentation as personal finance data becomes available to third parties upon consumer consent
Challenger banks and more importantly tech giants and social media players are gearing up to take advantage.
A few examples:
- Revolut is getting close to 5 million users and recently raised USD 250m.
-N26 asserted that it has 3.5 million users across 24 European countries.
- Amazon is partnering with Bank Of America for its merchant lending program, and is reportedly working with JP Morgan and Capital One for a new "checking-account-like" product.
Banks know that new players are coming. They know that their business is under pressure. But to put things into perspective, when it comes to conversation on FinTech vs banks. The impressive growth of FinTech  was possible because banks were reluctant to use their data and open to experiment with fintech companies.

FinTechs can help banks to create new revenue streams and drive customer engagement in digital banking. But this is not all about technology. It is also about new ways of working and developing relationships inside the data ecosystem. So, we see the FinTech world changing into a more collaborative industry.


What makes your company an employer of choice?

Meniga is a family-oriented company where employees feel part of a bigger team. Growing from a start-up to a global leader of white-label provider comes with an amazing feeling of accomplishment.

What would you like to see change in FinTech as an industry?

The FinTech industry needs to be promoted as a good career path for young women. Senior men and women should actively encourage them to engage in the FinTech  sector to avoid creating an even bigger gender talent gap in the future.
FinTech companies need to introduce and adhere to policies like mandatory paternal leave in combination with maternity leave, state-mandated parental leave benefits or combination of social insurance funds and tax incentives.
Implement flexible working life policies. Many companies have introduced flexible working policies, either by choice and company culture or by necessity. Either way these policies should be considered as ‘’norm’’ in the company’s mentality and promoted as actual work-life balance initiatives.
Diversity rations at events and conferences need to be equally measured. Team-leads and team members should simply count how many women and how many men, are participating in events. It is a practical policy that means that teams who are representing the company in industry events needs to be a diverse segment of the company. Both women and men are participating as attendees, but also as keynote speakers or panellists. They need to make sure that diversity runs through the whole philosophy of the company, including marketing representation and branding.

How do you plan to overcome those obstacles in your company?

As a team, we ensure that female leaders play a vital role in shaping our company’s policies and future strategy. Some policies we have introduce to make sure all staff are on even footing include:
Employees can work from home to attend to their family matters, since the company is covering the cost for the ‘’home-internet’’.
Working hours & overtime are very flexible. Our team members are advised to use their own judgement on working patterns and working hours. As long as commitments to their team-mates and clients are met, working hours and arrangements can be very flexible.
Our teams are also really eager to promote our gender diversity in our communities and arrange ‘’meet-ups’’ in our offices with local Women Associations along with university groups to advertise FinTech as good career path for young women. Aiming to set an example with women on our executive management team and on the Board of Directors.

Why do you think finance/banking/FinTech have been male dominated industries in the past?

Women in FinTech represent only 29% of the staff in the industry, and only this number is a scary fact! 'I couldn’t count the number of times I was the only woman in a business meeting or in a FinTech conference’.
Main challenges I would say are: Pay gaps, absence of women on boards & leadership positions and the lack of flexible working options.

What is the most exciting thing about FinTech for you personally?

FinTech industry and start- up companies are like a roller-coaster! Every day is different and the challenges you need to overcome keep you constantly ‘’on edge’’.

The industry is exciting-by default, but what I am really looking forward after the ‘’Apple card’’ is the ‘’Apple- car’’ so I can buy one:)


To date, in your view, what disruptors have caused the most innovation in the industry?

Millennials, Social media and mobile apps are setting new standards for digital customer engagement. Those alone are enough to force banks to rethink strategies and change the FinTech industry. Add the PSD2& GDPR regulations to the party and you’ll get the message: in the next 5 there we will experience serious changes to the financial sector.

Banks know that new players are coming, and these are mainly the challenger banks.
Challenger banks that are gathering pace and developing strong, “cult-like” customer loyalty, in my opinion they are the main disruptors. Their biggest advantage is that they have started fresh with a digital offering and the use of the latest technology available. They are more flexible, quicker to adapt to user needs, more user friendly and more personal than traditional banks. As banks consider revamping their digital channels they should be inspired by what some of these players have achieved with limited budgets.

Founder of DiversiTech Hub

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