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Equity Means Action: A Conversation with Stratyfy’s Female Leaders

The theme of International Women’s Day this year is “Embrace Equity.” But what does it mean to embrace equity? To us at Stratyfy, it means action.

The gender wage gap has remained steady over the past 20 years. In 2022, women earned an average of 82% of what men earned, and that statistic is even more dire for Latina women and Black women, who make 55 cents and 63 cents to each dollar a white man makes, respectively. What’s more, many women are denied access to financial products, which in turn has created barriers to wealth creation, particularly for women of color.

These numbers tell but a small part of the story as it relates to ‘embracing equity’ in the United States. But at Stratyfy, we’re working on convening fellow industry leaders to change the story.

We’re proud to be able to say that not only are we female-founded, but our board and leadership team are more than 50% women-led. We know that’s rare in our field, especially in an industry where in 2022 US startups with all-women teams received 1.9% of the $238.3 billion in venture capital and where women, particularly women of color, continue to be underrepresented in positions of leadership.

That’s part of why what we’re building at Stratyfy is so important – we need to act in order to change the future of financial services.

To recognize this important day, we sat down with CEO/Co-Founder Laura Kornhauser, COO Deniz Johnson, and EVP of Inclusive Credit Shannan Herbert to learn more about their journeys, advice to fellow women in fintech, and the challenges (and opportunities) of entrepreneurship.

In a few words, what does being a leader in fintech mean to you?

Laura: Perseverance, dedication, tenacity, drive, determination.
Deniz: Innovation, resilience and responsibility.
Shannan: Having the ability to create something that reshapes the way we think and do business through the use of advanced technology.

Who are some of your role models?

Laura:  My parents who built, successfully ran and sold a software business without raising a cent of outside capital. My father had the big ideas and the bold vision, and my mother is the one who made that vision a reality. They treated everyone in their company like family and persevered through multiple market cycles.

Deniz:  My role model is my mother, international ceramic artist, Beril Anilanmert.  Her work highlighted the oppression of women, questioned the traditional roles of women, and addressed social injustices. Seeing her work as an adult, addressing bias, was an eye opening experience. Maybe for the first time, I was able to fully grasp just how much of a trailblazer my mother truly is. She always encouraged me to have an open mind, get out of my comfort zone and chart my own way.  I am grateful to have a successful strong female figure in my life. Representation matters.

Shannan:  My great-grandfather “Big Bill.” He was the first Black insurance broker in his hometown of Charlotte, NC.  He was a college-educated, small business owner and a strong advocate for voters rights, working with civil rights organizations to register Black men to vote.  He was often threatened by hate groups for the work that he did in his community but he didn’t let that stop him. Legend has it that after one of these threats, he told the perpetrators that if they wished to bring him harm, he’d be waiting on the front porch for them to arrive. They never showed up and he never stopped fighting.

Shannan, your career has been focused on the critical goal of eradicating structural racism in the financial system. How do you push for systemic change in your role now?

Throughout my banking career, my focus has always been on 3 key tenets: Awareness, Education, and Accessibility. My work, at its core, has focused on making people aware of the role that bias can play in decision making. I strive to connect the dots between what has been felt or perceived by people of color with real data and use these real experiences to illustrate not only impact, but also what happens if we do nothing.

Much of my work at Stratyfy revolves around educating others on what’s possible and how technology–specifically, Stratyfy’s solutions–can work to solve these problems and increase financial inclusion. I love having these conversations and watching many in the audience have “a-ha” moments. Most telling is that after all of my interactions, the response is generally the same: folks are motivated; they want to know how they can be involved or connect us to a collaborator in this space.

Laura, as a founder and CEO, you have lots of experience fundraising in a notoriously challenging industry, where only about 1% of female founders successfully get funding. What’s your advice to female startup founders fundraising?

Fundraising is a difficult and emotional journey – especially for underrepresented founders. Unfortunately, most people do not speak openly about just how hard it is, and instead you see stories about the amazing 4 week fundraise that was oversubscribed from day 1. This is not reality, especially for female founders. Here are a few of my biggest learnings:

  1. Maybe’s are the worst answer you can receive. If after the first 30 minute call with an investor you aren’t excited about them (and hearing that same excitement back from them), deprioritize them and focus on finding another investor that sees all the future opportunities that you see. With each of our amazing investors, the first time I spoke with them I felt an immediate connection. Meanwhile, I spoke with many investors who gave me just enough positivity that I thought I could convince them to invest. What I found was that these additional conversations only served the investors. And they took away two of the most precious resources you have as a founder – time and mental energy.
  2. Get all of your ducks in a row before fundraising. Make sure you have well-defined metrics that demonstrate how successful the vision for your company will be and communicate those metrics with confidence. As a female founder, you unfortunately still need to prove more than others in order to receive the funding you deserve.
  3. Build a network of other female founders. They are the best people to turn to for support, advice, and introductions. If you are having trouble finding these amazing women in Fintech, reach out to me directly and I will plug you in!

Deniz, you have been recognized globally as a leader in both finance and technology. Any advice to fellow leaders in these industries?

Being a female leader in fintech comes with a sense of responsibility. Finance and technology sectors are not known for their diversity, and their intersection is less diverse than either. We have a unique opportunity to change that, by being intentional in our hiring decisions and also with the responsibility of exposing the next generation to this industry.

Advocacy from leaders is also critical, and I think it’s important to make a distinction between advocacy and mentorship. Everybody wants to mentor females but few truly advocate. Advocacy has a sense of responsibility and accountability to actively think of, recommend, support another person through the ranks to positions they’ve been denied because of systemic bias. Advocacy is bringing someone to the table who has the potential but not the opportunity. I believe it is all of our responsibility as leaders to provide this advocacy.

What advice do you have for young women considering entering the fintech or startup industry?

Deniz: To succeed in fintech or as an entrepreneur, I believe you need 4Ps: Persistence, Perseverance and Passion and Purpose. Entrepreneurship is hard but also very rewarding. Keeping these 4 principles will go a long way.

Laura:  Find people that will support you in your journey and nurture those relationships. I remember being skeptical of networking at the beginning of my career; it felt transactional or disingenuous, but what I have learned is that networking is really just about finding people that you connect with and sharing your successes and challenges with each other. Many of our earliest investors were mentors and sponsors of mine early in my career and have grown into strong business relationships and close friendships.

Shannan:  Don’t be afraid to do hard things. So much growth happens when we put ourselves in spaces where we have to be creative. Starting a business or leading a team may seem daunting at first, but eventually you find your rhythm and things begin to fall in place. It helps to have a strong team surrounding you and most importantly, to know who you are before you start your journey.

Act this #IWD: reach out to Stratyfy for more on how we can shape a more equitable future together.