Financial Inclusion & Gender Consultant
1. What do you do and what is your background in STEM?
I am a Microfinance Product Developer. I work with retail banks in developing and emerging markets to design products, services, and ICT strategies that help bank the unbanked and bring them into the formal financial economy.
In terms of my STEM background, I started as a software engineer in management consulting. For 12 years I worked in client services designing and building information systems and digital applications across a variety of industry verticals. The bulk of that work was in financial services. I then made the shift to microfinance in 2008, which most people wouldn’t think would have a major technology component, but it actually does. Before Google and Apple Pay there was M-Pesa, I was actually using M-Pesa on my phone back in 2009 to pay for cab rides across Nairobi!
Microfinance is banking for the poor. There are roughly 2.5 billion people in the developing world that don’t have access to a bank account, and most of their banking is done very informally. They might save their money under a mattress, in a can, they might bury their money, and they certainly don’t have a lot exposure to work with different types of financial instruments.
Microfinance was developed about thirty years ago in Bangladesh as a way to help people lift themselves out of poverty through enterprise – giving them access to credit, an opportunity to get a loan, and to build their own business and become microentrepreneurs. Microfinance has been particularly important for women who make up roughly 97% of the borrowers, and who have the highest recovery rate. Women are the caregivers in these societies, focused on the needs of the family, and are more often than not marginalized from formal ways of making money. So microfinance was an opportunity to not only give them financial empowerment, but social empowerment as well.
2. Why do you believe in supporting diverse STEM talent?
It’s the right thing to do and it’s good business. There are countless studies showing that companies with more diverse workforces tend to perform better financially. The more diverse the company or organization is, the more innovative it tends to be, and this is particularly important in our highly-connected, global economy. You need diverse skills, thoughts, and experiences to bring to the table. It challenges your thinking and expands your thinking – it really is a more expansive way to problem solve.
3. What is the biggest challenge in achieving STEM diversity?
We don’t address diversity as a business problem. The data is out there to support the business case for diversity, but we so easily forget that. We tend to categorise diversity as an ‘other’, yet for any other type of business problem, challenge or opportunity, we build goals, business strategies, accountability measurements, and KPIs, and we would hold people accountable for addressing and solving that business problem, or creating that opportunity. We have to reframe our thinking to recognize that lack of diversity impacts the bottom line.
4. What inclusive hiring strategies do you see as key for closing the STEM diversity gap?
What is measured is what gets done. Setting goals, performance measures, and incentives are key. This is something that has to start at the very top, and when I say the very top I actually mean at the governance level. This is a business problem, so we need to build a strategy and plan for how to solve it. If you can establish the business case, get the buy-in, and build in the accountability at the board level, it will cascade down through the organization. Those people at the very top have both the political capital, and the political will to make it happen.
The second thing is to include the kinds of people who you are trying to attract and retain in your discussions and program design. So if you’re trying to bring in African-American women, then you need to have some of those women at the table and at all levels. Levels from the most senior –and I would hope at the board level, all the way down to the most junior person and even to the intern. What are they looking for? What are their challenges and barriers? Just as you would address any other market segment, you have to first seek to understand before being understood. If you don’t have the representation within your own company, leverage your existing networks to find a way to bring those voices to the table.
We could also talk about the apprenticeship verses the internship model. Often internships provide a very limited view of what it takes to really perform in a particular job. With interns, members of staff rarely have the time or bandwidth to spend with them, so it becomes more about learning the job function, and less about what it takes to get the job done.
In an apprenticeship you get the mentoring, you get the coaching, you get the advocacy, and you get some of the softer skills that don’t come across in an internship about the importance of building relationships, and the importance of networking. You see someone modeling how the job is done, and that is critically important. I think bringing some of those concepts back and being a little more creative with how we bring people along would be refreshing.
5. What is your advice to diverse talent looking to join or progress within the STEM sector?
Firstly, do your research. You need to understand the opportunities that are out there and the challenges that exist within them. That research is something you need to take upon yourself because it won’t just happen. Talk to people who have done it and get their lessons learned – It’s essential to speak with people who have had barriers and overcome them, because a successful career is rarely linear.
Secondly, don’t be afraid to be the first one. Don’t shy away from that, as it doesn’t mean that it’s not the right environment for you. I was usually the first one, and more often than not the only one in a lot of environments, and you can learn a lot from that.
Lastly, it’s important to build influences internally and externally. Your trajectory forward in your organization is not the only way to move up in your career; there are wonderful opportunities outside your job that are important to pursue. Try things that are related to your job or are interesting to you, that give you an opportunity to spread your wings, to build leadership skills, and expand your networks beyond where you are now.