Suneera Madhani is the co-founder and CEO of the Orlando-based payments processing company Stax.
My fintech company, Stax, achieved unicorn status in 2022, after nearly a decade of growing and championing our payments platform. We went through six rounds of fundraising, at times requiring a line of credit to keep the business running.
In one of those moments, a particular investor voted against giving us a company-saving investment of $500,000 in the face of a $12 million buy-out offer. But we continued to grow — and ultimately exited our early-stage investors at 18x their investment. Not long after, upon learning of Stax’s $1 billion valuation, he sent me an email: “Suneera, I wanted to let you know I’m proud of you.”
The audacity floored me. When someone says, “I’m proud of you,” that person usually occupies a higher status position, like a mentor, or is someone who knows you well. But this man was neither — he was simply trying to assert authority over me. He neither earned nor contributed to our company’s achievement. In fact, he specifically voted against our growth — to the point where my co-founders and I mortgaged our homes and deferred our salaries to keep the company afloat. Yet now he felt compelled and entitled to give me his patriarchal validation, as if he shared ownership of my success. As a prominent venture capitalist who had only “believed” in me when it was convenient, he thought I would be happy to receive his praise.
This was infuriating, but not surprising. It speaks to the deep-rooted misogyny and sexism in the tech and payments industry — represented by a dire lack of women in leadership at every level. If I were a man, I would not have had to fight so hard. At that time, our company was already pulling in more than $1 million in recurring revenue. We had robust proof of concept, an experienced team and an expanding customer base. We were growing, and we needed the investment to continue our growth.
I’m not the first woman to experience this, and I won’t be the last. Until the industry addresses this blatant lack of advocacy for women in leadership, it will continue to foster a culture where women can’t thrive.
Tech, especially fintech and payments, is one of the worst industries for women
Women represented only 24% of C-suite leadership positions in corporate America in 2021, with only 4% of C-suite leaders being women of color. In the fintech and payments industry, these disparities are even more abysmal.
Despite comprising half of the world’s consumers, women are routinely left out of fintech and payments hiring opportunities, board meetings and investment decisions. The result is an industry that is overwhelmingly pale, male, and stale — with leaders who continue to hire people who largely look and think like them.
Only 1.5% of all global fintech organizations are women-founded, and only 1% of fintech venture funding goes to women-founded firms. When it comes to leadership, women represent only 19% of C-suite fintech executives worldwide. The majority of these roles are in HR, with only 5.6% of them in the role of CEO. For women of color in financial services, representation falls by 80% from entry level to C-suite roles, where we make up 4% of finance execs compared to 23% for white women.
Organizations that perpetuate these disparities are missing out in a big way. Women leaders consistently foster more collaborative environments, generate higher capital efficiency and are greater champions of diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) initiatives. They also tend to be more multi-dimensional and caring leaders, putting in the time and energy to build community and prioritize value-driven work.
But even for those of us who make it to the top, it doesn’t get much better. Too many fintech leaders want to congratulate women who have succeeded in this industry without recognizing their role in the culture and the processes that made it so difficult.
Just like the board member who sent me that email, many celebrate those of us who “made it'' but take no accountability for their racist, sexist behavior or the hurdles they create. These hurdles are numerous — ranging from everyday microaggressions and belittlement to blatant discrimination in lending and investment practices, like 87% of women of color entrepreneurs reporting race or gender bias during the funding process.
This culture of discrimination runs deep, manifesting itself in both material and intangible ways. Often, it functions as a daily reminder that fintech and payments spaces aren’t designed for us to feel safe or succeed.
Making fintech and payments an inclusive space where everyone can succeed
After more than a decade in the fintech and payments industry, I’ve seen it all. If you want to build a workplace that’s designed for women to not just survive but thrive, here are five things you need to stop doing — immediately.
- Stop talking over women. Men often talk over and around women rather than speak to us directly — seemingly going out of their way to act as if we’re not there. Even when a woman is leading the conversation, men routinely speak only to other men in meetings. My head of commercialization is a woman, and just last week I had to chime in during a meeting to say, “let her finish.” Women are experts and authorities, too. Stop overlooking us.
- Stop using gendered terms. You know the ones — bossy, emotional, distracted, unprofessional, shrill. These terms are often used to describe women in the workplace but not men. And by the way, we are emotional. We’re human. And we’re tired of this behavior.
- Stop using sexist language and phrases. Sexist behavior and beliefs can often be distilled down to the literal language we use. I’ve heard sexist words and phrases at every level of fundraising and investment. The term “get them pregnant” is a common one — referring to the process of achieving buy-in with investors to the point that they can’t back out. It’s disturbing and begs the question: If men are saying this with women in the room, what are they saying when we’re not in the room?
- Stop hitting on women in professional spaces. I’m often invited to speak at events for fintech and payments leadership, and typically I’m the only woman in the room. At some point over drinks and business deals, I’m always grossly hit on. It’s inappropriate and unprofessional.
- Stop underestimating women. People underestimate women — plain and simple. It’s an everyday occurrence, from the assumption that my female general counsel isn’t my general counsel to the questioning of women’s judgment and preparedness. If we want to be taken seriously, we have to know our stuff even better and prove our case even harder. Stop underestimating our work, experience, knowledge, and talent. Start seeing us — because we aren’t going anywhere.
Underrepresented fintech and payments founders go beyond just women. For marginalized and minority founders in any industry, we all “talk the talk” about boosting support and creating equality without putting those words into action. Enough talk. It’s time for action.
DEI initiatives must go beyond numbers and prioritize safety
If you have DEI initiatives but don’t have an inclusive culture, you’ll fail. Focusing solely on the number of underrepresented and minority employees at your organization and not fostering inclusivity means you’re bringing these individuals into a work environment that’s unsafe — one where they’ll be harmed, overlooked, belittled and ignored.
True and effective DEI initiatives go deeper. They create spaces where women, particularly women of color, can access the flexibility and support they need to succeed. They create work environments that identify and eliminate language, judgments, and practices that reinforce sexism and racism. They cut out the BS and seek accountability at the organizational and individual level — paving the way for industry-wide growth. They celebrate women’s achievements without taking ownership of them. They are designed for women to feel safe and thrive.
The bottom line is simple: We’re done waiting, and we no longer want a seat at the patriarchal table. We’re building our own instead.