International Women’s Day 2024: A conversation with women leaders in the US payments industry

  • To commemorate March's International Women's Day, Tearsheet engaged in conversations with some of the prominent women leaders in the US payments industry.
  • Our discussions explore their current roles while reflecting on their career journeys that paved the way for them to be at the top of their game.

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International Women’s Day 2024: A conversation with women leaders in the US payments industry

While women make up nearly half of the global population, amounting to 4.04 billion individuals, their representation in C-suite positions within the financial services sector globally stands at 18% as of 2023.

Despite their minority presence in the financial sector, women leaders have played pivotal roles in shaping the evolving payments industry over the last decade. From embracing digital advancements to leveraging technology, adapting to changing consumer demands to navigating regulatory complexities, they have consistently risen to the occasion.

To commemorate March’s International Women’s Day, I engaged in conversations with some of the prominent women leaders in the US payments industry. Our discussions explore their current roles while reflecting on their career journeys that paved the way for them to be at the top of their game.

Lia Cao

Global Head of Embedded Banking & Solutions at JPMorgan 

Career trajectory: Throughout the course of my nearly 20-year career, I have been fortunate to have many strong and influential mentors invest in my growth and development. In my early career, these mentors helped me find and hone my voice, encouraging me to raise my opinion in meetings and make my presence known.

For women in the industry who feel stuck in place on the career ladder, my biggest pieces of advice are to get out of your comfort zone, boldly pursue new opportunities, and take calculated risks. 

If you feel stuck or stagnant in your current role, ask yourself three important questions: 

  1. Am I being challenged intellectually?
  2.  Do I have the support and investment of a mentor?
  3. Am I growing as a leader?

If the answer to any of those three questions is “no,” it’s time to take action and make a change. Start small; this change could take many forms. You might seek a mentor within your organization or join a networking group to build stronger relationships within the payments ecosystem. You might raise your hand for a new project that will force you to stretch, learn, and challenge yourself. You might explore leadership coaching to strengthen that skill set, positioning yourself to pursue a promotion or management position. Think about what aspects of payments are exciting to you, and consider specializing in a particular industry — whether that’s retail, auto, healthcare, or elsewhere — that aligns with your passions. 

What set off Lia’s career growth

Finding the positive in adversity: Over the course of my career, I achieved my greatest moments of personal and professional growth when I took a risk and challenged myself. Careers are rarely linear — mine wasn’t, and I’m grateful for it. I studied urban planning at university and never envisioned pursuing a career in payments. Today, I firmly believe that the payments industry is a vast and exciting place to build a career. It is ripe for innovation and is an integral part of our everyday lives. For women climbing the ladder within the industry, I’d encourage them to stay open to new experiences and challenges because you never know what new doors they will open for you.

Judith McGuire

SVP of Global Products at Discover Global Network

Career trajectory: As Senior Vice President of Global Products at Discover, I utilize my expertise to develop solutions and address customer needs. 

Discover has implemented significant technological enhancements in support of consistent growth across the payments space like digital wallet usage, resulting in faster, secure transactions, and overall convenience for our customers. 

My professional journey with Discover spans from PULSE to my current role, moving through a variety of roles with varied responsibilities. In my experience, women are well-positioned to succeed in the payment sector and often bring unique views to the table. The women who bring passion to their roles and are flexible in how they experience their career journey are the folks who become key team members in the organization. 

What set off Judith’s career growth

Embracing the potential in new opportunities: I think many people experience a moment in their careers where they are ready for the next step when they are looking to grow where they are planted. For me, I had a situation where I was a successor for someone, but they were unlikely to leave their role in the short-to-medium term. I was ready to expand, and I liked what I was doing. I took this as an opportunity and found a way to expand the scope of my role informally by taking over as a company representative in many interactions with regulators. This work was new to me, it was interesting, and it allowed me to build new skills that I could take with me for the rest of my career.

It’s easy to get discouraged in a situation that feels like you have no mobility from your current position. The truth is – there is always an opportunity to grow – sometimes you just have to get creative. Personally, I’ve found that these moments can lead to opportunities that I never expected, but pay off greatly with new skills, new relationships, and new doors opening, even if you had to find that door yourself.

Bea Ordonez

Chief Financial Officer at Payoneer

Career trajectory: I started my career at Arthur Andersen and PWC, largely working in the corporate tax advisory area with a particular focus on M&A and restructuring. I took on my first CFO role in my mid-20s, at a fintech that was building direct market access for institutional investors across global equity markets. The notion of electronic access to global equity markets was fairly nascent at that time (the late ‘90s!) and we grew quickly, partnering with Bloomberg Tradebook and building the global infrastructure to support electronic trading, clearing, and settlement across close to 100 equity markets. I stayed with this company, which was bought and subsequently sold by the Bank of New York, for a little more than 15 years, taking on the COO role and broader business-leading responsibility as we grew the business and extended our reach into fixed-income and options trading. Since then, I’ve held CFO roles in the capital markets space and banking. Now at Payoneer, I am really enjoying working for a truly global company – one that is genuinely innovating in the payments space. 

In terms of women in the payments sector and financial services sector more broadly, it’s fair to say that the financial industry has come a long way over the years – we see more representation of women in the C-Suite and senior, highly visible roles including on public company boards. When I started more than 20 years ago in the trading and capital markets space, I was often the only woman “in the room”. Today, we have two women at the helm of the U.S.’s biggest stock exchanges – the Nasdaq and the NYSE.  This would have been almost unthinkable two decades ago.  

At the same time, during the pandemic, we saw women exit the labor market in record numbers and at a more accelerated pace than their male counterparts. And while we are seeing improved representation in the C-Suite and on boards, we are still far from equal representation and even further from income parity.

In terms of women advancing in their careers, I think in any industry or role, developing and fostering intellectual curiosity is key to success – stay current, read widely, and expose yourself to new ideas and networks – both within your company and outside of it.  For women in particular, developing strong networks and relationships in their chosen industry is critical.  Some great organizations and events are focused on women in the industry and foster information sharing and learning as well as mentorship opportunities.  

Finally, over the years I have found that (while not universally true of course) women tend to be more risk averse in navigating their career journeys, preferring stability over a more “risk on” approach.  There is room, especially earlier in your career, to expose yourself to a new field, a new industry, a different role and it can often really pay off.  Throughout my career, I have worked in London, Bermuda, Florida, and New York, in different fields and different capacities that span finance and treasury to risk and operations. While specialization can obviously be valuable, bringing to the table a broad set of experiences and skills is a really valuable asset.  Sometimes the best and even the only way to diversify your experience is to look to other opportunities, within your company, within your industry, or adjacent to it.  

What set off Bea’s career growth

Upholding a clear vision: I believe any long career is marked with challenges and opportunities for growth. For leadership teams, it is critically important to articulate a coherent vision and strategy, to remain focused on execution, and to foster and maintain a culture of collaboration and transparency. 

On a personal level, I have had to learn to operate with a degree of ambiguity and uncertainty that allows for, and even encourages, experimentation and bold moves. While at the same time, as leaders, I think it’s important to recognize that living with uncertainty is very difficult, making it critical to also lead with empathy and understanding, to offer support and encouragement and, hopefully, a clear vision and path forward to the very real opportunity we have in front of us.

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