Interview with Women in Fintech
This is the next article in our series on Women in Legal, published by the Women in Practice Committee. For this session, I had to opportunity to listen to insights from a few leading women in Fintech. For the virtual session, you can check out: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CKBaQAkAWXI
In November we had the pleasure of speaking with: Angie Ong – General Counsel in Partior, Joanna Cheng – Associate General Counsel in Fireblocks, Munirah Mydin – Legal Counsel in Grab, and joining us virtually was Elaine Ho – Head of Legal, Global Cross Border Payments in Ant Financial.
Grace: How did you come to choose a legal career in fintech?
Angie: When the 2009 mortgage crisis happened, regulators in the United States were clamping down on risk management. I was transferred down to Silicon Valley during that period. Fintechs were at the start of using banking infrastructure in order to power all their financial technology innovation efforts. After that I got hooked in this industry.
Joanna: When I was graduating from law school, I really didn’t know what I wanted to do, I just knew that I didn’t want to go into litigation. I then applied for a training contract at a firm specializing in intellectual property law. That’s how I discovered technology work and it was the best thing that happened to me!
Munirah: For me, it was completely serendipitous. I applied for my current role out of pure curiosity and my boss took the chance to train me. Previously, I had been practising as a litigation lawyer so this was something that was worlds apart from what I used to do. I very quickly learned how exciting it was to work in the fintech space! I’m fortunate to say that I learn something new every day and I love that about my job.
Elaine: As with many things in life, it was partly accidental and partly intentional. As my career developed, I went from general corporate to general banking and finance to trade finance, to trade finance fintech and now to Ant Group. I have never regretted it one minute.
Grace: Could you share the favourite part of your job and what are some of the challenges?
Angie: My favourite part of being a legal counsel is that I enjoy working towards solving problems. Whether it’s working with customers, investors, or regulators, it takes a fair amount of creative thinking to come to a win-win solution.
Joanna: I really enjoy the fact that there’s always something new and interesting. In fintech, things are always moving very quickly. It’s often said that crypto doesn’t sleep, so I regularly wake up each day to a cascade of new developments in the news. This makes things very exciting!
Munirah: I personally enjoy supporting my stakeholders in launching new fintech products and services. It’s always very exciting to delve deep into a new project and see it reach fruition, not to mention working alongside very driven leaders and stakeholders.
Elaine: The favourite part of my career is also probably the most challenging part. Fintech companies are always striving to innovate, to offer the market more efficient solutions. Lawyers need to be nimble and technically sound. There are no precedents to follow, no established market practice to take reference from. We need to be just as creative as our product, and at the same time grounded in knowledge and application of the law. This is what makes my job interesting and challenging.
Grace: Do you think there’s equality of opportunity in the fintech space?
Angie: My view is that there a symbiotic effect where the growth in one sector encourages the other. So yes, there is equal opportunity, and there is more work to be done by all sides and I would encourage female leaders to be more assertive so that they’re ready for any opportunity.
Joanna: Yes and no. I believe that if one has the right attitude and the right mindset there will be opportunities available whether or not they are male or female.
I think the industry, and especially crypto, is very fast paced. It’s not a typical online business job and it can be quite unforgiving to people who have commitments outside of work. Even family or personal commitments can affect their performance.
Elaine: Yes, I do think so. I wouldn’t speak of every organisation but in mine I see women leaders in every department, not just in traditionally female dominated roles like HR, but also across the board in business, product, tech, risk etc.
Munirah: I think it is a bit naive to think that there’s equality of opportunity in any given space. The fintech world is still very much male dominated in certain respects and I definitely don’t see enough female leaders at the forefront.
I personally have experienced situations where I feel like I’m not taken as seriously as my male counterparts, or had my advice and suggestions dismissed quickly.
But even though it could be quite discouraging for women who wish to pursue a long-term career in fintech, I do feel like we do need to dust ourselves off, be confident and try to break barriers and rise ranks.
Grace: Do you recall any biases or assumptions made about you, and how did you deal with it?
Angie: On the one hand, when female leaders are assertive, we can be seen as more aggressive.
On the other hand, they often assume Asian females tend to be more submissive. It surprises those that find out that I’m someone who didn’t conform to their expectations.
So again, it’s about breaking the biases that come during a first impression. And once you break it, I think that we will convince others that we have an equal standing. I’ve been lucky that there are many leaders around the world both female and male, respect my point of view and I encourage women to stay authentic.
Joanna: I think there’s always an assumption that women do not grasp technological concepts very well or at least as good as men do. That’s something that I try very hard to change.
If you think about it, no one is born understanding technology. These are pieces of knowledge that one needs to acquire, it is no different for a man or a woman.
Elaine: I have heard other females in tech or fintech tell stories about being mistaken for service staff at events or being treated as the assistant when they are the manager, but I must say I have yet to personally experience such treatment. The closest I’ve come to is people being surprised at my ability to understand financial concepts and calculations, though I’m not sure whether it’s an assumption stemming from gender or from the thinking that “lawyers can’t count”.
Munirah: I definitely faced quite a bit of resistance at the beginning of my career. I was a lot younger than a lot of my clients and stakeholders so they probably exploited that age disparity.
This was a bit frustrating for me because I’m quite quick tempered by nature and like Angie said, when you are aggressive, they interpret it as being unprofessional.
To deal with this I really had a strong network of supportive bosses and teammates in Grab who are predominantly female. This really helped me mature in my role and as the years passed, I realised that your work will eventually speak for itself.
It doesn’t matter if you’re young, or if you’re male or female. As long as you put in the hard work – and sometimes the extra work – to prove ourselves.
Grace: What inspires you?
Angie: If you’re referring to the inspiration for my career, it’s the day-to-day of finding solutions. you know you’ve made a breakthrough when you’ve been able to navigate the legal complexities and found the light at the end of the tunnel. It’s an accomplishment and it motivates me to reach for the next level. I also don’t think this should be a one-time thing, furthermore it shows your love for your job.
Joanna: It sounds really cliché but my mother really inspires me. She took eight years off her job to raise me and my brothers and then went back into a totally different career in her 40s. After that, she got her degree in her late 50s.
She didn’t do very well in her degree course because there were other commitments, but she did it. And to me it’s really inspiring because it shows that I can achieve anything at any age as long as I set my mind and my heart to it.
Munirah: Besides my own personal career goals I definitely look up to strong female leaders like Michelle Obama, or even those that I meet day-to-day like, the ladies on this panel!
People who inspire me excel at their craft. Be it a musician, a Grab driver or a tattoo artist. I love hearing of people’s success stories and I try and distill their strengths and their learning points, and apply this to my own life.
Elaine: Ever since I got into fintech, every day is an inspiration. In the traditional financial industry, the most coveted positions are always to work on the most complex, exclusive transactions assessable only by institutional investors. While the work itself was interesting, I always struggled with seeing any purpose other than making the rich even richer. But in fintech we can harness the power of technology to make things easier, more convenient and cheaper for everyone, to serve the consumers and SMEs and make what used to be exclusive available to everyone. Here I actually see that how what I do can contribute positively to the world. That is what inspires me.
Grace: What is one thing that has surprised you most about your current role in the industry that you did not expect?
Angie: I think I’m biased in this! The value that lawyers can bring as partners from the onset rather than towards the end.
I think lawyers are being seen currently as problem solvers. Lawyers are very well equipped to solve problems, but I think in order to be sophisticated and more successful, lawyers should be brought on as partners and strategic enablers from the beginning, so we can help shape the business as well.
The fact that this still isn’t a common practice still surprises me.
Joanna: What surprises me, about the crypto industry especially, is how young everyone is. This is a very new experience for a lawyer.
In a typical law firm setup, we put a lot of emphasis on seniority. When you leave a law firm and you go into a startup this entire thing is thrown out the window. You have CEOs in their late 20s, and you might be reporting to a head of legal who is a lot younger than you are!
I think the one thing that we need to remember is that you never underestimate what a younger person can bring to the table.
I think it helps that the industry is always growing because there’s just so many things that you can learn from people who are much older and experienced in other Industries, and also from people who are younger and have a stronger risk appetite.
Munirah: Outwardly, the fintech industry seems like a man’s world but I was surprised to learn that the craft in itself is quite gender agnostic and anyone can flourish at this. You don’t need to be a man or a woman to understand the laws, the regulations or even the operations behind it.
Over the past few years, I see more women taking on typically “bro” projects like crypto which previously were really male driven. Sometimes even taking the lead for these projects. That’s really great to see!
Elaine: I must say I used to think of fintech as a bit of the wild west, where every player is a cowboy throwing around VC funding and seeing what sticks with little consideration for compliance and risk.
After I stepped into the industry, I realized that this misconception is not true. At least those organisations I have been involved with hold ourselves to high legal and compliance standards despite the commercial desire to move quickly. This puts a lot of pressure on the risk functions of course, so really only people who believe in the vision will thrive.
Grace: I think it’s great to see women taking part in all parts including development, tech and engineering even and all these roles which should not be typeset rules so I entirely agree with that.
What is the best work-related advice that you have ever received from someone either in your workspace or outside work?
Angie: One piece of advice I received that just kind of stuck with me is what my senior leader mentioned: your job is a preparation your next job, and it’s a preparation for the job after that, so you shouldn’t be short-sighted. This has been a guiding light for me and how I actually navigate my legal career. And that’s how I remained in fintech.
Joanna: I think the advice that i would give to a starting lawyer is the same advice that my very first boss gave to me. He said that I should never undervalue my work. To a customer, that’s worth a lot.
Munirah: For me, the advice that I give to others is really to have thick skin. Like Joanna said, we tend to underplay our strengths.
Elaine: One of our company values is “change is the only constant” and when I first heard it, I laughed, thinking that is not a value, it is just a statement. However, over time I appreciated that the value behind this statement is to embrace change, and this is the best advice I have ever received.
Grace: How do you think the role of lawyers in the fintech industry will evolve?
Angie: What I tell my team is to think of themselves as product managers. Think of themselves as a business analyst, operations manager, or customer service. And then add legal superpowers.
I think that as woman leaders grow, we have to be steadfast.
Joanna: I agree with Angie. I feel that as lawyers, we come out from our first in-house role and we learn to be commercial partners with the business.
Elaine: I think certainly lawyers will tap on technology a lot more. Apart from digitization, which is obvious and a change that will happen in every industry, another change is that lawyers will become even closer to the business. It cannot merely be the legal department that drafts contracts, handles litigation and advises on compliance matters. We are increasingly seeing lawyers being appointed to lead business positions, including CEO and even CFO!
Wherever I am I always involve my team in business strategy, transaction structuring, CSR, industry organisations and thought leadership. Lawyers with the right mindset can bring much more value than merely handling traditional legal work.
Munirah: Fintech is going to be a very disruptive as the years go by. Things are just going to change on a daily basis and as lawyers we need to keep up. We need to be versatile and open to acquiring new skills in order to stay relevant and useful in the tech age.