Saira Rahman, VP of New Investor Initiatives at Fundrise, is a leading fintech expert. After working for a decade in derivative sales, she ventured into fintech. Saira also co-hosts the popular ‘Girls Just Wanna Have Funds’ podcast alongside her ‘partner in crime’ Megan McShane.
In continuation of our Innovation Interviews series this year, Saira spoke with Silvia Mensdorff-Pouilly, co-founder of the European Women Payments Network and SVP of Banking & Payments Europe - FIS, to talk about her passions for sharing financial education and empowering other women, the ‘crisis’ of work-life balance in startup culture and how she believes transparency will help drive gender equality in the industry.
Silvia: First of all, I love the podcast you have. Can you tell me about that? That sounds like fun!
Saira: It's one of my passions and also one of the big reasons I jumped into fintech! I grew up learning about and trying to instill in my family some of those financial literary tactics – a lot of immigrants don't understand the American financial system. One of the things I discovered is that a lot of women especially don't have those tools because historically they haven't been given the same amount of access to that information.
It was something that became very clear to me – that I should start helping other people since I have this advantage in my career that I don't think a lot of people have. So I started the podcast on the premise that my best friend Megan and I could have honest conversations about questions she has to do with finance, which is aptly named ‘Girls Just Want to Have Funds.’ It's fantastic!
Silvia: You’re absolutely right! A big problem is financial education and financial literacy. It’s becoming even more important the more digital we become. There’s such a big risk that we leave people behind while we bring great things into the world. It's fantastic that you're driving that. Why is this such an important drive for you?
Saira:My parents are first generation immigrants, and they've lived the American dream. It's very near and dear to my heart because I watched them struggle trying to understand the financial system growing up and swore to myself that I would work to never let anyone face that as well.
Silvia: That's a great driver to help be the change and explain things. We, in the financial industry, tend to overcomplicate things. And sometimes kind of go, “oh, you know, that's so complicated. Let me not explain.” Now from a professional standpoint, you’re very much in a leadership position. What have you faced as some of the biggest challenges in that position so far?
Saira:One of the biggest challenges is the huge cultural gap in startups that I am continuously pushing on, which is work-life balance and having the ability to have a home life that's healthy. Not working 15-18 hours a day, every day, to make sure that you can make it to your next round of funding. That's probably my personal crisis. It's like an existential crisis that I think every startup employee faces – you could work until you go to sleep, but then you wouldn't have any reason to be excited beyond work if you didn't have things to do outside of it. The work-life balance is such a massive challenge.
Silvia: That’s so important. Particularly for women. For example, when you look at the career paths of women, you see that when they have children that really puts them on the backburner career-wise. When you then look at Scandinavian countries, they have equal paternity and maternity leave mandated by government, and it's very much an equalizer in the workplace.
Saira:One of the things I love about HMB is it’s 40% female, but we have more men that have taken paternity leave than we have women that have taken any leave. They're setting the bar for the future. Employees understand it's perfectly okay for anyone to take maternity leave, which I just absolutely love. This is the first company I've ever worked for that's had paid maternity and paternity leave. I'm glad that more people are thinking about it.
Something I negotiated into my contract was the ability to build out a fertility policy for the company, and they now have one. So any person or their spouse has the right to get up to $20,000 in fertility benefits, whether that's egg freezing, sperm freezing, IVF treatments. I also think that's a huge reason why a lot of women don't get into startups – it’s not just the risk aspect – it's the fact that there's a lot of pressure to think about having kids. There's a lot of pressure in some of the conversations where people kind of walk around in your interview, whether you are thinking about having children. They very astutely ask without asking whether it's legal or not. By removing that conversation from the table and saying we support you, regardless of whether you want to have a child now or have the benefits to have it later – that's been a huge part of my drive as a female leader to start ensuring that women feel more comfortable in the workplace, to have the work life balance, but also to have the option of whether they want to have kids.
Silvia: What you've championed is fantastic and so important. Do you think because there is now a huge fight for talent in the marketplace that these kinds of secondary employment benefits are more important to the workforce?
Saira: Absolutely. There's a trending hashtag right now, #ShowUsYourLeave. People are demanding to see what companies provide as leave. I put all fertility, paternity and maternity leave benefits in our job descriptions because I want to attract more women, especially younger women. It's almost impossible if you're not offering, at a minimum, what all of the big companies are offering to make sure that they feel like they're empowered to do whatever they want with their career.
Silvia: It makes a big difference and is very inspiring. So, who's your biggest inspiration, Saira?
Saira:In the banking space, it's very difficult to uncover powerful women. At least that was my experience when I was growing up. I'm hoping that our generation and hopefully many generations to come have a lot more women in it. I do spend a lot of time in the morning listening to Oprah because I find her very inspiring, and her interviews are incredible. I aspire to someday be interviewed by her. I want to do something wonderful and powerful enough that Oprah wants to interview me!
Silvia: That's a great aspiration. I started my career in 2000, and there were not so many female role models. But now in Europe, we've got some amazing role models in the financial world like the head of the European Central Bank and Citibank on Wall Street. So we're seeing more women step up into senior roles. We're getting there slowly.
So, for the next generation, what do you hope for them? What do you think is going to be the biggest challenge for them?
Saira: In fintech, it’s just how rapidly things are evolving. I think eventually banks will change to take a more fintech-like shape. What's interesting to me is that history kind of repeats itself.
Some of the things going on in cryptocurrency are closely correlated to a lot of the things that happened in derivatives. Banks that turn into fintech, fintechs that turn into crypto – they all end up going back to the same thing, which is basic financial access for people. Especially in the country that I'm from – Bangladesh – they have almost no fintech, and they're finally being exposed to bits and pieces of it, and the level of access being provided to people that historically have only ever transacted with cash is incredible.
Silvia: Interesting. We tend to create this incredible amount of complexity with all of these things. It becomes difficult to understand – the rules and the regulations and everything around a new system. I think that's where we come full circle back to your podcast – how you explain something simply to people so that it enables them to access that new information.
Saira:That's a personal goal. I was just in Bangladesh in December, and I spent a lot of time explaining to my cousins how they could get more access to cash and why debt is not necessarily a bad thing, which is a very common misconception outside of the US. There are so many ways and tools that people don't fully understand that will be easier to explain hopefully to future generations with more access to the information.
Silvia: Absolutely. I find cultural differences in finance fascinating. They are very nuanced, even in the way that people pay. In the Netherlands, for example, I never use cash. The last shop that didn't have a point of sale was our Italian ice cream parlor, and they now have a point of sale. Then you go across the border into Germany, and everybody loves their cash. There is a cultural and historical background to why that is because there is a much bigger fear of control from the state as well as a much bigger fear of debt. And the perception is that if you're too digital in the way you pay, you are not in control of your finances. I think that’s absurd because, I think digitally, you will be a lot more in control of your finances as you can see all the transactions you've done.
It’s great that you can get involved like that in Bangladesh as well. You’ve been advocating a lot for women and diversity in the industry. How else do you think you can drive change?
Saira:The best way for people to do that is by being transparent. Start posting salaries so people know the range at a minimum so that there's more equal pay. Simultaneously, being transparent and providing what your paid leave looks like so that we start elevating each other. Employees then have more control because they can turn and tell their employer that their paid leave is not what the market is. That level of transparency would really bring forward the industry.
One of my biggest pet peeves is we don't provide free daycare so that women can succeed. I wrote a paper in college on the revolving door of women who want to excel. They go into these big companies to excel, then the second they have a child and realize that childcare is so exorbitantly expensive, they decide to become the homemaker for however long they need to because they can't afford childcare. They're going to be hindered both financially because when they go back into the workforce, people will view them negatively for having taken time off, in addition to the fact that they didn't get to progress for those five years. It's a compounded problem, which is why I also think daycares should be part of the system.
Silvia: Yes, and if you think that the state invests so much into educating that part of the population and then you lose that part of the population by not enabling that time, it's ridiculous.
To finish Saira, can you tell us what’s next for your podcast? A sneak peek at what topics you are planning for?
Saira:So far, we've covered basic financial services. How I view budgeting, cryptocurrency, Web 3.0 and NFTs. Now we're focusing in on some of the questions that people continue to ask around debt: how do you determine if you can take on debt, what type of debt it should be? I'm currently going through the process of purchasing a house so I want to talk about how a mortgage works and why a mortgage could be a benefit or a detriment depending on how you take it on. There are lots of other more nuanced areas that we're pulling apart like mental health and how that can affect the workplace.