It’s hard to believe that we have come to the start of Q4/2019 already. One minute it’s New Year, you blink, and the next minute it’s Christmas already! As we start the last season of this year, I would like to reflect back and share my story about the start of our EWPN journey. I continue to be amazed and in awe of all the great things that EWPN has achieved in the past months and years. Building an organisation is not a walk in the park. I, for one, have been extremely lucky to have had the chance and opportunity to build such an incredible community. Many people have asked me how and especially why I started EWPN, and today, I would like to close the quarter with a personal note on why, how, and the lessons I have learned so far from this incredible community.
Like many startups, EWPN started on my dining table in 2016; but well before that, it started in my heart in 2015 with the main objective of creating a safe, professional and rich community for and of women working in fintech & payments.
Being an African, I was born and brought up in a community. The sense of sharing challenges, issues, wins, and life in general, is something that is at the very core of my foundation and my life. I wanted to bridge and connect my own life experience with professional life and share that with a larger community. I also deeply wanted to bring forth, share and keep the Ubuntu spirit alive: “Ubuntu ngumtu ngabanye abantu” (“A person is a person through other people”). It is often translated as “I am because we are” – it embraces the idea that humans cannot exist in isolation. We depend on connection, community, and caring. Simply, we cannot be without each other.
Being a woman, an immigrant, and to be precise a black African woman, meant that I was at the bottom of the food chain. This is a very sensitive conversation that many people would rather shy away from than address. I knew that I had the responsibility to bring visibility to women, immigrants, and women of colour working in the financial sector; and to give them that voice.
Secondly, we women were running multi-million-dollar companies, making financial decisions for our households and organisations, founding companies, building products on a very large scale. We had no problems launching products and services globally or running global budgets and P+Ls; but when it came to our issues and challenges, we locked ourselves into smaller silos. Our challenges and issues are universal. Of course, they differ in different countries due to many factors, but generically speaking, the majority of these challenges are more similar than different. I couldn’t understand why we were so comfortable making all these key decisions about everything else, but so uncomfortable when it came to sharing our problems and celebrating our wins. So, my plan was to complement the huge successes women were achieving across certain initiatives and then break the silos built around our issues and challenges to open them up in order to create endless opportunities for women.
The other thing that was very concerning to me was just how many opportunities women were missing out on, especially in learning and networking, because many women stayed away from industry events. We can argue about the reasons why – that is a story for another day. My main goal was to create a community that would make these opportunities accessible and possible for women.
Another thing that also stood out to me was just how many women, including very senior women, had never spoken in public. It seems like we had these limitations ingrained so deeply into our being, telling us that we had nothing to share even though we were building amazing companies, products, services and running multi-million organisations. I remember having many conversations with many senior and executive women who were so nervous to get on stage for the first time. Our goal was to create this safe environment and community that sent the message out to all first-time speakers saying it was ok to be nervous. It was ok to shake like a leaf while on stage (we have seen that many times). It was ok to forget a few words, or even forget a whole line. The most important thing was that the first-time speaker had the courage to put themselves out there in public and share their underestimated expertise. EWPN was a safe place to dare to and try things for the first time. It has been incredible to watch all these amazing women get on stage for the first time.
Lastly, the fact that so many event organisers used and still use the excuse that they couldn’t find female speakers. Many of them intentionally decided to deny speaking opportunities to female speakers. We knew we had exceptional women with expertise enough to speak, but they never got the chance. With EWPN events, not only were we giving them the stage to get started, but we also gave women the opportunity to share their expertise in public. In addition, we put those traditional event organisers to shame by disproving their outdated and groundless rhetoric.
Like I already mentioned, building an organisation is not a walk in the park. As a not-for-profit making organisation, EWPN’s engine runs 100% on time given by volunteers. We have managed to bring together a team of exceptional individuals (65 volunteers and numbers still growing), who are committed to helping bring forth change; not because of their egos or profits, but because they strongly believe in the mission of EWPN.
The Executive Board
The core team that is in charge of creating strategy, direction, programmes, partnerships and daily operation of EWPN.
The Advisory Board
An excellent team of exceptional leaders who are the sounding board for the Executive Board. They also hold the executive accountable for the strategy.
The core team and representatives of EWPN in various countries. They are extremely dedicated group of women who are committed, driven and work hard to create local communities for EWPN through various activities.
A team of men and women who are members of various committees within EWPN. They give their time to ensure that various clusters and programmes run smoothly.
These are PhD holders who run the EWPN Research Network, that brings together payments researchers working in industry, academia, and not-for-profit organisations. Their main goal is to improve the quality of payments research and advance our knowledge of the role of payments in society and industry.
These are senior male leaders and executives who have taken a stand, publicly, to stand with EWPN in championing for diversity & inclusion in the financial sector.
Thousands of women (and men) working in the fintech & payments and financial sector in general who want to connect to like-minded professionals.
Companies and organisations that don’t just believe in EWPN’s mission, but are also committed to diversity (all) and inclusion.
Companies and organisations that strongly believe in EWPN’s mission and give their platforms to help EWPN’s message reach more people.
With the help from all these different volunteers, we are able to run and implement different programmes and activities. By doing so, we not only create opportunities for women, but also help the industry become more diverse and inclusive. This in return, creates a better environment for businesses, corporates and organisations; while also helping improve their financial returns.
While EWPN is still in its infancy stage as a startup, there are many exceptional lessons I have learned, not just as an individual, but as a woman, a professional, a founder, an immigrant and a human being. Starting and running EWPN has been one of the most challenging, yet rewarding things I have done in my life. It has allowed to get out of my comfort zone, be daring, fail, start again and continue standing. It has taught me so many invaluable lessons that I would like to share with other women, immigrants, women of colour and other individuals who want to start something, but are too unsure yet.
Clear strategy before getting started
While I knew everything in my heart and mind on how I was hoping to build EWPN, it was a whole different game when I had to put it down on paper. Putting down the plans and details one by one allowed me to look at my thoughts from the perspective of a tangible written paper.
Make use of available tools & programmes through the Government or other bodies
I was lucky enough that The Dutch Government has many programmes and initiatives that they offer to entrepreneurs. One of these programmes is a subsidy called SIB Voucher. Having access to a business consultant meant that I had someone, apart from my husband, to run ideas through and also brainstorm with. My consultant, Sabine van Egeraat, was able to guide me through the whole process and gave concrete and unbiased advice on what would work and what wouldn’t.
Take time to recruit & bring on board the right team
This is extremely crucial for startups, especially when bringing on board the core team. The team that joins during the start period will be very influential in determining whether your startup will make it or fail. Get people who believe in your mission (not the same passion but the same mission). Having the wrong core team is guaranteed to make you fail. I was very lucky to have met and brought in my two Co-Founders in 2017: Nadja van der Veer & Silvia Mensdorff-Pouilly. These two exceptional ladies helped cement the EWPN dream. This was followed by getting more people on board on both Executive and Advisory boards.
Having the right people on board guaranteed the success of EWPN.
‘No’ means ‘next’ or ‘maybe next time’
Starting something new means getting hundreds and even thousands of ‘no’s’. I received so many no’s, that I stopped counting. As a founder, changing my mindset and looking at ‘no’ to mean ‘next’ helped me move on and reach out to more people, who eventually said ‘yes’. Don’t waste too much time evaluating each and every ‘no’ you get. While you are allowed to, and by all means should take time to feel the disappointment, don’t dwell on it for so long. Keeping a list of potential individuals, organisations or companies to reach out to, will give you a clearer structure and saves you time to ensure that you reach out to the right people. Strike down the clear and strong ‘no’ and highlight the weak ‘no’ and mark them as ‘maybe next time’. This will also allow you to go back and reach out again later, to individuals and organisations that were just being cautious because you are a startup that nobody has ever heard of.
Make sure you have enough savings or back-up plan
The first year(s) will mean that you only pump money in and expect zero returns. For the whole of 2016, I personally had to fund EWPN. This was in terms of liquid cash and time, a lot of time. I didn’t expect that EWPN would be self-sustaining within the first year. Being that aware, I also had a back-up plan in case things didn’t go as expected. This reduced the pressure and stress, knowing that at any time, I could go to the back-up plan.
Make sure you are either networked, net worth or know people who are
My strongest tool so far that has helped me drive EWPN’s growth, has by far, been my network. Since a young age, I have been blessed with this gift of bringing people together.
I have no problem reaching out to people (strangers mainly), for a mission. Being intentional in reaching out, meant that I tapped into, not just my network, but their network as well. The biggest and most valuable asset for any founder is their network. If you are a commercial startup, getting access to high net-worth individuals will mean getting funds for your startup. While this might not be easy for every startup, getting access to networked individuals, will open other doors for you. Focus on building and nurturing relationships, and the rest will flow naturally.
Believe in yourself, and I mean really believe in yourself, and your mission
If you can’t buy what you are selling, neither can anyone else. People can easily smell self-doubt. If you don’t believe in your mission, you will have an extremely hard time getting people to believe in you and your mission. You have to be 100% convinced and connected to the problem/issue/challenge that you are trying to solve. You are your biggest champion. Self-belief sends out good vibes and in return, attracts the right people to your mission.
Diversity in your teams
Bring on board people with different skills and expertise than you, especially your core team. Having people who think, act, do and are exactly like you will be detrimental to your organisation.
Getting people that challenge your ideas, bring in ideas of their own, disagree with you, have different ways of doing things etc; will enrich your startup and create invaluable teams. Naturally, I am a dreamer, an idealist and a serial starter. I have hundreds of ideas and things that I want to implement. Whilst this can be extremely good in many ways, it can also be distracting. Having someone on board that is a little cautious and focused, helped me take one step at a time and created focus and structure.
The EWPN core team has a very diverse skill set, something that ensures that we can complement each other on the different skills and expertise that each individual has. This has been one of the secrets to our success.
Give autonomy to the team but also steer them in the right direction
I strongly believe in hands-off leadership. This will only work if an organisation has the right people. By strongly believing in the goodness, professionalism, expertise and skill that each team member brings on board, every individual has the autonomy and freedom to work the way they do, and knowing that they have 100% support from the Executive team and other team members.
This not only creates the best community, but also taps into the uniqueness of each individual. In return, this enriches EWPN in invaluable ways. The same can be applied in commercial startups. As a founder, focus on getting the right people, smarter than you are, different than you are, and then allow them the freedom to bring out the best version of themselves. This not only empowers your team, but also create that sense of belonging and assurance that each team members is valued, respected and equal.
Loss is part of the game..and it can be painful
Realistically speaking, many startups or even well-established companies don’t get to be profitable within the first years, and others never do. Setting realistic expectations will allow you to be prepared when you make loss in the first years. While I knew that EWPN wouldn’t get to self-sustaining within a couple of years, it never occurred to me that we would make a loss in the first years. This came as a total shock to me as a founder and all our team. We hadn’t prepared for this. As a startup with no revenue stream, this threw us a little bit off track, but we were quick to recover. Being a founder, I was responsible for covering these losses. This meant going back to family resources. While this was a painful experience, it gave us a wake-up and allowed us to focus, recover and bring EWPN to profit within a few months, therefore creating the stability that is needed to run the organisation. On a personal level, this was a very invaluable experience.
Being a founder means that you take responsibility for both wins and losses. Being realistic and having a back-up plan will ensure that you are prepared and finally able to cover the losses should this happen.
Be comfortable asking for help and accepting it
Starting an organisation means that everything lives in your head and heart. Because the picture is so clear in your head as a founder, it can be extremely hard to accept or even ask for help. Wanting to do everything is not only detrimental to one’s health, but to the growth of the organisation as well. As a startup, EWPN needed as many hands as possible and it was impossible for me as a founder to do everything alone. Getting to the point that forced me to see and accept that I needed help, was challenging. What was even harder was asking and accepting help. It meant giving up control, trusting other people 100% and letting go of the perfect picture in my head.
Asking for and accepting help will not only free your time as a founder, but also allow your startup to flourish and grow from all the insights and inputs from different people. However, be very intentional, selective and careful on where, how and who you ask for and accept help from. Ensure that these people are aligned with your mission.
Vulnerability is an under-estimated leadership skill
Many leaders and founders are so cautious and afraid to be vulnerable or show any sign of vulnerability. There are unwritten rules that each leader or founder adheres to and one of them is to avoid showing vulnerability at all costs. Sadly, it is still viewed as a sign of weakness. One thing for sure is that founding a company; not-for-profit or commercial can be a very lonely and emotional experience. We have seen cases and stories of founders going through a lot silently. What this does to us, is create this notion that leaders don’t experience pain, disappointment, sadness or loss like other people.
In 2016, when EWPN was still a baby, I lost my brother. This was the first loss I had ever experienced in my immediate family. The pain of grieving in a foreign country, without the social and emotional support, was excruciating. Combined with the fact that I had a full time 9-5 job, and many other health issues. The easiest thing would be to soldier on and put on a brave face, but I didn’t do so. Sharing my pain and allowing myself to be vulnerable with my team, not only was it a heavy burden off my shoulders, but it also helped the team have a clear picture of what was going on and what to expect. Knowing that the team would pick up my tasks without even needing to ask, gave me the peace to know that EWPN would continue operating smoothly. Being vulnerable showed that I am human, and that opened up a connection within our community like no other. Vulnerable leadership allows human connection between leaders and teams. It breaks the barrier of isolation and brings everyone to the same level: humanity.
Vulnerable leadership also opens up the door to difficult conversation. It also sends out the message to the teams that, they too are allowed to be vulnerable. It creates that safe and humane environment where leaders and founders can connect with all team members.
Restart as many times as you need to
If things don’t work, tear down the strategy and rewrite it again over and over if need be until you get it right. There is no shame in changing your strategy, as long as you stay focused on your mission.
Our EWPN’s strategy is a living document. Giving ourselves the flexibility to change course, opens up endless possibilities while also considering that the industry is always changing and so is the environment and the needs of the community that we are serving. After the first incident of getting a loss in the first years, we went tore down our old strategy, went back to the drawing board and started all over again, until we got to a stable level. As a founder or leader, be open to restarting as many times as you need to. Don’t shy away from closing shop, stopping production, shutting down a service or bringing in a totally new strategy if need be. Giving yourself and your startup room to make mistakes and restart again, will not only allow your startup to flourish, but you as a founder and your whole team as well.
Be bold enough to walk away from partnerships and relationships that don’t serve your mission
Identifying the right partners can be challenging, especially as a startup. Along the way, you will meet individuals, organisations and companies that have their own agendas and want to partner with you for the wrong reasons. While you might be desperate to nail at least the first partnership, be bold enough to walk away if such relationships don’t serve your mission. Entering into partnerships with the wrong individuals or organisation can be costly. Some large and well-established organisations and individuals can be intimidating and can try to lure you into undesirable partnerships which might cost your startup its reputation and funds. Having the courage to say ‘no’ will give you the opportunity to focus on fewer, more structured partnerships. As a founder, and as an organisation, we have walked away from such partnerships that go against our main mission.
Know which battles to fight
Startups struggle for resources and time. Starting a new venture might mean disrupting an existing and established industry. This, naturally, can stir battles for relevance, territories and market share. Learning early enough which battles to focus your resources on, will save you as a founder and your organisation a whole load of time, effort, resources and energy; therefore, freeing the same that can be channelled back into creating a value proposition for yourself and your organisation. By focusing inwards, you will have the capability to tap into your uniqueness as a founder and as a startup.
Understand and accept that not everyone will buy into your mission – and that it’s ok
I think this was one of the most eye-opening experiences. The mistake I had made from the start was believing that people would want to get on board simply because they worked in the same industry, or believed in something similar like I did. Facing the public with this assumption created a lot of disappointment and threw me off the track many times.
Learning not to take things personally; accepting and respecting people who say ‘no’ and opening my mind to look at things from different angles other than my own helped me realise that there were endless opportunities and, in many instances, just because people said ‘no’, didn’t mean the mission would fail. There are many issues and problems that everyone is trying to solve. We cannot all have the same mission. As a founder of a startup, realising this early enough will save you the pain. Being open to pursuing relationships with individuals and organisations on a different level other than the one linked to your mission will help you broaden your horizons and also open up opportunities that weren’t visible to you in the first place.
Have a lawyer in your team or as a friend
Knowing your legal rights or having someone who has the knowledge of your legal rights is extremely important for a startup. This will not only ensure that you follow the right laws of order, but will come in handy should you get into any legal situations. Disrupting an existing market means ruffling feathers, which in some cases might lead to cease and desist, legal actions or senseless threats from established competitors. If you don’t have a legal person or friend who is a lawyer, allocate a budget or purchase legal insurance.
There is an old saying about those who have climbed the ladder of success, which is “The higher the monkey climbs the tree, the more of his/her butt you’ll see.” As your startup grows, so will the scrutiny to your startup and yourself as a founder. Remember to treat others well and with respect; perform your work with ethics and integrity; guard your credibility; be accountable and stay humble. Remember that every individual is doing their best.
Our industry is going through a huge transformation, and we can only hope that this will lead to a positive transformation and change. A radical transformation is desperately needed to make the industry 100% inclusive, not just in terms of teams, but also in terms of products & services and employment terms & remuneration. A radical stand and transformation are also urgently needed to curb and put a stop to unethical innovations & products; stop transactions linked to modern-day slavery, child prostitution and human trafficking from slipping through the net. We can’t afford to be enablers; and by enablers, I mean sitting on the side and doing nothing whilst such unethical things happen. Not on our watch!
Written by Martha Mghendi-Fisher, Founder of EWPNBack to news