Gemma SteelI’m a go-getting, positive and creative lawyer. I work hard so that I can play hard (I’m very into scuba diving and techno gigs!).

Despite my traditional background in banks and asset management, I’ve always been careful not to blend into the crowd – I’ve never owned a suit, and have bright pink hair. I’m also an early bird and a late bird, which really helps in my current role as General Counsel at fintech Project Imagine (PI).

I was part of the founding team at PI, and feel passionately about wanting to help people have a better financial future, whether that’s through our B2C financial wellness app Dozens, or through our B2B “bank-in-a-box” tech solution Pi1. My role is pretty broad, but current projects involve looking at how fraudster data can be used to keep down Dozens’ financial crime figures, to how Pi1 can provide card issuing services and other card services to its clients.

Did you ever sit down and plan your career?

To be honest, no I didn’t. I was very determined to qualify as a lawyer with a big law firm, and after that have just jumped at opportunities as they have arisen. I’ve tried to vary the type of work I’ve had at each business, and that’s stood me in good stead to take on a General Counsel role at a start-up fintech. The name is in the job title – you have to be a “generalist” as you get involved with everything, from how our products are created and launched, to how we raise funds and make money for the business.

Have you faced any career challenges along the way and how did you overcome these?

It’s taken a while to build my confidence that I’ll have the right impact. For example, early in my career I used to worry about when to speak up in meetings, or whether my opinions were valid. In former roles I was regularly the only woman in board meetings, and in a few instances the men asked me to make tea (I can make a dreadful cup of tea…). But I persevered, always trying to speak up even when I felt uncomfortable. I’m now a director and run (happily more diverse!) board meetings, and feel a lot more confident that I’m coming across in a positive way, but also helping other people build their brand and have a positive impact in the work setting.

What has been your biggest career achievement to date?

Being part of the Project Imagine founding team, where we not only have 50,000 customers for Dozens, and a super tech platform in Pi1, but have also created a unique culture where our employees feel like family members. This has really been evident during the Covid lockdown of the past few months: as a tech firm we can work anywhere, but it’s the strength of our culture that has kept us feeling like a team, and morale lifted.

What one thing do you believe has been a major factor in you achieving success?

Learning how to explain things clearly, to any level of listener. If you have succinct, straightforward answers this usually gets people coming back to you again and again for help or guidance. That helps build your reputation in your team and wider business, which has definitely helped me progress as a leader.

What top tips would you give to an individual who is trying to excel in their career in Technology?

Always ask questions, whatever level you’re at. No one knows everything, particularly if you are starting out in your career, and you will only learn by asking, and being interested in the answers you get back. But do have empathy when asking – so if you get to chat to the CEO, spare him your detailed product questions on “how does XYZ work” and instead ask “why did you choose to do XYZ”.

Do you believe there are still barriers for success for women working in tech, if so, how can these barriers be overcome?

Yes, women can still be seen as a bit of a novelty in some tech environments. A lot of the traditional tech roles (ops, devs, engineers) are still male-dominated, but this isn’t surprising when the majority of those entering higher education for computer science, engineering, coding etc. are men. We’re past the first step, which is acknowledgment of the problem, and many fintechs (in particular in the tech space) are making strides in ensuring good representation of women in senior positions. I don’t necessarily agree with quotas – the best person should be taken for the job – but I do believe that companies reap the benefits of different ways of thinking with more women at senior levels. Senior women can then act as role models for others wanting to join, and a positive upward cycle of increasing female representation in tech is then reinforced.

What do you think companies can do to support and progress the careers of women working in technology?

Companies can start by supporting a strong culture of inclusivity and diversity – this shouldn’t just be female-focused, but should ensure that all individuals are seen as just that, individuals – not lumped into a group depending on their sex, age, colour, background, where they went to school or where their parents managed to get them work experience. At Project Imagine 70% of the workforce is made up of women, and a large portion of those women represent the most senior layer. We didn’t try to hire only women, but there are a few differentiators for us that mean that women might do better than men in our hiring process – particularly that we don’t look at CVs. This means we interview people for who they are, and are not influenced by firm/project/people name dropping on a CV. Women seem to understand this well, but men we interview are often bemused by this, and keep referring back to items on their CV.

We also know that women are often disadvantaged when it comes to pay – by their nature, women are often less likely to ask for a payrise. As a method of combating this, we ensure that all salaries are completely transparent internally, and we pay in fixed salary bands (so an individual can either move up to the next band or not – there is no scope for negotiated pay rises in between bands).

There is currently on 17% of women working in tech, if you could wave a magic wand, what is the one thing you would do to accelerate the pace of change for women in the industry?

More senior positions filled by women, who act as role models for the next generation. It will take time for women to fill those positions, but I think that will have a big impact on the industry. I already see some conferences in fintech ensure that they have a 50:50 men/women speaker ratio, and think this has a great influence on more junior female (and male!) attendees of those conferences.

What resources do you recommend for women working in tech?

I would recommend any woman in a senior (or aiming for a more senior) position to read Ben Horowitz “The Hard Thing About Hard Things”. This is a good insight into some of the harder decisions that need to be made in senior positions (and how a successful man has considered what to do), and could be really helpful for a woman that also needs to make some hard decisions.

I’d also really recommend attending as many conferences as you can. It’s a great place to learn, network, and get your opinions heard. It can feel intimidating to begin with, particularly if you’re in a room full of men, but your opinion is valid and you never know what might come of speaking up – but what you can guarantee is that it’ll help build your confidence.


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