Livia Benisty15 years ago, I left the London School of Economics with a masters in Sustainable Economic Development desperate to do anything that meant I could save the world, but nobody who I thought was saving the world wanted to hire me.

I turned to the private sector and answered a job ad talking about counter terrorism and anti-money laundering in Central Africa and the former Soviet Union, which I thought was close enough. Though I was disappointed to find out the employer was a regulatory consultancy rather than MI6, it probably worked out for the best.

I am now Head of Business AML (anti-money laundering) for Banking Circle, a tech-first bank providing financial infrastructure to Banks and Payments businesses. I’m responsible for several teams engaged in mitigating Money Laundering and Terrorist Financing risk. I’m also working with data scientists and engineers to build the technology we need to be effective at AML.

Between then and now I’ve worked for tier 1 banks, centres of innovation, and RegTech companies. A personal highlight was managing correspondent banking AML across Europe, Middle East and Africa, working with respondent institutions, meeting with regulators and governments. I was getting an in-depth education about how international finance actually works, how money truly flows around the world, who does and doesn’t have access, and how regulation and banks contribute to that. This was the role in international development I was looking for all those years before.

Did you ever sit down and plan your career?

Definitely not. At best I had vague ideas, but like a lot of people starting to carve out a career path, I didn’t even know the role I’ve ended up doing existed. I fell into my first role, then I fell into the next thing, and the next, and each time I was gaining a sense of direction and learning which steps I needed to take.

In the first job, I wanted a connection to international development, so I followed companies working in relevant geographies. There I learnt about regulation and got to really understand financial inclusion. The role technology would play became clear and so I decided to move to a team working in digital payments. After that I needed to get closer to the tech and was interested in building solutions, so went on to work for a tech company. From this I knew I needed to learn how to operate in an executive capacity and for a company that would encourage me to learn and grow, whilst leveraging my specific skillset.

I keep in mind the broad arena that I want to break into and acknowledge that whatever crops up along the way are new and interesting paths to take.

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

Absolutely! I think that entering a male dominated industry such as technology and financial services is a challenge in itself. On the very first day I started working, I felt bogged down by what I thought was the right way to act in a corporate setting, particularly as a woman.

Something I’ve always struggled with is navigating office politics and power plays. It can be hard to speak up for yourself or colleagues without fear of tarnishing your reputation. Women in tech still operate in environments where certain personality traits that don’t fit naturally to every woman are rewarded, yet if women exert masculine tendencies it is not viewed kindly (for example, women are bossy, men are strong). I’ve ultimately accepted the fact that you can’t please everyone and being true to yourself is the only way to push through.

Over the years I’ve had jobs that made me miserable, and at the time I couldn’t distinguish between having to deal with difficult circumstances and having to get out. Again, it’s all about being true to yourself. When in doubt, I like to think about the things that light me up at work, that helps lead the way forward. If you try this and can’t think of enough pros, it might be time to break out of what is no longer serving you.

Above everything though, seeking guidance and advice from people I trust and respect is what has been key to my progression. I’m so grateful to all the strong women and individuals who took me aside and said, “don’t worry, I’ve been there”. Surrounding yourself with people who speak from experience is so important.

What has been your biggest career achievement to date?

I think it would be not having been too scared to take risks, move to new countries, and go into something entirely new for me. Doing so has given me the breadth I needed to land where I am right now.

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

I love learning about people and what they do, building relationships and making connections, for myself but also for other people. Firstly, it’s amazing for learning what’s out there, what different people are working on, and making you aware of things you might not have known existed. But also, people get to know you, and see you as more than your job title.

For example, I was in a compliance role and absolutely worshipped the Head of Product there. I wanted to learn more about tech so we had fortnightly 1-2-1s. He saw I could add value beyond AML and hired me. That in turn made my transition to a tech company easier than if I had I gone straight from an AML role. I’m grateful for that experience and it shows that connections are crucial.

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

For people looking to break into technology, it’s important to note that you don’t always need to retrain to become an engineer or data scientist. There are lots of roles within tech companies that can help you get your foot in the door, and from there you can learn more about the industry whilst deciphering which areas interest you the most.

For people who are already tech trained, every industry now needs ‘tech’ which means you have the freedom to make your career path as unchartered and exciting as you please. The projects you end up working on and the problems you are trying to solve can vary so much, so if you have the option, find a niche problem set you find interesting, beyond just technology. This will give you purpose.

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

The bottom line is, yes – despite the fact the industry has come a long way. It all starts from a young age, and I think our society still conditions girls into pursuing certain types of careers, even sometimes inadvertently (I recommend reading “Brave Not Perfect” by Reshma Saujani on this). I can’t say I’m an expert on tech education for women at school or at a university level and I’d like to think that girls are now educated and encouraged in a similar way to boys; but I’ve also read that the number of computer science degrees awarded to women has actually declined over the last decade, so it obviously isn’t that simple.

When it comes to the workplace, technology can be its own industry but often it’s within another: finance, health, education, property. The barriers to women in tech are also compounded by the barriers faced by women in the workplace on a broader scale. This includes cultures which are allowed to pervade. The continued imbalance in the proportion of men holding senior positions, the fact that it will be more expensive for a company to hire a woman of childbearing age than a man and the uncertainty around maternity leave and pay- we need to knock these walls down, as organisations will thrive if women are allowed to reach their full unlimited potential.

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

It all comes back to supporting women in the workplace more generally and giving them a platform. We also have to recognise that historically the workplace has not been a place of equality or diversity. Companies need to spend time assessing and structuring their company culture and working practices to make sure they don’t exclude women.

This should be implemented with a grass-roots approach targeting the first hurdle, the recruitment process. Companies need to consider how their selection processes may introduce bias when not consciously managed. People can always learn once in a role and so re-training initiatives, providing sponsorships or grants will be key. For women to progress, organisations need to make opportunities more accessible from the start and realise this is a positive investment.

There is currently only 17 per cent 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?

I would say the same as I would for any industry. Make the cost of hiring a man of childbearing age the same cost as hiring a woman. That way, the risk of losing a key member of staff for x number of months is the same, regardless of whether you hire a man or a woman. Businesses must ensure that coming back to work after having a child is a positive experience. We need to reduce the number of women that leave the workplace early or fail to progress further because of family planning.

What resources do you recommend for women working in tech?

No matter what specific niche you’re interested in, there will be numerous newsletters and communities you can sign up to for regular tech updates and resources. I encourage you to find your passion and then research it.

On a broader level, I often refer to and I’ve also used to learn basic coding before and I think it’s a good way to start exploring what might interest you.

Within my space – financial and regulatory technology – my top go-to podcasts are: Breaking Banks – a fintech radio show covering hot start-ups, innovators and industry players disrupting the financial services landscape; Barefoot Innovation by Jo Ann Barefoot; and Pivot, which is more general and my point of call for staying on top of broader issues around technology globally.

Especially for women working in tech, I think it’s essential to build a network. I’m on the advisory board for Regtech Women and highly recommend joining to access the array of resources and expertise on offer. Even when starting out you will always find people who have been in your position already and able to give you the benefit of their experiences for you to learn from.

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