Mary RinaldiWith a background in fintech and investment banking, Mary Rinaldi, based between London & NYC, is a brand and product advisor, helping organizations and individuals center their stories and products in user research, analysis and contextual thinking.

She’s worked at UBS, Man Investments and Connu and OppenheimerFunds. In addition, she co-founded Simone in 2018, a company that helps employees, especially women, reclaim their agency at work and build financial, emotional and structural power in their workplace. Having herself recovered from a professional crisis, Mary wanted to help other women going through the same workplace discrimination and realise the importance of a strong, personal and professional network. The Startup matches individuals in bad employment scenarios with professionals able to provide guidance or services. She also is a passionate female mentor, especially to young women in the tech sector and is a regular thought leader offering advice to professional women and those starting out in their careers.

Tell us a bit about yourself, background and your current role

I grew up in Portland, Oregon where you would have found me with my nose buried in a book at the top of the Sycamore tree in my family’s front yard, or shooting hoops with my siblings. My upbringing was a combination of self-determination and unbridled imagination. I studied literature and history at university and then found myself in the never-ending energy of New York City. I worked in law, then in product development at an investment firm, picked up and moved to London to work at an investment bank, then left finance and started exploring new directions, remotely advising my friend as she built her start-up. Eventually, I plunged into start-ups and building tech products full-time.

It’s only now, after three countries and multiple careers, that I finally see the vista that would occasionally peak out above my path in my twenties and thirties. In the past year I co-founded Simone, a company dedicated to helping employees build more equitable relationships with their employers, began consulting as a product management expert, started writing PSST, a newsletter about work, and kicked off mentoring at an incubator for people working at the intersection of art, design and technology, called NEW INC. I have a few other ventures in the works, and it finally feels like I have the right irons in the fire.

Did you ever sit down and plan your career?

No, not at all! I knew a few things I really wanted out of life, and they orbited around knowledge and learning in the real world — meeting different people, living in new cities and countries, and trying new things. I wanted to learn deeply about myself and the world. I began in earnest by moving to New York City with a few hundred dollars and a place to stay for a few months.

My first concern was getting my feet under me financially. With a good academic record, managerial experience, I thought I had a good chance at a well-paying job in an industry I was considering long-term. And I did, I took a good role for a new university graduate at a respected law firm. Not surprisingly for someone who grew up in a financially precarious household, I looked to professions like law and finance as my only options. But secretly I longed to work in creative fields. However, the frequent instability of the types of roles I wanted did not correspond with the constraint of needing to help support my family whilst carving out a career.

After two years working in law, I jumped into investment finance. I had a theory that if I knew more about financial markets, I would figure out how to amass capital, find the logic of the system, and quit worrying about financial security. In my five years of investment product work I learned there was no logic, just a lot of ladder rungs to climb, and golden handcuffs to strain against. It turned out, that wasn’t a payoff I wanted to live with.

So I began experimenting and found rewarding work by designing and building tech products with a team of talented people. I thrived creating a space for teams of designers and engineers to collaborate and work on experiments with people who wanted someone to solve a real problem they faced. With my investment and finance background, I naturally moved to fintech. There I worked hard to put people at the center of the work — whether customer, partner, or teammate. And with Simone, empowering people to reclaim their agency and build a more equitable relationship with their employer, this work of putting people at the center, had space to grow and flourish. Today, Simone is going through changes, but the work I began there, I continue as a mentor and consultant.

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

Yes, definitely. I’ve had a winding career path, and along the way I’ve taken leaps of faith. Mid-career I moved to London for a role at an investment bank. However after a few weeks, I knew it was the wrong fit. I struggled with investment bank culture. It was daunting to accept that the company was the wrong place for me, and that perhaps I made the wrong move. Sometimes you make a decision that takes you on a path that just stops. I finally threw in the towel at a year. Overcoming that feeling of failure and setback took a lot of faith, and telling the story truthfully — I experimented, took a big risk, and learned that the life of an investment banker or financier unfortunately, wasn’t for me. A hugely important learning, that if I’d refused to accept could have kept me from a career transformation — from building investment products to building tech products.

A few years later, I was responsible for a complex redesign of the marketing stack for my company’s investment products. The chance to work across the tech stack and collaborate with a cohort of software engineering specialists — back-end, services/ops and front-end etc. was really exciting, but not without its challenges. Despite the odds, we built a protocol for successful collaboration between multiple tech and operations teams; it was one of the most beautiful examples of cross-functional teamwork and leadership that I’ve experienced.

That lesson has never left me — that designing a workspace, a project, or a collaboration around relationship-building marked by generosity, trust, and optimism will produce results beyond your expectations.

What has been your biggest career achievement to date?

Taking back my voice after experiencing gender discrimination and sexual harassment in the workplace and then building a service to empower others to do the same. Helping other women reject tropes like being called “difficult,” “unlikable,” or “not technical enough;” combatting bogus PIPs (Performance Improvement Plan) because of rebuffed advances or sexual harassment experiences, and refusing a myriad of other tired reasons women get told for why they’re not “the right fit” has been the most rewarding work.

Often it only takes one voice to validate a person’s experience, help them reclaim their agency at work, and strike out on a new path from a place of strength. When we tap into this energy as we make work and life decisions, our communities become happier, stronger, and more generative. Who knows what kind of companies, projects and ideas this kind of personal power can engender?

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

I care that what I build is an expression of my principles, and I don’t spin to win. I believe that the means are just as important as the ends, maybe more important. In this context, experimentation  becomes an adventure and produces a positive pressure to succeed. When we are trying to heal our customers’ pain and also do no harm, our approach has to be thoughtful and precise.

Perhaps that seems counter-intuitive to entrepreneurship, but following the organizing principle of becoming, that we are all “on the way” and therefore how we make decisions, how we build and how we care for the customer drives both the result and the nature of the result, is really powerful.

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

Remember that technology is not new. Discovering and building new tech has been a function of human communities since the beginning of time. Keep this in mind as you vet companies and their business models, it will help you get to the heart of the matter — does this company need to exist and can you articulate their value proposition? This exercise might require a little industry and market research, but it will be worth it.

Evaluate company culture. You’ve got to go beyond a company’s story and their glassdoor reviews and do your best to backchannel what it’s like to work there. The best sources are current employees and former employees. Read between the lines — if a slew of people of color, LGBTQ people or women leave the company after a short period of time, take note. You want to take a position at a company that values you, because if they don’t, the work you’ll have to do to rebuild your confidence will outweigh anything else they offer.

Vet your would-be manager. The most important person to your career is your manager. So it’s essential to understand how your manager leads, if and how they support their direct reports and how different people who have reported to them have fared under their leadership. Ask questions that test personal authenticity, like what books they love, or how they recharge after a stressful day, or what they would do if they didn’t work in the tech industry — an ability to answer these kinds of questions can signal that they’re the real deal.

Build your personal brand. You need to be able to tell the story of who you are — what specific abilities or skills you always bring to the table, so that even when you’re not in the room, your value is undeniable. The skills and approach you’re known should be authentic to you, because external elements, like your manager, C-suite leadership, or your company’s goals can change, so only tailoring your story to them doesn’t work for you long-term. Learning how to build an authentic personal brand and communicate it well is one of the most important steps you can take to turbo-charge your career.

Join communities and professional groups outside your company. Today more than ever, it’s important to establish yourself not just at your current company, but across your industry or practice. It’s also necessary to find like-minded people, a crew you can learn from, develop friendships with and work on projects or side hustles together. In tough times, the support of other professionals, especially women in your field or practice, can help you bounce back quickly and cull key learnings from your experience.

Build relationships with people who inspire you. Inspiration can come in many forms; and building relationships with people who motivate you or who you respect in your workplace, industry, and in various practices is one of the most important ways you can invest in your future.

Remember your career is yours. It is important to make sure that while your company and manager are holding you accountable for meeting goals, you are also holding them accountable to you and your career. If you and your manager agree on a path to promotion, and when you hit milestones and goals, your company repeatedly fails to deliver on their promise, it might be time to consider a different way to achieve your personal career goals.

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

Yes, I do. I think there are barriers to success for women in every industry, although in tech the issue is particularly prominent. Until we overhaul structures that leave women out of full and equal participation in tech, those barriers will continue to block women from success.

However, that doesn’t mean building the kind of life and work experience women want is impossible or something to feel defeated about.

Your experience is your power, your story is your power, so do things you want to do, take on the big challenges, double-down on every opportunity to learn, and when you experience setbacks, figure out what outcome you want from your situation and make strategic decisions to get there. Most importantly, take the time to build relationships and care for people you admire and respect along the way. This cohort you’ll build of supporters, friends, once and future colleagues, employees and bosses is one of the richest communities you’ll find.

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

Companies should do all the things diversity and inclusion experts have suggested — actively fill the top of the recruitment funnel in a truly representative way; ensure levelling is fair both in title and pay, interrogate any patterns that reinforce inequality during the recruitment process and build internal tools to reverse those patterns; and finally, ensure that at every level in the company women are equally represented, from junior professionals and senior managers to C-suite leaders. If there is a drop off at any level, research what is happening at the company and take decisive, strong action to educate people or to eradicate behavior, and remove those who resist equality from power. Companies that truly care about equality and representation will do this work.

There is currently only 15% 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?

If I had to choose one thing to magically change, I would flip the entrepreneurship investment table on its head, and put investment capital in the hands of WOC and non-binary people. I think putting that power in the hands of those who have been systematically excluded from wealth creation or punished for it, who are kept from exercising their fundamental creativity to solve thorny problems, would dramatically change the nature of the tech industry — what companies we found, what problems we tackle, and what tech we build or don’t build.

What resources do you recommend for women working in tech?

I love podcasts, some favorites: Design Matters with Debbie Millman is fantastic. Debbie is a consummate interviewer and her guests are endlessly interesting and different, they’re the outliers we can learn the most from. I also recommend Call Your Girlfriend, which is not specifically a tech podcast, but one of the hosts, Aminatou Sow,  is a tech consultant and business owner, and she often addresses how to meet the specific challenges of the tech industry. I love books even more than podcasts and there are some really good ones out there. John Maeda’s new book “How to Speak Machine: Laws of Design for the Digital Age” is a thoughtful guide to building good tech in the digital age. Another classic tech product book is “Inspired” by Marty Cagan; he and the SVPG team also write a thoughtful product blog. Both resources provide valuable maps to building truly great tech products. Check out Ellen Pao’s Project Include, a non-profit dedicated to giving everyone a fair chance to succeed in tech — they are a rich resource for company and culture building best practices. Joining women-only tech communities like Elpha (US) and Ada’s List (UK) is a great way to build knowledge, meet other women in tech, and get support when you need it. Finally, I recommend reading “Seven Brief Lessons on Physics” by Carlo Rovelli, it’s the single book I would give every person in the world to read. Understanding our real capacity for generosity, greatness, and change can transform the way we approach building a purposeful life and career.