On 19th October, senior financial professionals from across the United States gathered at the Manhattan Midtown Loft and Terrace for the seventh Women in Treasury New York Forum.
After running as a virtual event for the last two years, Women in Treasury New York returned as an in-person event on 19th October 2022. Held at the Manhattan Midtown Loft and Terrace, the event was hosted by Sophie Jackson, Publisher & Head of Strategic Content and Meg Coates, Publisher & Head of Operations at the Treasury Today Group.
Welcoming more than 120 attendees from the corporate treasury community and their banking and technology partners, the event was a powerful celebration of diversity and inclusion. Guests representing some of the largest North American companies shared their experiences and discussed the topics highlighted by the findings of Treasury Today’s Women in Treasury Global Study 2022, sponsored by State Street Global Advisors.
The key findings of the study were presented by Meg Coates during the opening drinks reception. Notable developments included the changing attitudes towards flexible working, with over two thirds of respondents reporting that their organisations currently offer this option. On the issue of gender equality, meanwhile, 6% felt there had been recent changes in pay parity within their organisations, although 43% of respondents said they felt they earnt less than their male counterparts.
Another highlight of the day was a lively panel discussion moderated by Sophie Jackson. This year’s panel consisted of:
Jude Leclerc – Regional Head of Payments Solutions, North America, Global Payments Solutions, HSBC
Valeria Strappa – Managing Director, Regional Head of Liquidity and Account Solutions for the Americas Payments, J.P. Morgan Payments
Lisa Chan – Director of Global Treasury, Airbnb, Inc., Adam Smith Awards 2022 Woman of the Year
Meena Dafesh – VP, Global Treasurer, O-I Glass
The panellists explained the disparate routes they had taken to reach their current roles. Growing up in Argentina, Valeria Strappa dropped out of school at 15 to concentrate on her career as a professional tennis player, later resuming her studies at 21 to gain a degree in engineering. Arriving in the corporate world, she was struck by the similarities – and differences – to the world of sport.
“As an athlete, I needed to make sure I set ambitious goals and executed with discipline and adjusted my plan as needed, but it is the grit (combination if passion and resilience) that made me overcome the obstacles I faced along the way to succeed” she explained. “I was used to playing a game where you win or lose, and the rules are clear.” With the rules no longer so clear cut, she realised she would have to alter her perspective. “The most important difference is that you don’t play alone,” she reflected. “You play with others: you need others to stay in the game, and you need others to advance.”
Talking about her own career path, Jude Leclerc recalled: “People talk about starting at the bottom in the mailroom. I started lower.” In fact, her first job in the banking industry was at the museum of the Bank of Canada where she had to dress up as a caribou – the symbol on the Canadian quarter dollar.
Advancing in her career as positions became available, first in education and then in operations, she accepted a posting in London and later moved back to Canada after becoming a mother. Acknowledging the pressure that people put on themselves at the start of their careers to make the right decisions, she said: “Your career is the marathon you do over many years.”
Lisa Chan said that she initially started work in the finance department at Symantec before later moving to the treasury department. After Symantec, she then held roles in treasury at Salesforce and then nine years ago, a position came up at Airbnb. “It was an opportunity to build my own team, which I just couldn’t pass up,” she recalled.
Meena Dafesh, meanwhile, “landed in treasury by accident.” Coming from a family of medical professionals and dentists, when she was 15 Meena did work experience at a dental practice. Realising it wasn’t going to be the career for her, she instead chose the world of accounting. When she applied for a position in corporate accountancy, the controller suggested treasury as a possible fit for her skills. Meena went on to make it her career, heading up treasury teams in Singapore and the United States.
Over the years, the conversation around diversity has grown to include not only issues around gender and ethnicity, but also sexual orientation and diversity of thought, with companies increasingly taking notice. Talking about the emergence of the Black Lives Matter and Stop Asian Hate movements during COVID, Lisa said: “The diversity and inclusion perspective was very heightened in terms of corporate responsibility. It’s absolutely necessary in order to make it the norm for the future.”
Explaining that an employee’s annual assessment can be based not just on performance, but also on behavioural criteria aligned to the values of the company, Jude said: “There are wonderful human beings that work in organisations that help to move things along. But when you formalise these things, then it applies to everyone in a consistent fashion, which is good.”
“It’s not only the what, but the how. It’s the leadership that you demonstrate, not just in your job, but as an ambassador of your culture,” added Valeria. “Empathy is all about connecting with people. If I can connect with people, and people feel safe, then I think I can help amplify their potential, because in the end, it translates into results.”
Reflecting on what the typical office looked like 20 years ago, Meena observed that the changes are very welcome. “It’s refreshing, I think, over the years to see teams staffed with people who are not just diverse in terms of gender or kind of ethnicity, but also diversity of thought,” she said.
In the Women in Treasury global studies, mentoring, sponsorship, advocacy and coaching programmes are frequently cited as key to successful career development. However, the difference between them is not always understood.
“I think what sponsorship is, is finding someone in the organisation that sees your work and is willing to bring you into conversations that you might not have had access to otherwise,” said Jude. Describing a former boss, she added, “She would bring me into lots of meetings and gave me access to leadership and executive teams that my role would not have warranted normally.”
Valeria commented: “It is critical to build your board of advisors to help you guide and advance in your career. A coach will help you with your improvement. A mentor is someone who can provide perspectives on your career, provide the right advice. A sponsor is someone that, if asked about you, will probably have something positive to say. And an advocate is someone who has a responsibility to advocate for you at the table.”
Lisa told the room that as a woman, it can be difficult to ask for what you need. A former boss who became a great advocate for her said: “Lisa, you just have to ask for what you want. If you don’t tell me, I’m just going to put you on the path that I think you want. If you do ask for what you want, I will do everything in my power to keep you in the company and to keep you happy.” As she explained, “That was earth shattering advice for me at an early age.”
Moving from one culture to another can bring with it confusion and misunderstanding – but also opportunities. Reflecting on her first year in Singapore, Meena highlighted the difficulties that can arise from cultural differences. For example, a member of staff had initially seemed uncertain during their conversations until she realised that he was struggling to understand her Australian accent and expressions.
“Observe, learn and embrace. Avoid making comparison and be humble to ask questions, and to ask for forgiveness when you make an unintentional mistake,” advised Valeria, who believes it’s only when you embrace a culture – and feel a part of it – that you can influence it. “Even if you move across countries in Latin America with similar cultures, you always have to adjust,” she explained. “And you always have the opportunity to learn.”
Different cultures can also operate across different industries, a good example being the technology sector.
Lisa noted that the speed at which things need to move in her industry is a key differentiator. “We need to have a lot of nimble bankers and people pivoting for us, helping us to think outside the box,” she said. “because we also have to do a lot more with less.”
The discussion turned to the challenges involved in juggling the demands of a career with family life. When expecting a child just before the pandemic, Meena and her husband took the decision that he would take time off from work to look after their son. Explaining that the culture that he came from had a negative view of such an arrangement, Meena said: “It takes an incredibly strong man to deal with cultural issues and say, ‘I’m going to do what’s right for my son and for my family.’”
For Valeria, having the help of her husband while she faced the upheaval of starting a new position and relocating to a new country was vital. To make sure that she was fully supported during this challenging time, her husband made the decision to take a year out from work. “I wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for him,” she reflected.
Finally, the panellists spoke about ways that women can build a network and take advantage of coaching and other educational opportunities. In closing, Sophie noted the importance of overcoming hurdles to development, such as a lack of confidence with public speaking. “It really helps if you can think outside the box, think of where your weaknesses are, and find out how you can flex your muscles in a way that allows you to evolve,” she concluded.
We would like to offer our thanks to all who participated in, attended, and supported our Women in Treasury New York Forum. If you are interested in our Women in Treasury initiative, you can get involved by taking part in the 2023 Women in Treasury Global Study, joining our dedicated WiT network on LinkedIn, attending our global forums, or by nominating yourself or a colleague in the Adam Smith Awards 2023 Woman of the Year category when submissions open on 30th January 2023.