Amy Shapero is used to being one of the only women in the room.
As Betterment’s Chief Financial Officer, she oversees strategy, financial planning, analytics, accounting, legal, and compliance—functions that typically conjure up images of suited men, in corporate conference rooms, shaking hands and crunching numbers.
– Amy Shapero, Chief Financial Officer
So when I asked Shapero what she believed to be the biggest challenge facing women in fintech today, the answer came quickly: There just aren’t a lot of us.
“It’s certainly better than it was 20 years ago when I first entered the financial services industry,” she said. “But it’s definitely not where it should be.”
This is especially true for women in financial services leadership roles. While female representation on financial executive committees has seen a slight increase over the last few years—20% in 2016, up from 16% in 2013—progress is slow. At the current rate of growth, it will be three decades before we see just 30% female executive committee representation in financial services across the world (see citation below).
Like many companies in finance and tech, Betterment is working to bridge this gap. We want to inspire more women to explore industries that have traditionally been dominated by men, while spreading our passion for changing the way people manage their money.
In honor of CommonBond’s Women in Tech Week, 12 Betterment women across 11 different departments came together to talk about why they’ve chosen careers in fintech. Some of them are obsessed with math. Others can’t live without building something new. All of them want to shape the future of finance—and here’s how they’re doing it.
1. Putting customers first, always
“Betterment was always built, from its inception, for consumers,” said Elyssa Gray, Betterment’s VP of Brand. That means talking to customers about what’s working, what’s not, and how we can help.
“It means that we’re really listening,” says Megan Hughes, Director of Product. “So we’re taking customer feedback and making sure what the customers are asking for is making it into our product.”
– Elyssa Gray, VP of Brand
A good example of this is our Tax Loss Harvesting+ feature, says Kat Lim, Senior Design Manager. We built the first iteration in 2014. In the second iteration, we found out that people wanted to be able to add their spouses to their tax loss harvesting account, so we added spouses. In the third iteration, we found that we could help you decide whether or not you should even be tax loss harvesting based on your tax rate, so we improved our advice by updating the flow to include that question. The result was a better, more personalized product for our customers.
2. Removing conflicts of interest in financial services
“We’ve reshaped the industry in terms of what you should expect from your advisor,” said Lucy Babbage, VP of People, who joined Betterment five years ago. “The biggest thing that struck me at the time, compared to where we are now, is that we were one of the only companies in this space. And really questioning the norms of the old way.”
One of those norms is not acting in customers’ best interests, for instance. Historically, investment providers have been legally allowed to get paid to recommend certain funds to clients, possibly one of the reasons why consumers lack trust in the industry.
– Lucy Babbage, VP of People
In 2016, global communications firm Edelman ranked the financial services industry as the least trusted space by consumers. Another survey found that only 8% of respondents had trust in their financial institutions, down from 13% in 2015.
Betterment is working to restore that trust with investors. We believe every financial institution should do what is right for the customer—the primary reason why we’ve fought so hard for the fiduciary rule, which requires investment providers to give advice in the best interest of their customers.
3. Influencing industry rules and regulation
An important part of our business involves abiding by the rules and regulations implemented by the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC). It’s essential that we’re never false or misleading, and that we’re always being truthful and accurate in our communications to the world. That’s why we’re constantly working to follow the rules—even though they weren’t created with newer technology in mind.
“Many financial regulations were implemented well before technology advanced to the level it is today,” said Khaley Sestak, Betterment’s Compliance Manager and Regulatory Counsel. “So we have to take those rules, which were built for an older way of investing, and apply them to the new way.”
Now, regulators are starting to take notice of this new technology. In early 2017, the SEC released a guidance update specifically for “robo-advisors,” which we believe was a pivotal moment for the industry, validating the shift in financial services from old, traditional ways of investing to online financial advisors like Betterment.
4. Using the newest technology to build the newest technology
Unlike many traditional financial services companies, Betterment is engineering-led. Our approach to working internally is built on the latest engineering best practices—first by being as efficient as possible through iteration and agile development, a method in which cross-functional teams test and iterate solutions to problems, and second by using the newest technologies to build the service.
“It’s cool to be able to say, ‘I work for a financial company, but our app is built in Rails, not COBOL,’” said Lead Software Engineer Katelyn Lesse, in reference to new and old programming languages.
5. Eliminating jargon in an industry that’s littered with it
“Finance is one of those things that’s pretty murky for most people,” said Amy Ouellette, Director of Business Success at Betterment for Business, our 401(k) offering. “There are so many technical terms that financial companies use when they’re talking to customers. It can sound like a foreign language.”
Our research has shown, overwhelmingly, that consumers believe the financial services industry is needlessly complex and confusing. Many companies, including our competitors, litter the space with jargon, almost like they’re intentionally trying confuse the consumer. We’ve taken the opposite approach.
“We try never to use financial jargon,” Gray said. “As part of our brand refresh earlier this year, we deliberately identified ‘candid’ as one of our key brand personality words, forcing us to be straightforward and clear with investors, rather than confusing and intimidating them.”
6. Streamlining the way advisors manage their clients’ money
Along with Betterment for Business and Betterment for individual investors, we also have Betterment for Advisors, which allows for advisors to use our technology to manage their clients’ money. Many advisors have a pool of smaller accounts, and it can be operationally expensive to provide those clients the same level of service.
“It’s really exciting when you onboard an advisor and they see why they should leverage technology,” said Elisa Garcia, Business Development Manager at Betterment for Advisors, who is responsible for onboarding new advisors. “That ‘ah-ha’ moment makes it worth it—when an advisor recognizes that it can help them save time, or even deliver a better client experience.”
7. Making personalized advice accessible to everyone
Historically, not all Americans have had access to financial advice, whether that was because it was too expensive or they didn’t have enough money to get the attention of a financial advisor.
Betterment is fundamentally changing this. Using smarter technology, we’re able to take proven investment strategies and best practices, and provide them to all investors. “Just because something is great doesn’t mean it can’t be improved,” Jon Stein, our Founder and CEO, has written. “For a while, there were just seat belts; now we have airbags. For a while, there were just landlines; now we have smartphones. All aspects of our lives will continue to be improved through better technology.”
Most recently, we launched a feature that allows our customers to access financial experts right from their phone. For all of us at Betterment—and particularly for the mobile product managers, engineers, and designers who built it—launching this feature felt like a giant leap forward for the financial services industry.
“As an engineer, I can’t overstate how exciting it is to have worked on this product,” said Paddy Estridge, a Software Engineer at Betterment. “Imagine just being able to pull out your phone and know exactly what you need to do, right now, to have a better chance at a fantastic financial future. To me, that’s incredibly exciting.”
This article was written on behalf of Betterment Holdings Inc. and is for educational purposes only. © 2017 Betterment Holdings Inc.
Women in Financial Services 2016 Study by Oliver Wyman, page 7: “Female representation is growing on financial services Boards (20 percent in 2016) and Executive Committees (16 percent in 2016), but progress is slow. At current rates of growth, financial services globally will not reach even 30 percent female Executive Committee representation until 2048.” Women in Financial Services 2014 Study by Oliver Wyman, page 5: EXHIBIT 1 shows that 13 percent of executive committee members were women in 2013.
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