Black women in payments see a chance for change after tragedy

In the tech-centric payments industry, the number of women in C-suite roles is rising after decades of incremental progress, but the path to leadership for Black people in the payments industry remains steep and lonely.

This disconnect was further underscored by the killing of Black people such as George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and Ahmaud Arbery — incidents that set off global protests and demand for change.

“After the tragic death of George Floyd, like many people with my background, I felt broken by the idea that something like this could still happen in 2020,” said Paulette Rowe, who was recently named CEO of Paysafe Group’s U.K.-based global e-commerce and integrated solutions unit.

For Rowe, honored as one of PaymentsSource’s Most Influential Women in Payments in 2017 and 2020, this year’s tumultuous events have been both shocking and galvanizing. But the heightened public outcry and response to Floyd’s death gives Rowe reason to hope the wind has shifted.

“The way people are reacting around the world makes me feel like something could change this time, that we may go beyond conversations and see real commitment to improving things and expanding diversity and inclusion,” Rowe said.

Paulette Rowe CEO of Paysafe Group’s U.K.-based global e-commerce and integrated solutions unit.
Paulette Rowe CEO of Paysafe Group’s U.K.-based global e-commerce and integrated solutions unit.

Rowe’s own career path has been groundbreaking in many ways, in part because of the breadth of her experiences. Beginning as a young engineer working for a French piston manufacturer, Rowe advanced through senior posts at Royal Bank of Scotland, supermarket giant Tesco, startup bank NBNK, Barclaycard and Facebook, where she was head of payments and financial services partnerships.

At each job she used her engineering and analytical skills to move ahead, and her soft skills to get along. Whenever she saw a process that worked to further diversity, she embraced it.

“For most of my education and career I’ve been the only Black person in the room or on the team or in the meeting, but at Facebook they had a number of resource groups where you could come together and connect with people of your same background, which was a real plus,” she said.

Rowe’s newest employer is somewhat ahead of the curve. Upon his arrival about a year ago, Paysafe CEO Philip McHugh made changes, including tripling the number of women on the leadership team. There are now three women in senior roles, along with Rowe. Paysafe also pledged itself to developing a diverse workforce with zero tolerance for discrimination of any kind.

“It’s becoming increasingly obvious that companies with diverse teams are stronger and get better results — you can’t actually raise your own bar without it,” Rowe said.

At Paysafe, Rowe is promoting the best diversity practices she’s seen in her career, encouraging mentoring, support and guidance for people of color, gender and disability groups.

“We’re launching a number of local networks so people at Paysafe can come together and celebrate diversity, open to allies, and at all levels,” Rowe said.

People of color and women often face career obstacles and bias invisible to others, Rowe said. The 2016 film “Hidden Figures” has stayed with her for years as a rare example of Hollywood showcasing the tech skills and capabilities of Black women, in this case at NASA decades ago.

“We’ve had lots of stories about the difficult journey Blacks — particularly women — have endured, but we also need stories of success to inspire people,” Rowe said.

Progress isn’t only up to individuals. Several nonprofits are working to further tech career opportunities for minorities and women, and their leaders hope the negative events of 2020 could be turned to drive positive changes.

There’s a fresh urgency now to publicize strategies for advancing Black people in technology careers, according to Viola Maxwell-Thompson, president and CEO of Information Technology Senior Management Forum (ITSMF). The Atlanta-based nonprofit, founded in 1996, works to increase the numbers of Black professionals at senior levels in technology.

“Quite often Blacks and other people of color aren’t aware of tech career opportunities because they’ve never seen anyone like themselves in that job, let alone in a leadership role,” said Maxwell-Thompson, who in 1997 became the first Black partner named at the consulting firm Ernst & Young.

Technology companies interested in driving racial changes could start by expanding job-recruitment efforts at historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs), Maxwell-Thompson said.

“Instead of going to the same old mainstream schools to hire people who look like those you already have, corporations need to build connections to Black communities through all kinds of channels and organizations,” she said.

Viola Maxwell-Thompson, president and CEO of Information Technology Senior Management Forum (ITSMF).
Viola Maxwell-Thompson, president and CEO of Information Technology Senior Management Forum (ITSMF).

ITSMF also supports NPower, a Brooklyn, N.Y.-based nonprofit founded in 1999 that provides hands-on training, mentoring and internships at technology companies for minorities and women.

Citi Foundation in 2018 awarded a $1.5 million grant to NPower to connect more young women of color to tech training for careers in the digital economy. The program benefits women in New York, New Jersey, Maryland and Missouri.

A recent research project, “Breaking Through, Rising Up: Strategies for Propelling Women of Color in Technology,” summarizes insights from past and present NPower participants, employers, scholars and leaders on the critical obstacles minorities face entering tech careers and offers some solutions.

NPower’s research revealed the daily struggles of underrepresented groups as they try to tackle school and careers while facing financial hardships, health setbacks of themselves and family members, and challenges managing child care and maintaining stable housing.

Women faced significantly tougher conditions than men, though a higher number of men said they struggled with housing. The research drew on experiences of 1,000 NPower students and alumni plus 60 employers, scholars and leaders in peer organizations.

Recommendations from NPower’s research included encouraging minority students’ participation in technology training programs by developing recruiting materials featuring diverse audiences, including women.

Tech companies should partner with corporations and with community organizations, offering streamlined interview and application processes, with hands-on instruction and small groups. Wherever possible, part-time and online learning options should be offered.

Attention must be paid to female students’ confidence levels at every level, with ongoing encouragement and mentoring, NPower’s report suggested.

“The biggest problem young Black women face is dropping out of school because of other priorities, but employer-sponsored programs can provide that bridge to help them overcome obstacles,” Maxwell-Thompson said.

Corporations looking to encourage young Black students can work with nonprofits, schools and even develop their own outreach programs to bring minorities into their offices to see what goes on there, she suggested.

“A lot of Black students hear ‘Silicon Valley,’ and they see a nerd who doesn’t look like them. They know what Amazon’s Alexa is, but they don’t know there’s a place for them to develop that kind of technology,” Maxwell-Thompson said.