In celebration of Women’s History Month, FACTS has been reflecting on the courage of past generations of women who fought for the opportunities women have access to today. It’s also been a great chance to celebrate the influential women in our lives right now. Fortunately for our team at FACTS, we don’t need to look far to find examples of women making a difference – our team is filled with incredible women in leadership positions.
As a company focused on education and payment technology solutions, we’re especially grateful to have these women on board, as data shows that women are only at the c-suite level at 6 percent of financial technology companies. Women are woefully underrepresented across the finance and technology industries in general, holding only 24 percent and 28 percent of leadership roles respectively. When factoring in additional challenges women face in the workplace, like battling stereotypes and increased rates of burnout and microaggressions, it’s clear that the path to leadership is anything but easy.
Despite these challenges, it’s important to keep pushing forward, as data shows that when women hold leadership roles, everyone wins – especially in technology. Tech companies where 30 percent of leaders are women have a 15 percent increase in profitability compared to those with no female leaders. Fortunately, one of the best ways to increase the number of women in leadership is well within our reach – representation, with women across all age ranges stating that strong role models are crucial to their own success in the workplace. In this spirit of representation, we spoke to some of the incredible women in leadership roles here at FACTS to learn some of their keys to success and what advice they have for the next generation of leaders.
Don’t Get Too Caught Up in Your Plan
DeeAnn Wenger, President, Nelnet Business Services: I didn’t necessarily aspire to be a leader. In fact, when I was approached about leading my first team, I turned it down. I only wanted to be accountable for my work, not that of other people. I was highly encouraged to accept the position; however, and it ended up changing my goals and my career.
Becky Pollock, President, Nelnet Payment Services: I didn’t envision my career as it is today. When I pursued a career in accounting, I had a goal to be a CFO, which I accomplished before the age of 40. Early in my career, I realized I loved the concept of revenue creation, but desired a closer connection to the end customer. So, I asked for an opportunity to lead a business.
Jackie Strohbehn, President, Nelnet Campus Commerce: Since a very young age, I aspired to be in leadership roles, but I would call my path to leadership unconventional and heavily shaped by mentors, leaders, friends, and family. The journey and experience of getting to where I am have been more valuable than the success itself.
Jodi Spethman, Chief Marketing Officer, Nelnet Business Services: My path to my current position has not been linear and certainly not a path I had planned for myself. It’s been more like a game of Frogger! I’ve served in various roles across different business lines within the company and feel strongly about continuing education and learning with each new opportunity. I hope I never stop learning.
Danielle Egr, Chief Technology Officer, Nelnet Business Services: I didn’t envision my career as it is today, as IT was not a path I thought I’d take. I received great advice to not focus on title when considering a new position, but instead the personal growth and contribution the position could bring. I’m a planner, so taking away the expectation that my career progress along a prescribed path of job titles was very freeing for me. It allowed me to take side-steps to broaden my experience in ways I’d never be able to do otherwise.
Never Be Afraid to Ask Questions
Egr: When I started in IT, there were very few women in formal leadership positions. I was often the only woman in a room of leaders and was even more intimidated because I was not in IT from the start of my career, and everyone seemed to know way more than me. Then I had my “Aha!” moment. One of my colleagues made a comment that I knew was not accurate, but he said it as if it were fact. Most of the people in the room were nodding in agreement until I respectfully challenged him and then everyone was nodding with me. That’s when I realized we’re all doing the best we can and none of us have all the answers. If I don’t understand, I ask questions. It’s not a weakness; it’s how we all learn. It would be worse if I didn’t ask the question and make bad assumptions.
Pollock: I recommend to individuals that I mentor to not be afraid to always ask why. Knowledge and expertise help to build confidence in yourself and allow you to hold your own in conversations and brainstorming in business discussions.
Strohbehn: It’s so important to never be afraid to ask questions. I believe that every problem presents multiple opportunities to come up with a creative solution and engaging thoughts and opinions from your peers makes problem-solving even better.
Turn Challenges into Motivation
Strohbehn: Watching the challenges my mother faced as a woman in a male-dominated industry inspired me not only to be a leader, but to press on, take even more risks, and never question that it was my choice to try, even if someone told me no. Many years before joining Nelnet Campus Commerce, someone told me to my face that I would not succeed in my role because I was young and a woman. This fueled my desire to prove him wrong. Moments like these continue to inspire me. Even if I fail, I will know I tried and that I did so with strong conviction and by staying true to myself.
Spethman: I have certainly encountered my share of moments in my career where there have been inappropriate comments made by male colleagues or leaders about my looks or others’ when the focus should have been on our abilities. While these comments can be temporarily demoralizing, I have never found that they held me back. Instead, they’ve given me even more drive and determination to succeed.
Egr: I’ve encountered a few leaders throughout my career who I felt trusted my male peers over me since there weren’t many women in IT at the time. However, I was always able to prove myself in those situations, so it never significantly affected my success.
Create Your Own Opportunities
Pollock: From an early age, I was encouraged to go beyond what was asked of me; so instead of waiting until I was given a new role to demonstrate new skills, I would volunteer for projects and take on tasks that were outside my current responsibilities. I also look for problems businesses or consumers are having and brainstorm ways to solve them. Don’t be afraid to share your ideas.
Spethman: My stepdad always encouraged me to be independent and stand on my own, and I’ve brought those traits into my career. I’ve always approached my roles with curiosity and raised my hand to take on projects or additional responsibilities. I believe your opportunities are driven by you and not necessarily by your circumstances.
Focus on What’s Within Your Control
Strohbehn: One of my favorite pieces of advice I’ve been given is to choose your attitude. We cannot control much in this world, but we can control how we respond and how we act toward others. The women I look up to, like my mother and peer female leaders, all work incredibly hard with smiles on their faces. They are also extremely supportive of each other, which creates an exceptional environment to thrive in.
Wenger: My best advice is to know when to stand up for yourself and know when to let something go. You shouldn’t fight every battle. Leaders have to work through some challenging situations and showing a little grace and treating everyone with respect goes a long way in building relationships.
Egr: Be coachable. We all have strengths and weaknesses. Take action on constructive feedback.
Grow Through Community
Pollock: Participate in your community by joining committees, boards, or non-profit organizations. This will not only help you build relationships and gain confidence working with people you don’t know but will also allow you to gain leadership skills outside your organization. Putting in this work and time helped me to grow as a leader and see challenges and opportunities I wouldn’t have seen otherwise.
Strohbehn: When you find people throughout your career who inspire you or are great at what they do, keep those people in your life. Stay connected to them, ask them for their opinion, and thank them for their time. More often than not, people will want to help you and may even learn something from you as well.
Be a Team Player
Spethman: One of my favorite parts of my position is helping my team accomplish their individual and professional development goals. Seeing them become more confident in their craft and helping them achieve success gives me a great sense of satisfaction. Knowing that I am representing my team and not just myself is also a huge confidence booster for me as a leader. Pushing for what I believe will help my team gives me drive and courage.
Egr: My career goals have always been based on purpose, continued learning, and working with others. When I consider new positions, it’s not about title or leadership credentials. It’s about personal growth and the contribution I can make to the team and organization’s success.
Wenger: I have a passion for business strategy and creating ways for sustainable growth, but more importantly, I want to be a great boss – somebody that makes a difference in the careers of those I work with. I care deeply about the people on my team and want them to be happy and successful. If I can help them achieve their dreams, that gives me tremendous satisfaction.
Pollock: I was raised by parents who emphasized characteristics of servant leadership. Valuing and caring for people, helping others succeed, and pursuing success as a team is what defines a good day for me.
Bring Your Authentic Self to Work Every Day
Wenger: One of my best pieces of advice to the next generation of women in leadership is to bring your authentic self to work every day.
Strohbehn: Stay true to your authentic self. I have found at times in my career, especially in a male dominated sector, I felt I needed to change my appearance, only say certain words, quiet my opinion, or stay silent when I should speak up. This never feels good in the long run and ultimately shortchanges both you and your organization. Trust your gut; it is so often right. Women tend to ignore it…don’t! Your opinion is worthy of being heard. Diversity of thought is what spawns innovation.
Egr: I now focus more on learning and being authentic to myself and less about what others think of me. To be authentic you need to know yourself and be true to what drives and excites you. Find positions or projects that align with those characteristics. Be curious so you’re always learning and growing.
With role models like these to guide the way, we can’t wait to usher in future generations of women in leadership at FACTS!