Fintech executive squarely addressing gender imbalance

Low representation of women leaders in top firms is ‘insane’, says Square’s Sarah Friar

Square chief financial officer Sarah Friar: “If you look at all of the stats on women they’re still pretty bad, frankly.” Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill

Square chief financial officer Sarah Friar: “If you look at all of the stats on women they’re still pretty bad, frankly.” Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill

 

When Square’s chief financial officer, Sarah Friar, moved to the payments firm established by Twitter co-founder Jack Dorsey, she did so with an abundance of financial experience at her fingertips. A former stock analyst with Goldman Sachs, she had witnessed most of the latest financial markets trends.

Friar’s move from the established order of Wall Street to the front line of fintech seems to have paid off. As chief financial officer of Square, she oversaw an impressive expansion of the firm’s operations.

“The company has been growing like a weed – it grew over 50 per cent last quarter, which is quite nice to see – and of course is growing globally,” said Friar, who is from Sion Mills in Co Tyrone.

While visiting Dublin this week, Friar was a keynote speaker at MoneyConf, the fintech summit held at the RDS. Addressing the 5,000 attendees on Tuesday, she outlined the massive opportunities open to firms such as Square. She said there may be plenty of hype around financial technology but the reality is that most people still make payments offline.

“Today, 20 million small businesses in the US don’t accept electronic payments. In the UK, which is beginning to be a burgeoning market for us, 50 per cent of small companies don’t accept them,” she told attendees at MoneyConf.

Start-ups

Friar said banking had not been as disrupted as other industry sectors by digital transformation. However, she added that change is afoot, with start-ups leading the way.

“It is always harder for the incumbents to truly disrupt. They tend to come from tech stacks that are older, so it is much harder for them to be nimble and quick-footed,” she said.

“When we work with the banks it is slow going. Even getting a non-disclosure agreement signed can be a three-month extravaganza, which hardly bodes well for the pace at which the sector is going to innovate,” Ms Friar added.

Founded in 2009, Square now handles more than $50 billion in transactions annually. Admittedly the company has been selective with its expansion, a strategy that appears to be bearing fruit.

“This year we have been clear we’re focused on our current markets – US, UK, Canada, Japan, Australia, ” Friar told The Irish Times. “In those markets alone there is massive opportunity. We’re only scratching the surface. We don’t want to be a mile wide and an inch deep. It’s much better to go deep in a country, really build a remarkable product and invest behind it to bring up awareness.”

Although Square’s services in Europe are available only to UK users for now – the company launched in March 2017 – its European headquarters is just off Fumbally Lane in Dublin 8.

There are no concrete plans to launch Square’s services in new markets. That includes Ireland, although Friar said getting a product into the Irish market is something Square’s team in Dublin is hoping to achieve.

Gender imbalance

With gender imbalance in the tech world a hot topic in Silicon Valley, Friar has taken an active role in addressing it. She became involved with Ladies Who Launch, an event she established with fellow Square employee Kelly McGonigle. It began as a Square event to celebrate women within the company, but they have since spun it out into a separate project.

Friar said it had become a “passion project and the first Dublin arm of the project was held this week, alongside MoneyConf. There are three principles behind Ladies Who Launch: community, inspiration and education.

“Women really do benefit from community and networking with other business owners. They garner more confidence; it’s a great way to problem solve,” said Friar.

Thankfully for Friar’s message, Square’s gender profile stands up to scrutiny: women make up almost half of Square’s executive team, with 60 per cent of the company reporting to a woman.

While Square may have made progress on the gender issue, Friar said the the business world had a lot of work to do. “I don’t think things have gotten any better generally. If you look at all of the stats on women they’re still pretty bad, frankly,” she said. “In the Fortune 500 firms, only about 5 per cent are female. Out of 500 CEO jobs, only 26 are with women. That’s insane.”

“You’ve got to ask what is the systemic bias that is preventing that from happening. In 1995 there were zero, in 2018 there are now 5 per cent. It’s going to take an awful long time just to get to 50-50.”

Friar points to research that backs up the assertion that companies perform better when they have diversity at the decision-making table.

“It feels like people are willing to do all sorts of things to make their company run better – except, it would appear, add diversity to their leadership teams. Maybe it’s time to call them out on that.”