Exclusively to HRO, Diana Avila, Global Head of Banking and Expansion, Wise, shares her experience, vision and advice for women looking to develop their careers in the fintech industry.
Having moved from Colombia to London, what drives Diana Avila, Global Head of Banking and Expansion, Wise, to jump from the legal world to the financial industry is the desire to be first-hand in solving problems.
“I was working as a lawyer for four years in Colombia. My role was more about advising financial companies that were looking to enter the Colombian market,” recalls Avila. “I felt like I was so many layers removed from having a direct impact on building things.”
During her time studying for a master's degree in London eight years ago, Avila came across Wise when she was facing difficulties in sending money back to Colombia to pay for a student loan. What resonates with her is the mission of the fintech company – money without borders; to make money movement across borders easier, cheaper, more transparent, and faster as they would do locally.
“My key motivation was being closer and first-hand to this problem, seeing how companies like Wise were innovating and bringing better products to customers, and building those solutions for customers as opposed to being more in an advisory role in the background.”
As a woman working in a traditionally male-dominated industry, Avila admits sometimes the barriers are internal.
“I tend to be the only woman in the room in several situations,” Avila says frankly. “That can be challenging because it takes a few seconds to find your voice and build up confidence.” But this doesn’t mean women cannot speak as loud as, or even louder than men.
Speaking exclusively to HRO’s Tracy Chan, Avila shares her vision of empowering women at Wise and her advice to other women who are looking to develop their careers in the financial or fintech industry.
Q: Having grown up and studied in Colombia and now having moved to London, what is the difference between working/living in both countries? How has your early life in Colombia influenced your work approach at Wise?
My experience working as a lawyer in Colombia was 100% focused on the Colombian regulatory environment. It was very centred around one jurisdiction, one set of rules and one regulator. At Wise, the biggest difference is the global exposure of my role and the company – understanding the regulatory environment of 20 or more countries, building experience and drawing comparisons of what we have seen in different countries, and constantly learning and leveraging that knowledge to approach a new country.
I don't know if it is specifically because of having grown up in Colombia, as we tend to be quite approachable and warm and able to build relationships, or how much is actually driven by the example of my mother – she is the most amazing and fearless woman that I have known. I think one key aspect is the ability to talk to literally anyone, not be afraid of nor shy about it, and be able to build truthful and impactful connections. Sometimes, when you are building a team, talking to the CEO, or talking to external regulators or banks, if you are able to build these meaningful connections, to explain our mission, and why we are solving this problem, you will be able to bring them on board and drive these changes.
Q: The financial industry is traditionally male-dominated, what challenges and barriers have you faced and how do you tackle those challenges?
Part of my role is meeting with banks and regulators around the world to explain what Wise does and understand what they want to see from us to continue expanding our product offering in new markets. One of the challenges that I faced at the beginning, and am still facing plenty of times, is I tend to be the only woman in the room in several situations. That can be challenging because it takes a few seconds to find your voice and build up confidence.
With years, the time to build confidence has been shortening quite significantly, and now it becomes more natural as I acknowledge that though the situation is still very male dominated, it doesn't mean that my voice is not as loud as, or even louder than theirs because I am here to solve a problem for our customers.
We are so clear on the mission, we bring purpose to these conversations and make them relatable, and then there is no fear or imposter syndrome around being the only woman and trying to drive these convictions.
Q: What is the most impactful campaign or initiative Wise has put in place to create a more diverse workplace?
At Wise, we now have 5,000 people in total with 49% being female – pretty much a 50:50 split. Specifically for male-dominated roles like on the product side, we have been increasing the female proportion for years and today, more than 40% of our product managers are female.
We are very proud to see the diverse split that we already have at Wise – not only in terms of women and men in the workforce, but also the country of origin – we have 117 nationalities of people spread across Wise’s offices all over the world. We are building a product that has to be diverse to solve problems in many different countries, and we have to talk to banks and regulators around the world. It is interesting how we can drive it internally from a diverse team.
One of the initiatives that we have at Wise is what we call the ‘WiseWomenCode’. We support training for women at the early stage to develop their skills as software developers. We have also implemented a programme in London and Tallinn where we get women and non-binary people who are just getting started to enter the industry to join Wise for a week to learn how it is like to work in the company and to work with tech teams to deliver part of the product. What they can get is not only experience in technical work, but also to be exposed to working with others in a team to build up their confidence.
Another initiative that I have been driving for a couple of years is the ‘Wise Women in Social’. One thing that I have learned, and maybe referring to these aspects of sometimes being the only woman in the room, is that it is so important for us to build strong bonds among women and to support each other. We need to have a safe space to talk about our areas of development and what we are struggling with, and ultimately be able to network with other women. We try to do these relaxing social events at least once a quarter. We invite external speakers and do a Q&A most of the time, and then we network among women, providing a space for women to share their experiences.
Q: As a female leader, what changes would you like to bring into the financial industry?
The first aspect is specifically the product itself. The key change that I want to bring to the financial industry is to make finance fairer, and more transparent for everyone through new products and innovation. Today, people and businesses move an estimated £11 trillion across borders and lose about £180 billion annually due to hidden fees. At Wise, we are saving customers £1.5 billion each year in fees, so there’s still a long way to go to solve this massive problem.
The second aspect is more on the culture – how can we build diverse teams, as well as drive a more inclusive culture at work. I would of course love to incentivise more women to join the financial industry. For me, I not only joined it, but continue being empowered to make decisions to drive change.
We have different technical education programmes for women. As an engineering and product-led organisation, we have seen how these teams tend to be more male dominated. That is why we are investing and putting our efforts to help and support more women to get trained as engineers, and also opening up some ways in which they can experience working at Wise, try building products and making decisions to continuously motivate them to join the fintech industry.
Q: Looking forward, what kinds of talent and skills are most needed for Wise’s international expansion?
The problem we are after is how people deal with finances internationally. That means we have to be present all over the world, not only in one or two countries. As such, we need the ability to identify and understand the local particularities of each market, including the different regulatory requirements, how different payment systems work, how we can build a product on top of these, and how we can bring these as part of the products that we are building at Wise.
Secondly, from a skill perspective, we expect and incentivise people to be very autonomous and absolutely empowered. I truly believe that the people closest to the problem are in the best place to make decisions and drive change.
More traditional companies tend to be more top-down driven where a big boss or a few committees are deciding very specifically what needs to be done in every country or every division of the company. In Wise’s case, we have a culture that empowers people to make decisions.
Q: Any advice to share with other women who are looking to develop their careers in the financial or fintech industry?
The first one, which has been very helpful in my case, is finding a company and a product that you truly relate to and believe in. That is what has kept me motivated for so many years and makes me really proud of what we have achieved so far at Wise.
Secondly, as women, sometimes we could hold back or fall into imposter syndrome. We are not sure if it is okay to say what is in our minds at a certain point. Leave those fears behind and be fearless! That takes work and sometimes it doesn't come naturally. I think it is important to clearly define and develop those goals and be intentional about them.
The third tip is to always continue learning and developing skills. Specifically, in the fintech industry, things move very quickly. In the case of Wise, there were instances where I have learnt about this particular product and spent many months understanding the regulatory environment in country A, but two weeks or even two months later, we are already thinking of another product or trying to expand to country B.
You need to have the ability to switch. Keep your mind open as if every day is the first day. Be open to continue learning and challenging yourself.
Q: Any big plan at Wise or personal plan in the next couple of years?
At Wise, we plan to continue to focus on our mission, and continue our expansion in the APAC region particularly. I personally am very excited. From a team-building perspective, we will continue engaging with more people who are willing to come to tech and join forces to drive the mission of Wise. For example, in Singapore, we now have 400 people and we will continue growing our team by inviting more female engineers to join us. A more diverse team brings better products which we will be able to deliver to customers.
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