We’d love to start broad- tell us a little bit about who you are and how you came to be where you are now.
I’m from a small town in Arizona. I went to school at the University of Arizona as a finance major with an international business certificate, and I went through their entrepreneurship program in my senior year. I started my first business in college to privatize dog licensing - not even technical, but it was the late nineties. In that day and age, you didn’t really have startups. It still took years to put up a server and build code. Once I graduated, everybody, including my family, encouraged me to get a real job. I went to Deloitte, which is where I really got into technology. The DotCom boom was going crazy. After a few years, I decided that I wanted to do more than migrate mainframes to client servers, I wanted to be at the forefront, building cool things. I left Deloitte and I moved to New York, which was my childhood dream.
I spent some time at a small consulting firm building the next generation of web platforms, creating early CMS tools to build websites. As DotCom started to go down, I rolled off the project. That was just a few weeks before 9/11. I lived just south of the Word Trade Center and worked on the 97th floor. I was really at the heart of it. I had to seriously ask myself, “what do I do with my life now?”. The economy had tanked, my neighborhood was in disarray. I did some serious reflection and decided that I loved startups and I loved helping people. I took some time off and volunteered for an organization called ReStart Central. It was started by the Partnership Fund for New York City to help small business recoup after 9/11. I led their technology donations unit and was a business advocate, helping clients get access to money or new equipment. They needed everything, computers and other technology, anything that had debris on it just didn't survive. By 2002 we had raised over $1M to support the organization. I was Program Director until 2004, when we closed the organization down.
After multiple attempts, I got into the University of Oxford to get my Masters degree. When I came back, I went to Bear Stearns. It wasn’t long before another crisis, this time the financial crisis. I was there when Bear Stearns got bought out by JP Morgan. I began consulting with a company backed by an investor out of Bahrain. They were hoping to sell MP3 players in the Middle East, Africa, and Asia. It wasn’t a market where people were buying individual technology and shared phones were fairly common, so I drove the strategy away from MP3 players and towards building the first combined mobile and web digital music streaming site. It was super simple, it was accessible on different kinds of devices, allowed a single account to have multiple users with their own playlists and channels. I led the product launch and helped scale the site.
Since then, I've been advising startups, sitting on boards, and am an active angel investor. I build new technology and have helped drive several award-winning efforts. At the speed at which digital technology is moving, it's more important than ever for large corporations to learn to think and act like startups. I've taken my skills in that direction. I'm now an Executive Director at DTCC, heading up the Internal IT Research & Innovation team where I have grown the team from three team members to eleven and expanded our innovation capacity by three-fold through our model of open innovation, where we partner with academia, vendors, and the startup ecosystem. We have an incredible team. Who wouldn't love to tinker with new technology every day?
You’ve had such a varied career, consulting at large institutions like Deloitte, Bear Stearns & Co, and most recently DTCC while also consulting at start-ups, how has your big business expertise informed your start-up work and vice-versa?
Moving from a large corporation to a startup, the key is understanding your value proposition. Especially for enterprise software. When I advise startups now, I tell them that you have to understand the use case of your technology in a large organization and you need to understand their tech stack. You’re not going to sell to an organization if there is something remotely capable of doing what you do in their current tech stack. They won't pay for two things. Everything in corporations is about making money and saving money, and you need to understand how you can help them do that at scale. It's really hard for startups to get into corporations. Startups need to understand their value, how it fits into an organization’s business, and what their solution is really driving.
On the other front, there is a lot that corporations can learn from startups. I really believe that everybody should start a company. If you want to be a leader in an organization, lead a team or an initiative, you should try starting a business. It changes your entire perspective. Most people in a company think of a deliverable tactically- “what’s my end goal?”, not strategically, “what’s my end vision?”. In a startup, you’re resource constrained, you need to know how your work fits into your end vision. Having that startup discretion helps you do bigger, better things in a larger corporation because you’re framing it differently. I tell my team that they are the CEO of every project they work on. That means owning the project beginning to end and understanding how it connects with the overall vision.
One of your big focuses in your current role is emerging technology, what technology changes do you see happening right now in the financial services industry?
Surprise, Large Language Models! I've been preaching artificial intelligence forever and it’s been a hard sell to corporations, they just didn't see the value. Come along ChatGPT, which made it so that the most non-technical person gets it. That’s why AI is going to be at the forefront of every organization now. Everybody sees the potential. It’s also more accessible. Before, it took years for data science teams to build those models, it was expensive and the cost benefit just wasn't there for organizations to justify the effort. Now you've got these models where you can plug and play, which changes everything. Within these LLMs, Low-Code will be important. My portfolio manager, who doesn't code, just built a portfolio tool, an entire application that we’ve automated, using low-code. Low-Code and AI have the potential to change everything.
The other area of financial services will be Distributed Ledger Technology (DLT). Everybody equates Web3 with Crypto, NFTs, Metaverse, blockchain, these aren't the same thing, just interrelated. These things aren’t disruptive for this space in their own right, but the concept of what Web3 is will transform the financial industry and the supply chain for other industries. Anywhere where there are interrelated parties that share identical or similar data that they pass back and forth, Distributed Ledger blockchain comes in. To me, that’s going to be huge. Most banks have a proliferation of spreadsheets and reconcile all the time. Imagine sharing the same information, which is verified and trusted. It would remove all that excess movement of data, information, and reconciliation. It won’t move as fast as AI. The adoption will be slower because it’s fundamentally going to change the infrastructure, but it’s coming for sure.
Follow-up question, what impact will generative AI have on the financial services industry? Do you see potential opportunities or risks?
The biggest risk with generative AI is that it is just moving too fast. GPT4 went out as a BETA just months ago and now it’s a plug-in. AI has been around forever, but this current iteration is moving so fast we can’t keep up with it. It's trained on a significant amount of public information, which is fundamentally biased and not entirely true. So you can't always trust results, and it's so easy to proliferate false information. Generative AI raises a lot of questions for organizations as they think over their policies. It's difficult to control what goes into these models for training, and the extent of models that will be out there to monitor. There could be proprietary information or other sensitive data inadvertently going in. More than what goes in, what comes out can’t be predicted or controlled either. We've heard that output code has had security implications when deployed into enterprise applications. Until we have some way of being able to control what goes in and explain what comes out, the biggest risk of generative AI will be its unpredictability. In April, I sent my data science lead an article that ranked the top 100 new generative AI applications out of 1000 that launched in that month alone. You can’t keep up with that kind of rapid change. It will come down to controlling the security and the information going in and out and developing tools and systems to determine what is real and what is fake.
You’re a life-long technologist, how can companies help more women get into tech, stay in tech, and make it to leadership roles like yourself?
To help women get into technology, we have to start in school. They’ve got to have opportunities to build that passion for it. We work with academia, we have partnerships with Duke and NYU. Once women are in technology, it can be hard to keep them. So many women struggle with imposter syndrome. It’s hard being in a conference room where everyone is a man, it’s hard being on a team where few look like you. We need women to have power seats. Not just leadership roles, but roles where they hold the power. They need money, decision making power, and they've got to feel heavily supported. It’s so important to promote those people, not just in the organization, but out in the open. Women need to see that other women are succeeding. Women don’t always get the critical work in technology. They fall into QA, project management, and business analysis. There is this sense that women can’t do the heavy lifting of tech. I don't know how we change that perception other than putting people in those roles, giving them guidance and confidence to succeed, and putting them out in the market in those roles. You've got to promote that women are doing this and that it can be done.
I’ve had to really push some of the top performing women on my team to get out in front of leadership because they were too shy. I’ve always had to fight for them, and help give them confidence. Organizations need to do leadership training and confidence building because the men move up because they don't hesitate on their past experience whereas women feel they need to check all the boxes. A lot of women know they're doing a good job but they’re not necessarily going to raise their hand. I’m also a very transparent leader. They see me and how I communicate to others and know that it’s okay to not back down. I don’t need everyone to love me. I can kindly enforce my ground.
It takes men and women to start giving women in tech confidence. Give them the hard projects, the roles where they’re scared to death, and guide them the entire way. There was a point where I finally felt confident in that I knew what I was doing and didn't question myself anymore. It took time and the right people supporting me from behind.
I see “fashion designer enthusiast” on your LinkedIn- please tell me more!
About ten years ago, I went through what I like to say was a quarter life crisis. I realized I needed to do something other than my job because I was finding myself boring. I’m a fashionista, I always have been. I love scanning Pinterest for fashion designs. As a kid, I would look through magazines and clip out designs I loved. I would make things with my mom, but nothing ever fit quite right or there was never a pattern to match my idea. I wanted to learn to make something that was unique, mine. Something I was proud to wear and show-off. I started taking classes at the Fashion Institute of Technology and having fun with pattern making and draping. I got a couture certificate. I also built an app that helped me make slopers, the start of a pattern that is custom to peoples measurements. Now, I have clients that commission clothing. I made a 70th birthday dress for a woman that I flew down to Florida for her birthday party. I probably work 24 hours a day because when I come home from work I go straight to fashion, but I just love it. Everybody needs a hobby- stop making work your life. Shut down in the evening and do other things. It took me many years to be able to do that, I always felt like I had to be there and work long hours because I was competing with all the guys that were staying up late. But that isn’t the case- I can do all my work and still pursue my other passions.
Who helped you rise to this role and how do you pay it forward?
I always say my mom and dad. They helped me learn how to problem solve and strive to take on challenges. Sometimes, it was a bit of tough love because I'd ask about an algebra problem and my dad would hand me a calculus book to study. But they're the reason I take on challenges- because they made me believe I could do anything, I just needed to focus and put in the effort. Aside from my family, there were two managers who stood out. One of them was at Bear Stearns. He's how I got to where I am today. I've known him for over 15 years, and he's been instrumental as a champion for me. He knew startups and emerging technology was my interest. He hired me into Bear Stearns, even trusted putting me in a senior leadership role as Managing Director at a very young age. He even gave me an opportunity after one of my startups was not doing so well. He stepped in to make sure I didn't fall and gave me an opportunity to get back on my feet when I was at one of the lowest points in my career.
The other was my manager at Esteé Lauder. She took me from Estée Lauder to Reckitt Benckiser, where she was the North America CIO during COVID. They make Lysol, so they were doing great, but they were completely reliant on people walking into the stores. When she hired me, she asked me what I wanted to do, and I said innovation. She gave me a chance by allowing me to build my team around this, leading digital and innovation for the North American market. I supported nearly 30 brands across the US and Canada, leading them into the digital era. The job I have now, as Head of Internal Innovation at DTCC, was through my Bear Stearns champion. I probably went through 11 interviews, it was some of the hardest work I’ve ever done. I've always been lucky to have a champion who knew how well I worked and I’ve kept in touch with them. The best way to move up is to have a champion behind you. I keep in touch with everyone I’ve worked with, I believe it’s important to treat everyone the same. You never know what's being said about you behind closed doors, so treating everyone with the same respect and level of effort ensures the closed door conversations put you in the best light. I’ve always collaborated with everybody and did the best I could because you never know what is happening behind the scenes.
What advice would you give your 25 year old self?
I wish that I had better understood the importance of relationships and individual motivations within a company and having a strong network outside. I would tell myself to not be afraid to talk to senior leaders. Don’t just go talk to them about yourself and your work, but think about what it is that they really want. When I’m in a room now, I focus on who's in the room and build that business case keeping their motivations in mind. The other thing is to network. I am an introvert at heart, I've had to force myself onto social media, into meetings, I still really need to motivate myself to get out there, but building your network is just so valuable.
How do you hire? What do you look for in people?
I’m a tough hirer. My team will tell you. The one question I always ask is “why do you want this?”. I’ve actually turned down a couple people that my team really liked because I just didn't hear the passion in their voice. You’ve got to love what you’re going to do. What I look for is someone who’s curious. You’ve got to want to be learning, reading the news, I try to hire people who hand me articles I haven’t read yet and tell me about things I haven’t heard of. In innovation, you need to be willing to challenge the status quo. To borrow a metaphor from a company I worked for, you need to be able to take steam to ice. That means taking something very ambiguous and turning it into something concrete and tangible with almost no guidance.