Young women in developing economies have a champion in Neha Mehta who is aiming to boost their presence in the fintech sector and drive financial inclusion.
“I don’t have a background in tech, and I’m obviously female, so I thought there was a need to combine these two forces,” Mehta states, explaining the rationale behind FemTech. “Women are powerful; we can multitask, we are emotionally very sound, and we make decisions which we abide by. We like to keep it together, whether it’s on the home or business front.”
Growing up in India, she’s seen first hand the disparity between men and women in terms of education and access to capital. Initially, she chose a legal career as a form of empowerment because “knowledge is a big tool when it comes to winning big wars.”
Disillusioned with the corruption in the judiciary system, Mehta moved to a law firm in Singapore. After a while, she decided that the law didn’t enable her to exercise her soft skills and switched to the financial sector. Roles with a hedge fund association and a German exchange helped her to learn about private equity and venture capital.
Then, the FCO came calling with a Chevening Fellowship to study risk management and fintech at King’s College in London. “Achieving fellowship opens big doors for you. People respect you, and it was a great opportunity for me to meet the regulators, industry experts and the fintech ecosystem in London.”
Meeting gender bias
At the end of the fellowship, Mehta returned to Asia to work in fintech, where she came face-to-face with gender bias. She reveals: “I was having a tough time working with my boss because opportunities were coming my way for public engagements where I was supposed to be speaking at different conferences, and I was asked by him not to take it up and tell the organisers of the conference that I was busy so I could nominate him instead. I quickly realised this wasn’t the done thing; that if opportunities were coming to me, why should I be passing it on to you? Also, the way he was talking to me in the office was not acceptable.”
Her response was to vote with her feet. Next stop Amsterdam and a Startupbootcamp. As her contract enabled her to work remotely, she was soon back in Singapore. The experience of working in Europe, she says, brought the contrast with Asia into sharp focus.
“When you’re working in Asia, even in an economy as mature as Singapore, you don’t see a lot of speaking opportunities coming to women, whereas in Europe it was a different ballgame,” Mehta explains. “There are huge numbers of women, and I just feel like I belong there because most times I’m in Singapore, I feel the odd one out. It was the same for me in India.”
She decided it was time to make more noise and create a platform that would give women the confidence to come forward and apply to the fintech sector. In addition to the day job at FemTech Partners, Mehta mentors young women, on a pro bono basis, helping them to find opportunities in fintech.
“Every day I get a lot of requests on LinkedIn where people want to speak to me, and I make sure I take time no matter how busy I am,” she offers. “When I’m on the stage, I’m not just talking for myself; I’m speaking for so many other women who are not there in person but in spirit. So, I’m doing that, and I’m using my social media channels to create awareness that yes, we are small in numbers but that day is not very far when we will be numerous and can shine.
“In India, you will see that a lot of STEM professionals are women. And the number is pretty good in Singapore as well, but we need to make sure that we train them young and empower them, so they feel right about making these choices in the fintech space.”
Unlike in Europe, the work culture in countries like Singapore doesn’t support flexible working. Women with children who want to work from home are perceived as not giving 100%.
However, this might change as a result of the coronavirus lockdown with people being forced to work remotely. People have proved that 100% output is possible. “It’s going to be a game-changer and very beneficial for women because they’re the ones who are always required to be the first person when it comes to taking care of the family,” says Mehta. “Right now, the husband and the wife both are at home, but somehow the women are expected to go the extra mile.”
The pressure on women in Asian cultures to focus on raising a family is one of the reasons why, despite having a presence in the STEM industries, very few are in senior positions.
What FemTech Partners provides
As Team Lead for the FCO’s £1.2 billion prosperity fund in six markets across Southeast Asia, Mehta is focusing on the two sustainable development goals of financial inclusion for women and lifting them out of poverty.
“The second part, again, on the same line, is working with the VSO, an organisation based out of the UK,” she adds. “With them, I’ve been doing a lot of fieldwork, the most recent one was in Bangladesh and the other ones are on hold because of COVID-19. And the idea is pretty much similar; to identify how women get access to capital and how we can use fintech to help them have this money faster and cheaper.”
During the trip to Bangladesh, Mehta was struck by the resilience of the women she met in the villages. Many of whom were working in the fields, as well as running the home and raising children. She also found that they were scared of misusing it as they don’t understand the technology and discouraged by the male members of the family from using smartphones.
“So, it was important for me to explain to them that it’s all right for them to play around and be okay to use it because the phone is a huge tool for them to transact money, receive money, and make payments,” she says. “That was the biggest barrier for them because they feel they don’t have the permission to use it, and thought they would make a mistake.
“Secondly, in a developing country like Bangladesh, not many people feel right about educating girls. Filling that gap much later is not possible because you are choosing from a very early age in terms of what is allowed to a girl.it. It’s tough to change that and empower them – they’re just so used to asking questions and seeking permission.
“Then I figured that most of them have their husbands, let’s say working in Malaysia and sending them money through Bkash. To receive money, they end up paying 2.5% commission, which is a huge amount because the money itself is not big. And if the money is coming piecemeal, you end up paying that commission all the time, every weekend. So, they must understand that they can avoid this by getting the payment and the money in lump sums.
“They said that it’s challenging for them to create a balance at home because most of the time, even when they earn more than their husbands, they have higher earning power. They cannot show it off and call the shots because the society is such that the male member is supposed to be dominating over the female.”
In contrast, women in some of the towns were able to use smartphones and were using Facebook to promote their SME businesses. It proved that the combination of education and the right tools made a significant impact.
Play to your strengths
From her own experience, Mehta stresses that you don’t need to be good with numbers or know how to code to work in fintech. “I feel that not knowing something and being aware of it is a great start,” she argues. “You have choices, either you work on those flaws, or you work on your strengths. In my case, I felt that I’m not going to start learning about technology. Of course, I understand in a very basic fashion how blockchain works, how AI is working in today’s world and what machine learning is, but I would not be able to make expert comments on it. And I feel that it’s important to know your territory and how you can navigate yourself in that.
“I’m a firm believer in having the right education, degree, and starting the career on the right footing. But we also have examples where entrepreneurs with no formal education have done very well starting their own [gigs] with Facebook, Microsoft and there are so many other names.
“So I think we have to be clear in terms of what we want to achieve. If we are looking at having an entrepreneurial journey, then it’s perfectly fine for us to be gambling on starting young and putting in whatever we have in terms of our working hours, capital and a huge amount of hope. If you are one of those people who want to be having a laidback lifestyle and just be very happy with getting a paycheque, then I think it’s ideal for us to be having the right skill set. Still, at the same time, you don’t need to be going to college and getting those degrees, there are so many online courses.”
In attempting to level the playing field, Mehta is keen not to treat men as the enemy. It’s important, she believes, to have “a fair representation of both sides because I think it’s a melting pot of different ideas and how you can make things work.
“I feel that, when we are having some sort of discussion on making it an inclusive world for women, we need to involve men from a very early stage. Not only because we want buy-in from the relevant stakeholders – most of the time, we as females are reporting to male bosses – but also to our peers because we wish to get respect from them, we want them to be earning the same money as us. It’s disheartening to say that sometimes as women, we are not getting the same pay as men do when we are working on the same role.
“We must create that environment where everyone can express problems, and then we also invite male colleagues to be open-minded and have these discussions. Where it’s easy for women to address issues like what I was facing at my workplace and at the same time, having that kind of mindset for a male boss to say okay, I’m not hiring a female because I want to check those boxes where you show diversity. I’m doing that because I believe in her skill set and I’m going to mentor her.”
Finally, Mehta says: “Even if I touch one household and empower a woman to run her own business or set the right example for her kids because you have educated her, you are educating the whole family. And that’s how you educate the whole village. I strongly believe in that because I saw that with my mum. If I can do that, even with one household where I can give her the right skill set and the tools to enable her on this journey, I’m thrilled that I’ve created a change for someone and that will have a ripple effect anywhere.”