CEO Lule Demmissie’s Expert Advice on Managing a Fintech Company’s Future
This year has brought its fair share of challenges for our fintech industry. Turmoil in the banking sector casts a massive shadow as interest rates rise higher than Snoop Dogg, and investors exercise more caution in deploying capital.
On top of that, crypto’s trial of the century starts today, with Sam Bankman-Fried, the founder of the failed crypto exchange FTX, taking over headlines as the world watches his fate unfold and the trial shines a harsh glare on the wider fintech sector.
Yet, amidst these hurdles, an opportunity emerges— to improve financial outcomes and enhance inclusivity on a global scale. How can we accomplish this? Listen and bet on women leaders to lead the innovation revolution and get our industry back on track.
According to Plaid data, the rise of fintech worldwide has coincided with increased financial inclusion. In 2021, 76% of adults worldwide possessed a bank or mobile account, a remarkable leap from the 51% recorded in 2011. However, the downside is that this growth is not evenly distributed, particularly in the United States, where only 59% of adults have access to a bank or mobile account, a figure that plunges to 45% among those living in poverty, as per the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation.
To maintain our enthusiasm for the transformative potential of fintech, we must decouple our pessimism concerning capital markets and crypto trials from the power of fintech companies to bridge wealth disparities. These companies hold the potential to provide essential financial tools and services to those who need them most.
This transformative vision finds an embodiment in Lule Demmissie, the CEO of eToro US, who is charting a unique path in the fintech sector. Leading a crypto-investing fintech company amid a year of volatility is no small feat.
But as she likes to put it, “I wore my Hamilton scarf because I’m not going to waste my shot.“
Lule Demmissie, a Black female CEO in fintech, has dedicated her career to paving the way for more women to follow in her footsteps. Her journey from Ethiopia to the United States at 16 led her to Columbia University, where she earned her MBA. Her impressive resume includes positions at TD Ameritrade, Ally, Merrill Lynch, Morgan Stanley, and JP Morgan.
Now at the helm of eToro US, Lule is committed to granting outsiders access to the world of finance through the platform’s ability to engage users with bite-sized investment opportunities tailored to their needs. The platform’s remarkable growth is a testament to its market opportunity, with 14.6 million users joining between the end of 2019 and the end of 2021. In July, eToro secured a $120 million secondary share sale, solidifying its position in the market.
In her role, Lule oversees eToro’s US entity, serving customers in over 47 states. She emphasizes the importance of understanding money, economics, and markets as empowering tools, regardless of wealth status, and sees her mission as more than just a livelihood—a purpose.
One of the critical questions in my most recent conversation with Lule is how to instill inclusivity as a core value within a fintech company and what tangible actions support the future of innovation at a large-scale fintech company.
Keep reading for all the insights from a leading fintech CEO via my Q&A with Lule (edited for clarity and brevity).
Nicole Casperson: How do you intentionally instill inclusivity as a core value within eToro US?
Lule Demmissie: It’s a very complex challenge our society has and will take a few generations to address. Ultimately, where I find my center of gravity and being able to change things is showing instead of telling, which means that representation matters.
Making sure that representation is incorporated into:
- Your friendship circles
- Your network
- Your hiring practices
One thing I always tell people is if you need a diverse friendship circle, go to meetups, do other things, and open your world.
When the center of your friendship circle diversifies, your work network changes and you become a recruiter. You become a valuable recruiter when opportunities come about.
So make sure your nest egg of network and friendship is intentionally diverse.
The other thing that helps is that your life will be more interesting. Because, as I always say, you’re not eating rice pudding every day, right? I guarantee you your life is more enriched by having different people in your life.
The other part is figuring out how to be in a diverse ecosystem business; it takes work. If you’re not practicing it in your personal and network circles, how are you supposed to be good at it in your work circles?
NC: Could you share the strategies or initiatives that eToro US has employed to ensure diversity at the company’s decision-making level?
LD: We operate like a startup in the US, which means we can quickly shape our culture.
Institutionalizing processes may not be the key to progress. We seek diverse talents to align with our millennial customer base, ensuring merit-based hiring while valuing diverse experiences and backgrounds. Our interview panels also prioritize diversity. Our leaders emphasize the importance of inclusivity, setting the tone for cultural routines to stick.
We empower individuals who share our artistic vision. Addressing imposter syndrome is a focus during onboarding. We encourage open sharing during Friday meetings to recognize each team member’s story. Recognizing and acknowledging individuals drives dedication.
In terms of diversity, inclusion, and equity, it requires intentional cultural design and courage from all involved. It’s a combination of cultural intentionality and programmatic design.
NC: What challenges have you faced in promoting this inclusivity?
LD: Many challenges were more prevalent in the past, especially when there was a lot of sensitivity around specific terms and a zero-sum game mindset where inclusion for one meant exclusion for another. Society has been working through these issues, and recent events like the Supreme Court case have added complexity.
Regarding language, “safety” is tricky because courage is essential for growth. Building resilience is crucial to engage in diverse conversations without constantly flinching.
To answer your question about examples of how we’ve promoted diversity, here are a few:
- We encourage people to share their stories in open forums.
- We invite emerging talent to present at our management meetings.
- We organize roundtable discussions where I meet with different teams, allowing them to ask questions and share perspectives.
Accessibility of leaders is vital, as it helps employees believe they are seen and valued.
However, safety alone isn’t sufficient. It can lead to a reliance on others to do the work. It’s a two-way street; we must also put in the effort ourselves.
People often seek my career advice, even if they no longer work at eToro. I provide:
- Tough love.
- Emphasizing the importance of building oneself up.
- Taking risks.
- Not outsourcing risk-taking.
It’s crucial to consider finding a healthier place to thrive in toxic environments. Recognize the difference between resilient toxicity and genuinely damaging environments and take action accordingly.
NC: How do you balance the need to speak up when you see something wrong or want to speak up for yourself and the fear of being pushed out the door?
LD: We often create stories to avoid admitting our mistakes or weaknesses. This tendency can be a hindrance. It’s okay to indulge in this self-pitying narrative momentarily, but it becomes problematic if it becomes habitual and obstructs your progress.
Instead, it’s crucial to objectively analyze the situation and the story you’re telling yourself. Sometimes, you may realize you don’t fit into that narrative as a victim. In such cases, you have two options: change your environment or develop the resilience and networking skills needed to secure your place.
Everyone faces moments where they must make a choice. The critical mental framework to remember is: “Am I constructing a self-serving story, or am I observing the facts?”
NC: What principles do you follow to build employees with tough love?
LD: I’ve learned to trust advice from those who’ve faced failures, as I have. It gives me credibility. However, when I engage with someone, I assess their readiness. Not everyone is prepared for tough love; some may have unresolved issues. So, it’s essential to gauge their readiness. Don’t come in with a heavy dose of tough love for someone who’s struggled all their life. Calibration is key.
The second step is to ask them questions to understand their troubles. People will listen if they feel cared for. I build them up by leading with questions, although I enjoy talking.
Next, I use a technique where I repeat what they’ve said to ensure I understood correctly. This helps them correct their version of the truth, encouraging self-reflection and breakthroughs.
Finally, I ask for permission to provide tough love, emphasizing that I have their best interests at heart. This step only happens if the person is ready for it, as it can be overwhelming for others without the proper preparation.
NC: How do you ensure your team’s view of talent with a nonbiased lens?
LD: It’s not just the majority culture; minority cultures do this too. There’s always a bias towards your own ‘crew.’ What’s helped me is expanding my network to include people from over 40 different countries. The more diverse my connections, the more I realize bridges and tunnels exist for all cultures.
When my circle becomes too homogenous, biases and self-storytelling kick in to foster a healthier company culture and encourage a diverse mix of people to connect and share their stories.
This pays off regarding promotions and other opportunities, which can’t be fixed retroactively. Addressing these issues at the source by promoting cultural adaptability and diverse thinking is crucial to overcoming the problems that plague us in America and beyond.
NC: How would you build company culture with employees who may not trust senior leadership? Or have you been burned by leadership in the past?
LD: Unfortunately, a toxic culture often begins at the top. If leadership fails to set a positive tone, it’s tough to effect change. So, imagine you’ve worked in such an environment where the leader was closed off, didn’t listen, and didn’t make themselves vulnerable. If you carry that baggage to a new company, it’s like bringing cynicism and resentment.
Remember that small risks can be beneficial when transitioning to a new environment with slightly better leadership. By taking calculated risks frequently, you learn to recover quickly. Rapid recovery is crucial to prevent the baggage of a previous lousy environment from affecting your new one.
Work is a significant part of our lives; if it’s unhealthy, it can impact our overall well-being. Before leaving a toxic workplace, address the narratives you’ve told yourself. Sometimes, it’s not just the place; it’s the stories you’ve internalized.
Taking risks in small bites is a valuable tactic. We all have limited energy, and it’s essential to redirect it from dwelling on negativity towards personal growth. Instead of focusing on your fears or shortcomings, shine your “power light” on what makes you stronger.
Effective communication is critical. Approach issues with empathy and the benefit of the doubt for others. Lead with vulnerability, address cultural problems, and avoid making assumptions or telling yourself negative stories.
NC: What have your most successful partnerships had in common?
LD: I’m drawn to optimists who see the glass as half full. They share a common trait: they seize opportunities. Success often aligns with those who grasp the art of giving and taking. It’s essential to understand both sides.
Unfortunately, some business leaders have ascended without being vetted as outstanding human beings. For me, thriving partnerships require two key elements.
Firstly, a sound business logic, which I don’t delude myself about. Secondly, a mindset of openness, generosity, and servant leadership. This is my bias, but I acknowledge it.
Sometimes, I’ve had successful partnerships with people who differ from this description, but they are rare exceptions. Nonetheless, I learned valuable perspectives from them. I seek anything that continually challenges my thinking, providing new insights, including emotional intelligence, in every business venture I pursue.
Watch the Q&A in full: Inclusive Innovation: Managing A Fintech Company’s Future