Women in leadership: expanding access to those underserved by the traditional financial system

By Susan Petty

The World Bank estimates that about 1.7 billion adults around the world are without a bank account at a financial institution or through a mobile money provider. Those are the customers served by Tala, a fintech firm with a mission to expand financial access to people underserved by the traditional financial system. Tala’s CFO, Jennifer Loo, EMBA 14, “manages the company’s financial health so we can improve the financial health and circumstances of our customers.”

When she started the Berkeley MBA for Executives program, Jennifer was VP Finance, Business Strategy, and Analytics at LegalZoom, a company she could have “worked at forever.” But her MBA studies and classmates inspired her to pursue new opportunities. Before landing at Tala, she served as CFO at a sustainable apparel retailer and a Latino digital media company. She also holds a JD degree from New York University.

The conversation has been condensed and edited.

What is it about finance that compels you?

I really love puzzles and I find that finance is really one giant puzzle. You’re trying to figure out how to make all of the pieces of the business work with the available resources. You deal with a lot of different stakeholders, many of whom may have divergent motivations, needs, and demands.

Finance puts you at the epicenter of a business, where you can have a birds-eye view of the entire enterprise. I have to look at operations, product, marketing; I love the freedom to dig in anywhere to figure out what is working, or not.

How well are women represented in leadership roles in finance?

It’s getting better. But there’s still a long way to go. The good news is that we are seeing many more women take CFO or heads of finance roles. A few years ago, I attended a Women CFO event in Los Angeles – five of us showed up. But my Rolodex of female peers has since increased manifold.

That said, the investment community is still woefully underrepresented. I remember when I was raising debt at the apparel company I worked for, and our broker urged us to take a particular term sheet – not because it was the best, but because the firm was the only one that had a female partner, and she would ‘get us’ better. We turned down the term sheet. And the broker. The reality was, we didn’t need a female partner to understand our business because the numbers, economics, and operations spoke for themselves.

We need more representation in the investment community so that investing in female-centric brands or female-led companies is simply good business.

What gives you the greatest satisfaction in your role?

Beyond driving revenue and a healthy bottom line, the companies where I’ve worked have each had a bigger purpose. At LegalZoom, it was providing access to legal services and products—something that typically requires a certain level of affluence in the US.

Tala has the most audacious mission of anywhere I’ve worked. We are trying to solve a massive, trillion-dollar global issue one customer at a time. Even though Tala does not have a single customer in the US, we hear and read customer stories on a daily basis about how the financial access we create is changing lives by helping them start and maintain businesses, send their children to school, or weather unexpected storms. I find this incredibly rewarding. 

What is your greatest challenge?

Immediately, it is helping drive the company’s near- and long-term decisions in times of unprecedented uncertainty.

Some element of uncertainty always exists in Tala’s business. We work in emerging markets, where things like regulations and the competitive landscape can change on a dime. We need to be on top of those dynamics and continuously adapt our business model. In a time when no one – not VCs, lenders, customers, or us – can see clearly around the corner, we need to remain alert, nimble, and adaptive.

I graduated law school in the middle of the 2009 financial crisis. My best advice is to be open to all opportunities. These times call for resilience, flexibility, and open-mindedness. You need to have the courage to change."

What prepared you for your current role?

Every experience I’ve had along the way! I love finance because you can always grow your core skill set, learn more. I’m now at my fourth company and my fourth industry. So much of what I’ve learned in one place helps me in the next.

How did you develop your leadership style?

My CFO at LegalZoom defined a lot of my style, and it was reinforced at Berkeley Haas: Lead honestly and transparently. Don’t avoid the tough questions. Be supportive of your team’s development and always foster healthy debate. Leadership requires rolling up your sleeves, but also being able to pull back and see the forest for the trees.

What advice would you have for women aspiring to leadership?

It is important to be authentic, tenacious, vocal, and present. Make sure you’re being heard. Don’t let little setbacks or self-doubt hold you back. Trust yourself and keep going.

What advice do you have for graduates entering the workforce right now?

I graduated law school in the middle of the 2009 financial crisis, so I understand the feeling that life has thrown you a massive curveball. My best advice is to be open to all opportunities. These times call for resilience, flexibility, and open-mindedness.

You need to have the courage to change. The Berkeley MBA for Executives program and my classmates taught me that. I remember the first time someone announced to the class that they had quit their job. You could have heard a pin drop. No one knew how to respond. After a few months, when someone made that kind of announcement, they received a standing ovation. The program gave us the courage to change.

Most of us have – during or since the program – taken on new roles or started our own companies. Always give yourself the freedom to explore something different, because every new chapter is guaranteed to bring new adventure, new learnings, and growth.

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Topics: Finance  |   Executive MBA  |   Women in Leadership  |   Career
Susan Petty
Susan is Director of Admissions for the Berkeley MBA for Executives Program. She has nearly twenty years of experience in marketing and advertising, having worked in several different industries including technology, travel, healthcare -- and many others from her media planning days at J. Walter Thompson where her clients included Chevron, Kaiser Permanente, Nestle, and Ford. She enjoys advising prospective students and guiding them through their personal MBA experience.