Sue Kelsey, EVP Global Prepaid & Financial Inclusion at Mastercard | Episode 28

Welcome to the fifth episode of the Women Leaders in Payments podcast month. A special thanks to our sponsor Paysafe. 

Programs are great, but if the culture doesn’t foster it, then it wouldn’t happen.  And Mastercard’s culture is entirely about inclusion. This is not something that is lip service to us. This is absolutely part of our DNA.

Greg: 

That was Sue Kelsey, the EVP of Global Prepaid and Financial Inclusion at Mastercard. She’s our special guest on this episode, episode 28, as we continue to celebrate Women Leaders in Payments month, sponsored by Paysafe. I’m your host, Greg Myers, and I’m honored to have Sue on the show this week. Sue grew up in a traditional family in the UK, remembers her first job of standing on the sidewalk and asking strangers about detergents beer bottle labels, and more – truly her first discovery of market research and marketing. She has several interesting stories about taking on leadership roles and moving from an individual contributor to a leader. She also has some great advice for young women joining the payments industry and as a strong supporter of many programs and the culture that Mastercard has in support of gender and racial equality. We’ve got a great show this week with a great leader. So let’s get started.

Greg:

Hi, Sue, thank you for being here and welcome to the Leaders in Payments podcast. And more specifically thank you for participating during the Women Leaders in Payments month. 

Sue: 

Hi Greg. Thank you. Thanks for having me. It’s a pleasure to be here. 

Greg: 

So let’s start out telling the audience a little bit about your role today and what you’re doing today, and then we’re going to rewind and talk about your journey to how you got there. 

Sue:

Okay. So today I’m executive vice president at Mastercard. I lead a global consumer products, so that means that I work across payments solutions, such as debits credits, prepaid products, and I lead specific initiatives that are designed to get to certain business outcomes or market outcomes. So one example of that would be I lead Mastercard’s initiative on financial inclusion that is helping to provide access to accounts for unbanked citizens. There’s still 1.7 billion people across the world who don’t have access to something that you and I might think is relatively normal, which is a bank account. And so part of what Mastercard is doing is we’ve made a commitment to the World Bank that we will help to bring 1 billion people in the world’s digital economy by 2025. And that’s one of the key things that I lead for the company.

Greg:

Okay, great. And let’s rewind and talk about your childhood and where did you grow up and what was your life like growing up?

Sue:

So as you can probably tell from my accent, I’m not American. I live in America now, but I grew up in the UK and I grew up in the North of England, very traditional family, and went to school about a mile from where I lived. My mum and dad were, you know, the traditional working family. And when I left school and went to university, which was also in the UK, I did part of my studies in France. And that was where I started my interest and confidence quite honestly, in living in other, in other countries. So that was a real eyeopener moment for me is seeing things in a different way, learning a different language and nobody in my family had ever lived abroad before. So it was a, it was a big deal for us as a family, to me personally.

Greg:

Great. So when you were growing up, would you consider yourself more of the lemonade stand builder or more the planner organizer of the Friday night out with the friends?

Sue:

Oh, I am a definitely an organizer always have been, always will be still am an organizer. Yeah, no, I’m, I’m very much, I love planning.

Greg:

Do you remember what your very first job was?

Sue:

Yes, I used to when I was in university and during the breaks out of term time, I would use to earn a little bit of money by doing market research. So I don’t know if you would remember seeing, you know, sort of people standing in shopping malls or with clipboards and trying to ask people questions. At least that’s how they used to do it. And in those days, and that was my first job was standing out on like the main streets of towns and trying to recruit people to ask them questions about laundry detergent or adverts or packaging on bottles of beer or anything that the research agency needed us to ask questions about. But, um, that was a really, I didn’t know it at the time. I didn’t know it was going to be this, but that was a real pivotal moment, I think for my confidence, because I had to learn to just go up to strangers in the streets and ask them questions.

But the other thing that I learned from that experience was that there was this thing out there called marketing. And I haven’t really appreciated that before. I remember standing on the street one day and I was asking questions about this packaging on this bottle of beer. And I remember thinking, someone’s really thought about these. Like, why are they, what are they kind of figure out? And it uncovered this world of market research to me, which then uncovered the world of marketing. And that’s how I first got really interested in, you know, what consumers think was those days when I was 19 years old, standing on the streets, asking strangers questions.

Greg:

What’s interesting about that is I did a very similar thing when I was young. I was much younger than that actually, before I was able to drive, I remember my mother dropping me off at the mall and I would go to this store and they had me stand there and talk to people as they exited and entered the store and was sort of similar things. So it’s kind of ironic that we both did that.

So, let’s turn to payments, you’ve been in payments for a couple of years, four or five years with Mastercard. What was it that was interesting or intriguing about payments?

Sue:

So, yeah, I joined payments from something entirely different. I came from a consumer packaged goods background and I spent 20 years of my career doing consumer packaged goods marketing. And when I first started learning about the payments industry, I realized that it really was about technology. And I thought, well, if I’m going to be a good marketeer, then I need to understand about technology, the role of the CMO and the CTO were starting to collide at that time, you know, really understanding, you know, what tech means. So I thought, well, that’s a really interesting area and I’ll go and learn about technology. And I have learned a stack around technology and, you know, in consumer packaged goods, for example, the concept of API is, is not commonplace, but it is in payments. So that was a really sort of interesting area for me. But the other thing for me was, you know, I’d spent 20 years in an industry and I’d spent 14 years of that with the same employer. And I thought that I wanted to just try something completely new and see if I could do it. And so that’s what I did.

Greg:

Okay, great. So at that employer you were doing, I think you were in the health care side of consumer marketing. What did you learn from that?

Sue:

Well, an enormous amount, I would say I worked for a company, a healthcare company that was very disciplined on values, very disciplined on leadership and very disciplined on the consumer. And that brought a wealth of experience for me I felt. I learnt what’s consumer obsession really means about not just understanding what consumers do, but understanding why they do it. And even more thinking about trying to predict what they will do in the future and, you know, having all the and disciplines to be able to really understand that consumer mindset, that was something that was really sort of indoctrinated into and it is in CPG marketing. That’s what you learned from from day one is how to understand the consumer, how to predict consumer behavior. So that to me has been really beneficial, you know, as I’ve moved forward, because it doesn’t, to me, it doesn’t really matter what industry you work in. For the most part there’s always somebody who uses it, your product, your solution, your technology. At the end of the day, we are all human. And so just understanding humans consumer as humans I always found is a really helpful end points to figure out what you’re trying to get done for your business. So I would say I really learned in a very deep way that whole understanding of consumer, but I also got a sense of, I really developed a sense of what kind of leader I wanted to be. And there were lots of learnings that I had along the way, but, you know, I, I always say, you know, my sort of my ethos is about what I call the three T’s, which is transparency, teamwork, and talent. I feel like if I operate, if I can’t operate, if I do operate in that way, that’s the rights frame to brand thinking about your people and how do you put them first thinking about collaboration and teamwork, because none of us work in isolation and always being transparent about what we’re trying to get done and how we’re trying to get it done. I think fosters positive outcomes. So that was something that was, that really grew for me in that environment.

Greg:

Great. And it sounds like, I mean, obviously you’ve been very successful in your career so far. What are some of your guiding principles?

Sue:

You know that a good question because some of those for me were formed very early on in my career and some of them have formed later. So I’ll give you an example of something that formed very early in my career, the first company that I ever worked for another consumer packaged goods company, they used to have phrases on the walls of meeting rooms. And one of the phrases was if in doubt, don’t do nothing. And I always found that really helpful because there’s always going to be a decision that needs to be made. And there are going to be times when you have to make a decision without all the information and that’s just life. But that phrase said to me, it’s better to fail and learn than to do nothing at all. And I’ve used that as one of my philosophies, because I feel it that allows you to make progress.

And some of that progress is going to be a baby step forward. And some of it is going to be well, we didn’t quite get it right, but that’s okay because we’re not going to make that mistake again. So that’s one that I learned quite early on in my career, but I’d say that, you know, that my sort of guiding principles have been, I’ve been layering them, you know, as I’ve gone through my career, I’ve always felt that it’s the right you have to do what is right. The right thing for your business and the right thing for your people. And if I have that philosophy in mind, I feel like I can live with my decisions. Sometimes we all have to make tough decisions and sometimes we’re going to feel good about them. Sometimes you’re not going to feel good about them, but if I can rest back and say, did I do the right thing for the business? Did I do the right thing for the people? Then I can live with a clear conscious, then I can move forward. So let’s say there’s a two of my principles. If, you know, if in doubt don’t do nothing, always do the right thing for the business and always do the right thing for the people. 

Greg:

Yeah. Great. I think those are both very good guiding principles for sure. Most of us in our careers have had sort of a aha moments or eye opening moments in our careers. Could you maybe talk about a few of those you’ve had.

Sue:

Sure. Gosh, so many to choose from. I guess one that I would call out was when I first moved from being an individual contributor to being a leader of people and that’s, it was a real falling off a metaphorical cliff. I remember the day quite clearly, my divisional president had come to me and had said, you know, great news, you’ve got a new job and your team are down the hallway waiting for you. And this is the first time that I’d ever really led, you know, I’d work manage one or two people before, but this was a team of 20 odd people. And even though I’d been at the company for a long time, I walked into this meeting room and I knew hardly anybody. And you know, I’m not afraid to say it. You know, my legs were shaking as I walked into that room because I remember thinking these people are going to find me out.

They’re going to realize, you know, that I’ve not managed people before and I’m going to get, you know, the sort of whole impostor syndrome thing was very strong. The force was very strong at that moment. And I walked into the room and I pulled out one of my guiding principles and I’ve always do the right thing by your people. And I figured, you know what, we’re all human. We’re all getting to know one another. So I thanked the person who was, who’d been doing the role before me and I just got personal. And I said, look, you know, this, this is me, I’m a mom. I have two kids. I told them a little bit about my family. And I asked everybody around the room to, if they were willing to, to share something similar with me and we didn’t talk about the business at all.

And I didn’t, again, didn’t realize it at the time. But, you know, I recall back on that scenario when somebody had said to me sort of years afterwards that they actually, it’s the first time that anybody had asked them about sort of something to say something personal about their family or whatever it was. And so just making that bridge in a very human way, very early on, I think was helpful. But I class sort of, I called it the sort of metaphorical falling off a cliff moment because this comes back to, I don’t know if you, I’m sure that many of the people listening to this will recognize the phrase. I think it was the title of a book. What got you here? Won’t get you there. And that was super true for me in this moment, because what had got me to that point was being really, you know, on top of things, being the organizer that we just spoke about, you know, having control of the situation, doing things myself and I had to turn on a dime to not doing things myself, not being in control of the situation and empowering other people to do things.

And you’re trusting other people to get stuff done in a way that’s, you know, I had to pull back from, and that was quite uncomfortable moment for me for a while because I’d had, you know, whatever it was 10 years of being successful in a completely different way. So that was a real eye opener. But I think you’ve just got to lean into that. You’ve just got to realize that you have to operate a different way. And that’s true. I think as you know, in many different situations of your career is you’re going to find that you might need to operate in a different way in a situational leadership. That was a very big version of that. For me, that was definitely an eye opening moments. But I have another example of if it helps. So this is a definite learning that somebody else afforded me.

And when I was working for my previous employer, we had a new head of the division come in, a very ambitious, assertive, incredibly smart leader. And her she’d brought a proposal to a group of sort of, she pulled a group of 50 of us together across the organization. And she had revised the business strategy and she wanted to share it with us, brought us all together, put this Powerpoint up on the charts. It was a typical, you know, cathedral shaped strategy charts, if you know what I mean, where that sort of roof on the top and a big point. And she said, look at this strategy, what do you think? But really what she was saying is isn’t that amazing? Isn’t this an amazing work that I’ve just done? And the 50 of us went silent and some brave soul raised his voice and he said, there’s nothing I can fault on this from a business perspective, but I can’t win heads and hearts with this. I can only win heads. It’s a very rational explanation. There’s no emotion in here. And you know, I’m so grateful to that leader. And so that individual who contributed that feedback, because that was a real eye opening moment for me, you can’t assume that communication is the one form of communication I should say is going to be the answer. People have different motivations. People have different styles and this concept of winning heads and hearts has really stuck with me of, you need to give the logic, but you also need to give the passion behind it. You need to give the emotion behind it. And that’s one of the things that I’ve really enjoyed in my current role about the work that we do. For example, in financial inclusion is there’s a straightforward rationale as to why we do that, but often it’s the passion that makes the difference. And so I’ve always, since then, I’ve always really tried to bring that balance of rationale and passion together because I’ve found that it’s a more compelling concoction to bring a greater sense of followership to what you’re trying to do with the business.

Greg:

Great, the head and the heart that’s very powerful, isn’t it? 

Sue:

Isn’t it it’s yes, absolutely. 

Greg: 

And basically, you know, you’ve started to talk about sort of what this whole month is about, and that’s really leadership and, you know, you stepping into that role for the first time and then having someone else come in as a leader and kind of all how that worked out. So let’s dive into women leaders and let’s start talking about it specific to payments. What letter grade would you give the industry and why would you give that letter grade?

Sue:

Oh, that’s a great question. Okay. I would give the industry a solid B plus, can I do that? Can I give a plus?

Greg:

Yes, absolutely. Okay.

Sue:

Alright. I’m going to give it a B plus. And the reason why is I think, and this podcast and the work that you guys are doing is a great example of putting a real emphasis around women in payments and making sure that there is an agenda there, a balance there that’s, I’ve worked in different industries. And I would say is certainly more prominent in the payments industry than it is in other industries that I’ve worked in. So that’s, that’s a good thing. And I know some astounding women leaders in the payments industry who I’ve learned a ton from. So that’s also a really positive thing. Now I would say that we’ve probably got a little bit more work to do. And I think that that starts very early on, you know, payments is relatively tech oriented, you know, the traditional engineering background, et cetera, which by the way I didn’t come from, but I know many people do come from and making sure that we engage at an early stage girls, but even in like STEM STEM subjects or that’s, you know, they’re, they’re well supported that there’s no bias against that and really encouraging and fostering the opportunity for girls.

We have a program at Mastercard called Girls for Tech and few through that, we bring in, you know, high school students to show them some sense of how to enable, you know, what you can do with coding and payments or how to think about network effects. So that girls very early on can get insights to that. That’s something that’s I never had when I was growing up. And, you know, so I’m very keen to support that. So I think that there’s more work for the industry to do at large, but I do think that we’re starting from a solid base. 

Greg: 

Great so beyond getting girls started early through STEM and other programs. What else do you think the industry could do to make it better or different for women in payments?

Sue:

I think the network effect is really important. It is in general, I personally really enjoy it, the networking connections that I’ve made. And by the way, that’s not a payments thing, right. That’s just a career thing. But I do think it helps within payments as well. Payments is such an interconnected industry that it’s very important for women to be able to create; it’s important for everybody to be able to create a network. But I think it’s equally important for women to be able to make that network because there are a lot of things going on in our lives and having the ability to share that, connects with people. The payments industry is also very much about connecting dots. And I don’t mean between people. I mean, between business opportunities, if that is working over here, could that help to solve this problem over there? Can I bring in a partnership opportunity here, et cetera. And so I think creating stronger connections between female leaders in the payments industry is something that can really open up new opportunities and grow the sector as a whole. 

Greg:

Sure and as we strive to get to that A plus, and you mentioned a few things in ways that we could do that from a timing perspective, if you had to get your crystal ball out, when do you think that that could happen, where we could get from that B plus to an A plus?

Sue:

Well, I think it will depend upon a couple of things. I think the payments industry at large is pushing more towards C-suites female leadership. Entities like the 30% Club are really helping to support that agenda. So I’m going to lay a challenge down that, and I’m going to say within the next 18 months, and you know, there are many people who may be listening to this and let’s think about what that looks like. And maybe we can all play a role in that.

Greg:

Yeah. I love that. I love that you mentioned something that, and I always ask this question because I think people coming into the industry, I hear this all the time. I just fell into the industry and I think that’s right. That’s so true about payments. I mean, I started 15 years ago. It wasn’t looking to come into payments. Didn’t even really know what payments was, but it’s different today. Like you’ve got major colleges who have Fintech programs. I mean, you can learn so much now at an early age. And I think with all the money and investment and just visibility that the industry has gotten over, say the last five years, it’s become a place where people want to work. So thinking about a young lady coming out of college, who wants to get into payments, what advice would you give her?

Sue:

So I would say be prepared to learn something complex, but what’s really nice about payments is, well, firstly, it’s a high growth sector. And so there’s a lot of, and it’s really the intersection between finance, technology and capital investments. And so my advice would be think about it with that in mind, it’s diverse enough for you to have a career that stems everything from startups, you mentioned Fintech through to M&A, through to technology builds and products developments, through to the we’re all moving forward to sustainability in payments to inclusion and really providing access for people across the world and to provide societal impact. So I think payments offers like many careers all inside one industry, which I think is pretty cool.

Greg:

Yeah, absolutely sure. Is any other advice you can think of? 

Sue:

I would say stay connected with people as you go through it. Don’t be afraid to ask the obvious question because it is a complex industry and there are many acronyms and there are many different players. So if something comes up and you don’t understand what it is, don’t be afraid to ask. You know, I always say the best way to understand something is to be able to explain it to somebody else that is the best way to learn and very early on in your career, I would, and I would live with that. You know, don’t be afraid to ask those questions and really learn the industry well.

Greg:

Great. Very Sage advice. I think let’s talk about Mastercard. What is Mastercard doing that would help foster an environment where a woman can bring their full selves to work and be successful?

Sue:

Yeah, that’s a great question. Thank you. So, a huge amount, actually, we have a huge emphasis around gender equality at the company. I personally lead companies efforts around gender equality, through our partnerships, through our product solutions. And we equally apply that to our own employee base and to how we feel like we can impact society as well. So it’s a very big priority for the company. And that goes to everything from recruitment through to life managements, maternity leaves, returning to work. We have a program where, as you’ve been out of, out of industry for, for awhile, we have a return to the industry program. We have a Girls in Tech program for girls who are very early on and still learning. But I do think that the culture is as much a part of the success as anything programs are great, but if the culture doesn’t foster it, then it won’t happen.

And Mastercard’s culture is entirely about inclusion. This is not something that is lip service to us. This is absolutely part of our DNA, making sure that we have diversity in our workplace, whether that’s gender, whether that’s race, whether it’s anything else. We’re very focused on that. And it is absolutely true to our DNA. And that was very striking to me actually, when I joined the organization four and a half years ago is the absolute truth and fundamental belief in diversity as a superpower. And so I think that the culture that wraps around that is one of the most critical components of it. And that’s something that’s really important for us at Mastercard.

Greg:

Great. So we’ve covered a lot so far. We’ve talked about your career and your views on leadership, and then obviously what Mastercard is doing, which are wonderful things. Is there anything you’d like to leave the audience with before we wrap up?

Sue:

I would say one of the things that I had in hindsight benefited from in my career, not just in payments, but you know, beyond that is, go ask for what you want. If it’s a job, if it’s a, I don’t know if it’s a new experience, if it’s a, a new aspect and you way of looking at things, be clear about what it is you want, and then don’t be afraid to ask for it. Some of the real step changes I’ve had in my career have been because I was afraid at the time, but I did it anyway is because I asked for it. And so my advice would be, don’t be afraid to ask. 

Greg: 

Yeah, I think that’s very powerful. Well, Sue, I really appreciate your time today. Thank you so much for being here. I know your time is valuable, so I want to be sensitive to that. So, thank you so much for being here. 

Sue:

My pleasure, Greg, it’s been a pleasure. Thank you for having me.

Greg: 

Absolutely. And to all you listeners out there. I thank you for your time as well. And until the next story…

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