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Sustainability Perspectives

Episode 60: Women in FinTech: Meet Anna Anisin and Rose Punkunus

In recognition of Women’s History Month, the Refinitiv Sustainability podcast is hosting a limited release series highlighting and celebrating Women in STEM and the FinTech community. Tune into our first episode where we speak to Anna Anisin, founder and CEO of boutique B2B marketing firm, Formulated.by, and Rose Punkunus, founder and CEO of Sudozi. Our speakers discuss their career journeys, the importance of diversity in the industry, what it takes for women to achieve their goals in the financial sector, and more.

Guests - Anna Anisin, Russian-American Entrepreneur and Rose Punkunus, Founder and CEO of Sudozi

  • Keesa: Welcome to the Refinitiv Sustainability Perspectives podcast. Today we begin our Women in Fintech series all throughout March. We're spotlighting women who are delivering solutions today that will shape the fintech industry tomorrow. Anna Anisin was named a tech industry insider by CNN three years in a row. Her background includes CEO for cloud storage provider 4Sync. Then she became co-founder of Passare, a collaboration software in the funeral industry. After exiting Passare, Anna joined the founding team at Domino Data Lab, working on building an enterprise data science management platform. Currently Anna is running a boutique B2B Marketing Firm, formulated.by, and is founder of the data science community event series, Data Science Salon, and is also a contributor on data science and marketing at Forbes. 

    Welcome Anna to the podcast. I am really curious to hear about your firm formulated.by and really bringing together events with AI. But first of all, if the listeners are anything like me, we really want to understand what collaboration software in the funeral industry means, I have never heard of that before. 

    ANNA:  I get that a lot and that’s definitely, you know, a kind of a morbid thing that people don’t think about a lot but it’s something that’s really actually solving a big problem for people because I am sure a lot of us have had a death in the family and sometimes you have no idea what to do. Or where to go. Or pretty much, how to approach the situation. So, what Passare does is really help that person figure out what to do or how to find a funeral home, get rid of the body, how to collaborate with the funeral home and the other family members. To really make it nicer, take the stress away from the family and let the software do a lot of the work and the organizing. So that was really in a nutshell what it is. In any industry, it’s a SAAS platform form managing that process.

    KEESA: Wow, and clearly you are a groundbreaker. That is just the tip of the iceberg given to the areas of where you are breaking more ground. Tell us about your firm, Formulated.by. And the use of data and science to really formulate this one-of-a-kind face to face digital experience.

    ANNA: I started this firm in San Francisco about 5 years ago now and moved It to Miami and we really flourished here. We are really focused on a niche space, machine learning and data science and AI. We work with companies that are pretty much doing innovative groundbreaking things in that space. We help them with marketing and we are very data driven on our end as well. When we were doing our in-person events, we had an algorithm that we created that looked for conversations in different parts of the space and we were focused on the US market but we could figure out where people were talking about the topics and the conversations in the space that were relevant and we’d go to those markets with our events, the Data Science Salons, which really worked really well for us to really grow that community. So, and we really have been able to implement that similar strategy for our clients and then as COVID hit, we were able to pretty much pivot everything and do everything virtually. As you can imagine, there’s a lot more data out there virtually now since people are kind of communicating in a virtual world so we were actually able to scale and grow and grow our team and everything, so it’s been really exciting. We are always working on a lot of different projects and seeing how many, you know, just what’s going on in the industry. It’s really groundbreaking. I am really honored to be a part of the space.

    KEESA: So Anna, let’s start from the earliest part of your career. Did you start of in Data? Were you a coder or was it more of a marketing strategy perspective that you had? 

    ANNA: Yes, for me, it’s funny. For me, I dropped out of college to start my first company. And that was really kind of what really drove me here into tech because at that time, this was you know, more than 15 years ago now. There was no, you know, bootcamps or GA or you know, academies or online courses or anything like that to teach you things. So, I have pretty much taught myself a lot of marketing, basic coding and you know, built communities from the ground up and was acquired by a Japanese company randomly. So, this started you know, my career. Then I went back to school and got my business, you know, management degree. So, and but, I’ve always been really into kind of business. Like growing business. Business ideas, like really you know, looking for kind of you know, pretty much a space where there was, you know, kind of nobody there. Like the funeral industry, is one of those. For sure, that was the strategy, you know, looking for people you know, spaces that were not yet really crowded. And also, marketing, yes, that’s always been you know, I was one of the first people on Twitter. I was always very into social media and growth and community. And that’s always been the strategy that really, that I used to drive growth. The endeavors that I have been involved in. 

    KEESA: You mentioned your firm was randomly acquired by a Japanese firm. I have a feeling that this was not so random. Could you take us through the process for those that are interested and talking to possible firms that are possibly interested in acquiring? How did you make that happen and get your firm positioned on the market so this can happen? 

    ANNA: Well, I think there is definitely a couple of different ways to do that. For me, it was more a lucky thing. Because I met a person that would introduce me to the buyer. One of the first conferences I went to is where I met a person there and it was a random acquisition because they were looking for you know, users because I grew that community to about a quarter million. You know, women from 18-35. And they wanted that data, so you know, so it was like a no-brainer to get it acquired. But I think these days, there are definitely a lot of you know, especially now, a lot of acquisitions happening. Especially internationally. So, there is definitely you know, you can join communities, you can find brokers that can help you sort that out. Because there is definitely if you have data or a really community strong userbase so you can show a monthly revenue, you can definitely have and make a sale for the right buyer. 

    KEESA: So, founders who have these buyers approaching them, are there two or three top resources or mentors or top individuals that they need to have in their orbit? Who do they need to have as advisors or what resources do they need to have? Top 2 or 3?

    ANNA: Well, I think it is definitely depending on the size of your business. But I think if you're doing anything more than a million dollars in revenue per year then you should definitely have like a CFO that could advise you or also like you know external advisors or board that an advise you on things like that. But you know, I couldn’t really specifically give you like one individual. I think it would be like case-by-case basis. But it would be really you know, looking at the numbers and looking at the you know, the pros and cons right, of you staying the business and generating the revenue yourself, or actually selling it and having that chunk of money right, to reinvest. I think it is kind of a numbers game here. 

    KESSA: Having those finances in order all the time. 

    Anna: Yes! 

    KEESA: So, you came into your current business and had done it before and it was something not new to you. But for those who are going through owning a business, particularly women, particular now in 2021. We know the numbers of the women who exit the workplace over two million in 2020, pandemic related. What would you say to them right now as things look a little bleak? What type of advice would you give to them that would really resonate for those that are going through a bleak time?

    ANNA: I think you have to see what you like doing and figure out. You know, there are cases that women actually want to be stay at home moms which I think is a totally fine thing to do. And I have actually had friends who ended up doing that. One of them likes it and one of them does not. And for the one that does not, I definitely always tell her that she should not give up applying for jobs, she should look for maybe, alternative kind of things like bootcamps and workshops and things that maybe doing some continuous education just in the field that you are interested in and maybe even starting a business or exploring an idea that you have always wanted to do. That is a really great opportunity and time to do that because right now we are going to see a lot of growth happening next year. It is going to be like the roaring twenties all over again.

    KEESA: so, for those who have started businesses and are finding it difficult. What resources or words of encouragement would you offer to them? 

    ANNA: Yeah, I mean I think just for me, it is always been networking and meeting other women and other people just who can help you. I think that is really, you know, it depends again what kind of resources you are looking for but I think just starting you know, if you're not on LinkedIn already you should go on it and set up your profile and start networking with other folks on there who can help you. Also, joining other groups also. There are a lot of other female led groups that are really I think, I started a meet up here for female entrepreneurs in Miami 5 years ago. You know, I think right now we have a couple of thousand members in that .i think every city has something similar where you can go and ask for help. And there is always somebody there that can help you. Even Next Door is a place where people can go and ask for help. And there are definitely resources that you’ll find that you never knew that you had. So, I think just being very open and honest and approaching people and being friendly is really and will get you really far. I think especially now.

    KEESA: In terms of things that will get you far, this great insight of talking to people and networking. In terms of technical skills, what are the top 3 calling languages that you would recommend? Are they industry specific, for example I learned a bit of Python for FinTech? Any other languages out there that you’d recommend people to start learning if they are interested in data analytics and data science? 

    ANNA: Yes, I think Python, you nailed it. Python is the language of the most popular coding language in data science. Before it used to be R but now Python but I think R is still important and should be considered, especially if you’re doing any statistics even in marketing. A lot of heads of analytics, they know some R and Python. Those are the main 2 languages. Julia is also kind of up and coming so we will kind of see what happens to that one. But definitely Python if you had to choose one and do that I would focus on Python. 

    KEESA: The world of MarTech in 5 years. What is going to be the biggest difference? Something that is going to catch us by surprise in terms of where it is now and then in the next few years? 

    ANNA: I think gosh, it will be a lot more precision on the data that we are getting right. There is going to be a lot more information that we can get to make all of our marketing and advertising much better and more targeted. And more organic. So, I think that is where all of that is going. And I think that tools like HubSpot and those kinds of tools are just going to get smarter and you know, better, but I don’t know, you know, from the marketing point, it’s good from the consumer point. I don’t know if that is good or bad. You know, because the more information we have on the consumer, it’s just, you know, I don’t know if that’s really something that, people really like. And I think as the generation of people that have always been on social media have kind of let that go. But I think that we are going to lose more and more privacy and data I think in the next 5 years. 

    KEESA: Data privacy continues to be a debate and we expect it to be a debate in the years ahead. Thank you so much for joining us. Great insight! 

    ANNA: Thank you! 

    KEESA: Joining us next today, is Rose Punkunus. She is the founder and the CEO of Sudozi. Rose, thank you so much for joining! 

    ROSE: Of course! Thank you Keesa for having me.

    KEESA: So, one thing that is very interesting Rose, is that your background is as a CFO, as a financial officer. So, I would assume that starting with a finance background is a pretty good place to be if you are interested in being a founder. Can you let us know your journey from being a finance role to being in the role of founder and CEO?

    ROSE: Yeah sure of course. I’ll actually start a bit before I got into a finance role. I was in finance at Uber early in 2013 where there were just a few hundred employees all around the globe. But actually, before Uber, between my MBA and Uber, I actually worked at Apple in the iTunes department. At the time, the data science and analytics team were very small. I was the only business analyst on the video business covering Apple TV, movies and television shows. And so, from there, just using my analytics and business strategy skills, they actually moved into the finance department at Uber because of the organizational structure and how they had organized their business analytics and pricing internally. And so, I got into finance at Uber and if you have taken an Uber ride since 2013, I actually oversaw all of pricing, macro and micro, so if you have had a surge price, I was responsible for the algorithm and pricing strategy there globally. At uber, because of the way the company grew from 2013 onwards, I really got to see how fintech played a role internally. In the payment reels, moving money from riders to drivers, from the finance workflows, and then also algorithms and optimization. That is what really got me interested in the career of FinTech. Afterwards, I really doubled down on actually being a VP of Finance and then a CFO at 2 FinTech companies afterwards. And so after that, then founding Sudozi.

    KEESA: So, going in being the founder of Sudozi, you have mentioned quite an interesting path from being a CFO to going into Sudozi. What particular characteristics? What skills served you well asy ou were contemplating becoming a founder? 

    ROSE: The ability to have the quantitative skills certainly helped me position from being a CFO to a founder. Also, I had the opportunity to have a diverse set of experiences in different companies prior to being a founder. From analytics, to product, actually into some design aspects as well. You’d be surprised how much design actually impacts FinTech and financial products. So, those exposures also helped me transition to being a founder. 

    KEESA: So, we talked about what helped you transition and I am sure that there are probably people, mentors, role models in the industry that really gave you some insight. Talk us through how you came across these role models or mentors or even sponsors and what did they bestow upon you to help you make that switch? 

    ROSE: Yeah, I have had the fortune of working with a number of role models and direct managers and people who I have watched as they have taken on leadership roles. In the FinTech world directly, I think seeing how the problems that existed in both PayPal and a couple of others where not everyone saw problems, seeing these insights turned into amazing business solutions and really companies that are so large now. That is kind of a higher-level aspirational mentor. Closer to me, the CEOs I have worked with at all the companies that I've been at, I have had the opportunity to work with them relatively closely. I have seen them really just be able to fight through various challenges and whether that is people’s opinions or actually business challenges, and seeing them persevere. That really had an impact on me and my decision to found the company. 

    KEESA: Great. And also, in terms of your decision to found the company, especially in terms of seeing the challenges of your CEOs that have gone through. We know about Uber and the issues around pay. As well as around gender, alleged gender discrimination issues that were alleged. Could you give us some thoughts around how that helped you better design your own company in some of the social issues that were top of mind for you as you were inspired to create your firm? 

    ROSE: Yeah, and this is something that I speak to pretty frequently to people I interview and just have conversations with. I think a lot o the chaos is something caused or attributed to being a start-up can actually be resolved with good communication and a little bit more focus on HR earlier on. You don’t have to spend all day focusing on HR, but really having that empathy of the employee base, having the empathy of the person who you are speaking with, and whether it be the customer, a teammate, someone who reports to you. Um, having more of that much earlier on can help tremendously as you are scaling the company. And something that I have focused on earlier on is actually doing more of that. Again, not as a distraction of the business, I think it helps the business later on. A quick example is that I actually offer health insurance already, even though we are just a few employees. So having that empathy earlier on, in my opinion, has really and can really accelerate the business later and not distract it with some of these other issues.

    KEESA: Wow, that is great and has given good vibes of John Matthews compassion and leadership with the insurance especially. Let’s get into Sudozi, tell us about the model and tell us about what you are looking to change with your firm.

    ROSE: Yeah, so Sudozi really came out of my personal challenges trying to find software that did this set of function that I am solving for. The best example is actually an analogy where there is enterprise level software that help companies that manage vendors keep track of spend requests internally and just have a better organized process around spend. Especially, as we are in a much more remote environment. It is very hard to go to a finance person, tap them on the shoulder and say hey, I am going to spend XYZ on a marketing campaign and will send you an invoice later. All of that can be quite overwhelming in both a large and small organization. I looked into software, there are some out there like SAP, Arriba, my analogy is that for a company that is fifty people to five hundred people, if you get those offers, like buying a school bus to drop off 2 kids at daycare. And so, I didn’t really find anything that was both fitting my budget as well as the software tools that I needed to help manage vendors and track data the way I needed it to be done. And eventually, to help the expedite forecasting and budgeting as well. And so, I am building this set of tools and features to help finance leaders in a small and medium sized company. Maybe a couple of hundred people, really to be able to have a lightweight process of tracking vendors when those renewals are coming up. How we are paying those vendors to help keep track of cashflow and also to be able to be aware of who internally in your organization is responsible for each of these vendors. Do you have, 2 different contracts with the same vendor from different departments? All of that stuff is pretty hard to keep track of manually. 

    KEESA: I love that analogy of buying a school bus to pick up 2 kids. That really describes things in a very fundamental way, the lightweight process to track vendors and cashflow when you are working at scaling for your business size. A lot of what we are talking about has its roots in STEM, so science, math, technology etc. Can you tell us a bit about your STEM background? Particularly as a younger person and how do you think that impacted your decision in terms of moving forward software at this point in your career? 

    ROSE: Yeah, so I was fortunate enough to have a public school system that did actually have computer science. It had a research program and I was able to partake in some of those programs at the high school level. You know, there were not in my memory, those equivalent opportunities at middle school or earlier. I think if those opportunities existed, I would have definitely been interested in that. But I certainly have exposure to software development and some of these other fields at an earlier level. That really had a big impact on me. And so, after I graduated from college, I helped work with an organization that brought actually opportunities and entrepreneurship to high school and younger girls. The earlier that you can expose all races and all genders to this type of activity, you know, more quantitative, more entrepreneurship activity, I think that the less you have to do to do catch up later. And so, my strategy and my belief are that the earlier that you can expose people to this, the more equal it is going to be later on. 

    KEESA: And speaking of equality and exposure which is a great point. There has been progress made recently to address the gap in terms of pay, in terms of equity. In your opinion, what can be done to help us get there quicker? And are you able as a founder and CEO of your own company, have you been able to come across any tips or strategies that can help us get there quicker in terms of getting to pay equality? 

    ROSE: I certainly do. I could talk on this question for many minutes. But I will focus on the major stage of career and salary and whatnot. I think one of the things I have seen in the tech industry is having specific requirements before roles that may not necessarily actually be helpful for that role. And so I'll just focus on product for example. In many product roles, one of the requirements is having an engineering degree and I think that companies who have that can evaluate what they’re actually trying to go after with having an engineering degree. Because as we all know, certainly having that degree could hold back a number of female candidates that are eligible for that product role. And I think that as many times you don’t need the actual degree, but the ability to think and to have logic that typically is correlated with an engineering degree but the engineering degree itself doesn’t cause that. So really having hiring managers and companies evaluate what is it that they are trying to go after with these required credentials and trying to come up with ways to evaluate those requirements through the interview process.

    KEESA: That’s something we are seeing a lot, Rose. We are seeing a lot of companies think twice about college degrees period. Have you seen a lot of traction being made there for companies actually saying that they are either going to not require a degree or require a certain specialized area focus, how broadly do you think that’s been adopted at this point? 

    ROSE: I think there has been good process. I think there can be more. I think that particularly at sort of larger technology companies, internal movement to roles have been fairly, I'd say, good at relaxing the, I'll call them ‘unnecessary requirements’ for the sake of this conversation. So having those organizations as they get larger, finding talent internally, has been great. From an external perspective, I also think that various coding academies have come up that really show that these skills can be learned and you don't have to have a four-year college degree to have these skills and so I also think that has been helpful in the industry externally. But I do think more can be done across the board. 

    KEESA: Absolutely. So, what are you most excited about Rose? As it related to Sudozi as it relates to Fintech in general. Is there something that is coming down the pipeline in 2021? Maybe even further out that gets you really excited about the industry? 

    ROSE: Yeah. I think across the board in both B2B Fintech as well as consumer Fintech. There is a lot changing and a lot still to come. This is one of the industries where if you think about your technology used 10 years ago. You know, the consumer experience whether it is social media or just how you live your life day to day, has bene changing a lot by technology. I think in the next 10 years, the way that we move money and the way that finance professionals will work is going to be dramatically altered by technology you know I would love to say that Sudozi is going to play a huge part in that, and that I hope that that is true, but whether it be Sudozi or other Fintech companies and tools, I do think that change is coming. 

    KEESA: Wow. And that definitely I think speaks to the changes that we have seen over just the last couple of years. In 5 years from now it is very interesting to see where we will be. Rose Punkunus, thank you so much for speaking to us about Sudozi, about your journey and about the Fintech industry overall! 

    ROSE: Well thank you for having my Keesa, this has been fun.