“Never let anyone undermine your ambition”. When I was younger and starting out in my corporate career, I had a few managers and colleagues telling me that I was too ambitious and I could not accomplish what I wanted, because I needed to wait until I was older and had gained more experience. With time, I understood that age is not an indicator of professional ability, but rather skills, determination and perseverance are. You are never too young or too old to dream big.
As a part of our series about strong female leaders, I had the pleasure of interviewing Sanja Kon, VP of Global Partnerships at UTRUST. Sanja is a senior digital executive with more than 10 years’ experience in developing and executing global digital strategy, and delivering sustainable revenue growth in multinationals within the E-Commerce, Fintech and Telecommunication industries. She previously held positions at companies such as eBay, Vodafone and PayPal. As the VP of Global Partnerships at UTRUST, Sanja’s main focus is to partner with key international players to improve the accessibility of digital assets and increase cryptocurrency merchant adoption.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us a bit about your “backstory”? What led you to this particular career path?
I worked for over 10 years in the e-commerce and fintech industry before I joined the blockchain and cryptocurrency space. I’ve always been interested in digital innovation, the trading economy, and how technology can impact our lives. At eBay, I held multiple international roles, including heading up the European Partnerships strategy, and forming key relationships with the world’s leading e-commerce companies. I guided cross-functional teams at PayPal, with the aim of providing the best-in-class online payment experience to e-commerce platforms.
It was at that specific time at PayPal that I realized online payments were not keeping up with the pace of innovation within e-commerce. Merchants are charged high fees, especially if they sell a lot overseas, and moving money across the globe is never an easy task.
That’s why I decided to leave my corporate career and pursue the mission of modernizing the payments landscape and bringing cryptocurrencies and blockchain payments to mass adoption. I’m now the VP of Global Partnerships at UTRUST, the leading cryptocurrency payment solution, designed to solve the problems of traditional payment methods by offering instant transactions, buyer protection and immediate crypto to cash settlements.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began your leadership role in your company?
It’s great to see how things move so fast in this market. When I joined UTRUST a year ago, people were still reluctant when it came to cryptocurrencies as a payment method. Many of my previous colleagues questioned whether I was making the right decision, moving into a market that lacked clear, immediate demand. Today, almost a year later, the same people are reaching out to me as they’re interested in learning more about how to use crypto to pay for goods and services.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
I attended a conference during the first few weeks in my new role. We had a booth at the conference and many merchants were approaching me to ask questions. It was a bit overwhelming as there was a crowd of people were waiting in line who had a lot of questions for us. I got asked something I wasn’t really sure about, but I decided to respond anyway as I felt I needed to provide an answer immediately. The answer wasn’t completely correct in the end and I only gave the merchant a partial overview in response to his question. Lesson Learned: if you’re not sure, ask someone who knows and come back to them afterwards. It is always better to give the correct answer a few days later, than a half-formed one straight away.
Ok, thank you for that. Let’s now jump to the primary focus of our interview. What is it about the position of VP that most attracted you to it?
Rather than the job title, I’ve always favored working for projects that I’m really passionate about, projects with a strong team behind them and where I can make a difference.
At UTRUST, I was immediately impressed by the founders, their passion for innovation and their vision for the company. With my skills and background, I knew I would be able to make a strong contribution to the team and the future development of the company.
Most of our readers — in fact, most people — think they have a pretty good idea of what a VP does. But in just a few words can you explain what a VP does that is different from the responsibilities of the other leaders?
I think the role of a VP can vary according to the industry and the type of company. In a startup environment, every member of the team needs to have a proactive and open-minded approach. Roles are not 100% defined and we need to be agile and flexible in adjusting to the market; the same applies for a VP.
I may be the one speaking at conferences and forming key partnerships, but I’m also heavily involved in the definition of the processes and day to day tasks.
What is the one thing that you enjoy most about being a VP?
The opportunity to drive the culture of the company and make a direct impact on our go to market and strategy.
What are the downsides of being a VP?
The more you grow in a role, the more responsibilities you have and the more the company and the team will rely on you for direction and guidance. I don’t see any downsides to this, just an opportunity to make a bigger impact!
What are the “myths” that you would like to dispel about being a VP. Can you explain what you mean?
The biggest “myth” about senior positions in a company is that VPs and C-levels are not doing any operational work, but just work on the “interesting” areas. A good executive will always manage the operational tasks as well in order to be efficient in his/her work.
In your opinion, what are the biggest challenges faced by women executives that aren’t typically faced by their male counterparts?
In some countries more than others, there is still a culture which is not oriented towards inclusion. I would say the main challenge still remains in fighting gender stereotypes. Equal pay also remains a sensitive topic as women continue to earn less than men overall.
Certainly, not everyone is cut out to be an executive. In your opinion, which specific traits increase the likelihood that a person will be a successful executive and what type of person should avoid aspiring to be an executive?
It all comes down to the ability to lead, to be an effective leader. A leader needs to be accountable for their actions, but also has to be able to take big decisions when no one else does.
Sometimes this means making important decisions without necessarily having all the information available, therefore taking risks. Also, an executive is someone who will lead with integrity and who will look after the overall benefit of the company and the team, not their own personal gains.
What advice would you give to other women leaders to help their team to thrive?
Don’t be afraid to lead with your feminine energy: sometimes women think they need to be someone else to lead effectively when in fact, generally speaking, there are specific traits of feminine leadership that define successful leaders: the ability to listen, have empathy and compassion.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?
I was lucky enough to have many great managers during my corporate career. In particular, when I started my role as Head of European Partnerships at eBay, I needed to develop an infrastructure from scratch, as the program was basically non-existent for the European markets in my portfolio. My manager at that time told me something I’ll never forget: “don’t be afraid to think big, even if no one else can see it yet”. Instead of focusing on copy pasting the program from more advanced countries such as the US or Canada, I built an entire new program for my countries’ portfolio, with completely new goals, metrics and infrastructure.
Pete, my manager, wanted me to dream big and fight my battles, He showed me the importance of confidence and perseverance, but, most importantly, he believed in me and trusted in my abilities 100%.
How have you used your success to make the world a better place?
I lead by example.
I always treat people the way I’d like to be treated.
I listen before I speak.
My main goal is always to serve the team, not to gain any personal benefit.
What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started” and why? (Please share a story or example for each.)
- The main one is definitely to “Never let anyone undermine your ambition”. When I was younger and starting out in my corporate career, I had a few managers and colleagues telling me that I was too ambitious and I could not accomplish what I wanted, because I needed to wait until I was older and had gained more experience. With time, I understood that age is not an indicator of professional ability, but rather skills, determination and perseverance are. You are never too young or too old to dream big.
- Also, I wish someone had told me when I was younger that the higher the number of hours you work doesn’t necessarily translate into a better outcome. I used to work until 10:00 p.m. for many years, trying to conform to the corporate culture. When I joined the UK team, I had more of a work-life balance and more efficient working hours, and I was actually able to perform better.
You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good for the greatest number of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.
I’d like every leader and person of influence in a company to dedicate a portion of their time to self development. I’m a big believer in having a career and life coach in order to achieve an extraordinary quality of life and career. I’d like companies to recognize this importance and form partnerships to offer this service to their employees. When people are able to focus on their growth, they will live a happier, healthier and more balanced life. They will be able to contribute more towards their personal goals and the goals of their company.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
“Trade expectations for appreciation”.
This is a quote from Tony Robbins, I am a big fan of his work and have attended several of his seminars. When we remove all the expectations we have towards others and ourselves, we are really able to appreciate life more and live in a happier state.
We are very blessed that some very prominent names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US, with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them.
Jeff Bezos, as he’s always a few steps ahead of time.
Thank you for these fantastic insights. We greatly appreciate the time you spent on this.