Lessons From the Female Titans of Wall Street: Kerstin Braun

I had the pleasure of interviewing Kerstin Braun, President of Stenn Group, a non-bank trade finance provider. Kerstin joined Stenn in 2017 as Global Head of Sales, becoming President in 2018. She directs all areas of the company’s growth and development, including building Stenn’s global brand, charting the company’s continued expansion in terms of portfolio […]

I had the pleasure of interviewing Kerstin Braun, President of Stenn Group, a non-bank trade finance provider. Kerstin joined Stenn in 2017 as Global Head of Sales, becoming President in 2018. She directs all areas of the company’s growth and development, including building Stenn’s global brand, charting the company’s continued expansion in terms of portfolio and footprint, and implementing technology to optimize operational performance. Prior to Stenn, Kerstin held positions of increasing responsibility at global credit insurer Coface in Germany and the United States, most recently as Executive Vice President Sales and Marketing. Kerstin holds a Doctor of Law degree from University of Tübingen and a PhD in Law from Universität Salzburg. She is a Professor and Guest Lecturer in International sales Management at ESB Business School, Reutlingen University.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us the “backstory” about what brought you to the Banking/Finance field?

I have always been fascinated with global trade, especially in its impact and how it improves the lives of individuals. Even amidst the pressing debates in our country for and against international trade, I strongly believe that the U.S. economy has prospered over the past 50 years because of it — and that our society as a whole is better. And, of course, the workers and their families in emerging markets benefit, too.

On the most basic level, we have less famine and lower poverty rates than ever. We have more people who enjoy education, and we are all in better health. These effects are massive, and I am thrilled that we make such a direct impact. It not only gives me an exciting job, but also a purpose to my life.

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?

Frankly speaking, there is nobody who picked me up and put me where I am today. I’m a very focused and determined person, so I’m proud to say that I got here myself. That said, my husband has always supported me and given me the freedom to spread my wings.

Additionally, there were many people along the way who influenced my leadership style. Instead of being coached or mentored in the traditional sense, I preferred private conversations with fellow business leaders on economics, politics and, of course, business. This has encouraged me to consider new angles and think in different ways.

Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?

Every day, we discuss new ideas that can help global companies find the most flexible way to improve their working capital and finance their business. We are talking about a $1.5 trillion underfunded gap of global trade that needs to be addressed.

Nowadays, global trade is not solely conducted by very large corporates. In these digital times, everybody can be a global player independent of size. Our mission is to help the whole range of global players. This means: if there was more funding available on a global scale, $1.5 trillion of trade could happen faster.

As we tackle new ways to finance this trade, we need extensive expertise — so we have brought in top notch talent to our company. These people are my daily happiness. They are full of experience, plus ideas of how we can help even more global companies faster and more effectively. Continuously bringing in experts in our field is a major and continuous project. The whole team at Stenn has this feeling of being constantly out of breath because we have more ideas than hours in the day to implement.

One of our most recent projects is to fund trade when there is only a pre-invoice. This is known as PO (or purchase order) Finance. This is huge! Why? When you think of the asset side of the balance sheet, there are two main assets which are usually the largest: receivables and inventory. If a supplier can monetize this asset to improve working capital, it will allow them to sell more goods, grow the company, employ more people and feed more families. And, of course, more working capital means the supplier can invest in its company and future.

Another project is to allow suppliers and buyers in even more countries to access our solutions. Currently, we work with 70 countries, but our goal is to get to 120 countries — which is 60% of all countries on this planet and over 90% of global GDP.

What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?

Our company’s entire business model is rooted in the fact that there’s nobody like us who services this market on a global scale for all segments and sectors.

On the supply side, we purchase international receivables. This market is widely underserved. Regulations and high cost of compliance, especially after the financial crisis, made banks leave this space. Now, they mainly focus on very large international companies (who are often already their client). Stenn exists to serve the companies that banks will not.

On the demand side, global trade grows faster than global GDP. Even smaller companies in the international supply chain request longer credit terms. We are uniquely able to provide these financing opportunities.

Our company also stands out thanks to our employees. With our proven business model, we were able to attract top talent from traditional industries, which has helped us scale our business very fast.

These people were frustrated by the red tape and limitations of servicing clients in traditional regulated industries.

Take our executive team as an example. We recently hired Celine Hartmanshenn as Global Head of Credit. Prior, she worked in the traditional insurance industry. Including Celine, 3 out of 5 of our executives come from highly regulated industries — they know the pain points that Stenn’s mission aims to solve. Our two founders and executive members are entrepreneurs with a proven track record of founding and growing companies very successfully.

Our employees unite under a single mission and a unique business model — which makes Stenn unlike any other company.

Wall Street used to be an “all white boys club”. This has changed a lot recently. In your opinion, what caused this change? What lessons can be learned from that to support this change going forward?

I don’t agree with the notion that it has changed a lot. There are still fewer women in executive positions than men and there is still no equal pay. Women hold only 22% of board seats in the Fortune 1000, which is up only 2% since 2017. Also, from my personal experiences and observations, it feels as if the “pro women” evolution is reversing in the industry.

The slight improvements we do see have to do with education. More girls go to college and pursue jobs in these traditionally male-dominated fields.

Another thesis on this: if the father holds a management position and has a daughter who works her way up the ladder, he will be more supportive of women in his own company.

When I was young I thought it was the women’s fault when she was not promoted. If a woman was strong enough, surely she would make it.

But now, strangely enough, as many more young female college graduates enter the job market, the ratios on the top have not significantly changed. Why? Because women are different than men and force a different way of thinking, behavior and decision-making processes. This is uncomfortable for men and requires systematical change. But why would men want to change if it worked so well for them? Exactly. It seems to me that women are working harder than ever, but still are not being promoted as frequently due to societal hesitations.

How do we solve this? It takes a concerted effort to hire with diversity in mind. It will continue to be a slow process, but more and more companies will catch on as society slowly shifts and as women continue to work smarter and harder. We just have to keep going, remain vigilant for opportunities and not become discouraged by any setbacks.

At Stenn we have a very healthy mix. With two women on the executive team and more women in relevant management positions, we represent this change. We also have a big cultural mix in our company. Different people from different backgrounds and perspectives all come together to bring a unique value to a company, allowing us to come up with more creative solutions. More organizations should realize the power of a diverse workforce.

Can you tell us 3 top challenges that many women face when they step from a mid-level position to a senior board?

I don’t think the biggest jump is reaching the executive suite. At that point in a career, the kids are raised and the financial situation is more stable. So, there’s less to worry for a woman. It is much harder to elevate for a woman when she is still in a lower pay grade and needs to handle kids, household and career while not being in a position to outsource some tasks and coping with the challenges of the new job.

In addition, when a woman reaches the C-suite, she has seen it all and has faced and battled all the prejudice a woman comes across while climbing the ladder. Mentally at that point she is much more prepared for the job than her male peers. That’s why I only mention one challenge, which is consistent throughout her career.

We are not part of “the boys club.” We will not be invited to have drinks or play golf with our male peers where discussions happen and informal decisions are made. Thus, women have to find other outlets to influence.

As a side remark, most women on the top are also not part of “the girls club.” We have not learned to strengthen each other. We usually are lone warriors, on a mission to prove to “the boys” that we don’t represent the stereotype.

I know women who tell themselves that they will not try to take up senior executive roles because they want to prioritize being a “good mother”. In your experience, are the two really in conflict? What suggestions would you give to balance both?

It’s all about sharing responsibility with the partner. In a household with two parental figures, each partner must take 50% of the responsibility for raising the child, while supporting each other’s individual careers. So, no, the two are not — or should not — be in conflict with each other. You can be a good mother and a good executive simultaneously, so long as you have the right kind of support. These typical “housewife” jobs need to be shared in order to avoid that the woman does her full-time executive job plus more work around the house.

Boards are more effective when there is diversity in its members. What are 3 benefits that bank boards will see if they seek to be more inclusive of women?

Boards that are inclusive of women will face more balanced decisions. In general, women tend to look for more amicable solutions. Boards will also experience more company focused decisions. Successful women tend to put themselves last. It’s usually not about them but about the best outcome for the purpose. These boards will enjoy driven and tenacious decision-makers who aren’t there for the power.

Sadly there is a gender stereotype that men are “more strategic” than women. This perception may be one of the reasons why boards have a smaller female representation. What should be done for women to position themselves as strategic leaders?

Strategy is a skill that we all learn. It does not solely sit on the male chromosome.

Women, however, tend to be more perceptive and empathic; they see things men often don’t. Men don’t know how to interpret this information and stamp it as “irrelevant”, “personal” or subjective.

This is interpreted as being “non-strategic” — while really one has nothing to do with the other. Women are just strategic in different ways, which is regarded as non-strategic.

It is great that you as a journalist are focusing on this topic. More needs to be written to raise awareness about the benefits of corporations when they have gender equality in management positions. Also, women who reach a certain management level have to speak up. This is difficult for us because we made it to this post because we ignored a lot of these biases. But not speaking about it is not the solution. We have to learn how to articulate ourselves better and go create a better ground for our daughters.

Which organization would you encourage a woman aspiring to be on a bank board to join?

My experience is that women are offered board positions when they have proven themselves in a very senior role at their own company, plus have demonstrated involvement in other important matters, such as supporting non-profit organizations or assuming teaching positions.

I would encourage woman aspiring to be on a board to join a local bank association where they can gain leadership skills outside of the workplace and expand their professional network.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

I have two quotes that I live by: “Mind over matter” and “recreate yourself.”

These both tie back to my previous points about having to ignore a lot of biases as a woman in order to climb the ladder. It’s all about confidence and tenacity, even in difficult situations and environments.

You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the greatest amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

Cleaning up the plastic in the oceans. There is finally enough focus on this to elicit some investment and progress. Trash in the ocean is partly a negative side-effect of global trade.

One huge example: a container of plastic ducklings fell off a ship and washed up on a beach. Now, the image of that makes us smile — plastic ducklings scattered everywhere. But once that plastic dissolves, that’s very bad for the environment, other organisms and humans.

At Stenn, we benefit from global trade, so I pledge to do more against this negative side effect. We take from it and have to give back.

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