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Women In Finance: “The advent of technology has helped diminish traditional, narrow practices and ways of thinking that have” With Credit Karma’s Susannah Stroud Wright

An Interview With Jason Hartman


I think the advent of technology has helped diminish traditional, narrow practices and ways of thinking that have, for a long time, plagued innovation in the finance industry. As financial services organizations grapple with new technology, regulations and consumer expectations, hiring practices must account for a broader range of skills, which is achieved through a diverse pool of talent. There is substantial evidence that shows that diversity enhances company performance and that new ways of thinking are required to spur innovation, especially in the financial services sector, which arguably, has not innovated at the rate of other industries.

I had the pleasure of interviewing Susannah Stroud Wright. Susannah is Chief Legal Officer and Corporate Secretary at Credit Karma, the personal finance technology platform championing financial progress for its more than 100M members. Susannah joined in June 2017 as Credit Karma’s first chief legal officer at a time of rapid expansion for the company. Susannah’s career has consisted of leadership roles at innovative companies disrupting their industries. Before joining Credit Karma, she served as Associate General Counsel at Tesla, where she built and led Tesla’s compliance department, following Tesla’s acquisition of SolarCity. Prior to that, Susannah spent over three years as Deputy General Counsel and Head of Compliance at SolarCity, where she created the company’s compliance department from the ground-up. Prior to working in-house, Susannah was an attorney at Gibson Dunn & Crutcher LLP where she focused on government investigations, crisis management and data privacy.


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

Serving as a chief legal officer was never something I planned for, but in 2008, my husband received venture funding for his startup and that required us to make the move from Atlanta to Silicon Valley. After working over three years as deputy general counsel at SolarCity and associate general counsel at Tesla, I received a call from Credit Karma. CEO Ken Lin originally planned on speaking to me about a compliance role but following our meeting, he asked if I’d consider being Credit Karma’s chief legal officer.

I was very interested in Credit Karma’s mission of championing financial progress for all, as I had seen the challenges many people faced when they lacked insight into their credit history or did not understand the impact their credit score could have over some of the most significant decisions they make in their lives.

I decided to take a leap of faith and accept a leadership position at a company in a period of hypergrowth, in a highly regulated industry. I don’t think I would have made the move to Credit Karma if it wasn’t in such a state of innovation and disruption. I always encourage myself, and my team, to embrace change and to recognize when something is being done that hasn’t been done before, as this presents challenges and unprecedented opportunities for law professionals to ideate ways of implementing innovations in a legal and compliant manner.

Can you share with our readers the most interesting or amusing story that occured to you in your career so far? Can you share the lesson or take away you took out of that story?

Earlier in my career, when I served as a prosecutor, I worked on a complicated murder trial where I prosecuted three defendants charged with murdering two men. I was the only female lawyer in the courtroom along with three male defense attorneys, all of whom were about 15–20 years my senior. These male attorneys did their best to get under my skin, threatening to give me a hard time throughout the trial since I seemed “young and green.” And that they did — whenever I questioned a witness, they would try to throw me off my game with nonsensical objections, but I wouldn’t react. I stayed focused and ended up winning the case, with the jury finding the three defendants guilty of all charges.

After the verdict, I spoke with the jury to learn more about their decision and of all things, some of the women brought up how much they loved my shoes. Throughout the trial I wore an array of high-heeled shoes because there was no way I would have those male defense attorneys looking down on me — literally and figuratively. Members of the jury went on to say how much they disliked the male defense attorneys, specifically calling out their bullying tactics throughout the trial. That is when it hit me, how important it is to be aware of your audience. You never know exactly what it is that is going to convince the other party to agree with you, but all you can do is stay true to yourself, stand firm and wear killer shoes!

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

It’s been a very busy year for my team, and Credit Karma as a whole. We just launched Credit Karma Savings this month, which is our first step towards helping our members with their assets. We know that 40% of Americans do not have enough money saved up to cover a $400 emergency. By providing a free high-yield savings account with a competitive interest rate 20-times the national average, we hope to help change that statistic. We spent the first 12 years focusing on helping Americans manage their debt and now we’re making savings accessible to every American in the same way have done with credit scores. Credit Karma is already a trusted destination for our more than 100 million members who come to us for help in achieving financial progress and this is another facet of their financial lives they’ll be able to manage on our platform.

Wall Street and Finance used to be an “all white boys club.” This has changed a lot recently. In your opinion, what caused this change?

I think the advent of technology has helped diminish traditional, narrow practices and ways of thinking that have, for a long time, plagued innovation in the finance industry. As financial services organizations grapple with new technology, regulations and consumer expectations, hiring practices must account for a broader range of skills, which is achieved through a diverse pool of talent. There is substantial evidence that shows that diversity enhances company performance and that new ways of thinking are required to spur innovation, especially in the financial services sector, which arguably, has not innovated at the rate of other industries.

Credit Karma’s member base is highly diverse, which I am sure is true for many financial institutions, and a company needs diverse internal viewpoints to best serve their consumers. Financial institutions are realizing that if they want to reach as many people as possible, they must understand a wide variety of consumers and what sets them and their situations apart from other consumers.

Of course, despite the progress, we still have a lot more work to do to achieve parity. According to this report in CNBC, less than 17 percent of senior positions in investment banks are held by women. In your opinion or experience, what 3 things can be done by a)individuals b)companies and/or c) society to support this movement going forward?

● Executive accountability

○ Companies that have a limited number of female leadership roles can hinder internal female employee motivation. Having more females at senior-level executive roles will inspire a “get to the top” attitude and drive for entry- and mid-level female employees.

● Set clear goals

○ Adopting company-wide diversity goal metrics will help turn talk into action. Implementing a regular cadence of reporting on the gender and racial makeup of your company solidifies diversity as a business priority.

● Hiring

○ Provide educational courses and trainings on things such as Unconscious Bias to equip employees with best practices that prevent them from having a discriminatory effect on hiring or promotional decisions.

○ Adopt diverse interview panels to help keep bias out of the hiring process

● Flexibility

○ Create programs that help both men and women balance their home and work responsibilities

● Mentoring and Sponsorship

○ Ensure that both men and women are mentoring and sponsoring women throughout their careers. I’ve been extremely fortunate to have had some fantastic sponsors, some of whom are men and some of whom are women. The more men who focus on sponsoring women, the more rapidly we’ll see progress.

Let’s now turn to a slightly new topic. According to this report in Fortune, nearly two-thirds of Americans can’t pass a basic test of financial literacy. In your opinion or experience what is the cause of these unfortunate numbers? If you had the power to make a change, what 3 things would you recommend to improve these numbers?

I think there are several factors that play into the financial literacy epidemic in America, including the lack of financial education incorporated in school curriculum, the notion that talking about money and finances is taboo and the lack of transparency in the financial services industry. These are all issues Credit Karma is actively working to address — educating our members on the importance of financial health by demystifying the complex world of finances and always acting in our members’ best interests.

Recommendations:

Embed personal finance courses in schools. Only a third of states require high school students to take a course in personal finance, yet early education around the effect of things such as interest rates and credit scores would prepare Americans for big financial decisions they’ll have to make. Early mistakes can set people up for long-term financial struggles.

Break the silence around finance talk. You can’t learn about finance if you feel discouraged to talk about it. People should be able to seek advice and answers about their finances without fear of judgment.

Financial services firms being held accountable for their customers’ best interest. So many financial services resources out there are more focused on marketing their products than developing a transparent financial picture for consumers. There are still parts of the industry that are designed to take advantage of the lack of financial education in America. Financial firms must commit to acting in their customers’ best interest, and not in the interests of the marketplace.

You are a “finance insider”. If you had to advise your adult child about 5 non intuitive things one should do to become more financially literate, what would you say?

1. Take advantage of free digital resources and tools — there are several free financial apps that can help young adults maintain financial health

2. Learn about the power of credit — understand that it is good to have multiple lines of credit, as long as you’re always making payments on time, and don’t carry a balance. You want to show that you can responsibly manage a number of credit lines without incurring interest or carrying high balances.

3. Start saving early and contribute to your 401K right at the start of your career

4. Monitor and prioritize — keep track of where your money goes and prioritize your spending

5. Read the fine print — understand what you’re signing up for and if you have uncertainties, ask questions

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?

Yes — a few people really stand out.

1. Seth Weissman, the general counsel at SolarCity who hired me for my first in-house role. He was a fantastic mentor and sponsor who helped me understand how to ensure that we add value to the business as a legal and compliance team. He also taught me so much about how to build and lead a high-functioning, collaborative legal team.

2. Debra Wong Yang, partner at Gibson Dunn and the first female Asian American U.S. Attorney. She has also been an incredible mentor and sponsor and taught me how to own my own style of advocacy — think about the big picture and to live a full life, excelling both at home and at work.

3. My parents, Drs. Cary and Donna Stroud: My parents have really shown me how essential having a true partnership at home is to being able to succeed. Both my parents are doctors, and my mom was one of only five women in her medical school class and only the second female physician in my hometown in South Carolina. She blazed a lot of trails and dealt with a lot of barriers, but she showed me how you could be a mom and have a full career at the same time. My dad was ahead of his time in truly supporting my mom and me in our careers. He was willing to make sacrifices of his own to help us every step along the way and be a trusted advocate and sounding board.

4. My husband, Nolan Wright: It may be cheesy to say, but there is no way I could do what I do without the absolute support of my husband. He has always been my biggest champion and a true equal partner at home. Plus, since he is an entrepreneur himself, he helps give me excellent perspective in how best to work with founders and engineers to be the best business partner I can be.

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

I have 2:

1. “Get comfortable with being uncomfortable” — Seth Weissman: this quote has helped me constantly push outside my comfort zone to take on new challenges and be open to the insanely fast pace of disruptive, hyper-growing companies. It has helped me embrace challenges and find joy in uncertain situations.

2. “We see things not as they are but as we are” — Anaïs Nin (but I know it from my husband quoting it to me all the time!): this quote helps me keep perspective and stay objective in even the most stressful situations. It reminds me to always check my preconceived notions, to focus on being self-aware and truly focus on where another person is coming from and what they need. It’s a great reminder that our own emotions and biases can cloud the truth, and it’s critical to take the time to try to strip those away so that we can find the best solution possible, to any situation.

Thank you for all of these great insights!

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