Thriving As A Woman In a Male-Dominated Industry: Terrie Smith of DIGISEQ On The Five Things You Need To Thrive and Succeed as a Woman In a Male Dominated Industry

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In the United States in 2022, fields such as Aircraft piloting, Agriculture, Architecture, Construction, Finance, and Information technology, are still male-dominated industries. For a woman who is working in a male-dominated environment, what exactly does it take to thrive and succeed? In this interview series, we are talking to successful women who work in a Male-Dominated Industry who can share their stories and experiences about navigating work and life as strong women in a male-dominated industry. As a part of this series, we had the distinct pleasure of interviewing Terrie Smith.

Terrie Smith, chairwoman of wearable tech pioneer DIGISEQ, has blazed a trail in fintech. Previously the driving force behind the Mastercard Digital Enablement Service (MDES), which is the backbone of mobile contactless payment services like Apple Pay, Terrie was inspired by the technology’s potential and set up DIGISEQ in 2014 to bring wearable tech mainstream. Terrie’s inspirational leadership has generated several ground-breaking payment technology patents, and she continues to raise the bar for tech ingenuity today.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit more. Can you tell us a bit about your childhood “backstory”?

Growing up, my father worked in robotics. He was part of a design team and was one of the very first people to work with chip manufacturers, at what was Siemens in those days. I was always really interested in his work. In the early 1970s, I’d spend hours poring over blueprints on the floor, where my dad would explain the physics of electronics and basic computing. So, I was brought up on technology in a way, but at that time I wanted to go into teaching. At least, that’s what I thought I wanted to do. It wasn’t until I turned 17 that I decided I absolutely hated school, and that teaching was no longer what I wanted to do.

My dad told me that if I wanted to leave school I’d need to get a job first. We’re talking 1976, during the three-day week and the Winter of Discontent, and yet somehow I managed to find myself a job at an insurance company. They assured me that I had a career there, with the opportunity to become an underwriter, take the exams, and move forward.

I was put forward for the education process at the Chartered Insurance Institute, along with five male peers. All five guys got selected and I didn’t. I knew that I had more capability in my little finger than a couple of those guys had. I was absolutely livid. I asked my boss why I hadn’t been selected, and frankly, he just couldn’t give me an answer. It was simply because they were guys and I wasn’t. I voted with my feet that day, I placed my pass on my boss’ desk and said, “Well, thanks very much, I’m gone”. So, that left me in a situation where I had left school, worked in a job for six months, and found myself unemployed. Not a great position to be in 1976.

Can you tell us the story about what led you to this particular career path?

I played darts at the local pub, and one of the guys there worked in what is now Electrolux. He told me I would do well in data processing, and that I should look at jobs in that field. I applied for six jobs, and got every single one.

I accepted an offer at General Motors, who were running what turned out to be one of the best apprenticeships you could ever hope for. They covered intensive training for coding, for operations, with the opportunity to move around different departments. I gained skills in organisation and management, learned how to code, how to do systems programming, COBOL programming, and thoroughly enjoyed them all.

My boss was progressive, and realised that I had something about me. He suggested I should move into something more technical. I was seconded to work with IBM on their very first installation of virtual telecommunications. I realised that new technology was where I really wanted to be. From there, I went on to work for Tesco who were very much at the forefront of the payments industry at that time.

Working with IBM once more, we developed the capability to do just-in-time payments, direct to the customer. It’s standard practice today, but that was quite revolutionary at that time. Tesco would have suffered big penalties if they didn’t pay suppliers on time, so they needed to know that their systems were going to actually work. Our work there changed Tesco completely, and put them into a much stronger position.

It was so exciting to see the results of what we had implemented — it helped improve the entire company.

You are a successful business leader. Which three character traits do you think were most instrumental to your success? Can you please share a story or example for each?

Belief. Belief in what you know. Whilst at Mastercard, I was charged with getting mobile payments to work, and it was very, very difficult. It felt like it was never going to scale up because there were just too many moving parts, and for financial institutions it was just too difficult to consider, too complex.

So, I sat down, trialled a few things, and went back to the drawing board. At times like that, you’ve got to learn more about how things hang together.

Perseverance: Don’t just take things as read. If you truly think that something can be done, nine times out of ten, it can. There will be complexities, but they can be overcome. Today’s fintechs have really taken that on board — the fact that we can do anything if we put our minds to it, and not to let anyone tell you otherwise.

Picture the result, and don’t give up until you get there. To me that was really important, especially when I came up with the idea of MDES — Mastercard Digital Enablement Service (AKA Tokenisation). It was based on an existing idea but it had never been taken to this extreme, and it wasn’t viewed as a plausible concept at the time.

It was difficult to convince the right people to come on board, and it wasn’t until a mobile phone company approached us that I realised what I had patented was exactly what they were looking for. I never gave up on believing it could be done, and it has been quite the journey from there.

Confidence: My daughter is always drumming into the importance of self-confidence, and I think that really hit home when she told me the story of Beyonce and Sasha Fierce.

When my co-founder and I set up DIGISEQ, I was offered the opportunity to join the Techstars accelerator programme, and that meant me pitching to over 1,000 people. It was the biggest pitch that Techstars had ever hosted, and it was nerve-wracking. When you go up on stage you have no idea how you will be received. You just have to go out there, switch on your Sasha Fierce, and go for it.

I did a similar thing I was with London Electricity, which is now part of E.ON. They had a system there that nobody understood. Changes were made but failures endured. I was called upon to test it, but you can’t test what you don’t know. So, I began to unravel and document the entire system, so that others could understand how it worked too. It was a process that had never been done before, and If I hadn’t had the confidence to implement it, the system would never have worked.

Ok, thank you for that. Let’s now jump to the primary focus of our interview. Can you help articulate a few of the biggest obstacles or challenges you’ve had to overcome while working in a male-dominated industry?

Although I didn’t realise it at the time, one of the biggest obstacles I have faced came when I was working at a particular company in the 1980s. I couldn’t understand why I was constantly being blocked from doing something by this particular manager. Until that point, I don’t think I had ever experienced real sexism in that type of environment. Either I hadn’t experienced it, or until that point, it had just gone over my head.

I never associated it with sexism at all. I went to my previous boss, and said: “I don’t understand why this is happening to me.” He just looked at me and said: “I do.” It was only then that I discovered that my manager was a renowned sexist, and couldn’t accept that I was going to be doing something in his world. Shortly after, the company moved him on, and I was able to progress within my own role. That was the very first time somebody really helped me.

I often look back at my boss then and think: “Thank goodness.” He could see something that I couldn’t.

You see, sexism and prejudice had never been part of my upbringing. Growing up, whilst my mum was very traditional, my dad always insisted: “If you want to do it, if you know you can do it, what’s stopping you?” I was very grateful for that. I always think back to some of the funny things my mum used to say. “Why do you want to be equal when you’re already superior?” That used to crack me up.

Can you share a few of the things you have done to gain acceptance among your male peers and the general work community? What did your female co-workers do? Can you share some stories or examples?

As a woman, I’ve always tried extremely hard to ignore the differences and any male biases. It hasn’t always been easy. You may not want to, and you certainly shouldn’t have to, but you need to make yourself unique and demonstrate that you’re as good, if not better, than your male counterparts. I’ve been very fortunate that I have been quite tomboyish throughout my life. I’ve always been prepared to muck in, I like a pint down the pub, and I’ve always enjoyed sports — and by default, this has helped me to become part of a male-dominated working community.

Go in with the attitude that you won’t let anybody believe that you’re not as good as them, whether it’s male, female, or whatever. Don’t look at them as male peers. Just peers. That’s what I would like men to do, to treat people as equal regardless.

As for female coworkers, I’ve hardly had any. I’ve almost always worked in high-tech environments, and sadly, the industry has long been lacking female representation. It’s only been over the last few years that I’ve had any female coworkers.

What do you think male-oriented organizations can do to enhance their recruiting efforts to attract more women?

After I had my children, I really wanted to get back into the workplace, but it was extremely difficult. When you have other responsibilities, it really is a case of striking a manageable work-life balance.

I’ve been fortunate that my husband is the 9-to-5er, so he’s always been around when the kids needed taking or collecting from school, taking to after school activities and so on.

To attract women, all employees have to be recognised as doing the same job, and therefore paid equally. I’m seeing that with women going back to work, they are not accorded the same opportunity to apply for the same roles. It’s important to give people flexibility. In male-oriented organisations flexibility doesn’t tend to be prioritised, yet it is the key to creating a balanced working environment. If you don’t offer that, then you don’t get the right women applying.

Ok thank you for all of that. Here is the main question of our interview. Based on your opinion and experience, what are the “Five Things You Need To Thrive and Succeed as a Woman In a Male-Dominated Industry?”

Have very thick skin. That would be my first one.

Join in. I think that’s very important if you want to be seen as a human and not as a woman.

Don’t take things personally. I hear a lot of women object to certain things that are said in a work environment, and yes, some of it is not appropriate and it shouldn’t happen, but try not to take personal offence. Instead, take them to one side and try and talk to them about it.

Stand up for yourself and fight. If you think something is wrong, don’t be afraid to speak up.

I did that once when the company I worked for selected a man over me, despite the fact that I had proven myself time and time again. I told my boss straight up: “You’re wrong.”

His response was: “Don’t do anything stupid.” I turned around and said: “You already did.”

Keep your confidence and your believe in yourself. I lost mine at one point, and I think that does happen to a lot of women, maybe when they get older.

If you had a close woman friend who came to you with a choice of entering a field that is male-dominated or female-dominated, what would you advise her? Would you advise a woman friend to start a career in a field or industry that’s traditionally been mostly men? Can you explain what you mean?

I would say if it’s what she wants to do, do it. Don’t let gender sway your desire to do a particular role. That shouldn’t come into the equation. At the same time, be prepared, and consider those five things you need to succeed.

Would I advise a friend to start a career that’s traditionally male? Absolutely. Something’s got to change, so don’t be afraid to change it.

Have you seen things change for women working in male-dominated industries, over the past ten years? How do you anticipate that it might improve in the future? Can you please explain what you mean?

If I’m honest, I haven’t really seen that much change over the past ten years — other than the fact that women have become more aware and confident in regard to pushing themselves forward. Some organisations are obviously exceptions, but I believe very few have seriously sat down and examined what they need to do to change for the better.

More women are going into management, but that tends to be HR, recruitment, and maybe finance, but you’re not seeing them so much in the capacity of CTO or CEO, or the environments that have always been male-dominated.

There’s a lot of grassroots education that’s still needed.

That’s what I want to do, and that is what I’m heading towards in this industry. The fact that I’m now a global ambassador for DIGISEQ means that I can envision how I can impact or have an effect. So, come September 2022, I’ll be looking to see if I can interest schools in getting girls interested in being geeks. I’m a geek and I’m proud of it.

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.

I’d actually like to have breakfast with Elon Musk. He fought the odds, he really did. He fought the biggest industry in the US, the car industry.

I’d like to ask: “What motivated you? What made you think that you could do this?”

I don’t feel the same about Mark Zuckerberg or Jeff Bezos because they didn’t have to fight against an existing business. With Musk, he’s taking the car manufacturing industry head-on. And I’m like: “Kudos to you.” Especially with the number of Tesla cars around now.