Seeing the sunrise over Mt. Kilimanjaro

I have had a difficult few weeks. Basically wondering what has been the point of my 24 year career strolling and mirandering through the twisted highways of global FinTech.

I started paying more attention to those who bring toxicity into your life. The people who call you and get you to drag yourself onto a Southeastern train for a meeting with the promise of work, only for it to go nowhere or worse to ghost you. (way more on that later). Those who wax lyrical about how great it is to work with you, as long as your time is offered for free and you accept a cheap glass of wine as full payment. I found myself paying way too much attention to tone deaf men on Twitter, who don’t deserve my attention and paying way too time listening to that little voice in my head (in many of our heads).

  • ‘You’re too old to start your own company.’
  • ‘You have no experience raising funds’
  • ‘You don’t have the digital skills this job needs’ 
  • ‘Look what happened the last time you tried to broaden your experience and try something new – just sit at home, like a good little girl and write reports and content for other people.’

My husband and I had a serious conversation about selling up and moving somewhere, anywhere, new. I have a fantasy about running a pub or a cafe that does bottomless Prosecco brunches and serves decent wine for lunch. Where I could serve homemade banana bread or blueberries muffins – whatever took my fancy. Never mind that I have zero experience in hospitality and these types of dreams have fueled a billion restaurant and pub failures over the years.

It all came to a head this week. I was feeling generally sorry for myself (pity party, table for one) when I was accosted by a man at the end of the speakers dinner at the Innovate Finance Global Summit. Now, I am pretty open and passionate about my feminism and offer zero apologises for it. I have been a woman in finance and tech for 24 years. The number of times I have been the only woman in the room is insane (and I am not a full on techie person). This guy ran an FinTech event with an extremely low number of female speakers and he got a bit of shtick for it on Twitter. They even publicised the event, brazenly showing all male panels – or ‘manels’ to you and me. (which is such a stupid move from a PR perspective alone, I don’t even know where to start).

I was feeling tired, a little drunk, I know my mascara was smudged all around my eyes, and this guy corners me at the end of the dinner to whine and complain about ‘how hard was’ for him to put on a ‘quality event’ with such a small team and find the type of speakers he deemed worthy enough to speak.

I lost it.

I was not going to sit there and smile and tell this guy ‘yes, I know how difficult it is. You poor baby’. 

Especially when I have been in this guy’s shoes several times. I have put together dozens of events around the world. He answered with a ‘yes, but not to the quality of my event’. A condescending retort that aims to devalue and delegitimize a woman’s (my) experience.

Fuck you, buddy. (And in case you are thinking I am being harsh. This guy came up to me.)

I took an Uber home that night, and stared out into the cold, blackness and thought ‘why am I doing this shit’? 

Then I moderated a panel on Thursday morning.

Ann Cairns, president for International Markets for Mastercard opened the event and spoke about starting off as an offshore engineer for British Gas and dealing with a male boss at Citibank who refused to speak to her (How many of us have been in that situation? Too many).

Then we had a keynote address from Herta Von Stiegel, who at one time had been chairman of CHAPS, and wrote a business leadership book called The Mountain Within where she tells the story about when she climbed Mount Kilimanjaro.

I tend to get turned off by personal empowerment statements, like the ones you see in memes on Facebook or quotes from well known leaders that people seem to think say everything when they say very little. (The one about ‘building an airplane on the way down from a cliff’ is one of my of personal love-to-hate inspirational quote.)

So I was wary about hearing how this story about climbing a mountain and how this would have any resonance with my life. (I tend to get winded opening up a new bottle of Malbec.)

When you climb this mountain in Tanzania in Africa you start climbing at midnight in order to reach your first destination by sunrise. At around 3:00 or 4:00 o’clock in the morning, Von Stiegel looked out into the darkness and thought ‘why am I doing this?‘.

She was cold, tired, surrounded by darkness.

She turned to her husband and said ‘I am so cold’. Her husband, being from Michigan in the US (which basically invented winter) pulled out an extra coat he had in his backpack and put it on her. Someone else, produced a cup of hot water, which she says she has no idea where it came from or how it was produced. During the last leg of the hike, she felt her husband’s hand at her back pushing her up the mountain.

And she saw her first sunrise on Mount Kilimanjaro.

Myself and my panel had to follow that.

We had four women on stage, a startup founder, executives from Barclays and Mastercard and a former RAF pilot. We learned about how the startup founder came up with the idea for her company, while on maternity leave. How the executive from Barclays negotiated her salary. How the woman from Mastercard joined because she was excited about working with leaders who had inspired her before. The former RAF pilot, B&Q executive and non-exec director of BACS, pulled out a fan on stage to show how dealing with the menopause should be something we talk about discuss and never be ashamed of. The entire room erupted in applause.

I looked out at the room, it was packed. People were bringing in chairs for those who were standing in the back. No one was on their phone. No one was sleeping. (you’d be surprised how often I have seen that). About 90% of room were women, there to attend an all day conference on payments where every single speaker was a woman.

That was when I realised. Over the past few months we have all shared horror stories about pay gaps, and inherent bias, and discrimination. Men have yelled (yes, yelled) at me saying ‘there are no female founders!’ Small men have whined at me about how ‘difficult’ it is to find quality women. We all have had DM and Slack conversations about how we all feel we are banging our heads against a wall – having the same conversations over and over again. One man commented to me, this week, that some men are ‘tired’ about always hearing about the lack of women in leadership roles, in startups, at events.

We are all so tired, cold, alone and staring into the darkness.

Then, this Thursday morning at the Women in Payments Symposium in Canary Wharf, I looked out into the audience and saw the sun rise over Mount Kilimanjaro.


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