This interview is part of a series on Trailblazing Women role models (Entrepreneurs and Leaders) from around the world and first appeared on Global Invest Her. You have to see what you can be.
'You can do it! It doesn't matter where you are from, whether you are a boy or a girl. It's very important we don't strip ourselves of our choices. Women can become their own worst enemies. It's not men who tell us we can't apply for a certain job, it's that women just don't apply! If I can do it, you can do it. Believe in your idea and work very hard. Treat others with respect and don't lose sight of your business goal.'
Marta is a passionate entrepreneur and avid champion of diversity in the fintech industry. As a Polish expat, Marta experienced first-hand how challenging it was to send money home. She joined Michael Kent, CEO, in 2012 to co-found Azimo and drastically change the way people living abroad send money to their family and friends.
As General Manager and Co-founder, Marta oversees day-to-day operations, works closely with the CEO to scale the business and is responsible for all staffing processes and decisions across the UK and Poland, where she opened Azimo's second office in late 2013. In the past two years, the company has seen 100 per cent growth in personnel, raised $30million in Series A and B funding and is amongst the fastest-growing fintech companies in Europe.
Prior to Azimo, she built her first business, Travelnity, a social media website for travellers and expats, rapidly growing the business in times preceding Facebook's success. From there, she ran high-profile events in London and New York City for London 2012 Olympics and Somerset House.
Marta was recognized by Forbes as one of Europe's 30 Under 30 for Finance, Innovate Finance as one of 100 most important Women in Fintech in 2014 in the UK and by Puls Biznesu as one of 10 most important Polish Businesswomen in 2015. Marta holds a Masters in Organisational Psychology from Jagiellonian University in Poland and a Management degree from Columbia Business School.
I haven't had one particular role model I look up to, but have draw inspiration from a variety of places and times in my life. I was born in the 80's in socialist Poland where there we no opportunities even to travel, not to mention start companies. The 90's on the other hand were a true playground for entrepreneurs who were taking over public companies and privatising them, travelling abroad, setting businesses up... I thought it was incredible how people could start off without any experience or resources, to try to better their own lives and those of people around them.
On that note I really look up to Julia Groves, Founding Chair of the UK Crowdfunding Association. She started her career in sustainable energy and took a leap of faith and became very successful in the crowdfunding space. I admire people without a specific advantage or years of experience, who manage to trailblaze their idea and move it forward.
What is your greatest achievement to date?
Setting up Azimo - a digital money transfer service for European migrants to send money to basically anywhere in the world in 70+ currencies, at up to 90% lower than high street money transfer companies. I knew from personal experience how broken the money transfer industry was and in how desperate a need the migrants who send money home every month to better the lives of their families, yet had to pay up to 10% of money sent for their transactions. When I was 18, I needed to make extra money to help my family out, so I bought myself a plane ticket to Dublin and worked 16 hour shifts in a restaurant. After 3.5 months I had saved 3000€ that I wanted to send back home and the bank said they would charge me 60€ to send it!
So I went to Western Union and they told me, I would have to send it in 6 transactions and each would cost 20€. It felt so unfair to hand over so much of my hard-earned money, so instead bought a Ryanair ticket - which worked out to be cheaper- and took it back to Poland myself. Fast forward a few years, through my first successful startup in 2008, to 2012 in London, when I met Michael Kent my fellow co-founder and Azimo's CEO. He had built a successful offline money transfer business Small World Financial Services with his business partner Ricky Knox, now founder of Tandem Bank. We knew there was a way to make this broken industry better and so together, we built Azimo.
What has been your biggest challenge as a woman entrepreneur?
As an entrepreneur, my key challenges are: where do I get money? Find top talent and retain them? Acquire customers? I don't like to focus on the negative gender point of how hard we women have it, but instead focus on the positive stories of female entrepreneurs who are successful to set the right example. That said, looking back at some of challenges I've faced as a woman in tech, I remember sitting in a room full of men where they all assume you know nothing about the technical jargon they are discussing. I could quote situations when I felt I wasn't being taken seriously, especially being a young, female, migrant, Polish entrepreneur. I can also recall how great it felt to prove these people wrong!
I saw a photo recently of black woman wearing a t-shirt with the caption 'I wish I had the self confidence of a mediocre white guy' and that really made me think. Women need to be more confident in their abilities and just go for the roles they want and not be afraid to be an assertive or empathetic leader - without fear of being branded respectively a 'bitch' or too weak.
We also need to ensure that we educate both men and women that biological differences don't necessarily dictate your personality traits. Men can be empathetic, just as well as women can be assertive. Does it then solve the gender conversation when there's a token woman in the boardroom? No. We need to promote feminine leadership traits more, as well as have more women in executive positions. At Azimo we have one woman investor on our board and we already have very interesting conversations about team management, inclusion and collaboration. I'd like to see more of that.
What in your opinion is the key to your company's success?
Our team. In order to lift the business off the ground, you need an insane amount of energy and keep the pursuit of the bigger goal top of mind. I am fortunate to work with smart, innovative, driven people on our team, who link their personal story to the team vision. As you grow from 3 to 90 people, you cannot orchestrate growth. You need to make sure you work with people who value what you value, are better than you at what they do and try to achieve the same goal. You could think that it's hard to attract talent when everyone wants to work for the likes of Google or Facebook, or Asos. Indeed it is, but we attract people who empathise with our customers and see our purpose. We have a second generation British Indian guy who left Asos to work with us because, as he said 'The world needs another pair of jeans. I saw my family struggle with money transfers. What you guys are doing is important.' Our team gives us the momentum not to give up, to build the business, achieve success and create a fantastic place to work.
If you could do 1 thing differently, what would it be?
I like what Sheryl Sandberg said in 'Lean In' on how 'women always wait for someone to put a tiara on their head'. I wish I needed less of an external pat on the back to see that what I do has value and to push forward. I wish I spoke with more confidence and spoke up when I felt I was not treated fairly in the past. I wish that more women were less scared of failure. As a woman it adds another layer of complexity, because some people can say 'she failed because she is a woman'. I believe humility is very important and you need to be humble to grow and scale, but not to the extent that you quiet your voice.
What would you say to others to encourage them to become entrepreneurs?
There has never been a better time to build your own business. Technology is shaping the way we work. You no longer have to rent an office, build a warehouse or factory, hire 500 staff or do expensive TV advertising. You can become an entrepreneur as soon as you launch a simple website. I think we owe it to ourselves that when the opportunity arises, we take it - man or woman. As millennials, we are re-shaping work and can take the opportunity to do things the way we want to. Work is not just a 9-5, we are self-realising and self-expressing through what we do. If someone has an idea and feels they want to bring it into the world, then do it! The next corporate job will still be waiting for you if you want it later.
How would you describe your leadership style?
I am a collaborative leader and I want to empower the team - a first class manager hires first class people. Everyone in Azimo is better than me at something and that's fantastic. My super power is my people skills - I attract people who believe in my vision and mission to build something great. I don't link my ego to it. It's all about the ability to listen and give people enough freedom and room to trust them to do a good job. If my team don't do a good job, it's my fault: either I haven't given them enough context or support, or have simply hired the wrong person.
What advice would you give to your younger self?
"Grow some balls". It goes back to that confidence thing and having the courage to push my ideas forward. To not care if people disagree with me and to not undermine myself if it doesn't go the way I want. I went to Web Summit in 2015 and one of the top executives of Tinder said 'when we launched, we had come up with this idea of swiping and everyone said it was stupid. There were already enough dating apps out there like Match.com, Meetic etc., but if you don't get people opposing your idea, you probably aren't innovative enough.' I wish I'd had more confidence earlier and worried less about what the world would say if what I did, all turned out wrong. There is no such thing as failure - only the opportunity to learn.
If someone offers you a job or task and you have no idea, say yes and figure it out later! I had never been to Dublin, New York or London before I moved to these places, or launched a new business before when I was 20 and building my first startup - all of those were complete unknowns to me, but I believed I could figure it out. It's not about how much you already know, it's about how fast you can find it out.
What would you like to achieve in the next 5 years?
I would like Azimo to become a verb, where instead of someone saying 'I need to send some money home', they say 'I'll Azimo it'. There are 7 billion people on this planet and only 2 billion have bank accounts. On the other hand, there are already 2.6 billion people who have smartphones, and that is expected to reach 6.1 billion by 2020. Most mobile growth will come from the emerging markets, where people will be able to set up mobile wallets to access money, drastically increasing financial inclusion. In 5 years, I would like to start thinking about what the next big thing is, and I'd like to stay in the social inclusion space. I'd also like to start a family, which is important to talk about - I feel modern women sometimes shy away from admitting that they have other aspirations besides relentlessly building a successful career. All in all, I am very excited about the future.
3 key words to describe yourself?
- Fast learner
Watch Anne Ravanona's TEDx talk on Investing in Women Entrepreneurs.