Women in Business Q&A: Keri Gohman, Head of Small Business Banking, Capital One

As the Head of Capital One's Spark Business banking line of business, Keri Gohman leads an organization that serves the more than 50 percent of Americans who own or work for a small business. The team supports the financial and business management needs of aspiring entrepreneurs and established business owners as they start, manage and grow their businesses. Prior to Capital One, Keri held leadership roles at General Electric Financial Assurance and Intuit, including general management of global services businesses, business development, sales and marketing strategy and distribution development.

How has your life experience made you the leader you are today?
Growing up, my father's career required my family to relocate every few years, which I believe fostered a sense of openness and adaptability within me. When your environment is constantly changing, you can either freeze, panic or adapt. Being open to change and new ways of thinking paves a path to growth, and it is a mindset I try to instill in my team every day. In financial services, technology is driving a tremendous amount of change, and finding ways to adapt, leverage and get in front of that change is crucial if we want to deliver the best products and experiences to our customers.

I also wouldn't be the leader I am today without my support network. Everyone needs a support network - family, friends, colleagues and mentors - and mine begins with my husband. As parents of three young children, we made the decision years ago to prioritize my career path as we raise our children. His daily support and hard work as a dad enable me to thrive as a leader, and to take full advantage of the professional opportunities and experiences that come my way. With the right support network and plan, I truly believe it's possible to have it all - including a successful career and a strong family life.

How has your previous employment experience aided your position at Capital One?
I spent my early more "formative" career years at GE, a company renowned for developing great general management talent. One of the ways they develop leaders is to put them in "stretch" roles early in their career. I had some incredible mentors and bosses who believed in my ideas and ability, and gave me assignments well before I thought I was ready. They empowered me to learn through success and failure, a critical part of my leadership development - and something I strive to do for my team at Capital One.

Having a deliberate, perhaps even obsessive, focus on the customer is a mantra that was instilled in me at Intuit - and that obsession drives us at Capital One today. When it comes to developing products or platforms, we don't start with what may be the most lucrative or profitable outcome. Rather, we begin with the unmet or underserved customer need, and work back from there. If you're truly meeting a customer need, the economic value will follow. That approach will lead to the most useful, most successful, most profitable solutions.

What have the highlights and challenges been during your tenure at Capital One?
I feel so fortunate to be the leader of an organization and team that is committed to building products and resources that help small business owners succeed. Small businesses are the backbone of our economy and the spirit of many of the communities we live, work and play in. They have a level of enthusiasm, work ethic and tenacity that is awe-inspiring, and there is nothing better than seeing them succeed and knowing we were a part of that.

It's also been very exciting to work for a founder-led company - one that is willing to challenge the status quo and introduce breakthrough products and technologies that have a real impact on people's lives. A recent example of that commitment is our FutureEdge initiative, through which Capital One is committing $150 million over five years to help individuals and entrepreneurs succeed in the ever-changing digitally-driven economy. Through this effort, we're partnering with leading educational and community organizations like General Assembly and Grovo to help Americans develop digital literacy, and to help entrepreneurs succeed in the digital age. It's very exciting to be a part of these programs as they take shape and change lives.

At the same time, operating in the complex and heavily regulated world of financial services can be tough. Regulation is designed to protect our customers and economy, but it can make innovation more challenging at times. It all comes down to maintaining that maniacal customer focus, being creative and open to how new technologies can enable breakthrough solutions, and surrounding yourself with smart people and positive attitudes. With that, I believe it's possible to overcome almost any challenge and come out on top.

What advice can you offer women who are seeking a career in finance?
When it comes to pursuing a career in finance (or any industry for that matter) take some time to understand what the path entails and the potential challenges and opportunities it presents. Do a gut check -- is this something you feel passionate or curious about? I believe passion and curiosity are crucial to a having a lasting and fulfilling career.

If you're entering a new industry, I'd encourage women to spend some time researching the industry and connecting with experts who are willing to share their perspectives. Finding a good sounding board with experience in the field can prove to be an invaluable resource as you're exploring potential career paths.

Self-confidence is also important. If you are new to an industry, know that your fresh perspective has value. Respect the experience of seasoned pros, but also believe in yourself and your ideas. Regardless of how new you are, don't be afraid to ask questions and be courageous. If done thoughtfully, it can be a great way to get noticed and have a positive impact - both when interviewing, and once you're a part of the workforce.

How do you maintain a work-life balance?
It's interesting - we just fielded our quarterly Spark Business Barometer survey and found that while women say they value work-life balance more than men, they are actually less likely to set guardrails to achieve it. Striking a healthy work-life balance can be challenging, but it's also possible if you put your mind to it.

For me, balance is about prioritizing and building guardrails around compromises I can't make, and having a little time for myself every day. I try to be present in every moment and avoid distractions that often come with multi-tasking. (In other words, put away that iPhone!) It's also important to have time for reflection and perspective, and find an outlet that fosters that. I love to run- it's an activity that gives me sanity and balance.

It's also helpful to work for a company that supports and enables work-life balance. At Capital One, respecting our associates' time and personal lives is a core tenet of our culture, and we're always looking for new ways to help employees achieve the work-life balance they desire. For me, Capital One offers an environment where I actually can do and have it all.

What do you think is the biggest issue for women in the workplace?
One issue, which I also see as an opportunity, is our tendency to assume old norms or expectations about what we bring to the table and what our role should (and could) be. I think women are often more inclined to question our instincts and defer opinions and judgments, and that's a dynamic we need to change. Women bring an important perspective and diversity of style to the workplace. As women, we need to be confident, and own who we are and what we think.

Broadly, as leaders in industry, we need to do a better job of empowering women in the workplace. Despite women outpacing men in college graduation rates, we still represent an alarmingly small percentage of leadership positions at major companies. We must focus on promoting diversity, and stay focused on helping women reach their full potential with opportunities to step into more senior positions.

How has mentorship made a difference in your professional and personal life?
The mentors that impacted me the most were those leaders who stretched me, took risks and believed in my ideas. They gave me new and challenging roles before I knew I was ready, and allowed me to fail so I could learn and grow. At times - they were the leaders who were the toughest on me - and, I'm so grateful for them.

On a personal level, I was raised by two loving and dedicated parents. They instilled in me the concept and benefits of working hard and never giving up. My mom never went to college and always regretted not pushing herself hard enough. And my dad put himself through engineering school - always focused on creating a great foundation for us to launch from. They created an environment where I knew I could obtain anything if I worked hard enough - and they never let me waste an opportunity. That formed a critical foundation to my entire life. And, that encouragement early on and later in life has guided my approach as both a mother and a business woman.

Which other female leaders do you admire and why?
There is such a fine collection of powerful, intelligent, inspiring female leaders on the world stage today. Women like Angela Merkel, Janet Yellen and Christine Lagarde are each powerful forces with tremendous influence in the worlds of government and finance. And one of my personal heroes is Sylvia Earle, a woman who found her passion early on and dedicated her life to making the world a better place. She has real purpose - and her brand of dedication, curiosity and tenacity is admirable.

Another leader I've looked up to since my days at GE (where she serves on the Board of Directors) is Andrea Jung. As the president of Grameen America, an organization dedicated to empowering women entrepreneurs in low-income communities, Andrea's excelled in business and has proven to be a dynamic force in women's empowerment. I'm excited to see and support Andrea and Grameen's progress in the fight against poverty by enabling social business here in America and around the world.

What do you want Capital One to accomplish in the next year?
Two very important things come to mind. I want us to expand our positive impact on local businesses and entrepreneurs by providing tools and products that help them succeed. Small businesses represent 50 percent of American jobs, and are now creating two out of three new jobs each year. They have a tremendous impact on our economy, and at Capital One, we are committed to delivering more capabilities to help them get started and thrive through new tools, digital technology, access to capital and educational support.

Capital One's mission to transform how individuals and communities interact with their money and our industry is also crucial. As technology continues to evolve, there is a greater need for people to be proficient in its use and application if we - as individuals, as business owners, and as a country - want to compete, grow and prosper. As a leader, I'm part of that evolution, and I look forward to us reimagining the ways we support, educate and empower individuals and businesses, both with technology and hands-on support.