Q+A: WERKIN with Eleni Vlami | Head of Account Management at Meniga

Eleni Vlami, Head of Account Management at Meniga and Mentor

Eleni Vlami, Head of Account Management at Meniga and Mentor

Eleni Vlami, head of account management at Meniga, a Reykjavik-based fintech company has more than 15 years of experience working in banking, from fintech startups to large corporates. The common thread in her career has been mentorship, learning from and teaching colleagues she considers formal and informal mentors. Eleni has seen what mentorship looks like from Scandinavia to the UK, beginning with its roots in her home country, Greece.

WERKIN organised a virtual Ask-Me-Anything call featuring Eleni as part of WERKIN’s partnership with WIBF. Eleni shared her advice on finding the right mentor, learning to take advice to evolve, flexible working and how to fit in theatre classes in between.

Eleni Vlami: When the crisis hit Greece, where I am from, in 2008, it was a good opportunity for me to move abroad, but also shift my career path. I moved first to the UK and I started working as an area manager in the retail sector. 

I tried to go back home in 2011, but unfortunately things were still pretty bad for unemployment overall and my own career prospects back home in Athens. 

I decided to move to Stockholm, where fintech startups were booming at the time. I started working at Meniga as a sales manager in the company's office in Stockholm.

The company grew rapidly, and in 2015 we opened our sales office here in London, where I'm based. I'm focusing on customer relationships. We started the account management department, and currently we are covering 30 countries with a team here in the London office. 

Beyond my career, two things about myself are that I am Greek and I love theatre. I often attend plays and performances. I consider myself a part time student, since I'm trying to attend as many theatre theory and literature classes during the weekend as I can. 

WERKIN: Could you talk about your experience with mentorship in your career?

EV: When I was seven years old, I started playing basketball, a team sport that is common for girls in Greece. But through basketball, from a very early age, I learned how to work with a coach and how to work on a team. By 13, I was semi-professional, I knew how to collaborate as part of a team, and having somebody guiding me and telling me what I needed to do to evolve, to be better. I was used to having a coach or a mentor, and having a mentor during my career was very crucial because that’s where I started with basketball. 

I wasn't always lucky. I had some mentors that were were not good for me. I had mentors that helped me, but I also had some mentors that created friction as I grew. I learned to identify what types of people I can work with, and what type of experience and tips and advice I can get from different people, and understand also how important it is to have a good chemistry and a good connection with a mentor, like any relationship. 

Like me, the word mentor has Greek roots. I do feel a special connection to the concept of mentorship.

WERKIN: You mentioned that you’ve evolved around experiences working in Greece, Scandinavia and the UK. What are some of the differences you’ve found in perspectives on gender equality in offices or mentorship?

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EV: Coming from a country where patriarchy is quite strong, it was very interesting for me on a personal level in Sweden. When you discuss diversity and equality in Stockholm, there is no issue. These things are taken for granted by most people. And I really liked this concept and I fit really well in the fintech industry, even with it being 85 percent male. Meniga is Icelandic. In Iceland, laws guaranteeing that women and men with same qualification get the same salaries are strictly enforced. I got spoiled working in Scandinavia, I got spoiled working in a company with Icelandic standards, and then I moved to the UK. I still remember the first questions I was getting when we were interviewing people in London. They were asking what the percentage difference for salaries between men and women, the gender pay gap. This sounded weird for our company, because we don't have this. We have equality in salaries and that’s the default. Having to answer questions like this in London made us realise that we have the potential to set an example in the UK, where the gender pay gap is wider than in Scandinavia. 

In theory, it is always very easy to say you want a diverse and equitable organisation. But it's more difficult in practice. Things are improving a lot in the UK so hopefully in a few years, we won't have to discuss differences in salaries. 

When it comes to the mentoring, back in Stockholm, having a mentor was almost a default. We don't call our colleagues mentors. We don't have the name or the role description, but this is something that you get assigned from the beginning of your training, with somebody from management in the company that is supporting you, training you, but always is there to provide advice. Having mentors in a flatter, smaller company like a startup can be easier, but more challenging at a larger hierarchical company.

WERKIN: So you’ve found yourself in this flat organisation where you feel like everybody can be each other's mentor. 

EV: Yes, it's a really fortunate position to be in. We were a small company that grew from being a small startup. At the beginning, all of these things are really easy to structure if you have the energy and the passion to do so.

WERKIN: How did you know what areas of finance you wanted to go into? 

EV: Coming from a country that had a crisis in 2008, Greece, I transferred to a company in a country going through its own crisis. I can't begin to tell you all the politically incorrect comments I got when I decided to work for an Icelandic company. Everybody was telling me that ‘you left Greece because of the banking crisis, and now you work for a company in a country experiencing the exact same problems’. 

It was good timing for me to move out of the country and for me to pivot, working in a fintech industry offered me the chance to experience another industry. 

Initially, at the age of 17, where you are asked to decide what you want to study, it’s quite a difficult decision to make. I had some feedback, I had some support, and I had my family and my sister and brother to look up to, but back then, I wasn't sure that was the right decision to make. I feel more confident now in fintech. At this position, I feel I fit really well. 

Having work experience with different countries, we are covering more than 30 markets. You have the ability to work in finance, in different markets, cultures, countries, products in finance. That is something I’ve learned to appreciate.

WERKIN: Could you talk a little about policies you found working that promote more diverse work cultures? In the UK, we're coming up on the gender pay gap reporting and of course, I'm sure you've picked up a lot when you were in Scandinavia. Policies that have worked there. What are your thoughts on that?

EV: My perception when it comes to diversity is that it's important for companies to pursue employees that have a different mix of voices, of age or race or nationality, along with working experience and background. We shouldn't speak of just gender. The fintech industry needs to change how they promote diversity. They need to make sure they can show that this is a good career path for young women. Senior men and women need to actively encourage and engage in the fintech sector to avoid creating an even bigger gap. Companies need to introduce policies like mandatory parental leave in combination with maternity leave, state mandated parental leave benefits or a combination of social insurance and tax incentives. There is a huge difference between the UK and the Scandinavian countries. When you talk about maternity here, it almost sounds a joke when you have the same benefits between mothers and fathers, that are more common in Sweden or Iceland or in the rest of Scandinavia. 

Finding a solution to make the workplace more fair for more people may seem hard, but it doesn't have to be. Meniga, for example, encourages that meetings are scheduled before 4:00. At 4:00, there is a soft stop so people can pick up children from school. This doesn't mean that they stop working at 4:00, unfortunately they are all going to be online in a few hours after 4:00, but they can go pick up their children, go home prepare dinner, help them study. At least there is a soft stop when it comes to leaving the office and making sure that they are attending to family tasks. 

Another example is a very simple solution, when it comes to diversity ratios at events and the conferences, we are participating in as a company. We literally count how many women, and how many men, are participating in events, which means that we just need to make sure that both women and men are participating as attendees, but also are there as speakers keynote speakers or panelists in events. For example, a few months ago, we had our customer conference in Iceland called Fin42. It takes place every two years and we invite all our current customers, partners and friends. We are responsible for the agenda, we make sure that we have male and female speakers. We make sure all our partners have male and female speakers. We always have a separate panel on diversity. It is difficult to keep the balance, when it comes to the agenda on some topics, we explain that we can't talk about diversity by just having a 15-minute keynote speaking slot. We need to make sure that diversity runs through the whole philosophy of the company. So yes, we talk about diversity, but at the end of the day, we have men and women as attendees, as panelists, as participants as attendees, otherwise you can't make a difference. 

We also have this conversation when we are participating in events as a company. We won't participate in events anymore that only have male speakers. We decline the invitation, and our marketing team serves the feedback about why we declined the event. There are some small tasks you can do when it comes to promoting diversity.

If you start with small things, you can see that you can make a huge difference in the company. Starting from scratch is easy. You are the one who makes the procedures, you are the one who defines the rules. But when we are entering new markets, as I said we have presence in six markets when it comes to office locations. We do a lot of research when it comes to benefits for maternity leave, when it comes to quotas and salary equality.

WERKIN: What do you think about part time or flexible working?

EV: I do think that this is an amazing thing to have in a company, just the fact you can work from home, or you can work on a Sunday afternoon and then take a day off on Monday. I always tend to say to my mentees that they need to make sure that they ask for flexible working. From my experience, it helps a lot. As someone who travels a lot, and has to commute to the airport, I don't have to come to the office in the morning. I can work from home, pack my bags, do my laundry, do all the everyday tasks, that I have to do before travelling and I don't have to be in the office at 9:00am, flexible working hours are a must. 

With part-time work, you need to make sure you are very strict with setting rules. I've seen people, not in our company but in our industry that they are saying “part-time" but nobody keeps part-time hours. Everybody works full time, even when they are technically part time. At the same time, they work more than they should. They are not getting any advantages out of this. So if you ask me, I would say that if you are diligent enough and if you trust the company, they will keep the part-time situation, go for it. But for me, flexible work, can be more effective in balancing your personal and work lives. At the end of the day, if you have finished your tasks, you don't need to be in an office for eight hours, you should be able to go home. You should be able to take a Skype call from a taxi. You should be able to stay home when you're traveling the same day. 

WERKIN: What advice would you have given yourself at the start of your career? What would you say if you knew then what you know now?

EV: Be honest. Be patient. Always be yourself. Gather experience and remain open-minded. Seek role models or mentors or alliances with both women and men. Learn to work as a team. Focus on the talent and the passions that you have and be vocal about this. Talent has no gender, and successful careers are filled by both men and women. So there is an equal responsibility among all of us, to promote diversity and in fintech and any other industry so don't be afraid. Just go for it. 

WERKIN: Excellent advice. It's as if you have thought about this very impressive list before, having been a mentor for many years.

There's an imposter [syndrome] in our midst!

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IMPOSTER SYNDROME - WHAT IS IT?


Have you ever suffered from debilitating self-doubt, feelings of inadequacy or fear of failure at work? Have you ever felt like you are a fraud and at any moment you will be ‘found out’ and exposed for being incompetent and under qualified for your position? Then you may have experienced a phenomenon known as ‘imposter syndrome’. 


Imposter syndrome has been defined as ‘the crippling feeling of self-doubt, intellectual inadequacy and anticipated failure that haunts people who attribute their success to luck or help from others rather than their own abilities’. The term originated in 1978, when psychologists Pauline Clance and Suzanne Imes first noticed the phenomenon whilst interviewing successful female professionals and university students. Despite their significant achievements, many interviewees lacked self confidence and reported feeling incompetent and like an imposter.

Imposter syndrome can manifest in different ways, but typically involves the following: 

  • A difficulty accepting praise and recognition for personal accomplishments 

  • A reluctance to seize opportunities and take initiative

  • A reluctance to accept promotions or new assignments because of not feeling ‘ready’

  • A reluctance to highlight personal contributions to projects

  • Trouble delegating, due to a need to ensure everything is done to impossibly high standards

  • Individualism and a difficulty accepting help

  • Procrastination caused by an immobilising fear of failure 

  • Workaholism stemming from a feeling of incompetence and a perceived need to work harder in order to keep up with contemporaries 

Clare Josa, leadership consultant and author of ‘Ditching Imposter Syndrome’ believes imposter syndrome is ‘the single biggest block to success’ in business today, because it means employees ‘play small, don’t take risks and don’t put forward their ideas’. Imposter syndrome limits creativity, innovation and productivity because employees lack confidence in their ideas and have a debilitating fear of failure. It has also been shown to isolate individuals, impacting interpersonal relationships and team work in the workplace. Furthermore, imposter syndrome negatively affects employee mental health and wellbeing. 

WHO DOES IT AFFECT?

No-one is immune from imposter syndrome and people experience it across all levels and industries. For example, successful professionals including Sheryl Sandberg, Emma Watson, Michelle Obama and Nicola Sturgeon have all been outspoken about their experiences of imposter syndrome. Indeed, research suggests that 70% of people will experience it at some point throughout their career. 

However, some people may be more vulnerable than others. A number of studies suggest that women and other underrepresented groups in many workplaces are more likely to experience imposter syndrome at work. For example, a recent study commissioned by the career development agency Amazing If found that 40% of millennial women experience imposter syndrome, compared to 22% of men in the same age group. A similar study by Access Commercial Finance found that women were 10% more likely to experience imposter syndrome than their male counterparts. 

A lack of representation in senior positions can make women, BAME and LGBTQ employees feel like they don’t belong or are not accepted in particular workplaces or industries, which exacerbates feelings of imposter syndrome. Reflecting on her experience of imposter syndrome, communications and leadership consultant Bridget Aherne stated ‘if there were more people like me working in business leadership, I might not inaccurately look at myself and the shortcomings I perceive that I have’

This week, NatWest launched its #OwnYourImposter campaign, to spark a conversation about imposter syndrome and encourage more people to share their experiences. Their recent research showed that 60% of women who have considered starting a business decided not to because they lacked confidence. Furthermore, 44% of women said imposter syndrome has prevented them from applying for business funding. This has prompted NatWest to launch its new crowdfunding platform, Back Her Business, which will provide an alternative channel for female entrepreneurs to access funding, with the support of a mentoring network. 

WHAT CAN WE DO ABOUT IT?

Lauren Romansky, Vice President of HR at Gartner suggests that individuals should ‘work at an organisation where you can see people like you’ in order to avoid imposter syndrome, as this ‘can give individuals a lot more confidence’ and ‘lets individuals see people similar to themselves making strides and succeeding’. However, this isn’t always possible for underrepresented groups. Furthermore, instead of encouraging diversity and inclusion, this seems to discourage individuals from minority groups from entering particular workplaces or industries where ‘people like them’ are sorely underrepresented. It also abnegates companies of their responsibility to ensure that they have a diverse workforce and make all employees feel welcome and accepted.

Matt Haycox, a consultant at Access Commercial Finance believes that employers can and should do more to help sufferers of imposter syndrome. Companies have a responsibility to ensure they create supportive work environments, that encourage interpersonal relationships and team growth and install confidence in employees. Companies can encourage executives and senior managers to share their own experiences of self-doubt and failure in order to facilitate an open workplace culture, where uncertainty and failure are not feared but seen as necessary stepping stones to success. Furthermore, educating employees about imposter syndrome and its affects has been shown to have positive effects, as simply learning about the phenomenon and knowing that others experience it gives relief to sufferers. Finally, mentorship is proven to be a particularly powerful tool in overcoming imposter syndrome. The importance of mentorship for career progression is well documented and mentors can objectively assess mentees’ strengths and weaknesses, give encouragement and advice in times of self-doubt and push mentees out of their comfort zone and into new experiences. According to the American Society for Training and Development, a remarkable 75% of executives say mentoring has been critical to their career development. 

WERKIN

WERKIN understands the importance of interpersonal networks and mentorship in building supportive and inclusive workplaces. WERKIN’s Modern Mentorship is a tech-enabled platform that helps companies build their mentorship and sponsorship programmes so that they can encourage and support diverse talent. WERKIN’s technology uses algorithms that match employees with projects and roles based on their interests, experience and skillset. This demonstrates how technology can be used to objectively identify skills and talent, which is particularly useful in situations where employees lack confidence and are likely to undersell themselves and their achievements. 

Imposter syndrome negatively affects employee mental health and wellbeing, impacts interpersonal workplace relationships, limits career progression and reduces creativity, innovation and productivity. Using technology such as that provided by WERKIN enables companies to develop into supportive and inclusive workplaces, where employees are encouraged to feel confident in their abilities and reach their full potential.