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?
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.