Heather Henyon is not one to be sidelined by gender stereotypes or glass ceilings. In fact, in her career spanning over two decades, she’s done the exact opposite: pave the way for a new generation of female leaders. Here, she talks to us about combatting gender biases in finance.
Can you tell us about your journey within the regional financial landscape? What has it taught you?
I have worked in finance for almost 20 years in a variety of roles. In the MENA region, I set up and managed a regional microfinance company that was a joint venture between the Abdul Latif Jameel Group and Grameen Foundation. To help manage foreign exchange risk (most of the microfinance institutions or MFIs were borrowing in hard currency), I structured a US$50 mm loan guarantee fund to back local bank loans in local currency to MFIs. Our first transaction was in Egypt, which was fortunate considering the devaluation there last year.
More recently, I have been involved in early-stage investing in the region. I started an angel group called the Women’s Angel Investor Network (WAIN) in 2013; today we have 50 female investors and have made seven investments in women-led start-ups. I also helped to start another angel group called Dubai Angel Investors, where I am a member of the Investment Committee.
Cross-border investing especially in venture requires creativity, flexibility and risk tolerance that isn’t for everyone. When I set up the loan guarantee fund, the MFI directors and I would visit the banks and set up a tender process for them to respond. We wanted to create competition to increase their interest and get the best deal for the MFI. I have lived and have been working in the Middle East off and on for 20 years, starting from when I studied abroad in Egypt.
What sparked your interest in finance?
I studied economics in college and always enjoyed working with numbers. My dad was an active stock market investor outside of his career as a statistician; my mom was a high school math teacher and my brother is an electrical engineer. When I went to business school, I concentrated on finance and entrepreneurship, where I had the opportunity to learn about venture finance from leading professors like David Ben Daniel and Zach Schulman.
What can businesses do to harness the talents of women in financial roles?
Women are a major asset in financial roles. They are outperforming in almost every area, from managing hedge funds to personal finance.
What recommendations would you make to the industry to improve gender diversity in financial services?
The literature states that companies need at least three women on a management team and on the Board to be effective. I have witnessed this firsthand – when I am the only woman on a Board, my views are ignored and therefore I am ineffective. I recommend that companies not only ensure that they have women on their management team and Boards but a significant number so that they can be effective.
What are some of the top challenges women still face in the world of finance?
Women continue to be a minority in the finance world and unfortunately, the numbers seem to be going the wrong direction. The sexual harassment lawsuits across multiple industries reinforce what many of us have observed our entire careers. They continue to struggle to advance to top roles with power like partners at VC funds and managing directors at banks.
Do you think this is because of lack of confidence?
I do think that women lack self-confidence when it comes to financing, which is part of why I started WAIN. I saw successful women business executives and professionals who were still intimidated by numbers. Part of what we do at WAIN is: provide financial literacy – as the women learn about angel investing and valuation, they are increasing their self-confidence around financials.
You’ve risen through the ranks to become a mentor for women in finance. What initiatives are you undertaking through WAIN to cultivate female talent?
Our WAIN investors are active mentors to female founders whether we invest or not. Many of them need help with setting up advisory boards, thinking through strategy, financing and capital structures.
Looking to 2018, do you foresee a rise of female-led venture capital funds? On the flip side, do you also think we will see a rise in funding across female-led businesses?
We are already seeing many more women-led venture funds in the US and will hopefully see more globally. I am working on a new global venture fund called Mindshift Capital that invests in women-led companies in the US, Europe and the Middle East. With my 80 investments through angel groups and funds in these places, I see an opportunity to build and focus on women-led companies, which have been quoted as returning 63 per cent greater returns than non-diverse teams (Source: First Round Capital). There is data showing that women invest in women – therefore, with more women asset managers, I expect that we will also see an increase in funding to women-led companies.
What is your take on cryptocurrencies – here to stay or just a bubble?
I have been following bitcoin for the last five years. I have always believed in the potential of digital currency (especially for financial inclusion use cases like remittances). There’s currently high speculation and too many uninformed investors are involved in the market; however, following a correction, I do think that crypto is a form of disruption that will continue to pervade the financial industry.
Finally, what piece of advice would you give women starting their careers in the finance world?