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Taking Risks to Make a Career: Life Lessons from Successful Women in Payments


Janet Estep

Janet Estep

President and CEO


It’s a common phrase in the payments industry, but how often do you hear “risk management” used in reference to life? 

Maybe not often enough. 

At the recent Women in Payments USA 2019 Symposium I was honored to be part of a panel on “Navigating a Successful Career as a Woman in Payment/Fintech.” It quickly became clear that there’s nothing wrong with navigating into unchartered waters—if you’re willing to take risks.

I have long believed that if you want to do something daring you have to be open to continuous learning, adaptable to change, and be willing to feel uncomfortable for a time. Otherwise, do not even consider it. 

In fact, when I started at IBM fresh out of college, I don’t know that I would have hired me. An economics and psychology major hardly seemed like a fit with a technology company. 

Bravery was a two-way street in this case. IBM wanted fewer engineers and computer scientists, and more well-rounded people. It was a year and a half of training with no guarantee that I would work out. Both sides took a risk. 

After 15 years in various management positions with IBM it was time to take another chance, heading into a completely different industry: the environmental laboratory firm Pace Analytical. Four years later, another career shift, this time leading the merchant acquiring organization at US Bank. And in my 11 years there I didn’t work with ACH, but, again, my willingness to learn and make changes brought me to Nacha.

None of this is what you might consider natural career progression, but if you’re not married to one industry or job type it gives you tremendous flexibility.

At the Women in Payments Symposium, two fellow panelists shared their inspiring stories of risk-taking in their careers. 

Carolyn Homberger learned in business classes that the future was in Asia, so she went to see for herself, spending a year in South Korea teaching English.

“Lesson No. 1: Take risks. Take them early,” she says. 

Soon after joining ACI Worldwide in 2006 she asked the CEO to get rid of the corporate jet and give her $1 million to build a finance team, promising it would pay back tenfold. “And it did,” says Carolyn, who today is ACI Worldwide’s group president, global sales, leading a team of 200 business development professionals.

Natalie Kelly’s advice is, “Make the hard decisions upfront. You will have a much easier life.”

Natalie started at a small Alabama bank. By age 23 she was leading the call center, managing people much older. She attracted the attention of Visa, which brought her to San Francisco and later Charlotte, North Carolina, before asking her to return to the Bay Area.

“It was a very hard decision,” she remembers. Natalie is now Visa’s global head of risk, audit & public policy operations & strategic execution, and wonders why it took the family so long to go back.

My career was truly defined by moving into companies and roles where I was not the expert. I wasn’t saying, “Hire me because I’m the person who knows everything.” In fact, quite the opposite. Willingness to ask questions of others opens up dialogue, encourages understanding, and fosters new ideas.

It’s a lesson not only for women navigating a successful career in payments—or any other industry—but also for those in a position to help. Particularly hiring managers, who I urge to consider thinking more broadly. You never know. Today’s liberal arts major could well be tomorrow’s CEO. 

Janet Estep is President and CEO of Nacha