Women in UK fintech: Urenna Okonkwo – Cashmere
This week’s female fintech pioneer is a bit of a curveball. Cashmere founder and CEO Urenna Okonkwo came up with the idea for her app at just 23, and has been helping women save for luxury goods ever since.
At 25, Urenna Okonkwo began working on Cashmere – her savings platform for fashion-conscious millennials. One year later, her app was released into the market.
With a degree in economics and a diploma in financial planning, Okonkwo started out as an analyst at KPMG at 18. She then became a financial advisor to wealthy clients at leading wealth management firm Saunderson House, which provided the education and training on personal finances required to build Cashmere.
She “used her experiences to design her product with the goal to create an alternative credit score tool. Urenna is a disruptor,” said Impact X founder and CEO Eric Collins.
Okonkwo’s focus is on empowering women to take control of their finances and make fashion purchases without debt or guilt.
Q. What achievement are you most proud of?
When I was at university, without any knowledge of how to do so, I organised an entire fashion show from scratch almost single-handedly. I sourced all the clothes, organised the music, the venue market and so on with zero experience, and it was completely sold out.
Q. What’s the greatest difficulty you have faced in your career?
I guess the hardest thing is funding because it’s hard for anyone, but it’s much harder for black female founders – less than 1% goes to women and 0.04% to black women – so there’s a lot of bias about how founders fund black women.
If you look at successful entrepreneurs: Mark Zuckerberg, Bill Gates etc., venture capital (VC) has a clear idea of who is an industry founder, which makes other, diverse founders more of a risk, so you have to prove yourself much more than if you were a white male.
Q. Why Cashmere?
My plan was to have ‘the finance career’, and ‘entrepreneur’ was never something I thought about. But I was president of a fashion society and treasury of an Afro-Caribbean society, so I’ve always been creating and running things, even though I never consider myself an entrepreneur.
The idea came when I was working in finance. I was shopping and saw a pair of Christian Louboutin pumps that I instantly fell in love with – until I saw the £600 price tag. I felt guilty because I didn't want to go into debt to fund this lifestyle.
I realised, if I had a saving app to fund this type of spending then I could make these purchases – which lead to Cashmere and research into millennials getting in debt to keep up with the ‘Instagram lifestyle’. We live in a world where it's easy to get into debt. Young people think “Yeah, I can get easy cash to buy nice things”. So Cashmere is here as a much more sustainable way of earning it.
Q. Why is fintech still such a male-dominated industry?
Firstly, finance is a male-dominated industry. Coming from traditional finance, I was one of very few women. My entire floor had five or six women. And then tech is also a very male-dominated industry. So when you bring these two industries together, that is exactly what you’d expect.
Women also tend more towards humanities and arts careers, reducing the number working in finance and tech. Obviously there is a huge push for getting women into tech, which is great, but it will take a long time for things to change. And women often don’t feel they can say “I don’t feel comfortable”.
Working in finance, there was a lot of male testosterone going around and the men were too competitive, so women don’t feel welcome and just want to leave. I really try to encourage women to try and stay because the more women we have, the more we can get into leadership positions and then we can try and change the culture. With female management, these issues would be addressed.
Q. Why should we care?
Research shows diverse teams and encouragement provide diverse results whereas the same teams regurgitate the same ideas again and again. And when you have diversity in ideas, your team is more likely to grow – rather than just being a massive echo chamber. So you should care a lot about it.
Q. What can be done about this?
Companies need to start making an active effort to hire more diverse candidates and not just hiring from their own networks. Reaching out to diverse tech communities, advertising their roles and doing the job interview process with diverse interviewees so the interview bias is different and balanced – encouraging the interviewee to better understand them.
Companies also need to look at who is in their management team. If they are all white men, then they must ask “How can we attract diverse senior talent?”. You can’t be what you can’t see.
These companies need to actively go into diverse communities and advertise their roles there. Find the community leaders and say “We are recruiting for this specific talent and want to find the right person for this job”. The best person could be a black woman, so make sure you are visible and open to everyone.
Q. Many are worrying about the future of fintechs. What do you think will happen to fintechs as we recover from the pandemic?
Historically, fintechs raise investment multiple times and have profitability issues, but with the recent news of Monzo’s losses and layoffs, I think there’s going to be a shift to making sure the profitability of a company makes sense and they are not just relying on constantly raising funding. The pandemic will make investors and founders take time out to make sure they can cover costs, avoid layoffs and so on.
Q. What’s your experience with the VC funding industry?
The venture capital industry is 100% still an old boys club in terms of who gets to start a fund. I’ve seen people with no experience raise hundreds and people with lots raise nothing. It’s still about finding someone to make a warm introduction rather than just contacting them directly, which I find shocking. Sometimes you go on their sites and there’s no email address, so how can I connect if they can't be bothered to put an email address? But this is changing in the US, there’s a lot more who want to change things and are allowing people to reach out.
Q. What’s your favourite piece of tech?
My iPhone because I pretty much do everything on it. If I ever lost it, I would be very upset. I think it's the most pioneering piece of technology that has come out in our generation.