Women Leading The Finance Industry: Ornit Maizel of Sunbit On The 5 Things You Should Do To Increase Your Financial Literacy
As a part of our series about “Women Leading The Finance Industry”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Ornit Dweck-Maizel, Co-Founder & Chief Technology Officer of Sunbit.
Ornit Maizel built and helped to expand the buy now, pay later (BNPL) brand Sunbit, where she currently leads the company as its chief technology officer. Ornit’s portfolio of experience includes more than 15 years leading R&D and technology development in financial services companies. Ornit has been recognized as a top female entrepreneur by such publications as the Female Entrepreneurs Institute and LA Tech Watch.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us the “backstory” about what brought you to the finance field?
When I was a child, I was drawn to the world of finance and money, but I also had a knack for analytics. My undergraduate education was in computer science, where I felt at home with my analytical skills, and it was the school’s software 101 course that had me hooked from the very beginning. I graduated with honors with a BSc in Information Systems Engineering and subsequently landed my first job at a fintech company.
While there, I was fortunate enough to rise through the ranks quickly, and eventually was put in charge of the research and development team. Here, my love for finance coupled with my experience and education in computer science allowed me to flourish, and I was able to see the company’s entire business scope through these lenses.
I later earned my Master’s of Business Arts, specializing in finance. I found myself leading tech teams at a number of fintech companies. With each role I took on, I realized that my studies, experiences, and skills in both technology and finance were necessary for me to help companies thrive — and later on to be a co-founder of my own fintech company — Sunbit.
Sunbit was the right opportunity at the right time in my career.
Can you share with our readers the most interesting or amusing story that occured to you in your career so far? Can you share the lesson or take away you took out of that story?
When we were starting Sunbit, we didn’t have offices to meet in. We were literally starting our company in kitchens and garages. For Sunbit’s first engineering team meeting, I brought together engineers and software developers whom I’ve worked with in the past. For that first gathering, I borrowed my in-law’s garage in their backyard which, consequently, had only one dirt road that led to the place.
During that initial meeting, we worked tirelessly throughout the day and well into the evening. And by the time we called it a night, it was dark and our only light to get us to our cars, and ultimately back on the road, were our cell phones’ flashlights. And to make the situation even more memorable it had recently rained, so we were knee deep in mud and trying to step over a muddy mess!
This was the beginning of Sunbit for me. To bring a team of dedicated experts together — some had traveled long distances to get there — and ask them to trust me, not only on a new and burgeoning project, but to go to great lengths to meet and brainstorm and share ideas — along a dark and muddy path. Once they arrived, I knew they were dedicated and excited to see this project get off the ground, and we all knew Sunbit was going to be a big deal.
Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?
Fintechs have been leading a wave of changes in the payments category — especially when it comes to buy now, pay later (BNPL) technology. Sunbit stands out in the crowded BNPL category as a particularly innovative solution.
Sunbit has become the preferred BNPL technology of thousands of service providers and retailers who are fulfilling the needs of thousands of local communities. Our technology helps to ease the stress of buying everyday things by offering fast, fair and transparent payment options to people from all walks of life. We are offered in-store and online in nearly 7,000 locations, including 1 in 4 auto dealership service centers, as well as in optical practices, dentist offices and specialty health care services.
We support the needs of merchants, big and small, who serve their local communities, and who are quickly modernizing their operations to offer better customer experiences. Over the last year, we’ve dramatically increased our footprint in the number and type of local merchants where our technology is offered.
As we continue to press on towards our goals, one thing is for sure: we’ve learned a lot during the global crisis, and we’re learning to be flexible in our business by adapting our products and solutions to meet the needs of our essential businesses.
We want to continue to help merchants assist their customers with everyday purchases, and we’re developing new technologies and applications to help with this. For example, some of our partners wanted to offer their customers a contactless way to pay using Sunbit, so we created Sunbit-On-the-Go — a contactless option that’s all done from a customer’s own connected device.
As Chief Technology Officer at Sunbit, my team and I have looked at ways our BNPL solution could benefit more businesses in more ways. We’ve created e-commerce solutions for retailers with online checkout, SaaS integrations for business providers, as well as SDKs — enabling more merchants to offer Sunbit that works for their business model.
Wherever hard-working, everyday Americans want to shop — and stretch their hard-earned dollars — Sunbit will be there to help them pay in a frictionless manner.
What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
The BNPL category quickly became a much-talked about industry in late 2020. Last year, several traditional banks joined us and many others in the space, and BNPL became a sought after differentiator for retailers, as well as a valuable tool for consumers. The BNPL market was estimated to be worth $89 billion in 2020 and is estimated to grow to $352 billion by 2025, according to S&P Global and this year alone there have been billion-dollar breakouts.
I’m proud of the ways we’re unique. We work with everyone from national chains to regional businesses to more local organizations. Their common theme is that they provide needed goods and services to customers in local communities, and I am not aware of another BNPL that is similarly focused.
The fact is that billions of dollars of transactions are taking place in our local neighborhoods, towns and cities, and we’re working side-by-side with merchants serving these communities to give customers better financing choices.
I’m incredibly proud of our commitment to serving all people, everywhere. Better approval rates are available through our technology than through other BNPL providers because of the specific ways we’re able to deploy AI/ML technology, and because we keep our operation lean and nimble.
I know what we’re doing is working because today, Sunbit technology is dominating the auto parts and services market, and can be found in one in every four auto dealerships across the country. We’ve proven that during uncertain times, when industries are adapting to new norms and specially-needed checkout options, Sunbit can quickly bring to market solutions that work — without disrupting a local merchant’s sales strategy.
Ok. Thank you for all that. Let’s now jump to the main core of our interview. Wall Street and Finance used to be an “all white boys club”. This has changed a lot recently. In your opinion, what caused this change?
I think it’s great to see that there has been traction in the area of gender equity — especially in the financial technology industry — and I am excited for more progress to come in the years ahead.
Throughout my professional career, in an industry that has long been dominated by men, I was lucky enough to have my work and skills recognized regardless of my gender. Though it’s common that I have sometimes been the only woman in the room, this was never an issue for me.
The numbers in high tech speak for themselves. One report shows “women currently remain highly underrepresented in software engineering (14% of total workforce) and computer science-related jobs (25% of total workforce).”
But I see promising changes happening. Awareness of the issue was itself a hurdle to overcome. Additionally, more young women are coming into the workforce expecting equal opportunities because of their education and because of the growing visibility of women in the workplace. It creates a virtuous circle.
Over the years we’ve seen more educational opportunities open up for girls and young women to explore S.T.E.M. through well-designed programs and classes both in school and as extra-curricular activities.
And even in pop culture we’re seeing more women in S.T.E.M. leadership roles being highlighted for their work, becoming SHEROs to many young girls and women. I think we’re finally seeing more widespread coverage of the issue, and certainly more discussion of it, which is helping leaders to grapple with their own conscious or unconscious biases.
And there’s more push in the corporate world for companies to diversify their leadership, their boardrooms, and certainly equal hiring opportunities. In fact, there are organizations working with businesses by having them sign a pledge declaring that they will work towards an equal and safe working environment, as well as a favorable workplace, for women of any kind and of any color and of any age.
And finally, we’re seeing more places for women to meet and share ideas and collaborate with others in their fields, for example spaces like women in finance or women in technology forums and groups. Here we can collaborate, share, offer support and advice when needed. I’m pleased to see changes already afoot. I’m confident we can collectively keep moving forward toward gender parity.
Of course, despite the progress, we still have a lot more work to do to achieve parity. According to this report in CNBC, less than 17 percent of senior positions in investment banks are held by women. In your opinion or experience, what 3 things can be done by a)individuals b)companies and/or c) society to support this movement going forward?
As I mentioned, I’m thrilled by much of the progress that has been made over the years, but I also recognize we’re not fully there yet in terms of complete gender equality in the workplace. Certainly, much more can be done.
Let’s start with companies. They can make a difference via membership in worthy organizations, and by looking at their own internal practices. Organizations can pledge to become accountable to better equality in the office. Additionally, companies should consider their own recruiting efforts and look inward at their own organizations. I’ve worked with some companies who were looking to diversify their workforce and they couldn’t understand why women were not willing to join their teams while the workplace wasn’t adjusted to women’s needs. On the other hand, I have worked with companies that had the awareness and adjusted their recruiting process to attract more women and succeeded in closing the gender gap. It’s all a matter of attention and taking the right action to achieve gender equality.
Socially, our education system needs to ensure that programs and activities are extended to all children, regardless of their gender. When more of our young women can begin learning things like science, technology, engineering, and mathematics at an early age they will have more confidence when they enter the workplace.
And, individually, we need to teach our children — from an early age — about diversity and instill in them a sense that they can achieve whatever they want, through hard work and dedication. I also believe in the power of mentorship, and think that is a natural first step that can be improved today. By actively nurturing and supporting women as they come up through their careers, we can help each other to achieve more than we perhaps would think possible. Through mentorship, we can hopefully let other women get a sense of what it takes to hold a seat on a board, start or lead a company, or even just get their foot in the door. I’ve participated in mentorship programs where I can help the next generation of women leaders. I believe with more programs that foster shared experiences — especially among women in business, women in leadership, women in tech, etc. — we can support one another and lean into our shared resources, personal experiences, and business acumen, so more innovative companies can come to life.
Let’s now turn to a slightly new topic. According to this report in Fortune, nearly two-thirds of Americans can’t pass a basic test of financial literacy. In your opinion or experience, what is the cause of these unfortunate numbers? If you had the power to make a change, what 3 things would you recommend to improve these numbers?
We know many Americans don’t have a deep financial understanding to help them avoid potential pitfalls like credit card overuse or debt. And certainly, with Sunbit we’re aiming to be a fair and transparent option for many everyday and essential purchases.
If I could help more Americans improve their financial literacy, I would ensure that our schools and education systems have classes that focus on real-life economics. Helping students to learn about budgets, banking, credit, credit scores, etc. would help them prepare for real-world applications.
I’d also encourage many parents to also teach their children the basics of personal finances and the importance of savings and credit use. And parents should also be there to walk their children through their firsts in life — first credit card, first loan, first savings account, etc.
These basic lessons — starting at an early age — can help children learn the foundations to better financial health.
And of course, helping society in general to learn about financial products before they jump right in is the right thing to do. When Americans can understand the nuisances of financial products and take the time to learn about APRs, repayment terms, etc. — they will have the power to make sound financial decisions.
At Sunbit, we’re making an effort to help Americans manage their essential purchases like auto repairs, new eyeglasses, or taking their pet to the vet. We created our application to be transparent — showing exactly what their monthly payments areas well as what the repayment terms will be — and each merchant who offers Sunbit is trained to answer questions that might come up. Through these efforts, the consumer is armed with important financial information to make their purchasing decision.
With Sunbit, we believe we’re helping consumers make educated financial decisions that match their individual lifestyles.
You are a “finance insider”. If you had to advise your adult child about 5 non-intuitive things one should do to become more financially literate, what would you say? Can you please give a story or example for each?
As a parent, the lessons I hope to share with my own children as they grow older — and include some financial lessons my own parents taught me — would be:
1. Having savings to fall back on should always be a priority. There is a famous phrase that goes “pay yourself first.” This is a great lesson for everyone of all ages to learn. Pay yourself means save your money. Make smart decisions so you don’t over-consume and put yourself in a tough position in the future.
2. Another piece of advice is to borrow to invest in the future. There is good debt and bad debt. Bad debt is borrowing for a depreciating asset or discretionary desire. Good debt is borrowing for something that will provide a positive return. This can be as simple as fixing your car and as large as buying a home or paying for university.
3. Make calculated investments and purchases that are not driven by emotion. To avoid ‘buyers remorse’ I often wait 24 hours before making an impulse buy. If after 24 hours I still feel driven to buy something, I make the purchase.
4. Everything is negotiable. Understanding that all goods and services involve a margin is important. That means that you can negotiate any purchase. Sometimes that means waiting or timing a purchase around a sale — like buying electronics on black Friday.
5. And finally, your reputation is your most valuable currency. Ensure you keep your word, pay your debts, and if you have excess, donate to a charitable cause that is meaningful to you.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?
There have been several influential people in my life. To start, my parents made me believe that I could achieve anything I put my mind to and helped foster a sense of confidence in the woman I became. They were also great teachers when it came to finances, and I’m grateful for their wisdom, mentorship, parenting, and so much more.
Along my career I learned a lot from different leaders, beginning with the CEO of the first fintech company where I worked. This leader was someone whom I learned so much from — especially about financial innovation. And there have been countless others that have pushed me or encouraged me through the years. Many of them being colleagues and business partners, where we worked side-by-side to complete projects and collaborate on ideas, etc. Many of these same people are working with me today at Sunbit, and I’m thrilled I get to learn from them and share in the building of a unique startup.
Of course, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention my co-founders of Sunbit. This intimate team of colleagues and friends have built our company from the ground up — each of us bringing our skills, experience, and even a willingness to fail — to the table in order to achieve our successful business today. We’ve allowed one another to bring pieces of the business together and be okay to make some mistakes along the way, all the while knowing we’re in it together building a better world through innovative products and technology.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
There’s a song that I’ve adopted as my personal anthem, and in it, there’s a wonderful line that says “A big failure is better than contingency dreams.”
This song reminds me that it’s worth taking risks — big and small — to bring our dreams to life. If you have a dream, don’t be afraid to pursue it or let fear of failure hold you back. I knew that I wanted to start a fintech company that would help hard-working Americans to have more fair payment choices, so when the opportunity to start Sunbit came along, I took a chance and a leap of faith so that Sunbit could help everyday people afford the necessities of life. I’m proud to have taken a risk to ensure that others can fairly get their cars fixed, the dental care they need, or glasses or contacts.
You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the greatest amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂
As a female founder, I have been privileged to share my own experience with other entrepreneurs and women founders. I’ve also participated in mentorship programs where I can help the next generation of women leaders.
Knowing that by mentoring and setting an example as a role model to young women who have followed my work and accomplishments — and are pursuing similar opportunities in their education and professional lives — is great. A friend’s daughter just recently shared how she learned about my career path and that I was her professional role model. This young lady is now pursuing an academic career in technology. It’s wonderful to know that the work you’ve done and the achievements you’ve made can have lasting impressions on young people today.
I really hope and believe that with more programs that foster shared experiences — especially among women in business, women in leadership, women in tech, etc. — we can support one another and lean into our shared resources, personal experiences, and business acumen, so more innovative companies can come to life. Your gender, immigrant status, or any other life factors should not detract from one’s ability to achieve their dreams.
My dream was to make an impact on everyday people through financial technology and I’m proud that our company is working to alleviate the stress at the register for hundreds of thousands of Americans every day, all the while helping local economies thrive.