"It’s not unusual to be the only woman in the room": Q&A with Karen Penney from WUBS

November 22, 2019 | Karen Penny, WUBS

Karen Penney, the Vice President of Payment Solutions for Western Union Business Solutions will be speaking at European Women in Technology 2019. We caught up with her ahead of her session to learn more about the company and her role within it.

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Tell us a little bit about yourself and Western Union Business Solutions?

For the past 25 years, I’ve worked at several blue-chips in the finance industry, including American Express and NatWest, both in the UK and internationally. I joined Western Union Business Solutions (WUBS) a year and a half ago as Vice President of Payment Products for the UK, where I’m responsible for driving the business strategy across the various client products we offer and lead a large team.

I’m a real people person, and managing a team is one of my favourite things about my job. In fact, I recently trained as a mental health first aider as part of my commitment to my team to creating an environment they feel happy and supported in. Western Union Business Solutions is a global payment business, and have one of the largest and most diverse networks in the world with a presence in every country but two.

We work with businesses, academic institutions, financial institutions, and NGOs of all sizes, and process their international payments with fast, cost-effective solutions that are tailored specifically for their needs.

 

Are you working on any exciting projects you’re able to share with us?

I can’t be too specific at this time, but we have a few interesting partnerships in the pipeline which we’ll be launching very early next year. They bring together an exciting combination of data management and payments to enable our customers to work more efficiently and save money and are part of our broader strategy of transforming digitally to continue to deliver the best service to our customers.

 

What would you say the best part is about working for Western Union?

There are many things which make working here special, but two things in particular make getting out of bed easy in the mornings. Firstly, we have an incredibly diverse workforce, with around 12,000 employees that reside in 58 countries and 50% are women. Importantly, our executive team is comprised of 40% women and eight different countries are represented! Yet we still know there are areas we can improve on, and the business is committed to addressing these, which I’ve found very motivating.

Secondly, for a business that is over 168 years old, we have a much stronger culture of innovation than I was expecting. No doubt our diversity helps us here, given the business is filled with people who bring different opinions and perspectives to the table.

But what many people don’t often realise is that Western Union has a heritage of innovation, and this is still felt strongly across the business today. For example, we launched the first ever domestic commercial satellite in 1974!

 

Why have you decided to get involved with European Women in Tech?

Technology continues to change the way we work, and as leaders we need to adapt to ensure we continue to deliver our customers with the best service in the industry, but also importantly, to retain and attract the next generation of talent. I’m really interested to hear how other organisations are evolving and dealing with the challenges and opportunities that technology brings.

 

What will you be speaking about at the conference and why have you chosen this topic? 

I’ll be speaking about some of the challenges faced by women in male-dominated workplaces, especially at a senior level. If we don’t have women in senior leadership positions to act as role models for more junior female professionals, how can we demonstrate that we are committed to gender equality?

This is something I’m passionate about, and sit on our Women@WU network, which is an all-female senior advisory group at Western Union with a mandate to create an action plan to promote women’s success throughout the company. We want to encourage the retention of women from the early stages in their career and ensure that they feel represented and included at every level.

 

What diversity challenges have you faced and what strategies did you use to respond to them? 

Unfortunately, in financial services there are often more men in senior positions than women and it’s not unusual to be the only woman in the room or at the table. As a result, sometimes you can feel like you aren’t a part of the gang or that your voice isn’t going to be heard. It’s both an issue of diversity, but equally important, of inclusion.

I have tried to approach this situation in two different ways. Firstly, I’ve have a female peer network who I call on to test ideas and suggestions out on. They often help me frame how I might present something, and give me good advice, so I feel well prepared for more challenging situations. Secondly, I’m a strong advocate in involving men in the discussion – everyone feels left out or unappreciated at times, and we cannot create a good working environment without everyone having a voice.

 

How has diversity played a part in your career?

I’m passionate about diversity in the workplace and have always been a strong advocate in the office. Fortunately, I’ve been lucky to work for very forward-looking organisations who have been committed to creating a diverse and inclusion environment, with real targets and policies to deliver on this.

 

As a woman in tech, what are you most excited about in the technology world?  

The thing I’m most excited about in technology is the positive impact it’s having on the finance industry – from simplifying complex back office payment processes, all the way through to the impact on consumers by making managing money easier. At Western Union, we move money for better, helping people and businesses send money and make payments globally.

Technology is helping us live this every day, by introducing new innovations we can apply to our business, or by partnering with companies. For example, earlier this year we announced a partnership with Amazon to set up PayCode, which lets people pay for Amazon items using cash through our retail locations. With this partnership, we’re giving millions of people who were previously unable to use Amazon access to the global market place to find the best deals.


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