For Salt’s latest Women in Tech interview, we met with Romina Savova, CEO at PensionBee, to talk about diversity, advice and how to navigate and progress in your career.
The #SaltSessions Women in Tech #WiT interview series speaks with thought leaders from around the world to get their opinions and advice on how they have grown their career in tech and overcome challenges and adversity during their career.
- What is your current role and the most exciting part of your work?
I am the CEO of PensionBee and that makes me responsible for all aspects of the business, from general strategy to compliance to our customer interactions.
The exciting thing about my role is that it is constantly changing: some months I am fundraising, other months I am sourcing new partnerships, finding a new office or simply chatting with our BeeKeepers – who sit on the front line with our customers – to get their feedback on what we could do better as a business.
Constant change means constant learning and that is very exciting. Being on the right side of change, particularly in financial services, is also very motivating. It makes me proud of what I do.
I am motivated by using technology to improve the lives of people and to simplify their finances.
I decided to start PensionBee after a harrowing experience moving my own pension. I am a financial services professional, having spent my career at Goldman Sachs and Morgan Stanley. I thought I knew the system, but it was really difficult and I got tripped up by complex processes.
Once it became clear that virtually everyone has a pension horror story (from a languishing pension pot at an old provider to scattered pension pots from numerous jobs), it also became clear that technology can be used to solve the problem.
In my career, I have always tried to pursue roles that have a purpose to me – roles where I can learn and be engaged – but I was only truly happy when I pursued a role that also makes a difference in the lives of others.
2. What has been your most career-defining moment that you are proud of?
In my entire career, I am most proud of having founded PensionBee, the “idea” that rapidly turned into a business that is now helping thousands in the UK take control of their retirement.
It was incredibly difficult to set up a new and disruptive business from scratch, but we were successful because we had all experienced the pensions market as consumers – and that experience showed why PensionBee was sorely needed to demystify pensions. Our experiences kept us motivated to create something better and to convince others – partners, regulators and ultimately customers – to join us on the journey.
Ultimately, listening to the needs of the customer (whether that is ourselves or our 80,000 strong user base) is what has helped us grow into a successful company. We continuously improve our product with our customers in mind. I know everybody says that, but we have designed all of our processes to channel feedback from the customer into our execution – from live chat to social media, to digital surveying to plain old-fashioned phone calls. In that sense, the secret is very simple: listen to your customer and you will succeed.
3. What do you think we should be doing more of to encourage more girls to consider a career in tech?
Every IT company needs a gender diversity commitment. The most frequent excuse I hear is that there simply aren’t enough women, but I refuse to believe that, given women are graduating from universities at higher rates than men. I think companies should have gender diversity policies that they take seriously and actively look for women to fill posts that would traditionally go to men. These types of policies would convince women that they are wanted – in fact needed – in IT.
4. What challenges have you faced in the workplace, especially your experience in male-dominated environments?
Pensions are probably one of the least interesting products to engage with, but it’s so important to get on top of your retirement savings. People move jobs more than ever, so most of us end up with multiple pensions from previous jobs. Yet pension providers are not proactive in telling us what we should do with our pension pots and IFAs can be expensive. All of this leads to consumer confusion and our biggest challenge has been convincing customers as well as the industry that pensions can indeed be simple! Of course, making pensions simple is our mission, so we try to overcome the perception barriers every day by making our product more engaging, providing people with understandable information in any format that they like and ultimately encouraging them to save more money and watch their pensions grow!
Another big challenge has been working with some legacy pension companies who tried very hard to prevent customers from moving their pensions. Some providers retain their customers’ money for up to 200 days before finally honouring the consumer’s wishes. In the end, the customer always wins and giving them a choice and allowing them to have a choice is what has enabled us to overcome all difficulties.
On a personal level, running a company while raising a small child has been exceptionally demanding and difficult, but I could never imagine my life without either of them.
5. In your opinion, what is the biggest obstacle to women’s career progression?
The biggest obstacle by far is affordable childcare. There are myths that women are less confident or sometimes even less capable than men of taking up senior roles. However, having experienced the childcare dilemma first-hand, I’m convinced that we have to do more to enable women to focus on their careers after having children. Bearing children is not optional for women and workplaces have to have the right policies in place to encourage and support women to return to the workplace at their full capacity. I think a lot of the current “gold-plated” maternity policies are misguided – they encourage women to stay away from the office. I think integrating home life and work life, enabling mothers to fulfil their career ambitions is the direction we need to take.
6. As an employer what would you recommend to other companies regarding infrastructure to have in place to develop the best talent?
Everyone takes an active role in recruiting and managing employees at PensionBee. HR is not really a function for a separate department. Of course, we have HR policies and a system for communicating and enforcing company rules, but to develop talent, people need managers and colleagues who care about them.
7. In a management position, how have you found it best to promote and nurture women’s careers?
I think paying attention to and measuring gender balance is important; what gets measured also gets managed. Also listening to the women on your teams and having gender-neutral promotion systems i.e. strict meritocracy is very important.
8. What are some of the best and worst workplace initiatives you have seen/heard of to help promote diversity?
The worst initiatives are those that pay lip-service to diversity and then take no action. This just delays the road to equality because it makes leaders feel like they are doing something when actually they are not.
The best initiatives are customised to the workplace – small companies are different, the level of employee engagement is higher and oftentimes the cultural bond between people is stronger. It would be silly to introduce boiler-plate gender policies when you have an amazing opportunity to create something that really matters. The best policies are the ones where the employees believe that the policies are effective.
9. Who is your modern-day hero?
I don’t really have a Steve Jobs-like role model. I have been inspired by various people along the way, usually people I have worked with. Today I am inspired by the PensionBee team. Culture is at the heart of every organisation and our team’s ability to make the right decisions, so we do right by our customers is something I marvel at.
10. Any reading/website you would recommend to stay updated?
The Economist on occasion and the Financial Times pretty much daily.
11. What is your biggest stress reliever?
Playing with my child!
12. Is there one piece of advice you wish somebody gave you at the beginning of your career?
Always do what makes you happy. (although I’m not sure I would have followed that advice at the beginning of my career!)
13. What job did you dream of when you were a kid – your Plan A career path?
I wanted to be a human rights or criminal lawyer. Sometimes I feel like I’m actually doing that job in the pensions industry!
14. Fun fact about you?
My son has 5 nationalities! We joke that he’ll make an excellent James Bond. Once he comes out of diapers.
About Romina Savova
Following an Economics and International Studies degree at Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia, Romina started her career in the financial services industry. She spent the first couple of years working as an Analyst at Goldman Sachs and, after completing an MBA at Harvard Business School in 2012, joined Morgan Stanley as an Associate.
Romina got the idea to start her own company, PensionBee, when she had a bad experience trying to move her pension. “I couldn’t believe the difficulties I had encountered and soon realised that my experience wasn’t uncommon. I knew there had to be a better way so I set about using technology to find a solution.” PensionBee launched in 2015 and offers savers a digital and transparent pension plan that puts them in complete control of their retirement savings.