Carolyn McMahon never planned to work in finance. Trained in conflict resolution and international negotiation, the mission-minded entrepreneur soon realized that improving people’s finances was one of the most effective paths to improving their lives.
Her consultancy, FemFinance, is a research and strategy consulting firm that works with the commercial, public and social sector to help unlock problems people are having around product, policy and programs in the financial health space. She recently spoke with Statement’s Lis Martin about the surprising shift in gender dynamics across the industry, along with a risky business move for FemFinance that paid off.
Lis: What inspired you to found FemFinance? What challenge were you looking to solve?
In many ways, I feel like I'm here in the finance sector by accident. My early work was in conflict resolution, but I kept seeing how people's hangups over money were at the root of so many conflicts and also at the root of solving them. So I pivoted and started looking at the intersection of people's well-being and financial solutions.
I’m the first to say there's nothing intrinsically interesting or important about finance. What's interesting are the ways that financial health can be a means to better ends for people. And so when we think about what it means to have a safe, secure place to keep your money or a secure way to spend it, when we think about financial control or financial independence, that becomes interesting for us at FemFinance. Finance becomes one tool among many tools to help people stay safe and grow and thrive.
Lis: Wow, that's great. Thank you for that overview. When did your particular focus on women develop? Was it something you always knew that you wanted to zoom in on in your career?
Carolyn: That's a big question. But it's a really good one. One thing, and I say this in a joking way but I’m actually quite serious, is that FemFinance isn’t about solving “lady problems” in finance. In fact, I don't think of FemFinance as having a gender focus.
The “Fem” in our name stands for feminist, and it's really more about bringing that lens and set of practices to the work of financial health. By that, I really mean looking at who's in power and who's not, and helping to champion a system that distributes and in some cases inverts power to be more inclusive. FemFinance is here to improve financial products, policies and programs to help all kinds of people, especially those who've been excluded from traditional finance. Women are a huge part of that, but they're not the only part. We really believe that we serve everyone better by using deep human insights that can be uncovered through feminist ways of working.
Lis: How much of FemFinance’s work does center on challenges or products that are specific to a particular demographic, whether that's women or people of color?
Carolyn: I see almost every collaboration we're doing, by being intentional about the human part of the problem we’re doing, moving toward improving outcomes for specific demographic groups. That doesn’t mean it's about designing a pink debit card for women – though those initiatives are out there.
We use a lot of human-centered design principles and practices in our work. So we're helping firms of all styles, shapes and sizes talk to people and get really deep consumer insights about their own lives, their values, their perceptions, their beliefs, and how those might then translate into a product that actually suits those needs and values.
Lis: Your professional journey has been an interesting one, coming up through a social impact lens that led you to the financial sector and then to entrepreneurship. I’d love to hear about that moment when you decided to take that leap from working for someone else to working for yourself.
Carolyn: Going out on my own as an entrepreneur didn't feel like a big leap, actually. It felt more like a natural evolution of many threads that had been weaving together over time. I had done work across sectors on U.S. and global financial health, and I found myself a bit frustrated by not seeing all of those sectors coming together in very many places. People weren't really learning from each other. Going out on my own was a chance to stitch together these different ways of working and different bases of knowledge, located not just in ivory towers or in certain boardrooms, to really think more holistically about the financial health space.
It's been a tremendous amount of fun to build something on my own. I've found that professional journey the most rewarding of my career by far. It's been wonderful to build a practice and have the opportunity to pull up others, particularly other women, whether hiring consultants collaborating with FemFinance, or helping to solve really tricky problems for women clients.
Lis: Congratulations. The world needs more entrepreneurs, especially women. What has your overall experience been as a woman in the broader financial industry?
Carolyn: I'll be very curious to see what kinds of stories you hear, because I'm not sure what I'll share will be representative. I think what we see in the financial health space vs. the capital-F “finance” space might be different in terms of how these gender dynamics play out.
For years, the financial inclusion space used to be dominated by a sort of an old guard of women, mostly white. They were pushing incumbents to think differently about serving people who were historically excluded from financial systems and infrastructures. I have noticed that as financial health conversations became more dominated by fintech as a favored solution to finhealth problems, that the space got more male. And I think it's not a coincidence that we saw this era of unprecedented capital flowing to financial health, which was largely white male-controlled venture capital funding white male-led fintech.
There's certainly more talk today about representation in venture capital among founders of fintechs themselves. Even more interesting are some of the conversations about restorative economics, where we're finally starting to lift up and celebrate and respect the voices – largely of women of color – who've been leading that work without a spotlight for decades. But I think we have a ways to go in this space, especially when we look at who controls capital and where it's flowing.
Lis: Strategic communications are a key part of your work: Not just helping clients design solutions, but understand and articulate those out to customers or stakeholders. Can you tell me a little bit about effective strategies that you've uncovered to tell those stories?
Carolyn: Over the years, I've become increasingly confident that I will not come up with the answer for how to design a product or tell its story sitting here in my home office. FemFinance really tries to center the people who will be the users of the solutions, and it’s just as important to center people in product design as it is in distribution and communications strategies. Only the people who will be seeking out this product know where they'd like to look for it or who the trusted voices are who can vouch for this solution to them. The financial industry has a major trust deficit, and it's well-deserved, so I think it's important to acknowledge that and be quite honest in communications, particularly around financial products.
Lis: For FemFinance, what have you found are the most effective ways to grow and create authentic connections?
Carolyn: Well, as those bankers know, trust matters in business. That goes for us too. I’ve really missed the in-person connections over the past couple of years - but being able to take time to forge relationships - and do it in person when possible- has been key. I always insist that FemFinance does the highest-caliber, highest quality work possible, at all times, and our clients see it and they share it. It's basic, but it's foundational for us.
I’m not a marketer by title, but I will say that I've been deeply rewarded both in attracting clients and community by allowing our brand to reflect the same authenticity we strive for in our work product. Many people, myself included, saw it as a big risk to use the word “feminist” in any description of our practice. I held myself back from using it for years. But the truth was that we were approaching our work with feminist practices and a feminist ethic. That was honest, and that came first. Allowing the brand to reflect and celebrate that came second. Being brave enough to allow that harmonization of the two has been quite rewarding.
Lis: Authenticity has become this buzzword in the marketing world, but seeing firms that are actually living it in a meaningful way is refreshing to see. Is there anything else you'd like to share?
Carolyn: Something we’ve started recently at FemFinance is a side project called FemFinance PepTalks. It’s a way to offer women, or anyone else who’s been on the receiving end of pay inequity, some free coaching around salary negotiation. The idea was born out of fielding personal calls from so many of my female friends who were unsure about how to ask for more money at work in a way that felt safe and successful... and also from my frustration that in finance, we talk a lot about ways to manage, spend, and borrow money, but not earn it. Drawing from my early days in negotiation and conflict resolution, we’ve built a little practice around it. It’s true to the financial health mission: working to address pay equity and income, on the other side of the balance sheet. And true to our skills and our spirit!
We’re loving the 1:1 dynamic and are hugely gratified by the stories of women putting these skills into practice to feel more powerful in their financial lives. Anyone who might benefit from coaching can book a session at femfinance.org.