How to manage global talent pools and time zone challenges?

Julie Szudarek, CEO ● Jun 11th, 2024

The full transcript

Oleg

Hi everybody! Welcome to Devico Breakfast Bar! Here we speak with different people involved in the business landscape, share their expertise, delve into the latest tech trends, and explore the ins and outs of IT outsourcing. I'm Oleg Sadikov, and today I'm excited to have Julie Szudarek, the CEO of Self Financial, a credit-building platform that works to increase economic inclusion and financial resilience through easy-to-use products that make building credit accessible. Don't forget to subscribe and hit the notification bell so you don't miss new episodes. Hi Julie! Could you please start by telling us a bit about yourself and your professional background?

Julie

Sure. Hi! I am Julie, and I live in Chicago with my family: three children, husband, and a dog. Early on, I knew I wanted to be a CEO. And so, I took jobs that I thought would help me reach that point. Early on, I worked in consulting quite a bit. I worked at Accenture, and did big tech projects, and then moved on to a strategic consulting firm called Diamond that was helping companies figure out what they should do with e-commerce and the Internet. After that, I went to a company called Orbitz, which is an online travel company, and really learned how to start to manage people and grow my career. I then worked at Groupon, which I think everyone probably knows about, out of the Chicago headquarters, and then went with them, and ran the non-North American operations, which I did from London. And we covered about 15 different countries that we were operating in across Europe and Asia. Super exciting time, like really exciting to work. And so many different countries with so many different cultures. Then I took an opportunity to be CEO. Finally, I reached my goal of being CEO of an online pharmacy business in Europe. We started as a German business, and while I was there, we did a bunch of different M&A acquisitions that got us into about 75% of the addressable market in Europe. This past summer in 2023, we moved back home to the United States as my oldest daughter was starting high school, and we wanted her to do high school in the US. And I started really for the first time in my life, like actually looking for a job, which gave me the opportunity to really be very contemplative in what I was looking for. And so, I put together a pretty detailed list of my must-haves. I found this company called Self, and it basically hit every single of my criteria, which was super exciting. So, it was a product that had proven market fit. We are backed by amazing investors who are really excited about this business and vested in making sure the business is successful. You know, we have good financial backing and place in time. And I think on top of all that, we have a product that actually helps human beings who need help. And so, I think if you can find a for-profit business that is also simultaneously helping people, it's an absolutely amazing thing to be able to find. And I was so excited and so fortunate to find this opportunity to lead this business called Self.

Oleg

Thanks, Julie. You worked in variety of industries, niches. Do you find it challenging to switch the niche, for example, from pharmacy business to the financial credit business? Those are totally different businesses. Did you find it challenging, interesting for you to jump into that new type of business? What are your thoughts on that?

Julie

Yeah, good question. I think because I started early on in consulting, I had to context switch quite a bit, especially in my second consulting firm that I worked for, because the projects were a couple of months long, and so you'd go from one client to the next client. So, I think I really learned how to do that. And it was a very helpful skill set to learn. Also, I love learning. It's one of my favorite things. I love learning new industries because even if they're completely different, there's things that are common and consistent across them. I find it really fun and challenging to be able to apply something I've learned in one sector to another sector, and identify what the commonalities are, and identify what the differences are, and be able to apply a learning framework to that. So, yes, it's challenging, but I also find it to be incredibly fun and interesting. And really, it craves my desire for learning, and creativity, and finding out new things about new businesses.

Oleg

What is Self, and what brought you to the company?

Julie

Sure. So, Self is a credit-building platform. In the United States, about a third of the population, around a hundred million people, suffer from subprime credit. And what this means – and I think this is common in most countries – but if you have low credit, it makes it very difficult for you to rent an apartment; if you're going to buy a car, the interest payments on your car that you're charged is going to be higher than someone who has better credit. It's very, very difficult to buy a house, and kind of the American dream is to buy a house. And so, we help people work on their credit history, such that they have an improvement, that they can show in the way that their credit looks and the way that their credit history looks. And this helps them then achieve other more beneficial financial outcomes. That's what Self does at the core. We really help people who need help. What brought me to the company was just the team, and the culture, and the fact that we're really helping individuals and human beings that most need the help. You know, a lot of our customers are sick, often single moms, and people that have been kind of typically left out of traditional banking. And so, we're able to bring them more into the mainstream and really help them get caught up in life in a way. And it's a beautiful thing. You know, it's beautiful to listen to our customers, and to hear what they have to say, and to learn about their experiences and how we've been able to help them improve their financial outcomes.

Oleg

That was very interesting. AI is increasingly being integrated into financial services. Does Self leverage AI to enhance its products and services?

Julie

Yeah, we do. You know, I think there's so much more to come, but we absolutely use both AI and machine learning in our business. So, we do things around chatbots to talk to customers and to help them figure out what it is, how we can help them, what products are best for them. You know, one of the best use cases, I think, for AI that's sort of low-hanging fruit is really helping with customer success operations and helping customers get answers to questions without always using people to do that, but quick answers that people can, you know, use through chatbots to get, you know, what, when is my bill do – just simple things like that. So, we use AI to do that. And recently, we've – and we can get more into this in a minute – but we launched a free rent reporting service, which allows customers to report their rent payments to the three credit bureaus that exist in the United States and then by doing that, establish a positive payment history, which is a really important part of one's credit score. And we have to do matching of a lot of data to identify that it's actually a rent payment, and we have a pretty robust machine learning algorithm that we use to identify what a rent payment might be in someone's, you know, there's thousands of lines of data. And that's been a really successful thing for us: used to be a manual process, and we've been able to automate it through machine learning. That's been a huge productivity benefit to our company that really allowed us to launch this free reporting service that's had, you know, a lot of demand associated with it.

Oleg

It seems you're getting real value from machine learning, not all companies do this, honestly saying. I interview many people, and we have clients, and we talk to other digital product leaders, and I can say that it sounds really interesting – what you're doing and your plans. A few decades ago – digital payments, a decade ago – blockchain, now – artificial intelligence. How do you envision these trends shaping the future of FinTech and the broader financial service industry?

Julie

Yeah. So, I think it'll have a meaningful impact across the customer journey. As you know, financial services and financial services products are so complicated, and consumers need to understand them in order to figure out what is the right product for them. So, I think there'll be a lot of innovation from AI with helping customers figure out what it is that they need, and when they need it, and how they should interact with the different products that exist. You know, you will continue to see more and more advice from consumers coming from models that are facilitated by AI. I think this will make the customer experience much more personalized, much more user-friendly. And with that personalization will come, I think, an accuracy on a customer-by-customer basis that I don't think at this exact moment is available today. John needs product X – if we're talking about building credit history – to properly build with credit history, because we can see all John's data. And Paul needs product Y. And there may be the same product set, but some of the parameters of those will be different. And I think we'll be able to do that in the future, which will be really exciting and really help our customers, you know, achieve the outcomes that they're looking for at a more accurate and faster rate than they can today. So, excited about the future. It's going to be amazing.

Oleg

Thanks. Could you share what are some of the biggest challenges you have faced in your career? And how did you overcome them? Groupon, pharmacy business, sales, maybe something before Groupon?

Julie

Yeah. I think for me, it's always been figuring out – like we talked a minute ago – how to learn new industries and how to quickly bring value to new roles that I've had in new industries. Because when you start a new job, people expect that very quickly you're going to have knowledge about the business. And so, I think learning how to apply one business's information, data insights to another business has been a big challenge. And I think it's probably the fact that I've learned how to do that is something that has made me successful and that I really turned into a skill. And it's a lot about like listening, and asking questions, and not being afraid to ask questions. People are sometimes like, 'Oh, I'm not gonna ask a question because everyone expects that I know the answer.' I ask a ton of questions, and I'm not afraid to do so. And I think if I had like a magic wand, I wish more people would ask more questions because I think we get to better answers, and I think generally, if one person has a question, there's probably two, three, four, or five that have the same question.

Oleg

Definitely. I totally agree with you. Can you share any strategies or habits that have contributed to your professional growth and success, except not being afraid asking questions?

Julie

Right. On top of the asking questions, I tend to get into the details of stuff, and I think it's sort of related to asking questions, but I try to learn how things work from the bottoms-up versus top-down. I like to understand the two top bullet points on how something works, but then I also like to come from the bottom and really understand the intricacies because I think in today's businesses, so much value comes from connecting different data points and different pieces of information. And so, I think really just getting into the details and having the ability to pull myself like in and out of being high-level and being detail has been a thing that has been incredibly useful for my success. Learning how to work in regulated industries. You know, I've been in many regulated industries now. So, travel was regulated, the pharmacy business in Europe was regulated. And we're working in different countries with different regulations on the same topic. So, that was challenging. And then financial services is obviously incredibly regulated. And so, I think sometimes people come into these industries, and they're like, 'Oh, okay. It's a black-and-white answer.' And it's not a black-and-white answer. There's interpretation associated with much, and I think getting comfortable that it's not black and white and that it's gray, and that you need to make an interpretation that that's sometimes gray and sometimes ambiguous, is something that I think is important for people to get comfortable with. And that comfort with ambiguity for me has been an important success point and something that's allowed me to work in some of these very regulated businesses that I've worked in.

Oleg

Are you afraid of failures?

Julie

Of failures? Yeah, of course. But I think I'm afraid of them, but I also realized that to be successful, you're going to have failures. So for example, we do a tremendous amount of testing, consumer testing, be it user experience testing, pricing testing. And we kind of have a rule that 70% of our tests are like, if we're doing AB tests, 70% will probably fail. And so, I think you start to become comfortable with failure as a means to finding success. And you know, I kind of see failure as accelerating success because failure means you're trying something hard and big that might not work. If everything you're doing is safe, and it's successful, you're probably not taking enough calculated risk in kind of the experience that you're going after. And so, I am afraid of it, but I realize it's part of the process. And if there's things that are – we don't take regulatory risk, for example. So, we wouldn't do something that would risk us from a regulatory perspective because you can't fail there. That's not okay. A pricing test where maybe we ended up losing money because price too high or price too low – I'm okay with those, but never on the regulatory side.

Oleg

Okay. Why I ask this question? Because one of my previous guests came to my mind when we were talking about success in general. He was on one of the conferences in Europe. Someone from the auditory asked him about failures related to success. He's from Israel, and they asked, 'Why in Israel so many successful people? Here in Europe, we don't have many compared to the population itself.' And he said, 'You know, you all are brilliant people here, but we do believe that one of the key factors for success is to admit failures. So, we just know that we fail, but we insist going. We're just going and doing things, even though we know like we can fail 10 times.'

Julie

Right.

Oleg

Yeah. So, those things are, for me, connected. That's why I asked.

Julie

You've heard post-mortem. So, that's after something happens, you reflect on why it happened the way that it did. And so, in the companies I've worked in, I think we've been pretty good to do post-mortems, both on successes and on failures, so that we're continually learning what was it that made this thing successful, and how can we do more of that, and what could we learn from this failure. And let's have a discussion about it, and let's actually document it on a piece of paper, and talk about it. That's a big part of kind of how we work and how we learn. You know, it's fine to fail, but you shouldn't make the same exact mistake multiple times.

Oleg

Yeah, you need to learn from your mistakes.

Julie

You know, if you just historically look at the human population, I think our biggest learnings probably come from failures, trying something that didn't work, and then being able to just find more success.

Oleg

What leadership styles or philosophies have influenced your approach to leading a team, and how have you adopted them to fit your own leadership style?

Julie

Yeah. You know, I would never ask someone to do something that I wouldn't myself do. And so, I think that's part of it. That's a thing of respect. So, I respect people. I'm nice. I'm always nice, but always firm. And so, I don't mince words. I try to tell people what I'm thinking, and I try to give people what I'm looking for in terms of output of things, but I don't micromanage. And so, I think it's about communicating expectations, seeing if people need help. Like often, people have great ideas. They just don't know how to get started. And so, helping people get started on a project or a task is something that I try to do with my teams. So, I think those are some of the things. And I talk, like I talk to a lot of people. I think for leaders, it's important to know your organization, and that doesn't mean just the team that reports to you directly. I think it's important to know people throughout the organization, at different levels, and different functions, because those are the people doing the work day to day. And they're probably acutely aware of problems that exist within the organization. And in talking to them, you can hear about those problems and then do something about them very directly. Because, you know, entry-level person may not themselves be able to fix or improve.

Oleg

What are your thoughts on the importance of diversity and inclusion in leadership, and how do you ensure diverse perspectives are represented within your organization?

Julie

Yeah, that's a perfect question for Self. One of our core values is be your authentic self. And this means that people can bring whoever they are to the workplace. We like people to show up authentically. We have a very diverse customer base. And so, that means that we have customers with different viewpoints from each other and maybe from the mainstream population. This whole topic is super important to us as a company. We have DEI committees and employee research source groups that are dedicated to diversity. We're doing a lot of training for our teams on diversity, you know, working within a workplace, how to be diverse from hiring strategies, and things that we can continue to attract a diverse workforce. So, it's super important. Actually just like maybe a month ago, one of our DEI groups hosted a lunch where we learned about credit across the world and, you know, the similarities and differences to what we see here in the United States and how credit works. And that was just, you know, being a person myself who has lived in international places, it was a really interesting lunch and learnt us just understand how credit works in different places. And because we have such a diverse team and lots of people have lived outside of America, we got to learn what credit building was like in some of these other countries. It was just really interesting.

Oleg

Talent scarcity is a concern in many industries nowadays. How do you approach talent acquisition and retention, especially in a competitive market?

Julie

Yeah. So, we have our culture. It’s so strong, that it is very attractive to people. And like I mentioned, one of the reasons I came to this company was because of how we help humans who need help. And I think that's very attractive to many people. So, I think a lot of our talent acquisition comes from what we do as a company and how we help other human beings. No matter who you are, that's amazing to be part of something like that. And I think a lot of companies say they help humans, but I don't know that a lot of actually truly help humans like we do. And so, that is one way that we attract and retain people. When I started back in October here, I talked to probably a hundred different people on the team. And we call our team builders, and I talked to at least a hundred different builders, and every single person talked about the culture and how strong it is, and how amazing it is to work here. So, one of my big initiatives as CEO is to maintain the culture that we've been able to drive within Self.

Oleg

Company culture – one of the important things.

Julie

Yeah. And about 50% of our team is in Austin, Texas. And about 50% of our team is around the United States. So that allows us to access a bigger talent pool than if we were just in one single location. So, that's been helpful as well.

Oleg

With the growing trend of remote work, and 50% of tech in Texas, and the rest 50% – the rest part of the US, how have this influenced your approach to outsourcing? And what considerations do you take into account when working with a remote tech team?

Julie

Yeah, so we outsource a decent part of our tech team: some of our analytics and our customer service. And so, we're a big outsourcer. I guess how we do it isn't different than – you know, there's selection criteria and everything that we can get into in a minute – but in terms of the teams, we really treat our outsourced teams. We kind of eliminate that word, like they're part of the team. So, our non-full-time employees are part of our team. We involve the team members in our tech scrums. We have QBRs with them to go over how the business is performing. I personally know the CEOs of the companies that we use for both our tech outsourcing and our customer service outsourcing, and we're in frequent dialogues. And so, it's an extension. And you know, maybe they're in a different country or a different time zone, but it's an extension of our team, and they're part of the team. And we try to make it so that they feel that they're part of the team, and they're not different, because I think that's how you really build inclusion toward a set of OKRs and goals that we're going after as a company.

Oleg

Definitely. Not everyone understand that, but the ones who understand that definitely benefit from it.

Julie

Yeah, for sure. And I think we get more productivity because the third parties that we use understand what it is that we're trying to do, and they truly feel like they're part of the team. And I think that's important.

Oleg

Yeah, they can open then. You can really get fully dedicated person who delivers, who is open to the project, and who brings his ideas and not just code or just piece of work that they were hired to do.

Julie

Or, like, it's eight o'clock I'm going to start, it's four o'clock I'm going to... Like we get more buy-in from folks in terms of trying to get to the final product that we're trying to deliver.

Oleg

Definitely. How do you see the role of IT outsourcing evolving in the context of your industry's future needs and demands?

Julie

Yeah. I mean, it's obviously an important part of our industry. We're a tech-driven company. And so, I think it will continue to be something that we focus on, a way that we augment our team. I think that in FinTech, because it's so regulated – and we already do this – but you'll continue to see companies finding partners who have an understanding of the FinTech landscape, who understand the importance of regulations that exist within the landscape. You know, data, privacy and all that is important everywhere, but I think it's even more important when you're talking about people's financial data. And so, we, and I think other companies in FinTech will continue to look for partners who really value that kind of privacy, data security, et cetera, who are willing to work, specifically in the tool set that we already have established. Sometimes you find outsourcers who have their own tool set that they want to work in. And because of the data and security, we want people who work in our tool set. And thus far, we've been very lucky in finding that. And, you know, it's been criteria for our selection of partners, and we've been able to achieve that.

Oleg

One of the criteria is here. My next question was just about how do you determine the criteria for selecting partners or vendors when considering outsourcing for your business.

Julie

Yeah. So, first, I'd say I have a very experienced team, and many have worked with different outsourcers in the past. So, often, we'll use someone that has…

Oleg

From your network?

Julie

Has experience with that's in our network. And so, that's incredibly helpful. And then we have just a big due diligence process that we go through when looking for new partners. Be it, you know, thousands of lines on a spreadsheet that we're trying to get information about to be able to assess how robust the partner is going to be for us. Now, of course, depending on the need that we have. We want someone who has proof points in serving customers well. So, we care the world about the consumers that we serve. And we want our partners to have that same mentality that, you know, the customer is of utmost importance, and how we serve that customer is incredibly important. So, we look for someone who really, truly has experience serving consumers. And then we look for breadth and depth in certain disciplines. It depends on what it is. But if we're looking for analytics, we want people who can understand consumer-based analytics and metrics that go along with running a consumer-facing business. If we want customer service, it's what kind of sectors have they served? Our product is complicated, and we need customer service companies that have dealt with complicated consumer-facing products.

Oleg

Are there specific regions or countries that you find particularly promising for tech talents? And how do you navigate challenges associated with a global talent pool?

Julie

Yeah. So, I mean, in an ideal world, we have overlapping time zones that are within reasonable differences. And so, we have found a lot of luck in South America with our tech outsourcing teams. We found high levels of English proficiency, which is important cause most of our team here speaks English. And then, regardless of time zones, we just focus on making sure that the teams that we're working with are integrated to our teams that are based onshore here in the United States. So, there's just a lot of making sure that the integration points are right. If we have teams that are in wildly different time zones, which we do, we have very robust handoff processes. You know, sometimes we have a team here in the US working on a project in our daytime, and a team in India may be working on a project in their daytime. And we have just a very documented process by how we exchange the handoff between the different time zones and staff. And that's just something that's built into the way that we work with some of our remote teams.

Oleg

Yes, structure is definitely one of the key points, while working with different time zones, regions, and remote teams. As we wrap up our conversation, what advice would you give to business leaders considering IT outsourcing as a part of their growth strategy based on your experience and lessons you learned?

Julie

Yeah, I think have a very clear definition of what the expectations are. And I think we would come up with what those expectations are, what the goals are, the timeframes, and make sure that that's a discussion with whoever you're using to do the outsourcing with. And that discussion is important because asking questions and gaining clarity on goals are super important. And so, you want to make sure that everyone is perfectly aligned, especially when you're dealing with people where English might not be their first language, like just making sure it's robustly clear. And then I think treating your partners as a trusted advisor. They are doing work on behalf of your company. They're going to see things that maybe you don't see, especially since some of them have probably worked with a lot of companies, you know, just different companies at different points in time. So, they're going to have that knowledge from other businesses that probably is really impactful to your business. And so, like, really leaning on them, asking them for ideas, treating them as like a partner versus a service provider, I think, is something that has been good for us. Blending the teams. So, I mean, there's points in time where maybe you give a specific project to an outsourced team, but make sure they're also blended with the internal teams so that they can pass along learnings. Making sure that, you know, we're aligned on a set of OKRs that everyone's going after and everyone is excited about achieving because that's what's going to mark success. The same tools and management framework is important. You know, I'm a big, huge believer in performance management, internally. And I think it's an important external thing as well. So, if we have one of our engineering managers here in the US that has people on the team that are in one of our outsourcers, making sure that that manager is giving feedback to the team to the management of the outsourcer on the different team members so that they understand what they're doing well, what they can improve on. You can't improve if you don't understand that there's a problem, and I think so that that feedback loop is important. And then kind of wrapping all that up through QBRs. So, you know, talking about both what the outsourcer is providing on a quarterly basis, how they're doing, how they're contributing to the OKRs of the business is a good way to make sure that everything's on track and that there's a good feedback loop in place.

Oleg

Julie, thanks for your time. Thanks for joining me today. You're a very experienced person. I know of your achievements in Groupon and pharmacy business. I'm sure Self definitely benefit of having you on a position of CEO. You're a very busy person, and again, thanks for finding time to join me. It was a pleasure to speak to you, and I'm sure our auditory find a lot of insights that would be useful for that.

Julie

Thank you for your time. And it's always nice to speak to you. So, have a great rest of your day.

Oleg

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