Behind a payment startup's battle to bridge the gender gap

A new payment company is attacking the hurdles professional women face when returning to the workforce after time away, a distinct problem borne out of the broader gender gap in financial services.

“This is an economic problem, where you have something like a parent who left the workforce and then could not get back in,” said Samantha Ettus, founder and CEO of Park Place Payments.

The Woodland Hills, Calif.-based based Park Place Payments, which launched in mid-July, runs an online training program covering the payments industry, with subjects such as processing, point of sale technology, PCI compliance, risk, and general issues facing merchants that lend to a sales pitch from an ISO.

Park Place founder and CEO Samantha Ettus and group

The company has been in beta in Houston, Seattle, San Francisco, Salt Lake City, Los Angeles and Washington, D.C., with plans to add other markets. It has attracted several dozen sales people and several hundred businesses at launch, Ettus said.

In many cases, the sales people are not financial services veterans but have experience in other professions. The company is addressing the challenge professional women often face when seeking a job after leaving to raise children, Ettus said, citing research from the Center for Talent Innovation that found that 50% of women who leave their jobs to raise families or for other personal reasons are unable to secure a full-time job.

The “on-ramp” problem often results in professional women becoming part-time sales people, often for gender-specific products, Ettus said.

That creates a talent pool of people who have ample professional experience, sales skills and ties to local small businesses that’s tailor made for a payment processing company, Ettus said.

“We’ve found a lot of talent on the sidelines, athletes, newscasters, all sorts of things,” she said. “Payments is their new career.”

Park Place charges interchange plus a fee that is based on the volume of a merchant’s transactions—and the local sales person is a primary contact for sales, service and troubleshooting. “Something in payments always goes wrong,” Ettus said. “We’re looking for moms who already know business people such as dentists, local stores and shops.”

Ettus has written books on work/life balance and started a branding firm. As part of that work, she attended a conference eight years ago with about 20 ISOs. The ISOs were all owned by men, she said, calling attention to the gender gap in merchant services, as well as an opportunity for a sales model that utilized people with local market expertise that could serve merchants in a different way.

“I had zero experience in payments but come from a family that is in sales,” said Jill Lipsky, a senior account executive at Park Place. Lipsky said the training is about a day and a half, and she works with merchants on a flexible schedule for Park Place. “I was approached by Samantha, who thought I’d be good at it.”

Lipsky, who is from Los Angeles, had been working as a school teacher, but said the schedule was not conducive to raising children.

She tried to return to teaching after her children were old enough, but found she could only get work as a substitute. “That was not financially viable, I was paying more for child care than that I could make substitute teaching.”

Park Place has also taken a different funding route, approaching mostly women and people of color for investment.

“I didn’t go after VC firms because there would have been pressure to raise more funds the following year whether we needed it or not,” Ettus said, acknowledging the challenge of the capital strategy. “It’s harder to raise investment if you want the group of investors to look like the community you serve.”

The focus on sales and the payments industry in general is a good way to address the larger gender gap in financial services and technology, said Linda Perry, a co-founder of the Women’s Network in Electronic Transactions, who worked for many years at Visa as senior vice president of acquirer and processor sales in the U.S.

Perry said she ran a sales training program for loan officers earlier in her career, which provides not only an expertise in sales, but a visibility that countered an existing unconscious bias in corporate culture. “The women are there, they just may not be as visible as some of the men,” Perry said.

The overall technology growth, and the spike in startups in the payments industry over the past few years, has also helped bring attention to the gender gap in financial services. “Payments is a younger industry. There’s more creativity and there are more opportunities to run it, own it or start it,” Perry said.

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