Women Leading The Finance Industry: “Overall, we need more education about what it means to be financially literate and responsible” with Sheree Thornsberry EVP at Meta Financial Group
…First off, I would say teaching children about financial literacy isn’t necessarily easy — you have to build this skillset and this love for it at a young age. I don’t know that many parents have enough resources to do that, and it’s not built into most school systems. Overall, we need more education about what it means to be financially literate and responsible. For adults who feel they’re lacking in this area, I’d encourage them to seek out opportunities for financial education.
I had the pleasure to interview Sheree Thornsberry, EVP and Head of Payments at Meta Financial Group and MetaBank. Before joining the Company on September 25, 2017, she held leadership positions at InteliSpend and later Blackhawk Network. At Blackhawk Network, Ms. Thornsberry was General Manager of Hawk Incentives, where she was responsible for leading 600 employees. She holds a Master’s Degree in Public Administration from St. Louis University and received her undergraduate degree from Vassar College in Psychology. She is also a graduate of the School for International Training in Kenya, Africa. Sheree has received several industry accolades where she has been recognized for her work within the payments industry: named one of Incentive Magazine’s ’25 Most Influential People in the Incentive Industry’ in 2016; participated in Incentive Magazine’s 2016 Annual Incentive Roundtable; and received the 2014 Paybefore ‘Top Motivator’ Product Innovation Award.
Thank you so much for doing this with us Sheree! Can you tell us the “backstory” about what brought you to the Banking/Finance field?
When considering any opportunity, regardless of the industry, there’s one key question I always consider — based on where an organization is in its lifecycle, can I add value? Throughout my career, I’ve sought out opportunities where I felt my skillset was a match. It’s also been of the utmost importance to me that I’m able always learn, and to expand on that skillset.
I’ve been in payments for about 20 years and at Meta Financial Group for two years. When I joined the organization, it was at an important juncture — through a handful of mergers and acquisitions, it had grown relatively quickly, and its structures and processes needed to mature to support that growth. Having been through multiple mergers and acquisitions in my previous role at Blackhawk Network where I was the General Manager of Hawk Incentives, this was a challenge with which I was very familiar. As Meta has worked through these growing pains, I have been able to add true value to the organization.
It’s also proven a tremendous learning opportunity for me — when I joined the team, I had an extensive background in product development, marketing and account management, as well as in sales for various payments companies that are considered to be program managers. I still get to oversee those areas in my current role with Meta, but it was my first role with a bank. Meta initially established itself as a leader in banking, but it’s grown to so much more than that. It’s a business-to-business financial services company that operates in several different sectors, including payments, commercial finance, tax services and consumer lending.
Can you share with our readers the most interesting or amusing story that occurred to you in your career so far? Can you share the lesson or take away you took out of that story?
I have a funny story about leadership that has happened to me recently. At Meta, we have a suite of payments solutions that includes prepaid, faster payments, ACH origination and wire transfers. I oversee this work, along with a team of 60. Recently, I was sharing our 2020 goals for this portfolio of work with my team. There was no way around it — our growth goals are aggressive. But, I wanted to be a cheerleader for them, and encourage them to rise to the occasion. As I was sharing those goals, one thing I kept saying was “I’m so giddy about next year.” I said it several times in that initial meeting, as well as after that.
I’ve noticed since then that whenever I’m discussing 2020 with individual team members, they’ll often say to me “Sheree, I am so giddy about this.” I love how they’ve internalized this positive attitude about the coming year, and about our growth goals overall. To me, it’s a reminder that, as a team leader, it’s important to always be mindful of how I’m saying things, and of how impactful what I’m saying can be to each and every individual on my team.
Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?
We have so many exciting projects in the works at Meta that it’s almost impossible to pick just one!
But one initiative near and dear to my heart is the work we’ve been doing with Mastercard and Operation Hope. Operation Hope is a nonprofit organization that provides financial literacy, empowerment and economic education, particularly in areas where people don’t have easy access to those mainstream services. Recently, we sponsored a daylong women’s entrepreneurial program in the Atlanta area with Mastercard. We invited a number of minority women from the community who had either recently started or wanted to start a small business but didn’t know where to begin. We also invited a number of women who are in leadership roles at our partner organizations. We facilitated panel presentations and roundtable discussions, as well as one-on-one conversations between the executives and the small business owners (or would-be small business owners).
The conversations were impactful and enlightening. At the end of the day, I was reflecting with the other executives we’d brought in, and we all came to the same conclusion — that the program participants had given us so much more than we’d given them.
In the coming year, we’re planning to work with Mastercard and Operation Hope to expand that pilot to three to four more cities throughout the country.
What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
Meta has a very strong brand, and a very strong reputation. We have many fantastic partners, and we’re devoted to protecting their brands, too.
For a while now, the payments industry has been a key focus of regulators, so we’ve had to withstand some scrutiny over time. Because of this, we’ve gotten stronger as an organization — we really had to intimately understand our risk, and how to mitigate for it. This is something our partners consistently express appreciation for, too.
Many of our partners have described us as ‘better than a bank.’ Before we go to market with anything on their behalf, we work hard to ensure it checks two key boxes: sustainable and defensible. We hear from our partners in the payments industry that many other partners don’t take this brand protection as seriously as we do.
Because of our extensive due diligence, we’re able to serve underserved consumers and businesses and consider projects few others are willing to take on. In my eyes, this is what makes Meta a fantastic partner, and a challenging, interesting place to work.
Ok. Thank you for all that. Let’s now jump to the main core of our interview. Wall Street and Finance used to be an “all-white boys club”. This has changed a lot recently. In your opinion, what caused this change?
In my experience, it hasn’t been a recent change — it’s been a slow evolution over time. I don’t think there was any one particular person or action that led to this, but rather several. We live in an environment where there’s more transparency around gender in general. Social media has shifted the world for us and helped to shine a spotlight on differences in gender, race and sexual orientation. Because of this, it’s more broadly accepted that this is what the world looks like, and that world has to be represented in the boardroom. Finally, and this is key, too — it’s thanks to the constant pushing of the right women in the right situations to get to the next level.
Regardless of why or when the change took place, the outcome is that we’re seeing more females in the c-suite than ever before. And, in my opinion, this is wonderful. These women aren’t in these positions because of any specific initiative, but rather because they’re quite deserving of their roles. Women are also able to bring entirely different perspectives to the boardroom than men, so this evolution has made the workplace inherently better.
We still don’t have enough minorities or enough minority women in the c-suite — but I’m hopeful that this, too, will evolve over time.
Of course, despite the progress, we still have a lot more work to do to achieve parity. According to this report in CNBC, less than 17 percent of senior positions in investment banks are held by women. In your opinion or experience, what 3 things can be done by a)individuals b)companies and/or c) society to support this movement going forward?
Again, I truly believe we will see this continue to evolve over time. But I also think it’s important that companies deliberately seek out candidates who represent different walks of life, whether they be women or minorities. We are all a sum of our life experiences, particularly when we reach the leadership level. Women and minorities bring entirely different perspectives to the table than white males, and those should be valued.
Building diversity within your leadership team is extremely important — it leads to a better team, as well as better overall business results.
As individuals, we can work to identify our own personal biases and understand what drives them. Like I said, I truly believe we are a sum of our life experiences. With some self-introspection and willingness to come to the table with an open mind, we can all impact change.
Let’s now turn to a slightly new topic. According to this report in Fortune, nearly two-thirds of Americans can’t pass a basic test of financial literacy. In your opinion or experience what is the cause of these unfortunate numbers? If you had the power to make a change, what 3 things would you recommend to improve these numbers?
Without a doubt, access is the biggest issue here. Many believe it’s easy to open a bank account, and that all of us can do so — but that’s not how most of our country operates. According to the FDIC, 8.4 million U.S. households are unbanked, and an additional 24.2 million are underbanked. So, it’s clearly not as simple as just opening a bank account for millions of individuals.
To combat this issue, people need financial education, and access to financial services and solutions. They also need more than one day of financial education — it has to be repeated and sustainable.
At Meta, one of our goals is to create that ongoing access. One way we’re trying to do that is through our partnership with Operation Hope. Another way is through our faster payments platform, which we launched in early-2019. It is creating real opportunity for our partners by enabling businesses to grow, be more efficient and issue payments more quickly. It also helps consumers to access urgently needed funds in near real-time, including insurance and healthcare claims, government aid, tax refunds, gig economy payments and more. We also have partnerships with many organizations that focus on creating financial access, including a recently announced one with KyckGlobal that will lift up millions of Americans who do not have access to the kinds of financial products and services many of us take for granted.
You are a “finance insider”. If you had to advise your adult child about 5 non intuitive things one should do to become more financially literate, what would you say? Can you please give a story or example for each.
First off, I would say teaching children about financial literacy isn’t necessarily easy — you have to build this skillset and this love for it at a young age. I don’t know that many parents have enough resources to do that, and it’s not built into most school systems. Overall, we need more education about what it means to be financially literate and responsible. For adults who feel they’re lacking in this area, I’d encourage them to seek out opportunities for financial education.
On a very basic level — and this may seem silly — learn to write a check. I have two children in college, and I’m not sure they know how to do so. That’s not uncommon, as research shows more than half of millennials never use checks. But it’s important to understand banking basics like this — to learn how the banking system works, and not get lulled into complacency because you’re able to complete most transactions via a smartphone app. Also, save, save, save.
Then, start responsibly building credit. When each of my children went to college, we got them a basic credit card. It was an introductory level Discover card, and we were the co-signers. We walked them through the basics of when it’s appropriate to use a credit card, and how to pay it off in a timely manner. When my son graduated from college, he came to me and said it was time to graduate from his Discover card, too. So, he applied for a couple of other cards, and he was approved for them within 24 hours because of the credit he’d built.
Finally, learn about investing and invest. That same son is in the investing field, so he’s already doing so. But it’s not something my daughter knows how to do just yet. For all young adults, I’d recommend learning the ins and outs of investing, and tell them to get started — even if they start small.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?
Personality-wise, I’m more of a feeler than a thinker. In my career, I’ve had to learn how to strike a balance between the two. But early on, I was only a feeler, and I got rattled by everything. And then I’d go to my supervisor, rattled or even sometimes in tears. Eventually, my supervisor gave me a sound piece of advice — there’s no room for tears in the boardroom. Essentially, stuff is going to happen, and I’m not always going to like it.
I’m still grateful to that supervisor. Corporate America is challenging, and there are lots of ups and downs. It’s up to you to learn how to celebrate the ups, even if they’re small, and manage the downs — if you can’t do that, it’s going to be very difficult to be in corporate America or a leadership role.
However, like I said, I’ve had to learn how to strike a balance between feeling and thinking because it’s important to be passionate, too. It’s not always easy, but learning to read the culture and environment of a room is important to driving positive outcomes. And I believe this flexibility and ability to adapt is one of the valuable skills women bring to the table.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
One particular quote from Judy Garland has always resonated with me — “always be a first-rate version of yourself, instead of a second-rate version of someone else.” I grew up in a generation that was heavily influenced by the one before it. Essentially, it was “here’s a script, and you need to live your life by this script.” But living your life by someone else’s script can create a lot of problems, and ultimately lead to unhappiness. This is why it’s important to always be true to yourself.
This is especially important in the workplace. It’s not always easy to be true to yourself, and people may disagree with you when you’re doing the right thing. But it’s important to be a first-rate version of yourself and do the right thing anyway.
You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the greatest amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.
My husband and I recently spent time in Africa. The people who owned the lodge where we stayed were funding women in nearby villages — essentially, when these women are menstruating, they’re forced to stay home from school because they don’t have the necessary access to feminine hygiene products. The people we met were trying to combat this issue, which I found inspirational. Since then, considering how to inspire others and what I might influence them to do has been very top of mind for me.
I’m very passionate about giving women opportunities for access, so that they can be the best versions of themselves. That’s one of the reasons I’ve been an advocate for our work with Operation Hope, and why I’m proud to work for an organization that believes in building financial access for all, as well as in supporting women in leadership roles. At Meta, 70% of our senior vice president team is female, and the organization is truly invested in our personal and professional growth.
In my own life, since that trip to Africa, I’ve been thinking hard about how I can inspire others and create a similarly impactful initiative back home.