Standout CEO: Suneera Madhani, the reluctant entrepreneur
I recently shared a cheeky reel featuring Suneera Madhani. Asked “What do I bring to the table?”, Suneera responds “I AM the table”. In a world where women are far too often fighting to be included in the conversation, Suneera’s not having it. It’s just one of many lessons female leaders can learn from this standout CEO.
I’ve been inspired by Suneera’s success, her leadership, and the way she doesn’t shy away from challenging perceptions of women in the workplace and the world – and to do it all with a bit of sass (part of her trademark brand) is all the better. So how does Suneera do it? What made her so successful? And what can women with C-Suite aspirations learn from her story?
THE ROADMAP TO SUCCESS
Less than 2% of female-owned businesses get to $1 million in revenue. Women-led start-ups consistently receive less than 3% of all venture capital funding each year. The numbers are even worse when you’re part of a minority group. How then did Suneera lead her payments start-up, Stax, to process over $23 Billion in payments, earning a $1 Billion valuation after just 7 years in business?
Well, none of it would have happened if she hadn’t stepped out on her own. Struck with an idea on how to revolutionise payment technology in the fintech space, Suneera initially brought the idea to her own management – who quickly turned it down. Believing her idea was worth pursuing, she approached a dozen more banks and processors, all of whom said no. So what did Suneera do? She became a reluctant entrepreneur, founding and leading her own start-up to prove the nay-sayers wrong.
Suneera admits she didn’t always believe in herself – but stepping out and trying it anyway is what led to her success.
“Once I realised there isn’t a table for me to sit at, I decided I’d have to build my own.”
Leading a fintech start-up as a young minority woman was just as hard as it sounds. But having built the skills needed to be a strong CEO, even while facing inequalities, Suneera then set out to empower other women leaders to “have it all”. Starting the CEO School in 2020, Suneera now mentors countless woman through online training, resources, and a podcast (which I personally love listening to!), so that more woman can claim their space as a leader, CEO or entrepreneur.
One of the most important lessons Suneera offers female leaders? Be yourself. Or, as I like to say, Own Your Own Awesome. C-Suite women will never be part of ‘the boy’s club’. But who wants to be anyway? Women lead differently, and that’s the competitive advantage. When you’re authentically you, that’s when you step into your power, others will identify with you more and it makes you stand out as a leader worth following. As Suneera says, “I had to authentically be who I was as CEO”.
So what does it mean to be ‘authentically you’ as a senior female leader? Here’s some parting advice:
- Don’t be afraid to do the hard slog. Getting to the top isn’t easy – in the early days of Stax, Suneera sold payment terminals from the trunk of her car and attended pitch after pitch to land funding. But she knew that the hard work would be worth it – and look at her now!
- Know your worth. In 2017, a competitor offered to buy Stax for $17.5 million. It was a tempting offer – the company could only afford another 4 months of payroll – but Suneera knew they were on the right track and would soon be worth far more than the offer given.
- Trust in your ability – Suneera was turned down by at least 12 different companies when she first presented her idea for new payment tech. She admits she felt ill-equipped to start her own company – but now knows she should have trusted in herself from the start.
- Leverage your brand – For Suneera, a bit of sass and a strong clapback to prejudiced comments is right on brand. Know what your brand is, develop a strong voice and viewpoint, and leverage it all to your advantage.