Interview with Sarah Friar

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  • Originally from Strabane, NI, Friar now lives and works in San Francisco where she is Chief Financial Officer (CFO) at Square. Founded in 2009 by Twitter founder Jack Dorsey, Square helps business owners to accept credit and debit card payments, as well as providing other tools and resources to help them start, run and grow their business.

    We recently had the opportunity to chat with Sarah about Square, championing women in the workplace and much more, during the launch of the Ormeau Baths.

    Companies like Square have championed equality and diversity and thrived. What would you say to companies who are falling behind in terms of embracing equality and diversity?

    It has to start at the top - that’s where the tone is set. We care deeply about diversity and inclusion at Square. For that to resonate and feel authentic with all of Square, we need real buy-in at the executive level, lip-service isn’t enough we all have to live it. We’re fortunate to have an executive team that places a high priority on culture, and a lot of this starts with our CEO Jack Dorsey and his ability to prioritise and instill a strong sense of culture.  Our mission “Economic Empowerment” is actually stamped on the wall.

    What’s incredible about Square is that 45% of our executives are women. I’m proud to work alongside other strong female leaders, including our lead for the UK, Sarah Harvey, for example. What’s interesting is that this didn’t happen as a result of a major initiative or push around diversity. Rather we thought it was good business.  By reflecting our customers, we believe we can build better products that imbue more empathy into the challenges they face every day.

    Internally, we strive for transparency, unpinning a belief that great ideas can come from anywhere.  Innovation is not just an engineering value, it should be felt in everything we do.  We also hold ourselves deeply accountable; we measure employee satisfaction and sense of belonging each quarter, and share those results with the entire company. We hold a bi-weekly Town Square (yes we’re a company of puns) where no topic is off limits.  It’s not all sunshine and rainbows - some of those conversations are raw but it’s up to everyone to be honest, stay accountable and care if we want to build a company and a movement we are proud of.  

    You gained a Masters from Oxford University, worked in finance for Goldman Sachs and quite literally have taken Silicon Valley by storm, with achievements that include becoming CFO of Square and taking them public, and also becoming the first independent board member of messaging platform Slack. How do you feel your roots have shaped who, and where, you are today?

    My roots have absolutely made me who I am today. I grew up in Sion Mills (a tiny village) during the height of The Troubles, surrounded by bombings and shootings. However, I was incredibly lucky to have a family that showed me the importance of giving to others above all else.

    My mother was the district nurse and then the school nurse, and my dad was the personnel manager at the local mill: their lives revolved, and still revolve, around helping others. This instilled in me to this day, the importance of putting people first. If you truly put others first, it just keeps coming back to you in spades. I apply this at Square where my job as a leader is to build a strong team that will carry our organisation forward.

    What do you miss most about Northern Ireland (besides your family)?

    I’ve now lived in California for nearly as long as I lived in Northern Ireland. That’s so strange to think about for me. Although I have built my life here in San Francisco, Northern Ireland still feels like ‘home’ in my heart. In fact when I say “I’m going home” I find everyone knows instinctively that I mean N.Ireland.

    I miss my best friends - even after all these years the girls, and now women, I met when I was in primary school and grammar school are still some of the people I feel most at home with. I miss the down to earth nature of the N.Irish - no pretense.  I miss the stories and the jokes; it’s just not the American way. And of course I miss having my family close by, to stop in for a “cup of tea and a wee bun” as my mum would say.

    Guilty pleasure soda bread or Tayto cheese and onion crisp sandwich?

    I never was a cheese and onion crisp fan - salt and vinegar all the way.  But bread products...that’s a different matter.  I just visited St. George’s market in Belfast. Best experience meeting two brand new Square sellers; FlaxFox and Bout Ye! Belfast.  Second best experience, the ginger wheaten bread.

    What did you want to be growing up? What advice would you give to your sixteen, twenty one and twenty five year old self?

    When I was growing up I was keen to pursue a career in engineering. My girlfriends and I at school loved science and tech - I would take my mum’s vacuum cleaner apart and try and put it back together for fun. There was always one piece left that I wasn’t sure what to do with! That’s led me on a diverse career path from an internship on a goldmine in Ghana, to working with McKinsey in South Africa, to business school at Stanford in the USA, investment banking, and then into technology companies like Salesforce and Square.

    I would give the same advice to myself at 16, 21 and 25 I think - which is be curious, ask questions, and don’t take no for an answer. There’s so much to discover out there - the job I do today didn’t exist when I was 16, 21 or 25, so it is also important to keep an open mind about what the future might hold! I’d also look back and tell myself to be be unafraid to jump when things feel stale or you’re not thriving. I spent too long waiting for a start-up!

    What is the best piece of (business) advice you have been given? What piece of business advice would you give to somebody who wants to work in a startup? What business advice did you wish you had been given?

    Here are a few things that have helped me through the years. The most important first step, regardless of industry, is to do something you love. If you don’t get that right, everything else will be much harder. That doesn’t mean there is one job out there for you, rather think about the characteristics of what gives you energy and sparks creativity. For example, I love to travel, I love interacting with people, and I really enjoy analyzing problems, the more mathematical the better. There’s no single job that checks those boxes, rather there are types of careers, and types of companies that will enable me to mold a job into a passion.

    Once you find something you’re passionate about, it’s very important to be in control of your career. I also recommend looking for ways to create “spikes” - better to have one or two things you’re A+ at, rather than 10 things you’re a B at. It’s also really important to be front footed in pursuing mentors and look for people that aren’t just like you.

    Be persistent - they’re probably very busy, so you need to be creative in looking for ways to fit into their schedule. And then after you meet with them, it’s also important to follow up. And not just say thank you, but close the loop. Thank them for what they said, tell them what you then did differently, and tell them what the outcome was. You want to them to know that the time they spend with you is meaningful. Also ask how you can help them - you will be surprised! And it’s a great way to make them want to spend more time with you.

    How did Square’s Code Camp programme come about?

    One of the big focuses for me is to do what I can to inspire young women to pursue a career in STEM - that’s science, technology, engineering and maths. And one thing I have noted is that sadly there just aren’t a lot of opportunities for women who want to learn how to code. And for the record, if anyone says women aren’t interested in the field, that’s ridiculous.

    My 12 year old daughter is transfixed by what she can create when she brings code and art together. We have to work on making the field more accessible and supportive for women. We’re really proud of Code Camp. We launched it five years ago in San Francisco - it really stemmed from a bunch of passionate Squares saying we want to start making a difference.  It got momentum so last year we took it to New York, and this year it’s in Atlanta for the first time. It’s now it in its eighth iteration, so it’s certainly successful and growing and the Code Camp cohorts are building their own ongoing vibrant community of support.

    Does Square have any plans to launch similar programmes around People Of Colour or the LGBT+ community?
    Code Camp is specifically aimed at empowering the next generation of self-identified women in tech, which is inclusive of women of color and the LGBTQ community. We have other, unique internal and external initiatives to support different communities and demographics, including people of colour, the LGBTQ community, women in engineering, veterans, and more.  

    Do you think the tech sector has become less sexist? What advice would you give to somebody who is facing sexism at work?
    It’s terrible, but there are massive systemic biases, and not just in tech, in every industry. Do I think it’s less sexist - frankly not really. There’s a lot of work to do, and as a society, we either care about it and we're going change it, or we pay it lip service but don't actually care. Through my career I have worked in the finance and technology industries - both industries where women are traditionally under-represented and continue to be so.  At Square we’ve invested in things like conducting unconscious bias training for everyone at the organization.

    This is critical because fixing bias starts with awareness - knowing where you might be making assumptions, using language, allowing preconceptions that will create an inaccurate view on someone’s abilities and output. One of the best pieces of advice I received from a female mentor was to find a career where the outcomes were more quantitative in how they could be measured. This helps to remove some of the systemic or perception biases that can create unfair barriers for women.

    Finally, if you are in a bad situation look for allies.  Not just women, but lots of men have really helped me in my career.  The key is to flag to them that you don’t just want mentorship.  Rather you want and need advocacy.  They need to speak out when you are not in the room, or when obvious sexist outcomes are occurring.

    Square launched in the UK in March of this year. How do you think Brexit is going to impact Square’s business in the U.K? How does doing business in the U.K and U.S differ?

    We were so excited to launch in the UK. There’s a thriving entrepreneurial scene with 5.5 million SMEs, and half of them don’t accept cards. At its heart Square wants to help those businesses to start taking card payments so they don’t miss out on sales, and can compete on a more level playing field with bigger, more established businesses. And we were able to launch Square in the UK with what was by far our biggest product launch in a new country to date. Bexit it or not, small businesses will remain a key driver of the UK economy. And when square sellers start, run and grow, we grow.

    There are a few things that are important as we enter new markets. One is to maintain the culture and the brand that’s made us so successful in the U.S. At the same time, every market is a little different and you have to allow them to be different. Which means we have to allow our country managers the flexibility to do what they see is right to really grow their market. I’m really pleased that we have a strong leader in the UK in my colleague Sarah Harvey. But I’m also excited that I now have another great reason to come over here more often to visit the team.

    You're a mother of two, CFO of Square, independent board member at Slack, board member at education charity Spark, and you still have family back home here in Northern Ireland too. How do you fit it all in?

    It’s not easy. Back to People First - I have an amazing partner in my husband.  He also runs his own business, but we really do share the family tasks 50/50.  Yes sometimes I have spreadsheets to organize us at home too. I also have an amazing support network around me from extended family to our awesome nanny!

    Overall, I try to think about it as work/life integration. I’ve realised over time that trying to manage them as separate things doesn’t get you the best outcome. So yes I do book kids dental appointments on the way to investor meetings. That said, you should also draw boundaries where you need them. For example, in the mornings, between 6:30-7:30am, that is my time with my kids. I’m firm about not allowing any distractions. And I make sure that times reserved for major school and family events are held as definitively as a Board meeting.

    What do you do to relax?

    You need to know what makes you happy! For me, exercising every morning clears my mind and lowers stress. And I’m learning to meditate. Emphasis on the “learning” - it’s been sporadic so far!  I also love to read - the more Irish and tear-jerking the better.  This year I decided to do a book club with both of my kids.  It was such a joy and a gift - creating really interesting discussions on deep topics - race, homelessness, artificial intelligence, social media - and I find their views give me new ways to think about things and spur interesting creative outcomes. 

    Where do you see yourself 5 years from now?

    In a world that moves as fast as tech it is hard to predict quite what our business will look like in five years. Work-wise, I suspect that in five years we’ll have a well-established global business - so I’m excited about the international side of Square and how that will play out. I hope that the work we are doing to attract more women and underrepresented minorities into our company and into the tech industry as a whole will be having a positive impact, as that’s something I care deeply about, and personally, I’ll be a mum to two teenagers by then, so goodness knows what life will be like!

    We'd like to extend a huge thank you to Sarah for taking the time to chat with us, and if you're interested in Square, find out more here: https://squareup.com/gb. To keep up with Sarah, follow her on Twitter.

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