Square’s Sarah Friar: ‘I want things to be different for my daughter’

5 Jul 2018

Square CFO Sarah Friar. Image: Square

One of the most powerful Irish individuals in the Silicon Valley tech scene, Square CFO Sarah Friar has her eye on the smart money but also a better working world for women.

It’s a balmy evening in Dublin and as the rush-hour traffic begins and queues assemble outside her Ladies Who Launch event at the city’s Mansion House, I encounter Sarah Friar, busy among the troops putting in the last-minute touches to tables.

Friar, the CFO of Square Inc – Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey’s other multibillion-dollar business – is arguably one of the most powerful Irish people in the Silicon Valley tech scene, and the business mind behind what is currently a fintech that processes $70bn worth of payments a year.

‘Square is a very purpose-driven, mission-driven company. It is really about economic empowerment’

Hailing from Northern Ireland, Friar was named Financial Woman of the Year in 2014. Last year, we reported that she was also appointed to the board of team messaging service Slack, which is changing the world of work as we know it.

While Twitter gets all the media attention, Square could turn out to be one of Dorsey’s biggest legacies in terms of the impact it is having on empowering businesses all over the world, with its mobile card readers for smartphones and a range of fintech apps.

Hip to be Square

As we sit down to talk, Friar betrays her original engineer calling by geeking out over a range of Square devices on the table before us and showing me various instantaneous transactions on her iPhone. “With Square, the minute you start swiping a card, the bits and bytes are encrypted as it goes through the reader and once it is in the cloud, the transaction is fully encrypted and off the device, so nothing is left behind.”

Friar grew up in what she describes as “the sprawling metropolis of Sion Mills” in Co Tyrone, where her love of science and maths was nurtured by her teachers before she landed a coveted scholarship to study engineering at Oxford.

Her first break in engineering came when she secured a job with a gold-mining company in Ghana, but it nearly ended the engineering journey for her. “The work was fine but I was the only white woman on that mine and it was a very sexist environment.”

Friar’s arrival in San Francisco came at a pivotal time for tech. “I was in the class of 2000 and it was a wild time. Stanford definitely feels like that heartbeat of Silicon Valley; everyone there is talking about technology, not so much the next company they are going to build, but what it is going to do to change the world.

“We were climbing the ginormous pinnacle of what became the dot-com bust and so everyone, including all my business school class, were thinking about start-ups to join and dropping out early. There was a lot of pressure to be part of that start-up world. I took a number of classes across the street in the engineering department. That’s the other thing that Stanford does really well: it is very multidisciplinary. You can be doing an MBA but also do engineering courses. It is not book learning at its worst, but it is really about open-ended thinking.”

For the class of 2000, March came and the dot-com bubble burst. “We all assumed it was a minor pullback.”

Necessity being the mother of all invention, Friar went to work in banking with Goldman Sachs’ technology group to not only make ends meet but also secure her visa. Rival bank Morgan Stanley’s internet visionary Mary Meeker was her icon.

“Mary was who we all wanted to be and she still is. But now, I get to work alongside her as she sits on Square’s board.

“I ran the tech research team at Goldman and we were all trying to emulate what Mary was doing in terms of identifying cross-trends. It gave me a wonderful seat to watch technology unfold. And surviving through tech crashes gives you a certain perspective. You learn to take the good, but you are also respectful of the risks, which is a good background for a CFO.”

Driving the fintech revolution

Square CFO Sarah Friar addressing her recent Ladies Who Launch Dublin event. Image: Square

Square CFO Sarah Friar addressing her recent Ladies Who Launch Dublin event. Image: Square

From Friar’s vantage point, fintech is enabling individuals and businesses to do what banks in the past would not allow them to do.

‘It is still a voyage of discovery just to send money digitally’

“What I love about Square is that is a very purpose-driven, mission-driven company. It is really about economic empowerment.

“It is allowing the small businesses that were previously excluded from the system to be able to take cards. When people pay with cards, they typically spend more. We’ve seen it with a bakery in London, for example, that didn’t sell many Christmas hampers because they didn’t take cards. They came on Square and instead of selling three, they sold 18. In a small business, that is a huge shift in their total revenue. It feeds back into the growth of the business.

“If it can create economic empowerment there, it breeds life back into communities that are maybe getting decimated by this wealth divide.”

What makes Friar and her colleagues at Square particularly proud is how the platform is enabling companies to grow.

“We’ve seen it start as a side-hustle for an entrepreneur and then becomes the first location; and for Square, we will stay with them on that journey all the way up to hundreds of locations. Our goal is to never let our sellers outgrow us. So today on our platform, you can be a really big business and run up to $100m-plus scale.”

She said it was the economic empowerment aspect that drew her to Square.

“Jack had interviewed every single CFO in Silicon Valley and I had an atypical background. I had been an equity researcher, an engineer, I had spent a year and a half at Salesforce. I had seen the inside of a company in hyper-growth. We met, had a coffee at our local Blue Bottle Coffee shop, and we just connected as people. It is important in our roles that we have friendship and trust because, frankly, the CEO and CFO have to disagree (and with good reason) and it is healthy in a company to have debate and not always agree. But, if you can underpin it with a trust of friendship, it makes the disagreement very natural and you can live through it.”

She speaks warmly of Dorsey who, at just 41, runs two of the most powerful tech businesses in Silicon Valley. I ask, how does he manage to run two giant companies simultaneously?

“If Jack were here, he would say he drives himself around frameworks and principles. He is very principled about dividing his time: Twitter in the morning, Square in the afternoon. It helps that we are right next to each other on Market Street.

“One thing I would say about Jack is, he is amazing at hiring great people. Most start-ups under-hire the whole way and the people are never quite scaled to run a big company, whereas Jack could persuade people from big companies to join.”

She points to Dorsey’s hiring of Gokul Rajaram – the ‘Godfather of AdSense’ who previously built the business model at Google – away from Facebook, where he pretty much built the social network’s advertising model.

“Jack is great at putting people around a table. He will say, here’s the output I want, but does not proscribe how you go about it, and it allows for a lot of creativity. He is super-thoughtful about design and what the customer insight is and what the customer is really doing with the product. But he will delegate and get out of the way and hold you accountable because he is expecting it. He doesn’t try to be in on every decision. It is a great way to lead. I have learned a ton in leadership from Jack.”

As well as a slew of hardware products, Friar said that Square is doubling down on opportunities in omnichannel. “People are not only turning up in your store, they are showing up online, on websites, in apps, or they may be engaging with you through a speaker in their home. Commerce as we know it is changing rapidly.”

She said that Square’s Cash App has 7m monthly active users and is one of the top financial app downloads in the App Store. “It started out as a P2P app for sending money and if I just want to send money, it does a facial ID scan and sends the money. It also comes with a virtual and physical card. You can also buy and sell bitcoin on it.”

This prompts me to ask, will history be kind to cryptocurrencies? “I agree with Jack who believes that whether it takes one year, five years, or a decade or two, there will be a more cohesive global currency that doesn’t involve all these hops to fiat currencies that cost a lot of money.

“It is still a voyage of discovery just to send money digitally. Today it is like the early days of the internet in the 1990s, but by 1998 the internet just worked and people understood the building blocks of it.

“Almost two decades later, the five most valuable companies in the world are all tech companies.

“Look at the rise of the blockchain today – you need to be careful about not being curious.

“Jack is enormously curious and that is the key. Look at the companies that have the largest market caps today: Airbnb, Lyft, Uber, Square. Most of these companies are not even a decade old.

“So, I am super bullish that we will continue to see that pace of innovation. But I don’t think that it is all going to come from Silicon Valley. We need to look at Asia, and I hope we see more innovations coming out of Europe.”

Solving the diversity problem

Sarah Friar, CFO of Square, with former Tánaiste Mary Harney and Anne Heraty, CEO of Cpl Resources plc. Image: Square

From left: Sarah Friar, CFO of Square, with former Tánaiste Mary Harney and Cpl Resources CEO Anne Heraty. Image: Square

This brings us to the ongoing gender divide and Silicon Valley’s perception as a kind of ‘Brotopia’.

‘The key is creating an inclusive environment. Businesses focus a lot on recruitment but if it is not an inclusive environment, people will leave’

“I don’t think it is just a tech industry problem. It happens in every single industry but the entertainment industry has really shone a light on it. I came from finance where it was hardly a hotbed of lots of women rising to the top.

“Look at the Fortune 500 – only 5pc are led by women. That’s nuts, it should be at least 50pc. Women are not inherently more stupid than men or in any way less good at being leaders, so there is definitely a systemic bias there.

“I won’t give people the platitude of saying ‘Oh, it is getting better’ because it is not. In 1995 there were zero female CEOs in the Fortune 500, but 20 or so years later we have 26. How long do I have to wait until we see 250? If you just plot that line, we will have to wait 100 years. I want things to be different for my daughter.

“I’ve been blessed in life and have had great mentors along the way so I don’t think it is impossible, but I do think we need to ask ourselves why more women aren’t joining the leadership ranks. The key is creating an inclusive environment. Businesses focus a lot on recruitment but if it is not an inclusive environment, people will leave.”

Looking to the future, Friar’s energies are concentrated on Square, and in particular growing its European headquarters in Fumbally Square in Dublin 8.

“We have a thriving Dublin office and we have 15 people in the European HQ. We are hiring finance, legal, customer success and risk executives.

“Square in San Francisco started with 200 and we are at 3,000 today. We see Dublin as a great gateway to Europe and there is no reason why it cannot match that success.”

John Kennedy is a journalist who served as editor of Silicon Republic for 17 years