Brigid McKeown discusses balancing work and life at Mastercard and getting to grips with the forefront of fintech development, all while encouraging the next generation.
As programme coordinator for Start Path, Mastercard’s start-up engagement programme, Brigid McKeown nurtures and promotes a large portfolio of early-stage fintech companies from around the world. She is also a key driver in employee engagement in Mastercard Dublin where she leads and supports in the Young Professional committee, internship programme, Girls4Tech and PRIDE.
McKeown has spent the last four years working in technology and innovation and, this weekend, she’ll be at CoderDojo’s Coolest Projects event in Dublin with Girls4Tech, inspiring some next-generation STEM fans. But first, she spoke to Siliconrepublic.com about her career journey and what she’s learned about balance, teamwork and the benefit of mentors.
‘I believe everyone should be entitled to work in the industry of their choice based on their skills and knowledge and not based on their gender’
– BRIGID MCKEOWN
What drew you to this career?
I discovered my interest in tech while studying it in college and I then went on to complete my master’s in innovation through ICT. I’ve always been fascinated by innovation and the role it plays in business and the impact it has on society. That applies to payments, which is such a big part of daily life, and an area that’s undergoing huge amounts of change. So, the combination of innovation and payments is a real sweet spot for me. Who knew that one day you would be able to wave a card or use your fingerprint to make a payment?
What’s the best thing about working in fintech?
I love meeting and working with extraordinary entrepreneurs. Every day I get to learn about and work with disruptive technologies and fintechs. It’s fascinating to see firsthand the potential that chatbots or personal assistants such as Alexa will have on the way we pay for things.
What’s the most exciting development you’ve witnessed in fintech since you started working in it?
Banks are now realising they need to work with the nimble but more established fintech start-ups in order to accelerate their own technology and move their own agendas forward. It has not always been this way and, two or three years ago, start-ups were seen as a threat. Now, they realise that collaboration is the key to success and impact.
What aspect of your job have you struggled with?
Start Path is a global team based in Dublin, Dubai, New York and Singapore, so we are spread across a few different time zones. When I first started on this team, I found it weird (and sometimes frustrating) that I couldn’t just turn to my colleague to ask them a simple question. The pros definitely outweigh the (one or two) cons of being part of a global team and I’ve learned to really appreciate the face time I get with the rest of the team.
What’s been the hardest thing you’ve had to face in your career, and how did you overcome it?
Work-life balance. This is so important and is strongly encouraged in Mastercard and on my team.
I realised that by removing ‘life’ from the work-life balance, your standard of work can really suffer as you can burn yourself out. Now, with full support from my manager, I make sure to leave work on time to play sports, go to the gym and hang out with my friends, to ensure that I have the energy to give 100pc to my work during work hours.
If you had the power to change anything within the STEM sector, what would that be?
Any sort of stereotyping or barriers around women working in the STEM sector. I believe everyone should be entitled to work in the industry of their choice based on their skills and knowledge and not based on their gender. We need initiatives to encourage and support gender balance in the STEM sector as opposed to unfair gender pay gaps, which most likely discourage women from working in STEM.
For young girls, it’s also about shattering the myth about the kind of work STEM subjects can lead to. Whether you want to be an astronaut or even design rollercoasters, they need to know that there are so many exciting, creative and varied jobs in these fields. This image of men in white coats doing repetitive work couldn’t be further from the truth.
Which of your personality traits makes you best suited to your job?
Flexibility and ability to adapt to change. The start-up ecosystem and fintech industry is fast-paced and constantly changing so you need to be ready to adapt, learn and embrace the latest technology and trends.
Is there something in your personal life that has helped you in your job?
I’m a fan of playing team sports – be it hockey or tag rugby, I love being part of a team. This allows you to work to enhance your own personal skills while working with the rest of the team to develop and improve as a whole.
Teamwork means others rely on you and you rely on others in order to be successful as a whole. Being able to work in a team and not just as an individual is crucial both inside and outside the workplace.
How do you make connections with others in the STEM community?
I try to get involved in as many groups as possible (both within Mastercard and outside) to build and grow my STEM connections. I do this by volunteering, mentoring, attending events and meet-ups.
Has mentorship or coaching been important in your career?
Hugely important! It’s always helpful to think out loud with someone who is not on your team, or even in your organisation. Sometimes my mentor doesn’t give me a direct answer but just guides me towards making a decision on my own. The chances are that an experienced mentor has already gone through similar situations and so can provide you with insights and recommendations based on their experiences.
My mentor is also amazing at spotting opportunities for me to develop my skills and putting me forward for projects that I would have never considered for myself. This senior support and encouragement really makes you push your boundaries.
What advice would you give to someone thinking about a career in your area?
Working in technology is so broad – once you get your foot in the door, you will be able to explore the various different areas that you are interested in. Don’t be afraid if you are unsure of the exact role or area that you want to work in as you will figure this out as you go. This is unnecessary pressure to put yourself under!