From banking to her current role as CEO of Visa, Hong Kong and Macau, Maaike Steinebach has advocated for women and new technologies. Here’s what she has learned about making it in your career
Maaike Steinebach got her first lessons in how to navigate different cultures and viewpoints at the age of four, when her family moved from the Netherlands to Saudi Arabia.
The eight-year experience helped set her up for a career in which she has thrived as an outsider. From visiting equatorial coffee farms and warehouses to working in oil and gas in China to championing fintech in Hong Kong, Steinebach continues to build connections and stake out space for herself—and other women—in male-dominated industries.
“I’ve always tried to understand the local ways of working and values and not to impose my own, and I think that is a bit of the secret sauce of my success,” says Steinebach, who also cites her ability to adapt. Around 2005, while living in China, she came up with two party tricks to get past the initial awkwardness with male factory owners. The bad trick was joining them to smoke cigarettes.
“The good trick was that I learned a karaoke song in Mandarin so that whenever there was an opportunity and people would look unsure what to do with me, I’d always say, ‘oh yeah, I’ll join you, no problem.’” Steinebach would do her best Teresa Teng impression and feel the mood relax. Once the conversation was flowing, she found they would build respect over shared interest in a product and industry.
After working her way up the ranks of banking, Steinebach attended the 2013 South by Southwest conference, which sparked her pivot to technology. Hearing about bitcoin from the Winklevoss brothers and about using data to hack athletic performance was a wake-up call that she and her team needed to better understand the new frontiers of tech. Steinebach, who was CEO of the Hong Kong branch of Commonwealth Bank at the time, set up an internal innovation lab and was eventually approached by the Hong Kong SAR government to help establish the Fintech Association.
“I dragged onto the first board as many women as I could find, saying ‘you need to be a part of this,’” recalls Steinebach. She also set up a WhatsApp group for women in tech to support each other and identify participants for panels (not manels). “It’s been really interesting to see how over the past five years the whole ecosystem in fintech has developed and female participation is at least a little better,” she says. “I’m personally very excited about how we can use some of the technology now coming to market for female empowerment.”
In 2019, this passion brought Steinebach to Visa, whose corporate purpose states that economies that include everyone will uplift everyone—and whose programmes include She’s Next to support female tech entrepreneurs with funding, networking, and digital skills as well as Support Small to aid local businesses during the pandemic.
“I love working on the recovery of Hong Kong,” says Steinebach, whose strong suit is developing businesses and making connections that can grow the pie for all.
“There’s a lot of talk about how the future is female, but I don’t believe that—I actually believe the future should be equal; I don’t see any need for one to stand out because we need each other at the end of the day,” she says. “If you have people from different backgrounds and genders, it creates a continuous learning organisation and it’s much more inspiring.”
In her words below, Steinebach shares the advice she gives female founders, a must-have conversation for working couples, and why she believes new technologies will empower women.
The moment when a sponsor saw my potential
I was in London and pregnant with my first child when my boss said, ‘Oh, we have a really good idea: you're going to move to Singapore and you'll become the head of this trade and commodity finance business in Asia.’ And I said, ‘Are you out of your mind? I'm five months pregnant. I've never had a baby before. I could get postnatal depression. I've never led a team. I've never lived in Asia’. But he insisted, so that was a real He For She moment of sponsorship.
He saw something in me that I did not see myself—probably my emotional intelligence and ability to engage with clients. It took a while to adjust to a new role in a new country with a new baby; I'm not going to say it was easy, but it was great to know that somebody had my back, saying ‘we believe in you, just keep at it,’ and that I could also trust my own gut feeling about how I was going to do eventually.
Lesson learned the hard way: prioritise self-care
Earlier in my career, I never really took care of myself and became overweight. I have three children who are now teenagers, so I was working, travelling, and taking care of my employees and my clients or family and friends. I was on the last part of the spectrum. But to be really successful is really hard, and I’ve realised you have to put self-care first. I hope that technology can be helpful here, for instance, enabling women to do a mammogram or consultations at home.
With Covid, I see the pressure that women are under because they typically have more care of a household and more of an emotional load. While working remotely creates flexibility, it is also very important to set boundaries between your work and private life so that you don’t have your laptop open permanently. No one else can really decide the balance for you; knowing where to put your attention when and if you need help are skills you need to develop.
My biggest takeaway is creating a routine. I normally go to bed at the same time every day; wake up at six a.m.; do some kind of movement or physical activity once a day; and carve out time for the things that I enjoy. I love being with my family and friends, but I also really like supporting female founders—learning from them and being inspired by them is another form of my self-care.
See also: 7 Asian Women in Femtech to Watch
Why it’s key to talk with your partner about expectations
My partner and I first lived in Amsterdam and when we decided to go abroad, we agreed, the first one who gets an opportunity, we’ll take it. He put his money where his mouth was when quit his job to join me in London. Later when we knew I was going to move to Singapore and then to China for jobs, he would start a conversation with his employer about whether he could do his job remotely or change roles. He found a job in every location, and we’ve had parallel careers.
So this is something I advocate a lot: make sure not only that have you have a conversation with your partner around what you’re going to do after kids and whether you will continue working, but also to agree that this is a partnership and you should have equal responsibility—not just for childcare but also for managing your household and social life.
Turning 40 and deciding to pay it forward
I’m very lucky to have a supportive partner and bosses as well as an employer that gave me the opportunity to learn through technology and reinvent my career. So when I turned 40 and I was sitting in my office in the ICC, I thought, it is really time to start helping women who may have not been so lucky and are actively experiencing that glass ceiling. I started working with The Women’s Foundation in coaching and mentoring, and that work evolved through the Fintech Association and Women in Tech Hong Kong. Now both programmes are elevated to the next level and I’ve handed them over.
I’m also the chairman of the board of Splash Foundation, a charity that teaches domestic workers how to swim in 12 lessons. You see women feeling so incredibly empowered and bolstered by the confidence that they gain. Despite Covid, we managed to teach a thousand people to swim in 2021. It’s a happy story and fuels my energy and inspiration.
Why you shouldn’t wait to be 100 per cent ready
Some male founders are very comfortable to go to market when their product is far from done. Then you have a female founder who has been in beta for two years and is 98 per cent ready, but because that two per cent is not ready, they are refusing to go to market. I recommend being less of a stickler and putting yourself out there—take in the feedback and learn from that and iterate.
Similarly, I encourage women to apply for jobs that may not match 100 per cent. I tell them, you can go through the process and learn from it and the manager might be so excited that they adjust the role or change the location for you.
How I trained myself to network
A lot of people think that I’m extroverted but in the beginning of my career, it could be quite daunting to walk into a room of suits and I had to say to myself: ‘you're not allowed to leave until you have five new business cards.’ That is one silver lining with Covid—since we can’t physically meet, Zoom can democratise some of these difficulties because we are networking collectively and people can even turn off their video.
The potential for tech to benefit women
At Visa, we look for new ways to facilitate the movement of money, so we’re active with digital currencies and NFTs, a digital asset that is tokenised. One of the great things about NFTs is that you may have no idea whether the creators are men or women. It’s an example of what I mean by using technology to empower and benefit women, whether this is around their physical wellbeing or financial wellbeing.
It’s perceived to be a boys’ club because while there are women active in this space, if we don't ask, we don’t know. How often do you go to a party and ask your friends: ‘so are you investors in crypto?’ But if you go to crypto meet-ups in Hong Kong, you'll see a lot of women are participating, and that is so important because if you don’t get exposure, if you don’t know about new technologies, you're going to be left behind.
The great reshuffle to align work and purpose
In any industry, make sure that your work connects as much as possible to your own purpose. It’s going to be a lot easier if you’re passionate about what you’re doing and it aligns with your beliefs and values.
I think a lot of women are reluctant to resign if they don’t like their job, but if it’s a place that makes you unhappy and gives you stress, then go and find something that you're more passionate about, even if that might take a bit longer. Past crises have shown us that eventually things are going to be OK, so have a little bit more confidence to take that decision to start something new.
Employers also have to step it up and make sure that the work environment is more aligned with the needs of employees. While we hear talk of the “great resignation”, it’s actually going to be the “great reshuffle” because hopefully people are going to end up at different companies with a better alignment around what they find important in life.
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