As a part of our interview series called “Women Of The C-Suite,” we had the pleasure of interviewing Katherine Salisbury.
Katherine Salisbury is the Co-Founder and Co-CEO of Qapital. Before founding the company 6 years ago, she was the founder of Friedman & Salisbury Sports, a sports agency with a focus on supporting professional soccer players. Katherine has a deep law background, receiving her law degree from Cornell University and serving as a Vice President and Counsel at Jefferies Finance and an Associate at White & Case LLP. Katherine currently lives in Stockholm, Sweden with her partner George and 4 daughters.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit more. Can you tell us a bit about your “backstory”? What led you to this career path?
I never anticipated I would end up in fintech. In fact, I majored in Slavic Languages and Literatures and went on to law school. After working in corporate law for a while, I moved to Jefferies Finance. It was a great move and I loved being able to see the business side of things up close. After leaving JFIN, I founded and ran a sports agency focused on soccer and fell in love with the business side of sports. While I loved the agent business, it was tough in a lot of ways, too. George and I had begun trying to create something that would solve some of our own money-management headaches and eventually it took on a life of its own and became all-consuming to build Qapital.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?
COVID was a wild time to be running a start-up. There were just so many unknowns — which is normal for a start-up — but it’s not normal for the whole world to be dealing with so many unknowns all together and all at once. It was just a massive blur of fires and chaos. Luckily for us, it was a great time for Qapital — users started to save more than ever before and spend less. We could see how dramatic of a time it was for everyone because our user behavior changed dramatically too. People stopped saving for things like trips and tattoos and were all in on emergency funds and pouring money into their invest accounts. To top it off, during this wild time, George and I were expecting our fourth daughter — she arrived in September 2020. It was the first time I hadn’t had to travel a lot during a pregnancy, and it was very different. Normally pregnancy is something so public while working, but because we were only on Zoom calls for the whole pregnancy, no one could tell. Quite a different experience.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?
It might be a bit cheesy, but I have to say George — he is the most encouraging person in my life. I’ve struggled with a handicap, and he has always helped me to find a way to overcome it. When we had children during our founding journey, there were so many pressures from all different directions to take less risk and for me to focus more on the kids than Qapital, but he always helped me resist the more obvious path and find a way forward as equal caregivers and equal partners at Qapital. He always says the best thing I can do for our girls is show them how to build something while building a family. Having a partner who encourages me both professionally and personally has left me eternally grateful.
In my work, I often talk about how to release and relieve stress. As a busy leader, what do you do to prepare your mind and body before a stressful or high stakes meeting, talk, or decision? Can you share a story or some examples?
I love to dive into a good story — whether in a book, a movie, a great series or a Moth live storytelling segment — it seems to help me get perspective. To think about things in smaller doses and get a lot of emotions out through empathizing with great characters or people in the stories is very beneficial to me.
As you know, the United States is currently facing a very important self-reckoning about race, diversity, equality and inclusion. This may be obvious to you, but it will be helpful to spell this out. Can you articulate to our readers a few reasons why it is so important for a business or organization to have a diverse executive team?
As a company with a consumer-facing product, it’s absolutely necessary to have a diverse executive team so we can serve our diverse customer base. In financial services especially, tools are often skewed to benefit wealthy white men with traditional families. We take pride in having a diverse team regarding race and gender, which is why we think our app skews more female in terms of audience. Because we have diversity in our team, we’re able to integrate services and messaging that is more approachable and easier to relate to than some of our competitors. If you only have one type of life experience, then you’ll create a product that only reflects and serves that experience. From a management perspective, it’s imperative to help build new leaders and give opportunities to those who might not receive them otherwise. If our employees can see themselves in someone above them, it gives them the confidence and motivation to know they can do the same. If you want diversity moving forward, you need diversity now.
As a business leader, can you please share a few steps we must take to truly create an inclusive, representative, and equitable society? Kindly share a story or example for each.
We’re headquartered in Sweden, where racial diversity is a real problem. It’s often hard to hire senior-level people of color when they weren’t given the proper opportunities earlier in their career — we want to be able to provide those opportunities. We’ve recognized this and have seen success when we provide opportunities to those at the college level and create safe mentorship spaces. We believe that more companies should begin from the bottom up when it comes to ensuring a more equitable society to ensure that everyone is given a fair chance.
Ok, thank you for that. Let’s now jump to the primary focus of our interview. Most of our readers — in fact, most people — think they have a pretty good idea of what a CEO or executive does. But in just a few words can you explain what an executive does that is different from the responsibilities of the other leaders?
I like to operate as if I were working at someone else’s company — we work hard as a team and try and do it in such a way that the team is energized and feels a sense of accomplishment and satisfaction at work. But the part of my job that is a layer on top is to make sure I’m always thinking about what we should be doing as an organization that we aren’t. I have to spend a ton of time reading and learning about everything going on around us so I that I can be on my toes about what we need to start doing that’s not on the roadmap yet. Should we raise money through a new avenue? Should we have some virtual events? Should we be implementing so new AI tools? It’s thinking 360 degrees around the organization.
What are the “myths” that you would like to dispel about being a CEO or executive. Can you explain what you mean?
I know the old school perception of CEO’s is that they often have their feet picked up and everyone around them does all the heavy lifting, but not in a start-up and not when it’s a company you founded. I have to think 24/7 about growing the vision and how I want to grow the company as quickly as humanly possible. Your team is everything when you are building a company — I sometimes wonder if teams realize just how important they are to the CEOs and executives they work with. It’s quite a vulnerable feeling. You need your teammates so much and rely on them for something so deeply important to you. We try to show it, but it’s not always easy. Recently we implemented a dramatic parental leave policy for our US team so they can experience parenthood more like their Swedish counterparts get to. Its super important for gender equality in our own home that George gets equal parental leave rights as I do, so we wanted to bring that to our team’s families as well.
In your opinion, what are the biggest challenges faced by women executives that aren’t typically faced by their male counterparts?
Investor meetings, hands down. Investors are used to seeing women in senior rolls, but not as a founder CEO. It’s much easier for them to relate to George. Often, since we are a tech company, they just assume George has an engineering background and I don’t. The truth is neither of us do! But the way people talk to George versus me in investor meetings is pretty shocking. I still think there is a stigma around women putting their career aside when they have children, or investors being worried that a female founder or CEO will be less reliable once they have children. I put a lot of pressure on myself to not take one day off or one day differently when I had each of my four girls, just to show our investors that they shouldn’t assume a pregnancy will affect a woman’s ability to show up every single day.
What is the most striking difference between your actual job and how you thought the job would be?
In my previous positions, I liked my job, but it was always a bit of a chore to show up — I am shocked by how much I freakishly love my job. It’s wonderful to feel like I’m building something that can help change people’s lives, and that I have teammates who truly share that same passion. I’ve found that making personal sacrifices for my job aren’t as taxing as they have been in the past — if anything, I’m happy to do it!
Do you think everyone is cut out to be an executive? In your opinion, which specific traits increase the likelihood that a person will be a successful executive and what type of person should avoid aspiring to be an executive? Can you explain what you mean?
I think that everyone has the potential to be an executive, of course. And there are so many ways to do it. But for me, I think there are some people who are natural specialists — they love to go really deep on a narrow topic. But as an executive, you probably have to be someone who enjoys going wide and not so deep. You have to constantly be learning new things and able to roll up your sleeves and tackle something you don’t understand. I have no problem jumping in with no knowledge and just asking dumb questions — in fact, I think it’s one of my favorite things to do. I think my job would be pretty hard if you prefer knowing a lot and being an expert. Passion for what you’re doing is also essential — it’s hard to dedicate the time and energy that’s required to be an executive if you don’t feel the intrinsic motivation to push forward.
What advice would you give to other women leaders to help their team to thrive?
I think being yourself and knowing it’s okay to do things your way rather than trying to think of how others do it. It’s just so much harder to do anything when you can’t do it the way that makes sense to you.
How have you used your success to make the world a better place?
I hope so. I hope our app is giving people a sense of control, calmness, safety, and freedom that comes with financial security.