Three decades in fintech: Interview with Icefire co-founder & CEO Vilve Vene

Icefire has been around for 16 years. Before starting the company its co-founders were part of Hansabank, a widely successful and innovative bank that is now part of the Swedbank Group.

We take a walk down the memory lane with one of the co-founders Vilve Vene and among other things talk about being a woman in tech world today and how Icefire effortlessly has always had gender balance in place.

Vilve, you started your career as a programmer, how did you become one? After all, It was not the most common career choice in the early 90s, especially for women.

Actually, I think I was lucky to start my career at the beginning of the nineties — at the time when everything was possible. From the very first day after Estonian independence was announced in 1991, even before that, a lot of initiatives for starting private businesses took place. At the same time, gold miners from western countries came, hoping to make a good profit using Estonian cheap workforce and other resources.

Not long after finishing my studies in Applied Mathematics from the University of Tartu I came upon a job offer in a local newspaper. A Swedish company was seeking developers for their planned Tallinn subsidiary. And what caught my eye was one very interesting requirement in the application profile: you had to be a woman to apply. Surprisingly, they got more than 500 applicants!

During the job interview, they actually explained why women and the answer was very simple: they work harder, they are more diligent and they ask for less money. In the end, three developers were selected; and I was one of the lucky three.

Working for them was the best way of learning. I gained more in one and half year than any university had or could have given me. Three of us had to manage everything, starting from building the network for the office (wifi wasn’t invented yet) to gathering requirements from customers in Sweden and programming user interfaces in Swedish. We didn’t have any managers in Tallinn, all that mattered was delivery. And that was something very rare at a time, especially in our post-soviet context.

Then one night, after a long working day, as all our days this time were, we found ourselves discussing our job and life overall. We all had been developing tremendously as IT professionals during last one and half years working for the Swedes. On the other hand, life in Estonia had changed a lot, the economy started to grow and many interesting companies had started. At this moment I realized that my learning time is over and I’m ready for change— after all having international work experience and knowledge how to model big IT systems was pretty unique in Estonian IT world at this time.

And then came Hansabank?

Oracle OpenWorld Conference 1998. Vilve Vene with co-founder Heiki Kübbar.

Yes! Hansabank was the startup of this day and age. It truly was the bank of a new era, founded by young guys, mostly in their 20s who wanted to change the world. Their aim was to build a better and more modern bank than any existing one in the west — in other words, do the real innovation in banking. I joined the Hansabank IT team at the end of 1992 being number 14 in the team. Next 6–7 years were one of the most interesting periods of my whole professional life.

I started as system analyst and programmer, already in a year, I was a member of IT management team. Starting from 1996 I had become the Head of IT Development Division. And it was god damn challenging but even more interesting.

When people think about the 90s, especially in the post-Soviet states the ambition of Hansabank backed with financial know-how and technical competence are not among the most common images that struck to mind. How did it actually work?

The culture of innovation, teamwork, light-weight processes and fast decision making was paramount in Hansabank. And it stayed like that even when the bank grew and got the market leadership in the Baltic states.

You had to be the best in your area to work for Hansabank and also you had to be a real team player; we were proud of our organization and organization trusted us.

During that time, we developed most of the software ourselves in-house. This had two major reasons: 1) in early days the bank wasn’t rich enough to buy packaged solutions and 2) later, when we could already afford that, we had reached the technological level where packaged solutions weren’t innovative and flexible enough.

Over the years Hansabank had several acquisitions and mergers. And every time we implemented our software in the bank we acquired or merged with.

In six months we were able to customize software, migrate data, plan the rollover and complete real migration. In Western Europe project like these are planned usually to take 3–5 years with huge budget and very often banks still run different banking systems for two merged banks even 10 years after the merger. 

The pace and results we had were possible only because of the company culture and full trust from higher management.

Sounds like a dream job indeed. How come you still led you to start your own company?

For me, too much changed when in 1999 Swedes bought a major part of the bank and brought in their management culture. Soon it got a new name Swedbank and procedures and the quality management of the mother bank became prevalent in its daily operations. At that time a lot of bright innovative people, leaders, and builders of great teams left one by one. It was difficult to see the world changing so rapidly in the direction, which most of us in the IT division saw as hindering innovation and delivery-centric thinking, fast and bold decision-making and trust in people we were so used to. Even harder was to lead in such an environment.

In summer 2002 the inevitable happened — the decision to leave the bank. I was attending an IT management conference in Rome with two of my colleagues. In a warm night, enjoying pizza, sipping wine and discussing the situation in the bank on the park bench near Rome Termini Station, the decision to leave and start the new company together was born.

And obviously, it did work out!

Personally, I felt like jumping from the plane without knowing if I have a parachute or not. I left a very well paid job with all possible benefits and suddenly there wasn’t even a monthly salary anymore.

I always remember how Icefire’s first service agreement was signed: I and another female co-founder were at one side of the table and Toomas Luman on the other side. He was known as a very tough businessman, owner of a big construction company and the head of Estonian Chamber of Commerce and Industry at the time. So it was by no means easy.

The value of the agreement was huge both for us as a new company as well as in general for this time. And we really needed it to get going. Finally, Toomas said: “OK, I guess I can support women’s emerging entrepreneurial spirit”, and signed the agreement! A year later he was applauding the results of the project in public, endorsing it in his every single step.

It does not strike me as an easy start to a business — in 2002, as a woman and in fintech.

I have been running a tech company already more than 16 years. Over these years I have seen the industry and the market going through several changes. But what has not changed is women’s position in tech. Even though more and more women are interested in IT and see it as a possible career option!

What I still continuously see is how women’s skills and potential are underestimated in our industry. If one talks about women in IT you usually hear how good testers they are… also, you might hear that they are pretty good as business analysts and system analysts… and sometimes as project managers, but for smaller scale projects of course. 

System architects, program managers, not talking about top-level managers — these positions are usually defined as man’s positions! And it is not only the situation in Estonia — it’s all over the world. I was in Canada, Quebec not long ago and had a week full of meetings with top-level managers from big corporations as well as from smaller tech companies. I didn’t see one woman around the table.

This reminded me of a situation from the time I worked in the bank. I was leading an important meeting with a foreign vendor wishing to sell us his product. When I entered the room to start the meeting I was stopped by a gentleman already sitting at the table telling me he wishes coffee with cream. No wonder women are intimidated to enter such kind of environment!

We see again and again that even if there are more women who lead, it does not reflect in the general gender balance in an organization. Icefire, on the other hand, performs remarkably well in this sphere.

Throughout my professional life as a manager, I have been encouraging and supporting other women to be bold, to face challenges, to take initiative. Already, in the early days of Hansabank, the working culture highly appreciated women — in IT development we had 50% of women working in all positions. Today at Icefire half of our personnel are women working in all kinds of different positions for an example half of the area managers and team leads are women. And from personal experience, I can say that the balance between men and women in the organization is translated to the actual value for the organization.

What’s your secret?

To be honest, we do not have any official hiring policies at Icefire to help guarantee the male-female balance. The easiest would be to say that it has just happened. But I also think it reflects our overall company values and attitude the people in Icefire carry.

And the mindset and values are the most important thing we look when hiring — if they match ours or not — as in the end technical skills can always be acquired. So it is always about the person!

When I think about my personal style as a manager or leader a few points might be relevant. At Icefire, we’re aiming for very little bureaucracy. In practice, it also means that the organization is almost entirely flat.

Neither I or my colleagues at the board get excited about or aim for being the big boss. Nor do we tolerate people in the organization who think of themselves like that. It is also not helpful to be too humble and consider me or other core team members as more important than yourself or others. We’ve had cases when we had to go separate roads with some people because of these reasons.

All that definitely has a positive impact on valuing people based on their actual input. I believe all this completely removes the fight for survival in our organization that hits women especially hard.

If people do not have to compete for who is more important, they are more willing to support their colleagues thus creating a generally warmer and more open working environment.

I also think that the more women, or any other minority for that matter, you include the more the situation starts to feed itself. I just had a job interview with a young woman who was very surprised by our all-female interviewing team.

It has become very evident for us that women, who have worked with and hired women before, are more likely to also hire women in the future.

For tech companies that struggle with gender balance, I can only suggest having less hierarchy, team-centric and supportive practices and trust in your people, be they men or women.

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Written by: Kalli Kulla

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