Most of you will have heard of Square, Jack Dorsey’s ‘other’ company. He founded the mobile payments company in 2009 after he had first been ousted from his position as chief executive of Twitter. Now valued at $19bn, it’s one of the hottest stocks in tech.
Dorsey’s right-hand woman – and the CFO who took the company public – is Sarah Friar. This darling of Silicon Valley grew up in Northern Ireland and comes from a family of farmers. She was the first in her family to go to university, and studied engineering at Oxford. ‘I was a real tinkerer as a kid. I loved to take my mum’s Hoover to pieces,’ says Friar. ‘I did engineering internships while I was at uni but I came away thinking: "There’s no-one at the top who looks like me. How will I ever be a success?" It was incredibly male-dominated and there were no female role models for me to look up to.’
Instead, Friar joined McKinsey as a business analyst in London and, within three months, was posted to Johannesburg to work at the company’s fledgling South African office. ‘I worked in an office that was just starting up, in a nation that was just starting up. It was 1995; apartheid had just ended. I learned a ton about what it’s like to work in a place where diversity is a real problem and how to make systematic changes.’
She moved to the States in 1998 to do an MBA at Stanford. It was there that she discovered Silicon Valley ‘in all its glory’ – and she never moved back. She spent the next decade working for Goldman Sachs, going from banking to equities to securities software. ‘Every couple of years, there was an opportunitity to reinvent myself. There was another mountain to climb. That’s what kept me there for so long.’
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Covering stocks ranging from Microsoft and Oracle to SuccessFactors and salesforce.com, she witnessed the boom turn to bust. ‘I saw the dark side, the "irrational exuberance",’ she says. Then the financial crisis of 2008 hit. ‘I love numbers and I’m a total geek but banks really lost their way,’ she says. ‘Everyone questioned their role – and their leaders.’
Friar wanted to work for a company with a purpose and was drawn to Square’s mission of economic empowerment for small businesses. She joined Square in 2012 when it was just 200 people: ‘I felt I could put my personal stamp on it,’ she says.
‘In retrospect, I should have left Goldman Sachs earlier. I was comfortable and I was good at my job and that felt like enough at the time, especially as I was having kids. But I do buy into Sheryl Sandberg’s argument of "Don’t leave before you leave". I believe you should get an adrenalin rush at work every day.’
Friar says she’s learnt a lot from her boss Dorsey. ‘He always says, "Be interesting and be interested." The first time I sat down with him, he said, "Tell me about yourself." I started to talk about job titles and experience; actually he wanted to know what makes me tick. That’s a brilliant leadership lesson. Know people for who they are, not what they’ve done before.’
Alongside her role of CFO at Square, Friar sits on the boards of Walmart, Slack and New Relic, and works for a not-for-profit organisation mentoring school children. ‘People always ask me about work/life balance and I think that’s a question for everyone – not just the working mothers. Personally, I do it by getting up at 5am every morning, having a great nanny, delegating and ruthless prioritisation!’
Although Square spans financial services and tech – two traditionally male-dominated industries – half of its management team are women and around 70% of the business report up to a woman. It also offers men and women the same parental leave benefits. ‘I’m not a fan of quotas as they somehow imply that the bar has been lowered,’ says Friar. ‘Companies need to make sure they’re not just recruiting women in, but helping them to stay on and move up. There’s so much research out there to show that companies with diverse teams make better business decisions and have better financial returns.
'Honestly, what more evidence do you need?’