Lisa Shields
Credit: Paul Joseph

Founder and CEO, Fi.Span

In 2015, EY named Lisa Shields Entrepreneur of the Year winner in its innovative technology and financial services category for her Hyperwallet Systems Inc. The same year, Shields stepped away (she is still a board member and shareholder) to launch a new business: Fi.Span, a services management platform for banks. The 15-employee startup acquired its first customer, Beanworks Solutions Inc., another Vancouver fintech headed by a woman, last December.

Shields, a member of the math club at her Toronto high school, graduated from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in the 1980s with a BSc in aeronautical engineering and an MSc in ocean engineering. At MIT, men and women were treated equally—they had all completed the same courses, tests and physical assignments—and 22 percent of her graduating class were women, thanks to the university’s policy of aiming for gender parity, she notes. “Engineering and technical colleagues, if you’re a strong and contributing member of a technical team, they’re happy to have another hand.”

The business world was another story. When Shields and co-founder Jennifer Cameron tried to find investors for Hyperwallet, they were declined for all the legitimate reasons that startups are turned down: No track record. Precarious times. Business plan isn’t fully thought out. Weak thesis. The market is bad. In retrospect, Shields realizes that they had less success securing financing than inferior companies—and, she confesses, being successful and having the track record she does now doesn’t erase that. As a result, “what I’ve decided to do in my own small way is, as an investor, I’m going to invest only in women-led companies,” she says. “That’s where I encountered the most difficulty and bias, so if I can help out in a practical way, I think that that’s the best use of my abilities at this stage.”

How can we get more women into STEM?

The first step is to have 50 percent women graduating from technical universities, which takes will, action and time, advises Shields, who notes that nearly half of MIT engineering undergrads are now women. Once that happens, to achieve 50 percent female representation in industry, employers need to create technical career paths and environments that are accommodating and welcoming to women.