Leadership 2021: Being a good leader means compassion and accountability for GeoComply co-founder Anna Sainsbury

GeoComply Solutions co-founder Anna Sainsbury isn't afraid to show her hand, and that's a game changer.

Anna Sainsbury once learned that an employee at her company’s Vancouver head office had been very nervous to meet her. “I was horrified,” recalls Sainsbury, co-founder and chair of cybersecurity firm GeoComply Solutions. “I spent 30 minutes interviewing her on what I could have done differently to not have had that reputation.”

Not the kind of candid admission you’d expect from a tech entrepreneur. Then again, Sainsbury’s career has been anything but typical.

The North Shore native studied interior design, marketing and accounting at BCIT, spent a year as an insurance broker and left Vancouver to work internationally for a technical testing company specializing in online gaming. Seeing an opportunity long before virtual private networks (VPNs) became the app of choice for gamblers, binge watchers and other netizens to hide their location, she launched what’s now called GeoComply with CEO David Briggs in 2011.

The company, which moved from Las Vegas to Vancouver in 2016, is now a leading provider of geolocation anti-fraud and compliance services. Besides helping gambling websites like FanDuel pinpoint where users are, it now also works with financial services firms and with broadcasting giants such as Amazon Prime Video and Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM).

For GeoComply, the game changer was the 2018 U.S. Supreme Court decision that let states legalize sports betting. Business really picked up when casinos embraced online gambling, especially after the pandemic struck, Sainsbury says. “Because of our market share, which is nearing 100 percent, we were sitting in the middle of it and able to be there and support our customers as they expanded.”

That success wasn’t lost on U.S. investors Atairos and Blackstone Growth. GeoComply announced in March that the two were taking a minority stake in the company, pushing its valuation to at least US$1 billion.

GeoComply, which had about 375 employees as of September, expects to grow to 400 by the end of the year. With offices in Las Vegas, Ukraine and Vietnam, the company has hired 150 people since COVID began.

Online learning

What is Sainsbury’s approach to leading the ever-expanding team at GeoComply? “To be open, but to ensure that people know they’re on the team because we see their intelligence and the benefits [they bring], and hold people accountable to contributing,” she says. “It’s important to come with compassion but also with a strong focus on us all being accountable to deliver a product or a solution or a team atmosphere that is bigger and better than when we first found it.”

Of course, the pandemic has meant that people see each other in person less and seldom travel between offices. To stay connected with its globally dispersed staff, GeoComply aims to engage them. Sainsbury compares those efforts to being a good teacher. “It’s someone that can reach out to you and meet you where you are,” she says. “But there’s also this expectation within the company that we need people to want to look for the answers themselves.”

GeoComply encourages the latter through learning platforms—for example, monthly calls involving different groups within the company and an internal podcast that fills people in on what’s happening at other offices. Each month, it also hosts a book club and a Get Inspired chat featuring a guest expert or influencer in an area of importance to the team.


The 50-percent solution

GeoComply has always had many women in leadership roles, Sainsbury says, noting that its goal is to maintain 50-percent female representation from the board to the executive to middle management. “It starts with spending lots of time on recruitment and having a whole load of targets.” The company also offers an MBA program with a current enrolment of 60. “That really helps us scale up our leadership team,” Sainsbury explains. Each year, employees can put the equivalent of a month’s salary toward education, “so that once you’re in the company, you can scale up and go to other divisions and teams.”

At its other offices, GeoComply is helping to re-educate women and bring them back to the workforce, Sainsbury says, especially if they left due to an unsafe home environment or their refugee status–or started a family and didn’t feel comfortable returning. “Ultimately, we haven’t really hit equality until 50 percent of the parental leave is taken by men.”

Sainsbury reveals that she felt intimidated and overwhelmed about returning to the office after her own leave, even though she’s married to Briggs. Having female leaders at a company can reduce the stress and stigma for women with children, she argues. “That type of mentality just goes away, because it’s seen as being a responsible person who’s up for a challenge.”

READ MORE: Leadership 2021: At New Relationship Trust, Jessie Williams takes a holistic approach to supporting Indigenous communities

Although GeoComply’s offices differ culturally, Sainsbury has found that they have one thing in common. “The general feedback that I get from women on our team is that they really wanted to work for a female-led organization, that there’s something inherently comfortable in that,” she says. “We’re treating human beings as individuals who are capable and qualified and insightful, regardless of their age, race or sex.”

Besides, female employees are good for business. “If I look at our teams, especially working externally and talking with regulators and legislators and our clients, I think there’s an ability for women to create a lot of trust and vulnerability in a relationship,” Sainsbury says. “That often uncovers more problems or opportunities for us to solve, and there’s a huge benefit for us.”

Sainsbury also notes that she’s talked to other founders and executives who took on larger institutional investors that ended up with board seats. “They had more equality across the organization, and then the board became very male-dominated.” As a result, much of the female leadership and founding teams got pushed out, she says. “I always have that at the back of my mind. You’re only two steps away from a very different culture that you don’t want, so you need to be intentional.”