by Nori Gale
At the beginning of 2022, WEX created a new role, Chief Diversity & Inclusion Officer and named Laura Shen to the role. To celebrate Women’s History Month we discussed with Shen her vision of WEX’s future.
A new DE&I role at WEX and why it's important
While the role of Chief Diversity & Inclusion Officer might be new as of 2022, since it’s beginnings 39 years ago, WEX has been committed to cultivating a diverse and inclusive culture. WEX has grown from a private enterprise based in Portland, Maine to a 5,500+ person public company across 17 countries with over $1.8B in annual revenue. “This role is a reflection of where we are now as an organization. Now more than ever, we - as an organization - are looking for connection across our shared experience as employees. Taking on this new role is an opportunity to take action and ensure that WEX has the most effective structure, governance, and capacity stacked against our Diversity, Equity & Inclusion strategy,” Shen shared. Shen was elevated to this role from an internal position at WEX where she’d been since January of 2019. Shen’s goal as she takes on this leadership position is to lead initially with a strong focus on developing WEX employees’ knowledge and understanding of each other. “The focus in early 2022 is on inclusion and its power to connect each of us. By elevating employee stories and highlighting what makes us all unique, it also provides the chance to connect us all as WEXers.”
How early challenges can impel a person in unforeseen directions
Shen had several experiences at an early age that shaped her character. As a child, Shen had a close relationship with her father. “My dad was a role model for me. My favorite days were “bring your daughter to work day.” I loved sitting in the swirly desk chair, looking up at the trading screens, and - perhaps on occasion - placing my little palms on the copier glass to make copies to bring home.” Shen’s father was born in Taiwan after his parents, Shen’s grandparents, fled China during the revolution. “He moved away to Japan for high school in order to get the best education he could and was accepted into college in the U.S. He embodied what it meant to pursue the American Dream.” When Shen was ten, her father passed away unexpectedly. His values continue to shape her world view. ”He instilled in me a strong work ethic, resilience, and grit.”
These qualities crystallized for Shen at an early age and joined a vital self-reliance within her. “For me there was a natural sense of independence that I developed, where it was important from an early age that I shape my own destiny.” Not long after experiencing the profound loss of her father, Shen researched and applied to boarding school at the age of 13. Phillips Exeter Academy accepted her application and gave her a scholarship. “That for me was an incredible opportunity to be surrounded by teenage peers who were math olympians and published authors. It was a humbling experience for me but challenged me to fail, try new things, take risks, and follow my passions.” All of this – the chance to learn and develop in a highly competitive academic environment alongside motivated, intellectually curious peers – Shen achieved through personal determination and courage.
During her time at Exeter, Shen fostered an interest in international development. As a high school student, she spent a summer working at a microfinance institute in Accra, Ghana. From there she was inspired to take courses offered at Exeter like macroeconomics and an international development class named “Why Poor Countries are Poor.”
Shen also learned at Exeter that there are lots of ways to be a leader that don’t necessitate having a leadership title. “When you play sports, you aren't necessarily the captain, but I learned at Exeter how to lead in ways that aren’t official. I tried a lot of different activities during those years and one of the best lessons I learned was how to lead without authority or title.” She noticed how her own concept of “leadership” evolved as she matured, and paid attention to how leadership operated in different arenas.
After high school Shen attended Georgetown University where she was a Political Economy major with a minor in African Studies. She studied abroad for six months in Kenya and took a mix of classes at a Kenyan university and the rest of her coursework with American students studying abroad. While living abroad, Shen volunteered for a non-profit organization helping female entrepreneurs create business plans, which laid the groundwork and framework for her later roles in the corporations in which she would come to work.
How capitalizing on her strengths and knowing when to delegate played a role in Shen’s success
After college, Shen was hired by Citibank as part of their undergraduate Analyst Program. From there her career took off. Along the way she was able to discover the things she was good at and wanted to cultivate in her work and the parts of any given job that it made more sense for her to delegate. Shen sees this as an important part of being successful - the self-awareness to acknowledge one’s strengths and weaknesses, and the confidence to let others do the parts of your job that don’t capitalize on your strengths: “Determining which things are not as important to your development but might be important to somebody else’s development frees you to focus on growing and expanding on your strengths.”
Creating meaningful goals that are specific to you and the task at hand
Shen, like most people in leadership, has a competitive spirit and an innate desire to win. However, balance is also important to Shen - the ability to disconnect from that urge to compete when it doesn’t serve the moment or what she’s trying to achieve.
She loves the quote attributed to Teddy Roosevelt, “Comparison is the thief of joy,” because it illustrates a key tenet of her mission and focus in her career. “As someone who is relatively competitive - be it sports, card games, really anything - I can fall prey to viewing my self-worth and accomplishments in relation to others. Over the years, I have tried to focus on doing what makes me happy and charting a life that feels authentic to me versus focusing on what others or society might define as success.”
When she came into this new role at WEX she instinctively wanted WEX to be “the best” at DE&I. When she thought more deeply about what she wanted to accomplish in the role and had a series of internal listening conversations across WEX, she realized her emphasis might be different than she’d initially predicted. Instead of following an industry playbook and checking all the “First 100 Day” boxes, it’s most important for Shen to tailor her plan and meet WEX where it is to have the most authentic and effective DE&I strategy. This shift gave her a more pointed focus in her work and provided a meaningful target that was specific and attainable. Part of this change for Shen was also about clarifying what expectations she had for herself, which then radiated outwards, allowing her to be clear with others about WEX’s DE&I aspirations and goals.
Women as mentors and inspiration
Shen is devoted to fostering mentorship relationships, an attitude that stems from all that she has been given by others throughout her career to-date. “I’m passionate about the notion of mentorship and sponsorship. It has gotten me to where I am today. I think back to when I was at Georgetown and how I had great female mentors who really helped guide me and taught me so much.” Shen was part of the Bakers Scholar program while at Georgetown, which paired undergraduates with successional professionals in their fields. The mentors were all graduates of this same scholarship program. “One of my college mentors was Kathleen McCabe, who was a Managing Director at Morgan Stanley at the time. When I was an intern, we met up for drinks after work to check in on how my summer at Citibank was going. She proceeded to invite me to her home that weekend. It was eye-opening as a college student because I got to see the other side of what it meant to be a high-charging professional. We spent the weekend hanging out with her two daughters and friends. While she worked hard during the weeks, she made time for family and friends, and mentorship. Kathleen was just one of several female mentors early in Shen’s career. “My mentors in college instilled this impression that as a woman you can do it all. You don’t have to compromise one or the other - but you did have to be intentional about boundaries and how you selected to spend your time & attention.”
At Citibank, Shen was part of an employee resource group (ERG) called “Citi Women.” One of the Citi executives and co-chair of the group, Deborah McWhinney, took Shen under her wing. Deborah included Shen in recruiting and intern events because she perceived them as useful development experiences for Shen. She’d have Shen come to the intern events as a full-time Citi representative, “Debby would say to me ‘Just come and show them what Citi is all about.’” From this experience Shen was able to hone her presentation and speaking skills to a younger, more impressionable audience. “In addition to including me and introducing me to women across the organization, Debby made time to talk about my development. She advocated for me behind the scenes and helped me develop the communication skillset and confidence to advocate for myself.”
Another woman who had a great impact on Shen’s career was Inger Andersen, now the Under-Secretary-General of the United Nations and Executive Director of the United Nations Environment Programme. After Shen’s stint at Citi, she worked for Andersen who was Vice President of the Middle East and North Africa at the World Bank at the time. In this role, Andersen, a Danish national, fluent in Arabic, was the region head with all of the Ministers of Finance as her clients. Every two years, Andersen took a young person under her wing and gave them a window into what international development work and management of the World Bank entails, how the Board operates, and what it meant to work in a job with government bodies as your clientele. “Those two years working for Inger were the most formative of my career. Inger is incredible. She role modeled what it means to be a leader - especially while working in a region that tends to be male-dominated in business and government. She provided me the opportunity to see into her world - from drafting speeches and presentations, supporting her annual performance review process, to traveling across the region and providing me the opportunity to branch out on my own to work with the Egyptian government on sustainable tourism investment.” The lessons Shen learned during that period were both small and large. “Whether it was making sure I had a firm handshake when meeting foreign officials to ensuring that I developed my own voice at the table, Inger didn’t hesitate to provide feedback in the moment and I am all the better today because of that feedback.” Andersen also changed the way Shen thought about herself in a business environment. “The World Bank was so diverse. You’d walk down the office hallways and hear three different languages spoken by your colleagues who are from all around the world. I had the opportunity to learn from peers from all different backgrounds and walks of life. I traveled across the Middle East for work and learned new traditions and business/cultural norms. Meetings were hosted in multiple languages with translators. The Board of Directors represented all member countries. It was a fascinating, eye-opening two years.” Of Andersen, Shen says “I am the person I am today because of her support, guidance, and friendship."
How WEX is unique from other places in the fintech space
Many people who have made a career at WEX describe the people who work at the company as a significant motivator and inspiration in their day-to-day lives. Shen is no exception. “Everyone here is open and receptive and there are certain values held by the people of WEX. WEX is growing so fast, there’s an incredible amount of creativity and innovation happening here, and there’s this grit and resilience amongst employees that creates a level playing field and a shared common mutual respect.”
In order to grow quickly, there is this willingness at all levels of the organization to partner and collaborate on both small and large tasks. “What sets WEXers apart is at the same time that we’re all nose to the grindstone, people are willing to take 30 minutes out of their day to help others. There’s a mutual respect that no matter where people fall in the organization, WEXers are willing to reach out and connect and help one another.” For Shen, WEX’s culture provides a great foundation from which to build a DE&I organization.
Shen’s vision for DE&I at WEX is evolving as the space is evolving: it’s a great time to be in DE&I
When Shen first joined WEX, she was eager to find ways to help build on all that WEX was working towards. “When I first came to WEX my approach was ‘How can I have an impact?’ There’s the front side of your resume and what your job description says, but it’s always been important to me, in whatever organization I’ve found myself at, that I contribute beyond that.” Whether it was creating the employee resource group for young professionals, NexGen, or supporting recruiting efforts, or piloting new culture initiatives, Shen found ways outside of her job description to make an impact at WEX. Her experience in other companies and institutions provides inspiration and ideas of what is possible.“While we’re an established public company, we’re still growing at an incredible rate and the time is ripe for reimagining what work and culture can look like here.”
Learning from others in the DE&I field
Since taking on this new role at WEX, Shen has spoken to others in the DE&I - whether it’s DE&I peers at Maine-based companies like LLBean or speaking with WEX customers. “It can feel lonely at times because it’s a newer functional space, but it’s been a great opportunity to create a new network to lean on and contribute to. So far what I have found is that it’s not a competitive space, peers are eager to share best practices and help each other succeed. There’s a real openness to partner.” As Shen continues to craft DE&I for WEX, those external partnerships she is developing will continue to shape her ideas, and allow her to respond to the latest innovations in the field.
Leading with inclusivity
As one of Shen’s goals is to lead with inclusivity, she’s focused on ensuring that everyone feels they belong within a global company. “One question I want to answer is ‘How are we building these systems and structures to be more inclusive as we think about communications and customizing language?’” She wants to ensure that WEX is building a robust pipeline of events and community forums that resonate within and across geographies and take into account cultural nuances. “Inclusivity is about bringing everyone to the table to learn from perspectives and lived experiences that may be different from your own. At WEX, we’re over 6,000 employees now - across 14 countries. That in and of itself is incredible. In my role, I want to celebrate differences across WEX and elevate the stories of WEXers.”
As a global company with offices spanning across Australia, Asia, Europe and the U.S., WEX needs to take into account a lot more than just different time zones when organizing calls or events. The international nature of a global organization is about how to be more inclusive: how do we share information and craft company-wide events so that they are globally accessible, always with the inclusivity hat on. “It’s exciting to frame our future with DE&I surrounding how we are one unit internationally, especially with the new role Carlos Carriedo has taken on as our international chief operating officer, that work becomes more fluid and the task of communicating globally becomes more organic to how we’re structured.”
How DE&I can foster community especially as we continue to work remotely
The prevalence of remote work has challenged traditional notions of community. The relationships we’ve built in past work environments have traditionally happened in person. Over the past two years, remote events & our investments in technology have allowed us to reach employees and create global conversations. “There is a great need for community amongst our workforce, and DE&I can provide support for fulfilling that social networking gap that has come into place during the pandemic.” This is one of the reasons now is a great time for WEX to elevate DE&I within the organization to strengthen its impact on the community - both internally amongst employees as well as across our customer and philanthropic partnerships.
Clearly defining DE&I at WEX
WEX has a great story to tell with regard to women in positions of leadership at the company. “As we head into Women’s History Month, 60% of WEX’s Executive Leadership Team (ELT) is female and 42% of our Board is female.” Shen recognizes this success and wants to build on it - ensuring all communities within WEX feel supported and represented.
There are a lot of different ways to interpret what is meant by DE&I and what role a person who leads DE&I for WEX would be charged with accomplishing. Shen has developed a mission statement for the organization that reflects it’s vision:
- WEX is a place where everyone feels like they belong and can bring their whole self to work
- WEX treats everyone equally and with respect
- WEX celebrates differences
The first bullet is focused on inclusion and how we foster inclusion is the most important task at hand. “It’s really about creating an open and safe learning environment where people are constantly curious and they want to learn - and learn from those with different perspectives and lived experiences.” Also important to Shen in her new role is creating a safe zone for people to be able to share. “I want people to feel safe and willing to share, but also for people to feel safe and be willing to say they don’t know something and want to learn more.”
Bring your whole self to work
The notion that at WEX we can all bring our whole selves to work has been a part of the culture here for a long time. “It’s very real at WEX, it’s not just talking points.” This kind of attitude and openness comes from the top with leaders like WEX CEO Melissa Smith and Chief Legal Officer Hilary Rapkin as two examples of female executives who are willing to say they don’t have all the answers and are willing to expose vulnerabilities. This culture allows for the rest of us to feel permission to do the same. A willingness to be open and vulnerable provides an environment where flexibility and creativity can flourish.
WEX is continuously growing and improving and the elevation of Laura Shen to Chief Diversity & Inclusion Officer marks yet another milestone for the company. We’re excited to watch Shen develop this role and feel so fortunate to have her energy, wisdom, and determination at the helm of this very important development within the organization.
If you’re interested in working for a growing and global organization, please visit WEX’s career page.