General Motors is 113 years old with 155,000 employees. Stripe, an online payments processor, is 12 years old with less than 5,000 employees.
Despite the big differences, CFOs at the two companies face very similar challenges, according to Dhivya Suryadevara. She knows first-hand, having joined Stripe as CFO last year after serving in the same role at GM, where she worked for 15 years.
“The headline would make you think, ‘Oh, two companies could not be more different,’ and yeah, totally, they’re in different industries at different stages,” Suryadevara said Thursday during the MIT Sloan CFO Summit. “The obvious differences aside, there’s actually a ton of similarities in the job that you do as CFO.”
Stripe has boomed during the pandemic, taking a small cut of payments it processes for companies that seized on e-commerce as a lifeline during pandemic lockdowns.
The San Francisco-based company has gone head-to-head with rivals PayPal and Square while adding more than 2 million businesses since January 2020, Suryadevara said.
Valued at about $94 billion in a funding round this year, the privately held company operates in 46 countries and is expanding into new services such as Stripe Identity, an identity tool, and Stripe Tax, which helps businesses calculate and manage taxes.
At Stripe, Suryadevara hears echoes from her role at GM, even though she no longer oversees the finances of a company that stamps metal and moves chassis on assembly lines.
No swim lanes
“First of all, regardless of the industry you’re in, or these changes of a company, you as CFO need to be so involved and understanding of what’s going on in the company — what makes the company tick,” she said. Among several topics, a CFO needs to get a firm grasp on company products and “user issues” that need solving.
“The CFO does not have swim lanes, there is no perimeter on what your job is,” she said. “They are intimately involved in every aspect of running a company.”
At GM, Suryadevara said her work encompassed the development and sale of vehicles, “and making sure we’re putting out features and products that people love,” she said.
At Stripe, Suryadevara focuses beyond online payments to “how can we make it easier to do commerce online? And that’s the mission of the company — increasing the GDP of the internet.”
CFOs also need a deep understanding of the business environment, she said.
“We all operate in a complicated ecosystem,” Suryadevara said. At GM, she monitored relations with suppliers and dealers and specifics such as the number of electric vehicle charging stations, while at Stripe she tracks banks, technology partners and customer needs.
Allocation of capital
Finally, wherever a CFO works, the job boils down to determining the best allocation of capital, she said.
At an automaker, a CFO asks, “how do you make capital efficient, what kind of return are you making on that capital,” while at Stripe Suryadevara weighs hiring priorities, the goals of software engineers and management, and investment in creating products that will add the most value for customers.
“Resource allocation as a principle is important regardless of what industry you’re in,” Suryadevara said.
To be sure, the move from GM to Stripe has posed a different array of challenges, Suryadevara said.
“First of all, when you’re a century-old company, there’s established teams and processes and practices and controls if you’re a CFO,” she said. The company has experience in scaling up, and “you have large groups of people working on things, and it's functioning as a cohesive unit.”
Whereas at an “early-stage company, the job is building, and things are not where you expect them to be,” Suryadevara said. “You have to figure it out yourself” at each stage of the company's growth.
“There’s fun in building, and you get to have a clean sheet of paper,” she said.
This is not the first time Suryadevara has ventured into unfamiliar business terrain.
When offered the promotion to be the Treasurer at GM, Suryadevara said, “I looked at the CFO and said, ‘I don’t know what a Treasurer does,’ and I Googled what the Treasurer is.”