Meet A Minnesota Tech CFO: Karen Miller Hartje, Sezzle



Thanks to local commercial real estate pros CBRE for sponsoring the Meet A Minnesota Tech CFO series.

The CFO: Karen Miller Hartje, Sezzle

When and how did you get started in your finance career, specifically within the tech industry?

I started in public accounting with KPMG out of college and was recruited by a client in the financial services industry. After working for a large regional bank, I left with a group of executives to form our own business with a mission to serve unbanked and underbanked communities.

We successfully built, grew and sold businesses with a focus on alternative credit. While Sezzle is my first foray into the tech industry, the common thread is around creating innovative payment solutions for underserved markets and technology greatly enables these efforts.

What is unique about your role with the technology industry, compared to other industries?

First and foremost, it is a privilege to work such a bright and energized team from whom I am learning every single day. This team is 100% dedicated to developing and delivering leading edge technology solutions for the benefit of Sezzle customers and merchants.

A secondary benefit of working with a start-up tech company is that we are unencumbered by legacy systems and software. In mature companies, expensive system capabilities often drive what is possible in product feature/functionality and shouldn’t it be the other way around?

What do you find most interesting or challenging about being a modern-day CFO?

In the past, CFO’s were focused on balance sheet management and crunching the numbers. Today’s CFO needs to be an agile business leader, partnering to drive strategy with a focus on analytics, risk management and technological innovation, while mindful of internal and external drivers impacting business performance. I love being involved in all aspects of the business; serving the customer well goes well beyond the numbers.

Why did you decide to join Sezzle?

Sezzle’s mission of Financially Empowering the Next Generation resonates with me. A combination of tremendous market opportunity, innovative customer friendly products and impressive management team are compelling.

To further elaborate, nearly eighty million people in the US are between the ages of 18-35. Of this population of Millennials and Gen Z, the majority shop online, and don’t want to use a credit card for their purchases. Sezzle offers a payment product that features no interest or fees for customers that pay on time and produces incremental sales for the online merchant. This is a win-win for the customer and for the merchant. How could I possibly pass on such an amazing opportunity!

How is success measured in your role as CFO?

It takes the contributions of every single person in this company to create value. Like every other Sezzle employee, I am committed to developing and applying technology to deliver a superior customer and merchant experience and create products that fulfill our mission of Financially Empowering the Next Generation. Our collective goal is to deliver on our mission with excellence, be fiscally responsible, have fun at work and drive profitable growth.

Have you ever made a decision around office space and commercial leasing?

Yes, twice. Once when I was starting a tiny, unknown company and the second time, when I was representing a well -known, mid-size company with high growth potential. What did you learn from the process? How did you select an agent/broker?

The first time, a trusted colleague recommended Brent Karkula, a CBRE broker to me. Our company had virtually no budget, no prospects and no idea what we were doing. Although there was little in it for Brent, he spent plenty of time with us to understand our needs, explain the process and offer a number of viable options. We landed in office space that was a great fit and served our business well.

The second time, you guessed it, I went straight back to Brent. We were looking for an entire building with a longer-term lease and again, he delivered. From my perspective, the professionalism and trust that Brent built in that first, tiny transaction created value for a lifetime.

Additionally, I understand that Kevin Anderson of CBRE worked with Sezzle to find the awesome space that we now enjoy. Thank you, Kevin!

What advice would you have for the founder considering their first office lease?

Be open; be flexible and get professional help.

What do you enjoy doing with your time outside of the office?

I love spending time with family and friends; travel, gardening, working on my old house and volunteering on behalf of the St. Paul Figure Skating Club.

What advice would you have for someone in finance who wants to become a CFO?

Seek out a mentor in the CFO role. Gain work experience in as many of the finance areas (accounting, treasury, financial planning and analysis, etc.) as possible. Find a company whose culture and values match your own and when you earn the opportunity, dive in!

How do you effectively manage expectations to help everyone in the company know what their priorities should be?

I have worked in large, medium and small companies and for each, it is impossible to underestimate the power of effective and frequent communication. At Sezzle, we hold monthly interactive, town hall meetings with all employees to discuss and review priorities. Teams meet at least weekly to review and set priorities, assess progress and set goals and establish accountability for the following week and months. As a leader, as a manager, as an employee, it seems that you cannot over-communicate.

Which is one question you want to ask of your tech CFO peers?

Cyber security is in the headlines daily. As your company’s chief financial (and risk) officer, what are you doing to manage the threat of cyber-attacks?

Is there anything else you would like to add?

While not specific to the tech business, I would like to pass on three simple guidelines for entrepreneurs that were once shared with me and never forgotten:

1) Hire for three attributes: smarts, drive and integrity. Two of the three are not enough.
2) You cannot afford to retain an employee with a negative attitude, regardless of skill set
3) Never stop raising capital

Thank you for this opportunity!