From world-class athlete to digital commerce pioneer: In conversation with Rakuten’s Erin Warren

“World-class luger” may not seem like the most obvious background for a global tech executive, but in the case of Rakuten’s Erin Warren, it was her experience flying down ice tracks at nearly 90 mph — and the intense mental training, discipline and focus on self-improvement that come with competing at the highest levels of sport — that helped prepare her for a career in fintech.

It’s a career that has seen Warren, general manager of Rakuten Card-Linked Offer Network, play a pioneering role in the digital commerce industry, and which recently resulted in a spot on The Digital Commerce Alliance’s (DCA) prestigious Top 20 Women in Digital Commerce list for 2021.

DCA Top 20 Women in Digital Commerce

Released annually, DCA’s Top 20 Women in Digital Commerce recognizes women at the forefront of the retail, fintech, mobile wallets, digital advertising, banking, financial data, and card-linking industries, who are making a difference for their organizations and the good of women business leaders across the globe and includes high profile CEOs from YouTube and Sam’s Club, as well as executive leaders from PayPal, Apple, and American Express.

“Ask yourself: How do I leverage those experiences that may have little to do with business at face value to help take on business challenges in a way that is authentic and enables me to be my best self on the job?”

Erin Warren, General Manager, Rakuten Card-Linked Offer Network

As DCA notes in their announcement article, “Erin is a marketing veteran with 20+ years of experience — including 15 years in direct-to-consumer digital marketing. She is motivated by the opportunity to enhance the way companies execute marketing strategies to attract, retain and grow customers. Previously serving as SVP of Cartera Commerce, Erin is a former CollegeWeekLive, Sallie Mae, and UPromise executive. A member of the 1994 and 1998 U.S. Winter Olympic Luge Teams, Erin is currently president of the U.S. Luge Association’s board of directors. A motivator, Erin inspires others in her work and personal life to focus on small wins in order to meet long-term goals. She’s a Northeastern University graduate; has an MBA from Babson, and serves as a Digital Commerce Alliance (DCA) board member.”

We caught up with the inspirational e-commerce leader to ask about her vision for the future of the industry, her advice for aspiring business leaders and her unique journey from U.S. national team athlete to fintech exec.

As a former member of the U.S. national luge team, you bring a unique background into your role as a tech industry executive. How did the skills you developed as a world-class athlete help you in your business career?

One of the biggest things is that athletes are used to being held accountable every day for their performance. And with that accountability comes a relentless focus on how you can improve. In luge, you’re always looking for that 1000th of a second improvement and with that accountability and focus on improvement you need to be able take a step back and assess your performance: How are you doing? How are you competing? What are the areas that are not going so well?

Successful athletes are used to being honest about their performance. And I don’t mean that in a judgmental way, but in a way that acknowledges that we can always be better, whether that’s looking at your athletic preparation, your mental training, your race plan, or your equipment.

“The recent challenges we have faced with COVID-19 and the environment have been tough for even the most buoyant optimists, but we can never overstate the impact that resilient people can have when they work together to solve big problems.”

Describe your role today: What are your responsibilities as leader of the Rakuten Card-Linked offer Network?

Rakuten’s Card-Linked Offer network is a two-sided network: on one side, merchants make offers available for publishers. On the other side, publishers then take those offers and allow consumers to shop in-store and earn rewards.

Rakuten’s Card-Linked Offer network is focused on driving in-store offers and getting consumers to go into stores and engage with them. We then use credit card data to match and map back those in store transactions to a rewards account or a publisher. Within that scope, I manage all the functional areas: sales, marketing and operations and drive the vision for where we want to take the technology platform.

What makes Rakuten Card-Linked Offer network unique?

Our real differentiator in market is how we bring Rakuten’s heritage as a provider of merchant offers from e-commerce to in-store. Our strength compared to other card-linked offer providers in the Americas is our ability to leverage the relationships that Rakuten has built so strongly with merchants and members over the past decades.

You were recently selected to DCA’s Top 20 Women in Digital Commerce list. What does it mean to be recognized with such an impressive group of business leaders?

I’m not the kind of person who thinks about awards or accolades, that’s not really a driving motivator for me. But I will say that I’ve worked hard to find a path forward to growing this business at Rakuten, so I found it incredibly humbling and gratifying to be included within that world-class list of female business leaders. For me to be viewed as a pioneer amongst those other pioneers really affirms the effort I put in every day.

What advice would you give to aspiring business leaders, and particularly women in tech?

I would encourage business leaders to not be afraid to bring their whole selves to the job. We are often quick to downplay our experiences as irrelevant to a specific business challenge, but I would argue that there are so many amazing experiences that we all have outside of our business life that we can leverage to drive business growth.

Take my background for example: When it comes to transferable business skills, it doesn’t get any less obvious than luge racing. For a decade, I was one of the fastest luge racers in the world. Many people, at face value, would say that that has no relevance to anything outside of maybe car racing or some other downhill winter sport, but I actually think the experience is super relevant to being a business leader.

So, I would encourage business leaders, and women in particular, to really think about that. Ask yourself: How do I leverage those experiences that may have little to do with business at face value to help take on business challenges in a way that is authentic and enables me to be my best self on the job?

How has digital commerce, and fintech as a whole, changed over your career? How do you adapt to changes in business and tech?

There have always been disruptors in fintech, but I think we’re now seeing fintech companies become increasingly more ambitious about owning a greater part of the consumer purchase process. We are also seeing companies that have traditionally not operated in the fintech space start to dominate that landscape.

Here are just a couple of examples based on partners we work with every day in the Rakuten In-store network.

  • We work with Mastercard, a global payment network, to source and deliver merchant offers.  This enables Mastercard to add more value for the card issuers that they support. These card issuers are then able to provide new value for consumers through merchant-funded offers.
  • We also power Google Pay’s consumer offers within its app. As Google Pay relaunched its app last year, we have made great strides to add more utility for consumers. Rakuten is able to deliver strong merchant offers to help engage these mobile wallet users.

So, I think we see on one end, giant traditional financial services companies moving upstream into the consumer purchase process and companies that have been more entrenched in the consumer purchase process — in (the consumer) consideration (phase), in advertising — moving deeper into those financial technology and transaction processes.

With so many changes going on at once right now, I believe the key to success is to stay flexible in how I am thinking about the industry and to really listen, observe and stay tuned in to what’s going on so that the business can quickly adapt as these changes occur.

What is the future of digital commerce? How will emerging technologies transform the industry?

One of the biggest trends is digital commerce and digital wallets and I think they are here to stay. In the U.S. we’ve been very slow to adopt digital payment technologies, but I think the COVID-19 pandemic is fundamentally changing that. We’ve learned that cash is dirty, and this acceleration toward digital commerce is now tied to our primal need to keep our families and ourselves safe. For me, I can’t think of a more powerful motivator to get consumers to do things differently and to embrace new technologies.  This transformation is going to be pushed by emerging technology companies, which will speed up this evolution and bring greater innovation to the landscape.

Rakuten means Optimism in Japanese. What makes you optimistic about the future?

I love that Rakuten means optimism because I consider myself an eternal optimist. Everyone in my family laughs at me because I am always talking about the power of positive thinking — I think they even get a little tired of hearing that [laughs].

The recent challenges we have faced with COVID-19 and the environment have been tough for even the most buoyant optimists, but we can never overstate the impact that resilient people can have when they work together to solve big problems. I remain optimistic that humans can, and will, rise to the challenges we face to build a sustainable future, even if that future looks very different than the past. I’m proud to work for a company that embraces optimism and applies that optimism to tackle some of the biggest challenges we’re fighting globally today.

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