By W.B. King
In what is a recurring feature, Finopotamus spotlights innovative women who are positively impacting technology applications in the credit union industry, and beyond.
For this issue, we spent time with Sontiq’s Executive Vice President, Products and Strategy Rochelle Blease. The Nottingham, Md.-based company, with operations in Framingham, Mass., provides scalable, identity security solutions to consumers, businesses and government agencies.
While working as a California-based litigation attorney in 1993, Rochelle Blease realized she enjoyed something even more than practicing law: the thrill of building products and business operations.
“I wanted a role more directly connected to driving business growth and found an opportunity where my experience as lawyer could actually help build products,” said Blease, who earned a Juris Doctorate, magna cum laude, from the California Western School of Law in 1987. “I worked on the first 16-bit loan origination solution in the industry, supporting the regulatory and compliance workflows. This career move also took me from California back to Minnesota, where I had family.”
For the next 24 years, Blease worked for Wolters Kluwer, a global information and technology services company where she would lead strategic planning, business development and acquisition efforts that helped to “quadruple” the company’s financial services software and services portfolio to more than $600 million.
When looking back to her early years with the company, she fondly recalled being part of a team that developed the “first-of-its-kind data-driven knowledge engine” that could produce an “infinite number of loan combinations” for financial institutions.
“My role was to ensure all of the regulatory requirements were embedded properly, which meant managing thousands of test scripts,” she said. “We made a huge investment in getting this product right and it is still used by credit unions and banks today, and still drives revenue for my former company.”
Before accepting her position as executive vice president, products and strategy with Sontiq in July 2020, and after leaving Wolters Kluwer in 2017, Blease served as an independent consultant. She next co-founded Breaththrough Growth, a firm that focused on businesses or divisions of 2,000 employees or fewer helping with digital marketing, financial analysis, and compliance, among other initiatives.
Over the last nearly 30-plus years, she said the model for technology development has evolved to incorporate more strategic outsourcing. To this end, it no longer makes sense to build everything in-house.
“Today’s tech managers must understand where to direct internal resources and where to bring in strategic partners and integrations,” she said, adding that the move toward agile principles makes this a more seamless process.
The migration from DOS systems to cloud-based and open-source technology are other significant mile markers on the technology spectrum, recounted Blease. She added that the acceleration of technology, from development to adoption, and the incorporation of artificial intelligence into household products have also been game changers.
Since entering the “tech” side of things in the early 1990s, Blease noted that the number of women in the field is dramatically different. Not only are there more women in the U.S., she said, but more women around the globe who are joining the tech workforce. And while she added that change is still “very much underway,” she is excited to watch it evolve.
Due to the fact that there weren’t many women to bond with during her early tech days, she said “women leaders were uncommon.” And as such, it was critically important to find male colleagues who served as allies and mentors.
Blease pointed to former CEO at Wolters Kluwer, Bob White, who told her two words that forever changed the trajectory of her career. He told her: Go Fly.
“He gave me free reign to innovate, develop aggressive growth strategies and pursue them,” said Blease.
White’s influence on Blease would be further expanded when she began her tenure with Sontiq. The company’s president and CEO Brian Longe knew Blease from a prior business life. Like White, he continues to provide her with inspirational support.
“Brian and I actually worked together closely for 12 years at another company. There, we were focused on tech-oriented global expansion, which was the same vision he brought to Sontiq, coupled with very ambitious goals,” said Blease. “When he extended the opportunity to join the Sontiq executive team, I was very honored that he believed in my ability to support the vision for aggressive growth by rapidly enhancing product innovation.”
And whereas Blease was once an oddity in her field, today she said there is a greater sense of opportunity for all stripes in technology departments. This ethos, she added, is part of Sontiq's business strategy.
“As a whole, particularly when you factor in our strategic technology partners from around the globe, there is great diversity in our company across ethnicity, gender and age,” said Blease.
Sontiq, which was founded in 2019, grew out of the lineage of EZShield, a portfolio company of The Wicks Group, and IdentityForce. In March 2021, Sontiq further developed its brand by acquiring Cyberscout, a cyber products and services provider serving the insurance industry.
“Our company is growing rapidly," said Blease. "We have more than doubled our employee headcount in the last 12 months and the makeup continues to change and expand as we grow.” She added that approximately 40% of Sontiq’s 200 employees are in the technology department.
How Tech Impacts Security
While Blease does sometimes reflect on her career to be reminded of those who inspired her, as well as past accomplishments, she also is firmly rooted in the present, continually looking for the next forward-leaning tech undertaking.
Blease's calls her work at Sontiq "incredibly energizing." A recent initiative, she noted, takes a perceived “commoditized” product like identity security and makes it intelligent, powerful and more capable of proactively dealing with digital security risks.
“We are preparing to launch a proprietary capability called BreachIQ that will conduct personalized risk assessments for our users when they are impacted by a data breach. They will also be provided a cumulative score, akin to a credit score, that is based on their unique data breach history and the steps they have taken to mitigate risks,” explained Blease.
“One application for this capability is a digital banking platform integration, which is already being deployed by one credit union," she continued. "A fast-follow to BreachIQ will be RepIQ, which is an AI-driven sentiment analysis of a user’s social media footprint.”
In Blease’s view, the industry will “continue to experience many more applications of AI and natural language processing,” adding that it’s exciting to see thow these advances will impact security.
“Two examples are in the areas of authentication and biometrics, where people can become more secure while the experience becomes more frictionless,” she said. “In the world of financial services, we must be mindful that tech advancement will always be balanced by regulatory compliance.”
As is the case in any industry, Blease said that while some credit unions have smartly leveraged the idea of cooperatives for technology investment, there remain those organizations that lag behind. Overall, though, she believes the credit union industry is well-equipped to effectively compete against banks.
“Many credit unions are now using technology to acquire, retain and grow membership and to appeal to a new generation of members,” she said. “I think this ‘consortium’ approach is something that sets them apart from traditional banks - many of the largest credit unions are just as tech-capable as the big banks.”
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