Israeli female financier breaks FX trading’s glass ceiling

Israeli female financier breaks FX trading’s glass ceiling

Foreign currency trading has traditionally been a male-dominated – and multinational bank-dominated – business. Ilit Geller hopes to change that

The world of high finance – the kind where billions change hands in milliseconds – is a man’s world. The higher the finance, the fewer women one is likely to find.

Given that rule of the thumb, the presence of Ilit Geller behind the CEO’s desk at Tel Aviv financial technology start-up TradAir is particularly surprising, because the business Geller and TradAir are in – foreign currency (FX) trading – is the highest of high finance, accessible only to the largest financial institutions or the super-rich, the vast majority of whom are men.

Geller is cognizant of her surroundings – but says she has never had a problem. “I’ve been in the forex business for over a decade, and I have to say that I have never been treated in an insulting or negative manner. I have always been treated properly, although this is indeed a man’s world. When there’s a social setting that involves football or drinking I usually send someone from our staff, but otherwise I have no problem with any of my colleagues.”

It’s one thing to challenge a male-dominated business for a place in the sun; it’s another thing altogether to challenge some of the biggest banks in the world, which is exactly what TradAir does. The company provides technology that enables financial institutions to make markets for foreign currency in the interbank market, a business that is dominated by “the 1%” — the largest banks in the world: Citi, Deutsche Bank, and others of similar size.

Ilit Geller (Photo credit: Courtesy)
Ilit Geller (Photo credit: Courtesy)

The interbank foreign currency market is where the masses of foreign exchange deals are made on a daily basis, and is used mostly for trading among bankers. Per unit of currency, the commission on these transactions is low (just fractions of a cent), but because so much money is traded – about $4 trillion a day – there is a lot of profit to be had.

It’s understandable that smaller banks would want to get in on the action – but unlike with stocks, there are no market organizers for foreign currency trading, and if a bank wants to make a market, it needs to have data that will help it set realistic prices.

That is exactly what TradAir does, said Geller. “The 1% of banks have their own proprietary pricing engines which guarantee that they get the lion’s share of trades. We provide a platform that lets other 99% set their own markets and get in on the action.”

To do that, banks need information and data about where the price of currency is going. Are Iran and Saudi Arabia about to come to blows over Yemen? Did China’s real estate market take another major hit? Is the monthly jobs report in the US good or bad? All these issues could affect the price of currency. TradAir’s platform takes these data, plus market indications, investment trends, and a million and one other things, and factors them into its platform, letting banks more easily and efficiently set foreign currency prices.

“It’s very much a big data business,” said Geller. “We have developed very advanced algorithms that can process huge loads of data in milliseconds, enabling banks to set their prices and remain up to date with, and even a bit ahead of, the markets. I have no doubt these algorithms could be used in many different industries to improve efficiency, because they really are among the most advanced in the world.”

Several weeks ago, TradAir announced that it had closed a $15 million growth equity round led by new investor Long Ridge Equity Partners. TradAir’s existing venture capital investors, Carmel Ventures and Genesis Partners, also participated in the round.

“We are impressed with the success TradAir’s team has achieved over a short period of time,” said Jim Brown, Long Ridge’s Managing Partner.  “The company has developed a strong reputation as a technology leader and client feedback is very positive.  We are excited by the opportunity to partner with the TradAir team to build a leading technology business.”

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