Paving the Way: Inspiring Women in Payments – A Q&A featuring Kara Gunderson


Kara Gunderson’s father always told her, “You have to arrange for your own good luck.” And this is a mantra that rings true for her. She believes that everyone, male or female, needs to work for their job. They need to roll up their sleeves, prove that they are willing to work hard, and that they are worthy of the position. In this edition of our blog, Kara explains that at one time she was one of the few women in petroleum payments and was held back because of her gender. But, over time, this has changed, and through hard work, she has arranged for her own good luck and success in the industry.

How long have you been at CITGO Petroleum and what is your role?

Kara Gunderson: I have been at CITGO Petroleum for over nine years but have been working in the U.S. Petroleum Payments Industry for 22 years. I direct the CITGO Petroleum Payment Card Operations department, which is responsible for providing payment card transactions at the locally owned and operated CITGO branded locations in a secure and compliant manner.

Has your role evolved since the start of the Covid-19 pandemic and how so?

Kara Gunderson: Honestly, my role has not changed because of the pandemic. When you are part of a team that supports the petroleum retail convenience industry that is open 24/7 and 365 days per year, the support and customer service never stop. As a team, we were able to utilize the technology that CITGO provides to allow us to work from home, and we never skipped a beat. We were as efficient at home as we are now that we’re back in the office.

How did you get started in the payments industry? What led you to that career choice?

Kara Gunderson: I was previously in the sponsorship sales and marketing industry. I sold a sponsorship marketing program to Giant Industries, a petroleum refiner in Scottsdale, AZ. Shortly thereafter, they hired me to develop, launch and market their new proprietary gas cards, and outsource their in-house fleet cards to a third party. During that development and launch, we changed payment card processors. About a year after I started, my supervisor left, and I was promoted to direct and manage all facets of the payment card processing for hundreds of company-operated convenience stores as well as dealer-operated stores. I managed the oil brand contracts, image, and relationships as my company was multi-branded with a few different oil brands. Additionally, I also managed the proprietary fleet card sales team.

I vividly recall when we had to start validating our Cardholder Information Security Program (CISP) status. Even more memorable was when I was told that I was a Level II merchant and had to become PCI compliant. I had no idea what to do, or who to contact to help me. I found someone at my acquirer to assist and literally started searching for PCI policies online to help me get started. I then developed our PCI program based upon the requirements. Rallying and educating 1,500 convenience store employees on PCI and how to protect cardholder data, with an employee turnover rate of 150 percent was quite interesting! Thank goodness I had great support from the Retail HR Team (I would note that this employee turnover number rate is fairly standard within the industry and has not changed much over the years).

I was with the petroleum refiner for nearly eight years before joining WorldPay to support petroleum customers in the U.S. Learning the acquiring side was enlightening. And, I was thankful for my petroleum retail background when I had to help several of my petroleum customers obtain their initial PCI compliance.

I am still grateful for the petroleum retail and operational background as it helps me every day when working with CITGO customers because I’ve walked in their shoes, and I’ve done every job on my team at one point in time.

Who has been your biggest role model in shaping your career path?

Kara Gunderson: I’ve had a few great role models in my career, including my present supervisor. But, when I think about my start in payments, my biggest role models are the first two people that influenced me the most and helped my success from the very beginning of my payment career, Terry Raber and Dan Fisher. Both were my reps at my acquirer (f/k/a Alliance Data Systems) when I was at Giant Industries. They helped me greatly and shared their knowledge of petroleum retail payment card processing. I believe Terry was with JC Penney when he helped develop the payment card processing host that my acquirer still uses today.

What is your proudest accomplishment in your career to date?

Kara Gunderson: Oh, wow, there are so many. I have truly been blessed but have also worked hard to get to where I’m at today. I would have to say that managing the CITGO Petroleum payment card team and educating Point of Sale (POS) vendors to become more secure and achieve PCI compliance, are my biggest accomplishments. Another proud accomplishment is my perseverance and persuasion to educating the payments community stakeholders on petroleum payments, both for EMVCo and PCI SSC.

Do you notice a lack of women in technology? If so, why do you think that is the case?

Kara Gunderson: Not as much as there used to be. Honestly, I believe that the disparity between men and women in technology is getting smaller. It is great to see many women at the forefront and leading the way. We have made great strides over the years, and we’ve worked hard to be recognized. However, I still believe that there is room to grow. This PCI SSC Women in Payments blog is a perfect example of how to get women recognized. Ironically, I used to be one of the few women in petroleum payments, but that has changed significantly over the years as well, and now I have several female friends and peers within the industry.

Many women in the tech industry have felt that their gender has affected the way that they are perceived or treated. Is ‘unconscious bias’ holding women back in the workplace and, if so, what can women do about it?

Kara Gunderson: First, I believe that everyone needs to work for their position. They need to roll up their sleeves, prove that they are willing to work hard, and that they are worthy of the position. There is also a fine line between asserting yourself and being overly aggressive to get there. I believe that one time I was held back because of my gender. However, over time, I was able to prove that I was capable and worthy to receive the promotion. Don’t get disgruntled too quickly. Changes in management are constant, which helps you succeed in the long run if you are willing to do the work to get there.

Volunteering for leadership within industry groups also helps to achieve recognition. I chair the Conexxus Data Security Committee. I am the founder and Co-Chair of the U.S. Payments Forum Petroleum Working Committee. I also worked with PCI SSC (more like bugged them a lot) to create the Petrol Task Force. This Petrol Task Force was created to educate the industry on the uniqueness of petroleum payments, incorporate petroleum payments into PCI documentation, as well as educate petroleum retailers on PCI DSS, since a little over 60 percent of U.S. petroleum retailers are single-store operators. I am incredibly thankful that CITGO allows me to volunteer and lead these groups. CITGO customers also appreciate that their oil brand has a voice and leadership within the payments industry.

What do you see as the future for women in technology roles/payments industry?

Kara Gunderson: I see significant growth. As more young women pursue technology careers, the industry will organically populate with more women.

Were you given any advice during your career that has stuck with you? As a result, do you have a personal mantra or a famous quote that you live by?

Kara Gunderson: The advice that stuck with me is that you’re doing the right thing, if “you’re on the right side of the fight.” It applies when you’re fighting for third-party contractual data security responsibility and fighting to make sure that you are doing right for your company and yourself to protect sensitive data.

My father always told me, “You have to arrange for your own good luck.” And he’s right. Whether it’s working hard and putting yourself out there to be recognized, or it’s to avoid a potential safety hazard, it applies. You can’t always rely on everyone else to recognize you or keep you safe. You must take on that responsibility yourself.

What advice would you impart to other women about how to succeed in the payment industry or in a technology-based field in general? What advice would you give to your younger self?

Kara Gunderson: Work hard and get involved! Put in the extra time and prove to people that you work hard and know the industry. Additionally, get involved and volunteer within the industry, and build a name for yourself, even if you must do it on your own time and on your own dime.

I feel like my previous experience is what got me to where I’m at today. I’m honestly not sure what advice I would give to my younger self. Every job and volunteer position has been a steppingstone to the next chapter of my professional career. I am thankful and appreciate everyone that I’ve met and worked with within the industry.

Read More from the Women in Payments Series


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