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  • Jacqueline Tran

FinTech Female Fridays: Meet Amber Buker, Founder and CEO of Totem

Updated: Jan 5

Amber Buker is a recovering attorney. She attended the evening program at Lewis & Clark Law in Portland, OR, and worked full time at an elder law firm during the day. She moved to Nashville, TN, passed the bar, and practiced law for an arts nonprofit there for a few years before being recruited into the financial services space by the owner of Bank Director magazine. Amber built out their FinXTech Connect platform, then advised bank CEOs on technology as the Alloy Labs Alliance Director of Insights. Her boss there, Jason Henrichs, became a trusted advisor and early investor when Amber left to launch Totem.

Totem is the only digital bank by and for Indigenous people. What makes them different from a traditional neobank is their business model. Totem partners with tribes and their enterprises to disburse benefits and payroll into Totem's accounts — making them the only company catering to the $46 billion payments vertical serving tribes and their people. The team is scrappy, hungry, and dedicated to Totem's mission to bring financial parity to the most underserved community in the US.

Amber attributes tenacity, writing, and organization to where she is now.

"Tenacity is the hunger to accomplish things, even when they’re hard or scary. Tenacity eats imposter syndrome for breakfast and uses it to fuel you from Point A to Point B.

Writing is a prism. You have to understand things to write about them clearly. Good writers make sense of a noisy world along the journey from mind to pen to page.

Organization will keep you sane. No matter how much you have on your plate, it is easier to accomplish — and to know what you can let go of — when you can see the full picture."

More on Amber

Where you currently live: Tulsa, OK

Favorite hobby: Trying to recapture the glory of winning my fantasy football league again

Favorite show to binge: Succession because I love everything Adam McKay has ever touched

What is one piece of advice someone told you that resonated with you that can give to other women in FinTech? 

Jason Henrichs — a fellow founder and my former-boss-turned-investor and now board member — once told me to “never let the highs get too high. That way, the lows never get too low.” Entrepreneurship is a high stakes, lonely game. This advice helps me keep all that in perspective. I repeat it to myself and others often.

What's your best advice and the best job decision you ever made?

Always strive to make yourself indispensable. It’s easy to fool yourself and overestimate your worth so be careful with this one. But if you really know that the part you’re playing is vital, then you’ll have the courage and standing to ask for what you need when the time comes. One of the best decisions I made was to go remote long before the pandemic. It put me in the right place at the right time for a number of opportunities to come together. My employer at the time let me make the move I needed to because it was a lot easier than trying to replace me.

Can you tell us about a time someone encouraged you to try a task or take on a project you didn’t think that you would know how to do/or be good at?

I never seriously thought about becoming a founder until Danae Vachata convinced me I could. Danae is the founder of Grounded Technologies and the only other Indigenous woman I know in fintech. I knew zero things about raising capital or running a startup before building Totem. It was Danae’s enthusiasm, her guidance in the early days, and her vision for the part we could both play for our People in this space that set me on the founders’ journey.

What is the most important lesson you have learned from a mistake you’ve made in the past?

Know when to stop giving people chances. It sounds crass. But women, especially, like to share their power and give others opportunities to come into their own. We don’t want to pull the ladder up behind us and, generally, that’s a good thing. But trying to make leaders out of people who are not will just end up hurting all parties in the long run. Every founder I know agrees. We’ve never regretted cutting someone early but have regretted keeping them too long.

Do you have any productivity hacks?  What keeps you motivated? How do you maintain a work/life balance?

I hand write my to-do list every week and keep it next to me all the time. I use some general time blocking on my tasks (under 30 mins, about an hour, more than an hour) to keep myself honest about how often I am accomplishing important, deep thinking versus staying busy checking by small things off the list.

Daily Diary

I am allergic to routine, so this fluctuates pretty wildly especially when travel is in full swing. In July, September, and October this past year I was on the road for speaking engagements and meetings with tribes 3 out of 4 weeks each month.

5:30am on a good day, 6:20am on a bad day - Get up, feed the dogs, make coffee, walk the dogs, shower. There is almost always work in between these steps. I was working on this interview at 5:40am this morning. It was a good day.

Meetings start at 9am - I have 4 on a good day, 7 on a bad day, and this is true every day of the week. We’re a small team so I have weekly 1:1s with most of our staff. I may reschedule these for travel but I try to never cancel them. My most important job is making sure my team has what they need to do their jobs.

5pmish - Take a break when my partner, Randall, gets home from work. Debate the omnipresent question of what’s for dinner.

After dinner - Try to get done the work I wasn’t able to do because of all of the meetings.

After 8pm - Unless I have a serious deadline, I’m no good past 8pm. This is when I give myself permission to sink into a fiction book. Or to zone out watching Monday or Thursday night football. I get to bed early in the hopes of making tomorrow a 5:30am day.

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