A voyage of optimism from the city of angels to mountains of clouds
Looking back at my last few weeks: I visited four cities and spoke at four events on two continents.
Topics ranged from financial well-being, start-up innovation, and fintech to financial inclusion, longevity, and gender inequality. They included engagements big and small; from an intimate retreat in the cloud-filled mountains of Arkansas, to a global event in opulence of Beverly Hills; from an entrenched industry summit in the bustling city of San Francisco, to critical topics of inclusive societies in the culture-rich history of cosmopolitan London.
Despite their differences, there is one underlying theme that tied them all together: they all included thoughtful dialogues with entrepreneurs, industry leaders, venture capitalists, policy makers and thought leaders all around the world, trying to understand how we could collectively create a more equitable society, and the central role technology takes within that process. Meeting with kindred spirits who are passionate about making a difference is like a feast for the soul, similar to finishing a nourishing book. I returned home charged and uplifted.
We live in the land of plenty, during what one would call a prosperous time. And yet, our daily news paints a grim picture, especially when it comes to economic divide. Nearly half of college students from over 100 institutions surveyed in a survey by Temple University have experienced food insecurity in the past 30 days. How do we expect academic success if students are going to school hungry, or in some cases, not even having a place to sleep?
In a separate survey by Merrill Lynch and Age Wave, 70% of adults ages 18 to 34 received financial support from their parents within the last year. Given the state of the economy, perhaps it is not a coincidence that almost half of Americans near retirement age have nothing saved in their retirement accounts. Progress around gender equity has largely stalled. Women still bear most of the burden of caregiving and unpaid domestic work, further contributing to the gender gap and diminishing their financial security in later years.
The list goes on.
Tackling economic and societal inequality are not easy endeavors. Success will require immense amount of efforts and collaboration between private and public sectors, as well as ongoing cultural change at all levels. It will require mountains to be moved – figuratively speaking. But with challenges come opportunities. As much as I am disheartened by the inequalities of the society, I am encouraged by the entrepreneurs that I come across every day, and efforts by local governments and socially minded enterprises to spark innovation in their communities.
Take Arkansas for instance. To drive sustainable social change and economic growth in the state, Venture Center, a non-profit accelerator located in Little Rock, has been engaging with start-ups from all over the country, to help entrepreneurs develop their businesses and connect with financial institutions in Arkansas.
There is Curu, where its founder David Potter, a Bill Gates scholar, who grew up in poverty and created the app to help consumers build credit scores – leveraging technology to manage debt and improve financial well-being.
There is Genivity, an artificial intelligence (AI) Software-as-a-Service (SaaS) platform for advisors, where healthcare industry veteran Heather Holmes wants to connect the ecosystems of health and wealth to help Americans plan better financially for longevity.
Along with alumni such as Bond.AI, a human-centered AI for banks, and Invest Sou Sou, a social banking platform inspired by informal village saving and loan traditions, these diverse groups of entrepreneurs are on a mission to change the narrative in financial services, to include the needs of the invisibles in an ecosystem that traditionally shuns them.
Such urgency cannot be understated as we delved into discussions on aging and equality at the recent Milken Global Conference in Beverly Hills, and the inaugural Fintech4Life in London. As a society, we are rapidly aging. But while getting older is universal, how we age is not homogenous. It depends on where we live, and how we live; it is also dependent on our gender. With women living longer and facing the cumulative effects of gender and age bias, women can become more vulnerable to financial insecurity as they age. How the financial services respond could potentially uplift not just women, but also their families and the society at large. Gender equality is not a women issue; it is social and economic issue.
Globally, 1.7 billion adults remain unbanked, yet two-thirds of them own a mobile phone, that could help them access financial services previously not attainable. While technology cannot solve all the problems we face in our modern world, it can help to alleviate some of the challenges we face, as shown by the start-ups at the recent FinovateSpring. Advances in AI, advanced data analytics, and voice technology can help draw insights from historical data and our past behaviour, to help us make better financial decisions and attain a more secure future. Similarly, such technology can also be used to detect anomalies in our financial transactions, which could be an indication of cognitive decline or financial exploitation. For those families that live far apart, these tech-enabled solutions can provide us with a means to stay connected to our loved ones.
But where we have fallen short? Great ideas are powerful only if opportunities are available to develop them – just like the seeds of a plant that need sunlight, nutrients, and water to grow. While talent is equally distributed, opportunities are not. We need more local movement to be activated so that entrepreneurs from everywhere can have a chance to try and be successful. We need more funding made available outside of the top tier cities, so local start-ups have access to the financial backing necessary for growth. We need re-skilling programmes like the Workforce Investment Network programme by the Carolina Fintech Hub, that aims to upgrade the talents of local workers – so that they too can thrive in this increasingly digital world. We have the tools available – perhaps what we are missing is the will to use them. It’s time for that to change.
Let us work together to find a way to close the gaps that many still face, to inspire positive change in each of our communities, and to ensure that we can all aspire to a brighter future for the entirety of humanity.
“The world will always need human brilliance, human ingenuity, and human skills.”
Brad Keywell, co-founder and CEO, Uptake
By Theo Lau
She is the founder of Unconventional Ventures, which focuses on developing and growing an ecosystem of corporates, entrepreneurs, and VCs to better address the unmet needs of consumers, with keen interests in women and minority founders.