It all started with a book about monkeys
Have you read A Tree Grows in Brooklyn?
I was 10 when I read it, and it is entirely possible that I missed so much of it due to my youth and the fact that I read it in translation, half a world away from a New York I had never visited at that point.
And yet I am reluctant to re-read it because this book is one of those rare reads that created a place for me. I don’t remember the names of the characters or the plot line arc. But I do remember that picking it up felt like stepping into a particular space. That’s such a precious memory.
And I remember this one scene so strongly: the family are desperately poor and yet the little girl is allowed by her mum to ‘waste’ a cup of coffee. She holds it, and smells it, and indulges in it in every way but doesn’t drink it. The father chafes at this waste. We are too poor to pour coffee down the sink, he says. If she doesn’t want it, she shouldn’t have it.
But ah, says the mother. A little luxury. Just a little thing that you do, not to keep body and soul together but for the sheer albeit momentary joy of it.
I was reminded of this scene so vividly last week.
We had a volunteering day at work.
We spent a few hours sorting books at the London Children’s Book Project. Stacks of books. In a warehouse. You sort and shelve and package books by age group and you make sure they are in mint condition or as near to that as a used book can be.
I am an avid reader and insatiable book collector and, although I love the smell of a brand-new hardback, I buy pre-loved books all the time. I hate to see books discarded.
What happens to the rejects? I asked the supervisor, holding on to a board book about monkeys (I love monkeys almost as much as I love books) that had most definitely been chewed enthusiastically by its last owners.
We find them homes, the nice man said.
We don’t throw books away.
But think about it this way, he said: this book will go to a child that may have never owned a book before. In a house that probably has no books (a factor directly correlated to literacy levels and educational proficiency of the offspring of such a household). This book may be the only thing this child doesn’t need to share with anyone else or return.
This is totally theirs.
We want them to be excited and proud of their new treasure and to feel like it’s theirs and theirs alone.
I’m not crying. You are crying.
And if you ask me what this has to do with fintech, the answer is absolutely nothing.
But maybe it’s a good idea to take your team out the office and sort storybooks for a couple of hours. You will find which childhood classics aren’t classics at all in other countries while pointing them out to your colleagues. You will find that the colleague you barely said hello to before has a riotous sense of humour and that eating a sandwich together on your break like a building crew might, on a patch of grass across the street from where your warehouse awaits… all at the same time… Chatting… Not in front of your screen, snatched whenever each person has a gap… you might find that’s good for morale and camaraderie.
And you may find that you will talk about this other thing on the way back to your workstation and you can cancel the meeting you had in the diary for tomorrow, cos you sort of solved it.
And yes it’s hard to take the time away from work.
And yes I did do the thing of working over the weekend and starting at stupid o’clock and working into the night to make up for all the things that needed my attention.
But I cherish my hours sorting stacks of books and ‘thinking one book per child’.
Each book represents a child that does own another book.
Just think about that for a second.
They may get sent it through school, the charity itself, or a scheme that allows prisoners to send their kids a book through this charity.
Each book will go to a child that hasn’t had one of these before and if not for this charity they may never get to have one.
Will the book change the child’s fate?
If anything can…
But no, on a serious note, a book won’t change their fate. But you can’t begin to imagine the ways in which it may help.
And standing in that warehouse, my heart ached with the joy that so many kids will get a book. But the sheer number of books around me and the constant through-flow of boxes caused another ache.
Because if each book is one kid, then that’s an awful lot of kids.
The sheer number of children out there for whom to just smell the coffee without drinking it or to own a book without sharing it with a brother is a luxury.
So, many, books. And yet not enough.
So it is about fintech after all.
I don’t care how cool your tech is.
Tell me how you are fixing this. Tell me how your amazing application of technology will do as much for these kids as a copy of Meg and Mog of their very own.
And if you can’t, maybe you should take your team out of the office to do something small and impactful for a few hours. Impactful in terms your grandmother would understand. Not the share price and the bottom line but the dent you made in the world.
Then hold that in your heart, look at yourself in the mirror and ask, “Is it enough?”
Leda Glyptis is FinTech Futures’ resident thought provocateur – she leads, writes on, lives and breathes transformation and digital disruption.
She is a recovering banker, lapsed academic and long-term resident of the banking ecosystem. She is chief client officer at 10x Future Technologies.
All opinions are her own. You can’t have them – but you are welcome to debate and comment!