Can FinTech make it easier to prioritize both people and profits?
Leaders at recent Boston Fed event urge FinTech innovators to think differently
Business leaders and advocates for low-income workers are challenging FinTech innovators and investors to find new ways to bring financial services to populations they’ve traditionally overlooked, adding they don’t need to sacrifice profitability to do so.
Speakers at the March 19 “FinTech for Social Impact” event hosted by the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston and Commonwealth, a Boston-based nonprofit, said digital technology is eliminating barriers to underserved people and areas, such as the cost of expensive infrastructure in new neighborhoods. But they said a change in perspective is essential.
“Don’t think about FinTech as solving problems just for those who have money,” said Aparna Ramesh, chief financial officer at the Boston Fed, in her opening remarks. “I think there is a huge opportunity to broaden that and widen the funnel of inclusion.”
Ramesh said the beauty of financial technology is that companies no longer need to choose between profitability and targeting underserved people because it’s now possible to create low-cost products that can be scaled efficiently.
“Fusing together FinTech and financial inclusion can be profitable,” she told an audience of 200 comprising entrepreneurs, investors, financial institutions and nonprofit leaders.
The event was a follow-up to the “Fintech, Financial Inclusion – and the Potential to Transform Financial Services” conference Ramesh co-hosted at the Boston Fed in October. Throughout the event, speakers and panelists urged those in attendance to think differently.
FinTech has enormous potential, “but also could really go the wrong way,” said panelist Sarah Sable, chief program officer of New York-based Neighborhood Trust Financial Partners, which serves low-income clients.
“FinTech needs to be designed with the needs of low-income individuals in mind, not just to extract profit from them, or completely ignore them altogether,” Sable said.
The panel acknowledged the tension between profitability and mission for companies focused on neglected markets. Panelist Pedro Moura is co-founder of Flourish, a Berkeley, Calif.,-based start-up which uses rewards to encourage people to save. He said the financial metrics and projections he presents can fall shy of what investors want to see. Moura added it’s often tough for investors to relate to the lower-income people his company is trying to help.
“The empathy is really hard,” he said. “I need to get someone in the shoes of, ‘What is it like not to have $400 in your account?’ And if you’ve never lived that, and you’re funding projects, that in itself is a barrier.”
The panel agreed the data explosion could potentially increase interest and investment in lower-income groups in big ways. For instance, it can reveal spending patterns for individuals and populations that signal unmet demands and market possibilities. Or it could be used to empirically prove to businesses that a financially stable employee is a better employee, which could get companies and innovators thinking about investing in new products that support that.
“We are at the precipice, just at the beginning, of looking at what role the data can play here,” said panelist Jean Donnelly of the FinTech Sandbox, a Boston-based nonprofit that works to make good data accessible to FinTech startups.
Event host Brian Clarke of the Boston Fed, an expert in emergency savings in the Bank’s regional & community outreach group, said people in underserved communities ultimately want just a few things from people in FinTech. One is to know they can trust them. Another is the ability to easily do things in their financial lives they haven’t had the opportunity or know-how to do before because of real or perceived barriers – such as create an emergency savings fund, quickly take out a loan, or invest.
“Just make it easier,” Clarke said. “Make it easier for me to do something I need to do right now. That’s the real opportunity.”
Find out more about the Boston Fed’s work in financial technology on our FinTech page.