The Royal College of … Fintech?
Ethics and fintech. Like oil and water, they don’t mix easily. For decades, the industry has been plagued with ruthless profiteering. Today especially, venture capitalists squeeze founders for juicy returns. But against all odds, there are pockets of morality emerging. And the trend is getting stronger. Like a distant drum beating closer, the call for ethical fintech is beginning to reverberate through the air. And there is nowhere louder than Kam Chana’s Future of Financial Services Lab, at London’s Royal College of Art (RCA).
Here, surreally, huddles of 20-somethings passionately design for fintech. They create product journeys for pensions, credit and other financial services. And they’re hungry for change. Improvement for improvement’s sake. Ethics for ethic’s sake. (Something you don’t hear a lot in fintech). Sure, profit matters. But people come first. Within that bland RCA room awaits the freshest breath of air you’ll ever take. (Especially, if like me, you just had to battle your way from Bank on the underground).
Product development meets moonshine
It’s my second visit to the RCA, and I’m in good company. Fintech-famous innovation catalyst, Andrew Vorster leaps onstage. Strolling around the squeaky floorboards, he explains the process of stress-testing ideas. How to survive corporate loopholes, SteerCos and vindictive middle managers. Distinctively, he compares the journey to brewing moonshine, revealing how ideas must be refined, tested, and packaged to perfection. The analogy went down like a smooth vintage bourbon. They loved it. I caught up with 24-year-old Dhanyachanok Kusonjai – who goes by “Patch”. Reflecting on Vorster’s words, she commented, “It was inspirational to see the analogy and real-world experience contained in such a simple narrative”.
Vorster navigated the stage like a pro, but I wondered how he was really feeling. Edgy design students are worlds away from his usual corporate crowd. “It’s always an honour to be able to spend time with bright young minds”, Vorster shared. “The students presented really interesting trends”, he continued. “… Followed by fabulous concepts that demonstrated the positive impact fintech could have in the future, for large cohorts of people that are currently underserved”.
“CEO on the streets”
Picking up from Vorster was none other than Bloom Money’s bombastic Co-Founder and CEO Nina Mohanty. (Or if you’re familiar with the pirate-themed “Swashbucklers”, you’ll know her as THE DARING DEVELOPER! Rarghh!). Mohanty gave a full and frank fireside chat about what it means to be a woman of colour in fintech today. She talked about tough loving mothers, cultural expectations, and the awkwardness of not being a lawyer or doctor. So many people could relate in the audience. It felt like a golden thread was forming between the hearts of students and Mohanty’s words. A true connection. Patch later told me, “It was empowering to see how one’s motivations and perseverance could pave a way to such an impactful career and life journey”. Aishwarya Narvekar – ethical BNPL badass and general legend – felt the same way. “This was one of my favourite talks in RCA! Listening to Nina was super inspiring and relatable at the same time!”.
One phrase struck a chord above all others, “CEO on the streets”. At the start of her journey, Mohanty handed out flyers, personally convincing people to sign up. “It was such a great phrase that captured the importance of embracing humility at every level and letting people who we design for guide the development as well”, Aishwarya emphasises.
The feeling was mutual! “I was blown away by the calibre of students thinking about financial services and the other huge, existential problems we face through a design service lens”, reveals Mohanty. “It really excited me […] that these students are taking a very human-centred design approach to building solutions in finance”.
What’s next for these students?
Fintech. Fin. Tech. The melding of finance and technology. The franken-child between a City Brah and a Silicon Valley dude. Half suit. Half t-shirt. Famously mono-cultured and non-inclusive. I quietly wondered how many of these students (who are mostly women of colour) would make it in the industry. Although it’s 2023, fintech boards are STILL 90% men. And with 70% admitting that diversity is an afterthought, it’s not likely to get better soon.
For those that do break in, will they be able to keep their ethical drive? Some months back, I wrote an article about two RCA students who were researching how to make BNPL more ethical. A representative from Klarna quickly wrote to me requesting changes. But when I asked if Klarna might be willing to meet the students and hear their concerns and ideas, I got ghosted. Several times, over several months. The students did too. What does that tell you? Is this an industry that really cares about ethics, or just appearances?
Wasting this youthful talent or diluting it with some sad insatiable margin squeeze would be criminal. Brainpower like this is needed to fix so many of today’s systemic problems. For Chana, that’s a huge part of what attracted her to the role. “I love inspiring them and partners to think big and bold, to disrupt fossilized thinking, and to see new impactful ideas come to life”, she explains.
If you have made it this far down the article, then you probably care about these issues too. And if you’re reading this publication, maybe you work in the sector. So, here’s my ask to you… How much do you care about ethics in fintech? Enough to hire an expert full-time? If so, you might want to pay a visit to a certain world-famous university near South Kensington… There’s a room full of them.
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