ZKSwap Releases 2021 Roadmap and Launches $20 Million Mining Event


ZKSwap, the first AMM-modeled Layer 2 decentralized exchange based on the ZKSpeed protocol, has announced its official 2021 roadmap and the launch of its Proof-of-Liquidity (PoL) and Proof-of-TransFee (PoT) mining events with a total prize pool worth more than $20 million. ZKSwap’s rapidly growing community will be able to reap profits from their support and gain a clear understanding of the company’s strategy for the year.

With the rise of DeFi, the Ethereum network has become expensive and congested. ZKSwap offers a solution to Ethereum’s high gas fees and low throughput to improve the DEX user experience and help DeFi applications scale. Since its mainnet launch last month, ZKSwap currently has over $60 million in liquidity and $161 million total value locked.

“At ZKSwap, our goal is to provide transparency throughout our technical progress and involve the community in ZKSwap’s network growth. Since we launched our mainnet earlier this year, we’ve been working diligently to roll out our mining events and updated roadmap. We’re excited to share these and look forward to the community’s feedback and continued involvement,” said Alex Lee, Head of Development of ZKSwap.

ZKSwap will officially launch the Proof-of-Liquidity mining (PoL) and Proof-of-TransFee (PoT) mining events on 6th March. The first phase of these events will last 14 days with 8 million ZKS mining rewards allocated for PoL and 1 million ZKS allocated for PoT.

ZKSwap uses ZKSpeed to achieve high TPS and low gas fees by aggregating multiple zero-knowledge proofs, parallel processing of the PLONK algorithm, and categorization of off-chain data. It also enables GPU-compatible algorithms for higher efficiency.

Backed by a $1.7 million investment, ZKSwap launched its mainnet in February 2021. Prior to launch ZKSwap successfully passed security audits by ABDK, Certik, and SlowMist.


AST: Will Record Investment in IPOs Continue Through 2021?


IPO’s, or Initial Public Offerings, have seen a huge boom in investment recently, as investors are banking on significant growth post-Covid-19. 

Louis Cordone, Senior Vice President of Data Strategy at AST, a tech-enabled, integrated, professional services firm that assists companies and their shareholders achieve their goals through transfer agent and registrar services, issuer and mutual fund proxy services, equity plan solutions and more.

Here Louis shares his thoughts as to whether the record number of IPO investments will continue throughout 2021. 

Louis Cordone, Senior Vice President of Data Strategy at AST

The pandemic may have negatively impacted some business sectors, but investors are betting on growth and companies are looking to the equity markets to raise capital. An all-time yearly total number of 480 IPOs were on the US stock market in 2020.  The number was 106% more than that of 2019. It is also 20% higher than the previous record yearly IPO total of 397, reached in 2000. SPACs expanded also: according to CNBC, 165 SPACs were filed in 2020.

The top reason IPOs intrigue investors is the lack of interest-paying assets these days.

Jeff Zajkowski, head of America’s equity capital markets at JPMorgan Chase & Co, said in a Bloomberg article, “In a zero-interest world, one of the only asset classes that offers the hope of performance that beats inflation is equities.”

IPO performance helps create significant demand in the current climate of nearly non-existent interest. Investors looking for a return that beats the rate of inflation must seek out the best-performing stocks. IPOs offer one of the most likely opportunities for significant growth.

Rock bottom interest rates will likely continue for some time, thanks to pandemic-triggered conditions. Low rates help displaced workers keep up with bills and spur business expansion.  IPOs that deliver profits are a way for investors to make money while supporting an eventual return to a normal economy.

The digital economy acceleration during the COVID-19 pandemic is another contributing factor of the IPO expansion. With so many staying home in response to the pandemic, retail shopping via online orders has dramatically increased, spurring the need to grow online businesses and data services. Thriving enterprises needing cash to expand spawn IPOs, offering investors the chance to make some serious cash.

Customs are changing at a rapid rate. Online shopping and cashless payments were already trending before the pandemic hit. The need to maintain social distance in order to stay safe from the virus spurred many formerly hesitant individuals to adopt new tools based on technology. As a result, many are looking to invest in online and tech companies.

Free Time and a Shift in Focus Spurred IPO Formation

The pandemic triggering the necessity of working from home actually gave organisers more time to prepare deals and market listings for IPOs. Instead of jetting about to meet investors, deals are pitched via conference calls. Virtually executed deals make stock sales simple.

The “New Economy” anticipated as America’s new administration takes office promises to offer a significant economic relief program to combat the surges in COVID-19.  With more economic relief on the way, investors have confidence that value is backstopped by the government’s support of the effort by companies to take on more risk and seek growth opportunities.

The IPO Wave Should Continue to Soar 

Rock bottom interest rates won’t likely rise soon, thanks to the necessity of stimulating the economy, saving everyday Americans from financial ruin, according to a CNBC  post.

The world changed in 2020, and investors obviously noticed. The result has been the surge in “interest that investors have in companies that have benefited from the digital economy, and from biotech and some of these new vaccines,” says Kathleen Smith, principal at Renaissance Capital, in an interview addressing the topic of 3 Reasons Behind the Hot IPO Market This Year. “The new economy companies are really the bread and butter of the IPO market,” Smith added.

An IPO is the most cost-effective way for a company to go public. That fact benefits both investors and growing businesses. What’s good for a company is obviously good for those set to reap profits along with the business.

Want more good reasons to purchase IPOs? A traditional IPO system can give favoured clients the first day “pop,” Wall Street banks charge a fee of around 7% to get firm on an exchange.

IPOs have made money for many, throughout 2020. IPO and Spinoff stocks have managed to outperform the S&P500 recently.

Investors who have made money on IPOs will strive to invest in more. This chain reaction creates a healthy supply of capital slated for IPOs. It’s a win-win situation, strongly benefitting both investors and businesses, a recipe for healing economic difficulties.

Direct Listings and SPACs Have Seen Outsized Activity Also

SPAC isn’t a four-letter word with investors anymore. Once considered a not so honourable way to go public, the practice of merging into a shell company that’s already public, to gain cash has lately been utilised by businesses from a variety of sectors.

SPACs (Special Acquisition Companies) which gather money in a shell company first, then seek out a company to fund have starred in 2020, along with IPOs. Investing in SPACs must garner trust in their leaders to entice investors to basically give them blank checks to invest in a growing company of the SPAC manager’s choice.

Advantages of investing in SPACs include the opportunity for liquidity at a time of stock market volatility, their speed to market, and the fact that they are not subject to IPO lockup rule. In a typical IPO, shares purchased must be held for a designated period, often six months, though it may be shortened by bankers if deemed necessary.

Direct listings have been popular with investors, as they are not subject to lockup and are less expensive than IPOs. They are a great option for gaining operating expenses, as they cost much less than hiring an underwriter and paying his or her commission.

The upward trend of IPO formation holds promise for investors in 2021. IPOs have performed exceptionally well in 2020, outpacing the S&P 500.  This performance will continue to make IPOs attractive to investors, seeking to maximise their investments.


African Development Bank Grants Funding to West African Monetary Agency to Help Close Gender Gap


The Board of Directors of the African Development Bank has awarded a grant of $320,535 to the West African Monetary Agency to mainstream gender in ECOWAS’ core digital financial services (DFS) regulatory frameworks.

The funds will support a gender gap analysis of several WAMA strategies including those for financial inclusion; gender disaggregation data analytics; digital payment services and infrastructure; and digital identity. The project, to be executed over a three year periodwill potentially affect 350 million people in all 15 ECOWAS nations: Benin, Burkina Faso, Cote d’Ivoire, Cabo Verde, Ghana, Guinea, Gambia, Guinea Bissau, Liberia, Mali, Niger, Nigeria, Senegal, Sierra Leone and Togo.

The grant will be disbursed through the Africa Digital Financial Inclusion Facility, a blended finance vehicle, supported by the Bank.

“With a secretariat comprising all the 15 ECOWAS central banks, WAMA plays a pivotal role in the consolidation and implementation of strategic financial inclusion objectives. ADFI and the WAMA project team will work closely with other ecosystem players in the region to ensure harmonisation of efforts for maximum impact,” said Sheila Okiro, the ADFI Coordinator.

The project has the potential to raise by 35% women’s participation in digital financial market operations in the region, which has a higher gender disparity than other parts of the continent as reflected in its Gender Development Index of 0.825 versus the African average of 0.871.

Africa has a gender-inclusion gap of 11% as compared to the global average of 9according to the 2017 Findex Report. To address this challenge, it is imperative that gender is mainstreamed across all functions but more so at the level of policy and regulation.

The project is aligned to ADFI’s strategic goals including its cross-cutting focus on gender inclusion, as well as the Bank’s Ten-Year Strategy, Gender Strategy (2021-2025) and to the Integrate Africa High-5 strategic focus.

The Africa Digital Financial Inclusion Facility (ADFI) is a pan-African instrument designed to accelerate digital financial inclusion throughout Africa, with the goal of ensuring that an additional 332 million Africans (60% of them women) have access to the formal financial system.


Capitalising on Esport’s Billion Dollar Opportunity: How Payments Can Make or Break Your Business


With gaming experiencing a huge boom in popularity over the last year, so has the gaming payments industry. In-game purchases of skins, items and other micro-transactions have ramped up, and so has the need for streamlined payments. 

Someone who knows a lot about this is Evan Heby, Sr. Manager, Partner & Industry Marketing at Tipalti, a provider of end-to-end accounts payable software to automate the entire supplier payments operation. 

Here Evan recounts a conversation about the gaming landscape, and how payments can make or break an esports business. 

Evan Heby, Sr. Manager, Partner & Industry Marketing at Tipalti

At the end of last year, I had the pleasure of sitting down with Chris Smith, Founder & Director of BIG Esports, to discuss the overall gaming/esports landscape. We discussed everything from how Chris got his start in gaming to emerging industry trends and the direction the sector is heading over the next few years. We were lucky enough to be joined by Greg Kampanis, formerly of Enthusiast Gaming. Greg provided insight into the state of finance in gaming and how businesses can leverage content to build their brand in the sector. These are a few key takeaways from the conversation and the reasons why streamlining payments can improve your business overall.

Gaming/Esports Roots

Chris got his start in gaming about 10 years ago. He’s done everything in gaming—from being a gamer himself to broadcasting tournaments and much more. Today, he’s pivoted to focus full-time on running his consultancy, BIG Esports, where his team’s mission is to raise the bar in the esports, gaming, and technology industries.

Today, esports is about a $1.1 billion industry, which only makes up about 1% of the global gaming industry. According to Chris’s research and information from companies like PWC, esports is reaching a 10%+ compounded growth rate in some regions, which is entirely unheard of for many other industries.

Impact of Content & Influencers

“Over the last few years, viewership of gaming content on all platforms has just exploded—whether that’s Twitch or YouTube.”

As the old saying goes, content is king. That sentiment holds true when it comes to the esports world. Building your esport team’s brand through content is one of the best ways to increase your team’s visibility.  It is also a great way to create new revenue streams and monetize the team’s efforts beyond winning tournaments.

For Enthusiast Gaming, their team has “ten shows on Snapchat and gaming content on Facebook—and the appetite of the audience is getting bigger.” Moreover, COVID has impacted engagement with content for Enthusiast, and the team is seeing “some channels [with] 40-50% viewership growth YoY.”

Payables Challenges in Gaming

With many of his clients, Chris stresses the importance of financial literacy to help scale your esports/gaming business. In the gaming world, the sheer number of international payments you’ll need to process as you start to grow is outstanding.  Ensuring that you have a solution for managing cash flow is critical to your success: “Payments is a key area that esports teams need to keep an eye on. With the growing complexity and ‘globalness’ of esports, it’s crucial to understand what you need to do to ensure you get paid.”

For Enthusiast, “payments are an important thing on the influencer side” because it can be an advantage over your competition. Ensuring a seamless payout experience for your influencers/partners/suppliers/etc. will often be a reason why your team can retain top talent or be one of the areas that can hurt your reputation and discourage current partners (and new ones) from working with you down the road.

The Future of Esports

In 2021, the esports industry will continue to grow rapidly, and businesses that organize their back-office finance/accounting functions will have an advantage over their competition. Tipalti is trusted by gaming companies like Twitch, Roblox, Enthusiast Gaming, Esports Engine, and many more. Tipalti is a Hebrew word meaning We Handled It. Our mission is to support gaming businesses of all sizes by eliminating up to 80% of their manual payables workload.


An Overview of Regulatory Sandboxes in the Middle East and Africa Region


Regulatory Sandboxes are becoming part of a common trend in fintech ecosystems which also includes the Middle East and Africa (MEA) region.

A Regulatory Sandbox can broadly be described as a unit, which typically sits within a country’s conduct regulator, and evaluates the need for fintechs to conduct controlled market tests under less stringent regulatory requirements. The solution borrows inspiration from the pharmaceutical industry and the tiered process for testing new drugs. Regulatory Sandboxes sit on the border between an ecosystem approach and infrastructural change in regulatory innovation.

On the one hand, regulatory sandboxes permit regulators to engage entrepreneurs more quickly and at a lower compliance cost, in a controlled setting. On the other hand, regulatory sandboxes constitute a process / infrastructural change, on the path towards reforming the authorisation procedure. In the global stage, sandboxes such as the United Kingdom and Singapore are often referenced as examples of leading and advanced regulatory sandboxes.

Abu Dhabi Global Market (ADGM) announced in November 2016 the first regulatory sandbox in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region

Abu Dhabi Global Market (ADGM) announced in November 2016 the first regulatory sandbox in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region

Abu Dhabi Global Market (ADGM) announced in November 2016 the first regulatory sandbox in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region IMAGE SOURCE GETTY

Pertaining specifically to the MEA region, as a whole it has also begun to play catchup. In the Middle East region, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) – home to Abu Dhabi and Dubai – and Bahrain have been leading the front. For instance, Abu Dhabi Global Market (ADGM) announced in November 2016 the first regulatory sandbox in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region, ADGM RegLab. Afterwards in 2017, both Dubai Financial Services Authority (DFSA), located in Dubai International Financial Centre (DIFC) and the Central Bank of Bahrain (CBB) created their own regulatory sandboxes. The ladder was MENA’s first onshore sandbox as both ADGM and DIFC are free zones, where the CBB’s had 32 innovative fintechs from all over the worlds are testing their technologies today.

Other countries in the Middle East have also built their own regulatory sandboxes. For instance, in 2019 Saudi Arabia announced the design of their regulatory sandbox and has been an active one since. Last year, it was announced that the Saudi Central Bank (SAMA) welcomed nine more fintech companies to take part in the sandbox, which included companies such as Manafa CapitalFunding SouqCirclesNayifat Finance and Sahlah. The sandbox is home to 30 fintechs, which includes fintech companies like BayanPaySkyband and Lindo Financing.

In 2018, the Central Bank of Kuwait (CBK) launched its regulatory sandbox framework. Other neighbouring Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries such as Qatar with the Qatar Central Bank (QCB) have also begun with its own regulatory sandbox journey, while Oman end of last year announced that the Central Bank of Oman (CBO) would be launching its own.

Other countries beyond the GCC in MENA countries include Jordan, which launched the Central Bank of Jordan (CBJ) fintech regulatory sandbox framework in 2018. Last year saw the launch of the Central Bank of Tunisia’s regulatory sandbox as well as Egypt in 2019 with the Central Bank of Egypt (CBE).

Interestingly, the Startup Nation Israel does not have a regulatory sandbox. However, that looks to change as there have been recent news headlines that the Israeli government submitted a bill to encourage the development of financial technology via bill 5721-2021 (the “Bill“). The aim of the bill is to establish an experimental two to four year regulatory programme for fintech companies in Israel, making it a major step in helping further ease and accelerate further growth in the fintech landscape in the country.

In Turkey, there are developments as well with its wider regulatory sandbox. The Turkish digital strategy for 2023 (Turkey’s 2023 Industry and Technology Strategy) highlights how it will develop its technological capabilities. Turkey intends to have a ‘National Blockchain Infrastructure” among cloud computing, Internet of Things (IoT), and open source initiatives. The country will build this infrastructure to encourage innovation and implement blockchain in the public sector; this initiative includes a regulatory sandbox.

Over in the rest of the non-MENA African nations, there have been other growing developments with regulatory sandboxes.

The Middle East and Africa region has seen a growth in development of regulatory sandboxes across much of the region

The Middle East and Africa region has seen a growth in development of regulatory sandboxes across much of the region

The Middle East and Africa region has seen a growth in development of regulatory sandboxes across much of the region IMAGE SOURCE GETTY

For instance, in Nigeria, the largest country in Africa by population at around 200 million, the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) is working towards setting up a Regulatory Sandbox that will offer a ‘safe space’ in which start-ups and other businesses can test innovative products, services, business models and delivery mechanisms relating to the capital market in a live environment without immediately satisfying all the necessary regulatory requirements. In January this year, the Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN) released two regulations: the Framework for Regulatory Sandbox Operations (“Sandbox Framework”) and the Framework for Quick Response (QR) Code Payments in Nigeria (“QR Code Framework”).

In South Africa, The South African Intergovernmental Fintech Working Group (IFWG) has announced this year the first cohort of the IFWG Regulatory Sandbox. Meanwhile, in Kenya they have a regulatory sandbox with its Capital Markets Authority (CMA), where there were three fintechs being admitted to the sandbox back in 2019 folllowing approval of the Regulatory Sandbox Policy Guidance Note.

In Mauritius, the island nation has implemented a regulatory sandbox regime, under which its Mauritius Economic Development Board (EDB) has granted licences to at least 9 companies as of August 2019, including crowdfunding platforms, blockchain services and crypto-currency exchanges. Also, in Rwanda a regulatory sandbox by the National Bank of Rwanda was put in place from 2017.

Despite that, Africa as a whole still has much to advance with respect to the wider advancement of fintech regulatory sandboxes. However, recent headlines also are showing signs of exciting news hitting the regulatory sandbox front in the continent. For instance, in terms of development countries such as Angola with the National Bank of Angola (Banco Nacional de Angola) are currently developing its own regulatory sandbox. Also, Ghana’s Bank of Ghana has launched a regulatory and innovation sandbox pilot as part of its mission to promote and support fintechs, as well as drive financial inclusion. The sandbox will provide a forum for financial sector innovators to interact with the sector regulator to test digital financial service innovations while evolving enabling regulatory environment.

2021 will continue to see further advancements in fintech, which includes the regulatory sandbox, regtech and wider ecosystem both in the Middle East and Africa. Despite the current challenges, MEA has potential in further developing and maturing its fintech ecosystem; regulatory sandboxes play a large part in that.


Fintechs React to the Lord Hill Review


A review of the UK listing regime by HM Treasury, led by Lord Jonathan Hill, was announced in November 2020 and has been released this week. With the objective of providing recommendations for reform that will attract growing firms to list in London and help companies access the UK capital markets, the 86 page report was considered by Chancellor Rishi Sunak when devising the Spring Budget as announced recently.

Sunak said: “We asked Lord Hill to lead this review because we wanted bold ideas. The UK is one of the best places in the world to start, grow and list a business – and we’re determined to enhance this reputation now we’ve left the EU. That means boosting the UK’s business environment and making sure we continue to lead the world in providing open, dynamic capital markets for existing and innovative companies alike, whilst protecting the high standards that underpin our status as a world-leading financial centre.

“The Review has more than delivered and I’m keen we move quickly to consult on its recommendations, cementing the UK’s reputation at the front of global financial services.”

While many of the recommendations of the review have been well received, particularly regarding encouraging investment in UK businesses, some of the proposals could be seen as ambitious. Appearing alongside the Kalifa Review of UK Fintech, an independent review to identify priority areas to support the UK’s fintech sector also released this week, the two reports have given the financial sector much food for thought.

Here The Fintech Times speaks to fintech leaders to get their thoughts on Lord Hills Proposals

The SPAC Market

Charlotte Crosswell, CEO, Innovate Finance, particularly welcomed the findings, commenting on the review addressing the competitive market for SPACs.

She said: “We welcome the findings of Lord Hill’s UK Listings Review today. This report and the Kalifa Review of UK Fintech published last week, provide recommendations that will cater to the changing dynamic of our listing and capital raising environment. We have an incredible pipeline of companies who are scaling rapidly and we must respond accordingly to provide options for growth and patient capital in the private and public markets.

“We are particularly encouraged by the call to update rules around free float requirements and dual-class share structures, in order to attract founder-led and high growth companies to list in the UK. We are also pleased to see the Review addressing the competitive market for SPACs which are increasingly targeting European tech and fintech companies. The world has become even more interconnected, which risks a race to attract our most exciting companies to overseas markets.

“While it is important to retain high corporate governance standards, we must also show that we are willing to adapt our listing rules to attract the most exciting companies onto our public markets. Ensuring that our indices include growth sectors such as technology and fintech will be more reflective of the future growth of the economy and in turn will ensure the index performance benefits from this growth in the coming years.”

Linda Main, head of capital markets advisory at KPMG UK, had similar thoughts on SPACs and the proposals within the review.  “However controversial, SPACs are providing an alternative mechanism for companies to access the public markets. The changes proposed are positive because they seek to put London on a level footing with other global financial hubs, principally New York.

“That said, there’s an element of “buyer beware” here. The people behind SPACs usually enjoy very good returns. It’s contingent on investors to take this into account when deciding whether to participate.”

The FCA should play its part

Ivan Sedgwick, Investments Director at LGB & Co comments: “Lord Hill’s Listing Review makes a number of constructive suggestions. Particularly welcome is the redesign of the prospectus regime which, in its current form, encourages the use of exemptions that can cut out smaller investors while failing to protect others. Requiring the FCA to play its part in building a positive business environment and rebalance priorities accordingly should also be embraced.

“The easing of liability on forward guidance may be helpful, though the US is quite strict on this and it does not seem to hold back activity there. Also looking to the US, shelf registration would be a welcome improvement in the UK, while allowing SPACs doesn’t see like a battle worth having even if past experience of shell companies, their closest equivalent in the UK, is that they tend to attract chancers and abstract wealth from shareholders. Provided there is proper disclosure, caveat emptor ought to apply.

However, though welcoming the review, Sedgewick also points out that some of its elements appear to be more cosmetic, such as rebranding the Main List. “The UK Government should remain cautious of embracing measures that might be seen as self-interested lobbying by industry. There is an implicit attack on pre-emption rules in the review with an endorsement of their suspension during the pandemic, and a proposal to remove the recent rules that allow third party research into IPOs would be a reversal of an investor-friendly measure that could be tweaked rather than removed.”

Timely proposals

Karim Haji, head of financial services at KPMG UK, commented that the proposals laid out by Lord Hill could “have the potential to provide a timely fillip to the city of London”, despite appearing as “tinkering around the edges.”

He said: “Relaxing the rules on dual-class shares and the minimum level of free float are about providing entrepreneurs and investors with more flexibility and the incentive to raise and invest their capital here in the UK, which in turn helps the economy. When successful UK companies feel it is more beneficial to list in New York or elsewhere, it is very logical to consider how we can ensure London remains a world-class financial market that attracts the best businesses.

“Of course, a key driving factor in this is Brexit. There now appears to be a willingness to take advantage of the additional flexibility offered by being outside the bloc to boost London’s competitiveness on the global stage.”

Sam Smith, founder and CEO of finnCap Group agrees that the report’s proposals could attract more tech companies to London, but was disappointed that the review didn’t say more in support of the role of retail investors.

“Overall the review’s recommendations are positive and could make a big difference to attracting more high growth tech companies to list in London. But it is a shame that the review did not include more to support the role that retail investors can play.

“The technology already exists to run a retail offer as part of an accelerated fundraise with no delay to the issuance timeline or impact on pricing. For example, PrimaryBid (a finnCap investee company) has partnered with the London Stock Exchange to do precisely that.

“If the economy is to recover from the pandemic as quickly as possible, it will need to access the widest pool of capital available. That means the UK doing everything it can to attract both institutional and individual retail investors, not either-or.”


Google Supports Black-Led Tech Start-Ups With Black Founders Fund


Google for Start-Ups announces applications are now open for $2million (approximately £1.5million) Black Founders Fund for Black-led tech start-ups across Europe.

With less than 0.25 per cent of venture capital funding going to Black-led start-ups in the UK, and only 38 Black founders receiving venture capital funding in the last 10 years, Black founders are disproportionately lacking access to the networks and capital needed to grow their businesses.

The Google for Start-Ups Black Founders Fund will provide up to $100,000 in non-dilutive cash awards to selected European start-ups in the Google for Start-Ups network paired with up to $220,000 per start-up in Google Ad Grants and Cloud credits.

To be eligible for application, all start-ups need to have one or more founders that self-identify as Black and the start-up must already have a product in the market.

As we begin to emerge from one of the most globally challenging years in recent history, the start-up ecosystem has a defining opportunity to create the blueprint for future business investments and position itself at the forefront of leading equal opportunities for the industry.

Investing in Rising Talents

Rachael Palmer, Head of VC and Start-up Partnerships said: “We’ve seen incredible talent apply to the US Black Founders Fund and the European Black Founders Immersion mentoring programme held last year, which makes us so excited to get to know and work with even more high calibre, Black-led start-ups from across Europe.

Our hope is that this will be part of a wider commitment to change from the entire start-up ecosystem. In the future we want to see more successful Black founders, more Black angel investors, and more Black General Partners at the most successful VC firms. There’s a lot of work to be done, but I am extremely pleased that Google is committed for the long term.”

The fund was secured in the wake of the 2020 Black Lives Matter movement. First launched in the US and now coming to Europe, the fund is part of a $175m long-term commitment toward economic opportunity for Black business owners.

Marta Krupinska, Head of Google for Start-Ups UK said: “We are in a position where we can help build a more equitable future. One where entrepreneurs are judged solely by the quality of their businesses and all communities benefit from the long-term job creation and generational wealth that they bring.

I would encourage any eligible Black-led tech start-up that is curious about how Google for Start-Ups can help them to apply for the Black Founders Fund.”

Applications for the Black Founders Fund are now open and close on 21 March 2021.

  • Tyler is a Fintech Junior Journalist with specific interests in Online Banking and emerging AI technologies. He began his career writing with a plethora of national and international publications.


Resolve: Banking on automation with Centres of Excellence


With the Covid-19 pandemic ramping up digital transformation across several industries, the financial services sector has seen a particular uptake. Automated processes have become a crucial part of business operations, and organisations need to keep up in order to better serve their customers. 

Vijay Kurkal serves as the Chief Executive Officer for Resolve where he oversees the strategic growth of the company as it helps maximise the potential of AIOps and IT automation in enterprises around the world. Vijay has a long history in the tech industry, having spent the last twenty years working with numerous software and hardware companies that have run the gamut from mainframe to bleeding-edge, emerging tech.

Here he shares his thoughts on why Financial Services firms should consider Centres of Excellence to start their automation journey.

Vijay Kurkal, Chief Executive Officer, Resolve

Succeeding in the financial sector over the past year has relied heavily on IT infrastructure given the dramatic shift to digital channels and a predominantly remote workforce. With 73% of UK consumers now regularly using online banking applications, rapid digital transformation has become a crucial component of business operations. As overstretched IT professionals attempt to keep up, automation is essential to helping them meet the ever-growing demands they face.

While there is increasing recognition that automation helps teams do more with less, many organisations are still early in their automation journeys. In order to maximise value from automation, financial services firms must advance their automation maturity and think holistically about where automation can be implemented across their organisation. They must move beyond task-based automation to consider more creative, complex applications of automation that can solve big business challenges, accelerate transformation, and drive innovation. As automation shifts from a tactical technology to a strategic enabler, organisations are increasingly creating Automation Centres of Excellence (CoE) to focus their initiatives and ensure success.

Defining a Centre of Excellence

The concept of a Centre of Excellence isn’t unique to automation. In fact, CoEs exist across many functions. Typically, these centres are comprised of a cross-disciplinary team focused on the success of a specific set of technologies. By bringing together specialists from diverse areas of the business, the CoE benefits from a variety of viewpoints and expertise.

CoEs are responsible for developing the overall strategy and framework for rolling out automation and then scaling it across the organisation. Their mission is to leverage automation to achieve better outcomes and benefit the business as a whole by focusing on the effective implementation and innovative applications of the technology.

Automation CoEs are also inherently involved in optimising and selecting the right processes to automate. By first thinking collaboratively about how best to improve existing workflows, they can bake automation into better processes from the start.

For businesses with legacy, outdated technology, as big banks oftentimes have, an automation CoE can be transformative – both mitigating the overhead of day-to-day management while also accelerating migration to a more modern tech stack. As digital-first challenger banks continue to gain market share – having grown from 60 to 256 between 2018 and 2021 – legacy banks and financial services firms must invest in the latest technology tools to remain competitive.

Optimising outcomes with data

To ensure ongoing executive sponsorship and investments in automation, it is vital that the CoE measures the outcomes of automation and clearly articulates the ROI to stakeholders. A CoE should strategically prioritise automation initiatives. While automation will always be a long-term project, quick wins can demonstrate short-term benefits and bolster support early on. Employing a crawl-walk-run approach allows decision-makers to see clear benefits out of the gates, so they can better visualise the longer-term potential.

Over time, accurately measuring the impact of each automated process fuels a data-driven approach to selecting new automations to deploy. By reviewing the impact of similar automation, the CoE can forecast projected gains across a variety of factors, from cost and time savings to customer satisfaction. Additionally, by honing their scoping skills, the CoE can weigh the benefits of automation candidates against the effort required to build it.

Fostering a culture of collaboration

It is not often that staff come together from multiple business functions to ideate on improving a specific area, yet this is often where the magic happens. The CoE creates a melting pot of different perspectives from a diverse group of people to cultivate ideas that no single member would have fathomed alone.

Collaboration also helps seed the cultural shift that is necessary for automation to succeed. While some employees may fear that automation will replace jobs, the reality is that budgets have prevented IT teams from expanding for some time, and automation frees people up to focus on problems that require critical thinking and innovation. Automation ambassadors in different departments can help communicate this message as they are living proof of it. When people across the business fully understand how automation can positively impact them, a flywheel effect ensues and fosters new ideas for automation.

There is no stopping the avalanche of automation within the finance sector. FS firms can maximise the invaluable benefits of this technology for the whole organisation with an Automation Centre of Excellence. As an entity that demonstrates clear ROI and many other measurable outcomes, creating a CoE should be a no brainer for any FS business looking to strengthen its future standing by adopting intelligent IT automation.


Morpheus Labs and HUAWEI CLOUD Held Blockchain Webinar to Accelerate Innovation in Fintech


Acting as an information bridge for executives and organisations on why and how to adopt blockchain, Morpheus Labs recently co-organised a webinar with HUAWEI CLOUD. This was one of the first symposiums globally to have focused on accelerating innovations in FinTech with Blockchain and AI.

The webinar was aimed at helping businesses and organisations (mainly Fintech & Financial sectors) understand how they can implement and scale their businesses with blockchain solutions. Some of the biggest companies in the world are investing or getting involved with cryptocurrencies. Organisations today are exploring how blockchain technology is able to enhance their operations and boost their bottom line.

The inaugural symposium took place on February 25th, 2021 as a hybrid event, offering both online and offline options for event participants. The symposium was Fintech and financial sector focused, targeting tech-minded organisations that work with applications in the cloud, as well as blockchain-based solutions.

As part of the joint GTM strategy with Huawei Cloud, Morpheus Labs announced that it is joining hands with its blockchain partners to attain exposure together to drive and promote blockchain adoption. This is part of the greater strategy that both Huawei and Morpheus Labs planned – to drive up the adoption rate of Blockchain technology in a healthy and positive ecosystem. Since Morpheus Labs and Huawei are already intimately involved in enterprise blockchain solutions, they will be able to facilitate network implementations and can connect businesses with various blockchain resources. 

The keynote segments and panels were led by some well-known thought leaders in the fintech space including the likes of MD, CTO and CSO of Huawei, the CEO of Morpheus Labs, Risk Assurance and Digital Business Leader of PwC Singapore, President of Singapore Fintech Association, the Associate Director of Temasek and the banking Practice Lead of Accenture (S.E.A).

Takeaways From Industry Leaders

Greg Unsworth, Digital Business Leader & Risk Assurance of PwC Singapore, shared his insights in the 4Cs that will shape financial services of the future. Where customers are enabled like never before – customers are given more choices in terms of different services and products that they have tapped into from the financial perspective; there is a continuing need for traditional banks to evolve, offer digital-friendly and consumer-friendly service offerings.

Anson Shen, Chief Strategy Officer of Huawei Cloud & AI APAC, talked about HUAWEI Cloud’s capabilities, security infrastructure and services, Huawei’s business success, its global footprint and Huawei’s customers in the financial service industry. He also shared his observations on the trend and innovations in the financial world, and their key to future success.

Pei Han, CEO of Morpheus Labs began his keynote speech by sharing a recent event with his children in an outing, relating to how businesses respond to new innovations and technologies. Zooming into finance digital transformation will be among the key areas where blockchain technology will bloom in the near future. He talked about the importance of having the right tools and infrastructure to achieve rapid prototyping, cost efficiency and a fail-safe environment for businesses to build solutions on blockchain; he importance of integrating a reliable Cloud and building a business ecosystem.

The symposium started with the opening statement from Huawei’s chief strategy officer followed by presentations and speeches by each of the scheduled guest areas of expertise. Blockchain partners of Morpheus Labs, R3 and ProximaX were also invited to showcase their blockchain solutions.

Victor Boardman, Head of Insurance at R3, took the audience through a few of the use cases that R3 is seeing in insurance; a recap of how far Corda blockchain technology has come to solving inefficiencies on blockchain distributed ledger.

Lastly, Nicholas Watson, the Director of Fintech Solutions of ProximaX introduced one of their white-label fintech products – a blockchain-powered wallet for payments. He addressed the query of why blockchain and its benefits, and how ProximaX developed the product with its features to benefit the fintech industry.


APAC Insight: Improving How Trade Finance Operates Is Crucial In A Post-Covid World


The push to digitise trade transactions has accelerated during the Covid-19 pandemic with a growing appetite for innovative technology ecosystems and platforms that improve collaboration and operational efficiency. In this second part of our two-part series, The Fintech Times hears from industry leaders on the digitisation of trade finance in APAC.

Read Part One here… 

The global pandemic has accelerated the adoption of digital technologies, as well as the uptake and use of new and innovative technology ecosystems and platforms for improved collaboration and operational effectiveness.

Supply chains and trade finance in the APAC region have also transformed in order to meet a growing need to mitigate risk in these unsettled times and the continued need to pursue sustainable practices to move towards zero-carbon emissions.

The Fintech Times hears from Farah Miller, CEO and co-founder of Helixtap Technologies and Carl Wegner, CEO at Contour on the decentralisation and digitisation of supply chains.

Farah Miller

Farah Miller

Farah Miller, CEO and co-founder of Helixtap Technologies, was previously a commodities trader. She established the global digital trading platform for physical rubber; democratising access to data, digitising the supply chain, and providing data-driven financing.

According to Miller, for B2B organisations, the move to decentralise supply chains has some commonalities with the B2C agenda. For example, every single business needs to focus on their customer experience; by providing more localised products more rapidly as the certainty of delivery is hindered, if not jeopardised, by pandemic-related border closures.

“There is more ESG-related pressure on businesses to reduce their carbon footprint,” she explains. “In addition, understanding key elements, such as the distance to factories when shipping cargoes, increasingly influences procurement teams’ decisions for these reasons, as well as driving cost optimisation. Decentralised supply chains are better equipped to deal with arising regional-specific issues through more engagement with local partners and stronger relationships.”

Recipe for success

Miller suggests that successful decentralisation can only happen with digitising the underlying infrastructure in place, otherwise there is inherent risk at every step.

“Access to the right data at the right time across the entire value chain is critical to provide visibility and end-to-end transparency for better decision-making and to ensure all participants can unlock opportunities as they arise,” she says. “This improves the overall experience – from customer retention, acquisition, and engagement to cost reduction. Data also provides opportunities for the assessment of companies who are expanding or adhering to ESG metrics; this is critical in the context of value adding in the supply chain.”

Trade finance

As well as supply chains, global organisations are delivering trade digitisation solutions to assist banks in providing innovative trade and supply chain services to reduce risk, enhance process efficiency and improve liquidity.

Miller says trade finance ecosystem still require the innovation from startups in this area, bringing in sector specific knowledge and understanding of the customers’ needs and requirements by focusing on often ignored segments in the market and serving that market well.

“This could include better trade finance access for producers in agricultural commodities, currently exposed to price risks that they cannot control. Cloud services, a startup sector innovation that is ubiquitous today, stemmed from Amazon solving an issue they faced themselves during its early days of scaling an e-commerce business. However, the impact rippled across the entire industry when the cost of starting a business reduced significantly as startups could share a server and pay for what they needed as opposed to have dedicated on-premise services. Of course, that has now expanded to the mainstream and enterprise segment, which illustrates just how salient startup innovation was in this area.”

Supply chain resiliency

“Securing supply chain resiliency, particularly in the APAC region, necessitates a focus on two key areas: the importance of ecosystem interconnectedness and the increasing need for optionality in business, particularly during current turbulent times. The recent container and freight shortage in the region shows how bottlenecks can impact business, which can cost companies 264 per cent higher for Asia to North Europe routes.

“Geo-political turmoil and the recent US-China trade wars have shown the influence of global trade and how political decisions in large economies impact supply chain needs. China consumes most of the world’s raw materials (40 per cent in the natural rubber industry). As the saying goes: when China sneezes, the rest of the world catches the flu. In addition, with the recent election of Joe Biden to the US presidency, the focus on electric vehicles has increased, necessitating an increase in all manufacturing elements and subsequent changes required throughout their associated supply chains.

“Once again, it is data and technology that will provide solutions. By providing greater transparency and offering real-time data and updates, better decision making and solutions for the situations are on the horizon.”

Decentralising supply chains for the future of trade

Contour, the trade finance network powered by R3’s Cord, launched in Singapore last year. It unites buyers, suppliers and banks on the world’s first global, decentralised, digital trade finance platform that is open to all geographies and industries.

Carl Wegner is the CEO of Contour

Carl Wegner is the CEO of Contour

Carl Wegner, CEO at Contour, works closely with a range of leading trade finance institutions that are part of the network, as well expanding Contour’s reach in the trade finance space.

He says there is an increasing need to improve how trade and trade finance operates to coincide with the changing ways organisations work in a post-Covid world.

“Through all the advancements seen over the past century, international trade has been slow to change. For example, letters of credit (LCs) continue to be an important trade finance product for global traders, but they rely on paper-based processes, which are fundamentally slow and prone to error. .

“One reason why international trade finance has not fully embraced technology is the lack of a common network. As there is no standard connectivity between banks and corporates for trade-finance related communication and data sharing, information struggles to be shared effectively – often resulting in paper documents being hand couriered to each party. Without this common network, any technology application has a limited impact on trade finance operations.

“Here, the industry should look to establish an interconnected global network to drive out inefficiencies, improve data transparency and enable interoperability between banks and corporates to start, and eventually to all trade participants. The current ecosystem also does not integrate the main elements of trade such as contracting, post-trade fulfilment and customs, which inevitably cause friction and unnecessary administration. This in turn increases costs and can delay cargo availability. Unless global trade processes are digitised, commercial activity across borders will always be held back.”

The benefits of a decentralised network

According to Wenger, to begin the process with trade finance, any solution must have the priorities of banks and corporates at heart. And with so much data in global trade, privacy and autonomy must be provided.

“A decentralised network is an ideal tool to achieve this, allowing integration and transparency in real-time while still maintaining data security and independent ownership. Through a decentralised network, no one party, including the network operator, owns the entire network or controls all the data. All parties in a transaction can share relevant information to finalise an LC with a clear and auditable data trail – without sharing any data to unrelated parties in the network.

“Also, a decentralised network can reduce the processing time of key steps by up to 90 per cent. This can mean a reduction from 10 days to under 24 hours to complete a presentation under an LC. This will create huge efficiency gains for banks and corporates, ensuring goods are transported quickly and working capital is optimised. With increased pressure on both financial institutions and corporates to tighten their belts, this opportunity cannot go ignored.

An inclusive ecosystem

“Efficiency gains are not the only benefit of a decentralised network. If international trade is underpinned by a common decentralised network, then companies of every size will have more opportunities to do business. For example, smaller banks and corporate players eager to grow overseas will be able to tap into a common network for knowledge and LC access while larger organisations will have a wider network of potential partners.

“Also, a new digital network will not be a competitive advantage for only a few. Businesses that embrace the distributed network model early will prosper, as standalone offerings struggle to compete. However, international trade needs to innovate as an industry. The trade finance community can succeed together or fail alone, and a common network is the first step to building a better future for trade.”


Betterment Acquires Wealthsimple’s U.S. Investment Advisory Business


U.S. wealthtech player Betterment is building up its assets under management. That’s because the company acquired the U.S. investment advisory business of Canada-based Wealthsimple this week.

Terms of the deal– which notably does not include Wealthsimple’s technology, employees, or operations– were not disclosed.

“As we shift our focus to our Canadian business for the time being, finding a partner for our U.S. business that shared our commitment to putting clients first was our top priority,” said Wealthsimple Co-founder and CEO Michael Katchen. “It’s been a privilege to serve our U.S. clients, and we’re confident that their investments will continue to be in good hands with Betterment.”

To find a suitable home for its U.S. accounts, Wealthsimple selected Betterment in a competitive bidding process for its strong reputation and customer-first mentality. Wealthsimple’s U.S. clients will be moved over to Betterment in June of this year.

“This was an excellent opportunity for us to grow our customer base, and we’ll continue to be aggressive in opportunities that accelerate our business goals,” said Betterment’s newly-appointed CEO Sarah Levy.

Photo by Gabby K from Pexels


Bank of America tees up individualized digital experiences


Bank of America is developing a new interface for its digital experience that will dynamically tailor tools, services and content based on customers’ data and goals, with the revamped design slated for a midyear launch. “Think about it as if you took every piece of content and functionality and you put it on a playing […]


Canadian Fintech Embraces Real-Time Payments, Challenger Banking


As our recent conversation featuring Boss Insights founder and CEO Keren Moynihan, reminds us, the fintechs (and “TechFins”) of the Great White North are engaged in some of the most forward-looking innovation on the continent.

This week brings an above average volume of news from Canada’s ambitious real-time payments industry. For one, the Vancouver Bullion & Currency Exchange (VBCE) announced a partnership with EMQ to bring “near real-time” cross-border payments to businesses and consumers across Canada. A PSP as well as a foreign currency exchange, VBCE hopes that its partnership with the global financial settlement network will give its customers the ability to move money faster and more efficiently. The firm also anticipates being able to use EMQ’s network to bring new services to market and scale existing ones.

“The speed and reach of EMQ’s global network allows us to pilot new services in one market and scale them rapidly across others to meet the evolving customer needs,” VBCE VP of Business Development Kevin Ma said. “This is especially important for our business with a diverse product portfolio.”

Elsewhere on the Canadian real-time payments beat, Payments Canada announced a collaboration with debit network Interac to support real-time payments in the country. Interac will serve as the exchange solution provider for Real-Time Rail, the real-time payments systems operated by Payments Canada and regulated by the Bank of Canada. RTR, scheduled to go live in 2022, will enable Canadians to initiate payments and receive funds in seconds.

Payments Canada President and CEO Tracey Black said that RTR will be the “foundation for faster, data-rich payments” and will serve as a “platform for innovation.” Black also praised Interac as a “well-suited partner” with the requisite infrastructure and connectivity to support “the rapid adoption of real-time payments in Canada.”

Last, some developments on the Canadian neobank front. Toronto, Ontario-based challenger bank KOHO added a no-fee savings account to its offerings this week. KOHO Save gives account holders 1.2% interest on their entire balance. There are no teaser rates and no minimum balance is required to acquire an account, which is available on the KOHO app.

“We’re excited to add KOHO Save to our product line as a simple and valuable money earning tool for Canadians,” KOHO CEO and founder Daniel Eberhard said. “We’ve been able to build a savings tool that doesn’t follow the same restrictions of most other savings products on the market. People just want to access their money freely and earn a great interest rate. We think Save is a wonderful step in that direction.”

KOHO also offers a savings and checking account and gives users a minimum of 0.5% (up to 10%) cash back on all purchases. KOHO Premium account holders get an additional 2% cash back on three major spending categories. The company, founded in 2014 and headquartered in Toronto, Ontario, has raised $57.5 million in funding from investors including Drive Capital and Portag3 Ventures.

Here is our look at fintech innovation around the world.

Central and Southern Asia

Latin America and the Caribbean


Sub-Saharan Africa

Central and Eastern Europe

Middle East and Northern Africa

Photo by Mian Rizwan from Pexels


CFOs of the Future: Unlocking New Priorities Beyond the Financial Tightrope


2020 will go down the annals of history as the year when the entire world came to a grinding halt. The COVID-19 crisis – marked by its global spread, lockdowns and uncertainties – did not have any parallels in recent memory. Its disruptive impact afflicted all sectors, geographies and functions, at nearly the same time. The crisis gave CFOs sleepless nights for the most part of the year – which started in early spring.

Here Krishnan Raghunathan, Head, Finance & Accounting Services, WNS, explores how COVID-19 has created new opportunities for CFOs, re-defined their roles as enablers of future-readiness and fast-tracked their move beyond the finance function.

While the crisis compelled businesses to reinvent for relevance and viability, it also shone a light on CFOs’ abilities to navigate the challenging near-term and successfully position their organisations for the long-term. After all, it is the CFO who most directly contributes to an organisation’s day-to-day financial health.

Concerted Action to Ensure Future-readiness

In the new normal, it is imperative for organisations to be better prepared for future uncertainties by enabling digitisation, distributed operations and remote working models. The Global CFO Survey 2020 conducted by Everest Group, and supported by WNS, revealed that the onus is on CFOs to help organisations to be agile, resilient and digitally future-ready.

As a result, CFOs are increasingly orchestrating transformational journeys for their organisations. The survey showed that over 50 per cent of CFOs believe that driving proactive initiatives for future-readiness is extremely important in preparing the organisation and the finance function for disruptions similar to COVID-19.

In a similar vein, nearly 53 per cent of CFOs are considering re-evaluation of their locations’ strategy, along with operating and service delivery models. These findings reinforce the emerging trends spanning industries to include massive virtualisation, technology enablement and forward-looking services in the operational mix.

Approximately 52 per cent of the CFOs surveyed are supporting their organisations in ‘reassessing business strategies factoring in the current environment,’ and 51 per cent are working towards ‘improving the cash flow.’

Ensuring Business Continuity and Financial Resilience

With significant economic and operational interruption due to the pandemic, CFOs are expected to save costs while balancing business continuity and financial resilience. The time is ripe for fragmented operations and legacy systems to make way for unified operations underpinned by digital business models and hyper-automation.

Over 50 per cent of CFOs that participated in the Global CFO Survey believe that embedding robust business continuity plans are essential. As a result, they are seeking to design a new-gen finance function – essentially a lean organisation that can catalyse innovation at scale.

Adopting a Digital-only Mindset

The digital age mandates a brand-new approach, one that will help CFOs seamlessly communicate with critical stakeholders and drive operational efficiencies. In the new world order, viewing the business, challenges and transformation through a digital lens is an imperative. This requires significant investments in the right technologies, including artificial intelligence, automation, analytics and cloud – thereby enabling CFOs to understand and predict operational drivers.

The futuristic CFO’s role transcends the finance function to include the entire organisation as well as strategic partners in the ecosystem. CFOs can therefore orchestrate digital transformation by determining the economic viability of each initiative and improve paybacks from the same by analysing cross-functional data.

Another key aspect that the CFOs need to focus is that digital technologies such as Blockchain, cloud computing and automation will continue to play a much larger role in finance.

Reinforcing Organisational Agility

The futuristic CFO needs to be a technology evangelist, a data arbiter and a digital transformation leader – all rolled into one. It will be extremely critical for them to take decisive actions for reducing operating costs, while simultaneously maintaining some flexibility to balance those reductions once the economy recovers.

Many CFOs now have plans in place to prepare for talent disruption, virtualising their organisations and deploying right-fit operating models. CFOs who have already sharpened value optimisation capabilities are better positioned to manage turbulent times. One thing is sure – the ball is now firmly in the in CFOs’ court when it comes to enabling growth in the new normal and beyond.

  • Gina is a fintech journalist (BA, MA) who works across broadcast and print. She has written for most national newspapers and started her career in BBC local radio.


On the job with … State Street’s automation team


Bank Automation News breaks down automation-specific job postings by the nation’s biggest banks to glean current growth strategies for bank automation. Open job postings at State Street suggest the $277 billion bank holding and financial services company is ramping up its automation plans. The Boston, Mass.-based financial institution is hiring for eight automation-related positions, including […]


Going Beyond International Women’s Day with NYC Fintech Women


What does International Women’s Day and #IChoosetoChallenge mean in practice, and what can be done to support and develop truly diverse teams? How does the world of fast-paced fintechs compare with legacy banking when it comes to embracing women in leadership, and empowering new voices to be heard from the bottom up?

Ahead of International Women’s Day, Charlie Burgess, Head of Digital Content for Finovate, sat down with Nicola Newlin, VP Solutions at Ocrolus and part of the Leadership Team at NYC Fintech Women, and Filippa Naghani, Head of Marketing – Banking and Financial Services at Virtusa and Board Member and Marketing Chair of NYC Fintech Women to talk opportunities and challenges, walking the walk of celebrating women, and why brands getting on-board with the IWD should look beyond making it just a marketing stunt.

Watch the full interview below. If you’re interested in finding out more about NYC Fintech Women, visit their page and learn more about the panel discussed, taking place at FinovateSpring Digital 2021 here.


Weekly Wrap: Bank of America leader talks automation and AI, UiPath Summit takeaways


This week, Bank Automation News explored the intersection of automation and artificial intelligence, diving into the opportunities and challenges they present. BAN spoke with Bank of America’s newly appointed head of digital to discuss the calculus behind prioritization and how AI and automation, in the form of virtual assistant Erica, are driving customer engagement. Also, […]


Heidrick and Struggles: Mental Health Strain in the Financial Services Sector


The Covid-19 pandemic has highlighted many current mental health struggles in people all over the world, but recently there has been a particular focus on the financial service industry and the difficulties people face in the sector. With Tom Blomfield recently stepping down from Monzo in order to prioritise his mental health, as well as other instances, the sector is growing more and more concerned about this exacerbating problem. 

Sophie Scholes is Head of UK Financial Services Practice and the EMEA Banking sector at Heidrick & Struggles, an executive search leader. With 20 years of experience, Sophie advises clients on succession planning, leadership assessment, and both executive and non-executive appointments and is also a member of the CEO & Board of Directors Practice working with both corporate and financial services clients.

Here she shares her thoughts on mental health within the financial sector. 

Sophie Scholes is Head of UK Financial Services Practice and the EMEA Banking sector at Heidrick & Struggles

It goes without saying that the pandemic has brought on, and exacerbated, mental health issues for many people both in financial services and beyond. Alongside this, there is a growing sensitivity among leaders and senior management in financial services regarding staff with mental health or wellbeing issues and this is expected not only to continue but to also be a requirement for leaders in the industry.

Senior leaders in financial services are undoubtedly being more open about mental health which has led to a growing awareness of the topic generally. This has been initiated by financial services leaders discussing their own mental health challenges more openly, from Tom Blomfield of Monzo through to Jayne-Anne Gadhia, regarding her experiences at Virgin.

The media, as well as employees, are also applauding management teams who are vocal in their advocacy for this issue and are more likely to hold those leaders who discriminate on the basis of mental health to account. Certain Boards have also been seen to be more aware and supportive of the mental health pressures on CEOs in financial services.

Examples of senior leadership opening up about mental health difficulties are hugely influential and helpful, however, people who are still en route to proving themselves in their career, those lower down the ladder, are hesitant to bring up such issues.

In recruitment processes where support for mental health issues isn’t explicitly stated, candidates are nervous to self-identify and, the reality is, most would choose not to. There is a place for assessment processes that combine analytical rigour with creating a safe environment for candidates to discuss such issues more openly, and what they have been able to learn from them. Whether this is a formal criterion, however, very much depends on individual leaders and the culture of the institution.

On an industry-wide basis, mental health sensitivity skills are not yet a central prerequisite for management candidates, but this is rapidly evolving. In Heidrick & Struggles’ executive search programmes, for instance, we are increasingly emphasising the crucial importance of this component, particularly in financial services, with a focus on candidates who demonstrate the capacity to build mental wellbeing into the fabric of an organisation’s culture and who have a track record of emotionally intelligent leadership.

The Future…

Certainly, companies are becoming more receptive to and understanding of mental health as well as building inclusive teams. Dealing with mental health is now more frequently considered an organisational reality, as opposed to it being thought of as an operational risk.

It has been hugely encouraging to see many financial services leaders, at CEO level and below, proactively support mental health during the pandemic. Human Resource professionals specifically have also become increasingly responsible for the physical and emotional health of employees and the employee experience generally.

While it has taken time to achieve what we have with mental health understanding, the pandemic certainly seems to have accelerated the overall acceptance of mental health in this industry. Things are moving forward in the right direction and this should continue into the future.


Digitizing Mortgages – An Arduous But A Promising Path Ahead


Home is our safe haven—a place where we unwind after a hectic day at work or an extended business trip. The past 12 months have transformed our homes into offices, schools, and even vacation destinations!

Undoubtedly, becoming a homeowner is a long-standing dream for most of us. This desire for ownership makes us jump through hoops. Lenders cash in on this desire and hassle applicants before they agree to lend money. We have often heard about, and even experienced firsthand, the lack of transparency in the process, the unnecessary and avoidable back and forth between lenders and borrowers, delays due to excessive paper handling and manual decisions, and the never-ending wait for a confirmation. It’s nothing but red tape masquerading as compliance! Not anymore. The year gone by witnessed some major global events. Britain left the EU, and a pandemic forced many people out of their jobs and homes. These changes have forced people to reconsider their priorities and channelize their efforts toward things that really matter.

Mortgages Play a Crucial Role in the Financial Services Market

Mortgages constitute a significant share of the financial services market. In 2018, they accounted for 77% of the total number of loans issued to European households, and the figures have been growing ever since. According to the latest statistics released by the UK FCA & Prudential Regulatory Authority in December 2020, the outstanding value of all residential mortgage loans stood at £1,527.3 billion at the end of Q3 2020, an increase of 2.9% YoY. The value of new mortgage commitments was 6.8% higher compared to 2019; it was at £78.9 billion and the highest since Q3 2007.

Despite being the most common type of collateral used for housing loans, mortgages are subject to strict regulations and bureaucracy even in the age of total digitization and process simplification. However, the development of FinTech has given a boost to the digital transformation of mortgages. FinTech has popularized online mortgage platforms among millennials who want processes, even as complicated as mortgage applications, to be fully automated and online. As a result, around 1 out of 4 households in Europe now has a mortgage loan.

Getting a mortgage is one of the most critical decisions made by a person in their lifetime. Various aspects of lending platforms are considered—security, fraud prevention, and calculations. One of the main goals of a digital mortgage is to enhance customer experience, making the overall process easier and more accessible. Modern mortgage platforms have had to address certain challenges: expediting the entire process and improving customer experience, making the process fully online, and meeting regulatory requirements.

Expediting the Process and Improving Customer Experience

Millennials are driving the shift in customer expectations. Digitization, especially accelerating the mortgage process, has become the focal point for improving customer experience. Mortgage platforms have moved beyond scanned and e-mailed documents and paper forms. New technologies such as RPA, ML, and AI have helped digitize and simplify the mortgage process. The benefits of automating routine and repetitive tasks are easy to define. For instance, a combination of OCR, object recognition, and direct application integration might completely replace manual documents and complaints reviews. Besides reducing processing times significantly, the technology will improve consistency and ensure higher accuracy and better compliance.

Lenders commonly benchmark themselves on ‘time to offer,’ with a few lenders claiming they offer conditional approval in minutes. ‘Time to cash’ is equally, if not more, important. The wait time could be 4–6 weeks in extreme cases. Many downstream activities need to be completed before the funds are disbursed. Lenders who have leveraged technology to streamline these processes have seen applications being fulfilled within 15 days.

Making the Process Fully Online

Recent research shows that brokers dominate re-mortgage transactions; 67% of UK borrowers choose this channel. Many individuals are keen on switching lenders themselves with the same ease they switch their electricity supplier or mobile phone provider.

It’s relatively easy to digitize documentation, but what about KYC and customer identification and verification? Governments across Europe are aggressively promoting digital IDs for KYC and identification. If digital IDs are a must to access government services, why can’t they be used in the mortgage origination process? Open Banking has been evangelized extensively, but are traditional lenders using it to its full potential? Take, for example, a customer who already has their current account with a lender. Income and expenditure can be deduced from their transactions, eliminating the need for physical statements.

Meeting Regulatory Requirements

Mortgages remain one of the most complex, regulated, and bureaucratic industries, and lenders must ensure that every loan is strictly compliant to avoid possible risks. Given that digital transformation poses both real and potential risks to compliance, a key challenge is to strike a balance between the two.

The good news is that many FinTechs focus exclusively on providing compliance at various stages of the origination process, for example, analyzing UK MCOB requirements before submission. In this scenario, lending platforms that leverage Open APIs are best placed to tick all the boxes. Billions have been invested in FinTech. A large part of this investment is intended to impact incumbent banks, as evidenced by the tens of millions of Open Banking API calls now being made, from zero a couple of years ago.

Increased competition puts pressure on margins, and we have seen lenders exiting the market. It’s safe to say that with little to distinguish lenders (only on rates), user experience will be paramount to attracting and retaining customers. The cost of tactical digital solutions is exploding, with billions being spent without addressing the underlying silos, systems, and processes. Lenders need to stop asking customers for information they already have, and they need to use this information smartly. Technology is driving innovation, and innovation is changing customer experience throughout the entire lifecycle.

Views expressed in this article are personal.


Facebook Launches Book on African Women Leaders Life Experiences


As part of its celebration around International Women’s Month, Facebook has announced the launch of ‘LeadHERs: Life Lessons From African Women’, a collection of beautifully inspired stories & life advice from 19 women who are breaking boundaries in fields such as media, entertainment, politics, education and business.

Available for free in digital and physical formats, the book provides inspirational real-life stories for future generations and young leaders. Each chapter focuses on a personal experience and life lesson around how these women have navigated their path to success, alongside the challenges they have had to overcome along the way. ‘LeadHERs: Life Lessons from African Women’ is aimed at encouraging, inspiring and guiding the reader – no matter the background, age or ambition.

‘LeadHERs: Life Lessons from African Women’ follows on from the successful 2020 launch of ‘Inspiring #Changemakers: Lessons from Life and Business’ in South Africa. This 2021 book is further brought to life through a series of illustrated artworks specially commissioned from four female artists from across the continent – Massira Keita from Côte d’Ivoire, Lulu Kitololo from Kenya, Karabo Poppy from South Africa, and Awele Emili from Nigeria.

With over 5,000 copies printed, the book will be provided for free to a number of Facebook’s local training partners including She Leads Africa, Fate Foundation, DigifyAfrica, Siyafunda, Smart Ecosystems for Women and cCHub. These will be distributed across 15 countries, including South Africa, Nigeria, Zambia, Zimbabwe, Liberia, Senegal and Kenya – in schools and to beneficiaries of training(s) offered by Facebook partners.

Nunu Ntshingila, Regional Director, Facebook Africa, said: “At Facebook we know that African women are at the helm of shaping the future of our promising continent – they are changemakers, mothers and CEOs. This book is a celebration of just some of the exceptional African women who in their own right are trail-blazers, motivating and inspiring people and advocating for good across Africa, and the world. We’re excited about their individual stories, inspired by challenges they’ve endured and how they’ve risen above these, and importantly how they’ve turned these into important life lessons to help inspire others.”

The women featured in ‘LeadHERs: Life Lessons From African Women’, include Lelemba Phiri, Baratang Miya and Dr Judy Dlamini.