Banking

It’s time to put our heart back into our ecosystem — and build what matters

Having access to employment, being able to buy and sell goods and services, creating and leveraging savings over time – along with the ability to move money, store money, access credit, and invest – these are all modern-day financial activities that many of us come to expect and often take for granted.

Economic inequality is a human-made problem that can be solved

However, access to banking services remains uneven, with nearly 1.7 billion people unbanked globally and many more who are underbanked. And the challenge is not limited to developing countries alone.

  • Over 5% of US households (approximately 12 million adults) are unbanked. A further 11% of US households (approximately 24 million adults) are underbanked and still relying on some fringe financial services, such as cheque cashing facilities.
  • Approximately 2.3% of the UK adult population (1.2 million adults) are unbanked, according to the FCA.

Having a bank account is only the beginning of a long journey fraught with additional challenges, from the ability to continue higher education or receive and transfer funds locally and abroad, to starting a new business, buying a home, or saving for the future.

Access to financial services is a crucial tool to help our most marginalised citizens escape poverty and move up the economic ladder, and for women in particular.

Through loans and grants for women entrepreneurs, along with vocational training, more women can participate in the innovation economy, gain financial security, and boost the economy.

According to the World Economic Forum’s latest Global Gender Gap Report, it is estimated that it will take another 267.6 years to close the gender gap in economic participation and opportunity for women.

That is a gap that is not only unacceptable — it is a human-made problem that is avoidable.

Economic equality is a right, not a privilege

From the US, UK, Africa, China, India, Southeast Asia, and beyond, new global fintech business models have emerged over the past two decades, upended the world of financial services, changed consumer expectations of what can be done, and challenged incumbents to move beyond the status quo.

The innovative use of basic telecom services by m-Pesa to facilitate movement of money between consumers and businesses, for example, has been credited for lifting 2% of Kenyan households out of poverty.

Elsewhere, the India Stack, which includes the Aadhaar identity platform as one of the key pillars, is considered to be the most important innovation to formalise India’s domestic economy through digital services.

From Ant Group, Paytm, Grab, and GoJek, to Robinhood, SoFi, Wise, and Nubank, thousands of fintech startups around the world have made great strides in building new digital products and experiences from lending, payments, investing, and beyond.

Opportunities with changing demographics

As our world continues to experience demographic changes, it is now more urgent than ever to challenge the status quo and serve more of our diverse society.

The recent uptick in ‘speciality’ fintechs is a great example. Far from serving purely a market segment, community-focused fintech startups are showing us how technology can help connect us through commonalities, with financial services as a vehicle.

Banking is an essential and crucial service, not only for individuals but also for a country’s economic development. As an industry and as a society, we need a renewed focus on the basic needs of those who are not served by our current system.

It is time to re-imagine financial services beyond products and buzzwords, or yet another budgeting app with a shiny new user interface. We have the know-how and the technology to create something truly meaningful — to impact the wellbeing of not only one, but multiple generations.

And as we have learned from our collective experiences in the past year, women are the backbone of our economies. As we slowly emerge from the health and economic crisis, we must put women and marginalised communities in the center of economic recovery. And we have the responsibility to do so in a useful, trustworthy, affordable, and sustainable manner.

Together, we can re-imagine a different future, one where people of all ages, genders, sexual orientation, ethnicities, and backgrounds can thrive; one where their collective wisdom and lived experiences are vital to our society at large.

Together, we thrive.

It is time to put our heart back into our ecosystem — and build what matters.

We have seen tremendous innovation and wealth creation in the past two decades, much of which is not equally distributed. Economic inequality is a human-made problem that can be solved.

A purposeful application of technology can become the catalyst for greater social responsibility beyond shareholder value. Let’s create a more equitable future for all.


It’s time to put our heart back into our ecosystem — and build what mattersAbout the author

Theodora (Theo) Lau is the founder of Unconventional Ventures. She is the co-author of Beyond Good and co-host of One Vision, a podcast on fintech and innovation.

She is also a regular contributor for top industry events and publications, including Harvard Business Review and Nikkei Asian Review.


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