Culture and Talent

‘Everyone talks about being client centric’: Citi Ventures’ Vanessa Colella

  • Much of the transformation from banking to fintech has been about breaking down silos and collaborating; now it's time to reclaim some independence
  • Banks and fintech startups are both growing up; banks aren't so closed off and protective that they can't innovate; startups aren't too reckless to be taken seriously
‘Everyone talks about being client centric’: Citi Ventures’ Vanessa Colella

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Fintech as an industry is growing up, according to Citibank chief innovation officer Vanessa Colella.

The tension between banks and startups was predicated on the idea that banks didn’t truly understand their customers’ customer pain points and startups did. Not only that, startups could build a solution faster and more cheaply, they just couldn’t scale. Now, it’s time to move on.

For Citibank, who has been a leader in innovation among large banks in mobile, retail and even blockchain strategies, that’s meant assuming some of its independence again and thinking about how Citi itself — separate from its open banking and partnership structure — would approach customer problems, according to Colella.

The bank is now focused on fixing those pain points that fintech supposedly could; being able to keep pace with customers’ evolving expectations for safe, fast-working and easy-to-use banking services. There’s no more confusion about whether banks and fintech firms should compete or collaborate (correct answer: collaborate). Both sides have stepped out of their mental boundaries, learned how to coexist and even work together.

“In every big company, everyone talks about being client-centric,” Colella said at The Economist’s Finance Disrupt conference in New York Thursday. “While the mantra has been client centricity across the industry forever, we’ve been thinking about what it means to come back to the root: how [do] you validate that client struggle.”

Colella is also the head of Citi Ventures, which pursues venture investments in early-stage startups and working with other Citi businesses to test new innovations and ideas through its Global Lab Network and external partners. She said the bank borrowed from the supposed extroverted qualities of startups as it learned the importance of collaboration and breaking down silos, but more recently it’s been coming back to its roots.

“What we’ve taken from Silicon Valley… [is] when you’re very small, what you need is to be out — and everyone is constantly out. As you become bigger and more established, the inward focus starts to take root.”

Specifically, “figuring out how to connect this innovation with the operating framework we’re all in,” as Lending Club CEO Scott Sanborn articulated.

At the same time, fintech firms are becoming more mature. Since they entered the financial scene there’s been this notion among legacy companies that they, as former SEC chairman Arthur Levitt said, “tend to march to their own rules.” They’re subject to a different set of regulatory requirements than legacy companies that permits them to follow the “move fast and break things” mantra.

“Regulation very often is kind of background music and the prevalence of scandal and mismanagement and aggressiveness is part of the backwash of innovation,” said Levitt. “As a result there’s hardly a day that goes by where there isn’t a recording of one kind of scandal or another.” (See: Sofi’s corporate governance issues.)

And while that sort of recklessness certainly still exists among fintech startups, Colella said that’s mostly a generality. The lion share of companies Citi Ventures sees today have aspirations to be thriving, vital participants in the system and act accordingly, she said.

“It’s important to recognize most entrepreneurs are entrepreneurs who are cognizant and aware that at the beginning even if they’re so small they might not fall under most regulations, they aspire to build their companies” and eventually be subject to more regulatory scrutiny, Colella said.

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