Devie Mohan is the co-founder and CEO of Burnmark, a fintech research company that supplies research and data to players across the fintech ecosystem. She is also a leading writer, speaker and fintech influencer. Having started her career in computer science, she found her way into payments based on a keen interest in the intersection of payments and technology.
In continuation of our Innovation Interviews series, Devie recently spoke with Silvia Mensdorff-Pouilly, Co-founder of the European Women Payments Network and SVP of Banking & Payments Europe - FIS, to share her views on women playing a role in fintech innovation, cultural differences between Europe and Asia and why every fintech should ask the question: is it beneficial to the consumer?
Silvia: When we think about the evolution of fintech in 2012 and 2013, the space was quite antagonistic. I think the space has quite changed in the approach. What do you think about that?
Devie: I completely agree with you. It all started with payments. I call it the first phase of fintech. Payments were the most exciting aspect. Now, we see the same solutions in payments, RegTech and lending – the underlying infrastructure like the blockchain, frameworks or even the AI algorithms – are now being reused across different spaces. It's growing across different dimensions and industries. Post-pandemic, the interest will be convergence across industries. I'm quite excited that fintech is driving that change.
Silvia:Do you feel that sometimes when we embed certain financial aspects into the (fintech) journey, there's a danger to consumers because it becomes a bit veiled – what they're engaging in from a financial perspective?
Devie: You touch upon an important topic because transparency is the key to the success of fintech. Early on, fintech terms and conditions were clear and in language that consumers could understand and products and fee structures were very simple. But as you say, now with convergence and more complex products, that’s changing.
The danger of embedding aspects of new industries into this value chain is a problem. I see it becoming more of a challenge in the next few years. We're probably on the cusp of that, and I think there will be more regulation because of that.
A great example is buy now pay later. It’s mostly unregulated now, but I can see regulation stepping in. We’re seeing consultations spring up across the world focusing on BNPL.
Silvia: I see regulations stepping in – it’s for consumer protection. It makes a lot of sense. I feel as an industry you must figure out what are the borders, where do you stop doing good and actually start creating problems?
Devie: That's a question I think every fintech should ask themselves. One thing is adding new products and new capabilities. But always ask: is it beneficial to the consumer? As we grow and commercialize products more, it becomes quite difficult to ask that question for more startups. Regulations will help in part, but it’s also something we should all talk about.
Silvia: I'm interested to switch tack a little bit. You've just been to Saudi Arabia and Africa. What did you see in terms of diversity there? Were women playing a part in the fintech revolution?
Devie: That's a challenge in every part of the world. I come from India, where almost every girl you go to school with has a tech degree. It's common to go and study for an engineering or a tech degree, and this helps in tapping talent for startups. It's similar in Sri Lanka and in Singapore. Indonesia is catching up. And in South Korea, it’s low today, but it's growing. Asia is still far ahead of Europe in terms of supporting women in entrepreneurship.
One of the main reasons based on what I've seen is a lot of the women in Europe tend to fall out of the workforce when they have children, when they struggle with childcare and balancing their professional life with caring duties. In Asia, it's much easier and cheaper to access childcare. You do find a lot of women working even with those challenges. But in Europe, it is quite prohibitive in most cases to access childcare. Europe has a long way to go, to be honest.
Silvia: Absolutely. I've been in payments now for more than 20 years. When I started, I tended to be the only woman in the room, and now that is truly starting to change – even in more senior levels. In Europe, even at the Regulator and the European Central Bank, you see great role models. Have you had any great role models in your career?
Devie: The realization that women have a different set of needs came to me when I started climbing the corporate ladder. I reached a certain point and realized, “OK, I'm the only woman in the room again, which I'm used to, but this time it's a problem because they're not listening to you – or your ideas are not considered good enough to a very homogeneous group of people.” It’s at that point that I started looking out for role models in the industry and, as you said, there are many women who have done extremely well in fintech.
I'm lucky to have mentorship from many women from the regulatory side to banking and startups. For example, every conversation I had with Anne Boden while she was setting up Starling Bank was inspirational because you have this idea that you have to dress in a certain way, to look a certain way and behave in a certain way to get respect. Then you see people who don’t care about any of that and do so well like Anne – and many other entrepreneurs from that era – and it's refreshing to see them be so successful.
Silvia: Yes, it comes down to individual commitment and courage to do things. That's truly inspirational. I'm curious, have you ever had any funny things happen to you in your career – strange mistakes or events where you kind of went, “oh, that was surprising!”?
Devie: I've had meetings where they give business cards to every man in the room. But not me. I was head of marketing for a company in my mid-to-late 20s and have had every person from the head of sales to head of product comment on the fact that I was inexperienced compared to them. They would comment on my age quite a lot, which would be considered inappropriate now.
I prefer to look at things from an internal point of view rather than an external point of view. That conviction that you can change things and still do the things you want to do should drive you forward because time and resources are limited in our lives. I choose to work on myself rather than the challenges around me. It might not work for everyone, but it has helped me focus my efforts and prove that work trumps everything else.
Now, when I walk into a room, it's rare that someone doesn't give me a business card. The same set of people tried hard to get some advice or knowledge on the market from me because my work has proven that the research we produce is different and special, and people appreciate that. I prefer not to look at externalities but rather proving to the world the results. That’s what matters.
Silvia: That’s very inspirational. Approach it from yourself, not from everybody else. Sometimes because of unconscious bias, it's not bad intention, it’s that they're not conscious. I remember we were doing a presentation at a bank, and I was presenting the solution. I was the only woman in the room and the person bringing lunch looked around the room, saw me and whispered in my ear, “Lunch is served.” I said, “I can see that. Why are you telling me? It’s not just my lunch.” But I guess, you know, the person thought, she's the only woman in the room, she must be the PA that arranged the lunch.
Devie: That's so funny! You're right about unconscious bias, and I may have it sometimes too. I don't think it's necessarily a problem as long as there's no malicious intent.
The intent is probably more of a problem than the actual action, and everybody can make mistakes. I always advise young people to focus on what positive things you can do rather than all the things that will go wrong, which will. And of course you have to fight against some of them, but fight against the intent when there is something bad rather than the mistakes that people make.
Silvia: That's good advice. I think things will always go wrong! Focus on fixing it and on learning from it. I was talking recently to my children about how some of the biggest discoveries in science have come from people seeing something go wrong, and rather than throwing it away, thinking, that's strange – what happened here?
I believe that fintech helped the industry a lot with the adage of “if we fail, let’s fail fast so we can start again.” That's changed how the whole industry approaches projects and made a completely different working environment.
Devie: Absolutely. The methodology of failing has been studied so much now, academically and by banks, that a lot of the large corporates are also adopting that methodology. I would say fintech has contributed a lot to the approach of failing, fast learning and then doing something else.
Silvia: Speaking of trying new things. In this more digitalized world, I sometimes worry that we may leave people behind because of the complexity that we create. What's your view on that? How do we make sure that everybody stays in the boat and benefits from our advances?
Devie: Taking a conscious approach definitely helps. Change can come from any source – from consumers asking for it, the startups choosing that path or the regulators telling them to do something. The AI and the ethics around all of this is such a big topic, and many people are studying it – that in the future, when AI achieves scale and becomes part of day-to-day life, you can draw that line between what's ethical and what's not. Fintech will reflect that as well. There will be good, conscious and ethical startups and commercial startups, which is fine if the consumer is aware that this is what's in the market.
Silvia: I hate to close this off, and I hope we meet soon! As a final question, do you have a life quote? Something that you use to guide yourself?
Devie: With everything we do, we should be able to guide the market or the industry in a positive way. You should do things that make that impact rather than do things for no reason. With Burnmark, for example, the word came from me thinking that we all should make a mark. Even when you are burning something down, you still leave a mark. All these startups will probably cease to exist at some point, but if we made the mark, guided the direction of the industry or possibly impacted the lives of people, that it's all been worth it.