Cris Valerio and Tahira Dosani

How to Get 30 Fintech CEOs to Open Up About Financial Inclusion: Lessons from Accion’s inaugural CEO Forum

There’s a prevailing image of the Silicon Valley CEO: He’s young, clean cut, a little nerdy – and he’s nearly always a “he.” But the truth is that there’s an array of diversity, particularly in financial technology, where a brilliant, motley crew from around the world are solving some of the most complex issues involved in promoting access to financial services.

From a long-haired, serial entrepreneur in India solving funding gaps for Indian schools; to a data-driven, assertive New Yorker determined to find alternative credit scoring options; to an experienced Iraqi-American executive leveraging his Fortune 500 skills toward credit decisioning for financial institutions, this particular type of startup CEO makes for incredibly interesting conversation.

That’s what we found out last month when Accion held its first CEO Forum, one of the first events to bring together fintech CEOs who are working to foster financial inclusion. Through generous support from CGAP, 30 entrepreneurs from around the world converged in London for intimate conversations with each other on the challenges and charms that can impede or spur innovations within the financial services sector.

We learned a lot by throwing the group into specific discussions around regulation, talent, growth, financing and more. They spoke openly about strategy and operational challenges, and even traded notes on investors: “It’s easier to socialize commercial people than commercialize social people,” noted one wry participant, referring to impact investors such as Accion.

We also learned a lot about what it takes to convene a successful, actionable forum for these incredibly busy individuals. Below we offer a few of our big takeaways. It is our hope that more funds and organizations will think about hosting these types of events for their entrepreneurs, thereby benefiting the sector as a whole.

On Being a Startup CEO Working in Financial Inclusion

Let’s be honest: Financial inclusion isn’t the sexiest space for a budding, seed-stage startup. So who exactly are these people and what are they like? Importantly, what do they do on a day-to-day basis?

The CEOs at our forum ranged in age, nationality, experience levels and (to a lesser extent than we’d like) gender. Their enterprises were a mix of balance sheet and marketplace lending companies, and ranged in size from three employees to 200. Their products and services ran the gamut from alternative credit scoring, remittances and SME lending, to enabling technologies. Many served enterprise customers or small businesses, and a few worked directly with consumers.

Uniting them were the issues they face as leaders. Talent acquisition, strategy and growth sat atop the list of their most pressing daily challenges. But so did loneliness. One CEO put it this way, “It’s more a question of lack of empathy. Few people know what it’s like to have to fire your friend, or stay upbeat through hard times.”

Our session on human capital was the most highly rated session. Time and time again, the conversation of sourcing, attracting, maintaining and developing talent came up – in side conversations, over coffee, even in other non-related sessions.

These conversations were powerful and practical. Where do you source talent locally? Internationally? How do you cultivate the ability to attract investors, talent and media attention without fighting for every last resource? What does systemizing the referral process look like? Yes, we have a great idea and a social underpinning, but is that enough to attract quality talent? Does being closer to the end user really lead to a more satisfied employee? Middle management wants stability, but being a seed-stage startup is risky by definition, so what to do? The questions went on and on.

The answers varied. People have different ideas and experience about what works and what doesn’t. One thing, however, is clear: More conversation around this topic is desperately desired.

Regarding scaling, a big question that came up multiple times had to do with the enterprise sales process and building out channel partnerships. When you’re a brand new startup with no reputation that’s accustomed to iterating quickly, approaching a large, slow-moving institution can be an arduous process. Entrepreneurs were genuinely interested in learning from each other on how best to optimize this process and secure more wins.

The last thing to note is the operational, knowledge-sharing infrastructure that we saw. TinyPulse, Slack, Know Your Company, WhatsApp and Yammer: Everyone is looking for applications such as these that can allow them to efficiently and economically operationalize their businesses. Reading about the latest app on Tech Crunch is different from hearing how your fellow entrepreneur has personally implemented it – or, for that matter, from seeing them use it in the flesh.

On Running a Successful Convening for Startup CEOs

Hosting this event was a new experience for both CGAP and Accion. In many ways we ran it as a rapid prototype by creating a pre-event survey, tailoring activities and sessions based on that initial feedback and adjusting everything from spaces, to timing, to topics throughout the event, as needed and requested by participants.

One of the big lessons for us was to make it personal – very personal. Accion’s Venture Lab and Frontier Investments Group exclusively invited CEOs within their portfolios and/or ones that they were very familiar with. As a result, questions from facilitators were more targeted, as intimacy bred confidence and encouraged a level of detail that would not have otherwise been possible. Likewise, participants generally knew of each other, but given their work in different regions and sectors had much to learn from their peers – without feeling threatened by competitors.

We also allotted a significant amount of time between sessions (30-45 minutes). The idea was to allow these CEOs to continue running their companies and to create an organic space for networking to happen. Turns out, according to a post-event survey, this was the most valuable feature of our event, with 100 percent of attendees attesting to building their professional network in a meaningful way.

By the way, the most polarizing topics in terms of value to the participants concerned international expansion and regulatory challenges. We learned that when addressing a diverse group of leaders whose businesses face different challenges, it’s hard to be relevant to everyone on such topics – something to remember for next time.

Cris Valerio is the Director of Industry Engagement & Knowledge, and Tahira Dosani (@tahiradosani) is the Director of Portfolio Engagement, at Accion Venture Lab.

business development, financial inclusion, microfinance