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Jo Ann Barefoot explores how to create fair and inclusive consumer financial services through innovative ideas for industry and regulators

Big Banks and Big Ideas: Citi FinTech's Andres Wolberg-Stok

Barefoot Innovation Podcast

Big Banks and Big Ideas: Citi FinTech's Andres Wolberg-Stok

Jo Ann Barefoot

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My guest today is Andres Wolberg Stok, Global Head of Policy at Citi Fin Tech. We got to know each other this year on a panel at FinXTech in New York, and something I immediately noticed is that he has a special way of talking about innovation -- a very fresh way with words. It might be because he’s lived all over the world, or because he was once a journalist -- see his biography below for a sampling of his journalism adventures, which sound like plots of action/adventure movies.

All large banks have innovation initiatives -- labs, accelerators, incubators and the like. They’re all looking at issues like blockchains, big data, artificial intelligence and human-centered design -- such as, creating a user experience that customers will actually love. Banks have plenty of innovative people, of course -- in our talk, Andres quotes CEO Michael Corbat saying that Citi is actually a technology company with a banking license. However, very few banks of any size have really innovative cultures. This is partly because most are mature organizations, and also because banking has been heavily regulated for so long, which tends to foster conservative, risk-averse cultures and decisionmaking. In today’s world of rapid technological change, banks need innovation (and many innovators need banks as well). It’s important that the big banks are investing in learning how to do this well.

Citi Fin Tech was formed in late 2015 to pursue what Andres calls “fintegration.” The impetus was a critical insight: they realized that their customers’ standards had fundamentally changed. Instead of comparing Citi to other banks, there was a new yardstick -- comparison to technology firms. That set a new, high bar.

Andres explains how they’re tackling this challenge. He describes the new kinds of skills they hire. He explains their focus on agile methodology and co-creation of products and learning to experiment. He talks about building multidisciplinary teams that work concurrently on initiatives, instead of sequentially in the old waterfall-style process that could divert an innovation from what had originally made it exciting. He talks about obsessing on the consumer experience and doing thousands of focus groups to understand what customers really think.

He also talks about how the bank should “feel in the palm of the customer’s hand.” He calls mobile an “exoskeleton” for the human mind, connecting us to all the world’s information, all the time. He talks about the issues ahead in AI, privacy, and data aggregation, including the challenges for regulators. He says the key, for regulators, is to understand the upside benefits of technology, not just the risks.

Andres explains how Citi Fin Tech works with innovators, including startups -- note that he invites people to come and work with them using their API’s and data. That site is at https://developer.citi.com.

I think my favorite insight is that banks need a new model that’s open, not closed. He says the customer relationship used to be one-to-one between a bank and its customers -- and of course, the regulations are still mostly built for that. Now, though, there are multiple parties -- consumers use apps and “modular” financial relationships. If the bank wants to continue to be at the core of that customer relationship, they will have to build an open model -- and regulators will have to change with it.

As you listen, think about how regulators and also community banks could get access to this kind of hands-on experience with financial innovation. The sooner they do, the faster the system and its customers will benefit from, as Andres puts it, “breaking a few windows and letting in fresh air and sunshine.”

More on Andres

Andres Wolberg-Stok interfaces with regulators and policymakers around the world as the Global Head of Policy for Citi FinTech, a new unit spearheading the transformation of Citi’s Global Consumer Banking business into a mobile-centric “Bank of Tomorrow”. He joined Citi from an international personal finance startup and has served in a variety of digital roles, first for Citi Latin America, then for Citi's U.S. consumer businesses, and now globally.

Andres was one of the founders of Citi FinTech from his previous role as Global Head of Emerging Platforms and Services for Citi’s Consumer businesses. In 2015, Andres turned Citi into the world's first bank with an Apple Watch app. Earlier, as Citi Consumer's first global head of mobile banking, he invented Citi Mobile Snapshot, a patented 2014 breakout feature that made Citi the first major U.S. bank to offer no-login account access.

Prior to becoming a banker, Andres was an international correspondent and senior news executive. He had tea with mass-murderer military dictators; was driven, blindfolded and at gunpoint, around the capital of Paraguay after midnight; was arrested in Tierra del Fuego on suspicion of being a British spy; and raced in a car at 120 mph along the edge of a minefield in Croatia. He finds most days in banking very manageable.

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It was great seeing lots of you at the Online Lending Policy Summit this week in Washington. I’ll hope to see many more of you at upcoming events:

We have wonderful shows coming up. One is with Braden More, who leads an innovation payments initiative at Wells Fargo. Another is with Giles Gade, CEO of Cross River Bank. And we’ll have several from Money 2020, including Nerd Wallet CEO Tim Chen and the FCA’s Chris Woolard, whom I’ll also be talking with there in a fireside chat.

Speaking of Money 2020, I’m excited that the AML regtech firm I’ve cofounded, Hummingbird, has been selected to do a startup pitch there. Be sure to come and watch!

See you there!