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

Barefoot Innovation Podcast

Filtering by Tag: Underserved

Fintech for Everyone : Vinay Patel and Max Gasner from Bee

Jo Ann Barefoot

I enjoy all my guests on Barefoot Innovation, but if someone forced me to choose my favorite episodes, this one would be on the list. It’s partly because my guests, the co-founders of Bee, were so fun to talk with, and so thoughtful. And it’s also because they are addressing one of the objections people raise to fintech – the notion that it’s only for millennials.

Bee was founded in June of 2015 by Vinay Patel and brothers Max and Alex Grasner as an outgrowth of One Financial Holdings, a 'venture-backed laboratory for innovation in retail financial services'. In pioneering an innovative capital-light model using pop-up kiosks and street teams to sign up customers in-person, Bee is able to offer top quality financial services at a significantly lower cost than traditional brick-and-mortar bank branches. Bee is specifically targeting the lack of quality services for low-and moderate-income underserved people (although my guests point out that 'underserved' and 'underbanked' are not words people use to describe themselves). The product is intended to function as an alternative to checking accounts, structured as a prepaid card paired with a mobile app. Bee partners with Community Federal Savings Bank to offer alternatives to checking and savings accounts to its customers in New York and California. 

Part of what makes this interesting is Bee’s specific hybrid model of personal touch and high tech. They’re trying to put the human beings where customers need them the most – in explaining and opening the account. And then they’re trying to drive down costs overall by not providing branches and tellers for routine functions. Bee’s team goes in person into underserved neighborhoods in New York and San Francisco, and they set up eye-catching mobile kiosks, which they compare to food trucks. They get people interested and then help them through a thorough process of thinking through their needs; opening an account; setting up and learning to use the app; and then, often, letting the new customer stay on to take advantage of the Bee wifi hotspot.

The in-person signup process also helps guard against money laundering, since people are seen face-to-face. 

I think you’ll be fascinated by Max and Vinay’s insights into these consumers, including their huge financial savvy -- how thoroughly they know their money situations, and how they optimize their spending on their phones (and the challenges of working with such a wide array of phones that may be old or broken). Vinay and Max talk about their customers’ worries about both pricing uncertainties and payment delays (issues that are being tackled by other innovators as well).   

One repeated theme is the company’s commitment to treating these customers with respect by providing a product that is obviously high-quality, right down to the thickness of the card, and providing a truly fantastic user experience on the app. They say customers often take selfies with the Bee team, at the end of setting up an account. 

Bee’s CEO, Vinay Patel, has a joint law degree and MBA from NYU. He spent 5 years teaching at NYU Business school and at Columbia Public Policy Business School. He then moved on to McKinsey and Co. as a consultant to banks and government. 

Max Gasner has a background as an investment stock broker on Wall street from 2007 – part of what motivated this work. He has also worked in the Bay area at an AI company  - Prior Knowledge, and then moved on to a tech company which eventually morphed into Salesforce

We recorded this episode several months ago. Since then the company has grown. It also won national recognition in New Orleans in June at the Emerge Conference, as one of the winners of the Financial Solutions Lab competition run by the Center for Financial Services Innovation and funded by JPMorgan Chase.

Max and Vinay are eloquent on the need for regulators to allow space for robust innovation – just one startup might create the 10X breakthrough that can change people’s lives. They’re also thoughtful on their commitment to earning compelling returns for their investors, including Blumberg CapitalFenway Summer Ventures and AXA Strategy Ventures.  They aim to do this with their unique formula of delivering personal attention and high value to a huge, largely untapped market, at very low cost.

 Enjoy my conversation with Bee.

Prior to Bee, Vinay spent five years at McKinsey & Company, where he advised leaders of US banks and public sector organizations on executing large-scale IT modernization programs. Vinay is a faculty member at both NYU Stern School of Business and Columbia School of International and Public Affairs, where he has taught courses on Enterprise Strategy, Game Theory, and Data Visualization. Vinay holds a J.D. and an M.B.A from NYU, and a B.A. with honors in Economics from the University of Chicago. He is happily married and lives in Brooklyn.


Twitter: @patelpost

More about Max

Prior to Bee, Max built and sold a machine learning company to and traded equities in NY and London. Max holds a B.A. in South Asian Languages and Civilizations from the University of Chicago, where he graduated after spending two years at Deep Springs College. He lives in West Oakland.


Twitter: @gasnerpants

More about Bee

Bee is a financial technology startup built on the principle that all Americans deserve convenient, high quality retail financial services. Bee has pioneered an innovative capital-light model using pop-up street teams and kiosks to sign up customers in-person for financial services at significantly lower cost than with traditional brick-and-mortar bank branches. Bee partners with Community Federal Savings Bank to offer alternatives to checking and savings accounts to its customers in New York and California. Bee has ambitious plans to expand its product offering and geographic footprint over the coming years.

Its major investors are Blumberg Capital, AXA Strategic Ventures, T5 Capital, Fenway Summer Ventures, and Western Technology Investment and

Support the podcasts - A buck a show!

I've decided to distill a lesson from the popular podcast series Hardcore History, by emulating their habit of asking everyone to send them "a buck a show." Some years ago, the show's host Dan Carlin realized the podcast was taking over his life - much as Barefoot Innovation has been doing with mine! He hit on the idea of asking listeners for "a buck a show," and eventually reached the point where he can devote himself to producing the series. Barefoot Innovation is produced part-time by me and two young, very talented helpers. One of them has a day job and the other is a full-time graduate student. If all our listeners will chip in a buck a show, we'll be able to expand our interviews, accelerate our pace (believe it or not, we currently run at a four- to five-month backlog from recording date to posting!), and be able to do some fun new things we have in mind for you. We'll appreciate any and all help to keep the show going, and growing!

And remember to post a review on iTunes.

Support the Podcast


Jo Ann Barefoot

In addition to our podcast, please take a look at Raul's keynote at the EMERGE Forum.

I am constantly amazed by the fascinating and unpredictable course of our conversations on Barefoot Innovation - and what a fun one I had with Raul Vazquez, CEO of Oportun. I always like to ask my guests to tell us how they, themselves, keep up with technology. With Raul, I asked this just as I thought we were wrapping up, and the question launched us on a whole new conversation. He's definitely my first guest to bring up potential uses of virtual reality in financial services, not to mention the first to describe virtually interacting with bison.  He thinks we're heading to a "transformative" ability for "anyone, regardless of their incomes" to be able to immerse themselves in a virtual world to try out products and experiences.

As sometimes happens as I get to know great innovators, this is a second podcast with the same company -- click here to listen to our prior discussion with Luz Urrutia, Global Head of Retail. Oportun is based in Silicon Valley and was formerly called Progresso Financiero. It leverages advanced data analytics and technology to provide affordable, credit-building loans to U.S. Hispanics and others with limited or no credit history. The company's proprietary platform risk-scores loan applicants, calculates each one's ability to repay, approves the loans it believes can be paid back, and sets loan amounts and terms to fit individual budgets. Customer accounts are also reported to credit bureaus to help establish credit history. The goal is to combine a highly personal experience with back-office efficiency. Between 2006 and 2015, Oportun helped more than 689,000 customers, disbursing more than $2.2 billion through more than 1.3 million small dollar loans.

Raul joined Oportun in 2012 after nine years in senior leadership roles at Walmart, including as EVP and President of Walmart West, President and CEO of, and EVP of Global eCommerce for developed markets. He also serves on the Board of Directors of Staples, Inc. and is a member of the Federal Reserve Board's Community Advisory Council. He's a graduate of Stanford University with BS and MS degrees in industrial engineering, and also earned an MBA at the University of Pennsylvania.

This is one of those fun episodes where we could have kept talking for hours if we hadn't run out of time. So...enjoy my conversation with Raul Vazquez!

To learn more about Oportun Financial, click here.

Click here to Opor-tune in to Raul's presentation at last year's EMERGE conference about Oportun's four key learnings so far.

To register for this year's indispensable Emerge in June in New Orleans, click here.

And here's my favorite Wired article on voice technology: "We're on the Brink of a Revolution in Crazy-Smart Digital Assistants"

A note on the podcasts - A buck a show!

I've decided to distill a lesson from the popular podcast series Hardcore History, by emulating their habit of asking everyone to send them "a buck a show." Some years ago, the show's host Dan Carlin realized the podcast was taking over his life - much as Barefoot Innovatoin has been doing with mine! He hit on the idea of asking listeners for "a buck a show," and eventually reached the point where he can devote himself to producing the series. Barefoot Innovation is produced part-time by me and two young, very talented helpers. One of them has a day job and the other is a full-time graduate student. If all our listeners will chip in a buck a show, we'll be able to expand our interviews, accelerate our pace (believe it or not, we currently run at a four- to five-month backlog from recording date to posting!), and be able to do some fun new things we have in mind for you. We'll appreciate any and all help to keep the show going, and growing!

And remember to post a review on ITunes.

Support the Podcast

A note on my Regulation Innovation videos and the most important writing I've ever done

Also click here to watch the new Regulation Innovation videos we've posted and read the new articles. These are currently a free sample but will soon become limited to subscribers. Every month, I'm creating a short video briefing and then backing it up with a deep article that shares what I've been learning about financial innovation, and also shares my hard-earned secrets about how I've been learning it. The articles are rich with links to resources -- everything from news reports and white papers to statistical trends to my very favorite Ted Talks.

My goal is to use this pairing of videos and deep articles to repackage my consulting advice, so it can reach a wide audience affordably. In essence, I'm searching the fintech world and curating the best insights for you. As a series, it's a journey through this changing landscape, finding the keys to thriving on disruption with me as your guide.

I've done a huge amount of writing over the years - I've published hundreds of articles. These are the most important, valuable writings I've ever done. Again, these are currently free - I hope everyone will try them out.

Upcoming shows

We have terrific shows come up - the amazing Blythe Masters, the very innovative founders of Bee, and much more.  Join me then!

Courtney Kelso - Innovation & Inclusion at American Express

Jo Ann Barefoot

This episode adds a new dimension to our discussions with innovators, by taking us inside a huge company - American Express.

My guest is Courtney Kelso, who leads the Amex product and marketing team in Enterprise Growth.

I talked with Courtney about two things. First, their strategic move into creating an inclusive set of services, through Bluebird and Serve.

And second, what it takes to innovate inside a big company.

Interestingly, the two are linked.  Their work on building an inclusive strategy is the engine of innovation at American Express.

Think about trying to drive disruptive innovation in an organization that's not only enormous and global, but is also 165 years old - one of the oldest financial brands anywhere. As Courtney says, American Express was a freight company, moving Americans west in the 1800's. Innovation and adaptation are in its corporate DNA, but change at big companies is hard.

And then also think about taking a company like American Express, which has always epitomized elite, high-prestige financial services, and shifting it from being an exclusive brand to an inclusive brand.

It's a fascinating saga, full of lessons for everyone.

Inclusion within a famously "exclusive" brand

The story starts about five years ago, when American Express looked hard at the changes underway in how people think about both money and technology, and especially mobile -- the ability to run most of your financial life from your phone.

They also pondered the fact that Amex was missing an enormous market in the so-called underserved, estimated to be between 65 and 140 million people in the United States - in other words, not a niche. They realized that the economic problems created and worsened in the Great Recession had converged with an emerging set of technology solutions.

American Express responded by launching the Enterprise Growth Group, which Courtney joined immediately. The goal was to go after totally different customers with different product sets. They unveiled an alpha version of Serve in March of 2011 , and then built the Bluebird card, aiming to be part digital wallet, part bank alternative, and part prepaid card . The goal was to reach Americans who struggle to manage and move their money or, as Courtney puts it, the people who are either excluded from the mainstream economy or "unhappily banked." An early move was to create a partnership with Wal-Mart to focus on these needs.

Along the way, American Express financed the movie, Spent, which brings these customers' needs to life and demonstrates that "it's expensive to be poor."  If you haven't seen Spent and shared it in your organization, I recommend doing so.

In our conversation, Courtney tells us why they made these changes, how they did it, their efforts to "be respectful" to a customer group they didn't know, what they expected, what they learned about them, and what has surprised them.  They undertook a "walk talk chalk," encouraging their leaders to step into the shoes of the kinds of customers who appear in Spent by, for instance, learning what it's like to stand in line on a Friday night to cash to check.  They also connected with the Center for Financial Services Innovation (note that I serve on CFSI's board), to bring its recommended Compass Principles into designing these products. They focused human-centered design thinking on challenges like smoothing out financial "lumpiness" for people who earn enough money to pay their bills, but don't have the right amount at the right time.

Courtney describes the fascinating and varied ways customers immediately began using the new tools - including as a bank account alternative and to find ways to save.  She talks about what people want most. She talks about revelations about the preferences of young customers today, and how savvy they are in using mobile services. Today, her group bases every product design decision on the preferences of mobile users (unlike, say, a bank that views mobile as just a new channel for old products). She explains how, with critical mass established on the platform, they can push the envelope with new features, including the first-ever rewards program on a prepaid debit card.

And she shares a progress report -- over $7 billion loaded on the platform as of March 2015, with merchant spend up 300% from 2012 to 2013, and 90% of these customers being new to American Express.


In September 2014, these efforts evolved into creation of FILABs - the financial innovation labs - through which American Express brings together researchers and academics with real live products. After inviting proposals, they selected three partners -- a nonprofit in behavioral science called Ideas 42, along with UC Berkeley and a team of researchers from UCLA. The goal is to use design thinking and agile development methodology to make financial products drive financial health. They are testing new ideas for both processes and products, from nudges and alerts to auto savings and debiting, to see what works. Some of this is proceeding under the aegis of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau's Project Catalyst, which seeks to foster and evaluate fintech innovation. They'll be releasing significant findings in the near future.

In our conversation, I asked Courtney how to innovate in a great big company - after all, her Enterprise Growth group, itself, has over 1,000 people. Her answers may surprise you - including her comment that their most exciting recent innovation idea came from (of all places) the general counsel's office. It's fun to hear the excitement in her voice as she talks about what doesn't work, and what does.

Two more observations before we listen to Courtney.

In our talk she said, "I'll be honest," and explains that launching an "inclusion" strategy raised some worries about potential harm to the invaluable American Express brand, which had been painstakingly built over 165 years to be synonymous with prestige. So, they surveyed their top-tier customer base, asking whether Bluebird and Serve made them think worse, or better, of American Express. The results were resoundingly positive.

Second, think about the picture she paints.  She says the company could see, five years ago, that the financial landscape was changing and American Express would have to disrupt, before they were disrupted. She says CEO Ken Chenault launched the enterprise growth initiative to "cannibalize" American Express from inside, through innovation.

I'm at Harvard this year writing a book on innovation and regulation, which recently prompted me to read Harvard Professor Clayton Christensen's classic, The Innovators Dilemma and newer related work. One of his insights is that disruptive innovation usually must begin in markets that are lower-margin and less attractive than the ones served by industry leaders. The disruptions gestate and develop in these side-markets, and then eventually burst into the mainstream with a better, cheaper product - often too late for the industry's leading firms to adjust. American Express seems to be following something like this logic, putting its innovation engine in the hands of people trying to reach a separate market that's traditionally been "underserved." The results to date are fascinating.

Perhaps it's not a coincidence that Courtney says the whole company now routinely recruits from her team.

Here is more on some of the topics we discussed:

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Richard Davis, President and CEO of U.S. Bancorp

Jo Ann Barefoot

Richard Davis grew up in Hollywood and entered the banking world on his 18th birthday as a teller. Today, at age 57, he leads America’s 5th largest bank as Chairman and CEO of U.S. Bancorp – parent company of U.S. Bank. Headquartered in Minneapolis, U.S. Bancorp has over $410 billion in assets and businesses across the United States, Canada and Europe, including over 3,000 full-service banking offices and 5,000 ATMs in 25 states.

This traditional bank model is now also the foundation for active innovation. U.S. Bank appointed its Chief Innovation Officer, Dominic Venturo, a decade ago (I highly recommend following Dominic on Twitter @innov8tr). They are active in payments technologies, and the holding company owns Elavon, which recently opened a mobile innovation center in Atlanta called “The Grove” focused on “new technologies that enable merchants to accept payments via mobile devices while also ensuring the ease of use and safety of the transaction from the customer’s perspective.”

Richard’s leadership earned praise through the financial crisis and its aftermath, including being named “2010 Banker of the Year” by American Banker. The father of three adult children and with three grandkids, he is highly active in civic efforts and philanthropy, including serving on the boards of the Twin Cities YMCA, Minneapolis Art Institute, University of Minnesota Foundation, and National American Red Cross, among many others. He has been the recipient of the President’s Lifetime Volunteer Service Award, while U.S. Bancorp and its employees earned the 2011 Spirit of America Award, the highest honor bestowed on a company by United Way. The company also received the 2013 Freedom award, the U.S. Department of Defense’s highest award for employers for supporting employees who serve in the National Guard and Reserve.

In 2011 Richard received the Henrickson’s Award for Ethical Leadership. In 2015, U.S. Bank was named as a World’s Most Ethical Company by the Ethisphere Institute, the global leader in defining and advancing the standards of ethical business practices.

In my conversation with Richard, he wove together all these themes of business, innovation, and ethics. More than any of our guests thus far, he voices a full-throated faith in the future of retail bank banking -- including branches in lower-income communities. At the same time, he speaks thoughtfully about the need for innovation in the branch and beyond (while warning against falling in love with every new idea).  

He also offers concrete advice for regulators on how to assure that innovation can flourish. And he talks inspiringly about the need for banks to rebuild the public’s trust in them, one customer at a time. He says customers are “the banks’ to lose,” and that, “If it’s good for the industry, it is probably worth doing.”

Richard’s perspective is an invaluable contribution to our search for better consumer financial solutions. Speaking from the vantage point of a lifelong banker at the helm of one of America’s largest and most successful banking companies, he shares his thinking about what to keep and what to change, as the industry and its customers face continuous change.

For more on U.S. Bank, click here.

Enjoy Episode 12

You can subscribe to the podcast on iTunes or by opening your favorite podcast app and searching for "Jo Ann Barefoot".

Increasing Economic Opportunity for the Underserved - Luz Urrutia, Global Head of Retail at Oportun

Jo Ann Barefoot

Luz Urrutia, the global head of retail at Oportun, has been carrying the same credit card in her wallet for 30 years. Having moved from her native Venezuela to the U.S. to study finance at Georgia State University, Luz was thrilled when she landed her first job in the banking industry – only to have her credit card application rejected by the same bank where she worked! Having little or no credit can make adjusting to life in a new country extremely onerous. In our conversation, Luz points out that anything from getting a job to renting an apartment and hooking up utilities is often impossible without a FICO score.

Currently, almost half of the Hispanic community in the U.S. is underserved. Luz decided years ago to help the 25 million individuals who represent the un- and under-banked in her community by offering responsible credit-building and affordable loans. Before moving to California to broaden her mission, Luz co-founded and served as President and Chief Operating Office for El Banco de Nuestra Comunidad in Atlanta. Since then, her career has been characterized by a relentless drive to use technology and creative techniques to “score the unscorable” and serve those overlooked by traditional financial institutions.

Oportun, formerly Progreso Financiero, was founded in 2005 with the same goal of empowering underserved Hispanic consumers. Its proprietary technology platform scores applicants, even those who do not have credit, and enables Oportun to provide a highly personal experience with back-office efficiency. Headquartered in Redwood City, CA, the customer experience at Oportun is designed with the Hispanic customer in mind. This experience is disseminated through a network of more than 160 stores in five states, often conveniently co-located with or near Hispanic grocery stores, are open 7 days a week into the evening, and staffed by team members who speak Spanish.

In recognition of Oportun’s goals of increasing economic opportunity for its clients, promoting community development, and serving low-income or underserved communities, Oportun was certified by the United States Department of Treasury as a Community Development Financial Institution in November 2009 and re-certified in October 2013.

I spoke with Luz at the Center for Financial Services Innovation’s (CFSI) EMERGE conference in Austin, on whose board she has served since 2004 (full disclosure, I am also on the board). Luz has often been recognized for her commitment to improving the lives of underserved financial consumers, including being named as 2009’s Latina Business Woman of the Year and American Banker’s “Community Banker of the Year” in 2006. Perhaps the greatest reward for Luz, however, is the joy she feels pursuing her mission every day. In our interview you can gladden in her words imbued of passion and excitement (you’ll just have to trust that they were accompanied by a brilliant smile!).

I am happy to offer this episode of Barefoot Innovation as a pick-me-up for anyone who needs a reminder of the unique work being done throughout the industry to use innovation to enhance the lives of financial consumers, and what revolutionary breakthroughs a strong drive to help one’s community can render.

To learn more about Oportun Financial, click here.

You can subscribe to the podcast at iTunes HERE or open your favorite podcast app and search for Jo Ann Barefoot.