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Theo Lau: Forward Focused Episode 8

Sep 12, 2019

Evan Kohn: Welcome listeners to Forward Focused brought to you by Pypestream Digital Labs, a thought series on customer experience, artificial intelligence, and enterprise automation, I’m Evan Kohn from Pypestream and I’m talking with Theo Lau. Theo is a speaker, writer, and advisor, she’s the founder of Unconventional Ventures which focuses on developing and growing an ecosystem of financial institutions, corporations, startups, entrepreneurs, venture capitalists, and accelerators to better address the unmet needs of consumers with keen interests and women and minority founders. Theo is a speaker and guest contributor for various top industry events including Money 2020, Finovate, and American Banker. Theo, great to have you with us!

Theo Lau: Thank you so much for having me.

EK: So, Theo, you’ve worked with many startups at Unconventional Ventures, the focus is really to foster an ecosystem — what in your view are the key ingredients for a startup to scale?

TL: Yeah, so let’s actually go back a little bit to the basics, right, you know, some of the work that we do and why we’re doing what we’re doing I think it has to do with, if you look at the startup ecosystem, the landscape if you will, and I think a lot of your listeners will probably be familiar with it, is the opportunities are not really evenly distributed around the country. You have the big hubs, if you will, and some Cisco in New York and Boston and DC where the entrepreneurs are more exposed to different resources, to receive money, if you will, or even to, you know, developers and ideas and all of that. And then you look around the rest of the country, they have a harder time to scale up, right? So, if you look at what we need for ideas to flourish, you will need innovators, you need people with with good ideas, with interesting ideas and that is not geographically limited. But then you will also need resources from a money perspective, you know, resources for, you know, coders, developers, and then you also need an audience, people that will help you test your solution, your ideas, people that will give you feedback on what you’re working on and that’s where we see limitations with respect to where you live, with respect to what social circles you have access to. Which is the reason why me and my partner have founded Unconventional Ventures is that gap that we see throughout our corporate career where we always have opportunities to meet people with wonderful, wonderful ideas but they have a hard time putting it to market or they have a hard time scaling up from that, is because even though they have great ideas they don’t necessarily have them network to help them feed the idea, if you will. So, if you think about, you know, a plant or a seed, which is part of the reason why a logo is a dandelion, if you think about seeds it will flourish everywhere and anywhere and that’s what we’re hoping that we can help to achieve.

EK: Well, shifting to look at some of the world’s largest companies, as opposed to startups, and many of, the many of the biggest companies out there are trying to compete with Amazon, Netflix, Uber, upstarts like Robinhood or Lemonade and, you know, they’re taking on digital transformations, a key component of that is really integrations. So, curious, Theo, how you see the API economy evolving and how do APIs play into this concept of future proofing a company and, as it pertains to, you know, financial services as we see the growth and digital banking platforms than the emergence of so-called challenger banks, you know, when you take Wells Fargo or Bank of America or Citi, you know, what do they need to do given all the developments in the FinTech space?

TL: Yeah, it’s a very, very interesting time if you, well look at, you know, API, the open banking that’s another, just another buzzword you can use in our space. If you look at how the old days we used to do things, right, everything is very siloed. You need financial services you go to a big bank, most likely is a physical branch that is where you go and you go get your savings account, you get your current accounts, you get your services primarily from one institution and now I would attribute a lot of the changes with those big companies that you just mentioned, as well as what the big banks are trying to do, to the development and the introduction of iPhone, right? And I think that little phone that we always have in our back pockets nowadays, pretty much the one thing that we look at in the morning when we wake up, has revolutionized and changed how we do things not just banking right, it introduces us the concept of we can do pretty much on anything, anywhere, anytime that we want. We can get a ride in the middle of the streets in Charlotte, which is where I was recently, you can go order something from Amazon anywhere and any time of the day. So, it got us all to be used to the idea of I just have access to anything, anywhere and that translates from, you know, the experience that Apple provides us with the iPhone to the shopping experience that Amazon provides us to now all the way to customer expectations in banking, right? I don’t want to have to go to a bank branch, deposit a check, I don’t want to have to go to a branch and become confined by the business hours of a bank to conduct my business, I want to be able to do things when I want to, at the comfort of my home or hotel, or wherever you are, whenever I think I need to do something. And so that has a lot of implications to banking industry and that also opens up the door for FinTech startups to do interesting things and so that’s where API comes in and that’s where things get really, really interesting is – and to be able to thrive in this new era banks, and a lot of them have recognized that is, to need to enable API so that they can actually partner with outside companies to provide a more comprehensive solution to consumers. Because I don’t think anyone bank can be everything to everybody, right, we need to collaborate and that’s the concept of open banking is how do we enable other partners and other providers to have access to consumer information so that we can surface new services and use new products, which is what a lot of the banks, for example in the UK, have been doing and as some of them are banks, some of them are FinTech tech startups, but they have gone through the model of look we understand we cannot be everything to everyone, so who else is out there in the marketplace for us to partner with so then we can provide better services to consumers. The same example in Asia where we feel provides us with that, a lot of people are familiar with, in financial with Alipay with WeChat where it’s not just a messaging app, so if you look at WeChat is also a big payment platform similar things with Southeast Asia when you look at Grab and Go Jack again, the super apps, it’s a big platform that has multi purpose, it’s a shopping app, it’s a messaging app, it’s ride hailing, it’s also a syntactic payment app and and that’s where things are really, really interesting and that’s where we think, you know, in general that ecosystem will be going.

EK: You were just at Money2020 in Amsterdam – were these the themes with an outsized presence there?

TL: Yeah, yeah pretty much, you know, there’s a lot of talk about open banking now. If you look at open banking in Europe when it was introduced it was a little over a year ago, so it’s almost like a report card season, right, a little over a year in where do we stand, where are we, and where can you go? So, that was, that was a hot topic and my good friend Christina did a few sessions on open banking as well and on, you know, where is the industry going and Capgemini also did a new report on open banking and then open X, where we’re looking at, you know, from the holistic customer experience perspective where things are going. So, it is pretty much the thing.

EK: Theo, you spent time advising companies looking to serve the unmet needs of older consumers. Where can digital technologies do more to serve older populations?

TL: Yeah, that’s an interesting question. So, one of the things I always talk about is that technology should be age agnostic, right? So, if we take a step back and look at a lot of the financial services innovation nowadays most of them are geared towards the younger demographics with their, I would say they’re incorrect, ideas that older people do not use technology which could not be further from the truth, especially nowadays, and so a lot of the work that I’ve been doing for about the past two years is looking at how do we work with existing technology, right, emerging technologies there are a lot of interesting things happening out there to widen the reach so that it will not only serve perhaps the original intended audience but also a wider demographic which includes the older adults. The few startups at I advise actually, with the exception of one, the other two, they’re not focused on just older demographics that’s where I would say the technology could be leveraged to serve them and if – just because we’re older doesn’t mean that, you know, we don’t want some more things, right? There are a lot of times people say oh, millennials want a seamless experience, a very easy to use interface, well guess what – no matter how old you are, I would argue that you probably all want the same things, right? I’m not a millennial but I want the same thing. So, there’s a little bit of a misnomer as well that we think, well, you know, just all the new digital experiences exclusive through to younger folks. So, case in point, for example, voice technology, right? When Amazon introduced to Echo guess what a few years later one of the most – one of the demographic sets that loved the technology the most – actually the older adults because it is so intuitive to use, right? We always think about voice, well we have been talking since we were little babies. People might not know how to read or write but they know how to talk and we communicate through our voice and so when you put Alexa or other voice smart speakers and older people’s home, there is a sense of similarity, if you will, and in the view that doesn’t come as easily perhaps with applications and with laptops where you have to navigate through menu options and otherwise. So, that’s where I see the exciting space. You know, we’re all getting older, none of use are getting any younger, and then it was with aging societies around the world, for example, in the US we have added 30 extra years of living years since the early 1900s, so how do we leverage technology to facilitate communications between generations, between communities, between societies that, you know, there might be a physical gap, if you will, but you can use voice to travel across the world, literally.

EK: You’re also an avid supporter of female founders, what are a few companies with female founders that you think are doing exciting things?

TL: There are quite a few and one thing I would say is that we don’t have enough diversity in our space and it’s just not just diversity in gender but diversity of thought, diversity of backgrounds and age and whatnot. Now with specifically with female founders there are a few really, really smart ladies that are doing really exciting things. So, for example we have Ramya who’s the Founder and CEO of Pefin which is an AI company that uses AI, machine learning to help you figure out your finances and help you figure out what is it that we need to do with respect to all of the financial obligations that we have, can we afford to, for example, put our kids through college, so dumb things down using technology and help consumers figure out where the financial well-being lies, so that’s an interesting one. And then we also have Heidi Culbertson she’s an amazingly smart lady that uses voice technology to help connect caregivers to new older adults, and so she’s a founder in Florida and she’s been doing amazing work there for a company called Ask Marvee. And then we have another company called Ever Say that’s based in New York, where they use AI to detect potential financial exploitation of the elderly. So Liz she used to be a former prosecutor of New York and so she’s just not only smart, she’s kick-ass right, and again you know all of these ladies, it’s just amazing and fascinating doing a lot of great things and I wish we have like many, many, many more so I can spend another three or four hours talking about them

EK: Well you’re involved with many areas of the technology sphere and we’ve seen many technology revolutions in the previous decades – we saw the mobile revolution, we see an AI revolution now – you just wrote in Harvard Business Review an article When AI Becomes a Part of Our Daily Lives, what’s the next revolution in technology?

TL: I’m not sure I would say we’ll be seeing next revolution, I’ll say we’ll probably see a next evolution of existing technologies because AI has been around for a very, very long time, right, it’s not something new, but to be able to fully take advantage of that I think we literally just scratched the surface of it. So, for example, we’re thinking about using AI in terms of helping to make smarter choices in our finances, like you know you’re referring to the HBR article I recently wrote. So, that’s – there’s still a lot of amazing things that we could do. So, there’s a startup that I advise it’s called Envel they will be launching their services later this year and they’re using AI to create what we call eponymous thinking, if you think about it financial services shouldn’t be think- we shouldn’t have to think about oh I need to do this, I need to do this, what if we can leverage technology to create a more seamless experience where it can be, you know, in the background, right, that it can do smart things for us based on what we have been doing historically, based on what it thinks that, you know, will be good choices for us because humans actually don’t always make the smartest choices, so what if we can use the smartness and the know-how of technology to help us make smarter decisions so that we can have a more secure financial future and that’s what Envel is trying to do with the new solution offering. Or there’s another startup called which I also advise and they use voice as means to understand you as a person, right? They use that as a human centered design for conversational and using AI and voice to understand okay, you know, what is it is that you aspire to, what is it that you want to do and using that as a vehicle and mechanism to again help you to understand your finances and help you to make smarter decisions and be a companion, if you will, in your financial journey. So, there are a lot of things that can be done with with AI as a technology with voices as an enabler and and I don’t think we have seen the full capability of it yet, so I think what we’ll be seeing in the future is an evolution of such an emerging technology and there’s a lot more than we can do.

EK: Theo Lau, it’s been a pleasure speaking with you, thank you for joining us. Where can our listeners find you?

TL: Thank you so much for having me. So, I am fairly active on social media so you can find me on Twitter at psb_dc or on LinkedIn as Theodora Lau and I publish a weekly blog every week mostly around financial services, FinTech, or  FinTech development in Asia or longevity, so I will be there.

EK: Thank you again, Theo. Listeners thank you for tuning in today you can access more Pypestream Digital Labs content at, we hope you join us for the next Forward Focused podcast .