June 8, 2017
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
Patrick Rivenbark: Congratulations on the launch of Currency! Before we talk about Currency, can you just tell us a little bit about FinTEx?
Jason Henrichs: FinTEx is a non-profit membership association that holds together the very diverse, rich FinTech and financial services community within Chicago. It provides a unified voice, raising Chicago’s visibility, promoting the great things that are going on here and the region. We’re building greater connectivity; the community serving as a single point of access for those outside the region looking to do business here. Our founding members range from the really big companies like CME, Morningstar, Envestnet, to the rising stars like AvantCredit, down to the startups.
PR: Chicago is interesting. I call it a "quiet giant." Deloitte ranked Chicago as one of the top 5 global hubs for FinTech but it doesn't get the same media buzz and attention as New York or Silicon Valley. Why do you think that is?
JH: Yeah, it’s funny you mention that. So, last year we didn't even get ranked as part of the Deloitte Global Ranking. I liked your phrase, "quiet giant." And there are a couple of things that work. One is that it is a Midwestern town that tends to be pretty quiet about itself. Then, there are a couple of other subtle factors at play.
One is just how long people stay in the same job in Chicago. I just had lunch with someone today –a person younger than me who has been with his current firm for 12 years. I looked at him like, if you were in New York, Boston, or Silicon Valley, you should have held at least three jobs in that timetable.
Now, overlay that with the fact that Chicago has a very family-oriented nature. With other geographies, there’s almost a badge to encourage how many family dinners you’ve missed; here, there is a badge of honor in how many you’ve made it to.
When you have people who are heads down in doing their jobs and not constantly networking and changing jobs, you end up with people being relatively siloed and focused on just doing what they do and doing it well. That was one of the very first things that we started to solve with FinTEx. We get the community to work together.
PR: Well, that’s interesting. I was not expecting you to talk about how long people stay in their jobs. We will kind of come back to that element of what’s unique about Chicago but let’s talk about Currency. What exactly is Currency?
JH: Currency is a FinTech Center of Excellence. We’re developing best practices for the creation and promotion of innovation within financial technology. We work with four separate stakeholders.
The first – universities who are doing academic research, developing curriculum, and then also preparing their students to enter that workforce. We’re launching it with three lead universities: University of Chicago, Northwestern, and DePaul – crossing the lines of the business schools and their technology groups to really develop this intersection of technology and financial services.
The second set of constituents we serve are corporations. We expose them to the pipeline of well-qualified talent and also bring them the startups that they’re looking to work with; we provide the best practices of developing a corporate in a startup relationship or develop that startup type mentality internally.
Third, we serve the startups by building that productivity with corporations and talent.
The last are the regulators. This matters for the startups and the corporations. We help in having a proactive dialogue with a regulator that promotes responsible innovation without cutting corners on consumer protection regulation.
PR: That’s what I found most interesting in reading through the press release on Currency – the whole ecosystem is there. Can you tell us what made it successful and what the challenges were, considering everyone’s kind of got a different stake in the ecosystem?
JH: Yeah, everyone’s got a different stake and these are institutions where you could look at each other and wonder if you're competitors or not. And the ‘aha’ moments came with the realization of how much more powerful it can be when it’s done in a coordinated and concentrated fashion; it got everyone excited. That, and building the global pie. Not just Chicago, but expanding the realm of FinTech; what it can do is much more important than fighting over the stake of what exists today. That’s really what’s starting to bring people to the table.
It’s not to say it was easy. There were plenty of discussions about getting people’s heads around that to collaborate in a sector that isn’t known for being very welcoming. But they’ve gotten there. I think a part of that is reflected because it is a bit of the Midwestern ethos again in terms of being open. Then there's also the fact that one of Chicago's greatest assets is the diversity of its financial service industry. As a whole, it’s about 7% of the regional domestic product but that’s split up not just with the trading and derivatives that people recognize; we’ve got insurance, data businesses, payments, lending, and one of the richest community banking environments in the state of Illinois. When you put all of these pieces together, that’s when the really amazing things happen.
PR: Did you have any particular rules of engagement?
JH: Yeah. Part of it is just setting clear expectations in the membership agreement. It's not a means for people to go try and poach other people’s employees and ideas. For the most part, people do a really good job of self-policing in that regard. Plus, they would be ostracized from the community if they did that. It quickly becomes a moment where you realize that even if you attempt to do something like that, it isn't worth it.
PR: [Laughs] Very true. With the success that was already going on, why did you feel like there was a need for a center of excellence?
JH: We’ve been doing great collaborative work for years. That’s a testament to the earliest members of FinTEx as well as the great community we have in Chicago. But the world isn’t standing still, and neither can we. To remain competitive and, to push the industry, we need to do something that wasn’t done elsewhere. You have pointed it out already – others are looking at corporate/startup partnerships; SixThirty is one of our partners down in St. Louis. They’re doing that – they’re solving that problem already. We think there are some unmet needs around the world, where people are really figuring out best practices for how these interactions work. We’re not just going to do those here and keep them here, but we want to push those out throughout the entire ecosystem – to pull all of that forward, and pull it by doing something newer by open sourcing it. It helps you stay in a leadership position.
PR: It’s like you already know what I’m going to ask! How do you get your practices to other hubs, whether it be in the US or abroad?
JH: Well, we’re close partners with the Global FinTech Hubs Federation run by Innovate Finance and that is one of the channels we use to push our practices out. We’re also running global events in Chicago and sharing these ideas. We expect to be active on other conference circuits as well – whether it be academic, or speaking at other events. We’re sponsors at SXSW every year with FinTech luminaries. We also work in Silicon Valley and other places. We expect to continue to leverage these partnerships as not only developers of best practices, but also to turn around and contribute back to the community.
PR: Let’s talk about the involvement of the education system? You have some big universities. That’s a unique addition to integrate. How is that going to contribute to Currency?
JH: We’ve looked at what is unique to Chicago and we have really great universities. The tight integration with some of these schools is unique and they all had independent initiatives that were complementary. As business schools, there’s a strong emphasis on entrepreneurship and financial services. We began inviting each school and the departments within the schools to participate. So that just exploded with potential and so that was one of the easiest results. They were excited to share the research and benefit from working collectively, whether it is access to best practices or the development of unique datasets or really getting the students to work together at Currency.
PR: That is exciting. The announcement is the fun part, but then comes all the kind of day-to-day hard work. How are you guys focusing on making sure this partnership and this collaboration sustains?
JH: It’s a great question and frankly, we cheat. The member-wide initiative defines what’s important to develop within the ecosystem and then helps us coordinate to solve that problem. So if they’re the ones that told you what the problem is, then they’re the ones who help you solve it. It leads to a clear victory because you know that you have solved something that’s meaningful to the members. It really is about providing the coordination and then focusing on the parts that are unique and underserved. For example, engaging with regulators. We can talk about an area that we see potential in and rally all parties to help catalyze the process.
PR: That’s great – really refreshing to see. So how does someone outside of Chicago get involved or connected?
JH: Get in touch with us at email@example.com or firstname.lastname@example.org. You can even find us at a lot of international partnerships, whether it be UKTI, Innovate Finance, or the Global FinTech Hubs Federation. These are all our global partnerships where we’re trying to make a more fluid marketplace for these innovative ideas.
PR: Fantastic. Obviously, we at LTP agree with the global approach. I think that’s key for the future of FinTech, so we’re always happy to see that same collaboration happening elsewhere. Lastly, is there anything else you want to share about Currency, about Chicago, about FinTEx, that we didn’t cover? I always like to give people one last chance to kind of have their own parting shot.
JH: Yeah. Whether you’re a large company or a small company, and you’re looking to engage in Chicago, whether that’s on a one-time basis and you want some bespoke productivity, we’re here to support that. If you want to set up an outpost, whether it is small – like a desk or two – a private office, or a partnership with a company, we’re here to serve your needs. That collaboration, we think, pushes the entire ecosystem forward.
PR: That’s fantastic. We at Let’s Talk Payments are excited to continue to follow what’s happening in Chicago. We have a lot of good friends up there! Thank you for your time.
JH: Thank you!