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Blockchain provides opportunities for Barbados

The world is moving further and further into the digital age and of course with that definitive move, there will be a need for financial transactions to be faster, safer as well as easily processed by different countries. That is where Blockchain comes into play.

Blockchain is being touted as the technology to revolutionize how financial transactions are done and is already becoming very significant to how banks will carry out international settlements, transfers and trade finance to name a few.

Blockchain is able to simplify complex processes and acts as a turning point for cross-border transactions with its verification and record keeping.

So it is easy to see why many financial markets will no doubt be looking to embrace blockchain as early as they can, and according to reports coming out of Barbados the island is ready to explore blockchain opportunities, as they push for more fintech companies.

Speaking to the media at the launch of the International Business Week Julia Hope, President of the Barbados International Business Association (BIBA) explained that Barbados was looking to embrace financial technology ‘fintech’ push more fully.

As the association currently works towards meeting the deadlines imposed by the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) through its Base Erosion and Profit Shifting programme (BEPS), Hope assured that the sector officials would continue to examine new markets and opportunities for attracting diversified product offerings as well as the jurisdiction needed for those products and services to be marketed.

“We have some good companies in Barbados already operating – the likes of Polymath and AION, to name a couple,” she said.

“They are here; they are operating and this isn’t just digital currency, this is blockchain. We need to get the regulatory framework in place to enable these companies and others to thrive here, but we could very much become the Silicon Valley of the Caribbean and that is something to aspire to.”

In a joint statement issued by the Central Bank of Barbados with the Financial Services Commission (FSC), both institutions have recognized that fintech innovation could play a critical role in safely lowering the costs of financial transactions, while offering more efficient services to consumers without undermining the financial system.

To that end they have established a framework for a regulatory sandbox, which could last between eight to 12 weeks, to give the regulators an idea of how it will work as well as provide the clarity necessary for businesses offering innovative fintech services, solutions and products.

“One outcome is that having tested it, we don’t like what we see and there are too many risks for consumers, we regulate those activities. We regulate them in such a way that either the likelihood of loss is less or we regulate who can access it,” explained Economist and Chairman of the FSC, Avinash Persaud.

He said it could also attract new investors “that may want to try out a new product in Barbados and if it is successful they might want to try it out elsewhere,”  adding that within a year or so, the country would be in a position to go a joint sandbox with a regular in another country for firms who may be doing cross-border transaction.

Woman of the Week: Eva Wong

 

When I first started giving some thought as to possible profiles of women of excellence to feature in the Woman of the Week section, I decided I wanted to write about women working in the technology space in Canada, namely Eva Wong. This is a very vibrant and growing sector, with the Toronto-Kitchener-Waterloo corridor nicknamed the “Silicon Valley of the North,” including innovation, AI, and fintech startups.

Eva Wong, is one of the co-founders and COO at Borrowell, a financial technology (fintech) company whose mandate is to help Canadians make great decisions about credit. Their service offering includes free credit scores and credit reports, advice and recommendations to improve customers’ financial well-being and personal loans.

Founded in 2014, Borrowell has grown to a 50-employee firm with 700,000 users to date, making it one of the largest fintech companies in Canada.

Eva’s professional background in business and years spent working for a non-profit prepared her for the creation of her present venture. Being a woman who was told that she did not have the ‘right’ background, she faced the prejudices of those who thought she was not qualified enough. However, thanks to her growth mindset, and memories of how she had faced challenges in the past and overcame them, she kept going to achieve her current success.

One of the things that she acknowledged as being a great help when she first started was not being afraid of asking questions, which in turn allowed her to build confidence over time and considers herself very fortunate to have  had of a strong co-founding team. She has had the opportunity to work in a team of people committed to the project and bringing different experiences and insights to the process. The founding team, embedded in the tech community, were part of an accelerator at Ryerson DMZ as well as the One Eleven scale-up hub. Therefore, “there were many people to connect to and talk to with similar experiences,” Eva said.

A lot of lessons were learned along the way, one of them being that success results from continual testing and trying new things.  “There are a hundred small things you have to do as opposed to one big thing. We were data driven in everything we have done, organizing, collecting data and making decisions.” said Eva.

Although Eva stresses the importance that a great team of people makes a huge difference in the level of productivity, and that great people are great people no matter the gender, she also emphasizes that one of her company’s goals is to reach gender balance. “Currently 40 percent of our team identifies as female.  It’s important to build diversity.”

Many startups have a reputation of being male-centric, Borrowell is an exception, striving to create a more inclusive culture and a more appealing environment for women and other under-represented groups to work in.

Eva acknowledges that it is a great moment to be part of the technology community in Canada. She continues, “We are on the cusp of something that can be really big. The community is still small enough that people want to be helpful and a sense of collaboration pervades the community. It’s very exciting!”

In her youth, Eva used to keep a scrapbook where she collected articles and photos of people who inspired her while growing up. She always wanted to make a difference. She recalls ,“I remember reading an article about some high schoolers belonging to the Junior Achievers group who had started their own business. Years later, I went to university with one of the people featured in the article.”

Being a young industry, technology holds a lot of young talent who are very helpful if you want to stay current and up to date. Eva said, “I am fortunate to work with people who are much younger than I am. Also, there is a news media company I’m subscriber to and found that it’s a really good source of information providing in-depth knowledge .”

As a woman and as a woman of colour, she believes that this is the best time for women to break through in executive roles and in traditionally male-dominated sectors.

Not only a co-founder and senior executive, but also a mother and wife, Eva’s hardworking attitude and strong work ethics may have led to spending too many hours at work. However, the pull of the family is strong and drawing a line between professional and private has become an imperative. With so many hours in a day, she wishes she “didn’t need to sleep to have more time to do things” and that is the superpower she wishes she had. In the absence of a real superpower, she is quite content with exercising the daily power of making things: she enjoys cooking and baking. Lately, she has experimented making sourdough bread and pizza.

Eva warns against a misconception that revolves around technology that a career in this sector is impossible without the necessary background. Just like any other sector, there are a lot of jobs within tech companies that are waiting for smart people to do them. She said, “I would encourage people who are interested in a career in tech, whether it’s founding a company or joining a startup. It’s been the most exciting time of my career. There are great opportunities, meaningful work, and a real chance to make a difference.”

Woman of the Week: Peggy Van De Plassche

 

Peggy Van de Plassche is a finance professional by trade, who after a varied career as an investor, bank executive, consultant, and entrepreneur decided to bet on herself and set up her own venture capital firm in July 2018.

Peggy is the Managing Partner of Roar Ventures, whose focus is on early-stage data and AI startups that are targeting the financial services industry. Her beginnings in technology go back almost 15 years, well before FinTech broke through in public awareness.

Aside from running Roar Ventures, Peggy sits on a number of boards including Invest in Canada, is a senior advisor to Portag3 Ventures, guest lecturer at Rotman on AI in financial services and she is also involved in the community via Hackergal and the Wild Animal Sanctuary.

Born in Lille, France, Peggy’s French native accent carries the classic elegance of the language. She left France when she was 26 to relocate in Montreal where she joined CGI and contracted the technology bug.

Following seven happy years in Montreal, she and her husband decided to relocate to Toronto to get closer to the financial services centre. After working at BMO as a Director Strategic investments, Peggy joined a wealthy software entrepreneur with the mandate to seed/launch fintech startups and used the countless experiences she gained to become a freelance consultant working with the likes of Omers VC. Subsequently, she spearheaded innovation initiatives at CIBC as a VP in 2016-17.

This July she started fundraising for Roar Ventures with a target close of $35 million. She focuses her efforts on strategic corporate investors – banks and insurance companies aiming at accelerating their transformation. Her fundraising is global with a significant traction coming out of Switzerland where she will be joining the Canadian delegation to present her fund on the stage of Fintech+.

She is collaborating with a team of professionals that she is proud to call “The most creative, bold and energetic people in the industry”. Peggy admits that like anyone starting something brand-new, she has encountered some challenges along the way. First of all, the act of raising money is a notoriously hard task as “Canadian investors tend to be very conservative and funds are allocated to people who are well known in the industry” she said. In addition to that, “being a female immigrant in a very male-dominated area of work does not really play in my favour” Peggy continued.

On the bright side, she has applied to a government initiative called Venture Capital Catalyst Initiative (VCCI) that supports VC firms financially while also addressing gender imbalance and diversity in VCs. While still waiting for the results, Peggy was happy to mention that this initiative was really the catalyst for her to decide to go on her own.

The companies Roar Ventures focuses on are “gender-diversity friendly” startups, with women in the management team, on a Board or as founders. Empirical research shows that greater gender balance generates superior returns.

The person who inspired her the most is her mother. Peggy describes her as a dedicated and hardworking woman with a strong work ethic and the ability to build good relationships. She taught Peggy a love for learning and always pushed her boundaries. Outside of home, she finds inspiration through reading biographies of people who from humble beginnings, took risks and managed to get through life challenges and turn their life around — Andre Agassi, Serena Williams, Sam Zell, and Arnold Schwarzenegger, to name a few. A European immigrant like her, Schwarzenegger has done it all, from champion bodybuilder, to a successful actor, to governor.

Peggy acknowledges that it is a more empowering moment to be a woman in business now than ever before. This is due to a radical transformation that is taking place within individuals as well as the within the community as a whole. This transformation is shifting everyone’s views to a higher level of awareness. As she states, “For many years, we accepted certain behaviours as normal. Now we need to relearn a new model and reject the old one which does not work anymore”. Peggy thinks that the patriarchal model of society takes a toll on men as much as on women. She has known many successful men who suffer from a tremendous pressure to support the whole family and a wealthy lifestyle.

Aside from work, Peggy reads, spends time with friends and family, and enjoys cultivating her spiritual side through meditation, brain, and energy work. She said, “I’m very intuitive, but I am well aware that I only use a small percentage of my brain. I’d like to access more of my brain and increase my capability to be in a state of flow.”

When asked what tips she would give to women who want to embark on similar ventures, recalling her own path, she recommended, “Prepare, take action, and network.” She warns that fear of not being ready may delay action. “Women tend to be more cautious in business, due to lifelong social conditioning. But you need to believe in yourself, avoid anyone who is negative especially when you start a business because you’re at your most vulnerable” Peggy continued.

Last, she added that networking is more about building relationships with people over the years than having ten-minute conversations at conferences. “You must allocate time to meet people who matter to you. It has to be a deliberate choice. You need to build that precious time in your schedule.”

A whole new digital money world for Barbados

A new digital currency pilot project may just be the thing to stop the potential standoff between Bitt -a financial technology (fintech) company in Barbados and some of the commercial banks, while allowing Barbados to move further onto the world’s digital money stage.

For years tension has run deeply between the commercial banks and newer fintech company,  Bitt, where banks have faced the ongoing dilemma of whether to collaborate with this company, or to develop their own in house, money transfer systems.

As pointed out by Bitt CEO Senator Rawdon Adams, the company has had to deal with  commercial banks in Barbados being ‘obstructive and anticompetitive’ while conversely they were developing more partnerships in the rest of the Eastern Caribbean than in Barbados -the country that ‘arguably needs fintech the most’.

At this year’s Bitt  annual blockchain conference, held at the Hilton Resort, Adams, spoke about the reluctance of some of the local commercial banks to embrace Bitt’s proposal to partner with them in introducing blockchain and distributed ledger technology to facilitate secure peer-to-peer transactions in moving money between clients.

In a call for Barbados to not be “stuck” in time, Barbados’ first female Prime Minster, Mia Amor Mottley, has stepped into the fray and announced her plans to launch a mMoney pilot programme. This pilot will be between Bitt, the Central Bank of Barbados and the Financial Service Commission (FSC) that facilitates electronic and digital payments for those on the island.

Mottley spoke at the annual conference which was held under the theme Central Bank Meets Blockchain: From the Ground Up, saying there was  a need for Barbados and Barbadians to bring an end to ‘this unfortunate debate and tension between those who want to hold onto a status quo and those who want to move forward’.

“Our people want digital money and …want the ease and security of electronic payments, and as a result, what must happen is face to face discussions with urgency…such that we can launch the Barbados mMoney Pilot,” she told those who had gathered for the conference.

Mottley also soothed the concerns of the commercial bankers about the new programme, after one of the bankers referred to the mMoney wallet as a ‘potential danger to the financial system’ claiming that she would be leading the program herself and that the legitimate concerns of this new payment method from all sides would be addressed as they were not going to launch this pilot project recklessly.

Mottley explained that Barbados would not be held to their old ways of banking due to the fear of the unknown, rather they would be looking to improve development because Barbados would not be left behind as the wider world continued to evolve.

News on when the planned mobile wallet pilot project would be  officially launched has yet to be presented, however Mottley assured that Barbados would remain in agreement with anti-money laundering laws and customer fairness guidelines.

Woman of the week: Sue Britton

 

Innovation is a very popular concept for today’s global businesses. Change, supported by technology, is occurring at an accelerated and unprecedented rate. Businesses all over the world are looking for tools to perform their transactions in a more innovative and efficient manner. Sue Britton, Founder and CEO of Fintech Growth Syndicate Inc. (FGS) describes herself as “passionate about innovation.” Founded in 2016, FGS helps banks, insurance companies, and other financial institutions realize the changes that they want to make. Their clients can either outsource the whole project to them, or leverage from their experience, knowledge, and contacts. FGS, a 15-people technology firm, is deeply embedded in Canada’s fintech ecosystem.

As I talk to Sue, it is clear that she is very proud of her accomplishment—who would not be! And what’s more, she proves that it’s never too late to change career and start something from the ground up. Reflecting on her professional life, Sue says, “I’m turning 50 this year. I came to a point in my life where after a long career I felt like starting a new one late in my life. This is the first time I am doing something I love.” She holds a degree in commerce, worked for the Four Seasons for many years, then moved on to work for one of Canada’s leading financial technology firms before setting up her own business.

In a sector that is largely male-dominated, to find a woman who is a senior executive and owns her own firm is rare to say the least. Women are so underrepresented in the technology sector, even more so as executives of technology companies, that profiling Sue is an important and unique opportunity.

Mother and wife, Sue is quick to credit her husband for allowing her to pursue her career while he stayed home raising their three now grown children. She says, “It wasn’t the most popular thing to do at the time, but it worked for us.” After 25 years of experience in the corporate world, 47 years young, and driven by ambition, she felt frustrated with being limited in her professional life. She knew she was passionate about innovation. This passion led her to start her own company. Sue admits that setting up shop wasn’t as an easy enterprise to undertake as doing innovation within a company. However, “being an entrepreneur is an extremely rewarding experience.” Sue continues, “It’s what gets me up in the morning, solving problems that seem opportunities and making those opportunities in the financial services space happen faster.”

When addressing the issue of gender imbalance in the technology sector, Sue firmly believes that men and women need to be to committed to ensure that both genders are equally represented in public forums. Women have historically been off-stage more than on-stage. Sue believes that it is long overdue for that dynamic to change. Sue says, “When I am asked to speak at conferences, I will not entertain speaking if the female representation I’m with is less than 50 percent.”

Although, she is a living example that women can find their space in technology, there is still a long and winding road ahead. Her company tracks all the Canadian start-ups in the fintech industry. Out of thousands of them, female CEOs and founders can be counted on two hands. This is less a reflection of a dearth of women who have the right skills, as of the fact that women are doing other things and not working in the technology-oriented spaces. Men need to be part of the solution, and women must not be afraid of calling out on certain behaviours that perpetrate gender inequality.

That’s why her advice to women who want to pursue a career in technology is to behave as though they are equal to men and not to settle for a job that is not fulfilling. Also, Sue strongly recommends to reach out to the start-up community which is ”made up by a generous bunch of people” congregating online and offline in various meetup groups. There is even a Facebook group called StartupNorth whose members are heads of VC companies and entrepreneurs among others. Incubators and accelerators are also a good place to go, to talk to people who can make the right introduction.