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Women disrupting the business of disruption: Neha Mehta

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Jane Fraser’s appointment as the first female CEO on Wall Street has sparked the gender debate across the finance sector. Fintech StartUps are no exception.

But the rise of female entrepreneurs in fintech is not just representation for its own sake. Women across the world – especially in emerging markets in Asia – are taking up more space as consumers of financial services. For StartUps there is all to play for in catering to this new market, especially in the developing world where rates of female labour participation are quickly rising.

Neha Mehta is founder and CEO of FemTech Partners, a Singapore-based consultancy helping to bring women into fintech and empower their personal finance skills in the age of open banking. Originally from New Delhi, Mehta was inspired to found the company after her time working as a corporate lawyer in Singapore and in Europe, where she says she found “a much better work life balance” and women who were “far more confident” in business.

Multi award winning Founder and CEO of Femtech Partners, Neha Mehta is a legal and finance professional with 11 years of experience in Asia and Europe. Neha Mehta is among Asia’s 50 Most Influential Women in Renewable Energy, 2020. She recently was featured again in the Fintech50 2020. In her previous role, Neha worked to deploy Blockchain technology for financial inclusion in areas such as payments, remittance and micro-loans / insurance to help the world’s 2 billion unbanked people. Presently, Neha is the Team Lead for the £1.2 billion Prosperity Fund (PF) for the SEA, administered by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) of the UK government.

Seeking to bring this culture to the tech scene in India and the Philippines, FemTech Partners works with regulators and companies as a lobbying organisation to empower women in fintech and using financial services. The company has been shortlisted for the British Chamber of Commerce Singapore’s UK Impact in Singapore Award.

#DisruptionBanking spoke to Neha about women in fintech, and the opportunities for female entrepreneurs in Asia:­­

Few women have positions of influence in the fintech start-up industry. That is changing now with women like Marta Krupinska and Elizabeth Rossiello making waves in fintech across continents. What’s your assessment of how women are disrupting the fintech sector?

Especially during the pandemic, what you find is that those who take the risks will get ahead, and this is what we’re seeing when we work with women entrepreneurs – those who are willing to get online, market their goods on social media, and adapt – will be able to tide this. With FemTech partners I wanted to create an equal platform for women to participate in the fintech space. I know lots of female colleagues who have made the switch from insurance and data science, so already have an understanding of things like eKYC (customer verification software) and marketing.

What was interesting in Marta Krupinska’s case is that, even though she technically didn’t have the right skillset, having not come from a finance or fintech background, she was a social media person who understood consumers, so she could think about it through that lens. Her case emphasises the importance of women being comfortable in their own skin and risk-taking.

It also emphasises the importance of peer support. I remember during my time at Start Up Bootcamp having these get-togethers with women in the industry – it wasn’t just bitching about men! – but about discussing problems and solutions in those shared female spaces.

Should women be setting up their own networks to encourage participation, then, or engaging with existing ones?

I think women-only networks are helpful, because there are some work-related issues only women will understand, like balancing work with children and issues related to female customers.

But if we’re excluding half the working population from established networks than it’s a problem. Less than 5% of CEOs of the biggest US companies are female. The Singapore Exchange requires at least 20% representation of women, but currently it’s only at 15%. So of course we need to have support groups, but it’s important for men to be in the same room.

Increasingly companies are realising the importance of women on executive boards, to have an input in the products being developed. We also need to recognise that the men at the top will be needed to nurture young female talent.

You have yourself come from a legal background, then served in various lobbying positions and in private equity. How have those experiences influenced your leadership style and approach to risk?

Initially I worked with a hedge fund association called Alternative Investment Management Association, which has worked as a trade body for hedge fund managers for many years. Then I moved to India where there were multiple regulators. Being the only women in the room was a challenge. I learned how to use “different strokes for different folks”.

I’ve seen things from a very different lens, from a regulatory aspect, through my legal work in venture capital and private equity. With my work in hedge funds – there was obviously a huge amount of risk – so I’ve recognised the importance of caution, especially regarding regulations.

FemTech’s focus is emerging Asian markets and women in these markets. Where does fintech come into this?

We have been lucky enough to engage with the Foreign, Commonwealth Development Office in the UK, which has a £1.2bn prosperity fund for South East Asia focusing on financial inclusion for women. So we’re working with regulators in developing markets on capacity building for fintech services, and with private companies, including start-ups, so they can engage with community members unrepresented in traditional financial markets such as women.

A big issue for us is that women entrepreneurs don’t pay enough attention to how they can leverage their property rights to profit from their technology – such as digital ID and eKYC technology. Many don’t understand how the IP works, so our job is to work with the IP regulators to hold workshops for these women and take them to the next level of filing for IP rights.

Micro-insurance, remittances and financial literacy are all lacking in India and the Philippines but are now seen as essential for the future growth of these markets. That includes basic training in things like English language skills, and teaching people how to send money home online using new technology. Lots of start-ups are using blockchain to facilitate these changes.

Most investment focuses on digital IDs and eKYC services. For example, there is technology developing which focuses on creating one-stop solutions for payments and remittances using blockchain. But they’re still at an early stage and more investment is required.

If you’ve been following Singapore’s news recently, you’ll notice that what happened when the pandemic hit is that many foreign workers lost access to essential financial services. Many of them are waiting for money. So there’s a real market here for simple remittance technology.

Where do women in particular stand to benefit from fintech in these markets?

Where I see blockchain really expanding is in land title cases, where women can use land as collateral for financing a business. Blockchain is a transparent way of improving that process.

Not many women have a digital footprint so new digital ID tech could be very helpful. Many women are scared of using new technology so if we could have an app which easily offers remittance, payments and other services, in the local language, it would be great. So instead of going into a shop and paying a fee, they can do it with just an app.

What is the level of investment from local government and enterprise in these markets?

Investment is high in e-commerce and payments. In the Philippines especially, we’re starting to see digital banks popping up, since demand for online banking has increased during the pandemic. The Union Bank of the Philippines has also done a lot of work customising and digitalising its services during the pandemic.

The pandemic’s effect on small businesses and a decline in foreign trade has had a huge impact on e-commerce apps like India’s PayTM, which has also recently been banned on Google Play Store for regulatory failings. So there’s space for competitors, but these markets have a long way to catch up in open banking, especially in regulation. Even in Singapore, we’re still vamping up the laws for digital banking, with a new set of licenses due to be implemented in November.

Mehta ends our conversation by noting that:

South-East Asia is “less saturated” than the European markets – there is room for growth pending a stronger regulatory and investment landscape. While differences exist between economies in the region, Singapore is among the best countries for women in fintech in the region, according to a study by Singapore-based ValueChampion.

But women not only stand to benefit from further investment in fintech in the region. Growth in developing economies is bringing millions of new consumers to the financial markets. They will all want ways to handle their money transparently and cost-effectively.

Neha spoke to Oliver Rhodes

#FemTech #Philippines #India #Singapore #StartUpBootcamp #AIMA #VentureCapital #PrivateEquity #IPRights #IPRegulators #eKYC #DigitalID #PayTM