Five years of building a financial system that serves people and planet

In her final blog for the Lab, our outgoing CEO Anna Fielding reflects on five years of working towards a financial system that serves people and planet.

After five years, today is my last day as part of the Lab team. It’s been five years of enormous growth, learning and change, for me and for the Lab. We still have a huge way to go in transforming the financial system, as our new CEO Jesse outlines. The twin crises of COVID-19 and racial injustice remind us of the importance of building a more democratic, responsible and fair financial system, and they also challenge us to question every aspect of our practice.

Today, though, I’m going to allow myself a moment to be proud of what we’ve achieved since 2015:

We built the world’s first incubator for purpose-driven financial innovation, which has been judged by independent evaluators as “an outstanding success” with impacts that “are likely to be ongoing, and considerable”.  Since 2016 we’ve incubated 43 start-ups, who’ve raised over £4m during or within six months of completing the programme.

Our Fellowship alumni are pioneers in their field, with many going on to make a significant real-world impact. Tumelo is providing radical transparency for investors, while CoGo is helping people track the carbon impact of their spending. Urgentem is a leading provider of climate data to the finance industry, while Wayhome is creating the missing step between renting and owning a home. Bippit is supporting financial wellbeing in the workplace, Elifinity is making money management simple, and NestEgg is reinvigorating responsible lending. TEEK TAKA is using trade finance to champion workers’ rights, Mortar is pioneering flexible rent payments, and CredScope is taking a human approach to credit scoring. StorkCard is helping parents baby-proof their finances, while Equal Care Co-op is putting power in the hands of people who give and receive care. Open Credit Network is helping small businesses challenge the dominance of big banks, and the Rhino Impact Investment Project is creating the world’s first species protection bond.

We developed a groundbreaking programme to transform mainstream banking by shifting the narratives, norms and power structures of institutions, challenging and enabling them to embed purpose in in their strategy and operations. Our community of banking intrapreneurs is thriving and our events have a proven ability to grow their clarity of vision, influencing skills, and peer support networks.

Our work with two of the big four UK banks has been part of major shifts in their approach, with one embracing social purpose and another committing to a radical reduction in their carbon impact. We’ve built frameworks that transform bankers’ understanding of the path to climate-safe lending and enable them to walk the talk on purpose. And hundreds of bankers across the world are now gaining the knowledge, skills and mindsets to put sustainability at the heart of their work, through our collaboration with the Chartered Banker Institute on the Green Finance Certificate.

We’ve used the insights from our programmes to influence the regulations and policies that set the rules of the game in finance. Our 2018 report The Regulatory Compass stimulated a new debate about the social purpose of financial institutions and the bodies that regulate them. Since its publication, we’ve seen a shift in regulators’ language to acknowledge that their ultimate goal is social good, not market efficiency, and we’ve seen the first regulatory initiative to support purpose-driven innovation – a key demand of the report.

We’ve changed the debate on fintech by breaking the myth that tech-based innovation necessarily creates good results for people and planet, and we were one of the earliest organisations to identify the risks that data-driven finance could pose to customers and citizens. We’ve now launched a new programme to educate and amplify the voices of civil society around financial data, and to influence regulation so that it minimises the risks and maximises the opportunities of digital transformation.

The energy and hope created through our work has acted as a beacon for all who want to change finance. We’ve welcomed them to a unique community of practice: a home for entrepreneurs, investors, finance professionals, campaigners and policymakers who want to build a better system. Within a year of its launch, our community has grown to 642 active changemakers.

We’ve seen how the financial system marginalises many people, reinforcing social inequalities and perpetuating a lack of representation in the industry itself. We’ve recognised that the voices of marginalised communities must be elevated in our own work and we’ve looked hard at our practices to understand what we need to do differently. We’ve started vital conversations about the experience of women and people of colour in financial innovation, and created spaces for them to build community and work together for change. Soon, we’ll be launching initiatives for faith groups, LGBTQI+ communities, people with mental health issues, and people with disabilities.

As we’ve built our programmes, we’ve also built our organisational strength, rooted in our values of collaboration, action learning and empowerment. We’ve established a fully human culture that enables us to do deep inner work on ourselves and support our community to do the same. We’ve modelled leadership as a process, not a status, and we’ve normalised vulnerability and uncertainty coexisting with ambition and energy. We’re learning how to embed our systemic approach in our operations and we’ve supported other new economy organisations to do the same.

I didn’t do any of this – it was always us. If I’m proud of anything personally, it’s building the exceptional team that we have now. Rebecca, Marloes, Lydia, Naomi, Yvonne: I don’t think you know how talented you are. You nurture human growth, speak truth to power, see patterns in chaos, work for a world that’s yet to exist, never give up on finding sources of hope in our current world, never stop questioning and learning from your work. You have inspired me to keep fighting when things were tough and you have taught me far more than I have ever taught you. I know you will do the same for Jesse.

All creatures orient to home,” says author and academic Shoshana Zuboff. “It is the point of origin from which every species sets its bearings. Without our bearings, there is no way to navigate unknown territory; without our bearings, we are lost.

The Lab has been my home for the past five years. It’s given me the safety to become more of myself. It’s changed the stories I tell myself about my worth and my agency. It’s given me permission to lead with my heart first and my head second.

Now it’s time to set my bearings for a different course. The Lab has given me the courage to follow a new path, just as the Lab does for so many of the people it supports. For this, and for all that we’ve achieved together, I will always be grateful.

To stay in touch with Anna, follow her on Twitter @anna_luise or connect with her on LinkedIn here.