People of Colour in Financial Innovation

On 4 November 2019, the Lab convened 35 people working across the financial innovation ecosystem for an intimate evening event at Impact Hub Islington. Like most Lab community events, participants included fintech founders, social investors, innovation thought leaders, finance professionals and campaigners. But there was one big difference – everyone in the room was a person of colour.

Rooms like this are exceptionally rare, in both finance in general and in purpose-led financial innovation. As one attendee tweeted: ‘Room looks very different to usual in terms of the audience…in a good way.’ Another added: ‘It is a breath of fresh air and one of the first times in a long time that I haven’t felt like the minority.’

However, it’s difficult to say exactly what the status quo is for people of colour in the sector because data is severely lacking. Statistics are few and far between, and those that do exist look only at particular diversity indicators and institutions, and rarely differentiate between the very disparate experience of different ethnic minority groups. Nonetheless, we know from our experience working across the financial system that representation of people of colour, especially at senior levels, is unacceptably low  – and this is true of our community and programmes too.

So, we held this event with several aims in mind: to reach and welcome people of colour working in financial innovation into our community; to build connections between people of colour who share our vision of a financial system that serves people and planet; and to explore, together, the barriers we face doing this work and how we can overcome them.

After an inspiring talk from Demi Ariyo about his journey founding Lendoe, every attendee was given an opportunity to share their own story, reflecting particularly on ‘barriers’, challenges they’ve experienced along the way, and ‘enablers’ that have supported them to overcome or remove these barriers.  The stories and experiences shared revealed how everyone’s experience is very different – dependent not only on the organisations and parts of the sector where they work but also their personal life experience and other aspects of their identity. Nonetheless, we also uncovered common barriers that people of colour face. These included often being the only person of colour in the room, and the impact this has on self-confidence; the myth of meritocracy in finance, and how this is used to push back against change; experiencing microaggressions at work, and experiencing hostility when calling these out; and particular challenges in accessing capital and funding because of the lack of people of colour among investors and grant-makers.

We identified common enablers, too. Many of these centred on people – mentors, sponsors and allies – and communities, such as networks for people of colour and safe spaces for discussion. For many participants, enablers came from within, such as their personal drive, work ethic, self-awareness, self-belief and self-confidence. In addition, participants felt that lived experience of exclusion could be a useful tool for purpose-led financial innovation, enabling greater empathy, authenticity and insights that are useful for their work. However, it was also acknowledged that people of colour often have to expend substantial work and energy building these enablers, and that while this is a vital part of empowering people of colour to succeed, there remains much to be done to address structural inequality.

We spent the last part of the event generating ideas for how the world needs to change to better support people of colour in financial innovation, and what the Lab should do next to take this work forward. Changes called for in the world included recognising intersectionality, increasing the number of people of colour in senior management and on boards and levelling the playing field for people of colour. Suggestions for the Lab involved amplifying people of colour leading financial innovation, running more events and launching a Fellowship exclusively for people of colour. You can read all the ideas, and a full briefing of the event, here.

The Lab is keen to hear from potential partners who would like to work with us on taking some of these exciting ideas forward in 2020 and beyond. In the meantime we’d like to highlight the great work already happening to support people of colour in finance and tech: initiatives like Foundervine’s Startup54, Diversity VC’s Future VC programme, the YSYS community, and Rethinking Economics’s work on decolonising the economics curriculum. For those looking to increase their understanding of structural inequality and oppression in the workplace and wider society, we recommend training from our friends at Fearless Futures, and Stir to Action’s Decolonising Economics workshops for anyone seeking to learn about the relationship between racism and our economic system, and about how to centre racial justice in systems change. We’d love to hear from you about trainings and initiatives that you rate, too.

We’re grateful to everyone who joined this event for their contributions and insights – and to all the people of colour in our community who are pioneering purpose-led financial innovation. People like our Fellows Freda Owusu, working on alternative credit referencing in West Africa; Maysam Rivzi, founder of financial health app Elifinty; and Thaslima Begum, supporting the financial health and working conditions of garment workers in Bangladesh through her ethical trade finance platform TEEK TAKA.

This event is just the first step in increasing, centring and amplifying the voices of people of colour, and others who have been left out of the financial system for too long, in our work – and we invite everyone to be part of it.

If you’d like to explore getting involved in the Lab’s work to support underrepresented and marginalised voices in financial innovation please contact Community Manager Naomi Alexander Naidoo. You can sign up to join the Lab community, including match-making, mentoring and more, here.