In the middle of the first month of the year, one of the biggest names in the payments business acquired one of the most innovative fintech infrastructure companies in the industry, in a deal valued at more than $5 billion.
Six months later, Visa’s acquisition of Plaid almost seems like news from another time.
The arrival of the coronavirus to virtually every corner of the globe – and the worldwide response to the killing of a black man in police custody in the U.S. – have sent shock waves through the fintech industry – as they have the rest of the world. Now, at the same time, fintech is engaged in both the struggle to help businesses and consumers cope with the closures and shelter-in-place restrictions of the COVID-19 crisis, as well as the challenge of correcting decades of discriminatory practices against African Americans and members of other underrepresented ethnic groups. As we approach the middle of 2020, fintech is facing different kind of crisis that, while not of its own making, will require a response that is uniquely tailored to the world it operates in.
This is a world that is both heavily technical, relying on the latest innovations in machine learning, artificial intelligence, and distributed ledger technology, while simultaneously pledging to bring the benefits of 21st century financial services to the underbanked and underserved populations of both post-industrial and developing economies. This is a world that has grown tremendously through the contributions of people from diverse backgrounds, representing cultures from almost every corner of the globe. Yet, at the same time, it is a world that is still struggling to achieve true gender and ethnic diversity, particularly in the C-suite and in the boardroom.
There are many ways to value an industry: the quality of the goods it produces; the entertainment, education, or simple well-being its services provide; even just the degree of pure, gee-whiz innovation the industry may deliver, often seeming to grant us what we want even before we summon up the nerve to wish for it.
But as the fintech industry edges closer, inexorably, toward maturity, it now finds itself increasingly judged on the kind of criteria Corporate America – often to its own surprise and bewilderment – can find itself judged on from time to time. This is a judgement that has less to do with what Corporate America makes and sells, and more with who Corporate America is and what it values.
Both the global public health crisis and the renewed determination to fight racial inequality are providing fintech as an industry with an opportunity to show the world just what it’s made of. As we move into the second half of this historic year, I am hopeful and optimistic that fintech will rise to the challenge.