Anna Maj is the CEO and founder of Creative Link. She is an innovation leader, speaker, advisor and leading voice in fintech. Anna began her career in payments and banking services at Citibank, and after 20 years, excited by innovation and technology in the payment space, she gravitated toward the fintech industry. Anna also serves as a Senior Advisor at Truffle Capital.
In continuation of our Innovation Interviews series this year, Anna spoke with Rajsri Rengan, SVP, Global Technology Development, FIS, to discuss wearing multiple hats, the value of a sponsor and why education is necessary to push for a digital agenda.
Rajsri: You're doing so many things, Anna. Can you please tell us some of the key programs that you're running today and how do you make it happen with your team and your set of leaders?
Anna: I'm an advisor for different companies, not only for payment companies or fintech-related companies but also startups. I think this is one of the amazing ways that enables me to look at the innovation going on and how I can stay ahead of the curve and have access to the most innovative companies. I'm very much focused on financial services, the digital economy and digital technologies including AI. I'm a strong believer that innovation can be created in the intersection of different sectors. A multi-sector approach makes you stay relevant because you see different inspirations in the world being led by startups.
Rajsri: That's wonderful. I'm going to ask a question outside the syllabus, if you will. How do you find time to do so many things? Do you have 48 hours in a day? How do you manage time?
Anna: Well, I wear many different hats, so success comes down to time and resource management, honestly. I've learned during all these years it’s not that much about time – it’s about energy and quality of work. Managing everything is very much about the energy, and the more you have it, the more things you can coordinate and be involved in. And of course, it's not about working all the time or even having different roles – it is also about having your own time and your own space.
Rajsri: Wonderful! How do you keep yourself updated on so many things that are happening? I mean, for someone like you who wears different hats, you’re speaking, teaching, advising and consulting. How do you make that happen? How do you keep yourself so knowledgeable and how do you update yourself?
Anna: Thank you for your kind words! I'm trying my best to be as up to date as possible about payments and banking. Of course, I don't know everything. I have my areas of focus. I follow industry reports when published, especially on digital payments, e-commerce, open banking, AI in payments and things that attract my interest. I'm building sort of a knowledge base to refer to when I'm asked to deliver a keynote or a lecture on a specific topic. It's impossible to go into detail for every issue. So by building a framework, I can get a sneak peak and give myself a head start. Then if I need something, I know where to refer to. My practical routine is to know the data sources and where to look up the data. It’s important to know how to search for information.
Rajsri: Yes, absolutely! Staying focused on the strategic areas is the key to not spreading yourself too thin. Why don't you share with us an interesting experience in your long 20-years journey from a leadership standpoint?
Anna: Yeah, absolutely! I'm not sure if I can pick just one because, for me, it's a continuous process of development and learning. Even with small things every day, I can learn something, meet amazing startup founders, see a fantastic pitch or have a very good experience lecturing. If you have an open mindset every day, you can build new experiences. I can name many people, companies and projects that I was involved in, and each has brought me to the point I'm at today.
Rajsri: Yes! I have to come back to you on donning multiple hats. So how do you prepare yourself? How do you prepare when you're going to be on stage before thousands of people or a very intensive discussion as an advisor, say, to a startup firm? How do you prepare your mind to think sharply?
Anna: I do prepare. I do my research before going to a big meeting or deciding. You mentioned speaking. I’m not the kind of a speaker that has a deck prepared and reuses it. I try to do something new every time, to bring a new perspective, new data and new facts. It's exciting because I can do my research and make updates in terms of the market. It's about being prepared – doing research, a deck and a rehearsal. Doing a dry run to recollect and refresh key messages that I want to share.
Rajsri: Yes! You seem to be very vocal or passionate about inclusion, diversity and fairness. Why do you think it is important for today’s organizations to have diversity in their leadership?
Anna: Yeah! It's very important. I mentioned innovation, and I can't imagine innovation without diversity. I'm not only talking about women here and an inclusive approach from a gender perspective. It also refers to age, nationality and even background. The female perspective is very important, especially in a tech-oriented world and a fast-changing environment. When I started 20 years ago, I didn't realize women are that much underrepresented. I worked along with the male peers, and my gender wasn’t an issue.
Progressing in the corporate ladder, I started noticing how the financial services are male-dominated. I see the push into a positive direction for more female representation. The last project I worked on was rewarding because there were so many women leaders – 40% of the women in decision-making roles. In terms of innovation, creativity and taking risks, you have to include these different perspectives.
It starts with recruitment. I would like to see more women in the companies I am involved in. If I was to build a new team tomorrow, I would be pushing for more women, even just to see them in the hiring pipeline. Of course, I would select a candidate based on his or her experience and capabilities. It’s also about education. Education in terms of sharing different perspectives and role models because women should see female role models. Role models in different areas, not only in fintech, in all domains. It's important to see the role models and believe that you can be part of female leadership.
Rajsri: Wonderful! You brought out the word role model. I think it’s super important for us to have a role model, get inspired by them and try to follow or emulate their footsteps. I will be interested to know – as a role model and an inspiration to so many women leaders today – who were Anna's role models? Who inspired you as you grew in your career?
Anna: Role models are important. Apparently, I'm one of them. While we talk about mentors, and it’s good to have a mentor who is a role model for you, but I'm convinced that finding a sponsor is more important. Sponsor is your best advocate, someone who paved the way for you, who speaks about you in a positive way, who can recommend you for projects and who can promote you. I had some sponsors, not only females, but also males who pushed me forward and recommended me to projects, e.g. mentoring projects or advisory boards. Women do need more sponsors, and I am thankful to those I have had in my career.
Rajsri: Yes, absolutely! That is so heartening to hear from you. Let's go to the signature question of this discussion. The next 10 years in fintech – what are the biggest trends or the changes or disruptions that you see? How will fintech look in 2030?
Anna: 10 years for me, it’s hard to imagine. Digital acceleration and transformation is a no brainer. We'll see much more of digital payments and e-commerce with the underlying technologies, AI and blockchain. I think we will be witnessing more of blockchain applications in different areas: decentralized finance, decentralized economy, metaverse, decentralized internet.
We need more education. I was working on financial inclusion projects, digital wallets and digital payroll. But how to include all these people and use digital payments? Of course, having digital devices is one thing, but knowing how to use these applications, how to do it safely, how to protect personal data – it needs a lot of educational effort. This is something that we shouldn't ignore all over the world. If you want to push for digital agenda, education is an underlying factor.
Rajsri: No, I absolutely agree! You underlined education, that's the keyword. Every company wants to be a fintech company, it seems. You mentioned about industry-agnostic technologies. Who expected that today's greatest fintech companies were not fintech companies when they started, say, 10 years or 20 years before. How do you think companies of today need to prepare themselves for the future, to embrace the wonderful technologies that will propel them forward?
Anna: Big techs do acquire fintech startups to enhance their capabilities. You should stay ahead of the curve by acquiring new skills or capabilities, not only on the personal level, also on the organization and the company level. You can always grow organically, but it's not always possible to hire the best people or to hire them at the best time to be fast enough. So as a company you can acquire these skills from innovative startups. This is one of the ways to stay ahead.
But what’s at the core of this, these changes, is customer experience – how you not only attract new customers or clients, but how you retain them. Companies must ask themselves how to make the CX unique, how to design and build unique digital journeys, especially with AI, blockchain or open APIs.
Last, but not least, we can’t ignore organizational culture. This is the hardest part to be changed and transformed, speaking from my experience from recent projects. Without the willingness to change, adaptability, flexibility and responsiveness to change, you can't move forward. This is very much about organizational culture and people, and it goes back to attracting and retaining talent.
Rasjri: Absolutely! You nailed it with the culture word. Right time and people make the organization, so it is very important that we focus on the people and the way they behave and conduct themselves. My last question for today: what is going to be your advice to younger women out there who want to make a fantastic career in fintech?
Anna: Don’t be afraid to learn new things, to search for information, to search for data and discover new areas.
Second, to reach out to people you know to get advice. Your network works for you. Your connections can recommend you for some projects and engagements. Your network is very much of importance – it is an investment that will surely pay off.