PSFK in partnership with HP Matter speak to Joyce Kim, co-founder and Executive Director of Stellar, about the importance of thinking globally and designing locally
Innovation is the new currency in today’s Idea Economy. In recognition of the leaders who are disrupting our tech-driven world, the editors at thought leadership site PSFK.com partnered with HP Matter to create the Innovators Index, a roster of digital pioneers making a global impact. This week we’ve featured Joyce Kim for her efforts to bring access to basic financial services to the entire world.
Despite all the radical changes taking place in the world, money remains the single most powerful force in people’s daily lives, ensuring their basic needs are being met and creating opportunities to get ahead. Yet in most parts of the world, even when people can count on a steady source of income, they still don’t have access to the basic financial infrastructure or knowledge for it to improve their quality of life. This not only impacts individuals, but by extension, entire communities and local economies that rely on the free flow of currency to encourage trade and growth.
One organization looking to alleviate the financial problems for the 2.5 billion people worldwide who lack a formal bank account is Stellar.
They’re working to develop a secure, open source platform that enables anyone to build the tools for basic financial services like sending, receiving, borrowing and insuring money. As part of our series of interviews for the Innovators Index, we caught up with Joyce Kim, the organization’s co-founder and Executive Director, to hear how the not-for-profit plans to revolutionize financial infrastructure for diverse economic communities.
PSFK: Can you give us some background on Stellar?
Joyce Kim: Stellar is a not‑for‑profit technology that’s focused on providing and helping to expand financial access worldwide with a focus on communities that are underserved domestically and internationally. One of the ways we accomplish this is via an educational program around digital financial literacy to help people become more comfortable with online tools. We also support a universal financial access platform that allows anybody to build services for basic financial services like sending, receiving, borrowing and insuring in a pure distributed protocol that is structured a lot like the Internet today.
PSFK: What motivates you, and what do you enjoy most about your work?
JK: I’ve been involved in a lot of societal causes over the years with folks that work in healthcare, education and other for-human rights fields. The common element that keeps coming up over and over again is that lack of access to financial services is the biggest obstacle for movement in their fields.
Financial services have become a foundational layer that is required for people to achieve their life goals, such as paying for education or housing. In that sense, it can be this great enabler or a huge hindrance in people’s lives. What I find particularly interesting about access to financial services is that it is a starting point to enable all other rights. It has massive impact because financial access is not actually the end goal; it is the path that we take to get to the end goal of having a well‑educated, healthy, vibrant society.
PSFK: Can you walk us through your creative process? Where are you turning for new ideas?
JK: The Stellar protocol is actually backend infrastructure. It’s not something that people interact with directly. We spend a lot of time reaching out and talking to people who are on the ground locally building services for their communities. Although financial access is a problem globally, the exact implementation of it varies significantly from country to country and community to community because how we use money is highly cultural.
The way someone envisions savings, or even splitting a bill, varies from Singapore to San Francisco to Seoul. We spend a lot of time talking to people on the ground who are building various types of services for their communities and finding out the structural points that they have with regards to payments or finance. We backtrack that information through the infrastructure of financial services today to see what’s working and what’s not working and what Stellar can do to help alleviate those blockages.
We also talk to people around the world about what their issues are. You hear some people say that savings is not a problem while people in another community say that people put their cash into a bag to send home on a 12-hour bus ride and hope that the bag arrives to their hometown. In some places, the perceived needs vary by how comfortable someone is with their services so it’s important to find out people’s fluency with technology in order to move forward with a technological platform.
These things are all incredibly inspiring and the jet fuel for our entire creative process.
PSFK: What does the term “disruption” mean to you? How does it shape your own approach at Stellar?
JK: We can look at the Internet as the most disruptive technology that was ever built. Everything that we talk about that’s disruptive today stems from the Internet. When you look at the root of what the Internet was, it was envisioned to be this technology for common good used by the government, people, institutions, educational facilities and companies to share information and knowledge.
When we think of disruption here at Stellar, we think of applying those exact same concepts to finance. What if we had a common protocol that everybody could use to thread that? That would essentially unleash new business models and economic growth on levels that we would have never imagined. What if you could make a transaction that’s worth one penny for a cost that’s less than a penny? It would allow people to experiment with things they’ve never been able to experiment with before and that would actually cause disruption across fields, just the way the Internet changed everything.
When I think of disruption, I think of these extremely large, broad platforms that don’t just touch one field but touch everything.
PSFK: Could you describe the key forces and factors that are driving innovation in the finance industry today?
JK: That’s a tough one because there are actually a number of disruptive factors happening right now. The key factors driving disruption in the world of finance today is the realization that our current financial infrastructure is having a hard time coping with how global and how fast the speed of commerce in our economy is today. People are turning toward more shared platforms like TransferWise that allow for peer-to-peer transactions and currencies also stem from that. The number one thing is the fact that our technology doesn’t cope with the international piece of our economic transactions, which leads to the second point.
As we’re becoming more International, the cost of our current infrastructure is not well designed to deal with communities that have less average income than the United States or Europe. When you think of those communities, you’re actually thinking about the rest of the world. People are now realizing that the idea of financial inclusion is actually the same goal as market growth. You don’t have bifurcated markets anymore where people think “let’s do one thing for the poor and one thing for growth” because it’s actually the same goal now. We need to align them better in our products and our plans, and a combination of those two things is driving a lot of the innovation in the industry.
PSFK: What is the industry that’s in the most need of radical change, and why?
JK: I would say finance and banking. It’s a core need that people have to address to do everything else in life and the reality is that the Internet has been around for a couple of decades while banking has been around for a millennium. Mobile Internet penetration already reaches more people than banking so knowledge is moving faster than money, but people need money to be able to do all these other important things.
The entire financial industry is going through a shift, and I don’t think that’s going away. People are going through a rapid cycling deciding what the industry looks like in 10, 20, 50 years, which is completely different to what it looked like 10, 20, 50 years ago. It’s going through a major identity shift right now and I think that’s actually quite important to the health of the global economy.
PSFK: What’s one piece of advice you’d give to a person or a company looking to reinvent themselves?
JK: Be willing to put aside resources and mindshare to take risks within your organization. There will always be a part of the organization that needs to maintain and grow existing business models, but with the pace of innovation becoming more and more rapid, every organization needs dedicated resources to look at crazy ideas. That segment of the organization needs to have the freedoms, the resources and the kind of stakeholder bias to be able to run those experiments.
Innovation is the new currency in today’s Idea Economy. In recognition of the leaders who are disrupting our tech-driven world, the editors at thought leadership site PSFK.com partnered with HP Matter to create the Innovators Index, a roster of digital pioneers making a global impact. Each week, we’ll share POVs from these experts on their work and process, sharing insights on reinvention and how to embrace change.