In what will be a recurring feature, Finopotamus will spotlight innovative women who are positively impacting technology applications in the credit union industry, and beyond.
For this issue, we spent time with Finn AI’s Co-Founder and Chief Operating Officer Natalie Cartwright. The Vancouver, Canada-based company leverages artificial intelligence (AI) and builds conversational banking platforms for financial institutions.
By W.B. King
Not all fintech professionals’ first calling is in the realm of technology. Before Natalie Cartwright co-founded Finn AI with CEO Jake Tyler in 2014, she was employed at the Global Fund in Geneva where she managed a $250 million health investment portfolio.
“Tech is my second career. My first career was in public health working with the United Nations financing national health programs. I went to do my MBA at IE Business School in Spain and got side tracked on entrepreneurship,” she said. “I ended up starting a tech company with one of my classmates. Not surprisingly, the skills needed in many roles in tech are similar across different sectors so the jump was not as big as it might appear.”
As the youngest child in her family, Cartwright explained that she has long benefited from experiences and life lessons gleaned from her two older siblings — from the playground to the business world.
“Watching their ups and downs in building a business made it more accessible and tangible to me,” she reflected. “My brother’s company is also in tech and he was instrumental in opening doors for Finn AI early on.”
In recent years, Cartwright said she has seen trends and shifts in the fintech industry, including the positions women are seeking and obtaining.
“When I joined tech the biggest gender disparity was in seniority. Today, I see more women as founders, and in senior positions, although we still have work to do,” she explained. “My approach and advice is to use diversity for what it is: a competitive advantage. There is strong evidence that diverse teams outperform homogeneous teams.”
Finn AI has 50 staff members, and as an AI-focused firm Cartwright, who is a member of Canada’s AI Advisory Council, said 25 are employees are tech-focused. She added that the majority of the team is millennials, but there is “representation from most eras.”
“Our tech team is currently a 60/40 split between men and women, which is the same ratio for the overall company with the exception of our board that has a 50/50 split,” she continued. “When hiring, we look for the best person to fit the position, team and company, and we are very fortunate to have an exceptional team of people who bring a wide range of skills to Finn AI.”
Inspiring Tech an Silver Linings
What keeps Cartwright interested and energized is her company’s work centered on virtual assistants. In retail banking, she said, virtual assistants have moved from innovation projects to at-scale use cases with clear ROI.
“We are still in the early stages of conversational AI at scale. Customers now come to us asking to go live with specific, targeted use cases today, but also now have a defined long term roadmap and vision,” said Cartwright. “In the long term, what is interesting about virtual assistants is to expand into new conversations that customers don’t have with their financial provider today. In the longer term, I am optimistic about the potential for virtual assistants to help financial institutions help customers build financial agency in a manner that has never been possible in a cost-effective way.”
When COVID-19 hit, Cartwright happened to be on parental leave. She continues to work from home, although some employees have returned to the office. And despite certain logistical challenges, she has used the last six months to find silver linings.
“We’re taking this as an opportunity to create a great remote environment for employees, customers and partners. This includes things like more pre-recorded video content, online presentation training and rethinking onboarding and company rituals,” she explained. “We will continue to have a physical office and to travel, when safe, but it will not be the same as it was pre-pandemic.”
When asked how she feels the credit union industry differs than its banking counterpart, Cartwright said credit union technology departments today are more sophisticated.
“Credit unions have a more diverse set of backgrounds, including more team members hailing from tech companies,” she said. “I see an increased interest and expertise in the overall user experience. It’s common to hear things like ‘We want to be a tech company that happens to be good at banking’ from credit unions.”