LEADING LADY IN FINTECH
What's your story? What drew you to FinTech?
I spent most of my career in traditional financial services (i.e. a bank) on the product management side. It was a really great way to start off my career and allowed me to build foundational skills, but over time I felt that the traditional industry was always lagging, with a lot of baggage (legacy systems, bureaucracy, etc.) that prevented it from innovating and staying ahead. I started looking into what other FinTech companies were doing, was really excited at all the amazing things that other people were building, and wanted to be a part of it. I found my current opportunity at Varo, moved to SF, and haven't looked back! We are currently working on building a next-gen bank from scratch, which is awesome but (as you may guess) challenging at times.
What makes FinTech an exciting area to build your career in?
When you think of the average person, most of them are not financially savvy and do not have long-term financial plans that will set them up for future success. For the longest time, most traditional banks "banked" on these people, profiting from their lack of resources and knowledge, and truly only serving those who were already wealthy or financially educated. Technology in recent years has allowed us to democratize financial service knowledge so that it's possible to help all people. There is still a lot of work to be done in educating people around finance and how to better manage it, but I am really looking forward to building towards a future that is more inclusive and equal. It's truly an industry that touches everyone and can leave a big impact - a person's relationship with their money is a big factor in their life and happiness. At Varo, we are really working on building a bank and a brand that you can trust and love.
What do you think are some of the most exciting FinTech trends likely to influence the Financial Services industry?
There is obviously a lot going on in crypto and AI right now, but I think the biggest thing goes back to what I mentioned earlier around democratizing financial services. What I look forward to the most is having services that were traditionally reserved for the affluent or educated be made available to the masses - it could be wealth management, or just day-to-day management of your cash flow and building financial resilience - making that easy and accessible through technology.
How does the FinTech ecosystem in San Francisco compare to other FinTech hubs across the globe?There are a lot of FinTech companies in SF, but it's by far not the only place if you want to be in FinTech. NYC, Toronto, and London are great alternatives and there is a lot going on in those places. The only thing that I would say SF has on other hubs is the general culture and vibe - it's quite different when everyone around you is not only smart, driven, and curious, but also really down to earth and inclusive. You can always find events to meet and learn from others like you, no matter what your interests are.
What steps do you think the big Financial Services organizations must take to stay competitive?
It's interesting because I've seen it from both sides now! Generally, I think the big banks have been doing a good job at staying competitive - there is a lot of interest and resources going into innovation and the digital experience, often times partnering with smaller startups in the ecosystem, which is great to see. I think it's also a mindset - it's easier said than done, but keeping an open mind to new ideas, keeping updated on what else is doing on in the world outside of your company, and (so important) always bring it back to your customer and thinking about what they want, instead of what you think they want. It can be hard when there have been people who are set in their ways after a dozen years of traditional financial services.
What is essential to ensuring FinTech companies attain gender equality?
I don't think this just applies to FinTech companies but making sure you try to hire women at every level of the company. One of the reasons that I took my job at Varo was actually because there were way more women on my immediate and managing team, which was something that I've never had! It actually helps you to be better at your job when you have peers and managers that you can relate to. Another is having great policies for maternity leave. After working with a few women who have had kids, anything that helps support mothers returning to work would be really attractive as it's generally a really difficult time to navigate.
If you did not need to sleep, how would you spend the extra eight hours a day?
I love to sleep and can literally sleep 12 hours a day but with the extra time, I would probably invest it in building other hobbies. Though I love my job, I think it is so important to have balance in your life and be able to disconnect and go to your happy place. I would love to learn how to surf (properly) or pick up drawing and painting again.
In Sharon Zhang's own words, exclusively for LADIES iN FINTECH.
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